Last week, Minutemen #1 — the first of DC Comics' suite of Before Watchmen projects — came out. This week, Silk Spectre #1 hits the stands. There's been heaps of controversy surrounding DC's decision to make more comics set in the beloved fictional universe created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark 1986 series. And, like I've said before, the mere existence of these books isn't the end of everything sacred. In fact, they're both good comics.
Minutemen #1 evokes a darker view of Golden Age superheroics that expounds on Watchmen's central idea, an idea that asks "what if metahumans were as psychologically messy as the rest of us?" That means, in Minutemen #1, readers get the Comedian as a juvenile delinquent who runs wild behind a mask. That beat fits neatly in the established story of Watchmen. Likewise, the stage-mom pressure brought to bear by former superhero Sally Jupiter on her daughter Laurel in Silk Spectre #1 explores a generation gap Moore hinted at in Watchmen.
But it's both a good and bad thing that these two comics feel familiar to the singular achievement that DC Comics is trying to re-visit.
The clockwork mechanism used as an incredibly apropos motif in Moore and Gibbon's signature work — implying that life gets lived according to a mysterious grand design — gets re-used in Minutemen. But that motif and the act of going back to it underscores how Cooke, Conner and the other creators who'll follow them are locked inside a machine structure that they didn't make.
Is there enough freedom inside the Watchmen construct for the creators doing the Comedian, Rohrshach and other series to bring their own idiosyncrasies? It's too soon to say. I love Darwyn Cooke and loved the work he's previously done in the wake of creators before. His graphic novel adaptations of Richard Stark's Parker novels have been incredibly executed, standing as an example of the energy gained when a creative work gets reinterpreted. And Conner's had a long, successful career where she's juggled cartoony self-satire visuals into standard superhero fare and injected massive joie-de-vivre into everything she's ever drawn.
The moments that sing loudest to me in these two comics are the ones where the creator diverge wildly from Watchmen's clockwork approach. When the panels full of Laurel's cartoon exuberance at being kissed by a boy pop off of the page, that's when Silk Spectre feels most like its own thing, like a thing produced by the quirks of Cooke and Conner's particular idiosyncrasies. The same goes the sequences in Minutemen where Cooke bathes the figures in ink and transforms them into the sharp-angled silhouettes that he does so well. Neither one of those things falls in line with how Moore and Gibbons crafted Watchmen's storytelling yet they're the best things about these Watchmen-related comics.
And there's where the paradox in this project lies. Playing in the margins of a text that was itself a recursive re-working of tropes would be tricky business in the best of worlds. But this scenario — where it's an endeavour cursed in stinging fashion by one of its chief architects — adds to the sense of fragility surrounding Before Watchmen. Worse yet is the fact that the entire Before Watchmen affair won't change anything in Watchmen itself. The hands of the clock are still going to hit twelve and the fates of Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl and the Comedian will irrevocably resolve the way they have for two decades. And moments of dissonance are more dangerous here, too. The Minutemen comic doesn't use song lyrics to bracket its chapters, where Silk Spectre does. The fact that I noticed such a variation snapped me back to the controversy surround these comics and away from the comics themselves.
If good creators do good work on a project driven by corporate interests, do their efforts get diminished? Not necessarily in these two issues. But the results here fall into a weird middle space, where a preset structure and individual talent orbit around each other clumsily. More than anything, that tension will be what keeps me reading these Before Watchmen comics, as I try to sift through and see what feels unique and what feels like a retread.