Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Silk Spectre by Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner

Silk Spectre's pages open shortly after The Minutemen's close. I hadn't known until I opened the book that Cooke was not taking on the artwork of this story. Figuring this exercise might be as pathetic as some of the non-Cooke material in The Spirit v. 2, my expectations dropped accordingly and I started scanning the panels.

Amanda Conner could not have asked for better conditions to an optimal introduction.

I became ravenous for the work, flipping from one page to the next and devouring its sequences like they were fistfuls of hot, goopy poutine. Midway through the book I grudgingly forced myself to stop, return to the beginning and read the words to get the full effect. This is fabulous stuff.

Here’s a typical Conner panel, early in the narrative — Los Angeles, 1960. Girl meets boy:

Notice how the bulk of the drama is in the girl’s face. Her half-lidded eyes are searching for clues, not so much in her exterior environment (her gaze rarely settles on anything inside the frame) but somewhere else. She's trying to figure out where she's at: with this boy, with his future — their future — and with each other's dominant, physically abusive parent. Then, smooch, the eyes open up: revelation! as embodied by that last “too-large-for-the-panel” expressionist frame. These are motifs that Conner returns to and plays with again and again.

The girl is Laura Jupiter, the daughter of the original Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter. Sally's control of Laura is near-pathological, particularly in her concern (entirely understandable to Watchmen readers) for her daughter to protect herself against would-be rapists. Until now, Sally has held all the cards in the relationship: emotionally, sexually, athletically. Laura is squirming out from under her thumb. She and her boyfriend run off to San Francisco.

Conner-Cooke's '60s San Francisco is a colourful melange of the expected tropes, including Kool-Aid courtesy of Kesey & his Merry Pranksters, mixed in with bad guys that are a mash-up of Adam West Batman and, well, Alan Moore pervi-tude. Meet “The Chairman”:

In this setting, Silk Spectre Jr., discovers that emasculating bad dudes is a squeamishly satisfying activity. She also discovers that drugs can be unpleasant — and that’s about all. The reader, of course, is privy to a great deal more. The art itself conveys aspects of Laura’s larger environment that she is oblivious to. It surprises me not at all to learn that Conner has spent time in the Archie Comics stable. The playfulness of the art, and its exploration of these groovy young things as they lay claim to the world, is the smartest portrait of early hippie culture since MAD magazine. These kids are dropping out of Riverdale High, while clinging tightly to a childish naivety that will do many of them grievous harm in the mischief that follows.

I think this is all note-perfect for the larger Watchmen story-arc. The fact is Laura Jupiter, like most of her fellow Watchmen, is predominantly clueless to the larger machinations at work. That some readers deem this a “Coming of Age” narrative is highly ironic. There is no age to come to. Laura is fated from the get-go to make seemingly spontaneous choices that do not end well for her, or anyone in her orbit. Conner, following the lead of her story-editor, closes with a final frame that is creepy in its self-congratulatory sense of happy potential. Readers know exactly where this is all going (note clock on the upper right) — and it is not pretty.

And yet, isn’t it pretty to think otherwise?


Joel said...

As American comic books are pretty hard to get in my area of the world, I won't be reading this anytime soon. But, just for the record, am I right in thinking you're giving these books your recommendation? I noticed the LA times review you linked to from your sidebar gives the series a rather tepid review, and at one point even goes to say: is also a direct attack on the premises of Moore's "Watchmen."

Darrell Reimer said...

I don't think Douglas Wolk's read of Minutemen is especially perceptive. As for my recommendation, that's a tough call. I enjoyed these two books considerably more than I've enjoyed Moore-Gibbons' work. And Conner's book is particularly delightful: a raunchy re-take on Archie & his gang -- the "innocent" comics of American early-adolescence and the natural, not-so-counter-cultural direction the Montana-DeCarlo books pointed their readers to in the '60s. Of the two, Conner's work is the more sublime and subversive -- a unique piece that takes an unexpected spin off the source material, and plenty of other stuff besides. The original may have been "brilliant commentary on its own medium and genre" but Conner-Cooke suggest the Moore-Gibbons gaze might have missed a thing or two. So Silk Spectre gets my unreserved recommendation.

I'd say Cooke's Minutemen, on the other hand, does an admirable job of toeing the Moore-Gibbons line. If you're a fan of Cooke, or M-G, it's worth your time. Otherwise ... probably not.

Darrell Reimer said...

Also: my interest in Before Watchmen is tapped-out. I won't be bothering with the other books, unless I score freebies.