Today, Patrick and Michael Capristo are discussing Dr. Manhattan 2, originally released October 10, 2012. Dr. Manhattan is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).
Patrick: The first issue of Dr. Manhattan has sort of become Retcon Punch’s go-to example of something about which we can neither agree nor be civil. At its best, the issue was clever homage, setting up a daunting narrative structure with dazzling artwork. At its worst, the issue was reductive, inaccurate and repetitive. The centerpiece of our contention: Schrodinger’s cat. The thought experiment posits that an unobserved cat in a box is simultaneously dead and alive, and only when the cat is observed do the realities collapse into a single universe. Schrodinger came up with this puzzle partially to illustrate how silly the field of quantum mechanics is. Which isn’t to say that he didn’t buy into it, just that you live in a profoundly weird universe if a fact can be simultaneously true and not true. I’ve been thinking about it all evening, and “profoundly weird” is exactly how I want to describe Dr. Manhattan 2.
Dr. Manhattan flashes back to a history he doesn’t remember. Specifically, he flashes back to the day that he was locked in the intrinsic field generator — only, that doesn’t happen. ENGAGE “WHAT IF” SCENARIO! Jon never becomes a naked blue superhero, so his romance to Janey develops and the two of them get married. On their wedding day, Jon guesses which dressing room his wife-to-be is in — the one on the left or the one on the right. Flash forward to two nearly identical futures, as Jon and Janey fret over the resolution to the Cuban missile crisis, one wherein JFK is advised by the Comedian, the other in which he’s advised by Ozymandias. Naturally, Comedian’s advice leads to mutually assured nuclear destruction, while Ozy’s advise leads to a peaceful, diplomatic solution. Both scenarios are presented, and then we hop back to the wedding day, no indication of which room she’s in. Janey laughs, suggesting that she was in both. She presents Jon with another choice: does he want the first dance with her at the reception or the last dance? Again, future-pasts play out on the page – Kennedy lives, Kennedy dies; Nixon is re-elected, Nixon resigns. And before we can go back to check on the newly-weds, decades of pointless little decisions play out and an infinite number of futures unfold in their wake.
The narrative snaps back to a specific time and place for two quick orders of business. First, Schrodinger’s cat explained at a dinner party. Second, Jon is still unable to fix Janey’s watch, which still reads 1:15 – the time at which he should have become Dr. Manhattan. Jon’s confused by his inability to fix the watch, and Janey suggests that the watch is fine and that “maybe time is broken.”
Dr. Manhattan is always kind of a narrative problem. He doesn’t experience time linearly, he always knows the resolution to a problem before it even occurs. So, like, he could thwart any evil plan he wanted to. In the original series, Ozymandias works around this by making Jon question his connection to humanity — there’s also some mention of tachyons obscuring his vision of the future, but that’s sorta convenient gobbledygook. To address this problem, without a fresh batch of tachyons J. Michael Straczynski extends Jon’s omniscience through all possible realities. He also throws traditional narrative right out the window.
Part of what’s so engaging about this is that Watchmen already presents an alternate history. As we play along and entertain these other versions of history that Dr. Manhattan experiences, some of them veer close to the way things actually happened. Which means our own reality becomes part of the narrative. That kid in the hotel reads a comic book depicting a blue man on mars with a Silk Spectre-y looking lady at his side. Not coincidentally, the cover of the issue we’re reading is the cover of the book the kid is reading.
We’re immediately part of the fiction of this universe, and not. And obviously, that “is true, is also not true” is the theme around which this whole issue is based. The characters in the issue remind us of this constantly — and rather directly. It’s not until the dinner party explanation of Schrodinger’s cat — which should leave me groaning, by the way — that the concept of the “quantum observer” is introduced. And that’s what the readers and Dr. Manhattan have in common — the reality we observe (i.e. Watchmen) is “real” only because we observed it. This gets to some of Laurie’s problems during the original series — she cannot imagine why she on Jon have to have a conversation wherein she convinces him to save humanity. And Jon’s response is “because that’s the way it happens.” And in that story, it’s true, because that’s what we observed.
So the implication here is that Jon sees all futures, so his ability to experience time non-linearly doesn’t make him some kind of clairvoyant oracle. This is such a neat take on the character, and — as far as I know — the most interesting application of a multiple-timelines world. I don’t totally know how to use it, or what else it implies about the character, but the concept is too bold and slippery to write-off just because the issue doesn’t deliver a story.
Adam Hughes’ art throughout the issue is just fantastic. His characters and locations all have a traditional comic simplicity to them, but are elevated by Laura Martin’s dynamic coloring. That trippy splash I posted above is a feat, but Hughes’ commitment to using dramatic angles makes even the redundant scenes a pleasure to read.
Mike, I really liked this issue. But it’s so dense and so abstract, that I have a hard time making heads or tails (or simultaneously heads and tails) of it. As you can see, I’ve spend like a thousand words just sussing out the core concept, and I haven’t even mentioned those last two pages (the end of the world — no big deal). What did you think, Mike?
*Easter Egg: even though this doesn’t make sense, the caption on the photograph on the front page of the newspaper reads “Dr. Manhattan gets laid a lot, but he always has blue balls.”
Michael: This was such an ambitious issue. As you mentioned, Patrick, the challenge is weaving an origin story for an omniscient character. Not only omniscient and timeless like in the original series, but now omniscient in the “multi-world” sense — a mind-blowing ability bestowed on the already inconceivably powerful Dr. Manhattan. I really enjoyed this issue specifically because of the daring subject matter and abstract action. However, in another, equally valid and plausible universe wherein I’m a much bigger nerd, I’m frustrated by the mangled interpretation of a fascinating paradox and thought experiment on — and critical of — quantum theory, Schrodinger’s Cat.
For the first time, Jon successfully attempts to see before his existence as Dr. Manhattan, sending only his consciousness back to the moment of his de-molecular birth. In this first example, Jon is the “quantum observer”, changing his own origin event simply by showing up to witness it, standing outside the chamber, watching his mortal self walk free, unscathed. It’s debatable whether looking into the chamber changes the event OR whether Jon simply forces the hand of fate by voluntarily standing outside the his crucible. Once reality splits, Jon continues to see his life from the outside. But without a Ghost of Christmas Past as a guide, Jon remains puzzled for nearly the entire time — it’s always somewhat irksome to watch an omniscient character “learn”, but that’s OK because it’s fun!
I won’t go over the other reality schisms, since you covered them, Patrick, but suffice it to say if you or anyone else was confused by this issue — despite the well-placed layman refresher course — it’s because they omitted a key component of Schrodinger’s Cat: the “mechanism” that may or may not break the radioactive cesium capsule MUST be controlled by a QUARK or other subatomic particle. The orientation of the spinning quark determines the outcome, not simply a 50/50 randomizer. That’s the whole thing about quantum mechanics — it’s a tiny physical reality that doesn’t apply to our big-ass world. The cat only exists in a “superposition” of being both alive and dead, because we don’t know which way that quark faces until we collapse the two realities into one by checking it out.
So. This issue, though exciting and narratively stunning, wrongly attributes everything in the the story to this quantum paradox — we can be reasonably sure a quark doesn’t control which suite Jane is in at the wedding. The story does, however, jive well with the many-world theory. Simply by considering whether Jon wants the first dance or last dance with his bride, he splits the world in two. The multiple, coexisting narratives are not so much “superpositions” as alternate realities that exist regardless of observation. Beyond that, this issue was far more about Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect than anything quantum, since each of these small decisions eventually make the difference between peace and global nuclear destruction! Which brings us to that which Patrick could not mention. The end of the world. Nice going, Dr. Manhattan. The good news is, each of those universes would ALL still exist even if Manhattan never looked into that chamber.
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