This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 18, 2017.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Can you write me a thousand words on the importance of Doctor Manhattan’s uncensored, flaccid blue penis?
Short Answer: Yes. Yes, I can.
But I want to briefly apologize first. We’ve been doing this for about a year and a half now and this is the first column that will go up late. It’ll still be on a Thursday, but barely. For what it’s worth, I had a legitimate family emergency and had to spend the last few days in Kansas. If there’s anyone who looks at the Bulletin every Thursday morning expecting to hear me ramble, I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you today. I’ll do my best to not let this happen again and hopefully provide some words of wisdom about Doctor Manhattan’s big, blue schlong to make you feel better now.
So back to the matter at hand…
We talk a lot about how comics creators learned the right or wrong lessons from Watchmen. Normally, it’s a conversation focused on the wrong and that’s fair. While Geoff Johns and DC Comics might have too much of a hard on for how Watchmen led superhero comics astray like some sort of non-sentient pied piper playing to 30-year-old children, it’s impact on the genre was not obviously positive. I believe that Doctor Manhattan’s penis is one of the positive lessons of the comic, and one of the right lessons that went unlearned.
Before diving into what that lesson is, I want to take a similar one that’s easy to observe. At the end of the first issue when Laurie and Dan are dining together on page 25, Dave Gibbons’ features a gay couple in the foreground of the fourth panel. It is not an intrinsic part of the story. It is never remarked upon. It simply is. This panel is a choice being made by the creators of Watchmen to treat the world as it is. They embrace the idea of a society in which queer people are every bit as present and visible as they are in reality. Although it is a minor detail, it is an active choice towards the normalization of queerness in society. That’s especially notable for a comic that was published when both Reagan and Thatcher were in power and using that power to actively harm this entire group of people.
So what does Doctor Manhattan’s dick normalize?
While it’s much more talked about than the unnamed couple from that early panel, Doctor Manhattan’s sidekick is almost as minor a character. You don’t get a really good look at the little guy until the fourth chapter and it’s tastefully obscured in many of the panels it obviously occupies. There’s not a thematically significant point being made in Watchmen about tallywhackers. It primarily reflects one character’s perspective on societal norms and his overall view of humanity and nature. While that’s interesting, it’s not the real important about this topic.
The more intriguing choice is that of Gibbons and Moore to prominently feature Doctor Manhattan’s pecker in a natural, unobtrusive fashion. If you were to pull up every instance of this member of the cast, you would notice that it is never exaggerated in form or featured too prominently within any panel. Gibbons’ depiction of the memorable blue organ is purely anatomical in nature. He treats it just like he does Doctor Manhattan’s bicep or eyebrow; it is simply another part of his physical being like any other element found on the human body.
Rather than treating the penis as a taboo, Watchmen normalizes its appearance and depiction. This is especially notable within the genre of superhero comics where a hero’s junk is commonly both obscured and elongated. Take a look at the package within any of those external sets of underwear and you’re likely to see a notable bulge. It’s meant to demonstrate virility, masculinity, and vitality. At its worst the superhero is wrapped in western myths of masculine power and fascism, and that’s easily observable a couple of feet below eye level. These powerful men are powerful in all aspects of their appearance, and many superhero comics (both in 1986 and today) make sexual power a part of that equation.
Watchmen defies this notion. Doctor Manhattan is the most powerful being in the entire comic, but his physical appearance is mostly ordinary outside of particularly well-defined muscles. He’s much like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. His ding-a-ling doesn’t need to dangle too much in order to express an clear biological example of the masculine. His sexual potency is also undermined as he loses interest in sex throughout the timeline of Watchmen, engaging and experimenting with it as he would anything else later in life. Even when given the ability to shift his form or create duplicates of himself, Manhattan does not take advantage of adolescent fantasies in order to please himself. They only come about with the goal of pleasing someone else.
Doctor Manhattan’s southern exposure also normalizes the appearance of male sex organs within superhero comics. This has the effect of attempting to create balance. Female sex organs, specifically the breasts and buttox, have long been a fascination of American superhero artists. They are exaggerated like inflatable toys in a Sharper Image catalog and wrapped just as tightly in plastic and neon colors. While a male superhero’s package is often alluded to in a vague bulge, female superheroes are only offered a different color to obscure delicate elements of their anatomy, if even that.
The imbalance of how sexual organs are depicted and who this is meant to serve has been obvious for an exceedingly long time and Doctor Manhattan is a tool to correct this. He puts the last horizon of sex in mainstream superhero comics on full display. There is plenty of nudity on both sides of the gender equation in Watchmen, but Doctor Manhattan’s penis is the most apparent example.
Other instances include Dan and Laurie’s relationship. It is shown in a dream sequence in which they remove one another’s clothes and skin. Yet when they are both stripped bare, Gibbons features them in a profile that shows no more of one than the other. When the two have sex in Archie (the flying ship shaped like an owl), neither figure is more sexualized than the other. They are both shown enjoying the act and the reader is presented with their entire naked forms in an entirely natural manner, given their age and level of physical activity.
Moore and Gibbons treat sex as a normal element within their story. It is fetishized by some of the characters, but the story itself acknowledges it as a natural part of human existence. That includes the presence and presentation of human sexual organ, like Doctor Manhattan’s johnson.
It might sound odd to state that Doctor Manhattan’s member is important, but it really is. Comics creators, whether they’re focused on the superhero genre or not, can look at it and see something pointing towards a more healthy direction for the medium. Both by normalizing the depiction of sexuality between genders and by normalizing the depiction of sex as a whole, it encourages a healthier, more balanced perspective of the human condition. There’s a lot to be learned from Doctor Manhattan’s dong, and I hope it’s one of the good lessons of Watchmen we start to carry forward.
Look at that. A little more than one thousand words.