The most interesting, and brilliant, thing about Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1 “The Minute of Truth” is its first two pages. Writer/artist Darwyn Cooke uses a progression of same sized panels that employ a circular motif that changes in each panel and builds to the moment where suddenly, in the 8th panel of the book the pattern is broken and Hollis Mason, the retired Nite Owl, states, “This is terrible.” He’s been writing the ending for the second draft of his autobiography Under the Hood, and is trying to wrap it up with a “philosophical ending” that just isn’t “going to work.” Mason admits that he’s “no Tolstoy” and after a brief conversation with his publisher launches into a trip down memory lane while gazing at a black and white picture of The Minutemen in their earliest days. What follows is “Chapter One: Eight Minutes” which is perhaps a recap by Mason of the first chapter of Under the Hood where his readers are introduced to Hooded Justice, Sally Jupiter, Nite Owl (Mason himself), The Comedian, Mothman, Dollar Bill, The Silhouette, and Captain Metropolis, the eight original Minutemen.
The first two pages mentioned above are the most interesting and brilliant thing about BW: Minutemen #1, not because they employ the same type of brilliant progressive panel artistry and imagery that Alan Moore utilized to great effect in the original Watchmen, but because Cooke purposely uses this technique and then abruptly abandons it the same moment that Mason utters the words, “This is terrible.” It is almost as if Cooke is announcing to Before Watchmen’s line of readers that mimicking Moore’s idea on panel layouts and structure in Before Watchmen’s books would not only be a terrible thing, it would be horribly redundant and wreak of the dreaded “been there seen that” syndrome. No, Before Watchmen is going to be its own beast, and the first issue of the series is definitely a beast all its own.
Filled with Cooke’s now legendary style that evokes everything retro and antiquated (by today’s standards the 1940s might as well have been the Stone Age), and coupled with the type of raw violence and realistic portrayals of mores and racial and social outlooks of the time, 1939 to be specific, BW: Minutemen #1 does a great job of maintaining the most important aspect of Moore’s Watchmen: realism coupled with an honest outlook on humanity with all of its flaws and perfections on display.
Publishing stories that flush out the backstory of some of the most captivating characters thought into existence from one of the most powerful and artistic sequential art superhero story of all time is a risky undertaking. Moore himself likened Before Watchmen as a sort of sequel to Moby-Dick, to which I responded that Moore is no Melville, but after touching on Moore’s visual style with the layout of the first two pages then abandoning it for his own vision of this story, Cooke demonstrates that prequels-when done right-can be worthwhile endeavors. They are only worthwhile endeavors though when the creator of the prequel allows the prequel to become its own animal instead of slavishly rehashing lines, plots, and scenes that mirror the original. Before Watchmen looks to eschew these failing tropes and be something unique. The fact that Cooke so brilliantly pays homage to, while simultaneously jettisoning, the past with a scant 8 panels is just brilliant, and something that makes me want to read the rest of this series. Before Watchmen looks to be a worthy read simply because it balances something new with something legendary, and it works.