Tuesday, June 12, 2012
BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN #1
I picked up the first issue on Thursday, but I haven't had time to review it until now. Obviously you can't judge a 35-issue series by the first installment, but as that is how DC Comics is releasing it, so shall it be reviewed. I'm going into this as someone who has wanted more since the first series ended in 1987, but also as someone who hopes this story lives up to the same high standards as the original. So with a guarded optimism, let us begin:
Based on the first issue, the series does not plan on replicating the format of the original series. The original series had each issue be a 32-page installment with no ads on "baxter" paper using a rather garish color process, and the 32 pages being divided between a "graphic novel chapter" taking up the majority of the book (with scattered sequences from a fictitious 1950's pirate comic called "The Black Freighter" dispersed throughout) and an illustrated text piece in the back of the issue. The first issue of the new series is a 32-page installment using the standard paper and coloring process that all of DC's regular comics currently use; there are also ads (on 3 pages only) in the book and instead of a text feature we have a two-page installment of a pirate story called "The Crimson Corsair", which we will discuss in a bit.
Firstly I'd like to start with an outright improvement this issue has over any of the 12 original issues: the coloring. The original series whether by artistic intent or by the process used, too often made everything look like it was colored with neon crayons. Now however Phil Noto enhances the different media used in the illustrations; for example, black-and-white photos, firelit glows, and cityscapes by sunset all look appropriate. Furthermore he does an excellent job in setting the mood for the various scenes while not detracting from the art.
Both said art and story as well are supplied for this issue by Darwyn Cooke; he also provided the standard cover (as opposed to the many limited edition variant covers) as well. Cooke is perhaps best known for his other DC work such as the Catwoman graphic novel "Selina's Big Score", "The Spirit", and of course "The New Frontier". Cutting to the chase: this issue is what you would expect the creator of "New Frontier" would deliver in fleshing out the details of "The Minutemen".
The Minutemen, for those of you unfamiliar, are the original superheroes in the world of the Watchmen. While these costumed crimefighters got their start in the late 1930's and operated throughout World War Two, unlike the majority of superheroes published in comics at the time in the real world none of this team had powers or abilities beyond those of extraordinary humans. Their membership consisted of "Hooded Justice", "Nite Owl", "Silk Spectre", "The Silhouette", "Mothman", "Dollar Bill", "The Comedian" and "Captain Metropolis".
The 26-page introductory story "The Minute of Truth Chapter One: Eight Minutes" is narrated by Nite Owl (Hollis Mason), primarily as lines from his autobiography. The story focuses on vignettes from the eight members' early adventures: a page of Dollar Bill's origins here, a three-page sequence of the proto-Rorschach Hooded Justice there. Little new information is gleaned about these characters that we didn't already know from the original; the Comedian has a juvenile record and the Silhouette was a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria. On the other hand, the issue can also be viewed simply as an introduction to the characters to any reader who may be unfamiliar with them; and my optimistic side hopes that in the coming issues we will see both an original plot and an original theme.
Artistically, Cooke definitely deviates from the original, as the series looks like his own work and not at all like the style or structure original series artist Dave Gibbons used. Cooke's retro style serves the retro series that this is very well. Hollis Mason as an old writer, a young police officer, and a newbie masked adventurer is given the emotional weight, the determined awe, and the do-gooder intensity that the age and scene demand. The way Cooke shows different emotions, such as the Comedian tearing into a "dirty egg" or the urgency Silhouette feels in breaking up a child pornography ring, shows the thought he puts into his illustrations. His linework is deceptively simple, evoking cartooning legend Alex Toth more than anyone else.
What is simple though, are the layouts. Aside from the first two pages, Cooke's layouts eschews the complex patterns of the original, moving more towards narrative than subtextuality. As both plotter and penciller, Cooke gets sole credit (or blame if you will) for this, whereas the original layouts had to do both with Gibbons and the original series' writer Alan Moore. However while Moore's story structure and ideas appear (at this point anyway) to be more sophisticated than what Cooke has displayed, the new issue's dialogue is just as good and perhaps a tad more authentic. The veddy English Moore often writes clever dialogue but his "American voice" appears to be forced at times, whereas with Cooke it seems much more natural. Whether it is the banter between Silk Spectre's manager and a police chief or Captain Metropolis's bathtub dictation to his butler, the words genuinely seem to fit the characters, and that is definitely to Cooke's credit.
One thing Moore did in the original which Cooke does not do here is create "clever" transitions between scenes, where the text, dialogue and/or pictures would lead us from one scenario to the next either literally or thematically. If you like that sort of thing, the absence will be missed. However few writers can pull it off as effectively as Moore did, so the fact that Cooke chose the more natural method of simply having one scene end and another begin does not bother me. And while DC has chosen to continue the notion of having a pirate tale intertwined with the main superhero tale, they wisely chose not to have the pirates interrupt the heroes, as the random shift of genres did not serve the original story well.
And since there were only two pages of the pirate story this issue, it is surely too soon to judge what writer Len Wein and artist John Higgins have begun. The wordcrafting by Wein is at least above his usual standards. Wein & Higgins, it should be noted, are the respective editor and colorist of the original series, so their inclusion in this effort is appreciated. While the coloring of the pirate sequence is just as subtle as the lead-in story in comparison to the original series, the colorist credit is not given for this aspect, so it is not known who to credit.
In summary, while the introductory issue lacks the originality and complexity of the original series, the artwork and dialogue are just as good and the coloring is better. Here's hoping the next installment is as good or better than this week's!