The comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter (and specifically its story “Marooned”) provided just one of many levels of meaning in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. That harrowing tale of a doomed sailor struggling to stop a demonic vessel now has its own parallel in Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock, thanks to the in-universe film noir The Adjournment. However, one big difference between the two is that The Adjournment is based on a pre-existing DC character, Don McGregor and Gene Colan’s Nathaniel Dusk.
In fact, Johns told Newsweek that he and Frank “will get into [Dusk and his onscreen portrayer Carver Colman] more as the issues progress.” Therefore, since DC published two Nathaniel Dusk miniseries in the mid-1980s, today we’re examining them for clues about Doomsday Clock.
Nathaniel Dusk In Print
Although the two Dusk miniseries were titled Nathaniel Dusk (cover-dated February-May 1984) and Nathaniel Dusk II (October 1985-January 1986), the first was subtitled “Lovers Die At Dusk” and the second “Apple Peddlers Die At Noon.” Each miniseries ran four issues; with each issue written by Don McGregor, pencilled by Gene Colan, colored by Tom Ziuko and lettered by John Costanza. Since the art was produced directly from Colan’s pencils, there was no inker. Alan Gold edited the first miniseries, while McGregor edited the sequel.
Nathaniel Dusk is a New York City private detective, ex-cop, and ex-World War I pilot (he even flew a Sopwith Camel). The two miniseries cover just over five months of Dusk’s life, from January 31, 1934 to July 4, 1934. Despite having entries in various DC encyclopediae, there’s no indication that Dusk was supposed to be part of DC’s shared superhero universe; and with one satirical exception (a cameo in July 1995’s Lobo issue #17) he doesn’t appear alongside any other DC characters.
Dusk left the NYPD in 1931 because he couldn’t stand its corruption. His main ally is Lieutenant Murray Abrahams, a rare honest cop. Oscar Flam runs the newsstand near Dusk’s office and looks after his polio-stricken son Albert. Ex-Wall Street millionaire Freddie Bickenhacker shines Dusk’s shoes.
However, the character who most informs Dusk’s adventures is his girlfriend Joyce Gulino. Joyce’s death in “Lovers Die At Dusk” drives Dusk’s overall character arc, both because he failed to save her and because he doesn’t want to alienate her two young children. Although Joyce told Dusk that her parents and husband were dead, she was really hiding out from said husband, mobster Joseph Costilino. After she left Costilino in the wake of his cheating (and venereal disease), he never forgave her for that, or for taking his only son from him. When he learned about her relationship with Dusk, he ordered both of them killed. In a perfect film-noir twist, one of the hitmen ended up shooting Costilino in order to get to Dusk. (The hitman’s reputation would have been in tatters if he’d failed to kill Dusk.) At the end of the first miniseries, Joyce’s kids go to live with her mother, who wasn’t dead after all; and Dusk continues to see them throughout the second miniseries.
In Nathaniel Dusk II‘s “Apple Peddlers Die At Noon,” socialite Amanda Cooper hires Dusk to protect her father Cranston Clement. He’s another ex-businessman reduced to streetcorner vending, namely selling apples. This miniseries’ plot is a little more complicated, involving ribbon manufacturing and the eventual war against Hitler. In any event, Dusk fails to protect Clement (who, to be fair, didn’t exactly welcome the protection) but still solves the case, rescuing Amanda from the killer in the process.
Appropriately enough for a character inspired by pulps and classic detective stories, these miniseries visit a dizzying amount of violence on Dusk. Besides the usual fare of being shot at and beaten up, Dusk is almost thrown off a building, nearly impaled by a unicorn statue, left to drown and/or be chopped up by a boat propellor, injected with rat poison, and locked in a too-hot sauna. NDII‘s big finish involves a chase through Coney Island and a fight aboard a biplane.
In light of all this carnage, it’s no wonder that Dusk’s main motivation is to keep from losing people — not just to death, but to personal fallings-out. Towards the end of the first miniseries, Dusk learns that Oscar betrayed him after getting an offer he couldn’t refuse. In the second miniseries, when Amanda becomes the target, Dusk’s efforts to save her parallel his attempts to connect with Joyce’s resentful son Tony. Dusk saving Amanda and reconciling with Oscar and Tony allows the miniseries (and, ultimately, Dusk’s comics adventures) to end on a hopeful note.
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