Previously in The Last War in Albion: In 1979, two men got their starts in the British comics industry. One, a young Scotsman named Grant Morrison, largely sunk without a trace, writing only a few short stories for a failed magazine called Near Myths, a local newspaper strip, and a couple of sci-fi adventurers for DC Thomson’s Starblazer, a magazine renowned for only ever giving the editorial note “more space combat.”
The other, a decade older man from Northampton named Alan Moore, steadily worked his way from some low rent gigs writing and drawing his own strips to a career in the mainstream British industry, pulling together a living writing disposable short stories for 2000 AD, superheroes for Marvel UK, and low-selling but critically acclaimed work like V for Vendetta for Dez Skinn’s Warrior, before making the jump to American comics to try to salvage the failing title Swamp Thing, which he did in spades, taking it from a book on the brink of cancellation to one of DC Comics’s crown jewels.
Meanwhile Morrison, having largely failed in his goal of being a rock star, and inspired by Moore’s work, particularly his postmodernist superhero tale Marvelman in Warrior, got back into comics, following the trajectory of Moore’s early career by securing a strip in Warrior (unfortunately for Morrison, his first appearance was Warrior’s last issue) and beginning to write short stories for 2000 AD.
In 1986, DC Comics published the first issue of Watchmen, a new superhero series from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
The result was the outbreak of the last great magical war in Albion.
The close-up, a cover-to-panel transition, defines a mystery even before the comic’s six-panel pan up from the street to a man staring out a broken window many stories up. A red-haired man carrying a “The End is Nigh” sign walks down the street, yelled at by a man hosing down the bloodstain. In four pages the red-heard man will tacitly be revealed as Walter Kovacs, the civilian identity of Rorschach, whose journal provides these panels’ narration, written in a slightly blobby typeface upon caption boxes like torn notepaper, with splatters of ink on every scrap, never in the same arrangement twice. The monologue is as famous as the image: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “save us!”… and I’ll look down and whisper “no.”
And yet for all of this, indeed, because of all this, Rorschach’s opening monologue is one of the most famous passages in comics. Part of this is simply Moore’s typical skill at language – the heavily iambic meter he adopts for many of the monologue’s great moments: this CIty IS afRAID of ME; and I’LL look DOWN and WHISper NO. But this is, unusually for Moore’s classic monologues, not actually quite so iambically driven as some. Stretches instead slip into a paranoid, staccato meter dominated by dactyls and trochees – DOG CARcass in ALLey this MORning, TIre TREAD on BURST STOmach – and by the use of sentence fragments. The result is to both communicate unambiguously that Rorschach’s journal is the product of a disturbed mind and to sell the reader on the grandeur of Rorschach’s vision. He is at once seductive and repugnant, fascinating the reader while remaining at a worrisome and unsettling distance.
More broadly, the six characters who get issues focusing on them – the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Night Owl, Silk Spectre, and Ozymandias – imperfectly correspond to the characters focused on by the first issue, which is structured around a series of four panels, each occupying six of the nine frames comprising a Watchmen page, which introduce major characters. These panels establish Rorschach, Night Owl, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan as major characters, but the Comedian is absent, while Silk Specter appears in the background of Dr. Manhattan’s panel instead of getting her own. In both cases, of course, this is in its own way revealing: the Comedian is introduced only in negative space, and Silk Specter is literally marginalized.
But momentary lapses aside, the nine panel grid really is the beating, or perhaps more accurately ticking heart of Watchmen. As a page layout, it is an unusual one, especially for American comics. For one thing, the standard approach in American comics since the emergence of Neal Adams has been to break the strict grid with irregularly shaped panels that allow for dramatic emphasis. On Swamp Thing, for instance, Bissette and Totleben constantly create new layouts that blend trapazoidal panels, panels splayed diagonally across the page, and panels that cut into each other’s space. It’s as basic a technique for Swamp Thing as the nine-panel grid is for Watchmen. Gibbons completely foregoes this, consciously denying himself a tremendous swath of techniques typically used to draw emphasis to specific beats of the story
For another, the nine-panel grid means that there are a staggering number of panels per page. The first issue of Watchmen averages 7.5 panels per page. In contrast, Moore and Gibbons’s story for the 1985 Superman Annual, “For The Man Who Has Everything,” averages 5.7 panels, nearly two panels per page fewer. Similarly, in Swamp Thing #52, which came out the same month as Watchmen #1, Moore gives Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala an average of 4.7 panels per page. But in some ways the more revealing fact is that the highest panel count for a page of “For The Man Who Has Everything” is seven, and the highest for Swamp Thing #52 is six. An average page of Watchmen, in other words, has more panels than the most crowded page of most American comics. Of his past work, only V for Vendetta averages anything close to Watchmen’s dizzying panel count, and this can be explained at least in part by the fact that Warrior had a considerably larger page size than US comics. But even in British comics Moore’s panel count generally remained well below Watchmen’s level: Marvelman tended to be somewhere between six and seven panels per page on average, whereas Moore and Gibbons’s most beloved British collaboration, “Chrono-Cops,” averages six. But mere panel count is in many ways misleading. Out of the first issue’s twenty-six pages, nine are true nine-panel grids. More to the point, out of its 196 panels, 177 are 1/9th of a page or smaller. The standard unit of storytelling in Watchmen, in other words, is in effect the comics equivalent of a miniature – a two inch by three inch rectangle.
Gibbons, of course, is well-suited to these particular challenges. His style is defined by a precise and detailed line, but its cleanliness comes at the expense of a certain degree of dynamism. It’s not just the nine-panel grid that keeps Gibbons from using Adams-esque layouts: it’s simply not a technique Gibbons is terribly invested in. “For The Man Who Has Everything,” for instance, is comprised entirely of rectangular panels, with only one moment in the entire story where an object breaks the border of its panel (an otherwise uninteresting panel of Jor-El brandishing a stick). Similarly, while Gibbons is more than capable of drawing effective action sequences, their strength is generally in their clarity, as opposed to their sense of frenetic motion. Which makes his style a strong fit for the self-consciously dense symbolism of Watchmen, where panel transitions are regularly based around symbolic shifts, such as the myriad of moments in the second issue in which a panel transition covers several years while leaving the characters in essentially the same poses. These transitions require a sense of detail and stillness that Gibbons is perfectly suited to.
The act of violence is confined to two panels, framed almost identically, so that the focus is on the small movement of Rorschach’s hand as he bends the man’s finger back, and the look of pain on the criminal’s face. Its impact comes precisely from the complete lack of any exaggeration or stylization. There’s not even a sound effect (another comic book standard forgone by Gibbons), with the weight of the nameless criminal’s agony being conveyed only through his face and Gibbons’s oversized and chaotic lettering of his reaction, a simple “AAAAAA.” The effect is not only to immediately render Rorschach a genuinely intimidating figure, but to fundamentally shift the grammar of violence in superhero comics to focus on brutal impact instead of kinesthetic beauty. But what the overwhelming majority of Moore and Gibbons’s imitators ended up missing was that the scene’s effectiveness depended on the staid, methodical tick of the nine-panel grid.
There is also the non-trivial matter of the specific historical antecedents of the Watchmen characters. Obviously, much has been made of the specific similarities between Watchmen and the superheroes created by Charlton Comics, a line acquired by DC in 1983. But while it is true that Watchmen originates in a pitch Moore and Gibbons made for the Charlton characters, and that, once one knows this, it is a fairly easy exercise to match the six main characters of Watchmen to specific characters created by Charlton, this is at best only a partial account. In many regards what matters more is the fact that Watchmen’s world is comprised of fairly generic heroes. With the exception of Doctor Manhattan, all are without superpowers, and are instead ordinary (except perhaps in the psychological sense) people who wear costumes and fight crime. In this regard Batman, obviously, hangs over them all as both the most commercially successful character in this vein and the historical archetype, especially within DC Comics. But this in turn points at a variety of other heroes: the Punisher and Green Arrow, for instance, or pre-comics pulp heroes like Doc Savage and Green Hornet. More broadly, there are few substantive differences between these sorts of characters and characters where the only fantastical element of their premise is a MacGuffin explaining their extreme physical prowess such as Captain America, or ones like the Sandman who make use of specialist technology. And while Doctor Manhattan does have outright superpowers, his character is in many ways stitched together from bits of other superheroes: the alienness of Superman, the powers of Firestorm, the science-trauma origin of the Hulk, the higher consciousness of Swamp Thing, et cetera. In other words, the cast of Watchmen is like any other aspect of the book: a dense but fundamentally imprecise set of symbols.
And so the world that is brought to an apocalypse within Watchmen is, in multiple regards, particularly well-suited to the task of serving as an apocalypse for the superhero as a whole. But for all that Moore and Gibbons created an elaborate superhero universe based on the principle of taking a more materially realistic view of the impact superheroes would have on the world, going so far as to think through the comics industry of his fictional world, there is a crucial tangible oversight within Watchmen: it almost completely ignores the way in which superheroes are, historically, generally corporate owned franchises. There are occasional nods towards it – the tragicomic fate of Dollar Bill, Ozymandias’s business empire, and the relationship between the first Silk Spectre and her agent all gesture at the commercial dimensions of costumed heroes. But it is a minor theme within the book, despite ultimately serving as a major one outside of it. Moore might fairly have asked himself, after all, how it was that the Charlton characters, created by Steve Ditko, Joe Gill, Pete Morisi, Charles Nicholas, and Pat Boyette, were initially available for his use at a completely different company from either of the two they had originated at, with none of their creators even remotely involved. Had he done so, the ways in which writing Watchmen would eventually turn sour for him might have come as somewhat less of a surprise than they in practice did.
This had, in some ways, always been the case. A perusal of his work for DC Comics quickly reveals that Moore was on the whole more interested in playing with the margins of the DC Universe than in working with the iconic characters. Although he wrote a pair of stories each featuring Superman and Batman, the stories were one-offs that seem in many ways to be more about checking the characters off of Moore’s bucket list than in substantial exploration of the characters. Indeed, one of his Batman stories is focused more on Clayface, a c-list member of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, than on Batman himself. The majority of Moore’s DC Universe work instead features more marginal characters such as Green Arrow, the Green Lantern Corps, the Omega Men, Vigilante, the Phantom Stranger, and, of course, Swamp Thing. And a perusal of the things Moore considered writing for DC but never got beyond writing a pitch for is similarly obscure, including the Challengers of the Unknown, Martian Manhunter, Tommy Tomorrow, the Demon, the Metal Men, a Bizarro series, and Lois Lane. This is all the more telling given the period during which Moore was working for DC, which included the immediate aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, a period where DC was eager to engage in high profile relaunches of major titles such as the John Byrne’s The Man of Steel, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, and the George Pérez revamp of Wonder Woman. Had their much acclaimed British wunderkind been interested in any sort of extended work on a high profile character, or even in another extended run on a second tier character in the vein of his Swamp Thing work, it is almost unthinkable that he would not have done so.
In this regard, Watchmen cannot be taken as an entirely discrete object, given that DC was having massive success with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns at virtually the same time. Certainly one conclusion an imitation-minded comics company could draw from this is that there was demand for darker, more violent superhero comics, and to be sure, plenty of those were produced. But a second, equally valid conclusion, and one that DC also reached, was that comics readers of the 1980s, in the wake of the industry’s reconfiguration around the direct market, were hungry for prestige projects featuring high-profile and acclaimed creators. There is an obvious dissonance between treating this as a formula to imitate and DC’s unwillingness to accommodate Moore. But what DC needed to imitate this aspect of Watchmen’s success wasn’t Alan Moore, a creator with increasingly grandiose literary ambitions; it was creators who were interested in being big fish in a specific small pond, namely the American direct market comics industry. And so DC set about looking for one, approaching the task of finding potential Alan Moore replacements with blunt literalness by flying Karen Berger to the UK in early 1988 to conduct a talent search.
Some of this, certainly, was an inevitable reaction to the realities of the British comics industry in which both men got their starts. There were only so many publishers and titles one could work on. But Morrison’s imitation of Moore went beyond mere job selection. This is not so much a matter of raw textual similarities; these exist, but ultimately no more than one would expect given the number of shared influences they have. Rather, it is that Morrison understood the method by which Moore had achieved critical and commercial success. He grasped the way in which Moore would pick apart a premise, exploring the creative possibilities of its unexamined assumptions, and the way in which Moore was unafraid of broad ambition. With Zoids, for instance, as Morrison tells it, “I took the job seriously and set about transforming the undemanding source material – a group of astronauts stranded on a planet of warring alien robots – into a showcase for my peculiar talents in an action-and-angst-fueled take on East-West politics and how it felt to be part of a group of ordinary people trapped between the titanic struggles of very large opponents who couldn’t care less about your hobbies or your favorite books.” And this, it must be said, is distinct from anything Moore would actually do, even as it shares the broad strokes of his approach. From the start, Morrison was very much his own man. Indeed, even the sense of wily ambition that he displayed has its roots as much in his early professional work in Near Myths and on Captain Clyde. But all the same, it’s clear that Morrison, having failed at being a rock star, tried his hand instead at being a comics star, using Alan Moore as his model. Which was, of course, exactly what DC wanted.
And yet Doctor Manhattan’s defining character flaw is one that Moore can fairly be accused of as well. It is not quite that Moore, like Manhattan, is deficient in empathy and ability to understand people. Quite the contrary, one of Moore’s great strengths as a writer has always been his ability to depict rich psychological nuance for his characters. Rather, it is that Moore and Manhattan both have a strangely fatalist lack of belief in their own agency. For Doctor Manhattan, this is a metaphysical condition; because he knows what actions he will eventually take, he maintains a dissociation from his own motivation. For Moore, however, the problem is subtler. A mind as accustomed to meticulously breaking down the workings of things as his is not immune to its own gaze. Moore is not omniscient, it is true, but he has a keen awareness of his own mind. But the result of this is that he is deeply, at times almost catastrophically unable to be anything other than completely true to his own nature.
Moore’s ruthless fidelity to his own nature is not quite the same as saying that Moore has a coherent and completely self-consistent set of principles and ethics. As many have observed, Moore’s actions in the course of his many feuds are at times erratic, and finding instances in which he espouses a hardline ethical principle in one feud while, if not violating it elsewhere, at least proving to be somewhat less than hardline about it is not a particularly strenuous task. To pick just one instance, as Alan Davis is quick to point out the disparity between Moore’s holding up delivery of his first Miracleman scripts out of concern that Alan Davis might be unhappy with the reprints and Moore’s prior unilateral decision to block reprints of their Captain Britain run, which denied Davis both income and publicity. Certainly the positions can be reconciled, given that one concerns a decision to reprint material and one concerns a decision against reprinting, but Davis’s real point – that Moore’s level of concern for the happiness of his collaborators is variable – is nevertheless an entirely accurate one. Moore is an intelligent and principled man, but he is in the end just as full of contradictions and flaws as any other man. Rather, it is that Moore is aware of his flaws and contradictions, and that his faithfulness to his own nature extends to them. Often, Moore demonstrates this with a sort of wry self-deprecation – the sort of attitude visible when he quips that, following his admission to grammar school and the fact that it meant he was no longer top of his class, “I decided, pretty typically for me, that if I couldn’t win then I wasn’t going to play. I was always one of those sulky children, who couldn’t stand to lose at Monopoly, Cluedo, anything.”
It is this sense of overwhelming intention that led Grant Morrison to sneer that “the God of Watchmen was far from shy. He liked to muscle his way into every panel, every line. He strutted into view with his blue cock on proud display, and everywhere you looked, the Watchmaker was on hand to present his glittering structure for our approval and awe, just as Manhattan erected his own flawless crystal logic machine to lay out the law to a distraught Laurie in this maddeningly intricate engine of a story. The God of Watchmen could not hide and begged for our attention at every page turn. He was a jealous Maker who refused to allow any of his creations to be smarter than he was, so the pacifist genius became a genocidal idiot, the confident trained psychiatrist was reduced to a gibbering wreck by the darkness in the soul of his patient; the detectives stumbled through the plot to their doom; and even the more or less divine superman was shown to be emotionally retarded and ineffectual. It was as if God had little more than contempt for his creations and gave them no opportunity to transcend the limits he’d set for them.” As criticisms go, this is mainly a sound one – an entirely accurate assessment of the weight of intention and symbolism that permeates every aspect of Watchmen. And yet Morrison’s curious failure to name this jealous, preening God in the quoted paragraph is strangely apropos. It’s certainly not subtle who he’s talking about – the preceding one ends by declaring that ”Moore’s self-awareness was all over every page like fingerprints,” and the subsequent one opens, “Moore’s love of obvious structure never left his work.” And yet he cannot quite bring himself to name the mad God plaguing Watchmen.
And so arises the central paradox of Watchmen: that a book whose sense of intent and authorship is so intensely present in every moment should also be one with so many visibly unintended consequences. There is a fundamental and irreducible disjunct between the ever-present authorial voice of Watchmen and the idiosyncratically groomed British man who sat down at his typewriter and wrote “ALL RIGHT. I’M PSYCHED UP, I’VE GOT BLOOD UP TO MY ELBOWS, VEINS IN MY TEETH AND MY HELMET AND KNEEPADS SECURELY FASTENED. LET’S GET OUT THERE AND MAKE TROUBLE! THIS FIRST PAGE IS A SERIES OF VERTICAL JUMPS THAT TAKES US UP IN A STRAIGHT PROGRESSION FROM A MINUTE AND MICROSCOPIC VIEW OF THE GUTTERS OF NEW YORK UP TO A PANORAMIC SHOT LOOKING DOWN UPON THE ROOFTOPS OF THIS FAMILIAR AND YET CURIOUSLY ALTERED CITYSCAPE. IN THIS FIRST PANEL WE ARE LOOKING STRAIGHT DOWN AT A DRAIN OPENING IN A PERFECTLY ORDINARY GUTTER. TO THE RIGHT OF THE PICTURE THE ACTUAL OUTER WALL OF THE CURB DROPS DOWN AWAY FROM US LIKE A MINIATURE CLIFF. OVER MORE TOWARDS THE LEFT, DOWN AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PICTURE, WE CAN SEE THE OLD AND WORN METAL OF THE DRAIN COVER WITH SOLID DARKNESS VISIBLE BETWEEN ITS SLATS. UP AT THE TOP OF THE PICTURE WE CAN JUST SEE THE DIRTY GUTTER RUNNING DOWN TOWARDS THE MOUTH OF THE DRAIN AT THE BOTTOM. THERE ARE ONLY TWO ELEMENTS THAT SEPARATE THIS IMAGE FROM A STANDARD EVERYDAY CLOSE-UP OF A DRAIN, AND THE FIRST OF THESE IS THE UNUSUAL AMOUNT OF BLOOD WHICH IS GUSHING DOWN THE AFOREMENTIONED APERTURE IN THE FIRST PICTURE. LIQUID FINGERS OF BLOOD, THICK AND BRILLIANT SCARLET, DRIBBLE DOWN THE WALL OF THE CURB OVER TO THE RIGHT.. GARISH STREAKS OF BRILLIANT RED AGAINST THE MUTED CONCRETE-GRAY OF THE STONE THAT THEY TRICKLE DOWN ACROSS. THE GUTTER IS SIMILARLY FULL OF BLOOD, GURGLING HAPPILY TOWARDS THE DRAIN WHERE IT SPILLS OUT OVER THE METAL DRAIN COVERING AND DRIPS DOWN AS TINY GLINTING BEADS INTO THE DARKNESS BENEATH.
THE SECOND ITEM OF REMARK IS A 1” DIAMETER SMILEY BADGE, COLORED A VIVID SUNSHINE YELLOW AS IT LAYS THERE IN THE GUTTER SMILING UP AT US AGAINST A BACKGROUND OF LURID BLOOD RED. IT HAS SOMEHOW LODGED IN THE GUTTER SO THAT IT WON’T GO DOWN THE DRAIN, AND SIMPLY REMAINS STUCK THERE, STARING UP AT US WITH ITS JARRINGLY INANE EXPRESSION. A SMALL SPLASH OF CRIMSON STAINS THE FRONT OF THE BADGE. A SINGLE TINY SPATTER ACROSS ONE BLACK CARTOON EYE ON THE FACE OF THE BADGE. THAT’S BASICALLY THE WHOLE OPENING IMAGE, UNLESS YOU WANT TO STICK A CANDY WRAPPER THAT’S ABOUT TO FLOAT DOWN THE DRAIN, IN WHICH CASE WE HAVE A PACKET OF MELTDOWNS, WHICH ARE LIKE TREETS (ENGLISH) OR M&M’S (AMERICAN) ONLY WITH LITTLE BRIGHTLY COLORED ATOMIC SYMBOLS ON THE WRAPPING. ONLY INCLUDE CANDY WRAPPING IF IT DOESN’T DETRACT FROM THE SIMPLICITY OF THE IMAGE WITH THE GUTTER, THE BLOOD AND THE BADGE, THOUGH, BECAUSE THIS IMAGE IS PRETTY IMPORTANT. IT GIVES US THE BLOOD SPATTERED SMILEY-BADGE, WHICH IS A PRETTY WORKABLE SYMBOL OF THE COMEDIAN’S MURDER, WHICH RUNS THROUGH THE ENTIRE SERIES, AND IT ALSO GIVES US A FAINT SUBLIMINAL PREDICTION OF THE ENDING WITH ITS IMAGE OF THE GUTTERS OF NEW YORK AWASH WITH BLOOD. ANYWAY, SEE WHAT YOU THINK AND LEAVE OUT THINGS LIKE THE SWEET WRAPPER IF YOU THINK THEY’RE EVEN SLIGHTLY DISTRACTING. WE’LL HAVE PLENTY OF TIME TO GET ALL OUR CUTE BRAND NAMES IN LATER ON IN THE SERIES. THE ACTUAL TEXT UPON THIS FIRST PAGE IS ALL TAKEN FROM RORSCHACH’S JOURNAL, WHICH WILL BE A MORE-OR-LESS CONTINUING FEATURE OF THE NARRATIVE THROUGHOUT THE SERIES. I MENTION THIS IN CASE YOU THINK IT MIGHT BE NICE TO VISUALLY DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN RORSCHACH’S JOURNAL AND ANY OTHER CAPTION BOXES THAT MIGHT OCCUR BY GIVING IT A SPECIFIC COLOR A SPECIFIC SHAPE OR LETTERING STYLE OR SOMETHING. I SUPPOSE IT’D BE NICE IF WE COULD ACTUALLY GET SOME OF THE CHARACTER OF RORSCHACH HIMSELF BY THE WAY HIS JOURNAL IS WRITTEN, ALTHOUGH I SUPPOSE A SUITABLY WARPED-LOOKING STYLE OF HAND WRITING MIGHT BE OFF-PUTTINGLY DIFFICULT TO READ OR TIME CONSUMING AND DIFFICULT TO MAINTAIN. MAYBE YOU COULD SUGGEST A SORT OF SCRUFFINESS WITHOUT GETTING TOO ELABORATE, THOUGH. PERHAPS A MORE RAGGED EDGE OR A FAINT SPATTERING OF MESSY INK BLOTS INT HE BOXES HERE AND THERE AS IF THEY’D BEEN LETTERED BY A PEN WITH A SPLIT NIB OR SOMETHING. ANYWAY. THE OPTIONS ARE THERE, SO JUST DO WHAT YUOU WANT. IN FACT, IF YOU’RE ANXIOUS TO SEE ANYTHING THAT EVEN SMACKS OF VISUAL FLUMMERY THAN PLEASE FEEL FREE TO MAKE RORSCHACH’S BOXES THE SAME AS EVERYONE ELSES AND RELY UPON THE TEXT IN THEM TO SET THEM APART FROM OTHER NARRATIVE WITHOUT IMPOSING ANY VISUAL GIMMICKS NEEDLESSLY. OKAY. THAT’S THE PRE-AMBLE OUT OF THE WAY. SO GIVE IT ALL YOU’VE GOT AND LET’S SEE SOME GOOD DRAIN ART HERE” in 1985.
“Art that cannot move people effectively loses the war. Take the techniques that make it a masterwork and use them for changing the world. Your purity only hurts the reason you’re doing it. Do you want to feel self-righteous or do you want to win? I like to win. The point is to change the world. A story is a machine that kills fascists. A story is a machine that kills whatever you want it to. Be afraid of stories, be afraid of storytellers. They are only trying to lie to you.” – Kieron Gillen, Kieron Gillen Talks Watchmen
In this regard, then, Cooke got lucky: one of his two series was the Minutemen series, the one for which the problem of comparison is by far the slightest, and which thus always sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea for a comic. It is, after all, the one that Moore actually seriously considered doing himself at one point. As Gibbons noted in 1988, when the book was still under consideration as a future project (Moore, in the same interview, cagily suggested the book might be “in four or five years time, ownership position permitting”), “Minutemen appeals because it’s a different era and a different story.” Which is to say, it’s naturally insulated from at least some of the intrinsic problems of Before Watchmen. Only three of its main characters have any significant presence in Watchmen, which means that Cooke has a relative blank slate with his other leads. (And while he ultimately uses one of the three characters who have a significant presence in Watchmen as his narrator, Mason is ultimately still a much smaller character within Watchmen than either Jupiter or Blake.)
Cooke also has some advantages he brings to the table. He was best known for a tremendously acclaimed miniseries entitled DC: The New Frontier, which took place in the historical gap between the Golden and Silver Age eras of DC history, traversing from 1945 to 1960 (a similar stretch of time to that covered by Before Watchmen: Minutemen, which runs from 1939-62). It was very much a descendent of Moore’s work on superheroes, sharing Watchmen and Swamp Thing’s inclination to integrate the material history of superhero comics into their narratives: characters generally make their debuts within the story the same year that their comics first appeared, with Barry Allen becoming the Flash in 1956 and Hal Jordan the Green Lantern in 1959, for instance. More broadly, the endpoint in 1960 is not only the year that the Justice League of America made its first appearance (the event that serves as the book’s climax), but the year of John F. Kennedy’s election. The title The New Frontier comes from Kennedy’s speech accepting the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, a speech quoted at length over nine pages in the book’s epilogue, which builds to an homage to Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson’s iconic cover to The Brave and the Bold #28, in which the Justice League first appeared.
The New Frontier also shares Watchmen’s interest in comics as a form. Where Watchmen is based on the nine panel grid, The New Frontier’s default page layout is a three-tier stack of page-width panels; of the fifty-nine story pages in the first issue, forty-six are three-panel pages. This is a simpler layout, to be sure, and The New Frontier does not engage in Watchmen’s complex play of paralleled narratives and object-to-object transitions. But it is a layout that tacitly evokes Watchmen’s nine panel grid, even as no actual pages of The New Frontier use the grid. More to the point, however, the wide panel layout is entirely appropriate for what The New Frontier is doing. The expansive panel size allows Cooke leeway to explore the bright spectacle of superhero comics as a genre, which in turn fuels the underlying optimism of the story. Cooke’s style is rooted in the cartooning tradition (he moved into the industry via animation), which means that his work evokes the lurid beauty of the best Silver Age artists (most particularly Jack Kirby), but is considerably more detailed and ornate than most of his inspirations (occasionally rivaling Gibbons in terms of the detail he works into panels). Aided by Dave Stewart’s frankly brilliant coloring, which has a positively painterly depth of palate to it, the result is a comic that is at one exquisitely beautiful and carefully thought through in terms of its visual grammar and form.
And 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 n****r’s over here!” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.}
Several observations in the backmatter section of this essay (which was written prior to the TV show) were inspired by William Leung’s “Who Whitewashes the Watchmen.”