Before Watchmen – Dr. Manhattan 1

Today, Shelby and Drew are discussing Dr. Manhattan 1, originally released August 22nd, 2012. Dr. Manhattan is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).

Shelby: Dr. Manhattan is a tricky character to deal with. He is all powerful; he can control any matter in any way, can see all time, and knows how everything will happen. That’s difficult to even really comprehend as a reader, let alone to understand it enough to write about. Once you get over the hurdle of writing about an infinitely powerful being with seemingly no weaknesses, there’s the fact that you’re writing a prequel story that the readers already know. Dr. Manhattan gets the most detailed origin story in Watchmen, so how do you write more about a story that we already know without completely derailing the character? I will admit, I was doubtful J. Michael Straczynski would pull it off, solely based on my disappointment in Nite Owl so far. I was surprised and immensely pleased to find this title is very, very good.

I’m not really sure how to recap this one. It starts with Dr. Manhattan attending a funeral, thinking of the endless mysteries, the endless possible universes contained in closed boxes. The title meanders through Dr. Manhattan’s past, all with narration focusing on the theme: What’s inside the box? We see familar scenes as well as new ones: Jon turning down a invite from a hottie to work on a watch, Jon’s father being told about his son’s accident. Jon ultimately gets the idea to send his consciousness back in time to the moment of the accident, when Dr. Manhattan was created. He’s actually just curious if he can do it; he doesn’t know if he can send himself back to a time before he was created. He does, of course, but things don’t go quite as he remembered. He watches his old self go back to the chamber, pick up his jacket, and leave. The experiment goes on as planned, the accident never happens. So, if the accident which turned John into Dr. Manhattan didn’t happen, then … what?

This title kind of broke my brain a little bit. Jon has traveled backwards in time to see the event which gave him the ability to travel backwards in time, and that event did not happen. This is super bold on Straczynski’s part; he is toying with a story which has the potential to unmake Dr. Manhattan! Now, the downside of a prequel is we know how things eventually end up, so there’s no mystery to whether or not this gets fixed. I was really impressed with the story Straczynski spun out of this. He’s telling us a story which seemed to happen between the panels of Dr. Manhattan’s story in Watchmen; not only is he filling in the space of the existing story, he’s adding something totally and unexpectedly new to it. Unlike Nite Owl, where my biggest complaint is the new material does not fit what I know about the character Dan Dreiberg, I think this fits very easily into my perception of Dr. Manhattan as a character.

A lot of what I enjoy about this title comes from Adam Hughes art. He’s done some really interesting things with panel layouts to accomodate the way the story slips through time. There are a lot of scenes in this story taken from the original; Hughes just changes the perspective, turns it into something new. I especially like the way he handled Wally touring Jon around the facility, showing him the eventual site of his accident.

I love the static image spread out through all three panels. The characters moving through the background brings an interesting feeling of time and space to this otherwise flat medium. I also think it’s a really smart way to re-draw an existing scene from another story; it maintains the basic elements that are needed while still presenting something new. The best panel in this title is obviously when Dr. Manhattan travels back in time. I have to give a lot of credit here to colorist Laura Martin. This page just glows. I would love to get a high-quality print of this to hang in my house, it’s breathtaking!

The possibilities Straczynski has created with this story are mind-boggling. Will the good doctor need to find a way to keep himself from being unmade? Is he going to observe something in this alternate timeline which will affect his later decisions in Watchmen? Are we going to see an alternate version of Watchmen through Jon’s eyes? This title is much stronger than I thought it would be, and I’m glad for it. Drew, what about you, are you as googly-eyed as I about the potential this story has shown?Drew: Like Shelby, I was extremely wary of this title after reading the first two issues of Nite Owl. Straczynski has blundered through that series, taking details of Dan’s history we know and synthesizing them into an utterly unbelievable hash, which is mind-boggling, given that the character was largely based on his believable psychology. All Straczynski had to do was make implicit connections explicit, and he’d at least have a book that respected its source material, but instead, he chose to make up all kinds of absurd, utterly tone-deaf  connections that manage to devalue events in WatchmenDr. Manhattan is light-years better than Nite Owl, but unfortunately, that doesn’t speak so much to the success of the former as it does the failure of the latter.

Dr. Manhattan feels a lot better — there’s something damn satisfying about seeing Jon’s signature narration boxes — but all of that goodwill is borrowed from the original series. Ultimately, it suffers from the same problems as Nite Owl; Straczynski is so obsessed with certain details that he ignores more significant ones, often recasting history in ways that diminish the significance of what we know. For example: Straczynski remembered Jon’s anecdote about wanting to go into watch repair, and turned Jon’s past into that of a child obsessed with watch repair. There’s nothing in Watchmen that suggests Jon was antisocial, or really had anything other than a normal childhood. In fact, he strikes up a relationship with Janey Slater like a perfectly well-adjusted human being. Assuming his only interest is the one thing we ever saw him do the one glimpse we get of his past is supremely lazy, and reduces a complex character down to a single character trait.

But it’s even lazier than that, as the flashback in Watchmen is of Jon’s ambitions of watch repair being literally thrown out the window in 1945. The flashback here shows Jon already at Princeton studying atomic physics, but is still obsessed with watch repair. He likes it so much, he doesn’t want to join boosomy co-eds going to a lake in March (also, what? New Jersey in March is not the time to be going to lakes. Also, where is this co-ed from? Princeton didn’t admit girls until 1969). So…if he was obsessed with watch repair and didn’t stop being obsessed with watch repair after his dad told him to and sent him to Princeton, why wasn’t he still obsessed with watch repair when he arrived at Gila Flats? Why was he willing to choose sleeping with Janey over fixing the watch RIGHT FUCKING NOW in that hotel in Jersey? My money is on Moore being wrong. Oh, wait.

Unfortunately, that’s not even the part that bothers me the most. That distinction goes to the notion of a being that can see the future giving any credence to Schrödinger’s cat. First off, Schrödinger didn’t come up with that thought experiment to blow our minds, he came up with it to demonstrate the absurdity of the quantum physics notion that something doesn’t have a definite state until it is observed. Not that we don’t know if the cat is alive or dead until we open the box, but that the cat is both alive and dead until we open the box — the act of observing forces us into one reality or the other. So, on the one hand, it’s kind of silly for grown adults to take this seriously (unless the room behind me actually disappears when I’m not looking at it…nope, still there), let alone one that can see into the fucking future. If he already knows if the cat is alive or dead, than the cat was never both alive and dead, since he observed it, even if the observation hasn’t technically happened yet. As far as Dr. Manhattan is concerned, there are no multiple states, hell, there is no before and after the box is opened, since the guy experiences everything at once. The fact that he’s mystified by it makes no sense, but maybe it’s because he doesn’t understand it in the first place.

“Quantum physics says that as long as the box is closed, it could contain anything, in any state of existence”? Nope. Schrödinger’s cat is about the effects of an unknown event on a cat, it says nothing about the cat possibly being a baseball glove until the box is opened. I appreciate that nine-year-old Jon doesn’t know what’s in the box, so it seems like it could be anything, but the gift was bought and wrapped by his father, not random events. Pretending the course of his life was dictated by chance ignores his father’s role in all of this, which is weird, since we already knew he was the one who ultimately pushed him into atomic physics.

To me, the fact that Jon experiences time the way he does really robs any prequel of any chance of an emotional arc. Jon’s story isn’t particularly surprising or compelling to him, since he already knows how it’s going to go, but unfortunately for us, we already know how it’s going to go, too. I suppose this could be said of any prequel, but combine that with Jon’s perception of time and the fact that we’re very familiar with his story, and we end up with mostly a rehash. In this way, I have to hand it to Straczynski for coming up with a way out of the timeline we already know, but once again, it doesn’t actually fit with the Jon we know. How is he surprised by any of this? He already knows what’s going to happen. There’s no Tachyon field being generated here, just a man who ostensibly sees the future being surprised by things, and it just doesn’t fit.

I also have complaints about the way Straczynski handle’s Jon’s relationship with Laurie, but those complaints are so closely related to the ones about Schrödinger’s cat and our complaints about the depiction of Dan’s relationship with Laurie in Nite Owl 1, I won’t bother rehashing them here. Instead, I’ll echo Shelby’s praise of Hughes’ work here — for all my complaints, this issue is gorgeous. Straczynski calls on Hughes to reinterpret a number of scenes from Watchmen which Hughes pulls off beautifully, making them instantly familiar, while still putting his own distinctive stamp on it. I just wish Straczynski didn’t force him to keep coming back to that well.

We all recognize this as the charatiy event where Jon first meets the costumed adventurers. We know Hollis would never be this comfortable talking to Jon, and moreover, we’ve already seen him reveal his retirement ambitions — at his retirement party, two years later. That’s where Jon mentions that his new electric cars will render Hollis obsolete yet again. There’s no reason to trot that conversation out, other than to acknowledge that it happened, in which case, I can’t see why Straczynski didn’t just show us that conversation again. Was he just that confident in his ability to write better dialogue than Moore?

I think that question puts a very fine point on my issues with Straczynski’s contributions to Before Watchmen; he hews so close to the original, he can’t help but come up short. Where Silk Spectre or Comedian find their heroes in unexplored territory, Straczynski keeps returning his heroes to the same events and milestones, yielding ever-diminishing returns. In failing to distinguish his story from Moore’s, he has invited criticism that would be unflattering to even the best stories, a distinction this title falls woefully short of.


For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

44 comments on “Before Watchmen – Dr. Manhattan 1

      • He says that he has never actually visited back before he became Dr. Manhattan, I can see how the “physics” of that could transform this into something outside his line of sight.

        • I guess, but then shouldn’t he have seen everything play out instantaneously when he first arrived in the past? Even if this isn’t his time stream, can’t he travel along it to see the future, and if so, doesn’t he see it all at once?

        • It seems that Straczynski is drawing a line between Jon’s remembering the past and “sending his consciousness” to it. This seems to imply a more complicated time travel which is differentiated from his simply experiencing all time all the time.

          Is it a reach from the original? You bet. Was it necessary in order to tell a prequel about a wholly omniscient character whose origin we already know in detail? Well, something was necessary.

        • You’re right — he needed to do something if he was going to tell an effective story about Dr. Manhattan — but since I was never sold on this Before Watchmen thing in the first place, it kind of re-begs the question: why do we need to tell an effective story about Dr. Manhattan in the first place?

          If telling a Dr. Manhattan story is a foregone conclusion, than this is fine — necessary, even — but if the series still needs to justify its own existence, I don’t think tossing the rulebook out the window was the way to do it.

      • It seems like it’s an elaborate set-up for a “what if” scenario. I’m not opposed to seeing that what-if played out, but it does kind of hurt to see Schrodinger’s name invoked for that purpose. Especially when there are theoretical physicists that have actually postulated multiple universes (like the dude from the Eels’ dad).

  1. Of all the Watchmen characters, I’d be most interested is seeing what happened to Dr. Manhattan after the original series. The Tachyon field allows for some surprises, and his casual, distracted remark about creating life has some insane possibilities. What does god think about?

    • That coulda been cool. The problem I see with it is that Doc’s adventures post-Watchmen would have nothing to do with the Watchmen universe, and would really just be the outer space adventures of God. Could be totally interesting, but maybe too divorced from the source material.

  2. It all comes back to source material. How true do these authors need to stay to it? How much wiggle room is there before a great outcry is heard, that Moore’s impeccable work has been defiled? It’s true that we need to be able to see Moore’s version of these characters in the prequels. I also think it’s true that huge deviations from the way we see these characters (NITE OWL) is a waste of a good character. But do we need to go over each of these issues with a fine-toothed comb looking for every detail that’s wrong? When are we going to give these authors and artists room to breath and tell the stories they want to tell?

    /rant

    • I feel like making the decision to set something in a beloved and well-known universe with equally beloved and well-known characters kind of begs this scrutiny. If they’re not going to adhere to what we know, why make the connection at all? If any of these creators wanted freedom to tell whatever story they wanted, they could just come up with whatever characters they want (I’m by no means an expert on IP law, but I think that would also be INFINITELY EASIER as far as copyright is concerned). If, instead, they want to tell a story with these characters in this universe, it must be because they actually want those constraints, to write within what we already know. I think holding them to that standard is entirely reasonable.

    • Actually, the end of this issue sells me on precisely that: the title’s ability to creatively defile Moore’s work. You know I don’t hold authorial intent or ownership of ideas in very high regard. I’ve been saying open season on Watchmen is fine by me. My problem is with the logical inconsistencies with this method of temporal omniscience.

      But I do totally love the idea of seeing the Watchmen universe without Doc. That’s fertile fucking ground. I just wish I didn’t have to read 20 pages of graceless rehash and half-remembers pop-physics to reach that point.

      • Oh, whoa. I was so caught up in details that I failed to realize what this is setting up — a world where the events of Watchmen don’t happen. That’s actually damn interesting. We ascribe so much of what makes that universe different from our own to the presence of Dr. Manhattan, so what will it look like without him. Maybe Shelby’s right: I may be paying too close attention to the details to actually enjoy this thing.

        • I felt the same about Rorschach last week. I didn’t want to debate the validity of his using a typewriter vs. writing his journal by hand; I just wanted to enjoy the story.

        • The reason I was concerned about the typerwriter at all was that it seemed obvious enough to be drawing attention to itself. And the incongruity of that detail made me look closer and find something really interesting about that piece. As a result, I really really liked it. My point is, the hyper-scrutiny DID help me enjoy that story.

        • I still feel like the details matter. Rorschach writes his journal with a pen. If it doesn’t matter, then why change it? Admittedly, that one was a little nit-pickier than I think I’ve been here, but that brings me back to the point I’ve outlined above — nits are part of telling a story with established characters. If you don’t want nits, make up your own character who uses a typewriter. If you want to use characters we all know, you have to respect the things we all know about them.

        • Details do matter, but to a point. I’m not going to let the fact that a character uses a different writing utensil at a point in his story that we’ve never experienced before get in the way of my enjoyment of the story.

        • But again, if it isn’t important, why did they change it? Is it ignorance? laziness? or is it possible there is a reason to deviate from the known? I like to give creators the benefit of the doubt here and assume any deviations are deliberate, but then they need to justify the change.

        • I don’t know if one issue’s worth of story, even for a 4-story mini, is enough to really speculate on a writer’s intentions.

          PATIENCE, YOUNG SKYWALKER.

  3. NEW THREAD!

    Shelby’s point kind of brings it back around. We joked derisively in the Rorschach write-up about how the story might be the explanation of why he switched to longhand for his journal, which would be absurd, because it really is such an inconsequential detail. I can’t see justifying it making sense, but I can’t really see a reason to change it without a justification. It’s kind of a Catch-22 that can only be entered when creators change minor details for no apparent reason.

    • I think Shelby’s making a different point about stressing out about details. It’s totally possible that Azz changed the handwritten journal to a typed journal because he liked the way the sloppy copy-editing looked. It’s possible that when he thought of Rorschach, he imagined that kind of Seven-esque psychopathy. The point might be that the detail is important for its own sake and not for the way it rubs against the original.

      • Ah. But can a detail be true to the spirit of the original if it directly contradicts it? Wouldn’t the very things that gave Azzarello his opinion of Rorschach be the details he’s changing? I get that this is his interpretation of the character, but what is there to interpret if hard facts about the character can be changed? Is James Bond still James Bond if he doesn’t wear a tux, order a martini, or brandish a gun?

        • Yes. The character of James Bond is more than those physical characteristics. Rorschach can still be Rorschach if he’s using a typewritter; the essence of that character is still there.

        • But I would argue that those elements are central to the essence of the character. He needs to look, sound, and act like himself to be recognizable as that character. If you start changing elements, exaggerating them through your own subjective lens of interpretation, they will cease to resemble the characters. Moreover, those physical trappings are important elements of storytelling; George Bailey’s journey means less if his banister doesn’t come apart in his hands, if his clothes and hair don’t become increasingly disheveled throughout the night, hell, even if he isn’t a good foot taller than Mary. Yes, different actors, writers, artists might make different decisions if they were interpreting the same material, but we’re not talking about parallel universes where Azzarello’s Rorschach exists independently of Moore’s, we’re talking about an extension of the same universe, in which case, those interpretive decisions don’t really have much room. Otherwise, they could have made Walter Kovacs a 6’7″ black dude.

        • I don’t know what to say, Drew; all you’re arguing is that Before Watchmen should have never been done in the first place.

        • I really don’t mean to — I’m enjoying Silk Spectre and Comedian, and my only complaint with Rorschach is the typewriter thing. I just really like talking about these lofty, abstract ideas.

  4. Adam Hughes’ art is probably the most faithful to Gibbon’s style in Watchmen. Not that he adheres to the 9-panel format or anything like that, but the colors and character models seem to most accurately emulate the source material. There is something undeniably satisfying about this artwork without reinventing the wheel (like Silk Spectre or Ozy).

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  6. Excellent deconstruction of Straczynski’s misappropriation of Schrödinger’s Cat. Here’s another gem:

    “It’s like, what if there’s some field holding stuff together apart from gravity?”

    Wally Weaver, physicist, apparently hasn’t heard of intermolecular forces or the strong nuclear force.

    • Yeah, it’s frustrating oh shitty the science is when the concept is sorta interesting. Like, if anyone in the Watchmen cannon can engage in multiverse theory, it’s the man that UNDERSTANDS theoretical physics so well that he can actually observe phenomenon that had only been postulated before. How do you feel about the “what if there was no Doc?” scenario?

      • Actually, turns out I’m the idiot. Wally Weaver is just an assistant, and he’s supposed to be all gee willikers about them magic holdin’-together-forces. His ignorance is canon.

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