Monday, 3 September 2012
On "Before Watchmen: Minutemen" #3, Page 5
For a comic which has been almost universally hailed as a triumph of storytelling, if not ethicacy, Before Watchmen: Minutemen #3 seems to be a far prettier comic-book than it's a compelling and moving one. Though there's no denying that Darwyn Cooke is a skilled writer and artist with a great many laudable achievements to his name, his pages in Child's Play often seem as lacking in emotion, clarity and excitement as they're undoubtedly colourful and easy on the eye. Indeed, Cooke's work here often appears rushed and ill-judged where its very basics are concerned. For every successful expression of artistic ambition, there's more than a few pages of limp, time-wasting plot-grinding, where the beats of the story are hit without the sense that what's being shown is of any genuine importance at all. As such, there's frequently a flatness of tone here combined with a lack of urgency and feeling which leaves the whole enterprise seeming perfunctory and uninspired. The work may at first glance appear somewhat handsome, and there's more than a hint of radicalism about some of Cooke's page designs, but more often than not, what's on the page is far less moving and impressive than it initially appears.
To take but one example of how the charming and imprecise has won out over the kind of ferociously disciplined and purposeful approach adopted by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the original Watchmen, the fifth page of Minutemen #3 - above - presents us with the moment in which The Comedian is expelled from the team for his attempted rape of the first Silk Spectre. A highly charged business, you might expect, and yet Cooke presents us with a sequence of panels which suggest that the confrontation carries little more force and conviction than would a mildly wined-up debate about settling a barely two-figure dinner bill.
Many of Cooke's choices on this page seem inexplicably inexact. In the fifth panel - above - he presents the reader with an attempt on Dollar Bill's part to defend The Comedian. Sally Jupiter was to blame for the whole sorry business because of the way in which she "presents herself", he contends, while Edward Blake is "only a kid". It's an utterly repellent argument, and as such, a particularly odd one to place into the mouth of a character who was described by Hollis in Watchmen as "one of the nicest and most straightforward men I have ever met". And yet, having raised the issue, Cooke not only skims across and abandons it within the same panel, but does so in a manner which seems calculated to destroy any tension, let alone drama, in the incident. For though Larry Schexnayder's putdown of Dollar Bill undoubtedly reads as a forceful retort, Cooke's art presents the Silk Spectre's lover and manager only in extreme profile. As such, we can see nothing of either his expression or his body language as a whole. Of course, we must presume that Schexnayder's furious, but the work of imagining what that means has all been left up to the reader. Even the one sentence that's given to him lacks an exclamation mark. Instead, we're left with the sight of an uninforming, generic expression on Dollar Bill's face, a by-the-numbers version of a superheroic countenance which might have been used for any number of moderate emotional responses. In short, Cooke skates over matters of genuine promise and importance while short-circuiting the events that he does show on the page.
Having superficially adopted as his basic layout the nine panel grid used by Moore and Gibbons in Watchmen, Cooke seems to have forgotten to always ensure that there's enough space left in each relatively small frame to tell his story. Too often, the panels are over-loaded with text, which leaves Cooke struggling to turn events into anything more than a summary of what a more enticingly told tale might have involved. In the final frame of the side - above - The Comedian's been given a powerfully contemptuous rant, and yet Mr Cooke's left too little room to present events in a way that's particularly interesting. Adopting an high-angle point-of-view, as he often does in Child's Play, Cooke succeeds in showing how his cast physically relate to each other prior to a coming brawl, but he does so at the cost of any drama. These are effectively stick figures, and the decision to show each of them as largely powerless - as a high-angle shot inevitably will - drains events of the anxiety which Cooke appears to want to suggest. In retrospect, the reader can see that the Comedian is being shown physically challenging the others, with their relative lack of aggression and foresight being suggested by their passivity in the face of his anger. And yet, it's such an under-powered design that its immediate effect is one of torpor. For all the disdain that's being expressed in the word balloons, the panel itself is one which offers barely a hint of emotion or even movement at all.
Time and time again, Cooke offers us panels which barely serve the story he's telling. There's no denying that the art in these moments has a retro-appeal about it when considered in isolation from the issue's story. And yet, what in panel six - above - transmits anything of Nite Owl's character or convictions beyond the text itself? What here suggests that this a serving policeman whose referring to a team-mate's attempt to rape a colleague? Similarly, what are we being told about the other Minutemen in the scene, or the silhoutted Comedian? This is a frame which, for all its obviously sincere intent, lacks intensity and precision. So too does the second panel, where the Comedian's attempts to justify his actions lack any emotional context because we're denied the sight of his face. Shadowed as he is, we can't tell if he's being sincere or manipulative. Even the unlikely, and quite frankly unbelievable, proposition that the Comedian would beg to stay in the Minutemen's ranks with the lines "This is all I have. Please don't thrown me out.", as we're shown in panel 3, is thrown away in a composition featuring characters who seem just as tired as they do resolute. Perhaps that's the point, and yet that would also appear to be the meaning of the first panel as well. To be wastefully repeating the same message when the Comedian's expression is missing from sight as he utters the least likely ten words he ever will is a remarkably careless abuse of space.
There's of course more than a suggestion that Cooke's trying to emphasise that the Minutemen are anything but a heroic band of men in these panels, as any understanding of Watchmen itself would of course insist. He places them low in these panels, hemming them in beneath dead space and accentuating the distance between their attention-seeking costumed images and their individual lack of quality. Yet the problem is that Cooke appears to have mistaken the presentation of a relatively unimpressive collection of would-be super-people with that of an uninteresting gaggle of people. To be something other than heroic is not to be lacking in interest, and yet here Cooke reduces just about everyone to bland bit-players. These are types, not people, and it's impossible to imagine them having a life away from Cooke's pages as anything other than stereotypes. The idiosyncrasies of everyone's character are reduced to a checklist of unconvincing qualities, until even The Comedian seems whittled down to, on the one hand, a by-the-numbers tough guy and, on the other, a whining little boy. The two aspects never convincingly coincide, but they do serve to numbly drive the plot forward in a way that allows Cooke to leap awkwardly from one aspect of Moore and Gibbon's story to another.
There's a depressing sense that the scene of The Comedian's expulsion in Before Watchmen: Minutemen is there simply because it has to be. It's part of the threadbare trail of backstory which Moore and Gibbons mentioned and yet never depicted, although they did portray with considerable passion and distaste The Comedian's attempted rape of Silk Spectre. By contrast, Cooke acknowledges the matter of the sexual assault as a trainspotter might note the number of a passing express that he's previously recorded. What the process lacks is a sense that it means anything other than another beat hit, another milestone passed, another clue from the original work put to use. And so, although the sexual politics of the Comedian's assault on Silk Spectre are certainly sketched out, and the moral repugnance of the whole business definitely referred to, the impression is that Cooke's far more interested in rushing on to the redundant second round of the punch-up between the Comedian and Hooded Justice. While time is taken on a scene which adds nothing to what was both seen and implied in Watchmen, the chance to portray Sally Jupiter's situation in the aftermath of The Comedians' attack on her is entirely skipped over. And while there may be a brief mention in Cooke's script that the Minutemen excluded both Silk Spectre and The Silhouette from their deliberations over the Comedian's fate, we see nothing of that particular discussion at all. Everything is skidded over in the rush to get to the limp superheroics of it all, and yet, even those oh-so-familiar fisti-cuffs are torn through as if Cooke had a pressing engagement elsewhere.
What could be less in the spirit of Watchmen than the use of an adapted nine-panel grid to tell a story that needs anything but?