Who Watched the Watchmen? Before Watchmen: Minutemen by Darwyn Cooke

It is often said that Watchmen is the most influential comic ever to be released. That comics wouldn’t be where they are without it, for good and for ill. But how did we get here, exactly? More to the point, just what influence did Watchmen provide to the larger world of comics? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Watchmen? Who watched the Watchmen?

Few creators agreeing to the Faustian Pact of DC’s 2013 “Before Watchmen” came out of the craven affair smelling particularly clean. In the aftermath of The New 52, DC was riding high on controversial yet conversation-dominating marketing, and before a book ever hit print, a series of prequels for Watchmen felt like a clear form of creative desecration in service of making a buck. This aura was cemented by a series of interviews with Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore, arguably the best comics writer of all time, in which Moore venomously denounced DC’s decision with scathing one-liners like, “I would hope that you wouldn’t want to buy a book knowing that its author actually had complete contempt for you.”

Nonetheless, celebrated writer and artist Darwyn Cooke signed up to write and draw Before Watchmen: Minutemen and co-write Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre with Amanda Conner. Although the experience and reaction was far from a party (Cooke described it as a “shit show”), Cooke’s legacy remains largely untarnished by his significant contributions to the debacle. At the time, I remember thinking of “Minutemen” as the series held in the highest regard (or at least as the one not held in contempt!). A near decade ago, I even spent an entire early Comic Book Herald review defending “Minutemen” as the lone success of “Before Watchmen,” but couldn’t muster much more passion than the repetition that the book’s “not a failure” (my highest praise!).

Looking back, I suppose that remains the question. Did “Minutemen” and Cooke succeed where the rest of “Before Watchmen” could not?

By the time Before Watchmen stumbled screaming into comic shops, with the shambling mud from exhuming Watchmen’s grave still fresh on its soles, Cooke was already well established as a DC Comics legend. Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score, and DC The New Frontier kicked off the first half of the aughts with two instant all-time instant classics. Cooke’s reputation was unimpeachable enough that according to a 2015 interview with the creator, DC actually first approached him about spearheading the entire “Before Watchmen” project, but he eventually talked them down to 3 series, then the “Minutemen” and “Silk Spectre” involvement which made it to print. (Say what you will, but credit to Cooke for at least having the instincts not to tie down his reputation as the “Bad Watchmen” guy for all time!)

For a creator who would go on to resent the stereotyping that came with perfecting a modern lens on “iconic” looks for the heroes of the Golden and Silver Ages, it’s ironic that Cooke nonetheless sidled into the book which most deliberately fits that mold. Before Watchmen: Minutemen is set in flashbacks from 1939 to 1943 detailing the true secret history of the Watchmen universe’s first heroes, with bookends set in 1962 as Hollis Mason works on his tell-all autobiography, “Under the Hood.” Whereas “Before Watchmen” titles like “Rorschach” or “Ozymandias” function as badly unnecessary superhero origin prequels for characters fully established in the original classic, “Minutemen” is an opportunity to re-imagine actual Watchmen Universe ephemera.

Before Watchmen the Minutemen

The original story of the Minutemen is told in 15 pages of excerpts from Hollis Mason’s (the original Nite Owl’s) “Under the Hood” after Watchmen issues #1 to #3, as written by Moore to 1) explore how the history of superheroes manifested in this alt-reality and 2) to ensure moral complexity and failings even in the “pure” Golden Age of comics. As back matter, it’s rich, lively, and thoroughly integrated into Watchmen (the sincerity and effort put into the back matter is absolutely one of the reasons I so adore the graphic novel), but it’s also purposefully underdeveloped. It is not the core narrative. There’s meat on those bones.

Cooke’s “Before Watchmen” is not the only, or even the first to recognize this. In fact, Minutemen was the primary series Moore and Dave Gibbons were most likely to return to in a follow-up prequel series of their own. There have been multiple adaptations since, including a 2009 docu-drama “Under the Hood,” released as DVD bonus material accompanying Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and the Minutemen mythos is brilliantly re-contextualized in 2019’s HBO Watchmen TV series.

While it’s not nearly as inventive or thematically resonant as the Damon Lindelof led show, Cooke’s “Minutemen” does make strides to enhance the two most intriguing mysteries of Moore’s “Under the Hood”: The Silhouette and Hooded Justice. Alongside Phil Noto’s colors and Jared K. Fletcher’s letters, Before Watchmen: Minutemen paints a clear rise of the Minutemen, bringing the true story of “Under the Hood” to life. One of Cooke’s greatest strengths in the telling is a respect for Watchmen without desperate devotion to recreating all of Moore’s words syllable for syllable. According to Cooke:

“It was something I had never thought of doing. But once the opportunity came up, it was such a monumental challenge that it was hard to say no to it.

I always loved ‘Watchmen’ as a book, but I never thought it was all that, the greatest book. It was never the Holy Grail to me. I don’t think I ever looked at it that way as the project evolved. For some people it means a great deal to them. The fact that you’re not able to see it the same way they do can be really problematic.”

For Cooke, cracking “Minutemen” comes in the idea that Hollis Mason’s original draft of “Under the Hood” contained a truer, even messier “tell-all” of the secret origin of the Minutemen. The comic series tells this story, while the Mason of 1962 goes around to his surviving Minutemen cohorts to see if even one of them will give him their blessing (spoiler: nope!). It’s a clever mechanism for generating some creative deviations, then, as Moore’s original is here suggested to be the censored version of “Under the Hood.” So Hooded Justice’s disinterest in smooching Sally Jupiter becomes full on S&M with Captain Metropolis, and the closeness of Hollis and Ursula Zandt, the Silhouette, becomes a far more elaborate partnership and unrequited love.

It’s far from a surprise that Cooke’s ability to portray this world on the page is uncanny. The first issue is merely a “meet the players” montage, the most tedious read for those familiar with the original, but even here sequences of Phil Noto’s striking red coloring of Hooded Justice’s cape as he bludgeons some of his first criminals is gorgeous. Cooke’s use of line and shadow is always a masterclass, and the spirit of Moore and Gibbons infects panel direction, with smash zoom cuts onto sewer grates, carburetor’s and clocks mirroring Comedian’s iconic smiley face. Cooke avoids fancy arrangements in favor of clear storytelling, conveying action through facial expression and rapid zooming lenses as the Silhouette grapples with a shadowy assailant.

Again, though, when dealing with Cooke at this stage in his career, the visual sensibilities are more or less a lock. I could fuss about the series lacking the gritty noir suspense and creative freedom of Cooke’s Parker adaptations, but that’s not really the challenge. The real trick, and the whole debate the success or lack thereof hinges on is whether the story is additive to the experience of Watchmen. Anything else is just a cell in an accounting spreadsheet.

For my money, Cooke’s best instinct is in recognizing that the most interesting story to develop is the Silhouette’s. In Cooke’s hands, Ursula becomes a hybrid between The Spirit (another Cooke favorite) and Black Widow, and is without question the “hero” most effective at actually doing some good. In the original, the fact that Ursula is a lesbian is mere shorthand by Moore indicating some kind of shallow maturity (a sensibility Cooke mirrors through the Comedian’s homophobia and slurs in this work), but here we at least get to spend enough time with the woman (and her partner) to get a sense of her abilities, her past, and her desires. We actually to get to see Silhouette in the context of relationships with Hollis, Byron (Mothman), and Sally Jupiter, and see her as a real person, not merely a graphic photograph symbolizing the dissolution of the superteam. Despite the conservative detective’s charm Cooke clearly enjoys in Hollis Mason, it’s Silhouette’s too short-lived presence in the story of “Minutemen” that makes an argument for the book’s existence. Now here’s a character worthy of revisiting Watchmen (So naturally, it was Dollar Bill and Moloch who got the spin-offs!).

Cooke even finds a smart way to connect Silhouette’s origin story to the mystery of Hooded Justice after the Minutemen have disbanded, giving the indication that Hooded Justice is a Nazi/Communist sympathizer named Rolf Muller (or his son, as teased via the New Frontiersman in the original). The final issue reveals an appropriate twist, though, that avoids the obvious and hamfisted treatment of Hooded Justice, and leads to yet another sin Hollis Mason must live with.

Rereading the series, it’s impossible not to consider how much more relevant “Minutemen” would be in the hands of a queer creator, given the queerness of 3/8 of the team, and the fact two of those three meet depressingly violent ends. Without this lens, the problem with “Minutemen” is that, for all its cleverness filling in pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, it ultimately doesn’t really have anything more to say than the original “Under the Hood,” which in my view is also the bane of “Before Watchmen” as a whole (and why the 2019 HBO series was such a wonderful revelation). In a great essay on the series, William Leung puts it better here:

“And herein lies the problem. Cooke’s interest is not in deconstruction but in reconstruction, i.e. reaffirming the conservative, nostalgic moral paradigm of a traditional heroic power fantasy. Whereas Moore was interested in demolishing heroic stereotypes in order to explore the humanity beneath, Cooke is more interested in reinforcing stereotypes in order to prescribe for humanity what is and isn’t heroic.”

Cooke’s framing – the secret original draft of Mason’s “Under the Hood” – allows for the appearance of an additive work. But in reality, it’s just inking over the unfinished pencils of Moore’s allusions. The comic merely cements in stone that which was implied, and while it looks great in doing so, I can’t convince myself it actually has anything new to say that wasn’t already there! Worse, in instances where the book does want to make us reconsider what we think we know, it’s primarily an attempt to exonerate and empathize with the homophobic rapist the Comedian. If a critic was going to entirely condemn the work, I suspect it should start and end right there.

Likewise, because the series is so focused on the origins of the team, and the central mysteries of their time together, there really isn’t room for some of the more interesting aspects of team history, like Moore’s blending of “Seduction of the Innocent” moral panic and the 1950’s House of Un-American activities committees. (For that story told better than anything we get here, there’s always Walter Jon Williams and Melinda Snodgrass’ tales (“Witness” and “Degradation Rites”) in Wild Cards.) There’s no discussion of the Keene Act, and how the legacy of these first heroes contributes to the state of the Watchmen Universe. To my mind, the brief “where are they now” glimpses of the surviving Minutemen offer more unique pathos than the retelling of their sham heroic history, but again, “Before Watchmen” isn’t nearly interested enough in journeying off of Moore and Gibbon’s roadmap to justify its reason for being.

Honestly, Cooke’s own skill as a sequential artist hides a hollowness at the art of “Minutemen,” causing me to frequently mistake talent with purpose. Again, Before HBO Watchmen, I would have said, “If someone had to adapt Moore’s ‘Under the Hood,’ it’s hard to imagine a more competent version than Darwyn’s Cooke.” But now that alternate telling exists, with Will Reeves as the original African-American Hooded Justice, in a story that blends conversations of race, American identity, and the fantasy of superheroics, and it seems abundantly clear to me just how far Before Watchmen: Minutemen was from ever capturing the spirit of Watchmen.

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