Contentious is one way of putting it.
Before Watchmen is a project most commentators made their minds up about before a single issue was published, either based on moral principles in relation to its creators or storytelling concerns, since Watchmen is justifiably self-contained.
In theory, Before Watchmen doesn’t need to exist, no – yet focusing on the 60 per cent of this collection that is writer-artist Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen, one near-essential period tale has come out of DC’s experiment with the material, while the 40 per cent that is Silk Spectre has some merit as a prequel as well.
Minutemen focuses on the rise and fall of the masked predecessors that played a supporting role in Watchmen, as seen through the eyes of original Nite Owl Hollis Mason and the creation of his tell-all on the team, Under The Hood.
This is simply what Cooke excels at, capturing post-WWII and then Golden Age America, both in the ludicrous patriotism and decaying secret truths. His animated character style is essentially the same as it was in DC’s The New Frontier, with Watchmen‘s nine panel page structure frequently employed to add visual credibility and ambitious narrative motifs.
Cooke finds a new story in the Minutemen that bends around the source material without contradicting it, and with a painful honesty to characterisation it’s unlikely you’ll be disappointed by Cooke’s efforts to define this element of these messed-up original costumed heroes.
Silk Spectre, meanwhile, is a drug-addled coming-of-age story for Laurie Jupiter, exploring how her mother’s cloying attempts to recapture past glories is detrimental to her early years. Amanda Conner’s expressive character art is well-suited to depicting Laurie’s helplessness to control her own life and later, an acid trip that quickly goes sour.
If this were an original character Year One book, without the burden of being tied to Watchmen‘s pre-existing story, Silk Spectre would undoubtedly be heralded as a strong, contemporary heroine-driven superhero title. It’s worthy of the source, but Minutemen‘s successfully executed American epic proves a better fit for Watchmen.
Some people will simply never accept Before Watchmen on any level, but Minutemen and Silk Spectre do not try to rewrite the canon – instead, their creators have respectfully brought texture to what already exists in those pages, to characters who conceivably had a further story to be told.