Reading “A Brother to Dragons”

This panel’s the prelude to a sex scene where Dreiberg suffers performance anxiety to the tune of Adrian Veidt being an Olympian marvel in the background. It’s not subtle, but the art is beautiful. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

The second half of Watchmen begins with another character-focused issue (Moore and Gibbons reversed the pattern of the first half so that the final issue would be plot-relevant instead of a character sketch), this time with a focus on Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl.  The majority of the issue is just a prolonged conversation that Dreiberg has with Laurie Juspeczyk, who is staying with him after she gets evicted from the government base where she was living with Jon Osterman following Osterman’s disappearance.  It’s sort of an extended reflection on the pair’s history as crime fighters and their first “date” together (Dan and Laurie have been meeting up for meals as friends for a couple weeks at this point, but it’s painfully obvious to everyone that Dan wants to be more than friends).  These two are the most sympathetic out of the whole cast, so it’s nice to see an issue focused only on the two of them.

Like with all of the other character-focused issues, Dreiberg’s explores his motivations for being a superhero.  There’s no origin story to speak of, no defining trauma that leads him to become Nite Owl; he had a privileged childhood and when he was a young man he decided he wanted to follow in the footsteps of one of his heroes.  Though he’s generally more of a good-faith actor, Dreiberg’s motivations for getting into superheroics fall significantly more in line with Edward Blake than with either Osterman or Rorschach.  He fights crime mostly because it satisfies a personal need rather than because of any perceived temporal or moral obligation.  Really, Dan Dreiberg is probably the purest representation in Watchmen of the power fantasy that superhero stories sell to men.

The twist on this fantasy is that Dreiberg also bears a sexual fetish for the pageantry of superheroics.  Much of this issue explores Dreiberg’s existential malaise following his forced retirement, and it’s expressed most strikingly in the story of how he and Laurie Juspeczyk come to have sexual intercourse for the first time.  Of course, Dreiberg’s kink is a benign quirk of his character; the deeper, and more troubling, aspect being explored through it is his psychological need to feel powerful despite being a man who has led a very privileged life.  Dreiberg casually mentions at several points his substantial personal fortune, inherited from his father, that allows him to maintain all the necessary resources for being Nite Owl.  Literally the only thing that makes him a superhero is his access to money.

It’s this paradox between Dreiberg’s actual access to power and his need to feel like he’s powerful that sits at the core of his character.  In a cast with other characters who have suffered some severe trauma, Dreiberg comes off as kind of a weird pretender to superheroing.  Like we’ve already pointed out, he lacks the tragic backstory, and the other elements of a superhero that we’re familiar with (the powers and the general sense of “specialness”) aren’t intrinsic to the character either.  Though he doesn’t seem to have any animosity towards Osterman, he clearly envies his relationship with Juspeczyk; though he thinks Rorschach is odd, he believes the man is a brilliant crime fighter with more natural talent for the profession; his array of gadgets compensate for his deficits in comparison to his peers.  Even his identity as a legacy superhero emphasizes that Dreiberg lacks anything to clearly define him.  All these markers make Dreiberg significantly less interesting than the other characters on the surface, but I think that’s why he works so well as the male reader surrogate.  He’s the closest thing we get to an everyman, but he’s also depicted as sort of worthy of derision.

He’s not just talking about the fact that he’s having trouble performing. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Part of this implied derision comes from Dreiberg’s coding as a typical nerdy, bookish type.  He wears glasses, enjoys ornithology, and is clearly a brilliant enough engineer to build and maintain all of his own gadgets.  Additionally, unlike the rest of the main characters, Dreiberg is consistently portrayed in the present as being slightly overweight.  He doesn’t look like a superhero affecting a civilian identity; he looks like a civilian.  All of these details belie the fact that Dreiberg is still fully capable of all the physicality that comes with superheroing (it can’t be ignored that he and Juspeczyk pummeled a gang of muggers several issues back without the aid of any extra gadgetry).  He’s a walking male nerd power fantasy, throwing off all the identity markers and then also getting to be a superhero right along with Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach (all the while still dealing with deep-seated self esteem issues as he unconsciously compares himself with Adrian Veidt, an archetypical super man who doesn’t rely on any of the crutches that Dreiberg does).

All of this stuff with Dreiberg aligns with the overall critique Moore has leveled at superhero fiction for years: it’s a genre designed for children that encourages overly simplistic moral reasoning and an insistence that conflicts can be resolved through properly aimed use of force.  Dreiberg’s the boy who grew up reading comics and internalized that message, then when he became an adult with the means to do so, he replicated what he had idealized when he was younger.  In this line of thinking, he becomes the character most worthy of contempt because he’s chosen the superhero life out of nothing more than a desire to indulge part of his childhood full time.  I don’t think he’s a particularly monstrous character (I actually like Dan a lot), but the fact of how closely he mirrors the stereotypical comics reader that Moore and Gibbons were likely thinking of makes it even more imperative to highlight and critique his flaws.  They’re the flaws that the creators were specifically thinking of in their audience, and with how the discourse in comics has proceeded in recent years, it’s clear that this is a personality that requires critique.

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