Before Watchmen: Nite Owl #3

by deerinthexenonarclights

Ok, wow. I was very harsh on the first issue of this series, it seemed pointless and over-polarised to me at the time but the second seemed a little stronger and started to turn me around with its work on women and sexuality. This third issue though is not only terrific on its own terms but it brings the issues before it up a notch or two with its revelations, really lending new importance to them with its ideas. I was dreading this issue, disappointed that it was the title up this week but I ended up finding it to be one of if not the best of the Before Watchmen books thus far and the clear title of the week. And that is a big maneuver for a book to make, I mean wow, OK?

Now you may well look at the front cover of this comic and be a little shocked to hear that it was in fact that good because the image that adorns it looks a lot like the infamous illicit dealings that DC mandated occur between Catwoman and Batman in that ill-fortuned first issue: it’s two suited superhero’s in a strange sort of sexual pose. Unlike that issue though Nite Owl #3 is using its sex for serious purposes and not just to titillate the thirteen year old readers too bashful to buy Playboy; in fact I would go so far as to say that this short series is shaping up to be one of the finest explorations of violent sexual dynamics that I have had the pleasure and misfortune to read.

These ideas were hinted at last month when Rorschach and Dan started running a case involving sadomasochistic activities and slaughtered prostitutes, catching the eye of a demure Dominatrix, but this is the issue that truly dives into them. Writer John Michael Straczynski cleverly starts the comic off comically with Nite-Owl and this new female character quipping about ‘coming’, the banter brilliantly old-school, something that Billy Wilder would be proud of.

But then we switch focus to Rorschach, yet again, and the book takes a turn towards the literally apocalyptic, as Kovacs holds a conversation with a creepy Catholic Reverend where for once he is the reasonable, liberal voice. The rest of the book bounces between these two distinct tones; tempering the dark and damning content with lighter, cathartic comedy. This isn’t a cop-out, it’s not to make the book more commercially viable but bearable. It’s a brilliant move and brilliantly done by Straczynski.

What really worked about this book though is what comes next. After following a lead and questioning a crim in proper Batman style – using the same shadowy entrance, quick quips and merciless but harmless torture – Nite Owl and his pal celebrate by re-enacting that cover pose in an extended sequence. We follow them from the second they walk in the house through to when he walks out hours later and everything in between is simply fascinating stuff; so much more than the cut-away to a train entering a tunnel would have been were this a safer, sexless book.

I want to stop for a second and praise the Kubert’s – especially with this being the last work of the late Joe – and Bill Sienkiewicz who all do a great job of the artwork here. The style and character designs are distinctively liney, lending the scenes suitable grit, the action is clear and compelling but it is through sex that Bill, Andy and his father really show their talent. The way that they depict the scene is very sexual since contrary to the cover the two characters are naked throughout but this is never simply for the sake of it, its never gratuitous or to titillate but  just enough to convey the points and the mood that Michael intended.

Those points are plenty, poignant and perfectly rendered: single lines expressing complex philosophies that are so clear because we have seen all the scenes leading up to this. When the woman speaks of there being two different types of men – those who strive to protect women who remind them of their mother and those who seek to strike the same – the sentence hits hard because of what was shown back in issue one, because of that backstory that had seemed a little stilted then and because of the backstory given to the book’s other lead Rorschach in the original text. These thematic ideas are intricately applicable to the rest of the series, but they can also be blown up and put back on Watchmen and then bigger again to life itself.

My one issue with the issue is that after this scene the rest of the story is something of an anti-climax; like sex post-climax it’s still tehnically good for all the same reasons but the excitement was exorcised with the peak. It then ends with something of a strange cliffhanger which I won’t spoil, almost too strange given the seriousness of the book before it but I doubted JMS last time when the Mistress was the final panel and look how that turned out. For the perverted power of the imagery alone I feel that I should forgive this slight alienation and have faith.

So, this issue was terrific and it was that because of truth. It told its story truthfully and within that were a number of hidden truths, truths that we might not like to hear but need to. And the truth is, given just how good this issue was I wonder if maybe I was wrong about the two that came before it. I don’t like to admit it, it’s the fifth kind then, but I think I judged this series far to soon. If you stopped reading after that issue, or didn’t start because of it I would suggest turning your opinion around as far as this book has.