Saturday, October 26, 2013

Before Watchmen: Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke

Confession: I am not a fan of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. I don't dislike it — there's much to admire in its furrowed-brow po-mo perambulations — but I've never been blown away by it, the way so many readers seem to, because — Holy Henry James, Batman! — is it ever wordy. And this is from a guy who loves to read.

Watchmen isn't just wordy, it is also cluttered. And static. And pretentious — which I actually kinda like, so let's get back to the other faults.

Wordy, cluttered and static — generally these aren't terms I want applied to sequential art. A little flow and zip go a long way toward the successful seduction of the innocent. Watchmen had just enough flow and zip to keep me reading to the bitter end, but not nearly enough to make me swoon.

So when DC launched its line of Watchmen prequels, and Moore vigorously protested, I had no dog in the fight whatsoever. DC could transform the Watchmen into Baby Muppets, or make a Lucasian mess out of continuity — me, I was all, “What me worry?”

But then Darwyn Cooke came on board. I've long admired his approach to other people's intellectual property: against all odds Richard Stark's “Hunter”, the Justice League of America, Cat-Woman — even Will Eisner's The Spirit — have been well served, even reinvigorated under Cooke's attentions. There was no question whatever Watchmen prequel Cooke took on was going to have flow and zip to it. Could he bring anything else to the project, or would that be enough to ignite my interest in this property?

Cooke's Minutemen are the forebears of the Watchmen, and he focuses on the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason. Cooke renders Mason in mid-life, struggling to get his memoirs into print. Watchmen readers are familiar with the work (Under The Hood) as it was finally published: Mason recounts a giddy era when Super-heroes were just beginning to imprint themselves on public consciousness. In Moore-Gibbons' Watchmen Mason's memoirs are a source of amusement and derision, to be read ironically. Cooke's post-Golden-Era/pre-memoirs Mason, however, reveals that the impetus of his project was to unburden himself of a guilty conscience.

He wants nothing less than to tell The Truth.

Readers of Watchmen are well aware of the naivety of this enterprise, even if they possess (with only one gruesome exception) vague intimations of what Mason might have been privy to. As Cooke's story progresses, it becomes clear Mason's confessions compromise every one of the the Minutemen — himself included, of course, although in this regard he is not at all aware of just how damning the full story truly is until it is brutally laid out for him in the final pages.

Mason's choice to reinforce the Official Version of events while he silently shoulders the burden of The Truth can be seen as the existentially heroic deed of a sweet-natured man, or an act of abject cowardice from a gormless doofus relieved to have finally met his match. Cooke's portrait allows the reader's needle to swing freely from either extreme — Minutemen is Cooke's darkest work to date.

The artwork, of course, is vintage Cooke — excellent, as always.

Before Watchmen: Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke (A) Next post: tripping out on Amanda Conner's Silk Spectre!


paul bowman said...

My last year at Maryland (when I finally finished my B.A., after 2 yrs as an English major, 7 yrs as a full-time student, 10 yrs as a post-high school adult), I did a longish paper on comics for a class meant to be more or less an intro to linguistic anthropology. How I made the subject fit I don't remember exactly, but I'd come to the major much less out of interest in lit. than in architecture and vague ideas about language, and having briefly explored (among other things) the art major route, so when a linguistics & drawing mashup fit the course reqs., I guess I couldn't help myself. Anyway, not being (or ever wanting to be perceived as) a real geek myself, I felt had to come up with more source material than I owned; and fortunately, there was another guy in the class, a diminutive black guy, whom I'd chatted with a little and who was the genuine article. He lent me a bunch of stuff all in a lump, nothing staple-bound but collection editions, in 2 paper bags as I recall. In it were well-read copies of V For Vendetta and Watchmen, along with most of Sandman and some horror and obscure stuff. I still have it all, because at the end of the semester (that project having been the final, and all my projects being intensive efforts up to or beyond last minute), I couldn't find the guy — no response to email/phone, no luck going through professor.

What I'm getting around to here, though, is that I've still never read all of Watchmen. I've picked it up several times in years since, but it just doesn't hold me. I never liked the drawing, for one thing; but distaste for the art hasn't stopped me reading other books. It's drab & depressing, for another; but then, it's not as though I have any remarkable preference for the saccharine.

Right now most of my library is packed in boxes, so I can't get to it. But I'm thinking I ought to have another go at it when I do, what with Hellboy & superhero ruminations lately.

Darrell Reimer said...

I suspect your local public lye-berry has a copy or two of the single-bound collection. I'm slow to recommend a read, but it's one of Those Works -- ya know? Kind of like a reading of Ulysses is de rigeur, if only to enable you to identify how it's changed EVERYTHING that's followed (chiefly for the worse, I sometimes think -- in both cases).

paul bowman said...

Ha, there's another one I've attempted several times — with rather more motivation but with nowhere near enough concentration. It sat out for convenient picking up for a long time, but ...