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…And the Superhuman Review – Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #2

Every week, Chad Nevett and I will be reviewing an issue of Before Watchmen through a discussion of each issue. We continue with Silk Spectre #2, by writer Darwyn Cooke and artists Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts.

Enjoy!

Chad Nevett: After really liking the first issue of this mini-series, I’m a little more torn on this issue. Most of the same elements from the first issue are there (great character work, fantastic art), but there’s also the goofy ‘bad guy’ plot revolving around the music industry and using drugs to turn hippies into consumers complete with Frank Sinatra as the mastermind behind the whole thing. Goofy, silly elements were present in the first issue, but they were more limited to small moments between two characters where they felt more natural. This, on the other hand, is the sort of thing that took me out of the comic to a degree.

Which is a shame, because I love the stuff about Laurie trying to fight crime herself or her integrating into a new life/neighbourhood. That stuff is all really well done.

Brian Cronin: One thing that I kept thinking while reading the issue was, “Well, we certainly can’t accuse Cooke and Conner of being predictable with this issue,” as yeah, it really was off the wall. The idea of having Laurie get caught up in essentially a more sinister version of a typical Scooby Doo mystery was fairly interesting, but really, the idea was more interesting than the actual execution as the end result was, as you note, too goofy by half.

I thought the issue already opened up fairly silly when we got the series of captions where whatever action she was taking in the panel corresponded with a line from a letter to her Uncle Hollis. This was actually in the previews for the issue, so we can actually show it to the folks reading this here review…

I’ve never been a fan of that particular rhetorical device, especially in this instance, where they don’t even play fair with the letter-writing conceit. Note that she just trails off after writing “and I…” and when the letter picks up, we’ve clearly skipped letter content. Unless she seriously just trailed off in the letter itself, which would be…

CN: …a pretty lame bit of writing, Brian, under any circumstance.

It’s a cute technique that I don’t mind as much as you seem to, but I don’t particularly enjoy it. I’m more neutral about it? I did like that she wrote a letter to ‘Uncle Hollis’ to help act as a buffer between herself and her mother. A nice reminder of how young and immature she is without being too over-the-top about it.

Were you surprised when you opened the issue and she was in a costume, fighting a gang of costumed thugs? It seemed like the last thing you’d expect given where the first issue ended. I’m not entirely sure that having her get in costume so soon is a good idea. I wish there was more build to her choosing the life her mother had set out for her. She runs away and one of the first things she does is put on a costume? Granted, we all know that it’s something she will eventually choose as her own, but it seems like there should have been a more extended period of time of her seeing what else life could hold for her. The first issue set up the idea of her escaping not just her mother’s home, but her mother’s desires, that this feels rushed.

BC: I liked it. I enjoyed the idea that while she wants to be free from her mother’s smothering control, she really was influenced greatly by her mother and she is not questioning the general point of her mother’s plans, just the direct control her mother exerted on her. There is a certain mindset that leads people to be willing to put on a costume and fight crime, and Laurie clearly has that mindset. On that notion, aren’t you pleased that we have one of our first costumed origins where the motives were strictly, “People are in trouble, I need to help, let me go do that.” Her boyfriend has not been murdered (I guess I should stress yet), she was just raised by her mom to think about doing good for the sake of doing good. In fact, examining it further, it is interesting to see how Sally inadvertently inspired a greater sense of heroism in her daughter than she, herself, possessed.

I did like the idea of her writing to Uncle Hollis as a go-between. That was a good bit. In addition, I really did like a lot of what was written in the letter when it was not literally applied to the panels in the book. I really enjoyed her attitude about sleeping with her boyfriend. This is still very much the 1960s – living with your boyfriend before you were married would be “taboo” among lots of households, not just really strict ones like Sally’s, so I thought Cooke captured her worry there well (and yes, as you note, her youth and relative immaturity).

Conner continues to excel in this series, as her character work is just outstanding. In the preview pages I linked to above, the scene at the end with Laurie contented in a “good night’s work” is exceptional. The amount of emotion that Conner conveys in every panel is quite striking. In this regard, the nine-panel grid really helps a lot, storytelling-wise, as it gives Conner more room to explore the reactions of various characters, as she has more panels to capture each person.

Even though I thought the opening was fairly silly, it did not really affect my enjoyment of the issue as a whole (especially as the whole “match the caption with the action” style of comic book writing is so common). I thought the issue started off quite strong as a character study in these naive young people. Just the idea that Laurie can choose to become a superhero and her friend is, like, “Yeah, sure, sounds like a good idea” was awesome to me.

And then Frank Sinatra came in to drug everyone into buying stuff. That was such a ridiculous development that I was really disappointed. Did you enjoy the book pre-mind control drugs reveal?

CN: I was. My complaint over Laurie putting on the costume so quickly isn’t a big one. I think that it could have meant more if built up a little bit. But, unfortunately, in comics, ‘building’ to a moment like that would, as you point out, probably involve some sort of ham-fisted personal tragedy that I’m very glad we avoided. What’s funny is that the position Laurie was in would have actually leant itself to a Peter Parker “didn’t act and something bad happened” sort of moment fairly well. It is a cliched, though, so avoiding it is definitely the best option.

The reaction of her friend was a great little moment. This is supposed to be a comic about a group of people who are, supposedly, open-minded and it’s nice to see that actually reflected in the telling of the comic rather than immediately jumping into an exploration of how the hippie culture was actually just as judgmental in its own way or something like that. Another cliche avoided! Cooke and Conner are quite adept at sidestepping a lot of cliches that easily could have dragged this comic down. If only some of the other Before Watchmen writers were of the same mindset…

I continue to like how this is the one book that’s really taking visual storytelling cues from Watchmen. Nine-panel grid, transitions from scenes either by a visual similarity or bit of wordplay… these are superficial elements of the way that Watchmen was told and seeing how Conner and Cooke use them is interesting. The continued use of the visual fantasy panels is interesting. I mean, she fantasises about being a pirate, not a superhero, which is about the best subtle cue I’ve seen in this book. We all know that, because of the existence of superheroes, in this world, pirates dominated comics along with other non-superhero genres, and it makes perfect sense that she would fantasise about being a pirate. A superhero is just the family job, while a pirate is the escapist hero fantasy for her world as superhero might be for us.

Speaking of which, another week where “The Curse of the Crimson Corsair” didn’t really wow me. I guess we’re in heavy introduction plot mode. But, as always, John Higgins is the man. What are the odds that people start paying attention to the work he’s doing and he gets a high profile gig after this?

BC: Oh yeah, the pirate reference was awesome. I couldn’t believe that they managed to pull that off without something ham-fisted like, “Avast, matey! In a world of superheroes, pirates are the popular form of pop culture entertainment! Arr!”

And yes, we’re definitely in introduction city, population The Curse of the Crimson Corsair. But while Wein is introducing the new status quo of the story, Higgins is knocking it right our of the park. Forgetting his pencils for a moment, his colors are excellent. They really add a whole lot of texture to the work. By the way, speaking of colors, Paul Mounts did a good job with Conner on the main book.

CN: Higgins’s colouring is so integral to his art in adding texture, emphasis, and setting the mood. And Mounts is doing a great job of keeping things really bright and vibrant. It fits the time period and suits Conner’s line work. Even when it’s night out, there’s a bright, primary colour look to the world, almost like we’re seeing it through Laurie’s eyes. Excellent stuff.

One thing that just occurred to me: the one visual technique that Conner isn’t using is covers acting as the first panel. The cover to this issue relates to the first scene, but it’s not the first panel of the story. That’s a shame. If any of these series should have aped that idea, it’s this one. Go full out, y’know?

BC: Yeah, good point. I think it is a fine cover, but it is fair to say that it likely would have made more sense to add that little extra element to the book. That isn’t to say that her cover did not work on its own merits, of course, as it did. She is as good of a cover artist as she is an interior artist (which is really good).

9 Comments

I honestly didn’t know that the covers of the original issues of Watchmen were the first panels of the issues. I read the originals way back in the 80s but either forgot or never noticed that fact, and I’ve only read it recently in a compiled trade. Looking through it now, the trade I have does include the covers but it’s not obvious that they are the covers (there’s no text on them except for “Chapter I,” “Chapter II,” etc. going up the side) so I think I just thought they were the first page of each issue – or maybe chapter stops created for the trade – the last time I read it. If I realized those were the covers, I forgot again. I wonder if, Amanda Conner (or whoever was responsible for deciding what would go on the cover if it wasn’t her) was in the same boat.

(The orignals aren’t completely consistent either – sometimes the cover is a closeup or a different angle on whatever’s in the first panel inside the book, sometimes they’re a duplicate (although it’s clearly a different drawing, not just a repeat of the same art) of the first panel inside the book, and two of them are duplicates of the second panel inside the book. They are, however, all basically the first, second, or “zeroth” panel of the comic)

Also, I totally didn’t recognize Sinatra, so that didn’t bother me, though I did recognize the Beatles and that did seem a bit off. And I thought “Red D’Eath and the Horsemen” were the Doors until they were identified otherwise.

Well, this issue was just… WEIRD. I don’t think this reads like anything that’s happening in the same Watchmen Universe as the originals and that’s not even a kind of change that can be explained by the POV character here being a teen or ‘immature’ or with her head in the clouds or anything like that, or by saying that the events here occurred in the 60s or silver age as opposed to the originals’ 80s timeframe.

It’s experimental and one has to give props to the creators for their attempt to do something different, but it’s like saying that prior to Watchmen, the in-universe setting the characters lived in was simply a less comedic version of Archie’s universe (issue 1) or a Scooby Doo universe (issue 2).

Haven’t read this, but I do like the idea that young Laurie was an idealist, even though Sally was not one…but uncle Hollis probably was also an influence. And her behaviour in Watchmen was that of a betrayed idealist gone all sour and cynical, but again there in the end she is talking of going back to hero stuff apparently for the best of reasons, even if she will be reimaging herself…

The story descriptions of this book sound very mixed, but appealing and offputting…but then again, isn’t radical reimagination kind of part of Moore’s appeal, so it’s nice to see some people following that spirit even if it means digressing from the accepted style of Watchmen.

That excerpt published here reminds me of something Alan Moore does often with the juxtapositions, but without the part where the juxtapositions are actually informative, or interestingly written.

Flabbergaster

July 20, 2012 at 9:22 am

“You’re kneeling on my balls”
“I can kneel harder”

(does a facepalm)

The issue’s plot wasn’t THAT weird. It’s pretty much the insertion of superheroes and villains into the social and pop culture milieu of Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” (Owsley the chemist was a real person, the graffiti seen in the background “You’re either on the bus or off the bus” was the motto of the Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters). The inclusion of Sintatra probably has a lot to do with Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” another contemporaneous piece of new journalism.

ALAN MOORE’S WATCHMEN SUCKS. TOO DARK OF A STORY AND IT LACKS CHARACTERIZATION. I REGRET THE DAY WHEN I BOUGHT THE TRADE.

@Rommel

At least Moore was trying to achieve something higher with Watchmen. The writers of these prequels are not. They are just concerned with telling competent, unexceptional stories and cashing a paycheck.

As an aside – the kid-gloves approach to these reviews are annoying now. We’ve seen enough issues of these prequels now to see that nothing exceptional is going on – that the writers involved did not have Watchmen stories that they needed to tell, but instead just came up with some bland stories that carry the Watchmen imprint. To continue to humor them, and “judge these stories on their own merit” has become a glaring cop-out

Owsley died a few years ago. I wonder how he would have felt about being portrayed as a villainous puppet of global capitalism. He was a real person who took real risks as part of a struggle to change the world. Not necessarily a hero but certainly not a villain. R.I.P. Owsley Stanley.

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