Tuesday, June 2, 2015

So Dark, So Repetitive: Why Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre Didn't Grab Me!

The Good: Moments of writing, Narrative voice for Laurie's section, Most of the artwork
The Bad: Minutemen story oscillates between being oppressively dark and boring, Reinvents Laurie's character, Low "draw" factor
The Basics: Returning to the universe of Watchmen, the anthology Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre creates a dark world that sensibly leads to the popular graphic novel . . . even if there is little joy in the journey there!

When a great artist creates a compelling universe, it is tempting to want to return there. A well-told story within a unique and incredible setting inspires readers to wonder what else is going on in different locations within that clearly-drawn place. Unfortunately, the results of trying to explore lesser characters than the main narrative described or tangential events seldom yields a story that is as interesting or engaging as the narrative that drew the artist to originally create their universe. Such was my trepidation with picking up the books from the Before Watchmen series. Even so, I broke down and picked up Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre and now that I have read it, I found myself caught in the awkward place of reviewing it.

My initial bias against the concept of Before Watchmen aside, my real issues with the execution of the two stories within Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre come down mostly to problems with personal preferences. I do not read Batman comics. Batman stories are much less detective stories as much as they are psychologically creating the craziest villains in the DC Comics Universe and then Batman trapping them before they can kill too many people. The stories are much less the experience of following clues to nail down which suspect is the culprit as much as it is an analysis of how sick human beings might operate and how one man's quest to stop them affects him. The main thrust of the book Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre is the Before Watchmen: Minutemen section and it suffers from a similar problem. The story is generally well-created, but it is dark, troubling and just not my cup of tea.

As the title suggests, Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre is an anthology that collects the two mini-series' Before Watchmen: Minutemen and Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre. Both sections are set in the same fictional universe as the graphic novel Watchmen (reviewed here!) and act as prequels to that book. The two stories are very different, though as one suspects as they are prequels set in the Watchmen Universe, there is a common element in the form of Edward Blake (The Comedian).

Before Watchmen: Minutemen focuses on the first Nite Owl and the original crime-fighting team within the Watchmen Universe. The story acts, essentially, as a "lost chapter" to Hollis Mason's book Under The Hood. Within the Watchmen universe, Under The Hood was the book that detailed the nature of the costumed hero team, The Minutemen, after all its members had disbanded and gone onto other pursuits (though most of them were actually dead). The story is told from the perspective of Hollis Mason before the publication of Under The Hood.

Hollis Mason's section details how the Minutemen came together, essentially as a publicity stunt between Captain Metropolis and Sally Jupiter's manager. While Hooded Justice was legitimately fighting street crime and Hollis Mason took up the mantle of Nite Owl while working as a beat cop, the others came to the Minutemen with very different experiences. Silhouette was a Holocaust escapee who had a sensitivity for crimes against children and Mothman's mundane ego was a somewhat tormented wealthy inventor. They joined people like Silk Spectre and Dollar Bill (who were essentially actors) to fight crime around New York City as costumed heroes.

But Sally Jupiter's manager pushes the team for publicity; their first joint outing is a sham in which they unwittingly destroy a warehouse full of illegal fireworks, but they use the publicity machine to sell it as a real homeland security victory. The difference between the members' priorities quickly causes fractures within the group. Silhouette strikes out to try to stop a child trafficking ring that has led to children going missing and then being used in the sex trade. Hollis and Byron (Mothman) join her in trying to find the person responsible for abducting and molesting children. But when Silhouette and her lover are killed, Hollis and Byron pretty much reach a dead end. They discover all the clues they can while cleaning out Ursula's apartment, but after Eddie Blake is disgraced and Sally leaves the Minutemen, the group falls apart. They briefly come back together for a secret mission that teams them up with new costumed heroes in a post-WWII adventure that has them stopping Japanese terrorists from melting down the Statue Of Liberty using a uranium core. The story takes a turn for the dark and disturbing when the child abductor resurfaces and Hollis is able to close the case . . . with troubling results.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of Before Watchmen: Minutemen is now the story degenerates into a simple revenge tale that makes one of the members of the Minutemen into an even more villainous persona (though it's a horserace with the overt homophobia that encompasses most of the story as part of the dated setting). In fact, for all the problems with most enduring character in the Watchmen universe, he was previously characterized more as an asshole; Before Watchmen: Minutemen reinvents him as an overt criminal. Unfortunately, in the process of the story, it remakes Hollis Mason into a criminal as well . . . and an inexplicably powerless one at that. Hollis Mason is lured into a revenge trap (the primary case is solved not by the main three people obsessed with it for years, but by another person as a tangent to their revenge story) that leads him to accidentally kill for the benefit of the Comedian. How Edward Blake remains alive after that is revealed to Hollis Mason is something of a mystery and one that undermines the whole concept of Before Watchmen. Instead of being a retired costume hero, it is virtually impossible for readers of the larger Watchmen Saga to not come to look at Hollis Mason as a recurring dupe who eventually outed himself with good publicity instead of taking down all the corrupt elements that duped him.

At the other end of the spectrum is Before Wachmen: Silk Spectre. The four-chapter story (Minutemen is six chapters) tells the remarkably simple backstory of Laurel Jane Jupiter. Laurie tries to have a normal childhood as the daughter of a former costumed hero (though, strangely, everyone seems to know who Sally Jupiter was outside her alter ego of Silk Spectre), but she is "trained" (attacked periodically) by her mother and mocked by her peers. She finds a guy to love, Greg, and the two begin an age-appropriate relationship. Greg, however, gets heavy into drugs and when he and Laurie run away together, they find themselves in the seedy underbelly of drug culture. There, Laurie is dosed against her will and finds herself in attendance of orgies, which she is not comfortable with. Greg is abducted by the Comedian, who is looking out for his daughter, and shipped off to Nam. In her quest to find Greg and stop the drug peddlers, Laurie takes up the mantle of Silk Spectre in advance of the formation of the Watchmen.

Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre has some redeeming qualities to it, most notably the artwork. Laurie is an imaginative girl and writers Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner use the medium well to illustrate her perspective. Long before the trippy panels that are the result of Laurie on acid, the authors set up cut-away panels that portray Laurie's insecurities, fears and desires. That's a pretty good use of the medium, well-executed within the book.

Unfortunately, Laurie's character seems almost entirely re-conceived from the version in Watchmen. The story begins with Laurie having more direct knowledge that Larry Schexnayder is not her father and that being something that motivates her and makes her insecure (in Watchmen the revelation of her true father hits her hard, in part, because of the repressed nature of the childhood memory of her "father" and mother fighting). From there, Laurie becomes remarkably worldly. Instead of being a naive young woman who was constantly bugged by her mother, she is entirely recharacterized as a young woman running away from her super hero training . . . only to be drawn back in by circumstances. Reimaging the character thus is hardly as engaging as reading a deeper story about a familiar character one has an attachment to.

The result is a mixed bag; the writing is good and the artwork is good, but the subject is frequently disturbing and the character is not quite the one most fans remember. The result was that it made it impossible for me to recommend Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre.

For other Watchmen-related reviews, please check out:
Rorschach Variant Action Figure
Watchmen Portraits By Clay Enos


For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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