Before Watchmen: Nite Owl | Roundtable review
For the first ten pages, it is. We open with an adolescent Dan dealing with his jerk of a father (to put it mildly; Straczynski really cranks it up to 11 by the time the über-wealthy dad shows up again), and then quickly veers into some action. Dan reveals the keen mind that will serve him so well in his future crime-fighting career: He traces the original Nite Owl, a masked Boy Scout apparently beloved by his entire city, to his secret lair and arranges a meeting. It's the beginning to what feels like an engaging back story—you know, exactly what this entire Before Watchmen project promises.
But then we cut away from Hollis's abrupt retirement while Dan's still in high school. Flash forward two years to the new Nite Owl's early days. (And wow, Dan somehow built that impressive Owl hovercraft damn quickly, not to mention bulking up, becoming an ace combatant, developing a costume, etc.) Suddenly we're in the tumultous '60s and Rorschach makes his first appearance, sneaking aboard Dan's ship (not unlike how a young Dan surprised Hollis two years earlier). The comic goes quickly down hill from there; Straczynski doesn't have an ear for Rorschach at all, a fact most blatanly evidenced by his use of five "hurm"s in two pages. It's painful, really. Why couldn't Straczynski at least use the first issue to more fully explore the evolution of a young Dan into crimefighter? They could've saved Rorschach's entrance for the last page, which would make a much better ending to part one.
Andy Kubert's art is, well, typical sketchy Andy Kubert art. It's not the best match for this title, at least not so far: There's neither enough action nor enough moody atmospherics for his style. But we do get the first in-story call out to the most famous of the original Watchmen's visual motifs: The dripping diagonal line across an eye. It comes when Dan's mom spits on her husband's corpse's face at his funeral. It almost seems like overkill, but then again, Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen was full of moments like that.
Brent DiCrescenzo: My main issue with this prequel is pacing. Straczynski hacks through the meat. Wasn't this the guy that had Superman stroll across the continent for, like, 19 consecutive months? The narrative of the first ten pages—Hollis passing the torch—could have easily been fleshed out for this entire mini-series. As it's written, the emotional impact of a violent wife-beating, and spitting on a corpse, is cheapened by being reduced to a few panels of back-story. It just felt sensational for sensationalism's sake. Worse yet, all the rush is to get to the other Watchmen, most annoyingly the Sling-Blade Rorschach.
Night Owl's most intriguing element in the original series is his over-the-hill-ness. He's overweight, impotent, kind of a washed-up hack. Revisiting him in his prime merely makes him, well, brown Batman. The prior titles captured the spirit of the originals, for better or worse, by similarly injecting meta elements, politics, adult content. As much as I hated The Comedian, it felt in line with that character. I hate that character. Night Owl could be any generic Batman knock-off from any publisher.
As an aside, Hollis might be the worst crimefighter I've seen in a while. He drives a conspicuous egg-mobile around the city and a teenager is able to follow him back to his "secret lair," on foot. Good thing no bad guys ever thought, "Hey, let's tail this unmistakable bubble car and see where it goes. Oh, right, this abandoned warehouse within walking distance of the crime scene."
Kris Vire: I like Straczynski's Tim Drake–style retcon of Dan as the admiring, ambitious kid who uncovers Hollis Mason's secret—though as Brent points out, Hollis's Owlcave has to be the least-secret secret lair ever. Simpler times, I guess?
And then, that appealing story's over midway through issue one. Having set up this mentor–apprentice relationship between Hollis and Dan, it's hard to fathom why Straczynski was in such a rush to get to Hollis's retirement, to introduce Rorschach and to the Crimebusters meeting. The latter half of the book feels so rote, like Straczynski's just coloring in between Moore's lines. It's all stuff we've seen in the original series, without any new perspective. And Web's right: Straczynski doesn't get Rorschach's voice at all.
Jonathan Messinger: Well, it seems like we're all in basic agreement, with Brent running hottest about this issue's shortcomings. I agree that Straczynski lost control of the story about halfway through. It's unfortunate that the transition from Hollis to Dan operates as prologue rather than narrative arc, as that's clearly the most compelling story here. And the race to get to Rorschach and the rest of the Watchmen is so unnecessary, given that this is supposed to all be before Watchmen.
Probably the only thing that intrigued me about the whole prequel project was pulling out each individual character and exploring them—giving them depth and full stories and treating them as characters worthy of their own series. But it doesn't seem like that's what the writers want to do (excepting Darwyn Cooke's work on Silk Spectre). I was sort of expecting this to be sort of like Marvel's old Icons series, which told interesting stories about individual characters outside of the team dynamic. Instead, we get this wholly directionless issue, that feels as lost as the first issue of Minutemen.