Review: Before Watchmen: Minutemen & Silk Spectre by Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner

Man, I forgot how depressing Watchmen was. The original series is a comics classic, often considered a touch point in the history of comics that heavily influenced the ton of everything that has come after in. Gone were the shiny bright colors and the BOOM BLAM SPLAT of the early generation’s comic and in was the dark, cynical worlds heavily influenced by Alan Moore. I was one of those people who thought doing prequel series was a stupid idea, one that would get handily rejected by comic buyers everywhere. And yet they didn’t. Eight different prequel series were completed and fairly well-received by critics. So here now it’s my turn to experience these prequels. For the next four Mondays, I’ll be reviewing the up-coming trades of the Watchmen prequels as a sort of Comic Con warm up.

Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre
Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner

DC Comics
I received an e-ARC from DC Comics for review
Releases July 2, 2013
288 pages
Comics / Superheroes

Find it on Goodreads

Preorder it from Amazon

The controversial, long-awaited prequels to the best-selling graphic novel of all-time are finally here: BEFORE WATCHMEN! For over twenty years, the back stories of the now-iconic characters from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's landmark graphic novel had been the subject of much debate and theorizing. Now, DC Comics has assembled the greatest creators in the industry to further paint the world of WATCHMEN, starting with this first volume starring MINUTEMEN and SILK SPECTRE.

The critically acclaimed and Eisner Award-winning creator of DC: THE NEW FRONTIER Darwyn Cooke lends his talents MINUTEMEN. As the predecessor to the Watchmen, the Minutemen were assembled to fight against a world that have more and more rapidly begun to spin out of control. Can these heroes from completely different backgrounds and with completely different attitudes on crime come together? Or will they fall apart before they begin? 

SILK SPECTRE takes an introspective look at the WATCHMEN feature player's struggles with her overbearing superhero mother and her scattered path toward taking the mantle of the Silk Spectre. With gorgeous art by co-writer and illustrator Amanda Conner (POWER GIRL, The Pro), SILK SPECTRE takes a very different perspective at the world of BEFORE WATCHMEN. 

Collects BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN 1-6 and BEFORE WATCHMEN: SILK SPECTRE 1-4

Of all the prequels I was most excited by the Minutemen series, which would explain the origins of the previous generation of superheroes that preceded those in the original Watchmen series. The history of the Minutemen was briefly explored in the original series, but it intrigued me to see how these costumed superheroes originated. This six issue series didn’t disappoint though it did leave me horribly depressed. I probably should have expected it given the brief overview in Watchmen of the where the original group had ended up by the 80s.

It’s told from the perspective of the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, whose autobiography would inspire Daniel to take on his name and secret identity in the main series. It bounces back and forth from “current day”, which in this case is 1970s, to when the Minutemen were originally formed in the days after World War II. As each of his former teammates respond to the secrets Hollis is wanting to share with the world, flashbacks show the tenuous relationship between all the superheroes.

Cooke’s take on these original masked heroes is surprisingly layered and allows for him to dip into exploring issues such as same sex relationships, personal vendettas, sexuality as commodity, and the scars left behind by personal experiences. Of course this becomes horribly depressing with these drastically different personalities each trying to achieve their own goals under the guise of working together. The original Nite Owl and the Silhouette, who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, are trying to actually save people and do good. The original Silk Spectre is using her costumed character to get publicity and promote herself. Mothman isn’t sure what he’s doing, needing an increasing amount of drugs and booze to get off the ground while Dollar Bill is the mascot of a bank and not much else. Captain Metropolis, former marine, and Hooded Justice are shadowy figures who fight crime, but with uncertain motives. And then there is the Comedian, who is a teenage punk at the formation of the Minutemen that disappears to work for the government only to return by the end to cause more pain and suffering.

The underlining case is about missing kids suspected of being sold to child porn rings. That right there should tell you how not cheerful this entire series is and yet it’s compulsively readable. As with the original series, this is a host of characters who are all broken by their own history and stumbling along trying to do something to affect their own city. In the end they all seem to bring each other down and prevent anything good to really come from their superhero antics. Even when they have the best intentions as a group, everything seems to turn out wrong until those left standing are all depressed and miserable – the survivors seen in Watchmen proper.

Then comes the four issues of Silk Spectre, which is a huge change, brightly colored and full of 70s nostalgia. It follows the second Silk Spectre, Laurie Miller, the daughter that came out of a fling between the original Silk Spectre and the Comedian. After being forced to train as a future costumed superhero and prevent to have a normal teenage life by her mother, Laurie runs away from home with her teenage boyfriend and ends up in San Francisco. Based on her upbringing, she feels compelled to help those she finds in trouble and begins masquerading as a costumed hero when a mysterious drug starts landing her friends in the hospital.

The cartoon-ish brightly colored illustrations often feel too bright when compared to the bloody and adult nature of the actual content. There is a lot of nudity as it seems people didn’t like wearing clothes in the 70s and it’s all a bit one note with the exception of Laurie herself. It’s a nice contrast between her and the version of Silk Spectre created by her mother in the previous Minutemen story. While her mother was in it for fame and fortune, Laurie fights crime in secret (while wearing impossible high heel stiletto thigh high boots, but whatever) and is authentically in it to save lives. When her boyfriend falls prey to the drug and lands in the hospital, everything turns into a bit of a Tarentino movie with the bloodshed.

While the story of Minutemen felt more satisfying in the revelation of characters and enriching the universe spawned from Watchmen, it was Silk Spectre that was the more enjoyable read. It had a more straight forward superhero origin story feel to it and it didn’t broach any particularly uncomfortable subject mature. But mostly it didn’t feel like I’d been steamroller and then had my emotions punched in the face several times like the uber depressing secret history of the first group of costume superheroes. Combined it’s a study in contrast – bright and cartoonish with stark and real, an origin story compared to the devolution of a group of superheroes. They’re completely different in tone and execution, but both are effective stories that add another layer to what was already a developed world.

 

An electronic copy of this graphic novel was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.