Heroes Never Rust #89 by Sean Ironman
Watchmen: Dream Sequences
When I took Introduction to Creative Writing as an undergraduate student, I was given a list of things that I could not use in my writing. I was told that my stories would be stronger if I did not include certain things, at least as a beginning writer. I have forgotten most of the list, but a few of the items were: flashbacks, drug-addicted protagonists, and dream sequences. After reading the list, I was pissed off, as many undergraduate students seem to be when given constraints for their writing. But, as I get older and more experienced as both a writer and a teacher, I believe my instructor was right in restricting the content of our work. Yes, those items I listed are used in many stories, but as a student it was important to limit the playing field so that I could learn certain craft elements before moving on to more complicated elements. I still have a habit of trying to avoid elements such as dream sequences in my own work, but when used well, they can strengthen a story in unique ways.
Issue seven of Watchmen is focused on Dan Drieberg (Night Owl II) and Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II). Up until this issue, the two have mainly reacted to the story’s events, staying on the sidelines. But, now, they are reinvigorated and put on their costumes that have gathered dust over the years since their retirement and they go out into the night and rescue tenants from a burning building. And, in the end, Dan decides that they need to break Rorschach out of prison. Watchmen has entered its second half and it is time for the characters’ stories to come together.
The difficulty in this issue lies in getting Dan and Laurie to put their costumes back on. They have been retired for years. In a comic, at least in this one, there is no interiority, no thought bubbles. And while that may be different in prose, point of view could prove limiting at times, and it may be more interesting to show something than to tell. Here, Dan falls asleep and the reader is given a one-page dream sequence (although there are two panels of the dream sequence on the next page). In the dream, he runs to a woman dressed in a black vigilante costume. She removes his skin from head to toe to reveal that he is Night Owl, and he in turn removes her skin, revealing Laurie. They go to kiss, but a nuclear explosion behind them obliterates the two lovers. The dream itself is very obvious in its metaphor. Deep down, Dan is a superhero. So is Laurie. He was not Dan Drieberg pretending to be Night Owl. He was Night Owl pretending to be Dan Drieberg. And now that he has found happiness with Laurie, it is too late. The world will be destroyed. Finding happiness does not really mean anything. He has to protect the world or else his happiness will be destroyed. Because of this dream, he decides to suit up, and along with Laurie in her Silk Spectre costume, they head out into the night to protect the city.
The dream sequence works on a technical level because the sequence changes style from the rest of the comic. Most of the comic is told in a nine-panel grid (3×3). But, the dream sequence is told is many more panels, which are thinner. There are two rows of six panels, and the final row has four dream panels and one panel (the size of two dream panels) of Dan waking up from the dream. The reader should not be tricked. The reader should not turn the page and think what they are seeing is really happening in the story. By changing the structure and the style of the panels, the comic signals the reader that there is a change. The pacing picks up. It takes a shorter amount of time for the reader to absorb smaller panels than larger ones. Then, in that final panel of the page of Dan waking, the reader stops, hit with the same intensity that Dan is. There is no other page in the issue that is set up like this dream sequence. And it works because of just that. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons makes the dream crucial to the story, stylistically different so that readers know it’s a dream, and a combination of easy to understand and weird to take advantage of a dream state without losing the reader.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.