Before Watchmen – Minutemen 4

Alternating Currents: Minutemen 4, Drew and Michael B4WToday, Drew and Michael are discussing Minutemen 4, originally released October 17th, 2012. Minutemen is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).

Drew: Is it fair to assume we’re all nerds here? Do you remember that feeling when C-3PO first shows up in Phantom Menace? That feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realized this prequel was going to cash in on every moment of cheap recognition it possibly could? Not only did I not care where C-3PO came from, the explanation shown in Menace doesn’t make any fucking sense. The negative response to 3PO’s inclusion probably curbed Lucas’ origin obsession a bit, but he still managed to cram in Luke and Leia’s birth AND the building of the first Death Star, turning the whole prequel trilogy into a sad game of “spot the thing you used to love.” As the world’s most ubiquitous prequel, those movies effectively set my expectations for what a prequel should be, which may explain why I was so resistant to the notion of Before Watchmen in the first place; I was terrified of the prospect of stories focusing on petty details like where Ozymandias got the idea for his TV wall, or spending four issues explaining where that one headshot in Dan Dreiberg’s apartment came from. We’ve certainly gotten some of that, but titles like Comedian and Silk Spectre have turned those expectations on their heads by largely avoiding any such references. With Minutemen, Darwyn Cooke has embraced the third option — addressing the known history head-on with such deftness to make it seem inevitable.

The issue opens in 1962, as Hollis is still making the rounds to each of the Minutemen to hear their reactions to Under the Hood. Hollis heads to the nursing home to visit Byron Lewis, who is more-or-less catatonic, so the two men just gaze out at the sunset. Back in 1946, Hollis is reeling from the news of Ursula’s death, heartbreakingly admitting to himself how much he cared about her. Sally is also affected by the death, feeling guilty for having never liked Ursula, and regretting her vote to kick her out of the Minutemen. Standing over Urusla’s grave, Sally reveals that she’s already brutally murdered her killer, and has quit the Minutemen. Eddie approaches her, and shares the story of his time in the Guadalcanal campaign — which turns out to be an origin story for his nihilism. Meanwhile, Hollis breaks into Ursula’s home to recover anything that might incriminate the other Minutemen. He finds the reel-to-reel tapes we saw Ursula recording on at the end of the previous issue, which he brings back to Byron’s workshop. The two listen to the tape marked “Ursula,” which details the horrific situation which first brought Ursula and Gretchen together.

That’s a great deal of event for a single issue, but Cooke’s efficient visual storytelling keeps the issue from ever feeling overstuffed. More surprising, he manages to find time to give these more emotional moments the proper space to resonate. There are an unusual amount of copy-free panels in this issue — visual cadences that give us an opportunity to reflect on the events.That’s a strategy that could come off as ponderous (or boring), but here they become lovely showcases for Cooke’s superb acting. I’m particularly enamored of the scene where Sally makes peace with Ursula.

Sally talks to UrsulaThat third panel absolutely breaks my heart. Sally often gets written off as not being serious about the whole fighting crime thing, but she’s definitely tough. She takes some pleasure in relaying just what she did to Ursula’s killer, but watching her struggle to hold it together here reveals that toughness as a front.

What I’m most impressed by, though, is how well Cooke nestles this issue into what we already know of the characters, giving them motivations and explanations. The death of Ursula has resonances we couldn’t have imagined before. Sure, it gives Byron an excuse to drink, but it also breaks Hollis’ heart, setting him up as the life-long bachelor we already know. It motivates Sally to quit the Minutemen, and maybe allows her to relate with Eddie. These are very simply showing us the origins of what we already know, but Cooke manages to make it feel perfectly organic.

The one origin that isn’t tied to Ursula’s death is Eddie’s, but it’s more than thematically related enough to justify its inclusion. It also manages the herculean task of explaining Eddie’s pitch-black outlook. It’s the same task Brian Azzarello had set to in Comedian 1, and while I liked his take, this explanation works just as well — and offers a beautiful thematic tie-in to this issue.

That theme — that “small, intimate horrors” shape our lives profoundly — resonates throughout the issue, but is particularly showcased in Ursula’s story. It takes us back to Nazi Germany, but rather than focusing on the “six million jews” Hollis references in the issue’s introduction, it focuses on the very personal story between Ursula and her sister, Blanche. We don’t know exactly what was done to Blanche when she was abducted, but we don’t need to — the events perfectly explain why Ursula would devote her adult life to protecting children. The sequence also offers an explanation for excerpts from Robert Lewis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which have closed the previous two issues — the book was a favorite of Blanche’s.

This issue devotes a lot of time to explaining the origins of things from Watchmen proper, but by focusing on organic, character-driven reasons for those origins, Cooke keeps the explanations from ever becoming C-3PO. It’s an issue that impressed me both in its novelistic scope and its thematic richness — I can think of no two things better to borrow from the original series. What about you, Michael? Did you think this issue effectively carries on the Watchmen torch?

Michael: Drew, this was my favorite issue in the Minutemen series so far, precisely because of Darwyn Cooke’s seamless additions to Ursula’s story. I never felt like I was enduring a scavenger hunt looking for threads from the original Watchmen. This issue was touching and beautiful, giving Ursula something more than generic righteousness and a soft-spot for children. I also felt more sincere pity for Byron and Sally than I thought was possible. However, I think you and I differ on the handling of Eddie — not because his story wasn’t interesting or thematic, but because it stands out as an origin and transformation not suited for The Comedian.

As you mentioned, Hollis introduces the idea that a massive, abstract tragedy — like the killing of six-million Jews on an industrial level — is so inconceivable and impersonal that it can never resonate with us the way a personal story of loss from the holocaust can. In an earlier issue, Hollis marvels at Ursula’s ability to care and fight for faceless, nameless child victims.

Ursula dismisses this as a given concern that all humans should have. Only in this issue to we see the heartbreaking story of Ursula’s brush with the Nazi’s — and a Mengele-esque doctor who takes her sister’s life and then some — that we understand Ursula’s character to be forged by her “small, intimate horror”. Somewhat ironically, this transforms her into someone who can truly see the faceless six-million as six-million small, intimate horrors. When Hollis laments that he cannot join the armed forces and fight the “big fight”, Ursula posits that they are fighting the “big fight”, but stopping something before it get’s out of control, abstract, too big to handle — perhaps something a Nazi survivor can understand better than most. However, when this same transformative lens is used on Eddie, the result is problematic.

One of the character elements I love from The Watchmen is The Comedian’s innate nihilism. He has a Dr. Manhattan-like view of the world with a bitterly human cynicism cut with objective amusement. I suspect Cooke appreciates this too, because Eddie is virtually the same before and after the war, despite his self-proclaimed transformation. At Ursula’s gravesite, Eddie confesses to Sally that he 1) learned to treat the enemy like animals in order to slaughter them in mass, 2) murdered the army superior who dispassionately mercy-killed the Japanese woman, 3) learned that you must forgive yourself, and 4) nothing matters. That’s an overstuffed revelation for anyone, but for Eddie especially, it seems contradictory and unnecessary for a character that already seemed pretty hardened. I had the same feeling reading this portion of Minutemen #4 that I had when I read Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which I read only after seeing The Dark Knight. I’m sure this is against a comic-reader’s code, but I was disappointed to see the Joker’s backstory revolve around the same before-and-after-chemical-splash from every other iteration. I liked Nolan’s reimagining. The Joker’s insanity was timeless, his backstory unreliable and ultimately meaningless for what he represented. I was hoping for the same consideration for Eddie.

My selfish wants aside, my main problem with Eddie having a “small, intimate horror” as his transformative moment is the attempted rape, which I think we can all agree ranks up towards the top of those horrors.  So what’s the difference between the “pre-nihilistic Eddie” who tries to brutally rape Sally and the “nihilistic” Eddie who thinks of the enemy as animals? The distinction is too subtle. I can only hope future issues marginalize this confession and return Eddie to the man who has always understood the tragedy of the six-million, but just doesn’t care.


For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

9 comments on “Before Watchmen – Minutemen 4

  1. I think we are finally circling around the one bit of info I’ve wanted this whole time: Hooded Justice’s story. At the end of this issue, it looks like the boy we saw wandering through the nightmare circus in issue one was a young HJ. I’m am both DYING to learn more about this character, and also wanting him to stay a hooded mystery forever.

  2. Mike, I think you’re right about the Comedian’s origin not working for the Comedian, but I think it works for explaining why Sally would ever welcome his advances — a big question left unanswered by the original series. He needs something to make him sympathetic…at least with this sympathetic version of Sally. I had always assumed their pairing spoke more to the depth of Sally’s desperation as her star started to fade than out of any real connection the two had, but Cooke has painted Sally as a much more empowered individual, who seems less inclined to make unthinkable decisions based solely on her own vanity.

    So I kind of think it works in this issue, but in the narrative as a whole, you’re absolutely right to point out that it doesn’t really make sense. Cooke already showed that Eddie was always a callous asshole, and violence (even really horrible violence) has always been something he was comfortable with, so it’s pretty jarring to see those things shock him. If anything, Eddie needs a shock to make him softer, not harder, since he ends up kind of having a soft spot for Laurie, but maybe that can’t happen until after he kills that woman in cold blood in Vietnam.

    • It’s weird, I never really questioned why Sally ended up going back to Eddie. I guess I always assumed there was something like this that went down between them; in Watchmen, it was believable enough that I didn’t think about it, and Cooke has just filled in what I always figured had occurred.

      • Yeah I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but Sally’s justification in the Watchmen was something like “you get old and you can’t hate anymore”. That was satisfactory for me as well.

    • I kind of took this as exactly what you’re saying it should be – a shock that made Eddie softer. After being save he admits he has never felt a kindness – and when his superior spouts his own philosophies back at him he’s caught off-guard like “Yeah, but this lady saved ME” and understands that this new philosophy is not something that can reconcile its way into his existing philosophy (kind of like Tony after he has his heart attack in Sopranos and takes mushrooms… then starts to settle back into the old Tony again.) So he learns to fight that newfound sympathy, commits to slaughtering en masse, but then also kills his superior ’cause he’s just the kind of egomaniac that won’t take something laying down and the guy had basically slighted him. But, in the end, I think Eddie believes his superior was right and that his newfound sympathy was ultimately something to be squashed – it wouldn’t work out for him

      • I like that read: it’s not so much an origin for Eddie’s nihilism as it is an opportunity to give purpose to his nihilistic outlook.

        • I like the idea that Eddie’s nihilism is reinforced by his inability to be affected normally or lastingly.

        • Yeah. He has a nihilist outlook because of his inability to be affected normally because of his nihilist outlook, etc.

  3. Pingback: Before Watchmen – Comedian 4 | Retcon Punch

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