We take it for granted that anyone reading this has read Watchmen and seen the film. So, SPOILERS ahead.
DN: The comic has followed a strict alternating pattern between moving the plot forward and slowing down to study a character; this chapter breaks that pattern by following up Rorschach’s incredible life with Dan’s. It makes a kind of sense; Jon’s on Mars, Rorschach is in jail, Adrian is twiddling his thumbs as the next stage of his plan is coming along (though we don’t know that), and the Comedian is still dead. Dan and Laurie are the only protagonists still able to do anything; in fact, this chapter covers the same few days Rorschach is in prison (Dr Malcolm appears on TV, ready to go in and start his sessions). And continuing the trend of character studies that implicitly put us in the character’s head, we get no flashbacks outside of a flash to Rorschach talking about the mask killer, because Dan spends the majority of his time trying desperately NOT to think about the past, only for it to hang over him in the objects in his home, the stories he tells, and the actions he refuses to take.
Dan is kind of the forgotten Watchmen character, because he’s the character defined by hesitation, anxiety, and inaction; every other word out of his mouth is an apology or downplaying of something he’s doing or feeling, which grates even me at points. His point of view is essential for multiple reasons. You have to have somebody playing for lower stakes in a story like this; he has the same point of view as Jon in that he sees a massive amount of data, but he lacks the godlike powers to either fully process it or do anything about it. Until Laurie comes into his life, he’s been caught in an internal vicious circle, wanting to go out and fight crime but convincing himself it’s a terrible idea, and it’s only with her permission that he acts on it, which leads to him getting the idea to break Rorschach out of prison.
His change in attitude when he puts on the costume is incredible. No more apologies, no more justifications; he becomes as much a pulp archetype as Rorschach or Adrian (so does Laurie; while changing very little in temperament, she suddenly becomes a classic smartass pulp lady). Rescuing civilians from a burning building is a classic setup of the genre (the first Spider-Man film made good use of it), and it’s one of the nicer moments in the story, climaxing (sorry) with Dan and Laurie having sex. I love how Dan’s shifted attitude is conveyed through the ways Laurie’s body is framed in both sex scenes; awkward and supremely unerotic in the first, and loving and playful in the second. Meanwhile, we’ve seen Dan without his glasses, but this is the first time we properly see how handsome he actually is, with a kind of chubby Peter Parker thing going on.
What’s your take on this chapter? What do you see in Dan’s psychology?
ZZ: I’m completely with you on the appeal of Dan’s confidence and surety as soon as he starts acting as Nite Owl. It unlocks all his capabilities, and we go from the Dan who sometimes–but less and less–writes articles for ornithology magazines to the Nite Owl who built Archie, with his radar-invisibility and fog guns and steering column that can rise through the ceiling. I think it’s the first time we really see how smart he is, and how much that intelligence translates into problem-solving, and of course the chapter ends with him deciding to take on a very particular, very challenging puzzle.
And with him reclaiming his relationship with Rorschach. His last line in the chapter is excellent, a kind of Jack Vance styling followed by hell-yeah-cue-the-music straightforwardness: “I’ve been thinking about that, and I feel we have certain obligations to our fraternity. I think we should spring Rorschach.” All through the chapter, though, he’s feeling around the edges of resuming that connection, both euphemistically and literally noting that he knew Rorschach “when he still had all the buttons on his overcoat”; claiming a kind of responsibility for him in noting that he’s the one who made the grappling hook gun; and extending him trust, believing that the murder Rorschach is framed for is uncharacteristic of him, and taking Rorschach’s masked killer theory seriously. It’s their friendship that’s always been the heart of the novel for me, and you can see Dan coming back to it here.
As far as Dan’s psychology goes, I think Moore gives it to us–and to Dan, who doesn’t lack for self-insight–in his dream. Strip away Dan’s worried, civilized exterior and he’s something more primitive but still ordinary–but underneath that, he’s potent (look, if Moore gets to make that joke, I get to make that joke) and confident. But it’s the nuclear blast that concludes the dream, not his kiss with Laurie. For all Dan’s capabilities, he still knows that the forces of history and world powers are bigger than he is. He’ll never rid himself of that thread of fear, which is something so human and, for that matter, so linked to the same intelligence that lets him think of all the weapons Archie will need. Once again Nite Owl, Dan is bold and decisive, but still fully human, not iconic in the same way as Rorschach or Jon.
We see that in a number of well-chosen details. Dan is a romantic in the oldest sense, always the one who perceives the beauty and grandeur. He isn’t tied to a personal past–no real flashbacks here, as you noted–but to a cultural past. He gets his identity from his admiration of Hollis and his ship’s name from The Once and Future King, gets his ideas from nature. That makes him a scientist, a craftsman, and a hero–there’s nothing to dislike here, in fact I find it all pretty adorable–but it keeps him linked into society and history, keeps him an observer who carries on and further develops, but who does not originate.
DN: I absolutely love the idea of ‘a cultural past’, because if Watchmen is a story written when Moore was at his most conflicted with the superhero genre, and if Jon, Rorschach, and the Comedian are satires and explorations of particular kinds of superheroes, Dan gets to directly feel that conflict – he’s the one who says it all felt a bit childish, and he gets to feel the ownage of rescuing people from a burning building. Within the story, this awareness of and interest in other people’s feelings is what allows him to have contacts as diverse as, well, Laurie and Rorschach, and ultimately is what allows him to survive the story; without, it’s a cathartic acknowledgement that really liking superheroes cuts you off from other people (which has become less true in 2018, of course), but also puts you in a grand tradition that means something – a fraternity, an iconography. If Rorschach, Adrian, and the Comedian fashioned themselves into icons (with the latter finding himself wanting), Dan shows us what merely tapping into one can do.
Stylistically, the story moves away from cutting between disparate situations (though there’s still a touch of that in the awkward sex scene in front of the TV) and into lines with significant double meanings – “No matter how black it got, when I looked through these goggles… Everything was clear as day.” Again, we’re reflecting Dan’s worldview, one where the actual feeling is extremely obvious and barely under the surface, but he’s trying extremely hard to ignore it. It verges on cute, but Moore manages to make the dialogue naturalistic enough for me to buy into it.
Outside of the dream sequence, the art is less spectacular but still contains a lot of moments I like – I enjoy how the difference between the two sex scenes is obvious just in the way Laurie’s body is framed in them; from almost clinical and stripped of any personality, to something more playful and sexy while she’s lighting her e-cig. And while we’ve seen Dan without his glasses before, Laurie’s right when she says he looks ravishing here. He legitimately looks like a superhero out of his mask in that frame.
ZZ: I was trying to think exactly what it is that makes Dan so stunning there. Mostly, it’s just that he’s relaxed: so often when we see him, his face is at least partly wrinkled with worry. Here, though, he’s at ease. And Gibbons makes a lot of great use throughout of a glare off Dan’s glasses making them opaquely white, almost like cartoonishly wide, alarmed eyes, and of course that’s totally gone here.
I’d defend his hair, though. Come on, Laurie, it was the eighties. There are way worse offenders in that department than Dan Dreiberg.
I also like the way the lighting functions in the last sex scene: once the undressing begins, we go into darkness and twilight. It romanticizes where the more visible light for their on-couch fumbling made things awkward; the failings all too apparent. But in the dark, you can let your perceptions slip agreeably, erotically–if you’re Dan, you can leave your costume on and not grow self-conscious about the image.
Laurie, notably, doesn’t mind losing hers here, since she’s always been less tied to the life. Going off what you said about her playfulness, I also love her cheeky, openly seductive dropping of the trenchcoat. Being with Dan, I think, brings out the best in her in a way that Jon had ceased to do by the time we caught up with them. Without being so obviously eclipsed, she’s an equal partner, and that makes her both more active and more emotionally open–there’s a real sweetness to her being so openly into Dan in that scene, making it very clear the attraction is still there and that the failed sex from before didn’t smother the spark. Those two crazy kids have what it takes to make it work.
What do you make of their dynamic? Do they work for you as a couple?
DN: Frankly, the hair was cute on him even before he took off his glasses.
I was thinking how this chapter lays some groundwork for how Dan and Rorschach can work together before we see it – Rorschach can respect Dan’s intelligence while also taking advantage of his giving nature – but it also quite obviously shows us how Dan and Laurie can work together. Laurie isn’t repressed so much as oppressed; she’s always had a fine time expressing what she really wants and her trouble has been nobody else letting her. Dan’s attitude, obsequious before now, is total freedom to her. Her forthrightness and spunk, in return, both forces and allows his true feelings to surface, eventually to a level even she’s surprised by, as if opening up about how much he wants to be a superhero again broke the dam and let all the ownage out. They build off each other’s personalities and abilities, which makes them an adorable couple.
To an extent as well, you can see Dan bringing out Laurie’s near-dead romanticism. We’re still gonna get to her chapter, but her sense of wonder has been floating around the edges of the story; I get the sense that where Dan is 75% romantic and 25% cynic, she’s the other way around, and she finds his sense of genuine joy in what he does refreshing and attractive, and she’s willing to fight past his insecurity to get to it – I’m struck by her line “Was tonight good? Did you like it? Did the costumes make it good?”, because it feels like her most vulnerable moment in the chapter.
What do you think of Laurie this chapter?
ZZ: I like her a lot, and I think this chapter in particular does a great job illustrating your point about her being oppressed rather than repressed. (I almost typed “rather than depressed,” which might also work.) No matter what she does, she’s just a little bit more hemmed-in by expectations. She’s made into a superhero by her mother and then, as a superhero, into a kind of crisis coordinating babysitter by the people she’s rescuing. Dan gets to do the piloting in the calm starlight above Archie while Laurie is stuck below dealing with irritations–”Listen, I don’t care about your ‘allergies’ or your ‘medication,’ just get in the ship, you asshole”–and figuring out how to make coffee. It’s all important, but it’s also support work as much as heroism. She gets asked, explicitly or implicitly, to do the communicating and emotional assistance, and while she’s not unqualified for it–she shows a lot of quiet tenderness in this chapter, too–it’s also not a natural fit for her as much as it is an assumption people force upon her.
There’s a particular beauty, then, to Dan undressing her in that final sex scene even as he keeps his costume on–he recognizes that she doesn’t need to be Miss Jupiter the way he needs to be Nite Owl, and when their relationship, ah, climaxes, it does so with her as Laurie. And it does so even though that’s not the realization of his earlier fantasy. By being more himself, he’s able to give her space to be more herself. Not a bad way of thinking about a good romance.
I like the montage of TV scenes that plays out during their couch conversation and first attempt at lovemaking. There’s a nice blend of timeline-establishment, plot-relevant historical context, and Adrian doing gymnastics. What do you make of it all?
DN: It’s astounding just how many important plot details this little sequence conveys or repeats, buried under the more obvious discussion of Rorschach and the silly sex jokes – presumably, this is part of ABC’s Exposition And Foreshadowing Hour. You’ve got Max Shea’s disappearance (the second mention in this book) right next to scientists discussing extra-dimensional energy. I think it’s the kind of thing that would irritate me if Moore and Gibbons weren’t packing so much information so fast; the rhythm of the sequence, jumping from one thing to another so quickly and with the slight connective tissue of ironic commentary, make the whole thing feel like a bouncy tune.
Best joke of the sequence: “This is a man in his forties.”
Let’s talk about Blood From The Shoulder Of Pallas, an article by Dan that finishes off the chapter. Once again, it’s of a piece with the rest of the excerpts in that it’s very formally written, but this time we get Dan’s romanticism. It’s almost the other half to his superheroics – whereas his superheroics are all business, all external, his article is his thought process; there’s no explicit connection drawn, but you see the thought process that turns aviation engineering into an iconic superhero. Dan enjoys learning just for the sake of it, but he needs some kind of romantic image to live up to, whether it’s Pallas Athene or Nite Owl.
ZZ: As Dan himself puts it, when it comes to the details of science and the heart, “the two enhance each other, a more lyrical eye lending the cold data a romance from which it has long been divorced.”
There’s a note of yearning all through the essay. Like you said, it’s the romanticism again: Dan appreciates the material of the world most when he can look at it as a lens into the sublime. That point recurs over and over again–”unless those facts can be imbued with the flash of poetic insight then they remain dull gems; semi-precious stones scarcely worth the collecting”–and it’s a point that’s made so insistently perhaps because this is an essay written after Dan’s retirement. He needs to find a way back into that larger, more magnificent, wilder world. Once again, ornithology gives him a way to do that, and he can survive on it. For him it might be a starvation diet of wonder, but he can get by.
And there’s this as the final note of the chapter: the owls that Dan so admires, the owls that he sees as inherently tied to the costumed heroes and to gods and goddesses, are dangerous. In the immortal words of Al Swearengen, “Fucking pagan. Tell your god to ready for blood.” So on we go.
- DN: I love the line “That flamethrower button confuses everybody” because it conjures up a different image for every hero we’ve met. Why not just change the label, Dan?
- ZZ: The fear and confusion vs. calm stability contrast–especially with Dan blissfully and literally above it all, in a great use of the visual medium.
- DN: One more humiliation for Rorschach, being accused of being a sexual deviant when at worst that’s the opposite of his issue.
- ZZ: If you’ve all been waiting to talk about the film’s incredibly questionable scoring design of laying Cohen’s “Hallelujah” over Dan and Laurie’s sex scene, your time has come. My vote is for a good-spirited debate over which cover of “Hallelujah” you would, if you had a gun to your head, choose to play in this scene.
- DN: The dialogue of the rescued people verges on too silly for me, but the contrast between their fear and confusion and Dan and Laurie’s calm stability is hilarious.