‘The Owl #1,’ Review by Daniel Binns, University of Western Sydney, Australia

A Capital Conundrum

Owl01-Cov-Ross

Any number of circumstances can cause comic book writers to revitalise, resurrect or otherwise re-launch an old character. The diversification of a story, for instance, or the desire to have a new hero face off with an old villain. Slightly rarer, though, is the opportunity to bring a golden-age comic book hero back from oblivion: such is the case with those recently fallen into the public domain. Some probably should remain in the sewers of history, such as Inspector Cosmic[1] – whose short-lived crime-fighting career occurred some 23,000 light years off Mercury where he and ‘Comics’ McCormick defeated the Space Pirates – or Ventrilo – ventriloquist-cum-private eye. For the keen-eyed writer, however, there are gems waiting to be found.

J.T. Krul probably thought he was onto a winner when he found Nick Terry. Terry first appeared in Crackajack Funnies #25 in 1940, and then again in a series of Popular Comics, but then fell victim to that most deadly of comic book villains: a lack of readership. By day, Terry is a cop, driven by the purest of desires to see justice done. By night, the same determination fuels his adventures as his alter ego, The Owl. Terry is not blessed with supernatural powers of any kind, but his incredible athleticism and agility is augmented with a series of helpful devices, such as his signature Owl Bombs, a blacklight torch, and his souped up Owl Roadster. Krul certainly would have drawn parallels with another cowl- and cape-wearing crusader, but the point of difference is The Owl’s permanent partnership with Owl Girl. This relationship – which flourishes both in and out of costume – fuels the overall narrative arc, which weaves in and out of encounters with various scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells. This re-launched Owl is far from a re-boot: the story goes that sixty years ago (around the time of Terry’s last appearance), all the evils of the world were trapped in a mysterious urn. The catch, though, was that all the heroes had to be trapped as well. Recently, the urn was opened, and the heroes and villains were unleashed upon the world. It was up to The Owl and his comrades to restore balance, which they eventually did.

cracajack

The Owl, then, is not only a self-made hero, but also a hero out of time.

At the risk of over-simplifying an extensive back-catalogue – not to mention alienating legions of fans of graphically-based narratives – it feels safe to suggest that the vast majority of comic books about crime are centred on a world somehow out of order. Be it the rise of a megalomaniacal super-villain, or organised crime gone out of hand, there is usually something truly amiss. Throughout the history of comic books, the heroes we know and love have striven to restore – if not peace, then at least – balance and equilibrium. Conard holds that ‘flux metaphysics’ refers to system of evolution, rather than of checks and balances, or ebbs and flows[2]. Friedrich Nietzsche’s view, however, is that if our senses detect a world that is always evolving (everything constantly in flux), we would never survive. Our biology detects the natural ebbs and flows of the world, but our brains – our reason – allows us to overcome this overwhelming system. Furthermore, Nietzsche posits that language – like reason – is a controlling device, i.e. a method, however hollow and superficial, of imposing order on the chaos of the world[3]. Morality, like language, is a construct. The spectrum of morality as a controlling device, thus, is as problematic as language.

Capture

As previously alluded, this uncontrollable evolution is perhaps best depicted in the world of Batman. A flawed hero, reliant on innovative technology that only augments what strength he can obtain from diet and exercise, Bruce Wayne swiftly realises that acting alone is ineffective. Batman forms partnerships where he can – though notably only partnerships, very rarely ensembles a la The Avengers – and these are often successful. However, Mike Pottenger has identified flaws in the ‘system’ of the Dark Knight’s modus operandi. It all comes down to running costs: Mike Pottenger has determined that it costs around US$900,000 per annum to be Batman[4]. I would argue, however, that this is offset by another element of Wayne’s existence: his business interests. Obviously Batman and his associated accessories are funded by Wayne Enterprises – and the majority of research and development, scouting enemies, and so forth, is done under the auspices of same – but the corporation’s activities exert an obscene amount of control over financial markets, commodities, and growth in technology and future research. Thus, while Batman attempts to rid Gotham’s streets of evil, his company is, by its monopolistic nature, trying to rid the world of diversity in the marketplace. Consider Nick Terry, then, as something of an anti-Batman. With little to no interest in diversifying his assets and moving into big business, Terry has merely to scrape by. He could achieve this by flipping burgers or cleaning toilets, but instead tries to become a detective with the police. His alter ego, then, becomes somewhat less ‘alter,’ and certainly makes him a more holistic character.

Capture

In the world of Nick Terry – in The Owl’s Yorktown – the world has evolved, as a flux metaphysics suggests it must. The ‘hero out of time’ must deal, of course, with changed technologies – ‘The guns are louder now. Faster. More powerful.’[5] – but also with changed attitudes. Where his enemies once saw The Owl as a fearsome freedom fighter, they now see him as little more than a nuisance. Similarly, Nick Terry’s once fruitful relationship with the police department now yields him grief: ‘I’m no hero to them,’ Terry says. ‘I’m a pain in the ass.’[6] The police’s treatment of both Nick Terry and The Owl demonstrate one issue, and suggest another. The first is the lack of funding for public services and law enforcement, a universal current issue that contemporises the story for the twenty-first century. The second, suggested, issue, is an implied complacency on the part of law enforcement officers, and an equally inherent openness to bribes and corruption. The universe of the Dark Knight espouses what might be called ‘altruistic capitalism.’ That said, Slavoj Zizek lays bare Bruce Wayne’s wealth as having been built upon arms manufacturing and playing the stock market.[7] On the other hand, Nick Terry is content to live well within his means. The antagonist of this new Owl, then – almost predictably – is an obscenely wealthy aristocratic type, happy to hire malevolent underlings to do his dirty work.

This villain is not revealed until the second issue, however. The first concerns itself predominantly with Nick Terry’s past – attempting to justify the re-launch in terms of a continued chronology (stasis and ‘rebirth’). The risen hero must adapt to his new surroundings while attempting to reconcile his past. This process of recovery is complicated in the final scene by the appearance of a masked heroine, who appears at first glance to be Owl Girl. This is the most compelling of plot points, and is not given nearly enough set-up. Even for a re-launch, it seems unjustified to spend half an issue re-hashing the events leading to the present timeline. This can often be condensed to an opening crawl or an opening dialogue – however expository – that gives a reader enough detail while still establishing the current environment. Overall, Issue #1 of Krul’s Owl does nothing new, but goes some way to establishing the central protagonist. Like any opening teaser, the issue leaves many questions unanswered. The largest concern this reviewer has, however, is that they are the wrong questions.


[1] Public Domain Superheroes. 2013. ‘Inspector Cosmic.’ Retrieved 26 September 2013 from http://pdsh.wikia.com/wiki/Inspector_Cosmic.

[2] Conard, M. T. 2007. ‘Chaos, Order and Morality.’ In Abrams, J. J. (Ed.)., The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press. p. 34.

[3] Ibid., p. 35-6.

[4] Pottenger, M. 2013, January 13. ‘What economics can teach us about Batman.’ ESSA. Retrieved 28 September 2013 from http://economicstudents.com/2013/01/what-economics-can-teach-us-about-batman/

[5] Krul, J. T. (writer), & Michael, H. K. (illustrator). 2013. The Owl #1. Mt. Laurel, New Jersey: Dynamite Entertainment. p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 7.

[7] Zizek, S. 2012, August 23. ‘The politics of Batman.’ The New Statesman. Retrieved 27 September 2013 from http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/08/slavoj-%C5%BEi%C5%BEek-politics-batman.

About

Daniel Binns is a doctoral candidate in the School of Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. His research encompasses many aspects of cinema, and he has written widely on the war film and economies of blockbuster cinema. Dan teaches in film and media studies, and works in the film industry as a writer and producer.