The Night Owls
The newest Zuda webcomic in print (after last fall’s High Moon) is The Night Owls. Online, this strip was the site’s second Instant Winner, meaning it was picked for a development contract in December 2007 without having to struggle through winning a monthly competition. Installments ran through December 2009, and they’ve all been collected here.
As soon as I heard the premise — supernatural detectives in the roaring 20s — I was sold. I fondly remember Jazz Age Chronicles, and since its departure, I’ve missed reading period historical adventure with a sense of humor. The Night Owl Detectives are, as the first page spells out in faux newsreel form,
- Professor Ernest Baxter, an egghead allergic to sunlight
- Flapper Mindy Markus, who provides energy, enthusiasm, and her own kind of smarts
- Roscoe the Gargoyle, a living winged statue in a derby hat who talks like a Brooklyn tough guy
Some of the strips are single-panel gags playing off the premise (which reminded me at times of Supernatural Law), but relatively quickly come continuing stories, as when Roscoe’s sister has to be stopped from marrying Bluebeard, or the Pied Piper is playing the Cotton Club. Each case reveals more about the characters, too, and their relationships to each other. I can’t imagine reading this weekly — it’s much more fun in great lumps, where the suspense can build without the reader losing track of what’s going on. I was pleasantly surprised to see certain cast members returning after I thought their first appearance was just a one-shot joke.
There’s an arch-villain, Mr. You, who steals people’s faces because he doesn’t have one of his own, and a werewolf driven by a jealous woman. The flashback to how Mindy (the breakthrough character) and Ernest met at Coney Island was one of my favorite storylines. She’s a hot dog vendor, and he’s trying to get a monster out of the Hall of Mirrors. Mindy saves the day with direct action and a sassy attitude.
The art is crisp, confidently delineated, with enough action to keep it from being “talking heads”. The sometimes-missing backgrounds (mostly when characters are talking indoors) are typical of webwork, but the strong character design makes up for them, and each new or significant setting is drawn appropriately. The strips are easy to read, following a standard grid in horizontal format with an over-arching banner inspired by classic Sunday comics. Most of them are colored in sepia tones (shades of brown), to keep that historical feel.
The explanation of why Ernest avoids the sun (yes, it’s not as simple as a mere allergy, as you already guessed) turns into the story of a giant Native American owl-monster with a Medusa-like freezing gaze. The mishmash of imagination, where anything might happen, is part of the series’ charming appeal. There are mummies and gangsters and ghosts and a visit to a magical kingdom (all in full color!) and a zoo full of kidnapped mythical beasties, which demonstrates, in all its various creatures, just how much the art develops over the strip’s run.
The series ends on an inspiring cliffhanger which makes me want more now. Overall, it’s lots of fun. The book also contains a bit of supplementary material, including character sketches. The twins post news updates on their blog. (The publisher provided a review copy.)