Comix Month, Take III : “Before Watchmen : Nite Owl” #2

Posted: August 16, 2012 in comics
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I did, in fact, warn you all — I said at the outset of “Comix Month Take II” that I might do a third,  and so it’s come to pass. This is gonna be it, though, I promise — apart from keeping up with all the various Before Watchmen books, which I’ll continue to write about for as long as I’m buying ’em. September will be business as usual apart from that, though, as we go back to the grindhouse in a big way. And as last month proved, I haven’t neglected film reviews entirely — I still did a few for Through The Shattered Lens and duly linked to them on here, as promised/threatened. The same will go for this month, and in fact I’ll “tease” that a bit by saying this much in advance — I’m working on a series of interconnected posts (yes, movie-related) based around a single theme for TTSL, and hope to have the first one up in the next handful of days. I’ll say no more for the time being apart from this — comics fans should (I hope) find them interesting, as well.

All of which brings me back to the business at hand, which is of course taking a look at the second issue of Before Watchmen : Nite Owl, and I do so with a very heavy heart, indeed, because as it turns out this was the last comic featuring art by the now late, great Joe Kubert to see publication while he was still among us. Mr. Kubert passed away at the age of 85 the other day, and to call him a giant is an understatement indeed. While DC’s horribly shoddy initial press release mentioned only his Before Watchmen work, anyone who knows anything about comics knows better. Kubert was the premier war comics illustrator of all time, the premier jungle adventure comics illustrator of all time, one of the two or three premier superhero and sci-fi comics illustrators of all time, and frankly right up there in the pantheon with names like Kirby, Wood, Eisner, Hogarth, Foster, Ditko, etc. when we comics fans are discussing the always-debated subject of “who was the greatest American comics artist ever, period.” His contributions to this medium can never, I repeat never, be adequately or accurately measured, and he will be sorely missed by hundreds of thousands, even millions, of fans in addition to friends, family, and the legion of comics talent he trained at his Kubert School, the institution that gave us the likes of Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben, to name just a few illustrious alumni.

Rest in peace, Mr. Kubert, and know that history will judge you very kindly indeed.

And while we’re talking of Joe Kubert, I mentioned last time around the block with Nite Owl #1 that I honestly wondered how much of the art in this series was down to his son Andy, who’s credited as being the book’s penciller, at all, and this second issue does nothing to quell that curiosity. The classic Kubert mastery of layouts is on full display here, as is the rich, heavy linework in the inks/finishes. My best guess —and mind you it’s only a guess — is that Joe was responsible for the layouts on this book, Andy did some rough pencils, and Joe did finished pencils as well as inks. We’ll probably never know, of course, but that’s sure what it looks like to me.

All of which is to say that the art in this book is top-notch. While fandom in its assembled “wisdom” seems to be crowning Ozymandias artist Jae Lee as the king of the Before Watchmen art universe, I say it’s Joe K. all the way — and it’s not even a close contest. Just look at that cover (the main one up top, not the secondary one by David Finch underneath it, although that ain’t bad, either) and tell me that’s not the finest Watchmen-related illustration not done by Dave Gibbons you’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, however, we’re still waiting for the first great Watchmen-related script not written by Alan Moore. J. Michael Straczynski does a heck of a lot better job this time around than he did in the go-nowhere, do-nothing first issue, and this secondary installment at least moves the plot forward a bit (it’s apparently going to center on Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg’s developing costume fetish as he gets involved with a masked “villainess” called Lady Nightshade, and juxtapose that with Rorschach(who’s really a full-fledged co-star here)’s slow-burn mental breakdown), but Straczynski is still writing Rorschach all wrong given the time period, he’s apparently never even heard of the concept of subtlety, and a couple of scenes (where Rorschach yells “whore!” at Lady Nightshade while attempting to attack her and teenage Dan, in a flashback scene, asks his mother whether it was her or his abusive old man who wanted to abort him before he was born when he learns one of ’em did) are somewhere between cringeworthy and laugh-out-loud bad.

Still, there’s some hope. An extended sequence detailing how Dan first used a mask to deflect away the painful reality of bullying and ass-kicking while growing-up is melodramatic, to be sure, but it’s also handled with a fair amount of sensitivity and realism, and a sequence with Nite Owl the first, Hollis Mason, hinting at some darker reason as to why the Minutemen broke up is both genuinely intriguing and, thankfully, not overplayed (even if I have a pretty solid guess as to what happened based on a single panel alone). It’s far from a great script, no question, but it’s certainly miles ahead of anything I was expecting/dreading after that flat-out abysmal first issue.

Still, of all the books to serve as a capstone to one of the undeniably greatest and most influential careers in the history of this medium, it’s a shame that it’s gotta be this one. Before Watchmen : Nite Owl #2 is head and shoulders above the first issue, but it’s still nowhere near even the top, oh, 500 single issues in Joe Kubert’s illustrious oeuvre, and reading it again the other night, the thought foremost in my mind ,as it was after the first issue, is still “this would have been so much better if Joe had written it himself.” It’s too bad that it’s too late for that now, but I look forward to the final two issues of this miniseries, assuming they’re already “in the can,” so to speak, not for anything Straczynski has done/is doing — his scripting is so wildly uneven that I don’t have the first clue what the quality of next issue’s story is going to be like — but because, unless there’s some mystery project buried somewhere in the “industry pipeline” that we don’t know about — they will, in all likelihood, mark Joe Kubert’s last comics work ever. And if you’re looking for the single saddest sentence I’ve ever had to type out, that one’s right up there near the top.

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