Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner talk about tackling the prequels
It seemed unthinkable when it was first announced: "Before Watchmen," a new line of seven separate comic books, totaling 35 issues in all, serving as prequels to what many consider one of the two or three sacred texts in comic book history. "Watchmen," the 12-issue series (and later trade paperback) by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, about a dysfunctional band of superheroes in a dystopian alternate U.S. circa 1985, had stood alone as a singular achievement for more than two decades. The eccentric Moore himself had rejected entreaties from DC Comics (which published the original) to write more in the "Watchmen" universe, although he came close.
Finally, however, with a valuable property sitting untouched in a challenging and even tough time for comic books (and publishing in general), DC decided to take the plunge. Risking the wrath of Moore -- who has predictably denounced the project -- and fans themselves, the company enlisted a handful of top writers and artists to create six prequel series, detailing the lives and adventures of the main characters of "Watchmen" (along with a book about Watchmen precursors the Minutemen). The project became an instant source of debate and controversy in the larger comic book community, with many readers aghast but certainly curious as well.
And now they've started to arrive: "Minutemen" No. 1 hit the stands on June 6, while "Silk Spectre" No. 1 arrived on the 13th. "Minutemen" is written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, known for his work on "Catwoman" and "DC: The New Frontier," while "Silk Spectre" is penned by Cooke in collaboration with Amanda Conner, who's also drawing the book and whose work has been seen in scores of comics (she did a run on "Power Girl" for DC before this).
Both are part of a star-studded lineup of comics writers and artists, including names like Brian Azzarello, J. Michael Straczynski, Andy and Joe Kubert and Lee Bermejo, who were selected by DC heads Dan DiDio and Jim Lee to bring the books to life. "This is a situation where Dan and Jim, I think, understood what was coming maybe better than most of us," says Cooke when I speak with him and Conner by phone. "And they went out of their way to bring people in that they were very confident about what we might do with the project. We had to, of course, go in and pitch our stories and ideas, but past that, they're standing back and letting us do the work."
In the case of Silk Spectre, the female member of the team whose real identity is Laurie Juspeczyk, the story revolves around Laurie's teen years and particularly the relationship between her and her mother, Sally, the original Silk Spectre. "Relationships with moms and daughters always change throughout a lifetime, and mid-teenage years are just about always the most tumultuous," says Conner. "You don't even have to go out and find a supervillain to have a lot of conflict right there. And Laurie and Sally especially have a really unusual relationship. So it's just an interesting dynamic that you don't see in the comics medium that often. It's funny 'cause I got to sort of go back and think about my relationship with my mom back then -- we get along great, and we always have gotten along great, but when I was 16 I was really a pain in the ass."
Cooke and Conner hint that "people might be pretty surprised" by the path that Laurie's story takes, while Cooke reveals that Sally will also have a story arc in "Minutemen." The latter is an interesting title for the fact that Moore and Gibbons once did toy with the idea of doing a "Minutemen" book but ultimately moved on. "Certainly what attracted me to it was the fact that there was so little there in 'Watchmen' that I could tell their story without having any impact on the main narrative," says Cooke. "And I could make that something that stood on its own ultimately, once all of the smoke clears. Actually, with 'Silk Spectre,' I believe we're doing the same thing, and even then I knew I wanted it to happen at a formative point in her life that did not involve the main narrative because that just seemed like the smartest way to go."
By steering somewhat clear of the main "Watchmen" narrative, both Cooke and Conner acknowledge the respect they have for the original story. But neither do they believe that delving back into that overall mythology is off-limits. "I certainly take a pretty respectful approach to the work that's put in front of me," says Cooke about the controversy surrounding the books. "But to just to speak to this motion about money or that people are doing it for the money ... last time I checked, that's what large mainstream publishers do is try to make a profit off publishing. Now aside from that, I don't know anybody involved in this that looked at it from a money standpoint. I mean, we all have pretty decent careers going. We all looked at it as a creative challenge."
"I've loved these characters for, what is it, 27 or 28 years?" adds Conner. "Why would I not want to work on this project? Of course I want to work on it. A lot of them are some of my favorite characters." Did she feel any trepidation about getting involved, knowing the fracas it would raise? "I know I didn't feel any trepidation, but then again I tend to stay off the message boards," Conner says with a chuckle. "So I only know what my friends tell me. Sometimes they'll say, 'Yeah. a lot of people are screaming about this.' And I'm like, 'Oh, you're kidding.' But when this was offered, I didn't hesitate for a second."
"The people who feel that 'Watchmen' is a piece of work that should be able to stand alone, and they're upset that it's not going to, I appreciate that because it's a subjective reaction to a piece of art," says Cooke. "That's valid. I don't agree with it, but I respect it. ...The one thing that kept me away from it originally was that I didn't feel I had a story that was worth it, and once I did, then, yeah, I was more than excited to get involved in it."
Cooke and Conner will both be heading to Comic-Con in a few weeks, with "Minutemen" No. 2 arriving on the show's opening night (July 11) and "Silk Spectre" No. 2 coming out right after, on July 18. "We both are putting a ton of work in to it," says Conner as she admits to being exhausted from getting the book finished. "But I think hopefully that 'Silk Spectre' will be one of those meaty reads where you can go back to it and always discover more things. I mean, I'm never going to be able to do what Alan and Dave did, but I figure I'm going to strive for that."
The "Before Watchmen" series will continue to roll out throughout the summer, with "Comedian" No. 1 out this week, "Nite Owl" No. 1 out on June 27, "Ozymandias" No. 1 arriving on July 4, "Rorschach" No. 1 coming on Aug. 15 and "Dr. Manhattan" No. 1 landing on Aug. 22.
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