Before Watchmen – Nite Owl 1

Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Nite Owl 1, originally released June 13th, 2012. Nite Owl is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).

Patrick: Honeymoon’s over guys. All this time we’ve had a laundry list of crummy things that Before Watchmen could end up being: pointless retreading, canonized fan fiction, aping Gibbon’s style without adding to it and origins-orgins-origins. The creative team of J. Michael Straczynski and Andy Kubert seem to checking items off this list as they achieve them in all in this wholly unessential Nite Owl tale.

Forgoing a complete single narrative, Nite Owl 1 presents several discrete episodes from of Daniel Dreiberg’s early life as Nite Owl. The first episode tells the story of Danny becoming Hollis’ ward. Danny’s got a bad relationship with his parents – particularly with his father (because this is Watchmen, after all), so he frequently escapes into the fantasy of Nite Owl’s glamorous crime-fighting lifestyle. Danny decides to trail the hero Nite Owl back to his hideout to offer his own services as side-kick. Hollis is impressed but has reservations about taking on a kid as a partner (Batman could learn a thing or two).  That night, Danny returns home to find his father beating his mother, and rather than help her or call the cops or whatever, Danny goes upstairs to find his favorite Nite Owl action figure. He’s outside in the backyard burning the figure (and thus not-so-subtly suggesting that he’s growing out of the whole superhero thing) when his mother walks out in her bathrobe and announces that Papa Drieberg had a heart attack. At the funeral, Hollis appears and tells Danny that it’s time to get started.

The next episode kicks off with a training montage. I won’t bore you with the details of that. Hollis makes a public announcement that he’s giving up the cape-n-cowl, and then privately offers the identity (and continued training) to Danny.

Episode three can best be described as “Nite Owl meets Rorschach.” During a blackout-caused-riot, Nite Owl and Rorschach team up to take down some of the more violent rioters. As we well know, their partnership doesn’t end there and the pair continues to fight some generic crime.

Episode four is the first meeting of the Crimebusters. And this is where I’m going to stop summarizing because if you’ve read Watchmen, you’ve read this scene before. And that’s also where I’d like to start my criticism. This is the first time we’re seeing the prequel series portraying events from the original, including whole panels of repeated dialogue. I’m not against this on principle – there are all sorts of ways a scene can be recontextualized to give the events therein a new purpose, or an escalated sense of gravity. The only thing this issue adds to that scene involves Laurie and either the stolen glances she shares with Dr. Manhattan, Dan’s insistence that there was a connection between them or Rorschach’s boner-jokes about her. After one step forward with the Silk Spectre, it appears this is the proverbial two steps back.

So, I’m left asking what the point was of revisiting that scene. Is it just to suggest that Dan was into Laurie from the moment they first met? YAWN. Actually, strike that – let’s make my exclamation “YUCK!” instead. The relationship between them, as I understand it, is not that of lovers destined to be together, but of sad, scared, lonely people who find real comfort in their shared past. Dan getting chills or stating that they were “fated to be together” cheapens their eventual hook-up, and that is precisely what Before Watchmen should be avoiding.

While the other series have – thus far – done a really excellent job of demonstrating their reason for co-existing with the main book, Nite Owl makes no similar statement. Even when not repeating scenes or events from Watchmen, it seems to too frequently visit pet themes from the original series. Like Dan’s dad being an abusive wife-beater who berates his son. Or the way the riot sequence wherein Rorschach and Nite Owl meet looking an awful lot like the riots that occurred during the police strike. So many of these story beats and images are lifted so directly from the source material that if often feels like fan fiction.

If that sounds harsh, it’s because I intend it to. The book offers nothing in the way of original insight into the characters or their universe. There’s one sequence I sorta like – it’s a scene where Danny sneaks into Nite Owl I’s lair and types up a request to meet on Hollis’ typewriter. I like it because it’s entirely silent: roughly three-and-a-half pages of totally visual storytelling. And that’s cool and all, but I don’t get the point of it – unless only to recall Laurie’s silent decent into the Owl Cave decades later. But that’s a weird (and probably pointless) connection to make.

I actually find that there are a couple of these sequences that I think are cool, but then don’t have anything to say about them. Let’s talk about this scene at William Drieberg’s funeral:

It’s neat until you realize there’s nothing behind this. Yup, she hates the guy: got it. Why would making her spittle appear as a tear on his face mean anything? Trick question: it doesn’t.

I’ve also got a beef with extraneous lines on characters’ faces. I likes me some simple character designs, so maybe it’s simply a matter of personal taste. Taste or no, doesn’t this image look like Kubert must have been paid by the line?

I keep thinking that there’s something I’m missing. With the three previous entries all having interesting ways of asserting their right to exist, it’s almost hard to believe that Nite Owl isn’t somehow covertly expressing something. Is the blatant but hollow aping of Watchmen’s style and characters possibly a reference to Dan’s less sincere expression of the Nite Owl identity? That’s a stretch. Do you see some kind of value in this thing, Drew? Or is it everything we feared Before Watchmen was always going to be?

Drew: I’m actually willing to go a step further: this issue is actually worse than I feared. Now, I’m on record for having exceedingly low expectations of Before Watchmen, but this issue fails to live up even to those. My biggest source of ambivalence was that the whole exercise was extremely unnecessary, but I at least gave the talent involved the benefit of the doubt in terms of respecting the original work. Unfortunately, this issue has proven that assumption wrong.

That’s a pretty heavy accusation, and while it’s centered around a seemingly insignificant detail — Rorschach’s manner of speech — I think it’s such an important detail that the disappointment is warranted. We learn from Watchmen that Rorschach didn’t become Rorschach until after that whole episode with the kidnapped girl, the flayed german shepherd, and the housefire. Sure, he dressed up and fought crime as Rorchach, but he says himself that he was only pretending to be Rorschach until that moment. We get only a small glimpse into the time between his decision to don the mask and the time the mask became his “face,” but those are telling moments that reveal just how profound that single event was.

The most revealing of those moments come during the first and only meeting of the Crimebusters, where we see Rorschach carrying himself like a normal human being.

He's a well-spoken man.

Much of this is expressed through his speech bubbles. Notice that his bubble here is of the normal roundish variety, not the typical jagged, craggy bubbles we associate with him after what I’ll hereafter refer to as “the incident.” Notice also that he speaks in complete sentences, as opposed to the clipped, occasionally article-free manner we associate with him. This suggests that neither of those tics started until after the incident, but Nite Owl 1 is happy to suggest that he always spoke like that.

Take, for example, his first meeting with Nite Owl:

Now, there’s certainly plenty in Walter Kovacs’ life to explain away such a vocal tic (to his credit at least letterer Nick Napolitano is consistent with the speech bubbles), but interpreting his speech pattern that way undermines just how profound the incident was in Rorschach’s development. Sure, he had a fucked-up childhood that made him want to beat-up criminals, but he still conducted himself like a relatively normal human being (excepting, of course, the whole costumed hero thing). The incident stripped him of much of that humanity, leaving someone who no longer cared about social rules, and whose sense of justice was so black and white, he simply couldn’t compromise.

Personally, I think the idea that this attitude stems from the incident is significant because of its commentary on the outlook of those who fight crime. That Rorschach was so deeply affected by the horrors he had witnessed reveals a level of humanity that seems ironically lacking in the detectives that eventually apprehend him. Rorschach’s was a soul lost to his own war on crime, and the fact that so much can be conveyed in his manner of speech is one of the many things that makes Watchmen such a towering achievement.

It’s easy for us to say that Straczynski is just wrong about a lot of this stuff, but what’s frustrating about this issue is that it attempts to digest Watchmen for us, presenting readings as fact, even if they fly in the face of much better readings. Er, “better” is maybe too subjective, so let’s call them readings that are more consistent and thematically resonant.

Then again, I may just mean that Straczynski is wrong about this stuff. Check out the string on Hollis’ domino mask (on the mannequin head).

You may remember Hollis stating — rather explicitly — in Under the Hood that he used to use string to affix the domino mask, but switched to spirit gum after a disastrous run-in with a street thug. The passage makes it sound like that was relatively early in his career, as in well before he retired. I don’t really know what that string (or band of cloth) is doing there, but it once again directly contradicts something expressly dictated in the original work.

Together, these examples reveal a lackadaisical approach to what should be the most tightly researched, conceived, and edited comics series ever undertaken. The creators on these titles have a burden of proof to even justify their series’ existence, and this issue falls woefully short of that goal. Hell, Watchmen’s attention to just these types of details is part of what makes it so impressive. Didn’t anyone think Watchmen fans (or even just comics fans in general) wouldn’t care about this shit? In disregarding both the letter and spirit of Watchmen, the issue disregards its readers, and it’s hard for me not to want to respond in kind. Worse than inessential, Nite Owl 1 is almost insulting in its cavalier attitude towards one of comicdom’s greatest works.

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?

18 comments on “Before Watchmen – Nite Owl 1

  1. My biggest problem with this issue is Dan’s father. In the original, I think all we know about him is a) he left Dan a lot of money and b) he and Dan were not close. Apparently, to Straczynski, “not close” translates to “sadistic rapist bully.” Listen, just because this is Watchmen doesn’t mean EVERYONE has to have a horrifically fucked up relationship.

    Patrick, I disagree with you slightly, I think it was Dan’s father who burned all his Nite Owl stuff, and then wanted to celebrate by beating his wife I guess. That could have been just right (except the beating part); if Dan’s father was just depicted as a very driven man who didn’t understand his son’s flights of fancy and wanted him to be more grounded, that would line up very well with Dan’s overachieving yet somewhat bland personality. Instead, his father appears as just a guy, then a rapist, then he’s dead; the whole relationship is rendered meaningless because Straczynski is trying so hard to make it meaningful.

    • Yeah, I might have misread that portion. To me, it would be much more meaningful if Dan rejected the entire concept of father figures after being rejected by both his real father and Hollis. But no, William Drieberg burns all his son’s Nite Owl shit. Sigh. It just takes all the action out of Danny’s hands. What a shitty take on that character.

      • The fire is already going when Dan gets home that night, but I think it makes more sense from a character perspective if he did it himself. Er, rather, I think it would be much more compelling if Dan’s experiences that night made him lose faith in his childish ideal of superheroes, and I think the story sets it up that way, but I don’t think it actually fits with the Dan Dreiberg we know from Watchmen.

  2. Someone call me on this if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t Nite Owl’s younger days of crime fighting actually be full of joy? Dan’s supposed to draw real comfort (and probably his only sense of purpose) from crime fighting. What fucking “good old days” are he and Hollis’ recalling on their beer-dates if his origins are so grim?

    • No clue. Also, I don’t believe that Rorshach just immediately decided to partner up with Nite Owl on his first night out.

      You know, I didn’t realize just how good the other three issues were until I read through this hot mess.

      • It’s a real shit-show. I’m eager to look around the internet today to see how the world responded to it. For whatever reason, the geeks weren’t super-kind to Comedian. And while that’s clearly insane, I’d feel good reading some more ire directed at this train wreck.

      • Speaking of that: what the fuck is Rorschach doing in his first encounter with Dan? He’s slumped over in the corner like he’s lost his spine or something. Why would you draw someone like that?

  3. It’s interesting to me that while this book does give a mostly-boring take on Nite Owl, it’s mischaracterization of Rorschach that bothers Drew the most. I don’t disagree – it really blatantly ignores the source material. But it’s that ignoring that’s so fucking confusing. This would would have zero (read: ZERO) identity without using Watchmen characters and themes.

    • If Nite Owl had just been mostly boring, that might have been ok. Dan Dreiberg is a snoozer of a character; I would have been happier with a boring story than something so obviously out of character.

      • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: at least boring isn’t offensive. Being boring may have validated my concerns about the necessity of Before Watchmen, but at least it wouldn’t have sucked so damned much.

  4. While it got plenty wrong, the biggest failing of the book for me was the portrayal of his father. The original stated something like “he wanted me to follow him in banking” and hinted at a conflict of interest and general disappointment. From what little we were given we knew that his father was at least respectable and wealthy.

    Where in the blue hell did they conjure up this nonsense that his father was a wife beating hack? The whole idea of Dan Dreiberg is that he’s rich and bored with a kink for birds and heroism, but other than that he was supposed to be the ‘normal’ and most human one of the six. This comic illustrated his story as dark and grimy when its supposed to be the complete opposite, his life is supposed to be monotonous and plain with his only escape being a masked adventurer.

    This whole series just smacks of complete ignorance, did they even bother to read and understand the source material? Us bloggers and commenters have a deeper understanding. Just shameful.

  5. Pingback: Before Watchmen – Dr. Manhattan 1 | Retcon Punch

  6. Pingback: Before Watchmen – Silk Spectre 3 | Retcon Punch

  7. I want to thank DC Comics for the greatest Christmas gift, mercifully ending the JMS Nite Owl mini-series so that we may put this whole thing behind us and begin 2013 with a clean slate

  8. Pingback: Before Watchmen – Dr. Manhattan 4 | Retcon Punch

    • Oh and this series absolutely is terrible – even FUCKING TERRIBLE, as you so aptly put it. But I would enthusiastically endorse Minutemen, Silk Spectre, Rorschach and Comedian.

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