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A review a day: The Night Owls

by  in Comic News Comment
A review a day: <i>The Night Owls</i>

I’m buying the cow even though I can get the milk for free! I’m just kooky that way!

The Night Owls is one of them there Zuda Comics that DC set up a while back. As you well know, I have very little interest in reading comics on my computer (sorry, that’s just how I roll), so I generally skip them, but when there’s a print edition, I like to give those that sound interesting a whirl. This collection, about a paranormal detective agency in 1920s New York, sounded pretty keen. It’s by Bobby and Peter Timony (Bobby draws, while Peter writes) and costs $14.95. For approximately 180 pages, that ain’t bad.

The Night Owls is a clever story that never aspires to be anything other than it is and therefore doesn’t become anything more than it is, if that makes sense. The Timonys introduce us to Ernest Baxter of the Night Owls Detective Agency, who specializes in odd cases involving vampires and werewolves and other such stuff. His assistant is firecracker Mindy Markus, who kicks a bunch of ass (Ernest is a bit of a wuss) and keeps surprising her employer with how smart she is. For some reason, Roscoe the gargoyle also hangs out at the agency, helping on cases occasionally but also being a nuisance most of the time. There are plenty of other characters, too, the foremost being Bill McRory, a police detective who often calls on Ernest and has a crush on Mindy (he’s engaged, too, so he can’t act on his feelings … at least not in the beginning of the book). So there’s a love triangle, as Ernest is obviously smitten with Mindy but feels inadequate next to McRory’s rugged manliness (Ernest bitches that he can’t even compete with McRory’s chin, as it’s so manly). The romantic theme carries throughout the book, as situations change and people make choices that affect their relationships. The brothers do a nice job keeping everything relatively light, but they do manage to add some depth to what is a fairly clichéd situation.

The strips are blended well between one-off gags and longer storylines, as the detectives get into strange cases, some of which turn deadly. The agency is called The Night Owls because Ernest never goes out during the day. Of course, one storyline has him being kidnapped by vampires who think he’s one of them, but it turns out there’s an entirely different reason for it. The Timonys do a good job of bringing back characters (both allies and enemies) rather organically, as is the case with both the vampires and the enemy that Ernest is hiding from (and is the reason why he never goes out in the day). Their nemesis is Mr. You, who literally rips the faces off of people and puts them on his own (featureless) face. It’s odd to see in a comic as lighthearted as this – he pulls off faces like they’re masks, and leaves his victims (who must remain alive for him to use their faces) with no skin and exposed muscle and bone. It’s somewhat creepy yet goofy, especially when the victims can simply pull their faces back on with no apparent problems. Yes, the book is full of vampires and gargoyles and talking animals and ghosts and mummies and mermaids and the Pied Piper (although the Timonys spell “Hamelin” incorrectly), but this is what interrupts my suspension of disbelief. It just makes no sense, man! Mr. You, however, is a pretty neat recurring character, and there’s even a twist on his identity later in the book. There’s some death in the book, but the Timonys keep everything relatively breezy and fun. The only part of the book that’s kind of clunky is the story where they visit Mindy’s real parents (she was adopted) – it takes place in a fantasy world full of knights and dragons, and the fact that it’s actually colored rather than in sepia tones just makes it a weird diversion in the middle of the book. It makes even less sense than Mr. You!

Bobby Timony’s art is clean and crisp, with a heavy emphasis on character work. The constraints of a strip like this mean the backgrounds will often get short shrift, and although Timony does his best to place this squarely in Roaring Twenties New York, it’s difficult because there’s not a lot of room (one strip is one large panel of the gang driving down a very period street, but that’s an exception). The character design is fantastic, though – Timony draws cute women, which is always a plus, but he also does a very nice job with body language and facial expressions, and when parts of the book resemble a comedy of manners, that’s a good thing because quite a bit gets left unsaid. For the amount of space, Timony gets a lot of details into the panels, which helps some of the sight gags (as when Roscoe gets stuck in a magic circle and keeps summoning things to keep him company – it’s impressive how Timony makes everything fit). It’s very charming art.

It’s not a perfect book, of course. As I wrote above, it’s very breezy, but the Timonys hint at darker and more important things but never get into them. There’s nothing wrong with that, as they can write the comic any way they want, but I felt there’s more substance to be had out of this set-up than just spooky cases and some cute comedy. It’s not quite as humorous to stand just on that, and the Timonys themselves bring in some of the depth (with regard to Ernest and his heroic past and his feelings for Mindy, to be specific), so they should expect when a reader wants them to run with that a bit. It’s not a reason to dislike the book, but it felt like we were going to get something bigger and it never materializes. This ties in with the other problem of the book, the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger and there doesn’t seem to be a plan for a second volume. On the one hand, this book has enough stories and one-note gags to be satisfactory, but on the other hand, it’s annoying to follow these characters as we get to know them and have the Timonys build up to something rather big and then not get a resolution. What’s interesting is that we, as readers, can fill in the blank left by the end of the book rather easily, but in a comic where the storytelling is rather straight-forward, it’s jarring to get a “Sopranos“-type finale. The entire comic is unambiguous, at least in terms of plot. Why would the Timonys end it as if it’s a French New Wave movie? Did they plan for more and was the plug pulled? Beats me. It’s frustrating.

Overall, though, The Night Owls is a delightful comic. It’s an old-fashioned adventure with a reluctant and somewhat nerdy hero and a spunky and button-cute heroine. The Timonys do a good job making sure neither Ernest nor Mindy turn into clichés, and the stories are fun to read. The Night Owls probably won’t be a comic that will stay with you long after you’ve stopped reading, but while you are reading it, it’s a pleasant book. And Al Capone’s in it!

Tomorrow: After months without banshees at this site, we get a second banshee-related comic in a row! What are the odds?

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