Previously in The Last War in Albion: Darwyn Cooke got the job of writing and drawing Before Watchmen: Minutemen in part on the strength of his previous work on DC: The New Frontier, which, like Watchmen, was a formally thoughtful and heavily historicized look at the history of comics.
|Figure 854: The portentous opening monologue
resolves into a gag about writing styles. (By Darwyn
Cooke, from Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1, 2012)
Before Watchmen: Minutemen shares much of that formal thoughtfulness, taking an often playful angle on Watchmen’s style. The comic opens with two pages of four stacked page-width panels that evoke the lush visions of The New Frontier while also utilizing the object-to-object transitions that define Watchmen. The first page, for instance, jumps from a first person perspective of an infant Hollis Mason staring out of his bassinet, defined by an arc traversing the panel, to a skyscape of New York City from within a tunnel, also providing a central arc, to a Kirby Krackle-filled panel of the Solar System, the sun providing a third central arc, and finally to a panel of Doctor Manhattan’s forehead. Over these panels is a portentous monologue, in caption boxes that wind down the page in a backwards S: “You come into this world, and your point of view is narrow. If you’re lucky, it’s a safe and loving place. As you grow, your view of the world broadens and you struggle to find your place within it. If you’re strong, you learn to survive it. Over time you may not decipher the mysteries of the universe, but you can make your peace with that and find strength in what you know to be true. If you’re wise enough to approach this seeming impasse with humility, you may even find a sustained happiness. Then one day you meet a guy, and he throws a wrench in the gears. He takes away your understanding of the world you live in.” The approach continues on the second page, only with the object-to-object transitions slowly zooming out to represent the whole of the circle until, in the third panel, the entirety of a clockface, the time still hours before midnight, is visible. The text here stutters – the caption box reads “you hope that over time…” while a dialogue box, the speaker off-panel, repeats “over time…” The fourth panel simply zooms out further from this scene, the clock moved to the midground, while in the foreground, at the right of the panel, a typewriter containing the first page of the epilogue to Under the Hood is visible. The off-panel dialogue continues with a punchline rivaling “that’s quite a drop” from the seventh panel of Watchmen: “this is terrible.”
|Figure 855: Cooke subverts the nine-panel grid.
(By Darwyn Cooke, from Before Watchmen:
Minutemen #3, 2012)
But Cooke’s moves following this punchline pull in two different ways. On the one hand, the opening panel of the third page features Hollis Mason staring out at the reader as he says (ostensibly to his dog), “I’ll just have to face facts, girl. I’m no Tolstoy. Going for a deep, philosophical ending here isn’t going to work. I guess we’ll just have to stick to being ourselves, huh?” But even as Cooke abandons the Moore pastiche narrative he alters his panel structure to a three-layer stack that, while not a strict nine panel grid due to the fact that Cooke cuts panels within the tiers idiosyncratically, nevertheless clearly echoes the form. Cooke does this throughout Before Watchmen: Minutemen, with numerous sections that play with and around the nine-panel grid while distorting it in various ways. For instance, in the two page section in the first issue where Cooke introduces Byron Lewis, the Mothman, Cooke uses a nine panel grid that elongates the middle tier to take up half of the page height, subtly giving the pages a sense of expanse that suits the introduction of the flying man. And in the third issue, during the sequence in which the vote is taken to expel the Comedian from the Minutemen for his rape of Silk Spectre Cooke uses a nine panel grid that is frequently interrupted by panels from a Minutemen-licensed comic (cover modeled off of the iconic Everett E. Hibbard cover to All-Star Comics #3, which introduced the Justice Society of America, DC Comics’s Golden Age superhero team), which depict the team as kitschy and over-the-top paragons of virtue, in marked contrast to their behavior in the scene. Cleverly, these inserted panels, each taking up two slots of the nine-panel grid and thus the largest panels on their page, all feature a circular panel that extends slightly past the edges of its tier, slightly cutting into the panels around them.
Around these bits of formal cleverness is a story very much in the same vein as The New Frontier – a superhero story tied tightly to the material history of the time. But where The New Frontier offered a fundamentally optimistic vision of superheroes based on a utopian vision of American progressivism, Before Watchmen: Minutemen is, in the end, a story tied to Watchmen and its deeply pessimistic take on the genre. The 1960s emerge not as a hopeful teleology to the Silver Age but as a generational transition from an era of heroes tragically unable to meet the problems of their age to an era of heroes tragically able to do just that, a point emphasized in a pair of twin cameos in the final issue, the first a wide panel of Ozymandias as part of another monologue, the second a page later in a splash of Doctor Manhattan casually dismantling a gun into component parts that’s been divided, arbitrarily, into a nine-panel grid. The book’s central dynamic is the “unexpurgated” version of Mason’s autobiography, which reveals numerous details about the Minutemen that are ultimately cut from the “published” version used as the endmatter for the first three issues of Watchmen after, in the story’s climactic moment, the Comedian shows up to reveal that Mason was wrong about a key aspect of what had happened, causing him to rewrite the book into the version from Watchmen.
|Figure 856: Cooke expands upon the brief explanation of
Silhouette’s origin provided by Moore. (By Darwyn Cooke,
from Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1, 2012)
In and of itself, of course, this is hardly an objectionable move on Cooke’s part. Given the importance of individual subjectivity to the narrative of Watchmen it seems almost certain that Moore, had he gone back and told the story of the Minutemen himself, would have undermined the narrative presented within Under the Hood (as, indeed, he subtly does at various points within Watchmen). And this revision forms the book’s primary narrative – a story built largely out of the throwaway line in Watchmen #2 that “a young woman who called herself The Silhouette broke into the headlines by exposing the activities of a crooked publisher trafficking in child pornography, delivering a punitive beating to the entrepreneur and his two chief cameramen in the process,” and that culminates in the firm clarification of the deliberately ambiguous final fate of Hooded Justice within Watchmen. The problem comes in what the changes actually are, and particularly how they relate (or rather fail to relate) to race and gender.
|Figure 857: The death of Hooded Justice. (By Darwyn Cooke, from Before
Watchmen: Minutemen #6, 2012)
The problems with race hinge on an accidental parallel within Cooke’s career. Before Watchmen: Minutemen ends with Night Owl having killed Hooded Justice by grabbing the stretch of rope around his neck, effectively pulling a noose around him and killing him. This is ultimately revealed to have been because of a ruse on the Comedian’s part to frame Hooded Justice for a series of child murders investigated by Silhouette and subsequently Night Owl throughout the book, a series of murders the Comedian had in fact solved (they were committed by the strongman Mason speculates might have been Hooded Justice in Under the Hood), meaning that Night Owl killed an innocent man, and leading him to rewrite the book “for the sake of my old friends.” But in featuring the unjust death of a character whose costume consists of a black executioners hood with a decorative noose around the neck is, perhaps surprisingly, not a first for Darwyn Cooke, who used a similar event in The New Frontier for the death of John Henry.
|Figure 858: The tragic downfall of John Henry, one
of The New Frontier‘s most powerful moments. (By
Darwyn Cooke, from DC: The New Frontier #4, 2004)
John Henry is an interesting character within The New Frontier; he’s the one character of the period that Cooke invents entirely, creating him as an antecedent to the 90s character John Henry Irons, one of the replacement Supermen offered following the infamous Death of Superman storyline. More to the point, his origin is framed entirely in the racial politics of the late 1950s: he is a black man who becomes a superhero after his family is murdered by the KKK. His death in the fourth issue of The New Frontier is the book’s most shockingly effective moment: injured in a fight with the Klan, he stumbles into a back yard and collapses, where he’s found by a young white girl. Rolling up his mask so he can look the girl in the eyes, he begs her to help him. Cooke draws a single panel of the girl looking down at him, the very picture of innocence, and then ends the page with a brutal wide shot of the young girl shouting, “he’s here! He’s here! The nigger’s over here!” The
The reality, of course, is that any intentional similarity came when Cooke, creating John Henry, decided to draw on Hooded Justice’s costume from Watchmen for him as a metatextual joke, never imagining that he would eventually end up writing Hooded Justice himself a few years later. Nevertheless, the two scenes are impossible not to compare in hindsight, and the comparison does Before Watchmen: Minutemen no favors. It is not merely that Hooded Justice’s killing lacks the animating fire of historical engagement that made John Henry’s death so stunning. It’s that the comparatively damp squib of Hooded Justice’s death ends up highlighting that fact that Before Watchmen: Minutemen covers the same period that Cooke covered in The New Frontier without meaningfully engaging with race at all. There are no significant black characters anywhere in the book, and the only two significant people of color are a pair of Japanese characters who show up for a single and largely awkward plotline in the fifth issue that’s disconnected from almost everything else in the book, unhinted at in Watchmen itself (it’s apparently one of the bits Mason excises), and who, in a painful stereotype of Japanese culture, heroically sacrifice themselves.
The book’s treatment of gender in its central plotline is, unfortunately, similarly dismal. It’s true that Cooke makes a huge amount of the story hinge on Silhouette, a character who gets exactly one line in the entirety of Watchmen, thus providing it with a major female character. And again, this is probably consistent with what Moore would have done had he ever written the Minutemen-centered series he was contemplating; given his explicit interest in gay rights, it’s all but certain that he would have done quite a bit with the explicitly lesbian Silhouette, as well as the relationship between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis. The problem comes in how Cooke goes about it. Silhouette is a major character, but she’s viewed entirely through Hollis Mason’s description of her, and Cooke writes Mason as explicitly in love with her, even after she’s revealed as a lesbian. When the narrative gets to Silhouette’s murder (she and her partner are, as explained in Watchmen, murdered in their bed after she is outed and dismissed from the Minutemen), Mason reflects that “horribly… terribly… they died. Together. Leaving me alone.”
|Figure 859: Cooke made the largely needless choice
to have Silhouette and Silk Spectre’s relationship be
antagonistic. (By Darwyn Cooke, from Before
Watchmen: Minuteme #3, 2012)
It is not that Mason’s perspective on Silhouette is particularly crass or lecherous, at least as heterosexual men lusting after lesbians go. But it does serve to simply put the character on a pedestal. Mason refers to her as an “angel” several times throughout the narrative, and she’s treated as the most straightforwardly and purely moral voice within the narrative. But she’s also put at a remove from the rest of it; that she dies in the fourth issue is essentially inevitable given Watchmen, but the decision to make her relationship with Silk Spectre an entirely antagonistic one is a profound missed opportunity that keeps the book’s two significant female voices isolated from each other, in effect a divide and conquer strategy for the purposes of having a female perspective within the book. Worse, for all that Silhouette is positioned as the book’s moral center, she’s entirely absent at a key moment. When the vote is taken to expel the Comedian from the Minutemen for raping Silk Spectre, it’s explicitly taken at “a special men-only meeting.” This, in and of itself, is fine; it’s a perfectly serviceable commentary on the widespread and patronizing sexism of the time the book is set (and indeed, of the present day). The problem is that Silhouette is never even given an opportunity to comment on this. The men-only meeting happens, the Comedian is kicked out, and Silhouette, the moral voice of the entire series, is just completely and utterly absent from the plot. Making it even worse, the book goes out of its way to give her an opportunity to defend Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis from Night Owl’s accusation of hypocrisy when they subsequently vote to expel her for her sexuality, telling Night Owl that “you cannot know what living such a life is like. The fear of exposure. It is not for you to judge.”
As with race, the real problem here is a lack within the book; it is, in the end, pretty much only interested in white men. And, of course, this is a complaint that can readily be leveled at Watchmen as well: essentially all of its non-white characters are supporting characters who are killed in the book’s climax, and women are thoroughly marginalized within its plot, which also focuses almost exclusively on white men. These are well-trod and valid criticisms of Watchmen. [continued]