June 27, 2012

ON COMICS: 'Before Watchmen' NITE OWL #1

 Nite Owl #1 by J. Michael Straczynski, Andy Kubert & Joe Kubert 

One of the major storylines in Watchmen is Nite Owl coming out of retirement to embrace his inner superhero, get the girl and save the world, aka how Dan Dreiberg got his groove back. 

So, if any character has a good backstory to mine, it's Nite Owl. At his height, he and Rorschach were crime-fighting badasses; Dan was the Batman of the Watchmen universe. He was cool. To wit: the Kuberts' gorgeous cover to Nite Owl #1. A triumphant, commanding pose, a ripped Nite Owl surveying his dominion. Now, don't get me wrong--I love fat, nerdy, impotent Dan Dreiberg. I mean, I really love fat Dan. But as much as I love the extremes of the character, what I'm interested in is how shy, nerdy Dan can co-exist with skull-crushing, vigilante Dan. How did he get to be that way?

Luckily for me, it seems that's the exact question Straczynski is asking in this series. When you think about, in a lot of ways, Dan is the most human character in the Watchmen universe. He doesn't have any superpowers, he wears glasses, he eats bad food; he's fallible, the quintessential "regular guy."So one of the best aspects of the series is watching Nite Owl play off of all the other personalities in Watchmen: sociopaths (The Comedian), extremists (Rorschach), and god-like, giant blue naked dudes (Dr. Manhattan). Dan is also an interesting link between the old guard (The Minutemen) and the new. And this is exactly where Straczynski begins in Nite Owl #1.

It's 1962. Dan is still a teenager living with his parents. His room is plastered with Nite Owl (aka Hollis Mason) memorabilia. One night he bugs Nite Owl's Owl Car (yes, really) and tracks him back to his underground Owl Cave (yes, really). There he finds a note from Mason to meet him in the park the next day. Dan pushes hard to become Hollis' partner (the Robin to his Batman, if you will). Mason says he'll think about it.

And here is where the book lost a lot of points for me. When Dan gets home, he learns his father has burned all of his Nite Owl memorabilia and sees his father viciously beating his mother. Only a few panels later we learn his father has had a heart attack and a few more panels later Mrs. Dreiberg is spitting on her husband's lifeless corpse at the funeral. I mean...what? Why couldn't Dan's father just have died? Dan mentions in Watchmen that he was gifted a large inheritance when his father died, but why the need to include domestic violence in the equation? It seems like a very sudden and unnecessary narrative crutch to fall back on. Considering Dan's chivalry towards women and general good-guy-ness, wouldn't he have mentioned his father's violence to Laurie (who certainly has plenty of daddy issues herself)? I mean, it's kind of a huge event smack dab in the middle of the book that only seems to get us from point A (Dan living with his parents) to point B (Dan living with Hollis Mason and training to become the new Nite Owl). I guess Mrs. Dreiberg moved to Mexico or something IDK.

Dan trying on Hollis Mason's Nite Owl cowl

ANYWAY...the next part of the book is actually really, really cool, which is why I'm having a hard time not liking it. It's now 1965, Dan is officially Nite Owl, he's got Archie and he's partnered with Rorschach. (Rorschach!) In one brilliant splash page, we get the summation of their thug-busting partnership with not one, but two "Hurm" jokes! Blatant fan service, but, c'mon, you know when Rorschach shows up, the "Hurm" jokes aren't far behind. 

What follows is the famous scene of the first meeting of the Crimebuster. Joe & Andy Kubert very wisely don't try to re-invent the wheel here. They replicate the characters' blocking exactly, we just get everything from a different angle. Check it out.

I really dig this. We get a new perspective on the meeting that started it all. We're privy to Dan's thoughts about Laurie, all the while we know that she's looking at Dr. Manhattan. Now, just because I liked the Crimebusters retread, it's still just that: a retread. As much fun as it is to watch Dan interacting with Hollis, Rorschach and Laurie--the key figures in his life as Nite Owl--there is a strong sense of deja vu with this issue. We've seen it all before. And maybe JSM is just getting the introductions over with (and rather quickly--this book moves at lightning speed) so he can start building a really epic Nite Owl/Rorschach crime-fighting arc. I would like to see JSM slow down a bit and give real time to the important relationships in Dan's life. He basically has the entire 1960s to do so. There's so much to be mined here; it would be a real shame to just treat the Nite Owl title as a sub-par Batman team-up book.

In addition, we do run into some timeframe issues here. Silk Spectre #1 ends in 1966 with Laurie hitching a ride with her boyfriend and some hippies to San Francisco, and here in 1966 he's attending the Crimebusters meeting in New York. It will be a real challenge to get these books to coordinate with each other and stay true to the complex and detailed Watchmen timeline. Will they pull it off? Hurm, indeed. 

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