The “Minute” Details: Before Watchmen’s Darwyn Cooke
By Dan Casey on June 25, 2012
After much huffing and puffing and the threat of blown-down houses, DC’s controversial but highly-anticipated Before Watchmen has arrived and, in my professional opinion, it’s damn good. Now, it may be too early to tell, and it may not be considered true canon, especially if you’re Alan Moore, but as 30 Rock‘s Kenneth Parcell once said, “Haters to the left.” Two of the standout titles of the line thus far, Minutemen and Silk Spectre, have one commonality: They have writer-artist extraordinaire Darwyn Cooke behind them. I caught up with Cooke to talk about the controversy surrounding the project, why he’s the go-to guy for stories set in the past, and how we can stress out Bruce Timm even more.
Nerdist: There was a lot of controversy swirling around Before Watchmen since it was first announced, but we have been very impressed with how you’ve adapted the source material and created something new and compelling. What challenges and pressures did you face in turning an iconic story into something brand new?
Darwyn Cooke: I question whether you can make it something brand new, but I definitely had to take a good long look to see how I would approach it, because I’m obviously not Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons. The reason Minutemen was probably such a great fit for me was that it takes place before Watchmen. I saw the opportunity there for my type of storytelling, and we’re looking at an era before the main story actually takes place and a different storytelling approach wouldn’t seem so out of place. It made it a more comfortable fit in my head. If I were doing Dr. Manhattan… you know, I’d be stranded. [laughs] I’m just not capable.
N: I like that you’re able to separate yourself from what’s been there before.
DC: I think in that regard I can. There are certain other things you think of when it comes to Watchmen, and while I’m definitely embracing several aspects of it, I knew I couldn’t approach it in the same way those guys did. I think it would have made for a rather stilted and dry product.
DC: It is kind of my stock-in-trade for mainstream work. I’m generally the guy they phone up when they have a story that takes place in the past. Whether that’s typecasting or not, I don’t really care. I’m happy that I’m brought in for stuff like this. Stylistically, it wasn’t such a great departure, perhaps, from what I did with New Frontier. In terms of the way I’m drawing and the way I present my work, it’s the same, but it differs in page structure and panel composition. Different approaches to storytelling perhaps, which is one of the things about Watchmen that got me excited when I read it originally. I’m trying to play with the way I’m presenting the story
N: As a writer-artist, you are a man of many talents. Do you find that you prefer controlling both sides of a comic’s creation or do you prefer one role over the other?
DC: Well, there is a sublime beauty about having a great script from another writer, being able to autopilot through it and just draw it, instinctively. But, nine times out of ten, I’m going to prefer to work with just myself because I’m very difficult to work with. [laughs] And why put other people through that?
N: Well, that’s fair. At least you’re keeping yourself honest.
DC: Actually, the next Parker book which comes out next month – I have a dedication in each one. This dedication reads, “For every poor son of a bitch who’s ever had to work with me.”
DC: They talked to me about the character and I was very resistant. I know for some people this is so hard to understand, but there really is a loose team atmosphere when you’re in a situation like this. I didn’t think the project was right for me, but I did have an idea that I thought was right for her. So, I pitched the project to Dan [DiDio] and, after I framed it for him, he saw its value. At that time, I thought I was just trying to help them find a direction they could work through. He pressed me about doing it and I didn’t feel up to it. At that point, I felt like, you know, I could probably do this if Amanda did it with me because of her ability, her talent and the fact that I wanted the female voices to sound authentic, so once they were comfortable with that, I was committed. I think there’s definitely an unexpected and wonderful story here, plus it was a chance to work with Amanda, who’s one of my tops.
N: You’ve broken these characters into very different genres. Silk Spectre doesn’t necessarily read like a traditional “superhero” book. How early in the process was it decided to break from the tone of Watchmen?
DC: It’s really been interesting because it’s really difficult these days to just write for the monthly audience. You have to consider the fact that it becomes a book afterwards. And that book is there for decades. It could sit on the shelf until the sun darkens, so you have to pace the story accordingly. To some degree, if I’ve read anything about Minutemen and Silk Spectre, yeah, there’s a valid concern that they seem too much like set-ups for a monthly reader. Especially in the case of Silk Spectre, where the story goes next issue? Nobody is suspecting where this goes. It steps right off the face of the Earth into a pretty weird place and it does so very quickly. I think these are very unique stories and we’re just trying to hold our water as we paint them out.
DC: Exactly. You can’t really expect people to compartmentalize when they’re looking at these things. So, you have to know going in that even though I’m just telling the first part of my story, even though it’s just a portion of it, it’s being compared to Watchmen in its entirety by the reader. A more apt comparison might be to compare it to the first chapter of Watchmen: you know, provocative, but certainly not the most exciting book imaginable, a thought-provoking book that draws you slowly into the story. There’s certainly that consideration to take. When I did New Frontier, at that point in publishing history and the way things were, I had no reasonable expectation that the book would ever be collected, so that’s why in the first issue we have a guy jumping into a dinosaur’s mouth with two live hand grenades. [laughs] Because, at that point, I knew this book’s arena was a monthly arena. You have to know the reader on a certain level. We’re trying to plan for the complete story, as opposed to the monthly.
N: It’s nice that you’re taking reader patience into consideration, although I always appreciate a good dinosaur/hand grenade combo.
DC: Oh, who doesn’t? I’d love to shoot the lights out at the beginning of a book. You know, it gets the adrenaline flowing and it lets people know, but this wasn’t the place to do it. I have to be far more deliberate with this because of the type of story structure.
DC: I don’t feel any more constrained by it than anything I’ve worked on. I’ve never really categorized myself as a creator. I think, if anything, if I’m looking for an equivalent to what I do, it’d be like a director. On all of the projects I’ve worked on, I’m really careful to look at what the creator intended for the character, and you have to be respectful of that. At least, I have to be – let’s put it that way. Within that framework, I feel like I have total freedom. As long as I can accept the characters being who they are…[laughs]…eventually. The freedom’s all mine.
N: How do you respond to those fans who think the Watchmen universe should be left alone?
DC: Oh, I understand how they feel. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. Again, I’ve said this a few times now, but reading a piece of literature or looking at a piece of art is a completely subjective experience, and whatever you take away from that is totally valid. Right?
N: Yeah, absolutely.
DC: Who am I to tell a person, “Well, you’re wrong about that?” I just don’t feel that way. [laughs] I respect their opinion and I understand it. I just don’t agree with them, that’s all.
N: Now if only more people on the internet would take that view of things, it’d be a much nicer place.
DC: Well, it’s very difficult. People get really proprietary over the things they care about. That’s just the way it goes. I think people on both sides of this argument could probably lay off some of the personal stuff. I don’t think it’s advancing anything. Other than that, I don’t have a problem with it because every person should be allowed to respond to a piece of work in an honest fashion.
DC: [laughs] Oh, man, what are you talking about? That’s the last thing Bruce Timm needs in his life, another Darwyn Cooke project. I have no idea at this point and we have to keep in mind that these are mature readers and characters. It’s a very intelligent environment. To a certain degree, issue one in the Minutemen is sort of a feint. I’ve set it up in that New Frontier fashion, right? Things get real for those characters real fast too. I’ve never done anything like this in my career. I’m crossing certain storytelling boundaries that I would never cross with an all-ages character. I see a firm line in the sand there – there are characters that will appear on lunch boxes and I think one way about them, but if I come to something that’s adult in the first place, then that’s fun. But this story goes some places that’s… geez. You know, an animated series? Maybe at primetime? I don’t think you’d be able to produce what I’m doing here for Saturday morning. [laughs]
N: Yeah, kids will be in for quite the surprise come Saturday.
DC: Well, I think a lot of my regular readers will be shocked because they’re going to see me go down a road that I don’t travel.
DC: And to me, it is. It’s all straight for me in my own head, I know that. When I came to Parker, for example, those were adult books for adults, so of course I had no problem pursuing that approach. For Minutemen, it’s the same thing. That’s the way they were created, that’s the way it was designed, that’s the audience they were intended for. It’s naturally the way to go at it. And, yeah, it’s kind of a neat change for me and challenging because it takes me a while to get into the notion of, “Wow, I’m going to have to draw that?” It’s one thing to think it or one thing to write it, but how am I going to visualize it? And these become new challenges.
N: Apart from Before Watchmen and Parker, what other projects coming up can you share with us?
DC: What, do you think I’m Vishnu over here with four arms? [laughs] My plate’s pretty full right now. The last Parker just wrapped and between Minutemen and working with Amanda on Silk Spectre, that’s going to be my dance card up until Christmas. We’re well into it, but we’re not done yet. This is the type of project where you have to… I always do my best at the table, but on something like this you want to keep your hand in all the way through. You want to make sure that this is as good as it can get in a many-hand situation.
DC: Yes. Yes, there is! [laughs] I’m actually thinking probably within the next year or two that I’m going to do a serious art book. You know, something like three or four hundred pages – something substantial. And that’s something I’ve been playing with for a year now, but I have to sort of do that tangentially. You can definitely count on it at some point.
N: What comics are you reading and enjoying right now?
DC: Goodness gracious. I finished Creator Owned Heroes today, and I got a real kick out of it. I loved it. As for monthlies, I don’t, especially when I’m working. When I was doing Superman, Grant [Morrison] and Frank [Quitely] were doing All-Star Superman and I couldn’t even look at that book. It would have crippled me, you know? So, I tend not to do a lot of reading when I’m working this hard because I don’t want to get my head turned.
N: That’s totally fair. I can respect that. Here, I’ll modify the question. Which is your favorite title in the Before Watchmen line? It’s okay, you can totally say Silk Spectre or Minutemen.
DC: First off, I don’t think I can give you a conclusive answer to that until it’s done. But, out of the box? You know, I’d never count my own work among that, but my favorite, just because of the type of guy I am and the stuff I like to read: Comedian.
DC: Well, Brian [Azzarello] and I are big fans and I’m lucky enough to know where Brian’s going with it, so that book is probably a favorite from a personal standpoint. But, in each case, there’s something pretty spectacular happening in each and every one of these books. That might sound like bullshit, but it’s not, because I’ve seen Jim Lee’s art and I’ve seen the scripts from Manhattan. There’s a lot of incredible work being done here. How will it do in the end? Well, we’re in the middle of a first period here. We’ve all been playing well together. There’s been a spirit of generosity; everyone’s been pulling together very well.
N: Well, that’s refreshing to hear.
DC: Yeah, I was shocked. I’ve never been to one of these group scrums and I was expecting it to be bitchy and territorial, but it wasn’t like that at all.
N: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. I have been very impressed with the Before Watchmen line so far and, in particular, your work.
DC: Oh, hey, always happy to talk to The Nerdist, a fine publication.
N: Thank you! Ha, that’s a made-to-order pull quote right there.
DC: You’re welcome. That’s my gift to you.