“Only one more word concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose Philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has complete its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When Philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvinated, but only known. The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering” – Georg W.F. Hegel, Preface to the Introduction to the Philosophy of Right
In the year 1985 the inception of Alan Moore’s 1987 iconic graphic novel Watchmen began. What started as a quest to re-purpose characters of Charlton Comics past, evolved into an original tale of a chaotic, politically charged era of superheros and masked vigilantes, and has today become one of the most iconic forms of the graphic novel medium to date. While holding onto tethers from numerous characters of old and new, Moore created for us a complex world of heroes (and anti-heroes) for his readers to admire and deplore all in the same breath. To add to the complex character structure, Moore is able to expand upon several political and social commentaries, through various mediums, all within one brilliant novel. It is for these (and several other) reasons that I would like to argue Watchmen as a modern day work of Romance (and I do mean this in the capital R sense of the term, not some half-witted afternoon soap opera that your Grandmother watches.) In order to explore this idea more in depth, I plan on first exploring each central character of the Watchmen story line in their own essay and ultimately ending in a culminating exposition of the graphic novel as a piece of Romantic literature. To do this I would first like to engage in a brief understanding and history of the Romantic movement and then delve into the character of Nite Owl II/Daniel Dreigberg, whom I believe to be the most obvious character in the series to have the Romantic sentiment entangled in his character.
In the late 18th and early 19th century the world was being faced with a changing climate mainly through the modes of industrialization, scientific rationalization, and a rise in neo-classicism (a return to the “classical” understandings of life through ancient yore.) As a reaction to the changing tides, primarily artists, writers, political agents, and scientists began to rebel against these new modes of life. This new movement encouraged the understanding of feeling as law, creation from nothingness, healthiness through morality and mentality, and identification of the self through literature. As 20th century Philosopher Isaiah Berlin stated in his work The Crooked Timber of Humanity:Chapters in the History of Ideas, Romanticism was:
“a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappleasable yearning for unattainable goals.”
I find that not only does this quotation nicely wrap up the concept of Romanticism, but it undoubtedly expresses the spirit of Watchmen as a whole, but each part of this statement can be applied to one of the members of the Watchmen team. Let us now turn to the character of Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II and explore his existence through the mode of Romanticism.
Born in 1945, Dan Dreiberg was born to a a banker father whose economic success afforded Dan the funding of a good education (eventually a Masters degree from Harvard in aeronautics and zoology) and a large inheritance that eventually would fund his career as a superhero. Throughout Watchmen we discover that Dan enjoys jazz from the 1930’s and 1940’s, the fantasy genre of literature, mythology, and ornithology (the study of birds). While seemingly normal hobbies of a studious man, we can understand this in the Romantical sense as Dan appreciating and adapting notions and sentiments of the past into his character,(the forgotten sources of life as it were). In 1962, Dan contacts his idol, Hollis Mason/Nite Owl in order to ask his permission to assume the identity of the Nite Owl and continue his legacy of straight and narrow crime fighting. Through the powers of capital and intellect, Hollis becomes impressed by the gear that Dan has developed for the resurrection of Nite Owl as Nite Owl II, he ultimately agrees to Dan assuming his old identity in the name of Justice. This develops into a friendship where they meet every Saturday night and Hollis recants his tales and experiences of crime-fighting, as he also expressed in his autobiography Under the Hood. I find it important to note here that within his faction, Hollis as the Nite Owl always seemed to be the voice of reason in a world of masked vigilantes. He was kind and light-hearted with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Hollis at Nite Owl seemed to be the glue to hold his team (the Minutemen) together and remained affable with each of his team members despite being completely aware of their flaws. I stress this character sketch as Dan seems to not only admire, but also posses this same qualities throughout his roles in The Crimebusters, The Watchmen, and even in his own personal interactions.
Throughout his actions, Dan consistently shows us the strong yearning for a pure sense of justice in action and thought. The best example of this was during the Keene Act Riots in 1977 as Nite Owl II watches the Comedian suppress civilian rioters on the street with extreme force. Understanding this gross abuse of power and justice, this ultimately leads to the short lived retirement of Nite Owl II, In this time Dan returns to his studies and writes an article in the Journal of the American Ornithological Society in the fall of 1983 entitled “Blood From the Shoulder of Pallas”. In this article we find the strongest of Romantic notions within Dan. In this article Dan combines his love of birds, specifically owls, with mythology (the title refers to Pallas Athena and her owl Glaucus whom both represent wisdom, craftsmanship and strategic battle), poetry, and nature. Through a familiar medium (owls) Dan is simultaneously expressing his inner monologue about crime fighting and his call for a return to a pure sense of wonder about the world. Dan craves the fleeting freedom of a world where he could once act for justice in the name of justice. Much in the style of Romantic writers of their era, this is best expressed through a setting in nature:
“I would hare across the New England fields in the heart of the night…peering upwards in hope of a different sort of spectacle, ears straining for the weird scream that meant an old bird was out combing the dark for sustenance, a mad hermit screech, glaringly distinct from the snoring hiss of a younger owl… some facet of this experience had struck a chord in me, forged a connection between my dulled and jaded adult self and the child who sprawled in faint starlight while the great night hunters staged dramas full of hunger and death in the opaque jet air above me.”
Dan’s childhood experiences in the fields of New England he also explains varied from the normal worries of the sky watchers around him who were more concerned with “incoming flying saucers or soviet missiles”. He was yearning for a raw pure experience of the warfare of nature as opposed to the warfare of man. Romantics find often the modes of human existence and developments were flawed and to remain untrustworthy as the derived from the symphony of existence and nature accordingly.
In his interactions with his love interest Laurie/Silk Spectre II there are two more key points of Romanticism that I would like to address in this section. the first being a moment when Dan and Laurie are faced with thugs in an alleyway in their civilian attire (I must note here that most of the former masked crusaders were able to maintain their real life identities unassumingly after the passing of the Keene Act). Convinced that they are helpless in the face of impending nuclear war they decide to defy the Keene Act. In accepting vigilantism, they return to the forgotten old sense of power that existed within being a masked super hero and defy the constructs of the society they are directly in. To crave the power of expression and power of the self and enact on it in the face of an oppressive law ridden society is a true expression of Romanticism. The second instance, albeit brief, comes when in the end of the graphic novel Laurie and Dan assume new identites in order to be able to exist in a society that assumes they are dead. Dan and Laurie adopt the surname Hollis as a nod to Dan’s hero Hollis Mason. This small act displays the enduring hope in Dan that he can always reach towards the “forgotten sources of life” in order to instill his genuine ideal of a just and moral society.
Though seemingly a scientifically rational character throughout the novel, Dan offers us a glimmer into the child like wonder and urge for poetic justice, or what I would like to call Romantic justice. In the next section I would like to continue this sense of Romantic justice to the character I believe to be the next strongest exemplar of Romance through an exploration into the chaotic mind of Rorschach.
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