“So Impotent”: Watchmen and The Power of Narrative Cohesion

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Written by Evan Davis (RoninDeVamas)

Obligatory Introductions

Anyone who knows me, whether in-person or online, could tell you how annoyingly critical I can be of practically anything. I cannot turn my brain off whenever I watch, read, or listen to a creative work. I can (and have) spent hours expositing about the deeper experiential analogs of Netflix’s She-Ra and compared its execution of similar subject matter present in My Little Pony. While this level of intellectual intensity doesn’t prohibit me from becoming an unapologetic fan (Kung Fu Panda is the best animated franchise of the 21st Century, fight me), it does make it more difficult for me to feel so moved as to be inspired into creating my own work of art.

It is with great embarrassment that it took 17 years after I first got into comic books to finally read those controversial classics, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Reading them back-to-back (which was fitting, given they were published in the same year), I found that I didn’t care too much about The Dark Knight Returns, but understood very well how and why Watchmen was so influential even 33 years after its first publication. A lot has already been said about that particular mini-series: its deconstruction of the superhero genre; the criticism it throws at the ultraconservative politics of Reagan and Thatcher (how prescient); its cynical opinion on the nature of humanity (which I believe to be an oversimplified and inaccurate interpretation); the list goes on.

However, what often gets lost in the discourse is a simple matter of truth: Watchmen is the most well-composed piece of 20th Century visual literature ever made.

Not the best, nor the greatest. The most well-composed.

Watchmen is over 400 pages long over the course of 12 issues. There are six protagonists, eight significant side characters, and a gallery of additional supporting characters with more personality than even protagonists from other stories; a comic book mini-series within a comic book mini-series; and excerpts from nearly ten different canonical publications with their own observations and agendas; all of which are used to tell no less than twelve parallel storylines that simultaneously escalate and converge into one of the most bizare and morally compromised climaxes ever put to paper.

All of that, and the panels that most effectively communicated the ideas and meanings I was intended to take from Watchmen were also among the most mundane, pathetic, and minimally expressive in the entire mini-series:

The Impotence Panels
“The Impotence Panels” from Watchmen, Chapter VII: A Brother of Dragons, page 19

Allow me to explain…

Perfect Narrative Cohesion

Narrative cohesion is one of the most difficult accomplishments that a creator of any medium can achieve: a precarious balancing act of story, plot, character, symbolism, visual design, and countless other interconnected details; all executed through clever subtlety or hammering-your-head obviousness (see: tropes and cliches). The Impotence Panels are an excellent example of perfect narrative cohesion that is both meaningfully obvious yet minimally expressed: the proverbial hammer hitting the nail just hard enough to gently hold up the bigger picture for us to enjoy and understand.

The following is a breakdown of how they accomplish just that:

Their Placement in the Plot

In my opinion, plot has been given way too much importance in popular criticism; if anything, plot is the least important tool in any writer’s utility belt. A narrative with a great plot, but no character, energy, or meaning, is boring at worst and an intellectual exercise at best; while a flimsy plot filled with exuberant creativity and personality can be extremely fun, if painfully confusing. The difference between the two reveals the most vital function of plot in a narrative: it is the chain of logical sequences that links together all of a narrative’s more creatively abstract parts. Plot is why writers have literary patterns such as the famous three-act structure and all of its sequential components.

The Impotence Panels serve a very important function in the narrative of Watchmen as the lowest emotional point of the plot. Given that so much of Watchmen up until this point has depicted the escalating decline into madness, depression, and paranoia of our six protagonists, that really says something; however, it makes more sense once it is understood that Daniel Dreiberg (aka Nite Owl) is among the last ones standing capable of doing anything to move the action forward. Rather than a rallying cry to cancel the apocalypse, what is presented instead is Dan admitting defeat to his own impotence against the greater machinations of the challenges he faces (and by extension, the narrative).

That Dan actually dons the Nite Owl costume immediately afterwards (at the encouragement of Laure Juspeczyk aka Silk Spectre, who does succeed to move the plot forward, unlike her grimmer and more emotionally distant male compatriots) and helps turn the tide for the protagonists only reinforces the importance that these panels are positioned at this exact point: any earlier, and they would have been easily overlooked in the death spiral of psychological descent; any later, and they would have been a speed bump during its rush toward the climax. Either way, its function in the plot structure — and therefore its power of linking the narrative together — would have been lost.

Their Adherence to Theme

The premise behind Watchmen was a simple question: “What if superheroes were real?” Such simplicity immediately becomes undermined as trying to answer it leads down a rabbit hole of increasingly dire existential quandaries, all needing resolutions in order for the originating premise to be satisfyingly explored. Ultimately, the author is responsible for directing such exploration, thereby setting their agenda and revealing what they believe to be the correct answer. For Alan Moore, superheroes were (and arguably still are) avatars for the power fantasies of their creators and audience that are irreconcilable with the real world; thusly, Moore uses each of the six protagonists in Watchmen to explore a particular power fantasy and, through their struggles, reveal their inherent follies.

Daniel Dreiberg is a hopeless romantic who sees superheroism as a virtuous endeavor, a modern reiteration of medieval knighthood or the great demi-deities of Ancient Greek mythology (he even takes this notion of legacy quite literally, himself inheriting the mantle of Nite Owl from its original wielder). However, the world of Watchmen (a reflection of our own circa 1985) is rampant with problems too vast and complex for superheroism (or more accurately, vigilantism) to solve: poverty, bigotry, drugs, sexism, corruption, consumerism, and (most pertinent) war. Dan’s despair at the impotence of his own romantic idealism thus echoes the themes explored in the narrative.

Their Portrayal of Character Vulnerability

All of this critical analysis of structure and theme mean nothing unless we care about the character in whom these ideas are embodied; and in the real of superhero comics (and especially 80s pop media), hardly anything is more relatable for the avid comic book reader of the time than a hapless nerd falling head-over-heels for the beauty queen. True to form, the vast majority of Dan’s interactions with Laurie consist of passive attempts to gain her favor through gentlemanly conduct and concern (the old “shoulder you cry on” method of courtship). While he eventually succeeds, Dan is denied the pleasure of enjoying his romantic reward by the intervention of literal impotence.

The panels thus depict Dan at his most emotionally despondent, overwhelmed by sheer disappointment in his utter failure to both uphold his romantic beliefs and revel in his carnal endeavor: a middle-aged man, literally and metaphorically stripped bare, retreating behind a mask that once gave him such clarity and purpose out of nostalgia and desperate desire for empowerment and virility — and it doesn’t work.

A pointless endeavor… and Dan knew it.

So impotent.

And yet so powerful…

The Point

I mentioned earlier that my critical faculties make it difficult for me to be personally affected by most creative works as my mind constantly processes and analyzes the intent and execution of every image, word, and soundbite that it absorbs. In many ways, it is a survival instinct protecting me from emotional harm by those who want to manipulate me into suiting their own ends; a lifetime of bullying, feuding families, and religious indoctrination does that. So when a creative work makes me feel something, anything, emotionally profound, it means that something was done either extremely well or horrendously wrong — and I try to figure out why.

When I read those two fateful words, “So impotent”, I felt my heart fall down my throat and into my gut with such a thud that I swear that I heard it echo between my ears. I immediately connected with Dan, felt the depths of his profound existential dread and utter helplessness to resist an impending, perhaps inevitable doom; the fear of never fulfilling any of his aspirations, his life ending before it was either lived to its fullest or met a satisfying end. I still feel that way, the adrenaline coursing through my veins, even as I write this down.

(It certainly doesn’t help that our real world feels that much closer to an irreversible apocalypse than it was 33 years ago…)

However, none of this would have been possible were those panels plotted or executed in any other way, the mechanical precision of prose designed to deliver an emotional gut-punch through which the entirety of the story is revealed to whomever is most receptive. Such is the importance of narrative cohesion: executed poorly, and even the most beautifully rendered scene feels hollow, confused, or worse yet, insulting (see: “Martha?! Why did you say that name?!?”).

Executed well, and even the simplest gesture can impart immense emotional intensity and intellectual vigor that can be enjoyed over and over again.

If only I could do for someone else what those three panels did for me…

Consider me inspired.