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Watchmen

Unearthed: Watchmen: Chapter VII: A Brother To Dragons

Let’s have a look at the brilliance of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen!

We begin with the cover. This chapter is about seeing things as they really are, so the focus here is on eyes, on lenses. This image is nearly abstract, a lovely bit of rendering from Dave Gibbons, depicting reflections within reflections. The characters, too, will reflect on things.

The cover leads us into the issue proper, as we see a line of dust cleared away by Laurie’s finger. This diagonal line is one of the main repeated visual motifs throughout the Watchmen series. It appears in every issue somewhere. It repeats in panel seven on this very page.

Note panel six, Dan’s old Nite Owl costume watching her from its position in the closet.

Laurie enters the Owlship from beneath. There’s a bit of disrepair on the undercarriage, a metaphor for what’s about to follow.

Note Laurie’s obvious delight in poking around Dan’s ship. This is her role in this issue: to examine the situation as it’s the first time and see things in a new light.

She takes out a cigarette, looking for a lighter. Note the interesting spherical filter. Watchmen takes place in an alternate history of America, and it shows in subtle ways. I appreciate that they didn’t go overboard with too many crazy changes from what we know.

Unfortunately, what she assumes to be the lighter ends up being the flamethrower. Who among us hasn’t made this mistake?

The title of this chapter appears: A Brother To Dragons, which refers to a biblical quote we’ll get at the end of this issue.

Upstairs, Dan is refilling his sugar cube container. He hears Laurie scream from below and flashes back to his conversation with Rorschach. Note how Moore has written this to sound as though Rorschach is responding to Dan’s question.

Not to be overly crude here, but here, the promise of action causes Dan to say “I’m coming!”. This is a call forward to later this issue, and it’s not a mistake. This is the way Alan Moore writes. In his head, every event and action and bit of dialogue is interconnected.

In the flashback, Rorschach is holding a bottle of perfume from Adrian Veidt. It’s called “Nostalgia” and advertisements for it appear throughout the series. Moore seeds this for a monumental callback in the final issue.

I’d also like to call out the presentational, lurid colors used in this comic. They very much add to the mood of the story, and they deserve recognition.

Laurie’s set the basement ablaze. I really liked the rendering of the shadows in the smoke in this panel.

Now I should point out that despite what you may have heard, not EVERY panel in Watchmen is a masterpiece. Some of them just exist to push the narrative along. But that’s also the brilliance of Alan Moore: he settles you down with mundane dialogue so that his punchlines hit even harder when they arrive.

Here, the dialogue begins to reveal the underlying anxiety that Dan feels, which explains his mannerisms, and his later period of impotence.

Dan is so quick to deny Laurie’s question that it’s clear that that’s exactly why he was messing around with the ship. Remember, this issue is about seeing things clearly, and this seemingly innocuous question gets to the heart of Dan in a way he’s not ready to examine. Laurie’s good at that.

In the background, the Nite Owl costume watches over everything, just biding its time.

Laurie’s “magician’s cave” comment is reflective of the multiple references in this issue: Dan calls the Owlship “Archimedes”, after Merlin’s owl in the “Sword and the Stone” Disney movie. Merlin himself has been typified as having ties to dragons, which of course is the name of this chapter. And this wonder-filled cave is a reference to Batman, of whom Dan is an isotope.

The Nite Owl costume watching things is made explicit here. And here we have some standard Alan Moore dialogue. “Looking back” and “hindsight” refers to the Nite Owl costume hanging behind them, and “on reflection” of course is their images in the goggles. Moore loves this stuff.

These panels just fill in some backstory and are relatively uninteresting otherwise.

Dan is playing it straight here, but Laurie sees right through his seeming diffidence. As we’ll soon see, the Twilight Lady is a figure of more import than Dan is willing to admit.

Nothing really comes of Laurie’s line about working with animals, which is unusual for Moore’s writing. Usually nothing is there for no reason, but this just seems intended to spur Dan’s line about birds.

Now the two of them are both regarding Dan’s undercarriage. This is indicative of what this chapter is all about. We know this because there are simpler ways of showing the two of them entering the Owlship, but Moore purposefully chooses to repeat this image because he wants you to be aware of its importance. This is something that comics do better than any other medium. The repetition of a static image is more forceful in a comic book, and it does more than simply holding on a scene would in a tv show or movie.

This is because each panel represents a moment in time that’s frozen forever for us to see. The dialogue provides forward temporal motion, but we’re still looking at an unmoving picture. Therefore, the best writers know that the image must ably represent its underlying idea, so it should be chosen carefully.

And Laurie’s line “I won’t touch anything” will be proven a lie later.

Again, Laurie knows what’s up.

This sequence really underscores the toy nature of what Batman is all about. Any time you try to ground that character in any kind of realism, the whole thing just falls apart.

This is a classic punchline, akin to having a drunk character witness something incredible, then looking at their bottle and throwing it away. Note Laurie’s line about “dangerous habits” and remember that “habit” is a simile for “costume”. This is about to get a mention.

Moore’s not just talking about smoking here, as we’re about to discover.

Dan’s lying to himself and Laurie again, and the Nite Owl costume bears silent witness.

The “romance” of crimefighting is about to rear its head in a physical way.

That’s another classic punchline from Moore at the end. His ability to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas is what makes his scripts so compelling.

And he does it again in this last panel.

A classic romcom sequence here. This feels like a date, though probably only Laurie understands that.

And notice how quickly Dan shuts it down at the mere mention of Dr. Manhattan.

This glance of Dan’s at the costume seems to give him the strength to start moving on Laurie. This is indicative of what’s about to happen later in this issue.

Moore just can’t leave his visual metaphors alone! Look at the costume watching everything! It’s the dominating figure in this entire chapter and it will have its due.

Dan mentions that he’s written articles on ornithology and Laurie shows some interest until she’s distracted by the television. A funny moment when Dan says how folks “switch off” and Laurie tells him to shush.

From the tv, we see a representative for the right-wing publication the Frontiersman. It’s not a mistake that they made him Hitler-like.

The big countdown has, in fact, begun. Every issue of Watchmen is a clock ticking down to midnight.

This is a reference that younger readers won’t get: “The Manhattan Transfer” was a vocal jazz group of the 70s and 80s.

Max Shea will later be revealed as being one of Adrian Veidt’s collaborators on his big project.

In this panel you can absolutely see Dan’s resemblance to actor Patrick Wilson, who portrayed the character in the Watchmen movie.

As far as I can tell, the only reason the tv gives us this bit on the Institute for Extraspatial Studies is for Moore to do his usual trick of having metatext: “opening new dimensions” mirrors the action of Laurie opening up Dan’s sleeping sexuality.

More romcom-type action here.

“… activities entering spaces we thought impossible…” is almost TOO cute.

An ad for the Nostalgia perfume opens on the tv, with “Unforgettable” playing in accompaniment.

As always, Laurie leads the way. There’s an element of the “manic pixie dream girl” about her, but it’s not too heavy-handed, and it’s really only in this one chapter.

Okay. The next sequence juxtaposes Ozymandias’s acrobatic performance with Dan’s clumsy, ultimately ineffectual sexual performance. Moore loves this stuff.

I mean, holy crap, just read the tv dialogue as it mocks what Dan and Laurie are doing. I would almost say it’s too obvious, but no other comic had done this before, so it’s allowable.

It just gets funnier and funnier, and also sadder and sadder.

It’s almost cruel. Dan fails to achieve an erection and the tv says “And he’s down!”

Note the time on the wall as Laurie says “We’ve got as long as it takes.” The tv says what Dan is thinking.

Hours later, and Dan still has found no success.

The tv static heralds the oblivion of sleep, and we get another reflection motif in Dan’s glasses.

Dan dreams. See the desperation on his face as he runs toward the Twilight Lady, who represents his sexual yearning. Her costume is a stand-in for all costumes: he misses the superhero life, but is trying to suppress it.

They tear the facades off of each other, revealing their true selves, and Dan’s passion is ignited at last in a cataclysmic, all-consuming fire that destroys them both. He awakens with a start.

This image is repeated throughout Watchmen. It’s reminiscent of the Hiroshima shadows left baked on walls after the atomic explosions (https://allthatsinteresting.com/hiroshima-shadows). It’s Moore’s call forward to the event of Chapter 11.

Lingering in the aftermath of his dream, Dan’s tenderness for Laurie as the object of his affection and salvation leave him grateful for her.

I will always wonder what the hell Laurie is saying here.

There’s that diagonal line again. Dan is revealing the outside, wiping the film away. He’s awakening.

Now, they could have just given us standard shots of Dan descending into the basement. But instead, the shadow motif is continuing; Dan, only a shadow of his true self, going to reunite with his costume, his true identity.

His costume is there, waiting for him as it has since he put it away. Dan regards himself in the clean lens, truly seeing himself for the first time in years.

There’s a curious expression on his face here: a kind of grim resignation as he’s piecing it all together.

As Laurie comes down to look for him, even his speech is different. It’s more direct and clipped; gone are the stammering and hesitant sentences.

He’s finally come out and said it.

Note here he says “This terror bearing down”. In another chapter, Moore gives us the mirroring narrative of the pirate comic book, which contains the Black Freighter. In that story, the realization of the dread that haunts the central figure is given shape in the massive ship that bears down on the narrator just like Dan’s describing.

And just to also note: history holds the story of a British ship that mysteriously disappeared during an exploratory trip to the Arctic in 1845. The name of that ship was the “Terror”.

I love Laurie’s lines in this whole sequence. And it’s funny that Dan says “… get myself straight…” when many “straight” people might consider putting on a costume to fight crime anything BUT straight.

A short sequence of Dan putting on his Nite Owl costume, leading up to the triumphant reveal:

Gone is the tremorous, indecisive Dan; now it’s just Nite Owl.

And another big moment is about to happen. Because Watchmen is a story that deconstructs the superhero trope, it’s easy to think that that’s all it is. But there are also genuinely thrilling moments:

And this is one of them. Note the shadow figures in the lower right corner.

A nice bit of imagery, both in Dan’s dialogue and the top-down shot of the Owlship.

Dan’s verbiage changes when he’s Nite Owl. Much more direct and forceful. And I love the spherical, fish-eye lens effect of the reflection in the first panel.

There’s no hesitation. Dan’s in his element. He knows exactly what to do.

This second panel calls back to an earlier chapter, in which Dan accidentally catches a sight in a mirror of Laurie undressing, and quickly turns away out of propriety’s sake. Here, to him, she is similarly undressing, and it’s hitting him just as forcefully, if not more so.

The ramp extending is a phallic metaphor. It’s an obvious one, but that’s the point of this whole chapter, so it isn’t just prurient and silly.

Once again, Laurie gets the best lines.

You can virtually hear the strains of Billie Holiday here, providing an interesting counterpoint to the scene.

“Here’s my heart on a silver platter” as Dan enjoys the moment, feeling alive and free for the first time in years.

The crowd is silent and bewildered.

And the dragon has finally awakened.

Just a setup for a lovely, albeit a bit on-the-nose image.

Dan has found himself at last, with Laurie’s help.

Here’s the visual motif of the shadows again.

And the climax of the moment, cleverly set up by Laurie again accidentally brushing the flamethrower button as she did at the start of the chapter.

The post-coital moment, when perhaps words are unnecessary, but Laurie’s need for reassurance after her stultifying relationship with Jon is normal and natural. But Dan has something else on his mind.

And the Nite Owl costume literally came out of the closet.

And we back away from the scene, with visuals contained in lenses and reflections and circular frames.

And there it is again, at the last: the horizontal stroke, cutting across circles within circles, as though to break through the calming, pleasing shape with an intrusive line, just as Dan’s final line is disturbing to Laurie.

And we end with the Biblical epigraph, which in its entirety hews more toward feelings of remorse and isolation than its usage here, which suggests Dan’s reawakening and reattachment to the brotherhood he feels he belongs to.

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