Ironically, I’d spent the last week editing my book for the sake of my old friends…I gave everyone what they wanted: a sunny remembrance. I realized that carrying all that horror inside me was a small price to pay…
The book was a smash and because it was the only real accounting of our careers, it became the truth…
…’It’ll never be like it was when it was new, but there’s still plenty of life in this old baby.'”
-Hollis Mason, Minutemen #6
Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to work at DC Comics in 2013.
There you are, at one of the inarguable pinnacles of the comic book industry. You’re working for one of the Big Two, making the best page rates available in the American comics industry, working on some of the highest profile books there are. You never have to buy your own drinks at any comic convention in the civilized world, and thousands upon thousands of aspiring creators envy you your day-to-day existence… and yet it is, where the rubber hits the road, a job. You have a boss, and you call him and he or she tells you what you are going to be working on, and you have a choice: you either do it, regardless of how inane or Sisyphean your assigned task is… or you don’t, and hope that you can keep working in your little niche without being singled out and fired.
Put on top of that the particular an individual realities of DC Comics today: you work for a company that, less than 18 months ago, blew up the underpinnings of all their books in the interest of saving them, despite being only a year or so out of Blackest Night, which put more asses in DC Comics’s panels at San Diego Comic-Con than I’d ever seen before. And since that demolition, the company has busily spent its time examining every element of those new books under a microscope, reportedly making last-minute changes and nitpicks every step of the way, causing several high-profile creators to defect to Marvel. Management has mandated new directions and has then apparently fired people when the new directions are seemingly not the right new directions, with boss-favorite creators being given the assignments in the aftermath… and all of it under the daily direction of Bob Harras, the Editor In Chief who was Marvel’s Editor In Chief during the late 1990s. So you’re working under the sure and steady hand of a man committed to raising sales at any cost – and if that cost is cancelling a book, revamping any character, or demanding a crossover, character rape or supporting character murder, so be it… all while in the back of your head, you’re hearing things like, “Clooonnnneeeee Sagaaa…. Chrooooommmiummmm covvverrrrss…”
Now let’s imagine you are one of the creators assigned to the Before Watchmen project: a project that almost no one in comics fandom wanted, if they weren’t actively opposed to it. A project that, by its very existence, implied a comic publisher that was willing to actively and enthusiastically fuck over one of its (former) A-List creators in the interest of making a little money right fucking now, long term consequences be damned. And let’s say you are asked to work on one of these Before Watchmen books while employed by a company where you can see your fellow creators being fired by email, or having their books yanked to make an opening so that one of the Golden Boys can write a book starring fucking Vibe: what do you do?
Well, if you’re Darwyn Cooke, you write a final issue of Minutemen where the narrator makes a terrible mistake, writes the truth about it as best he can while allowing himself to be bullied into severely editing himself for the good of the people around him, and makes the decision to walk away from the whole mess, so that the people foolish enough to follow him can have their chance at things.
I might be – hell, I probably am – reading too much into Minutemen #6, but as a comic book? It could make one hell of a resignation letter.
Nite Owl and Mothman are on the trail of Hooded Justice, who they believe has kidnapped a child and beaten Nite Owl while trying to escape. They track him to Captain Metropolis’s tower, where Hooded Justice finally learns the folly of wearing a noose around his neck in a fight. Nite Owl, having crossed a line, makes the decision to retire and make room for new adventurers like the new Nite Owl and Ozymandias, while writing his memoirs… when The Comedian visits him and tells him that all his motivations in taking on Hooded Justice were bullshit. Nite Owl had been duped into doing the wrong thing, and further, Comedian tells him that if he writes the whole truth in his book? Bad things will happen not only to Nite Owl, but to all the people around him. So Nite Owl makes the decision to write what he’s told: a happy, “approved” version of the history of The Minutemen. Nite Owl then steps away, leaving the world to the new heroes, to work on projects that he loves.
As a story about The Minutemen, there’s nothing wrong with this comic. It has all the characters, the events all make sense within the world of Alan Moore’s original Watchmen, and there’s a decent little amount of action in the book, albeit being brief. It does what it needs to do: it concludes the tale, it disposes of the Hooded Justice kidnapping story, it gets Under The Hood published, and it puts Hollis Mason in his auto repair shop, all in time for Watchmen to start. And it also does it with the level of darkness and moral ambiguity that one would expect from a Watchmen story. So, as a piece of a Before Watchmen story, it is effective on its own, despite suffering from what all Before Watchmen stories suffer from: it is unnecessary and not something anyone really needed or wanted.
But where the book really worked for me was in the subtext, and I grant again that it might be subtext that only I see that that Cooke never intended. That subtext being: “I made a terrible mistake. I killed an original piece of Watchmen, but I did it under false pretenses. Ultimately, I did what I was told, and while I know that it has, for good or ill, become the official history of The Minutemen characters in Watchmen, it’s not accurate, it’s not complete, and either way: I’m done.”
Look at the book’s opening sequence, where Nite Owl is convinced that he must kill Hooded Justice – the first costumed adventurer in Watchmen. He does it quickly and with a minimum of fuss, while saying, “The truth is, I know exactly what I was doing.” In the aftermath, Captain Metropolis, who loved the character, screams, “What have you done?” and Nite Owl never even bothers to unmask Hooded Justice, saying, “To me, he had never been anyone but Hooded Justice. As far as I was concerned, there was no one beneath the mask.” What Cooke accomplishes here is to kill a comic book character, no more and no less. The dialogue and actions seem to clearly show that Nite Owl, and by extension, Cooke, are just killing a character. It is simply a comic book death, and the speed in which it happens (a couple of pages) serve to minimize the impact.
Compare that to the seven pages where The Comedian tells Nite Owl that his reasons for killing Hooded Justice were all a result of Nite Owl being misled, and Comedian telling Nite Owl that he needs to write what he is told if he wants to avoid some nasty consequences. All these pages make sense within the scope of the story, but they amount to someone with power telling a writer that the reasons for the writer’s actions were incorrect, that he was misled, and that he had better write the story that he demands if he wants to avoid some serious unpleasantness. The sheer number of pages compared to the killing of Hooded Justice mean that Cooke must have intended for this sequence to carry more weight, and by including dialogue from The Comedian like:
There are several interested parties that have become aware of your need to unburden yourself. I’m here to tell ya it can’t happen… other interested parties think you’d be better off writing a more light-hearted look at the past. More of a sunny reminiscence, as it were. It’s either that, or I take care of it.
Sounds like the words of an editor to me. Combine that with Mason’s words right afterwards:
He left me there, staring into a blackness of my own creation… ironically, I’d spent the last week editing my book for the sake of old friends… it didn’t take much work to cut out the parts Blake was talking about.
…I burned everything to do with it. I figured I would go to hell now. That’s the way I was brought up. That’s what happens to people who don’t confess their sins. But my friends won’t have to bear the burden of my guilt.
I gave everyone they wanted. A sunny remembrance.
Cooke devotes more than a page to the fact that he has to edit his story – more than the number of pages it took for Nite Owl to actually kill Hooded Justice. I have a hard time believing that’s an accident. All told, Cooke spent about a quarter of the book telling the story of a writer who did something because he was lied to, and changed the story he wrote after the man who lied to him then threatened him, thereby putting immediate needs ahead of the needs of history, thus affecting the perception of that history. I can’t help but feeling like the weight given to this sequence is Cooke talking to us from behind the curtain.
Regardless of anything else Cooke might have meant going on behind the scenes, visually it is impeccable. Cooke does killer period stuff, using his normal fine yet simple lines, with simple, expressive yet almost cartoony faces. He captures a lot of the visual stylings of Watchmen in this particular issues: most of the book is laid out in simple, nine-panel grid pages, and he has several shape-based transitions (on the final page we go from the round logo of Under The Hood to the front of the Owlship to the air filter of an engine to Mason’s face) and contextual visual flashbacks in individual panels based on the dialogue and internal monologue. Cooke’s stuff just looks like a 1940s, 1950s story, and that style, combined with the storytelling mores of the original Watchmen, mean this book looks about as good as you could hope for a Watchmen story that happens outside of the original miniseries.
As a Before Watchmen story, Minutemen #6 is a perfectly serviceable and well-executed conclusion. But I can’t help but thinking that Cooke is trying to tell us more here. Not too far beneath the surface superheroics is the story of a guy who did something under false pretenses and was then forcibly prevented from telling the story that he wanted. And while I recognize that most, if not all, of this story was probably written before the recent weirdness from DC Editorial towards its creators, I can’t help but feel like Cooke is trying to tell us something here.
Regardless of Cooke’s intention: this is a good comic story about a guy who wasn’t allowed to tell the story that he wanted, and then walked away when it was all said and done. As an epitaph for Before Watchmen as a whole, I can think of worse.