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 Watchmen. Dr. 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.
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