‘Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1′ Is The Very Best Modern Comics Have To Offer [Review]

Okay, before we get into talking about the very first Before Watchmen comic – Minutemen #1, written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke – which hits comic book stands today, let’s all take a deep breathe, and relax. Just for a minute. Because I realize there’s no way of looking at this issue of a highly divisive project like Before Watchmen without addressing the context of the issue, both in the real world, and in terms of the story of Watchmen itself… But I’d like to take that step and breathe for a moment, not because we all need to chill out (though we do). It’s because Minutemen #1 is a stunningly gorgeous piece of comic book art, from the first page to last.

Not that we expected anything less from Cooke. Though notes from the Editors on the back page tell a different story, reportedly Cooke was the first creator approached for this massive pre-telling of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel, as well as the architect behind the structure of the pieces. Whether that’s true or not, Cooke could have taken on a massive burden by even approaching this project, possibly squandering the immense good will he’s garnered over the years for seminal projects like DC: The New Frontier and the Parker graphic novels. This could have been the chain that brought him down… And for those fans stuck in the mud about this whole project (I won’t argue whether your reasons are valid or not, as they’re you’re own), you might by default agree that Cooke has – in fact – ruined his career by approaching this project.

For everybody else, those of us who have a glimmer of doubt about how bad an idea Before Watchmen is, or even a strong hope that it will yield something good, happily this first issue at least delivers on all levels.

A lot of that is Cooke, of course. He’s an insanely talented writer and artist with a perfect grasp of comic book layout, innovative structures, nuanced characters, without sacrificing a sense of humor. In addition, he’s working in his ideal time period here… Which is to say, the past. Cooke excels in books where he can draw past time periods (to be honest, and this might be my own faulty memory, but I can’t think of a book where he HASN’T drawn a past time period), and in particular, gangsters, molls, and crime fighters in their colorful prime. So credit to Cooke for finding the Before Watchmen niche that works for him, but also credit to the Editors for matching the perfect creator and source material.

Minutemen – in case you don’t have your Watchmen memorized up and down – is the team that proceeded the title team; the original group of Mystery Men that gave way to the gritty, darker heroes who followed them. We don’t find out a ton about them in the original book, though there are flashbacks and text material a-plenty. Just, as opposed to a lot of the focal points of the Before Watchmen project, they’re as much of a blank as you can get. There’s aspects of their history we do know, but they were sketched out in a panel or two; or a text piece in the back of an issue.

Cooke uses these materials as a starting point, and then adds in a startling amount of depth in just a few short pages. If you’re looking for a touchpoint for this series, Minutemen isn’t strictly “Minutemen” at all; it’s a comic book adaptation of “Under the Hood,” a book written by Hollis Mason (the original Nite Owl) as a tell all about his time in the team, and why they eventually broke up. That said, in Watchmen, we only got Chapters 1-5 of Under the Hood to read, so there’s a potentially a lot more that could have gone on in Hollis Mason’s life – and his interaction with the Minutemen.

Naysayers could certainly argue – and validly – that the reason for this is that Alan Moore only needed the information in the first five chapters of “Under the Hood” to provide the necessary plot points and background to understand the actions in Watchmen. That’s completely true; but those chapters, and the scattered panels – provide a context that deserves to be fleshed out, and happily, Cooke provides that meat, and moreso.

I’m skipping around specific spoilers here, but there’s not a whole lot that can be spoiled in this book that hasn’t, plot-wise, already been covered in Watchmen: Hollis is finishing up writing “Under the Hood,” and so he flashes back to how the team got together. We get a two to four page introduction to every member of the team, and by the end of the issue, they’re all getting ready to meet. That’s the plot of the issue, and nothing that’s shocking to those who read Watchmen… Or really, any superhero comic, ever.

What makes this issue so brilliant is the emotional weight and context that Cooke brings to every panel and page, making us care for and understand every character in the least amount of time possible. Some “getting the band together” books will introduce everybody in the sketchiest way possible, so we get the gist and then can explore more about what makes them tick in later issues. Here, we start with a panel of a clock… And if that doesn’t suggest that the only thing Minutemen will actually be about is how the characters tick, well… You’re reading the wrong book.

Every member of the group, from Sally Jupiter, to Hooded Justice gets a beautiful, unique introduction that speaks not just to who they are in costume, but also – excuse the expression – are under the hood, as well. There’s more time spent on Nite Owl of course, because he’s the narrator. But that’s all forgiven, because if there’s a better laid out fight scene in comics this month – heck, this year – I’ll give you guys two shiny nickels.

There’s another fascinating aspect of this issue, particularly compared to some of Cooke’s other work, and that’s a darkness, a sense of loss that runs through the whole issue. A large part of that is because the book is narrated by a man who already knows things will turn out very badly. But that’s also the sense of Watchmen, isn’t it? That we hope, the entire time, that things will turn out well for Rorschach n’ Friends, but know that it never, ever will. The same emotional thread runs through Minutemen: these characters are doomed from the moment we meet them.

I had a strong sense while reading this book, and I’m curious to see whether it will hold through reading the rest of the Before Watchmen comics (sorry, everybody ever, but yes, I’m planning on checking them out), that I wished Minutemen was the ONLY Before Watchmen prequel. Not only is Cooke superb on every page – the first page alone might be the best introduction to a comic book since the first page of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman – but is so perfectly captures the feeling of the original book without paralleling the plot in any way, as well as falling into a niche of information on Watchmen that actually feels like it hasn’t actually been explored… Well, it’s the rare prequel that actually feels necessary. Maybe the only prequel – or companion, if you prefer that term – that is necessary in any way.

I understand we’re at the first issue, so everything can change over the next five months, but this honestly felt like a book I’ll be able to put on my shelf right next to Watchmen. It’s not the original work, but it’s also not, like everyone feared, detracting from Moore and Gibbons’ book… It’s enhancing it. It’s making it a richer read, without taking away any of the insularity or context of Watchmen.

Like I said, it’s entirely possible six more issues of Minutemen, and multiple other mini-series will make me regret ever typing the above statements. Who knows? For right now, though, this is enough of a promise that I’m willing to keep giving it a try. Watchmen is frequently called the best graphic novel ever made. I can’t for any certainty say that Minutemen will even be the second best graphic novel ever made, but right now, Minutemen #1 is right at the top of the very best modern comic books have to offer. And that’s more than enough to get me to chill out; take a deep breathe; relax; and enjoy the ride.

Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1 hits comic book shops from DC Comics today.

You can read a preview of Before Watchmen: Minute Men #1 by clicking the image below!