Today, Shelby and Scott are discussing Dr. Manhattan 4, originally released February 27th, 2013. Dr. Manhattan is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).
Shelby: How do you tell any kind of story about a man who sees all of time at once? He knows his past, his future, and everything in between; how do you find a compelling narrative in the story of a man who knows his whole story? J. Michael Straczynski has tried to do that by exploiting Dr. Manhattan’s kooky relationship with time. “Doc Manhattan knows every possible future? FINE. I’ll WRITE every possible future!” JMS seemed to say. This title hasn’t been terrible (especially compared to the other monstrosities JMS had his hand in), but it hasn’t been great, either. At best, this book has been conceptually interesting, but has fallen short in execution. This issue is no different; JMS tries out something new that’s interesting, but ultimately the story doesn’t go much of anywhere.
This issue starts where this whole thing started: Jon at a mysterious funeral. He’s hoping and hoping he’s fixed all the problems he caused, all the alternate realities that split-off of his decision to travel back in time before his own creation. Everything seems to be in order, but something’s a little off, so he decides to go chat with Ozymandias about it. (A side note: the funeral he was at was his own. I think our minds are supposed to be blown by that.) The good doctor explains his adventures through time, and then explains the wrongness he was feeling; he can no longer see his own future, and there’s destruction imminent, destruction for which he will feel responsible. That’s when things take a turn for the interesting: in order to switch things up and show the rest of the scene from Adrien’s POV, the images literally flip upside down, and the book reads from right to left.
Adrian suggests that the static blocking Jon’s future is actually feedback of Jon’s own energy, from inventions that haven’t been invented yet; you know the rest. Things flip right-side-up when Jon confronts Adrian in his orrery after the main event in Watchmen. Jon explains to us that everything in the universe is a matter of perspective, and gets to work creating new life on a distant planet.
There are a lot of interesting things that could be inferred by flipping the story upside-down halfway through. This could be a character study of Adrian and Jon together, sort of a both sides of the same coin situation. I couldn’t help but think of Janus, Roman god of beginnings and transitions: two-headed, because he could see both the past and the future. That would be an appropriate description of both Adrian and Jon. Jon can literally see all time, and Adrian is smart enough he can practically see the future, not to mention both men’s roles in mankind’s transition into a united, peaceful coalition in Watchmen proper. It could even be as simple as a literal interpretation of “showing both sides of the story.” Unfortunately, JMS has to ruin the question by explicitly telling us the answer: “I mean that the question, like the world, death, life and the universe itself, are all matters of perspective.” He had us looking at the book from a different perspective! Get it? Not only has he cheapened this unique approach to story-telling by telling us exactly why he did it that way, I think he’s also cheapened Jon’s final words of Watchmen.
What a gorgeous re-imagining of the original scene. The sentiment is gorgeous, as well: Jon’s dismissal of the idea that there could ever be “an end,” and Adrian’s concern that he’s only put off the inevitable is the perfect lead in to the final scene of Watchmen: Rorschach’s journal getting to the New Frontiersman. The perpetuation of time, the perpetuation of the story of our eventual downfall, even the perpetual rotations of Adrian’s orrery, it all comes together so beautifully. To follow that with a series of dialogue boxes explaining the metaphors that have been used these four issues, and to tie it all up with a neat, little “happy ending” bow takes away a lot of the magic for me. Granted, Adam Hughes puts some of the magic back because his work is so god-damn beautiful; I mean, Christ, just look at it.
As I said earlier, this title was by no means terrible. The quantum physics machinations were clunky, and occasionally just incorrect, and JMS’ love affair with dialog boxes sometimes got in the way. But he had big ideas for this book, and I have to applaud him for his creative approach to Jon’s relationship with time, even if he didn’t pull it off one hundred percent. And every page of Hughes’ work is a total eyegasm; I could just look at this book and feel I’ve got my money’s worth. What about you Scott, how have you felt about this title? Do you think JMS made some bold choices, and deserves credit for trying hard but ultimately coming up short? Or is the “coming up short” aspect more prevalent than the “at least he tried” aspect? Or do you just want to talk more about the art? Because I’m totally cool with that.
Scott: Adam Hughes has received many accolades for his art in this series, and deservedly so, but it’s Laura Martin’s color work that truly accounts for the breathtaking beauty of these pages. She deserves tons of credit for any panel where planets appear. My favorite things to look at in this issue are the colors that fill the spaces between the planets and stars. Ooh, it’s pretty!
As for the title as a whole, I think I feel similarly to you, Shelby- it isn’t terrible, but still disappointing. I couldn’t decide whether JMS was putting together an ambitious story that needed a fourth installment to fully unravel, or a flimsy one that was stretching itself too thin, but this issue makes it clear it falls into the latter category. Sure, there are concepts involved that require thorough explanation- the very nature of Dr. Manhattan is difficult to wrap your head around- but this title has been repetitious to the point of tedium. And this issue was the worst offender. At times it felt like I was reading a summary of the first three issues while looking at the same image over and over. Oh wait-
OK, so Dr. Manhattan is so observant he is able to pick up on almost imperceptible facial tics, that’s all very well and good, but still, this is an entire page that could easily have taken up just two panels. What I was most disappointed in with this issue was how little it revealed about Jon. In the first three parts of Dr. Manhattan, I enjoyed the glimpses into Jon’s early life, seeing how his relationship with his father inspired his incredible work ethic and turned him into the man he was. The glimpses into his past made all the possible futures he explored more meaningful on a personal level. But this issue didn’t deal with any of that. It served merely as a means to take us from what we learned in the first three issues to where we knew we needed to get to fit into Watchmen, without introducing anything new along the way. The upside-down pages are just a gimmick to distract us from the fact that Dr. Manhattan stops being relevant half-way through his own comic.
Shelby, you wrote that Dr. Manhattan has been conceptually interesting but poorly executed, and I would agree. Unfortunately, this was least conceptually interesting issue of the series. I’m not saying I needed another quantum physics lesson- I just feel I came away from this issue without having learned anything. For a book so concerned with time, it ultimately feels like a waste of it.
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