Previously in The Last War in Albion: Before Watchmen: Minutemen did some mildly interesting technical things with the form, but was frustratingly vapid in its portrayal of race, gender, and sexuality.
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. What is baffling and disappointing, however, is that Cooke, a writer who got the job largely on the back of his historically-grounded previous take on the time period in which it’s set, repeated the errors. Especially given the extent to which Cooke retcons out large swaths of Under the Hood. To go to great lengths to revise Watchmen only to, in the end, uncritically reiterate its flaws is, to say the least, a disappointment.
|Figure 860: Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre
also featured the worst of Jim Lee’s generally
execrable variant covers for the series.
At least some of these problems are addressed by Cooke’s other Before Watchmen series, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre. The book’s racial politics are still deeply imperfect, with the overwhelming majority of non-white characters being villains, as are its gender politics. But there’s at least an evident investment in the latter, and one that came into the book’s conception quite early. Cooke made the presence of artist and co-writer Amanda Conner a precondition for taking on the book, on the grounds that, as he puts it, “I didn’t feel like I could convincingly write a young girl at that point in her life.” The breakdown of work appears to be that Cooke came up with the basic plot, and that Conner did actual page breakdowns (Cooke explicitly credits her with the decision – unique among the Before Watchmen artists – to work entirely within the nine-panel grid) and a lot of the nuance.
|Figure 861: The final page of Before
Watchmen: Silk Spectre tacitly positions
Laurie as an object traded among the male
characters. (Written by Darwyn Cooke and
Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from
Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #4, 2012)
For the most part, this breakdown of duties favors Conner. The overall plot, after all, is where much of the weakness comes in. The premise – a sixteen year old Laurie Juspeczyk runs away from home in frustration at her mother’s demands on her and lives amongst hippies in 1966 San Francisco for a bit – is a solid idea. But the execution, which ultimately hinges on her two father figures, Eddie Blake and Hollis Mason, going to San Francisco to, in their own ways, rescue her. It’s certainly a story with a female lead character, but it’s a story that’s ultimately about the way in which Laurie is a possession traded among men, focusing heavily on her obsession with boys and closing with the abortive Crimebusters meeting depicted in Watchmen #2 with her giving her (ironic given Watchmen) assessments of the characters, before a final splash page of Laurie sitting between Night Owl and Doctor Manhattan, her two romantic interests in Watchmen, making eyes at Doctor Manhattan and thinking, “get a load of this guy. He looks like one of those classical greek statues! But with no hair. Kinda like an Oscar. He’s so big. And beautiful. And blue. I wonder what it would be like to take him home. I bet that would really, really piss off my mom.” Making this finish all the more unsettling is the angle chosen, which frames Laurie and Doctor Manhattan in the midground, with the foreground occupied by the Comedian’s legs, symbolically placing Laurie on “daddy’s” lap and continuing the tacit theme of paternal forces controlling Laurie.
Within the confines of these problems, however, is Amanda Conner, who is perfectly suited to rescue the project from its own worst impulses. Conner is a longtime industry veteran who broke into comics in the late 80s and worked on a variety of titles for Marvel, DC, and other companies before, in the early 21st century, finally emerging as a major talent. Her style is firmly rooted in the comics tradition of good girl/cheesecake art, and her books are full of sexy women with ample curves, which she draws in an appealing and light-heartedly cartoonish style. But her real specialty is in facial expressions, through which she gives her characters a wealth of humanity and depth that female characters in American superhero comics all too often lack. Simply put, Amanda Conners is adept at having her characters go through a range of emotions within a scene.
|Figure 862: Amanda Conner is particularly adept at storytelling
through facial expressions. (Written by Darwyn Cooke and
Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from Before Watchmen:
Silk Spectre #1, 2012)
This is evident from the start of Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, in the opening scene, an expansion of the snowglobe flashback from Watchmen #9, continuing to a discussion between a five year old Laurie and her mother over the fact that her nominal father (and Sally’s agent), Laurence Schexnayder has left them, this time for good. The dialogue within the scene is perfectly capable, but what makes it sparkle is Conner’s handling of the characters’ faces: Laurie’s angry scowl as she declares that she hates him, her wide-eyed expression as her mother tries to comfort her, her subsequent look of real concern as she asks her mother if she’s all right, and finally the look of weariness as she starts to comfort her mother, grasping one of her curls in her own little hand, just as she’d been comforted three panels earlier. A tremendous share of the emotional weight of the storytelling here is down entirely to Conner’s choices, which elevate a relatively cliche scene to something subtle and revealing that, through little details like the tired, resigned look as Laurie tells her mother it’ll be OK, sets up the contours of the pair’s fraught relationship.
|Figure 863: Conner riffs not only on Watchmen‘s
nine panel grid, but on its use of juxtaposition.
(Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner,
art by Amanda Conner, from Before Watchmen:
SIlk Spectre #2, 2012)
This sort of thing continues throughout the book, giving Laurie a depth of characterization that goes well beyond the script, and amply illustrates what Cooke meant when he said that “Amanda is the heart” of the book. But Conner’s skill in Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre goes well beyond the facial expressions. As mentioned, Conner consciously took on the challenge of working within Watchmen’s formal structures. This doesn’t just mean the nine-panel grid either. For instance, the second issue opens with a sequence that makes clever use of Moore and Gibbons’s technique of juxtaposition, combining the text of a letter Laurie writes Hollis to try to reassure him and her mother that she’s OK with a fight scene. The result is a set of wry parallels not entirely unlike the combined interview/fight scene from Watchmen #3, such as a page-width panel of Laurie taking cover from a knife-wielding gang with the caption “please let Mom know that I’m in a safe place,” the panel of a man getting hit in the face with a bucket of paint alongside the caption “Mom taught me so much about handling the stuff life throws at me,” or the transition within a panel from the caption “I want her to stop treating me like” to the dialogue, as the gang holds Laurie down and taunts her, “quite the little princess, aren’t you?” It’s genuinely funny and clever, though perhaps not quite as funny or clever as the disdainful expression on Laurie’s face two panels later taunts, “I don’t think mommy spanked you nearly enough,” a panel before she overpowers him by punching him in the balls. Elsewhere, Conner makes shrewd use of Watchmen’s reiterating symbolism, using the famed snow globe not just as an opening image in the first issue, but repeating the image of a castle in a circle on the side of the psychedelic VW Bus that picks Laurie and her boyfriend up at the end of the first issue.
|Figure 864: The nine panel grid breaks up into
a psychedelic haze. (Written by Darwyn Cooke
and Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from
Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #3, 2012)
More substantive is the sequence in the third issue in which Laurie drops acid, a blur of psychedelic colors that steadily breaks down the nine-panel grid, at first via pages that still consist of three stacked tiers of rectangular panels, but eventually starting to bend and twist as the imagery gets increasingly surreal. Around the time Laurie is visited by the skeleton of her pet bird (as she’s abruptly seized with paranoia that her mother might be underfeeding him) the comic becomes a weird and satisfying hybrid of Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen style (which Conner’s cartooning-influenced style is in the same general tradition as) and the abstract and psychedelic style that Steve Bissette and John Totleben brought to Moore’s Swamp Thing run, until the page finally becomes a spiral over which a hippy explains how, if she learns to train her mind, she can “really live in reality. Y’know… in the now. Heck, you might even be able to see all facets of reality and time at once,” a line that does not merely cast a glance at Laurie’s future boyfriend, but which, especially when overtly situated in the 60s psychedelic aesthetic, reads as a broader homage to Moore’s work and vision.
|Figure 865: Amanda Conner visually quotes a panel from Watchmen.
(Left: Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner, art by Amanda
Conner, from Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #12, 2012. Right: Written
by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen
Perhaps the book’s most inspired riff on Watchmen, however, comes in its final issue, as Laurie confronts the book’s main villain. The fight ends in macabre fashion, with Laurie kicking the bad guy in the throat, at which point her thigh-high heels get stuck in his throat. As he staggers off making a variety of sounds of the general form of “guhhrrrghkk,” Laurie grabs his gun and pursues him into the street. Conner inserts a red-tinged close-up panel of Laurie’s face as he holds the gun, a maniacal grin on her face – a panel that’s a clear riff on a panel of the Comedian in Vietnam from Watchmen #4. At which point Cooke and Conner double down on the macabre humor as the villain is unexpectedly hit by a bus. After a series of suitably gruesome panels that include a femur sticking out of the front grille of the bus, Conner returns to Laurie, who looks absolutely bewildered by events and then leans over and vomits in horror and disgust.
|Figure 866: Another deft bit of facial characterization
from Amanda Conner. (Written by Darwyn Cooke and
Amanda Conner, art by Amanda Conner, from Before
Watchmen: Silk Spectre #4, 2012)
Aside from being a bleak bit of humor in the vein of the deaths of Dollar Bill and Captain Carnage, this is an effective commentary on the relationship between Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre and the parent text. It is not the only point in the comic where a panel from Watchmen is referenced in the course of Laurie fighting people, and generally these panels specifically reference panels depicting her biological father, the Comedian. The effect is to depict the violent world of superheroes as something that exerts an inevitable and dangerous gravity on Laurie’s life – a fact that quietly forces a reevaluation of the paternalistic role that Hollis Mason and the Comedian have within the narrative. Similarly, Laurie’s complete revulsion when her Watchmen-referencing bloodlust is confronted with the gruesome reality of severe bodily harm is a prime example of the way in which Conner’s skill at facial expressions add nuance to the narrative by giving Laurie opportunities to implicitly respond to the absurdity of her world.
Which is, in the context of Before Watchmen, important. Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre is unique among the Before Watchmen books in that it actually finds space within the methodology and iconography of Watchmen for a critique of the book. Conner is alone among the creators in being willing to use the opportunity to add to Watchmen to affectionately deface the original work. And it’s a solid criticism – the fact of the matter is that Watchmen does a deeply imperfect job of capturing the interiority of its female characters (it’s notable that Laurie’s focus issue is mostly about her trying to persuade Dr. Manhattan to return to Earth, such that the climax of her history is not her own), and that Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre does a better job with Laurie than Watchmen does.
All the same, it’s tough not to grant Moore’s central criticism of the entire project. Conner’s loving critique of Watchmen is good, but in the end, it’s still a book whose feminist sensibilities are hemmed in by the fact that it’s designed as a prequel to another work. It’s difficult not to feel that Amanda Conner writing a bespoke mother/daughter pair of superheroes in the 1960s that didn’t have to resolve by leading into a comic about men. The resulting comic could still have quoted Watchmen in a variety of ways – working within a nine panel grid, using juxtaposition and repeated symbols, and even visually quoting individual iconic Watchmen panels, but would have been able to express a vision of what comics about women should be, as opposed to being a mere footnote to another work. And Moore’s indictment of a comics industry that would rather employ Conner to do Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre than that is entirely on point.
All the same, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre manages the genuinely impressive feat of marginally improving Watchmen. And, given the book’s quality and impact, that’s no small feat. Certainly it’s not something any of the other writers on Before Watchmen managed or, in most cases, even bothered to attempt.} [continued]