A new year means another fresh slate of comics offered up by one of Brooklyn's best local publishers, "So What? Press". Having branched out to fifty retail locations across the globe (including nine in the New York area) as well as having earned a "2014 Society of Illustrators MoCCA Award for Excellence" for Jess Ruliffson's "Invisible Wounds", this year has seen the quirky company's reach and readership expand to new heights. It also means fresh adventures for the company's signature franchise, "Tales of the Night Watchman", created by founders Dave Kelly and Lara Antal.
To recap from September, the titular tales focus on the adventures and exploits of three "baristas" from "Think Coffee": Nora, Charlie, and their new friend Serena. Nora and Charlie are roommates who have to face more than making rent with retail service jobs, since Charlie becomes possessed with the supernatural spirit of "the Night Watchman" every time he goes to sleep. The Night Watchman is a modern day "pulp hero" whose exploits usually pit him against zombies, vampires, and the occasional mugger or two. Serena, meanwhile, is a homeless ne'er do well who squats in a tent on the roof of their complex and has taken up a gig at the coffee shop, despite hardly being the best employee. After an initial two issues, the adventures continue as a series of individually titled one-shots which continue the themes of character development and Brooklyn-style monster hunting.
The first is "Tales from the Night Watchman: Staycation", a quick ten page tale by Dave Kelly and Lara Antal. Described as a "prologue", it follows Nora and her friend Trish as they go for a girl's only trek to the "Sandy Moon Beach Hotel" (presumably in Sandy Hook) to get away from their troubles. Unfortunately, Trish's troubles have come with her. In essence, this is a small piece about atmosphere and mood more than a long flowing plot. Aside for their car radio, there isn't a line of dialogue until page seven, which gives Antal's artistic chops a chance to shine. The overall tone of the piece is whimsical until the finale, where things become more somber. Aside for a one page chat about Charlie and the fact that Nora is the star, this short story works mostly on its' own without needing to be tied to another comic series. The dialogue is fast paced and refreshing for those used to often stilted "big two" superhero dialogue, even if the real star here is Lara Antal's mastery of sequential black and white comic book art. Transitioning between comedy and drama on dime is the sort of narrative skill - in both script and art - which is easy to under appreciate. When it is done well, it's so seamless that the reader hardly notices at all; done poorly, and it can't help but clash with the rest of the piece. At only ten pages, Kelly and Antal showcase their skill at the fundamentals of comic book making, which is why it works.
The second is the main course with perhaps the best title ever, "Tales of the Night Watchman: It Came from the Gowanus Canal". Dave Kelly once again writes the piece, with art done by Molly Ostertag (who drew the last one shot, "The Night Collector"). For anyone who lives in or around Brooklyn, it is impossible to not have peaked interest after seeing or hearing that opening. After a break with "Staycation", this is a return to the usual format of the series as our plucky trio stumble upon the latest local mystery. Nora finds herself frustrated when Serena clogs the coffee shop's computer with her online search results in addition to Charlie being completely computer illiterate. The street urchin appears fascinated with "urban legends", in particular the so-called "Gowanus Golem" which supposedly rises from the muck filled canal and haunts the living. At first dismissive, when Serena's searches turn out to coincide with a deadly traffic accident, the Night Watchman begins to aid in her investigations. It all goes back to the organized crime scene in 1938 as well as tying into the vague memories of the Watchman himself, who remembers little about his life and times before becoming a ghostly vigilante. Things culminate in a hospice showdown between the Watchman, the Gowanus monster, and Nora herself as they try to prevent further violence.
The origin of the "Gowanus Golem" is interesting, even if it may seem a little familiar to some well read comic book or animation fans. Older villains such as DC Comics' Solomon Grundy or "the Digger" from J. Michael Straczynski's run on "Amazing Spider-Man" may pop into the minds of some in the audience once all the chips are laid down. Fortunately, the Gowanus monster has its' own unique design and as with "Staycation", the story excels due to execution and well drawn black and white pages. The overall plot involves mafia machinations, a time flung romance, as well as a search for answers getting in the way of revenge. Although some of the pulp elements from the 1938 sequences could seem familiar, Kelly and Ostertag are wise to add a rarely seen element from such tales; an interracial romance at a time when such things would have been extremely taboo. The revelations about his previous life also come at a climatic time for Nora and Charlie, as they try to sort out what their relationship is and what limits to put on it. In the meanwhile, Serena makes a plucky sidekick for the Night Watchman's exploits and as usual lightens up any scene she is in.
As with the previous installments, "Tales of the Night Watchman" works because it mingles quirky characters and good doses of inter personal comedy with a unique take on the usual "monster hunting" genre. Although the monster mysteries propel the action, they really serve as motivation for the real meat of the series, which is character development and interaction. Charlie is stiff and to the point, while Serena is manic and whimsical, while Nora (as any good manager does) has to act as a medium to try to bring out the best in them, while still having a life herself. Since the series in general seems to serve as a modern update to pulp hero franchises such as "the Shadow" or "the Spectre", a plot mingling mobsters with the latest monster plays to the series' strengths quite well. Every adventure develops the cast a bit more and makes them stronger, which is as it should be. Although different from Antal's art, Ostertag's style compliments Lara's quite well, and she also displays a mastery at her craft. At a price of five dollars for forty pages of story, it's more than a bargain for weekly superhero readers.
Overall, 2014 has been a great year for "So What? Press" and for "Tales of the Night Watchman", where the sky's the limit! One can only hope the wait for the next adventure won't be as long. The series' flair for comedy, adventure, pulp tragedy and Brooklyn flavor is readily appreciated.