Last week, with the release of Before Watchmen: Minutemen we saw the tearing off of the band-aid, if you will. The first issue of DC’s highly anticipated prequel project sparked raging debates all over the Internet, ranging from people who refused to read the issue, to people – like us – who loved it. Now, however, we’re living in a post-Before Watchmen world*, which is both a boon and a detriment to the second issue of the project: Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1.
Let’s talk about the detriment part first. Regardless of the actual quality of Minutemen #1 (and I would argue that it was very high), it was a lightning rod, and a divisive point for fans and detractors alike. If you didn’t like the idea of Before Watchmen, chances are you wouldn’t just dislike the issue, you’d hate it. If you liked the idea of Before Watchmen, chances are you would LOVE Minutemen #1. Silk Spectre #1, on the other hand, now that the initial shock has worn off, has to live or die by its own quality.
The boon, of course, is that a lot of the negative energy surrounding Minutemen #1 has dissipated over the course of the past week, which, again, allows Silk Spectre #1 to be judged on its own level of quality.
Luckily, that level is still very, very high.
Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner, with art by Conner, you’ve already got a team of experts cracking this story, working to the top of their powers. And here, the story is pretty simple: high school aged Laurie Jupiter lives with her Mom Sally. She wants to be a normal kid, but because her mother has a checkered past – she was formerly the superhero known as Silk Spectre, and also, er, got involved in some unsavory photographs – she feels like an outcast. Over the course of the issue, she grapples with these problems, and seems to come out on top.
Even if the story is simple, Cooke and Conner’s script is deceptively layered with nuance… From snippets of radio and TV dialogue that says more about the character relationships than they are saying out loud, to cartoony panels that play against the darker aspects of the script, there’s a lot to digest in the issue. On the surface, Conner and Cooke have created a throwback romance comic set in the Watchmen Universe**. It’s very, very funny at times; it has a sappy romantic heart; and all the key plot points would fit nicely into an old Archie comic. But that darkness, that sense of sadness and loss is always present.
Here, in the first issue of the series, we’re presented with hope… Hope that we can break out of the patterns of the past, escape who our parents want us to be. But we know, since we’ve all read Watchmen, that this isn’t going to happen. Even if we haven’t read the book, the subtext is clear, that Laurie isn’t going to have the care-free existence she hopes lays ahead of her. C+C Comics Factory don’t hit you over the head with all of this, but the feeling is omnipresent, and adds weight to what would otherwise be a flighty comic.
They also trust the reader implicitly here, which is a nice change of pace from most modern mainstream comics. There are multiple time jumps without too much context, but they’re always easy to follow, and help speed us through large swatches of character development with ease. Conner also embraces the nine panel grid with this issue, which plays to the romance comic strengths (every page feels like its own unit), as well as paying homage to Dave Gibbons’ lay-outs in Watchmen.
And the strongest aspect of this issue is Conner’s character work. Like the script, her characters are expressive in all the right ways, understated, and inherently emotional. Conner always errs on the side of a cartoon-esque style, and that works perfectly here… But she also finds depth of emotion in her characters that she’s only touched on in previous work.
I have only two qualms with this issue, actually… It’s impossible not to compare this to Minutemen #1 in particular, and where Cooke starts off that script with his main character writing some purple prose, before immediately shooting himself down, saying he could never actually write like that (a clear comment on how Cooke won’t try to write like Alan Moore), here he starts off with some purple prose… And just kind of goes with it. I get that’s working in the romance comic style, but it feels a bit of a let-down, given the gauntlet throwing that went on in Minutemen #1.
The other qualm is that this isn’t a one-shot. This issue says pretty much everything I needed to hear about the early life of Silk Spectre, and I’m beginning to suspect that Before Watchmen as a whole might be more successful as a linked series of one-shots, than as thirty-five individual issues. A weird thing to say, sure, when I’ve specifically stated that I loved Minutemen #1 and Silk Spectre #1… But I’m getting concerned that too much Before Watchmen will be, well, too much Before Watchmen.
That said, I’m completely on board for three more issues of superb art from Conner, and curious to see if the next three stories can, in fact, go in surprising and new directions. And at the very least, Silk Spectre #1 gives us a surprisingly funny and poignant look at a classic comic book character that more than stands on its own. So far, in our book at least, Before Watchmen has been an unqualified success.
Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1 hits comic book stores Wednesday, June 13th from DC Comics.
*That might be the most tortured phrase I’ve ever had to write, by the way.
**People who hate Before Watchmen: I realize you will also hate the phrase “Watchmen Universe,” but it exists now, so let’s all deal with that and move on.