Before Watchmen – Nite Owl 3

Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Nite Owl 3, originally released September 19th, 2012. Nite Owl is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).

Patrick: Look, not everyone’s a superhero. Right? That’s the point of Watchmen — it takes a special psychology to don a cape and cowl and fight crime by night. With each character-revelation, Alan Moore seems to say “look how fucked up these people are.” Moore employs some pretty blunt tactics to deliver this message, going so far as to devote an entire issue to Walter Kovacs’ therapy sessions.  J. Michael Straczynski attempts to explore Dan Dreiberg’s mind with a similar blunt force, but ends up losing Nite Owl and Twilight Lady in the process.

Half-way through the series seems like as good a place as any to start an actual story, so that’s just what we do at the beginning of this issue. Nite Owl meets up with The Twilight Lady and the pair investigates the recent spate of missing prostitutes. Twilight Lady knows the organization that’s responsible for selling off less-fortunate girls, and she sends Nite Owl to get more information. He gets this information in the form of six telephone numbers — all from people who are buying these disappeared hookers. Convinced that Nite Owl is a good guy (I… guess that was up for debate at this point), Twilight Lady sleeps with him, and they share their secret identities. But those aren’t the only secrets about to be spilled: back at the Owl Cave, Hollis speaks cryptically about the secret shame of the Minutemen before giving Dan a sealed envelope. It’s his confession — an early draft of Under the Hood. The contents of which moves Dan to tears.

Rorschach’s sitting this adventure out — his feelings are still hurt from last time. Walter spends his day cleaning up at a church helmed by a preacher with an affinity for fire-and-brimstone. The preacher, who has taken a shining to Walter, asks him to retrieve some boxes from the subbasement. Word to the wise: never go into a church subbasement. Just don’t do it. Walter discovers a big o’ pile of dead bodies (and one not-so-dead body) and slaps on his Rorschach costume. But then he’s shot in the back! By the preacher! It turns out it was a test! A test that somehow Rorschach failed!

Feigned excitement notwithstanding, this little side story doesn’t make sense. I can buy that there’s a crazed preacher who’s been killing people that he perceives to be sinners. I can even buy the inevitable moment when Nite Owl’s detective work leads him straight to this church. But what I can’t buy is the preacher’s test: how could anyone — devoid of any context — see a pile of bodies and not assume that something was wrong? Did the preacher assume Walter could come back up and say “Hey, I see you have a lot of dead bodies down there — anything I can do to help?”

What’s especially dumb about this is that the characters are cut from the same cloth. Rorschach’s always been a tad puritanical — he decries the evils of drugs and sex — but his mania is amplified in the prequel series. Brian Azzarello’s Rorschach mini-series gives the character an even more hostile attitude toward his mother, and toward prostitutes in general. This series paints Rorschach as a violence-obsessed crime-fighter — remember when he tried to attack Twilight Lady totally unprovoked? I hate this simplistic portrayal of the character, and I find it further frustrating that this moralizing can be traced back to one crazy preacher. It just isn’t fair to the complexity of the Rorschach character.

Unfortunately, Straczynski’s treatment of Dan Dreiberg isn’t much better. This issue continues his maddening assertion that Dan’s problems are a web of sexual frustrations that stem from his inability to protect his mother. Didn’t you always want to read the story of how Nite Owl II lost his virginity to a prostitute with impossible agency and superhuman powers of perception? It’s just such a lame connection to the original series — and one that misreads the intent of the Dan-Laurie sex scene in the original. Dan is only able to honestly connect with Laurie after re-claiming his costumed identity, not because he associates crime-fighting with fucking, but because one requires confidence and the other gives him confidence. It’s a shame, because the sex-page in this issue is visually striking – the only page in the issue to use Andy Kubert’s line-heavy style to interesting effect.

The lines and folds of their sheets, hair and skin flow freely from one object to the next, from one panel to the next. If the text were making the assertion that Twilight Lady and Nite Owl were somehow fundamentally the same (and it’s not), this would be an excellent example of art emphasizing thematic material.

Up at the top, I mentioned that not everyone can be a superhero. This title seems to disagree with me – transforming the Twilight Lady into a costumed crusader for prostitute safety. She may not fight anyone in this issue, but she does go running around on rooftops with Nite Owl. Normal people don’t run around on rooftops. That’s reserved for superheroes. Also, before they head out on their nighttime adventure, she insists on putting on something “more comfortable.” Makes sense, right? No one wants to run around in fish-nets and high heels… or wait…

I’m tired of Nite Owl, Drew. Even as this missing-prostitute story starts to coalesce, the narrative is still mired in the cruddiest pop-psychology outside of the Metal Gear Solid series. Drew, I know you’ve got no love for this series, but maybe you saw something in this issue I didn’t. It’s fun to pretend, right?

Drew: Pretend indeed. Goodness gracious is this title bad. Frustratingly bad. I can’t find anything redeeming about this issue (and I tried like hell to rise to Patrick’s challenge), which is perhaps even more frustrating. There were a lot of fears that Before Watchmen would be little more than an artless money-grab, desecrating the memory of one of comicdom’s most prized work, and Nite Owl fulfills them all.

Ugh. This title really defies analysis — the dialogue is so protracted it loses all meaning. Characters say things that make no damn sense for no damn reason. Take the opening words of the issue, Dan’s salutation to the Twilight Lady, “I checked around but couldn’t find your name. You’re good at covering your tracks.” Okay, maybe a madame would want to maintain a secret identity, but what does Dan not being able to turn up anything tell us? Intentionally nothing. That could be an important detail — if it had any bearing on the plot. It doesn’t — she reveals it later in the issue, and we never have to think about it again. If it doesn’t reveal anything about her, maybe it reveals something about Dan.

I appreciate that Nite Owl is more influenced by Blue Beetle than Batman, but I can’t help but assume he should be halfway decent at detective skills. “I checked around“? Don’t break your back on your leg work, Dan. All this line reveals is how disinterested Dan is in actually finding out any information about the Twilight Lady. Taken alone, it’s just annoying filler, but combine it with his detective work elsewhere in this issue, and you’ve got a picture of a profoundly lazy detective. Take this scene, where Dan describes an impossibly impractical method for figuring out who uses a pay-phone often.

Okay, never mind the impossibility of the fingerprinting bullshit; they don’t have round the clock surveillance? What (besides inventing ridiculous fingerprinting technology) does Dan do all day? What does Hollis do all day? They really can’t just sit in a van or something for a day or two? How fucking lazy are these guys?

Also, do you know how fingerprint matching worked in the days before computer databases? That shit had to be matched by eye. In addition to being incredibly time consuming — possibly a day or two in a van’s worth — it only works if you have a suspect to match the prints to. Like, great, Dan’s going to recover these prints, and then it’s just a simple matter of physically checking it against every set of fingerprints, ever. And even that assumes that the perps prints are on record. Sounds like it could be a bigger waste of time than just sitting in a fucking van for a couple of days.

Christ, this issue has me abusing my italics privileges. The point is, some good old-fashioned leg-work would have been very effective in showing how driven and committed Dan is to solving this case. Instead, we get pure bullshit about utterly unbelievable plans because cool. AWESOME.

I don’t think I’ve brought it up here before, but I really hate Straczynski’s conceit that Rorschach actually believes that “THE END IS NIGH” First off, Rorschach without the mask isn’t Walter Kovacs, human being with agency — it’s a front Rorschach uses for reconnoissance. The thought that Kovacs has a life and beliefs and cares of his own demonstrates a pretty profound misreading of his character. He didn’t spend so much time picketing because it was so important to him; he was just biding his time until he could put on his “face” again. More importantly, there’s simply no way Rorschach believes the world is ending. Sure, he’s a crank who thought the world was going to hell in a hand basket, but he also fought tirelessly to improve things. Rorschach spent every waking moment cleaning up the streets of New York and searching for answers — that doesn’t sound like the actions of somebody who has resigned themselves to the rapidly approaching end of the world.

Starting from such fundamentally misguided interpretations of the characters is a pretty severe handicap, from which Straczynski never really recovers. Sure, Dan’s case will probably lead him to Rorschach’s rescue (though he’s still got A LOT of fingerprints to get through), but I don’t anticipate that being interesting, either. It does manage to finally justify why Rorschach is even featured here, but it does so in just about the most predictable way possible. I have little hope that the final issue can retroactively justify the previous three, but I know I’m going to buy it anyway, so at least DC was successful with that whole artless money-grab thing.


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?

7 comments on “Before Watchmen – Nite Owl 3

  1. I didn’t particularly enjoy this any more than you folks did, it is the shakiest of these minis for me (JMS’ Dr. Manhattan #1 the other shaky book for me, the rest I *love*). I would just toss in my two cents that while the Rorschach character is written badly here (way too many “hurm”s the first time around), I don’t think it’s possible to actually over-simplify him. I always felt the point of the character was to affectionately lampoon the philosophies in the post-Spider-Man Ditko material (particularly Mr. A and The Question), so that the ridiculously flawed and simple logic Rorschach operates on is actually part of the deconstruction in the story

    • Right, but trying to train Rorschach’s psychology on the ideas of a judgmental evangelical is depressing. Rorschach isn’t about attaining an abstract morality by punishing sinners – he meets brutality with brutality. He may grumble about fornicators and homosexuals, but the action he takes is routinely against people guilty of violent crimes. He fights the bad guys: a cape through-and-through.

      • I suppose you’re right, in the original series I can’t recall him bashing anyone who wasn’t really asking for it (that’s The Comedian)… I guess his objectivist views are mostly just expressed through grumbling after all. He does break that one guy’s arm or something while questioning him though, and I’m not sure we know he did anything other than hang out in a seedy bar and withhold information

  2. Oh, and RIP Joe Kubert 😦 I’m glad that Joe Kubert Presents will be coming out later so that this isn’t his last published new material

    • As most of us at Retcon Punch are new to the monthlies game, we’re all pretty underexposed to Joe’s work. When he died (and people were upset about that little blurb DC had up on their blog about him), we considered releasing some kind of statement. But it’s a loss – plain and simple. The man’s legacy is huge, and no smart-ass assemblage of words we were going to throw together could have done his work, his school or his family justice.

      I’ve not heard anything about this Joe Kubert Presents – I’ll look into it. Thanks for the heads up, Mogs.

      • No problemo. JKP is going to be an anthology mini-series with new material featuring Hawkman and I believe Sgt Rock by Kubert among other things. I grew fond of his stuff by collecting those b&w DC Showcase Presents book… his early Hawkman stuff from Brave & The Bold is just a joy to look at… I compare it to Al Williamson on Conan a little… something just hard-edged and perfect looking about it

  3. Pingback: Before Watchmen – Moloch 1 | Retcon Punch

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