Come June, DC Comics will release Before Watchmen, a series of comic book prequels to author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' classic superhero deconstruction Watchmen.
The thing is, neither Moore nor Gibbons are involved with this project, and Moore just happens to be outspokenly against it. This leaves some of the comic industry's biggest heavyweights, such as Eisner Award-winning writer/illustrator Darwyn Cooke, to tackle Before Watchmen's scripts and art.
Cooke — who's gained substantial acclaim for such retro-tinged reads as DC: The New Frontier and his graphic novel adaptations of Richard Stark's Parker novels — will be on creative chores for two Before Watchmen miniseries. He's writing and drawing the backstory of the flamboyant World War II-era superheroes the Minutemen and scripting the early adventures of the martial artist vigilante Silk Spectre.
io9 spoke with Cooke about crafting a project many comic fans thought would never, ever happen. Also, check out an exclusive first look at artist Amanda Conner's (Power Girl, The Pro) psychedelic cover for Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #2.
How and when did you decide to work on Before Watchmen?
Darwyn Cooke: I can remember being approached a few years back by [DC Comics Co-Publisher] Dan DiDio. My initial response was "absolutely not." The reason for that was simple — I consider Watchmen a magnificent book, and I just didn't see doing anything that could live up to it, especially after all of this time. Dan did his best at that point to get me on board. He let me know he wanted me to handle the Minutemen, but I just couldn't see it, so I passed.
When you do this stuff for a living, ideas come through your head day in and day out. It was close to a year later, I suppose, the idea for the Minutemen fell into my head. I sat down, plotted a treatment, and it really got me excited. There was something there I could bring to the party, but it didn't contradict anything Alan and David had done. It fit perfectly into the scenario they had set up for these characters, so I contacted Dan and told him, "Count me in."
And how did you end up writing Silk Spectre?
That was a slightly different process. I was fairly certain that my only involvement would be with the Minutemen. Dan was very happy with where that was heading and wanted me to look into taking on the other characters. I really didn't want to do that. I thought I had enough on my plate. He mentioned Nite Owl and Silk Spectre to me. When you're dealing with a piece of work as brilliant as Watchmen, you're looking for areas where the story wasn't focused on.
I started to think about how most of what we see of [Laurie Juspeczyk, Silk Spectre's civilian identity] is a reflection through the eyes of the men she's with. I started thinking about how neat it would be to look at Laurie just as a person. And coming up against the limitations of my abilities, I realized I couldn't pull that off myself convincingly.
I went to Dan with my idea and I said, "I'm prepared to write this, but only if Amanda Conner will draw it." I made Amanda a condition of [this project] — that bounced it back into Dan's court, and luckily Amanda was enthusiastic about it. She's doing the work of her life on this book.
Your Minutemen art we've seen so far definitely evokes that 1940s-1960s aesthetic of your other work. Could you talk about some of the design cues that informed Minutemen?
The Minutemen's story takes place in the past. I've had a certain amount of experience with stories like that. It's very important to be as authentic as possible to the era in order to immerse the reader. The world we live in has definitely crossed a threshold. I was on a panel with Amanda last month, and I was describing a scene in which [the character] Parker is in a phone booth. Amanda jokingly said, "What's a phone booth?" I looked out to the audience, and I could see some of the younger audience members trying to figure out what a phone booth is.
Most of my design cues come straight out of the era. I make sure I'm evoking that in a seeming way, but in a stylized fashion. That entails a lot of kooky stuff, I get right into the weeds with it. I think, "It's 1940. These guys are all in costume, but polyester wasn't invented yet and spandex isn't available. They're wearing wool, like old hockey jerseys. And their logos would look like old crests on felt." Once you get into those kinds of details, it can go on forever.
Did you ever test a wool superhero costume for verisimilitude's sake?
I know a few people who are into that, but it's really not my bag. But in terms of a character exercise, that sort of stuff is essential. One of the challenges of The Minutemen was that they were designed to look gaudy and — in a couple cases — a little silly. The question was, "How do you make this look functional and real while staying inside Dave Gibbons' design parameters?" You begin examining details like, "Nite Owl's hoodie, that could actually be brown leather."
Each of these books have a very different creative pedigree. Were you involved in any sort of Watch-confabulation with the other writers and artists?
We had a summit meeting for the project. I've never been to one of these things, but they happen all the time apparently. We all began discussing the characters we working on, and it became clear very early on that we were ready to tackle different angles of this world.
And while we were looking for a certain unity to the books, what we came to is that each book's complete uniqueness is the glue that holds them together. That's maybe the best creative reflection of the world Alan and Dave created. I'm privy to seeing the work now, and it in no way feels like eight event-driven books that are all locked together. It feels like eight separate statements — that's what binds them together. They do overlap and refer to each other to a degree, but not in a story-dependent way.
This might be a stretch given Alan Moore's feelings about this project, but did you consult either Alan or Dave when tackling Before Watchmen?
No. But to be quite honest, there's so much transcribed conversation out there that it's easy to tap into the creative intent. I've never met Alan. I know he enjoyed me for a peer. I heard that once from a dependable source, and I think that's wonderful. I have met Dave. He's one of the true gentlemen of the business and an incredible talent. I do know that it's silly to think this way, but I'm assuming, one way or the other, they'll look at Minutemen. I'm just trying to do my best work and hope they don't think it's terrible.
Before Watchmen: Minutemen is out June 6, and Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1 is in stores June 13.