Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1 (DC Comics, $3.99)

Darwyn Cooke (w), Amanda Conner (a)

 

This is good comics. 

 

I'm late reviewing this, because DC didn't send me a review copy (as they have with the other "Before Watchmen" debuts). I mention that, because it's a testament to how eager I was to read this book that I finally ran out and got one.

 

And I wasn't at all disappointed.

 

I love just about everything Darwyn Cooke has ever done, and I love this, too. Cooke weaves a layered story of Laurel Jane Jupiter's high school years and decision to leave home. More than that, it's a plausible story. As someone who was growing up in the '60s myself, I can attest that Cooke's depiction of controlling, self-absorbed and emotionally distant parents (at least two of them in this book) is spot on. As opposed to today's "helicopter" parents, most of the Greatest Generation did not consider their children real people until after college -- if then. More often than not, parents of the '60s treated their kids as extensions of their own egos, handy tools to help them achieve their own goals, address their own frustrated ambitions and do whatever grunt work was required in the process.

 

And so, Laurel Jane -- daughter of Silk Spectre I, destined to be Silk Spectre II -- makes the decision a lot of teens did in the late 1960s, and runs away from home. In fact, as the last page shows, she runs away to a place where a lot of teens went in the 1960s, which I won't spoil for you here, but promises an ... interesting ... experience for Laurel Jane.

 

I shouldn't fail to mention Laurie's boyfriend, one of the few opposite numbers for superheroes and superheroines that I liked at the outset, and don't just tolerate as a story requirement (Silver Age Steve Trevor, Lois Lane, I'm looking at you). Laurie's first BF is a nice guy, which is not only the only kind of guy she'd be attracted to, but also -- and I hate to wear out the word -- a plausibly nice guy. From what we learn of his background, he is what he is because of his own parents, which also makes him very much like Laurie herself (absent the physical accomplishments). So the phrase "soul mate" suggests itself (although, thankfully, it is never spoken), a prhase a lot of young romances like to bandy about, and it makes this first love a sweet one, but not one destined to last. You know, like all first loves. 

 

And while Cooke is hitting all the right notes on the script, Amanda Conner is turning it into a symphony.

 

Like Cooke, Conner is another creator whose work I've always loved on just about everything she's touched. From Painkiller Jane to Vampirella to The Pro to Power Girl, I've enjoyed Conner's clean, almost Franco-Belgian style. She is justly famed for drawing terrific women, not just because they're attractive, but because they stand and move and carry weight like real women. She is also justly famed for expressive faces, so mobile and flexible that you can almost follow a given Amanda Conner story just by looking at her faces.

 

With this book, though, she shows another facet of her repertoire. She tones down the cartoony eyes (although they remain just as expressive), so she is clearly adapting her style to the needs of a Watchmen vehicle, which I quite appreciate. (Especially since it seems easy and unforced.) But she also adopts some of the demanding structure of a Watchmen vehicle -- the recurring visual themes (especially circular objects and panels); the recursive, metronome-like beats; and even -- on many pages -- the daunting nine-panel grid. And she makes it look easy.

 

And that last may be the most impressive bit. I know that what she's attempting isn't easy. I can guess that she's pushing herself, straining every nerve to do this just right. It goes without saying that she is having to think through every page, every panel, maybe every brush stroke to make the sort of impressive, coherent, holistic whole that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did in Watchmen. But for all that, this is a pleasant, easy story and a welcome, cohesive world. Conner is doing a magnificent job, but moreover, she isn't letting us see her sweat.

 

I could go on in this vein for some time, but I hope I've already made my point. In fact, I hope I made it in my first sentence: This is good comics. Heck, if the next five issues demonstrate this care and quality, it may be great comics.

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Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #2 (DC Comics, $3.99)

Darwyn Cooke (w), Amanda Conner (a)

 

Darwyn Cooke has pulled off something of real rarity: I actually like the lead character. She seems real enough, and nice enough, that I'd like to meet her. Which means he's doing a heckuva job on characterization.

In this issue, she also edges toward her future, by wearing a Silk Spectre costume and fighting some criminals pushing mind-control drugs. The plot is just something she stumbled on, and, well, this is how she was raised to deal with this sort of thing. So, to completely wear the word out, it comes across as plausible.

Plausible, but not easy -- her fights certainly aren't. And since she's in San Francisco in 1968, it's not real hard for the bad guys to induce youngsters to ingest drugs they know little about. This isn't just a vague threat, but one that immediately impacts on Laurie and her friends and their Bohemian lifestyle. The cliffhanger at the end of this issue is one of genuine, if offbeat, peril.

One aspect I'm not sure I like is that the Big Bad is called "The Chairman" and looks like Frank Sinatra. Sure, Sinatra hung around the edges of organized crime, and his reputation has morphed from "cool" to "sleazy" the last few decades, and The Comedian plays with history all the time. But events in The Comedian suggest things that might be true, and don't contradict what we actually know. And as far as we know, Sinatra was never actually a crook, much less a full-blown criminal mastermind. Also, four characters obviously meant to be The Beatles are aware of the scheme, too, and that doesn't sit right with me. Hopefully, these characters are just lookalikes and wannabes, and not the actual historical figures they seem to be, because Cooke is coloring outside the lines of their actual lives. 

Conner's art is still a delicious joy, so regardless of how the story turns, I'll be back for the rest.

I really enjoyed the second issue. I like we see Silk Spectre in action and doing super hero type things. I didn't really connect to the character in the original Watchmen but this fleshes her out quite well.

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