If Nite Owl, the four-parter that acts as the pivot in the controversial mega-series Before Watchmen, is a generational story, then it is a really bad one. Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl appears as a substantial character in the first issue, but by the final act his presence has already begun to fade. Hollis moves quickly, almost seamlessly, from hero to mentor to friend for the young Dan Dreiberg, the man who will take up the Nite Owl mantle for a new generation. And in this regard, Nite Owl must track as disappointing, especially since it doesn’t exploit the metanarrative of its creators—the pairing of father-and-son team, inker Joe and penciler Andy Kubert.
But, that’s really just the wrong way of looking at Nite Owl.
There is a kind of tag-teaming emerging in the artwork of Nite Owl, a mini now already two issues into its scripted four. Andy’s pencils are those of an artist from a simpler, richer era. They’re wide open in the sense that much of their purpose in the visual storytelling is to provide scaffolding rather than stricture for the inks. It’s with Joe Kubert’s the inking that Nite Owl’s storytelling really explodes on the page. There’s a moodiness and a deep, brooding soberness that the inking conveys, even in the most well-lit of scenes.
Take as example, the “game theory” scene where as a kid Dan dons the Nite Owl mask for the first time. He’s been beaten down time and again by neighborhood bullies. Finally, seeing Hollis Mason’s Nite Owl stand up to vastly numerically superior odds, and beating them, Dan buys a Nite Owl mask and confronts his own bullies.
He gets beaten to a pulp.
But he figures out that this confrontation, like the win/lose/draw scenario of Prisoner’s Dilemma and countless other games that form the substrate of John Forbes Nash’s contribution to economic thought, is all about forcing the right kind of interaction with your opponent. “Not beat”, says Dan through bloodied eyes, “I know I can’t win, but as long as I don’t give, you can’t win either”. Borrowing from game theory, Dan forces a draw.
But it’s JMS’s introduction of the notion of game theory itself, that more or less gives the game away. That from the very first page, Nite Owl has never been about a generational tale of passing on the mantle of the Nite Owl from the Golden age of mystery men, to the Silver.
Instead what we see here is the compelling portrait of man witnessing the death of one social order, and growing to be a hero in another. And that, more than anything, does tap the mystique of Joe Kubert.
Joe Kubert passed just yesterday, but already the world feels lighter, like something big is gone. He is the father of successful artists Andy and Adam, both of whom have already made an indelible mark on the comics industry. Joe’s own indelible mark comes not as being a premier artist himself, nor as having sired the next generation of comics artists in his sons, but in having founded the legendary Joe Kubert School and having sired the real next generation in that way.
The decades since, are awash in the ink and the art of Joe Kubert and the alumni of his School. But perhaps the most personally moving thing I remember about Joe Kubert is something he mentioned to Will Eisner.
“Well, I believe the biggest change to take place in the past two or three years is our audience,” Kubert says in his 1982 Shop Talk interview. “Our reader of 30 or 40 years ago was a cross section of the general population. That is, most of our material was sold at newsstands and most people had access to those newsstands or candy stores. The kind of material we were doing was of a general nature to satisfy and be of interest to that kind of audience. As you well know, our audience today is heavily fan-oriented. Not too long ago—within the last ten years—if you got a very vociferous letter from a fan and followed his suggestions, you knew that sales were going to drop; the fans were in the minority. So whether fans liked or disliked material bore very little relationship to what a general audience would accept”.
In a single quote of 105 words fewer than the Gettysburg Address, Joe Kubert defines the essential struggle of comics between the 1950s and the ‘80s—that over the course of decades, comics had begin to self-exclude from the mainstream. And Joe’s recognition of this secessional backslide repositions him in the popular culture. Joe’s a man reaching towards the adult world he imagined as a child, only to discover that world crumbling upon touch. But rather than accept the self-imposed retreat of comics from popculture, Joe built a school to ensure the principles of comics as a popular artform never fade from memory.
It’s hard to think of where this sentiment is communicated more powerfully than in the rich moody inking of Nite Owl.