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.