Back Issues is a feature discussing collected comics series in the hopes that A.V. Club regulars will read along with us and participate in a group discussion of each major arc. This week: Watchmen #7-9 and Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan.
Watchmen #7-9 summary: While reminiscing about the past, Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk’s romance heats up, building to an unfortunate sexual experience on Dan’s couch that motivates them to don their old superhero costumes. After rescuing the inhabitants of a burning building, Dan and Laurie make love and then Dan suggests they break Rorschach out of prison. As they plot Rorschach’s escape, Walter Kovacs is threatened by one of his old enemies, Hollis Mason and Sally Jupiter reminisce about old times, and the world edges ever closer to nuclear apocalypse. As Hollis is killed by gang members who think he is responsible for Rorschach’s escape, Dr. Manhattan returns to bring Laurie with him to Mars and talk about their current situation. Laurie confronts her past and realizes that The Comedian is her father, and the complexity of her situation convinces Dr. Manhattan that humanity is as miraculous as the geographic wonders of the Red Planet. He agrees to return to Earth as the endgame begins.
Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan summary: J. Michael Straczynski and Andy Kubert’s Nite Owl details Dan Dreiberg’s relationships with his abusive father, Rorschach, and Twilight Lady as Walter Kovacs confronts a serial killer priest. Straczynski teams with Adam Hughes for Dr. Manhattan, showing Jon Osterman on Mars looking back at his life and how things could have happened in alternate worlds. There’s also a two-part Moloch origin story featuring art by Eduardo Risso.
Oliver Sava: Ah, the calm before the storm. The world is falling apart, and Dan Dreiberg is trying to get the pretty girl in his basement to like him in #7, a chapter that leans heavily on the theme of nostalgia, which is a major component of the three issues we’re looking at this week. In my week-one conversation with Genevieve Koski, we talked about how the Silk Spectres and the Nite Owls provide the most human perspectives in the book, and Alan Moore keeps all the apocalyptic happenings literally in the background in #7 as he explores Laurie and Dan’s budding relationship and the different ways these former costumed heroes are haunted by their pasts. The haunting continues in #8, fittingly titled “Old Ghosts,” but the focus expands to include Sally Jupiter and Hollis Mason along with major plot points like Rorschach being broken out of prison.
As I grow older, I find myself connecting with Dan Dreiberg on a personal level more than any other character. Like Dan, I was very fond of Arthurian legend as a child, with a specific affinity for Disney’s The Sword In The Stone, and there were days where I would lay in my bed for hours and imagine fantastic narratives where I was the secret hero of my school. Dan is the character that I imagine most adult comics readers related to at the time of Watchmen’s original publication—out of shape, living in the shadow of his youth, and aching to make an emotional connection with someone. I understand this is playing into the nerd stereotype, but I think Moore is doing that consciously. Dreiberg loved superheroes as a kid and carried that passion with him into adulthood, and after letting that passion gather dust in his basement, he not only rediscovers it, he uses it to get the beautiful woman he’s always wanted. Dan Dreiberg is a fantasy for the superhero-comic reader, and there’s even a text piece at the end of #7 that is justification for the overanalysis and hypercriticism of comic-book readers disguised as an ornithological piece written by Dan.
The seventh chapter of Watchmen shows Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons having some fun with these characters, and it’s easily the lightest issue of the series. There’s Laurie accidentally setting off Archie’s flamethrower while trying to light a cigarette, Dan’s clumsy attempts at physical contact, and then that final scene where the two make sweet superhero love after saving people from a burning building. There are upsides to being a superhero, and this issue finds that thrill but also manages to keep an undercurrent of dread going the entire time. The pieces of comedy make the ominous images—like Dan’s trippy-sex/Armageddon nightmare—even more effective, and the lighter tone is appreciated after the crushing despair of last issue. Moore and Gibbons need to capture that exhilaration if they’re going to make Dan’s decision at the end of #7 make any sense, and the rush of saving lives reawakens Dan’s valiant side and inspires him to break Rorschach out of prison despite the insanity of the idea. Todd, what do you think Moore is saying about the superhero genre through Laurie and Dan’s relationships with their costumed alter egos? Acting on sexual and violent desire is the major aspect of that lifestyle, but is there something deeper that attracts them to the identities of Silk Spectre and Nite Owl?
Todd VanDerWerff: The first time I read Watchmen, I was 17, and I can remember being not terribly impressed by issues #7 and 8. I could respect their craft, and I could enjoy the way they subtly built up the series’ overarching story, but I wasn’t so sure why this superhero tale had suddenly stalled out to tell a small-scale, realistic (well, realistic for Watchmen) story about two people falling in love, long after their careers (and lives) have peaked. Coming after the massively successful issues focusing on Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach, I felt frustrated and disappointed by what I saw as an intrusion of “realistic fiction” into the middle of a story that was building to something far grander.
Reading it as an adult—and particularly in the wake of seeing Zack Snyder’s occasionally fascinating but mostly frustrating film adaptation of the book, which really does feel like the version of the story my 17-year-old self was fixated on—I realized that, structurally, these three issues are doing something very interesting. The first three issues of the book are focused on world-building, on subtly and casually letting readers know just what kind of place they’ve been deposited into. The second set of three lays out the stakes of this world, hammering home the implications of nuclear war and of having a Dr. Manhattan present in this universe. These are the easy stakes to zero in on for readers of all ages—the end of the world is readily understandable to almost anyone.
But this third set of three does something much more difficult. It zeroes in on the human cost of this story. This is not to say that the human cost isn’t present in the previous six issues, but these three issues, in particular, are a bit of a pause before the cataclysm, a short breath taken before the storm. Dan and Laurie seem to me now to be Moore’s clearest argument that underneath the capes and cowls, superheroes would inevitably be regular human beings. Where the other characters in the series are either burdened with intense psychological traumas and issues or are so different from us as to be literally alien, Dan and Laurie are simply people who struggle with the sorts of issues any one of Moore’s readers might easily appreciate. The slow decay of age and the realization of our parents’ own failings are both themes that crop up here, and they’re both themes anyone reading the books—at least anyone of a certain age—could recognize in themselves. At the time, I thought of this as Moore dropping an episode of thirtysomething into the middle of a superhero story, but now that I’m older, I realize how vital this all is. In pure plot function, Dan and Laurie’s coupling creates the idea that Dr. Manhattan might not return to Earth and save it from annihilation. But on the thematic level, it becomes the thing that needs saving, the life that insists upon itself, made vain by its own existence.
This is really hammered home in #9, which you didn’t talk about much, Oliver, but which strikes me on this re-read as my favorite issue. (It was always #4 before, and I relate to Dr. Manhattan a little too much, which is very odd to me.) On one level, it’s a staid philosophical debate that lays out in fairly stark terms why the disappearance of humanity from the universe wouldn’t, ultimately, be a terrible thing in the face of the endlessness of the cosmos. But on another level, it’s Watchmen’s ultimate argument that humanity matters because of its own very existence. It’s a paradox, admittedly, but it’s one that Dr. Manhattan can’t quite shake, this idea that every human being is a miracle, a series of improbabilities that come together to form one very large one. Without that pause in #7 and #8—which do some beautiful things with slowing down time (particularly in that sequence where we check in on characters major and minor as Dan and Laurie prepare their assault on the prison)—then the emotional impact of #9 isn’t as large, nor is the revelation of Laurie’s true parentage.
I’ve read far too few of the comics inspired by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the handful of years I’ve been into comics, but the few I have read strike me as books that decided “maturity” was an issue of presenting adult content. Watchmen certainly does that—even in these issues—but it also understands that mature storytelling is as much about grappling with the sad disappointments every life endures, about understanding that joy must be taken where and when one can find it, even if that’s on the brink of nuclear war. There is a stark beauty to these issues, and they become not just a pause in the action, but a rumination on why that pause matters.
On the other hand, I tend to love philosophical debates too much, so maybe #9 isn’t going to appeal to everyone. What do you think of it, Oliver?
OS: Think about how many Watchmen-inspired comics you’ve read over the years, and then consider how many come anywhere near the level of philosophical discourse found in this series—or found in just #9. Moore’s willingness to explore deeper ideas in the context of a superhero comic is what makes Watchmen such a dense, heady read, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. That said, I’m glad we only get two issues of Dr. Manhattan meditating on Mars because, like Laurie, I find him to be a frustrating character. My instinct as a superhero-comic reader is to want those with power to use it for the greater good, and having a godlike figure sitting on the sidelines feels like a waste of a really cool fight scene. I get it: Rocks are really pretty, and humans do bad things to them. Can you go stop the nuclear apocalypse now?
I touched on this earlier, but I want to elaborate on how important nostalgia is in these three chapters. I love the way Moore and Gibbons stage the beginning of #7 so that the Nite Owl costume becomes a third character that is watching Dan’s every move, and how in #8 the panels never show the faces of Hollis and Sally during their phone conversation, instead lingering on the objects in their surroundings to show how the two people have changed over time. What does Alan Moore think of nostalgia? I think the fact that Hollis Mason gets beaten to death with a ceremonial Nite Owl statue says it all: Nostalgia has its small comforts, but ultimately it won’t save you when society comes crumbling down.
To move forward, the world has to stop living in the past and embrace a new way of thinking. This not only applies to the world of Watchmen, but also to the world of superhero comics; Adrian Veidt kickstarts this process for humanity, and Alan Moore does it for the superhero industry. Largely because of the Comics Code Authority that starting placing content restrictions on comics in the ’50s, superhero comics had remained a relatively stagnant genre that still largely catered to younger readers. There were certainly exceptions like Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’ work on Detective Comics and Frank Miller’s Daredevil, but Watchmen was one of the comics that applied a truly mature perspective to this type of costumed-crimefighter narrative. Watchmen not only aimed to create a contemporary superhero story that was politically relevant and philosophically stimulating, it went even further and applied that sophisticated lens to the past 40 years of superhero-comic history. Watchmen acknowledged the conventions of the genre’s past and then abandoned them, most notably in getting the superhero team back together just to have them not save the day.
As Dan Dreiberg is recapturing his past, Laurie is put on Mars to confront hers, and the impact of that event stirs in Dr. Manhattan a feeling that can compare to what he sees when he witnesses a giant foggy canyon. In one of Watchmen’s less subtle moments, Laurie throws a bottle of Nostalgia perfume when she realizes that The Comedian is her father, and once the bottle and her nostalgic illusion of the past is destroyed, she’s able to convince Dr. Manhattan to come back to Earth. The complexity of her life experience and the circumstances that led up to it rivals the complexity Jon sees on a molecular level, but he is missing a valuable piece of that image because of Laurie’s repression of her father’s true identity. Once she uncovers that, he is able to see the miracle that is human life.
Thank you for mentioning the film, and I absolutely agree that Snyder’s vision is far more juvenile than that of Moore and Gibbons. Snyder’s use of music in particular makes the film feel like a multimillion-dollar high-school English project. The opening fight scene set to Bing Crosby’s “Unforgettable” gives off an imitation Tarantino vibe, and the sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is just laughably bad. If Snyder has to use a musical cue there, why the hell wouldn’t he just use “You’re My Thrill,” the song that Alan Moore put in the book? Rewatching the movie makes me appreciate the philosophical complexity of the comic even more because it shows how easily the story could have devolved into a typical superhero tale.
I get a similar feeling when I read Before Watchmen: Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan. Nite Owl is a lousy superhero story full of predictable twists and completely gratuitous sex and violence, and Dr. Manhattan is a confusing mess of quantum physics and alternate realities that appears to go directly against what Moore establishes about the character’s perception in #4. Todd, how do you think writer J. Michael Straczynski fares at replicating the voices Moore has established for these characters?
TV: I didn’t mind Dr. Manhattan. I don’t know if I can call it good, but as a sort of remix of the themes and ideas Moore introduces in #4 and #9, it’s serviceable. I always like these sorts of stories about all of the possibilities or series of decisions that add up to a particular life. Dr. Manhattan is far from the best version of this I’ve seen, but as a rough spin on everything talked about at the end of #9, it’s… okay, I guess. The end of #9, those last four or five pages or so, is filled with all sorts of predictable, cheap symbolism, as you admit, but Moore makes it all work because he really invests in the cheapness of it, lets it seem so small and pointless in the face of the otherworldly. Straczynski, meanwhile, just digs in his heels and excavates more and more of the sci-fi concepts, and that’s supposed to be good enough. Again, I had fun reading it, but that was a day ago, and I can tell you very, very little about it right now.
On the other hand, I might be damning it with faint praise because it’s not Nite Owl, which I found actively reprehensible. I don’t mind sex and violence in my comics, but Nite Owl takes a small moment in #7—Laurie finding Dan’s picture from the Twilight Lady—and turns it into exactly the sort of headlong slide into debauchery I complained about earlier. It’s as if you knew what I was going to say, Oliver, and really wanted to provide me with a perfect example of how Moore’s bracing use of mature themes—and Gibbons’ ability to give those mature ideas artwork embracing the project’s adult nature but also understanding the various boundaries of taste—could be so easily subverted by someone who simply thought that “adult” equals needless nudity and graphically depicted violence.
I don’t know another way to put this: Nite Owl is just vile. There are some interesting ideas in the story, but it takes Rorschach and Nite Owl and places them in a sort of contraption where every single sign is pointing toward the answer arriving at the end of the tale. The character of Reverend Dean is a pointless gloss on the religious-hypocrite type, while Twilight Lady is simply a weird pat on the ass of several male-power fantasies. Neither character registers beyond their function in the plot, and Moore’s world was filled with fun, detailed figures who had nothing to do with anything—or were integral to Watchmen’s sweep and heft—yet still had plenty of little details and character beats that made them worth following. Nite Owl is just a pointless wander through the grime, as if Straczynski (a writer I’ve liked before) is holding our faces down in the muck because he thinks we’ll learn better that way.
I’m also struck by how Before Watchmen refuses to simply settle down and tell a fun prequel story about the characters from Watchmen. It’s always working overtime to weave in references from the main book and crossovers (I presume) with some of the other Before Watchmen chapters. In a way, it reminds me of the fourth season of Arrested Development, though that adventure in TV deconstruction was far better than anything I read here. It’s the sort of thing where it constantly wants you to appreciate it for making the attempt, even though all you might have wanted in the first place was just, like, a story about Rorschach and Nite Owl working together as a crime-solving team or about Dr. Manhattan ruminating on quantum physics.
There are some good ideas in Dr. Manhattan, especially—and I loved the sequence where the big blue guy contemplates all of the different ramifications of Janey being behind the left or right door, but it also got tiring fairly quickly. Both tales made me think of what my friend Film Crit Hulk has been decrying all summer in the big movies, the needless mystery and complexity of stories that would fare better by laying all of their cards out on the table right away. Before Watchmen invents mysteries and strangeness where there didn’t really need to be. Every time it finds a loose thread in Watchmen that Moore and Gibbons intentionally left loose—the better to suggest this massive world backing up their tale—it tugs at it, and it almost always causes something else to unravel, not in the main tale, but in the prequels themselves.
I don’t know if I’ll “thank” you for introducing me to these, Oliver, but I certainly liked this sort of proof positive that it takes something really special to make this kind of superhero deconstruction actually work. Do you find anything to recommend in either book? And can we find a way back to Watchmen itself, that I might watch some of this muck off?
OS: If there’s one thing I can recommend across all the Before Watchmen titles, it’s the art. Adam Hughes never does interior art anymore, and the only reason I read all of Dr. Manhattan the first time around was because I wanted to see his amazing skills at work. Then there’s Andy Kubert penciling Nite Owl with his father Joe Kubert inking him for the first two and a half issues; I would loved to have seen that team on a book that wasn’t complete dreck. It’s a pity that Joe Kubert’s final comic-book work is Nite Owl, capping a legendary career with a book that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. DC rushed Moloch into production when Kubert passed to fill in the time between issues of Nite Owl, teaming Straczynski with yet another fantastic artist in Eduardo Risso and saddling him to yet another lackluster story.
It’s not hard for me to completely disregard Straczysnki’s prequels when I read the source material, but I hate to think that new Watchmen readers will pick up Nite Owl and consider it canon. The only redeeming element of that book is that it shows what Andy Kubert’s art looks like with Bill Sienkiewicz inking it, but the experience completely falls apart once text enters the picture. Last week I said Straczynski’s books remind me of Watchmen fan-fiction, but Nite Owl reads like a straight-up parody. And Straczysnki is not a bad writer. He just released a new book at Image Comics, Ten Grand, that is a very entertaining crime/horror/fantasy hybrid. He just completely drops the ball with his Before Watchmen books.
Now let’s get rid of that nasty taste by looking at some Moore and Gibbons goodness. How about starting with that time Walter Kovacs ties an inmate’s hands around his prison bars so that Big Figure’s henchmen can’t get to the lock and therefore have to kill their bound comrade, spraying Walter with human bean juice? Taste better? We’ve talked about how a lot of contemporary superhero comics are influenced by Watchmen, but I think what we really want to say is that most contemporary superhero comics are influenced by Watchmen #8. That’s the first issue that really feels like a superhero story, with Nite Owl and Silk Spectre back in action while Walter Kovacs shows how dangerous he is behind bars. Rorschach has his badass moments earlier in the series, most notably his escape attempt at Moloch’s, but seeing what he’s capable of when he’s caged like an animal and backed into a corner by a gang of his enemies is the moment that defines what makes Rorschach so cool.
After Watchmen, you didn’t see a lot of characters that had the psychological complexity of Rorschach, but there were plenty that were inspired by his ruthless battle tactics. Badass only gets you so far, though, and without the deeper character work that Moore brings to Walter Kovacs, those antiheroes become one-trick ponies. Mark Waid plays with this idea in Kingdom Come by creating an army of generic antiheroes done up in the extreme styles of the ’90s; their post-punk aesthetic is rendered in Alex Ross’ photorealistic style to show how their shared counterculture appearance ultimately gives them a bland uniformity that pales to the bold, classic designs of heroes like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.
Todd, what do you make of Watchmen’s superhero-centric chapter? And in terms of predictable, cheap symbolism, how do you feel about Hollis’ death scene?
TV: That assault on the prison is truly awesome—and I mean that in the sense of awe-inspiring. It’s that way both because it’s sort of a perfect distillation of a kind of superhero storytelling that many have attempted to match but few have even come close to, but also because it’s so thrillingly cinematic in its execution. I don’t generally require my comics to feel cinematic—film and comics are two different (though somewhat related) media, and they both do different things well—but I love the way that this sequence is edited with the rhythm of jump cut after jump cut. I look at the bit where we’re flashing between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre as they’re looking for Rorschach, even as he’s effecting his own escape, and it’s not hard to feel the rhythms of a director like Christopher Nolan, who builds to these sorts of action climaxes, then finds lots of places to cut to.
Yet even though it’s easy to imagine the film version of this—though remarkably more difficult to execute when it comes time to commit the vision to celluloid—there’s something so inextricably “comics” about this issue, about these sequences. I think, again, of the sequence where Archimedes glides through the night sky and Moore’s script takes us into the rather mundane lives of seemingly every minor character in the story, as if wanting to catch us up on where everyone is before the story plunges toward climax. Where a film would probably stay with Dan and Laurie—or at least cut between them and the growing threats to Rorschach—the comic becomes languid, stretching that night flight out to what feels like hours. Again, it’s beautiful storytelling, and it really gives you a strong feel for this whole world that stands to be destroyed by nuclear hellfire.
I’m not especially bothered by the death of Hollis or anything like that, though it’s very obviously a part of the story’s insistence on the past giving way to a terrible, bleeding present. What I find interesting about it is the way that it’s a part of how Moore and Gibbons are telling a fairly straightforward superhero story in some ways. These issues function almost as an origin tale for Nite Owl and Silk Spectre—or they would if these characters hadn’t put their costumes away years ago. What they are, I guess, is a kind of re-origin, a story about how these characters came to a place where they could see no other course forward and finally, boldly, put back on cape and cowl and strode forward into uncertain nights.
Yet that’s just it: This is also an origin story of relationships—how Dan and Laurie come to fall in love, how the two of them come to save Rorschach, how Laurie and Jon find some way to return to the love they shared in the past, even if it’s only an ember of what they had. And it’s all of that rich, human emotion that Before Watchmen is missing. Before Watchmen thinks of human beings in terms of puzzles to be solved, in terms of pieces that can be fit together to make a larger mosaic. Watchmen has all those messy, dangling threads, but that’s what gives it life. Its heroes are complicated failures most of the time. That’s what makes them human. That’s what makes us understand them. And that’s what makes this book so beloved.