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Wait, Did Before Watchmen Just Call Watchmen Terrible?

Watchmen‘s capitalization proceeds in earnest, and with renewable controversy, in Minutemen, Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen prequel series opener. But perspective is everything.

Because perspective is what Cooke’s comic leans heavily upon for its evocative first two pages, viewable above and below. Minutemen at first lovingly reboots the literary narration and clockwork symbolism of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ meticulously constructed Watchmen, perhaps the most highly regarded superhero comic ever written.

Then it pans out to complain, “This is terrible.”

The initial poetry and dismissive punchline are spoken by Watchmen‘s first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, who’s typing up his memoirs of precursor ’30s supergroup The Minutemen by firelight.

“I’ll just have to face facts, girl,” sighs a graying Mason, cigarette in hand, petting his dog. “I’m no Tolstoy. Going for a deep, philosophical ending here isn’t going to work. I guess we’ll just have to stick to being ourselves, huh?”

The fact that their selves, and the rest of those inhabiting Watchmen‘s intricate masterpiece, were mostly given birth by Gibbons and Moore — who has specifically feuded with DC Comics for years over creators rights; his own, and others — is at the crux of the 1986 graphic novel’s controversy. Which DC has welcomed, from the editorial back pages of Minutemen to the comics press, because everyone knows that there often is no such thing as bad publicity.

But it’s hard to tell if Minutemen‘s metafictional moment is designed to break the original’s hold on Before Watchmen, or a canny slap to Moore, who denounced Watchmen‘s “dopey prequels and sequels” to me in 2010. Either way, it illustrates how far comics’ cognitive dissonance has devolved.

As Before Watchmen‘s opener, the first issue of Minutemen seems instructive. After its initial head-fake, it problematically stays uneven, and already boasts sloppy continuity. Cooke’s throwback style and racial epithets well evoke the period, but his breakneck race through the The Minutemen’s back story and costumed roster leaves him little room for more than truncated introduction. Its scattered pace and sensibility is the diametric opposite of Moore and Gibbon’s patient original, although it continues to wax poetic about The Minutemen’s individual characters.

But it’s hard to stick that landing after the issue’s initial equivocation, which will mean much different things to much different geeks. That equivocation is also a convenient back door for DC Comics, whose chief executive Dan Didio reiterated its have-it-both-ways logic in an interview released on Minutemen‘s debut.

The big selling point is that this material is true to the source material, but it gets the chance to examine all the aspects of Watchmen that made it great,” Didio told Nerdage. “We’re seeing the characters in a different light, but also a light that is reflective of the original material. And we found ways to really push the stories in new directions but be true to the original concepts and conceits.”

When it comes to comics, asserting that all of these things are true is often the same as saying none of them are true. The first principles of fandom, but especially geekery, pretty much argue that this rarely occurs. Its obsessives and scholars are more likely to say stupid shit like George Lucas raped their childhoods for making The Phantom Menace, or for bringing deathless superheroes back to life after killing them for a few excellent fiscal quarters. The comics heavyweights like Marvel and DC, whose similarly controversial New 52 reboot rollout last year seems to have plateaued in sales, knows this as well as fandom. These forces are what dictated Before Watchmen‘s inevitable existence in the first place.

And that’s before you even get to the superheroes themselves, who are doing blockbuster business at the malls, but not the comics stores. They’re becoming valuable ciphers for popcorn entertainment, but their literary sensibilities have mostly stagnated. It’s true for reboot experiments like The Minutemen — whose troublesome group psychology in Watchmen, doesn’t seem to have altered much at all in Minutemen — and it’s true for IMAX superheroes like Spider-Man, whose origin story has commanded two blockbuster films in the last decade.

But rebooting characters is as old as comics itself. But so is jacking creators for cash and copyright, which the industry sometimes seems to value more than the characters themselves, and worse. This is, of course, Alan Moore’s chief beef with industry, and why Before Watchmen has a bankable controversy at all.

And why Cooke’s first two pages of Minutemen — which are themselves pages written by the author Hollis Mason, who thinks they are terrible — seem to wrap disrepect for their storied forebear in a purportedly warm homage. One wonders what Moore would think them, if one could ever force him to read it in the first place.

Minutemen is the first of Before Watchmen's consecutive June miniseries Silk Spectre, The Comedian and Nite Owl.
Images courtesy DC Comics

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