A BROTHER TO DRAGONS
One aspect of the superhero genre Alan Moore wanted to examine with Watchmen was the sexual subtext inherent therein. Earlier chapters hint at the sexual proclivities of these heroes who dress up in spandex or mini-skirts, leaving little of their hypertrophied physiques to the imagination. But with chapter VII, Moore and Dave Gibbons bring the sexual tension to the forefront. Ironically, they do this with the two most emotionally stable characters of the bunch, relatively speaking.
In the short time they’ve been reunited, Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl) and Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) have become close. This can be attributed directly to their common secret of having been costumed adventurers. Unwilling to let his friend stay at a motel after Jon (Dr. Manhattan) left Earth for Mars, Dan invited Laurie to stay at his place until she gets back on her feet, and their ease with one another reveals itself in their flirtations – seen in Dan’s stolen glances and Laurie’s remark on his utility belt: “What else have you got in there … army issue contraceptives?” It’s a natural progression of their relationship within the framework of Watchmen, made more touching by Dan’s earnestness and Laurie’s obliviousness to the whole thing.
Moore & Gibbons emphasize this sexual tension subtly with visual symbolism. There are a number of phallic symbols within this chapter. These all tend to revolve around Dan’s owlship, Archie (short for Archimedes), which can be viewed as a surrogate for Dan. Most prominently, the chapter is bookended with the accidental ignition of Archie’s flamethrower, an obvious representation of ejaculation within the context of this chapter. We also have the owlship entering the dark tunnels beneath New York City as it launches into the night, the phallic owlship entering the vaginal New York tunnels. These symbols could easily be missed on an initial reading, but subconsciously they heighten the sexual tension replete throughout this chapter, adding yet another layer to the story being told by Moore & Gibbons.
And, of course, we have the recognition that, for Dan, the costumes inflame the sexual drive he lacks in “normal life.” But this is more than just a fetish thing. In his life as Dan Dreiberg, Dan feels impotent, unimportant, incapable of making a difference the way he did as Nite Owl. It is this feeling of helplessness, more than anything, that holds him back in his relationship with Laurie. And it is Dan’s rediscovery of that virility, in the form of his Owl suit (and Laurie’s Silk Spectre skirt), that propels him forward, determined to solve this case, more alive than he’s been in a long time.
Cover Image: As with every cover prior, this image is a close-up of page 1, panel 1 of chapter VII. We are looking at Nite Owl’s goggles, the reflection of “Archie,” his owlship, clear in the lens, the smudged soot emblematic of the blood stain on Comedian’s smiley-face badge, a running motif throughout this series as the specter of a “mask killer” looms over everything in this story.
Panels 1-4: Pulling back, we see that the person who slid a finger across Dan’s goggles is Laurie. The goggles rest around the neck of Dan’s Nite Owl suit.
Throughout much of this chapter, the empty Nite Owl suit will be looking down on Dan and Laurie, like some disembodied spirit condemning them for giving up their heroic identities and ideals. Additionally – as we will learn in a couple pages - the empty suit can also be seen as Dan’s father symbolically condemning his son for not following in his footsteps.
Panel 7: Moore & Gibbons once again juxtapose text and images, as the owlship’s flamethrower ignites just above the title – “A Brother to Dragons” – which obviously links to the “dragons” in the title.
Panel 4: Dan’s comment that the fire mainly only burned off the soot from “Archie,” coupled with the flames on the previous two pages, symbolizes, as well as foreshadows, the rebirth (as in the mythological Phoenix) of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre later in this chapter.
Panel 7: The “magician’s cave” comment by Laurie is symbolic of the wizard Merlin, from the legend of Camelot and King Arthur, who was an inspiration for Dan and, from which legend, Dan got the name for his owlship, Archimedes – the name of Merlin’s pet owl and familiar in some of the tellings of the legend.
Panel 8: The empty Nite Owl suit is looking down on Dan, condemning him with its silent stare, as he expresses his embarrassment with his former heroic identity, stating that it seemed “childish.” This juxtaposition of Dan’s word and the “condemning” suit accentuate the fact that Dan does not truly believe this, and that, in this world, his heroics were not childish but “good” things that helped people.
Panel 9: Pulling in close to the goggles, as seen on the cover, Moore again emphasizes Dan’s words that he has changed his mind, “with hindsight…on reflection,” as he and Laurie are reflected in the goggles.
Panel 4: Note the dominatrix-style costume of the Twilight Lady, accentuating Moore’s thesis, or one of his theses, that to be a costumed hero in the real world would require some type of deviance on the part of the adventurer.
Also, the fact that Dan has this picture from one of his “enemies” plays into the reality that Dan has “a thing” for the costumes – in the costume he feels more a man, and, as we will discover at the end of this chapter, it excites him sexually in a way that “typical” sexual encounters may not.
Panel 5: Dan’s comment that the Twilight Lady was a “very sick woman,” coupled with his admonition that he kept “meaning to throw that picture away,” but never did, is an admission of his own “sickness,” a classic writing technique of having the characters saying one thing while meaning something else.
Panels 1-2: The fact that Dan hesitates in letting go of Laurie’s hand foreshadows where their relationship is heading.
Panel 9: Again, Moore & Gibbons subtly emphasize the message here – as Laurie exclaims that she’s going to quit smoking and remarks what a “dangerous habit” it is, we not only have her holding out her cigarette and tobacco in front of her, but she is standing in front of the “radiation suit” of Dan’s with its nuclear fallout symbol on the front – exhibiting the small dangers (Laurie’s smoking) with the larger ones these people face (possible nuclear devastation if they do not figure out what is happening).
Panel 3: In the foreground, we see the empty Nite Owl suit staring at Dan and Laurie, while Dan goes on – again – about how glad he is that he gave up being a superhero. But the costume knows. It’s watching, waiting for Dan to return. All of these admonitions by Dan are not mere conversation; they are his way of trying to convince himself that he’s glad he gave up being a costumed adventurer.
Panel 1: Walking through Dan’s basement is like walking through Batman’s Batcave. Here, in this panel, we get Dan’s prime motivation for becoming a costumed hero: “I was rich, bored, and there were enough other guys doing it …” Like Bruce Wayne (Batman), Dan had the financial wherewithal to become a hero, but unlike Batman, he did it out of boredom rather than guilt.
Panel 5: Laurie’s innuendo regarding what Dan might have in his utility belt: “…Army issue contraceptives…” again foreshadows the direction in which their relationship is moving.
Panel 6: Dan’s remark, after listing off items like respirator masks and smoke bombs, that all he has in his utility belt is “the usual stuff,” emphasizes the difference in his, and Laurie’s, life compared with the “normal citizen.”
Panel 9: Dan’s remark that looking through his Nite Owl goggles could make everything “clear as day,” symbolizes the fact that returning to being a costumed adventurer – putting on these goggles again – would take away all of the questions and uncertainty in his life and make his future “clear as day.”
Panels 7-9: In these three panels the words are, again, juxtaposed against the imagery. We have Laurie making the comments: “…I’d always feel like I was under observation…” “…[in Dan’s secret basement he’d have] nobody watching [him]…” followed by Dan saying, “These days, I feel like something’s watching my every move.” These remarks are played against an image of the empty costume staring out at the audience followed by a close-up of the goggles, within which we see a reflection of Dan heading upstairs.
The costume is watching them, waiting for these two heroes to put their costumes back on, waiting for them to stop denying what makes them who they are.
Panel 6: Moore & Gibbons waste nothing in this series. Even apparent throwaway lines from the newscast like the one referencing tenement fires, as Laurie turns the television on, are pertinent. This line foreshadows the spark that will get Dan and Laurie back into their costumes.
Panel 8: True to form, as soon as Dan “mentions ornithology [Laurie] sort of switch[es] off” and tunes Dan out so that she can hear what the news has to say about Rorschach.
Panel 3: Note that Dr. Long, according to the news report, is arriving for his first interview with Walter Kovacs. This quick bit of information places the chronology for this particular chapter toward the beginning of the previous chapter.
Panels 4-7: The news reports about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan call to mind real-world military actions, albeit ones taken – in this story’s reality – six years after Russia invaded Afghanistan in our “timeline.” The Soviet war in Afghanistan lasted from 1979 until early 1989 in our history. In the world of the Watchmen, that invasion and war was postponed due to the military deterrent provided by Dr. Manhattan.
Panel 9: Again, Moore & Gibbons, juxtapose the words with the imagery to create an underlying tension within the narrative. Here, we have Dan commenting about how people can remain “cool” and “apathetic” in the face of the intense heat experienced by those in Hiroshima at the end of WWII when the United States dropped the atomic bomb contrasted with the television image of female peace demonstrators struggling with British police officers (an example of people failing to remain calm in the face of such tension).
Panel 2: The news account of investigators concluding the search for missing writer Max Shea is another piece of the verisimilitude introduced by Moore & Gibbons in Watchmen. For people not paying close attention, this news story would seem unimportant, only there to keep the scene moving forward. But, in reality, Max Shea is part of the grand plan of Ozymandias, which we will discover later in the series. Shea was the comic book writer profiled in the back matter of CHAPTER V, as the man who elevated the pirate comic, Tales of the Black Freighter to a place of commercial and critical acclaim. And one of those stories happens to be the one being read by Bernie, the kid at the newsstand – which we have been reading throughout the main narrative of Watchmen.
Panel 4: The Institute for Extraspatial Studies is yet another piece of the puzzle that Ozymandias is putting together in order to see his dream to fruition.
Panel 6: Starting with this panel and over the next couple of pages, Moore will be commenting – through the television dialogue – on the actions of Dan and Laurie as they finally allow the sexual tension that has built up between them to be released.
In this panel, the scientist’s proclamation that “we’re very excited,” is an obvious remark on the feelings of Dan and Laurie as they finally give in to their desires for one another.
Panel 7: The news anchor’s remark that, “our activities are entering space we thought impossible,” is a perfect description of the reality Dan and Laurie believed in only moments before, as neither one, particularly Dan, believed they would be sleeping together tonight.
Panels 8-9: The Nostalgia ad, remarking on one person discovering that another person they love and find unforgettable finds them unforgettable too, is a perfect soundtrack for Dan and Laurie’s romantic initiation on the couch.
Panel 1: The image in this panel – the wine, the discarded cufflinks, all on a table in a room overlooking what appears to be the ocean, is an idyllic and romantic scene, one that would typically be used for a romantic coupling such as Laurie and Dan are about to experience. This imagery sets up the ironic juxtaposition we will see in the next few pages, as Dan and Laurie become intimate.
Also note the perfume, Nostalgia – as has been used before – hearkens back to “better” days, as seen through rose-colored glasses. For Dan specifically, the nostalgia he wishes to experience is the thrill of his costumed adventuring days – days and experiences that made him feel more like a man than he does in the present.
Panel 4: Veidt’s comment: “…I haven’t done this in a while,” obviously is a commentary on what we see in the foreground, Dan and Laurie undressing as they prepare to have sex.
Panel 5: With this panel, we see more of the humorous/ironic juxtaposition that permeates this entire scene. The television’s commentator – remarking about Adrian Veidt’s acrobatic display – says, “…just look at the confidence [as Veidt begins] his maneuver.” This remark about confidence and assuredness is in direct opposition to Dan and Laurie’s experience on the couch, as evidenced by Dan’s unsure remark, “…I’m sorry. Am I crushing you?”
Panel 6: More ironic juxtaposition:
Commentator: “…there’s not the slightest tremor of effort. It’s all one smooth, seamless flow of motion…”
Dan: “Uh, I can’t seem to…” as he struggles to unbutton Laurie’s shirt.
Panel 7: Moore offers us a feint, as we hear the commentator say, “…this is absolutely breathtaking…” while Laurie seems to be in the initial throes of desire as she exclaims, “Oh. Ohh, Dan…” But, as we move to
Panel 8: we realize that her exhalation wasn’t from passion, but discomfort because Dan was sitting on her in an awkward position, evidenced by her remark – in response to Dan’s “What’s the matter?” – “…If you could just lift yourself a little, I could…”
And again, Moore juxtaposes this awkwardness against the commentary of Veidt’s acrobatic display with the remark: “The grace of each movement is extraordinary. This is a man in his forties…” The latter part of that statement is also true for Dan, who is having far more difficulty with what could be termed a much simpler exercise – at least physically – than that which Veidt is attempting.
Panel 1: Dan’s inability to “get it up,” as evidenced by the curse under his breath, “Aw, hell,” (as shown by the smaller lettering font in a word balloon too big for the dialogue, which leaves a lot of white space to indicate the softer aspect of this speech) is played off the commentator, once more, who exclaims that Veidt’s performance is “…just perfect…”
Panel 2: We get more ironic juxtaposition as we watch Veidt land a “perfect Hecht dismount” while Dan apologizes to Laurie for his inability to perform as he tells her, “…it isn’t you, it’s just [my hang-ups]…”
Panel 3: Note that the clock is at 7:00 pm.
Panels 4-6: In these three panels, we get more of the apocalyptic symbolism replete throughout this story: Panel 4 has “Pale Horse” and one of that band’s members “Red D’Eath”, Panel 5 has the advertisement for “MMMMMeltdowns,” and Panel 6 has the ABC sign-off remarks asking for people to “take care of each other.”
Also note that it is now 2:00 am, and Dan has been unable to perform over that whole time – whereas, in a more typical narrative, these two would have been fornicating that entire time as a climax to the release of their sexual tension. It is a testament to Moore’s writing that he did not go the expected/easy route with this.
Panel 8: Laurie’s remark to Dan, “Just sleep,” is played over the television set “going to sleep,” as broadcasting for the evening ceases – something that does not occur today, but was common practice at the time this was written.
Panel 9: The image of Dan’s glasses sitting on the floor beneath the coffee table transitions directly into
Panel 1: Where Dan’s dream-self is looking at a female figure – The Twilight Lady from the picture Laurie found earlier, reflected in his glasses – as his subconscious processes the evening’s events, particularly his inability to make love to Laurie.
Panels 1-17: On this page, Dave Gibbons, masterfully modifies the 9-panel grid utilized throughout the story to evoke an emotional response from the readers. Here, he doubles up the panels – until the final one – in order to bombard us with information, even as Dan is being bombarded in his dream. We see him rush to the Twilight Lady, for whom Dan presumably had a strong affection. They rip each other’s clothes off, so they are standing against each other, nude. They then peel away each other’s skin (a metaphorical mask) to reveal Dan’s true self (Nite Owl) and the one he truly wishes to be with (Laurie in her Silk Spectre outfit). As the two kiss, in their costumes, a mushroom cloud explodes behind them and washes over them, burning away their bodies so that they are nothing but skeletons embracing – a visual explanation of Dan’s overriding fears in the real world, that the mask killer is real and the events of the past days portend a devastating end for the human race.
The final panel brings us back to the present, and it is a standard size panel, which, when placed against the smaller panels that preceded it, makes us unconsciously linger on it a bit longer. It gives us time to process the previous sixteen smaller panels, which, as an effect of their smaller size, would most likely be read quicker, meant to evoke a feeling of being overwhelmed by all that information in such a small amount of space (or a short amount of time, as the size of a comic panel is one way in which artists manipulate time for a reader)
Panels 5-7: The dream imagery of Dan and Laurie being decimated by the explosion juxtaposed against Dan lightly kissing Laurie’s hand seems to foreshadow, through its symbolism, that Dan is leaving his lover to go be the hero, which is a common motif of adventure fiction.
Panel 10: Laurie’s sleepy remark to Jon is yet another example of Moore’s attention to detail, as well as human nature. Having been in such a long relationship with Dr. Manhattan, and hardly even begun one with Dan, it is only natural that she would call for Jon in her sleep, which she has been doing for years at this point in the story.
Panel 3: Dan’s finger across the window – the smudge streaked over the image of the sun in the background – is reminiscent of the bloodstain on the Comedian’s smiley face badge, a symbol that is seen throughout this narrative.
Panel 4-6: Note that the shadow of Dan’s head in these three panels looks very much like that of the cowl to his Nite Owl costume, signifying his true self while foreshadowing his plans.
Panel 9: Dan’s reflection, in his Nite Owl goggles, can be seen as symbolic – Dan Dreiberg the civilian is merely a reflection of Dan’s true self, Nite Owl the costumed adventurer.
Panel 5: Dan knows it’s quarter after three because there is a clock in the lower right-hand display of his goggles, which shows the time at 3:16
Panel 8: Dan’s remark that he feels “impotent” is not only a commentary on his feelings of inadequacy as the war in Afghanistan escalates while the “mask killer” still runs loose, but also one on his inability to make love to Laurie earlier.
Panel 3: Archie entering the tunnel (after Dan and Laurie have finally given up the shame of being “normal” people and decided to pursue costumed adventuring again, though they may not have admitted this to themselves yet) is an obvious sexual symbol – the phallus (Archie) entering the vagina (the tunnel) – representing these two giving in to their baser thoughts, and it also foreshadows what will happen between these two at the end of this chapter.
Panel 6: Dan’s remark – in regards to the ship’s smokescreens – that “Archie breathes smoke as well as fire,” hearkens back to the chapter title – A Brother to Dragons.
Panel 1: Again, we see how comics, as a storytelling medium, is unique with this oversized panel of Archie flying across the rooftops of New York City. The size of the panel, particularly in relation to the smaller panels prevalent within the 9-grid of this story, provides the scope of the scene while also relating the drama of the scene – its larger size making readers linger on the image a bit longer – in the way music might provide the same emotional resonance in a film.
And in the lower right corner, we see a tenement house on fire, which follows from the news report about a series of tenement fires as seen on Page 11, Panel 6.
Panel 4: It seems an obvious choice, but notice how John Higgins utilizes various shades of red to not only indicate the fire but also enhance the tension of the scene.
Panel 4: And, in the reflection of Laurie clad in her Silk Spectre outfit, Dan’s sexual fantasies are realized.
Panel 7: The ramp extending toward the building is another phallic symbol, emphasizing the sexual tension replete throughout this issue. This symbolism is emphasized by the remark from someone in the building that “…it’s pokin’ somethin’ at the building!”
Panel 1: The remark from one of the tenement dwellers: “…why’s she dressed like that? It’s us who just got woke up at four in the a.m…” is a subtle remark on the sexual nature of heroes, and in particular, the typical uniform of these heroes, which tends to be tight-fitting or, in the case of most female superheroes, “barely there,” as with Laurie’s very short skirt.
Panel 3: Note the fire in the background – which makes sense as far as the continuity – that can be seen, symbolically, as the rebirth of Dan and Laurie. Like the phoenix, which is cyclically reborn in fire, Dan and Laurie have returned to active costumed adventuring (their true selves, I would argue) as a result of this tenement fire. They are being reborn in fire this night.
Panel 7: The song, “You’re My Thrill,” is from 1933 and represents Dan’s anachronistic nature as well as being emblematic of the way he feels about Laurie, in particular how he feels about Laurie in her guise of the Silk Spectre.
This song can also be seen as a symbol of Dan’s unwillingness to “grow up.” He wants to return to the “good old days,” from where this song originates, acknowledge his romanticized outlook on those earlier times, and play hero in his Nite Owl costume.
Panel 1: Notice the guy in the background rolling a joint – a fact that becomes important in a couple panels.
Panel 3: In a bit of irony, the man who rolled the joint is obviously – from Laurie’s tense rebuke of him – preparing to hit the flamethrower button, the same mistake that Laurie made earlier in this chapter.
Panels 1-12: By doubling up the panels on the first two tiers of the 9-panel grid, this page by Gibbons mirrors Page 16, when Dan had his dream about the Twilight Lady and Laurie. The substance of the scene is also mirrored a bit with the dream sequence from Page 16, in that the dream was symbolic of Dan’s sexual hang-ups, while on this page the reality is reversed (as with a mirror’s reflection) as Dan and Laurie are satisfying their sexual urges – through the acceptance of their sexual hang-ups, which revolve around their costumes and how they feel in them, particularly Dan – which culminates with Laurie, again, accidentally hitting the flamethrower button as she and Dan embrace, leading to
Panel 13: where we see Archie shooting his flames, an obvious reference to ejaculation, symbolizing the coupling of Dan and Laurie within the ship.
Panel 1: Dan’s remarks: “I thought you’d quit, Laurie…” is a direct comment on Laurie smoking in this “super-panel,” as well as a remark on the two of them having previously quit costumed adventuring.
Panel 2: Laurie’s response: “There’s no such thing as quitting. Just … a longer pause between relapses …” is an obvious response to both of the meanings of Dan’s prior remark. These two could no more easily quit being heroes as they could quit living – it just took something as serious as recent events to illuminate them to this fact.
Panel 4: And, as we began this chapter, Dan’s goggles watch him and Laurie, but it does not feel as damning now after all that’s happened with these two, after Dan has finally “come out of the closet.”
Panels 7-9: These three final panels of this chapter are another example of how comics is able to play with time. Dan remarks in Panel 7 that he feels they should bust Rorschach from prison. Panel 8 has no dialogue, indicating a pause in the conversation, a pause where we can imagine Laurie’s expression going from serene to incredulous. And then we get the punchline in Panel 9, a single word from Laurie, “what,” in which we can almost hear her astonishment at Dan’s suggestion, thanks to the manner in which it was written and drawn by Moore & Gibbons.
The Quote: “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls. My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat.” JOB ch. 30, verses 29-30.
This quote relates directly to a number of aspects within this chapter. First, we can draw a direct line from the bit about dragons to Dan’s owlship, Archie, which shoots forth flames from its flamethrower at the beginning and end of this chapter. To hit the metaphor over the head a bit too hard – this owl is a dragon.
It also relates to the dream that Dan has. Filled with the metaphorical dragon of a nuclear bomb, which consumes Dan and Laurie in its flames, his dream is rife with the foreboding one might have imagined ancient soldiers feeling when going off into a wilderness said to hold dragons.
In Biblical times, owls were said to be birds of ill omen (pointed out by Adam Murdough in the CGS episode examining this issue of Watchmen). This symbolism, when related to Dan, could be said to mean that Dan is a lost soul, which would fit in nicely with Dan’s character arc thus far in the book.
Again, Moore offers readers a very different piece in this chapter’s back-matter. This time we delve more deeply into Dan’s background – appropriate considering the content of the main chapter. Next to his love of costumed adventuring, Dan’s appreciation of birds, particularly owls, is probably what motivates him most in life. In that regard, this short piece of prose mirrors the main text of the chapter. In both instances, as Adam Murdough pointed out in the aforementioned CGS Footnotes episode examining this chapter, it is “all about the rekindling of passion for one’s favorite pursuit through personal hands-on experience.” In the main narrative, Dan Dreiberg is rekindling his passion for costumed adventuring, while in the back-matter, he is rediscovering his love of owls and ornithology.
The title of this article, “Blood From the Shoulder of Pallas,” is appropriate, as Pallas Athena – better known as Athena – is celebrated, among many attributes, as the goddess of wisdom or war or justice. Owls are her sacred birds, in keeping with the attribute of wisdom, and the blood represents her warlike aspect. This all links in nicely with Dan’s history as a costumed adventurer. Taking the guise of Nite Owl is appropriate, as he was seeking justice while finding it necessary to utilize the war tactics to take down the criminals he face.
Within this text, we are able to discover a bit more about Dan. The most obvious nod to his costumed adventuring life comes in the remark that he was in Maine to visit a sick acquaintance. Cross-referencing this with Sally Jupiter’s offhand remark, “…poor Byron Lewis, in the bughouse in Maine…” in Chapter II, it is safe to assume that the sick acquaintance is Mothman, who, from the little we see of him, was a terribly nervous man, who eventually succumbed to his demons and was admitted to this mental hospital.
More importantly though, we are able to see, through Dan’s writing, the passion he so rarely exhibits. His love of owls comes through in this article, and it helps us to better understand how someone such as he might plunge into the tense and adrenaline-filled “occupation” of costumed adventuring. And, as described on the third page of this article, Dan’s appropriation of Nite-Owl is wholly appropriate. Like the owl that patiently waits in the dark for its prey, Dan, as we will learn in subsequent chapters, is methodical, willing to follow any line of inquiry to its end in order to learn the truth behind the conspiracy. And like the owl, Dan is currently hidden from his ultimate prey, Ozymandias, who believes him insignificant. It is that apparent irrelevance that cloaks him like the darkness does an owl. And it is that fact that allows him to achieve as much as he does.