‘Minutemen’: Darwyn Cooke goes past the darkness of ‘Watchmen’

June 07, 2012 | 4:55 p.m.
minutemen Minutemen: Darwyn Cooke goes past the darkness of Watchmen

Art from “Minutemen” No. 1. (DC Comics)

“Before Watchmen” has arrived. After months of hot-button debate (and plenty of hot-air declarations),  the first installment of the six-issue “Minutemen” miniseries is now on sale. The issue, written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, is the vanguard arrival of  DC’s “Before Watchmen” initiative, which widens the mythology of “Watchmen,” that 12-issue epic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that (in a collected single-book form) stands as the medium’s most acclaimed and influential graphic novel. (Moore is bitterly opposed to these new “Watchmen” efforts while Gibbons has accepted payment but kept himself at arm’s length.) Comics superstar Cooke, meanwhile, is never shy around controversy and we caught up with him to talk about camping out on sacred ground.

watchmen 2012 mm cvr Minutemen: Darwyn Cooke goes past the darkness of Watchmen

The cover for “Minutemen,” one of seven prequel miniseries comics based on “Watchmen.” (DC Comics)

HC: Would you describe yourself as a passionate fan or a disciple of the original 12-issue “Watchmen” series by Moore and Gibbons?

DC: I am on two sides of the fence. On one I am a fan, and on the other, I’m not. And that was an interesting thing to measure as I approached this. I guess I would say I’m very much a student or a disciple of the scope, size and method of the storytelling. I think it’s a masterpiece in the way the story is presented and the way it pulls together. It’s an incredible achievement. Then again, especially as time has gone by, I don’t find I’m as comfortable with the incredibly pervasive darkness  of the book. It’s a very, very dark book. I don’t know about you, when I was younger I used to be a lot more romantically attached to really dark work  and I find as I get older I’m looking for work that offers, for lack of a better word, hope. Or a hopeful solution? Or the possibility of a hopeful solution? The book could have used a little more of that, for my personal taste. The book is relentlessly dark and if you consider the time it was produced, and the way a young [comics creator] like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons would react to that, it’s understandable that it’s relentlessly dark.

HC: Your point about looking for hope in stories is interesting. It’s counterintuitive in a way since there’s a presumed association between aging and cynicism — but maybe as we age we look to art even more to help that creeping cynicism? It’s also harder to be hopeful, in a way, since irony and insult are so much easier to do than earnest and inspirational.

DC: Without getting too far out there, it all speaks right to the heart of our mortality. You start out drawing with crayons as a kid and if you look at Picasso’s work when he was 9 and when he was 90, he’s basically come full circle. And then there’s all that stuff in between. When you’re 20, you’ve basically come to believe that everything you’ve been told as a kid is a lie and you’re looking for material to support that. Then you start to grow out of that and you realize that’s not the case and that the dark things are just part of the picture.

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The top half of the first page of “Minutemen” No. 1. (DC Comics)

HC: Given that, why sign up to expand on an opus that runs counter to your own tastes? With the career you’ve had to this point, you can do anything — why do this?

DC: My whole career has relentlessly revolved around picking stories that excite me and going from there — so coming off  the cleanest point of “This story will excite somebody” or “Man, people are going to love this.” And when Dan [Didio of DC Comics] first came to me about this I said no out of hand because I couldn’t think of a story that would measure up to the original — and let’s face it, this material is going to be measured that way — and the other thing is, I frankly didn’t want the attention. This is going to generate a lot of a particular type of attention that’s really not my bag. But what happened is, months after I said no, the story elements all just came into my head one day; it was so exciting to me that, at that exact moment, I started seriously thinking about doing the book. Bang, I had the whole story. And that’s what it takes to drag me in to something like this.

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The bottom half of the first page of “Minutemen” No. 1. (DC Comics)

HC: Of the “Before Watchmen” prequels, “Minutemen” is the only one that doesn’t focus on an individual character. That gives you a wider range of possibility but is there any downside to it?

DC: In many ways, I’m the luckiest of all the [prequel] teams here because they’re probably the most open books within “Watchmen.” They’re really just a sketch. They only have a couple of substantial scenes, so the characters aren’t fully fleshed out and I can’t help but think that Alan Moore planned on going back to the Minutemen. He’s a master architect and he left a lot of room there and a lot of mystery about why they are disbanding. We have the mystery of Hooded Justice and what happened there and I think he left those there to return to them later. So I saw openings in the story and we never got to know these people as human beings and, maybe more importantly, we never got to see them as heroes. We only saw them hanging out in their clubhouse. So automatically on that side of it I could see all these opportunities.

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Darwyn Cooke, a self-portrait. (Courtesy of Darwyn Cooke)

HC: On Moore, it makes sense since he went back again and again with “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and added entire eras to that mythology. With “Watchmen,” what can you tell us about the things you did in the Minutemen sequences?

DC: I saw all this opportunity. They’re a pretty diverse group of characters. In many ways, because they only appear here and they have a sort of [archetypal] character to them…but what’s going on around them, what’s underneath all that? I started to get really into that. And I married the idea of exploring them as characters with my fundamental approach to all of this stuff, which is you communicate all this stuff in action you don’t do it at a kitchen table. Then the set pieces and the idea of who these characters are and how they behave, it all started coming together really nicely. The story spans the entire breadth of the Minutemen, so from 1940, essentially, through the middle-to-late 1950s.

HC: What about new characters? As widened out the world is did you feel comfortable putting your own creations in it?  

DC: Most of the new characters are villains. I saw Alan and Dave had a lot of fun with that. They didn’t have to go into a lot — they’d name a villain and there’d just be a line about the guy and that’s it — and I didn’t want to just flesh out what they had there so, yeah, a lot of the villains they come up against are original. It was kind of a hoot too. Alan had quite a sense of humor. There’s a scene in “Watchmen” in Minutemen Hall and it’s a trophy room and in the background there’s this thing that is essentially a giant magnifying glass — about 8 feet around — and it’s labeled  “Moloch’s solar weapon.” And when you start thinking about the technology available to  a street-level super-villain in 1940. I had some fun with that.

 [A follow-up note: Alan Moore, in fact, told “The Comics Journal” in 1986 that he was sizing up a 12-issue “Minutemen” series as a potential follow-up to “Watchmen” but his career took him in other directions.] 

— Geoff Boucher


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