…And the Superhuman Review – Before Watchmen: Nite Owl #1
Every week, Chad Nevett and I will be reviewing an issue of Before Watchmen through a discussion of each issue. We continue with Nite Owl #1 by J. Michael Straczynski (writer), Andy Kubert (pencils), Joe Kubert (inks) and Brad Anderson (colors).
Chad Nevett: After three first issues that I enjoyed (even Minutemen was enjoyable despite its handbook nature), we’ve got one that’s pretty awful and, surprise surprise, it’s the first written by J. Michael Straczynski. A fact that, no doubt, surprises no one. I have a weird relationship with Straczynski in that Babylon 5 is one of my favourite shows of all time. He’s earned a lot of loyalty from me with that one and… I think Before Watchmen may finally expend all that’s left in the bank if things stay like they are in this issue. More than anything, Nite Owl #1 seems both parodic and like JMS really wants to be writing the story of how Robin became Batman… Daniel’s home life is so over-the-top that it feels like a joke somehow. Like one of those comics that took just the ‘grim and gritty’ elements from Watchmen without understanding how to use them or what they were meant to accomplish.
Of course his father was an abusive motherfucker who would try to rape his mother in the living room after burning all of his superhero stuff!
The ‘becoming the new Nite Owl’ part of the comic was no better from the Tim Drake origin (what happened to writing Mason a letter?) to Rorschach appearing right away, offering to be partners (I always got the feeling that they were more like Spider-Man and Daredevil and, sometimes, worked together) to his insistence that he felt some connection to Laurie at the Crimebusters meeting. All of it was so contrived and self-aware in the most obvious of ways. Really, really awful stuff. The kind of awful that everyone who trashed this project before it started was predicting. This was the cliched awful Watchmen prequel comic made real. Who at DC could have thought this was good?
Brian Cronin: It’s fascinating that you phrased it exactly that way, because what struck me while reading the comic was a term I picked up from Mike Nelson (of MST3K fame) in a movie review book he wrote about the film Wild Things, which was a bad thriller that the director later tried to sell to critics as an ironically bad thriller (I mean, don’t get me wrong, there were intentionally comedic moments in Wild Things, but the overall plot was not meant to be ironically bad – it was just bad). Nelson called it a “Cousin Larry Trick” (in reference to the TV series, Perfect Strangers, about two cousins – one who was honest and virtuous and one who always tried to take moral shortcuts), suggesting that the director was presenting the film as, “If you liked it, it was a thriller” and “if you didn’t like it, it was intended ironically.” That is what Nite Owl #1 read like to me, as if I couldn’t tell if Straczynski literally was being serious with the dialogue and the plot points or if he was sort of taking the piss of the project by intentionally going over the top. You typically have to figure a writer is being earnest unless specifically being told/shown otherwise, but yeah…if that was him being earnest, than that was a surprisingly poorly written comic. But I have now set the ground work for JMS – he can now say the whole thing was meant ironically!
I don’t know if I’ve ever told you the amazing plot idea I have for a time travel movie, but it is to have the two leads go back in time and everyone they encounter (everyone) will only talk in veiled references to the future. “Hi, how are you!” “I’d be better if someday there was a baseball team right here in Toronto, but I know that would never happen. Baseball in Canada! What a thought!” I thought of my incredible movie plot idea during Daniel’s interactions with Laurie.
As to the artwork. I am a yooooooge Joe Kubert fan, but I don’t really think he is used best as the inker of his son, Andy. Joe Kubert’s strengths are his layouts, which are not on display when he comes in after the fact to ink someone else, especially his son, Andy, who tends to excel in the design of characters where he is extremely stylized. His dad’s inks overpower that style. They did a good job, overall (after all, come on, it is Joe Kubert, people!), but I don’t think that they maximize each other’s skills.
I think a reverse of the art duties would look really cool.
Plus, one of the most famous sequences in all of Watchmen, from an art criticism perspective, is the wonderfully subtle interplay between the characters in the Crime-Busters meeting that Captain Metropolis holds. Dave Gibbons was masterful in the sequence. So why in the world would they decide to try to re-create that sequence in the comic – only not nearly as effectively? It was basically this over-the-top “HEY, EVERYBODY! I AM FLIRTING!!” bit. So odd.
Finally, yeah, Rorschach…wow…thank goodness someone else is writing the Rorschach mini-series. I would otherwise fear an entire comic filled with “Hurm”s.
At least the back-up story by Wein and Higgins was once again excellent. Such awesome artwork! And the story continued to pack quite a punch in just two pages.
CN: My only problem with the ‘Cousin Larry Trick’ is that I can’t figure out why you would try to use it here. Why in the world would ANYONE spend time doing a Watchmen prequal that’s designed to be ironically? Okay, as a short gag thing, I’d understand, but an entire comic by professionals as part of a sincere effort to expand upon these characters? It makes no sense. That only leaves REALLY SHITTY COMIC as the only explanation. Let’s stop and thank everyone involved for proving every detractor of this project right. Because they did. Right here.
And the art didn’t wow me either. I dug the rougher line work that Joe inking Andy provides, though. The only thing that was missing was Adam. Hell, since the writing was so bad, they should have had him write it (he has experience with that Sgt. Rock strip he wrote for his father to draw as part of Wednesday Comics). It really could not have been worse than this. I would have preferred the all-Kubert Nite Owl, I believe.
Rorschach was so poorly written here that it’s kind of funny. Nothing but “Hurm” and awkward attempts to be Daniel’s friend. But, in a creepy stalker way where it’s like Daniel is an attractive woman who just walked into a bar and Rorschach immediately runs up, sits next to her, and asks her if she wants to move in with him and, surprisingly, she says yes even though she’s clearly a little freaked out and scared of what will happen if she says no.
I love the back-up strip. I do. Every week, it grows on me more and is the big surprise of this project. When it was announced, it was just some weird thing they’ve attached that no one could figure out why. Well, now we know: because Len Wein and John Higgins are doing a great job. That final panel was very, very creepy.
Besides the back-up strip, I did think of another positive of Nite Owl #1: only three issues to go. It could be worse and be a six-issue series.
BC: Yeah, honestly, I think this is one that is so straightforward that there is not much for us to talk about. Straczynski spent half the issue with a cliched, overwrought origin for Nite Owl (it is hard to recall which bit was the most strained – I think I vote for the “light in the darkness” one) and the other half split between a really bad take on Rorschach and some more overwrought stuff with Daniel heavily alluding to events of Watchmen for no real reason. This was a poor comic book (but at least we had Joe Kubert!).