Before Watchmen – Dr. Manhattan 2

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.

 But that cover changes a few pages later:

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.


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?

21 comments on “Before Watchmen – Dr. Manhattan 2

  1. I have a passing familiarity with Schrodinger’s Cat, and I have never heard that the mechanism controlling the system is controlled by a quark. While it’s interesting to learn it here, I wonder if JMS is intentionally going with what may be the more popular understanding of the concept to keep this very complicated idea as accessible as possible. I also don’t know that I’m wholly opposed to that; I don’t think dumbing down conceptual quantum physics is going to completely wreck my enjoyment of the story.

    • No, and I think that’s what Mike’s saying – he says specifically that he DID enjoy the issue. I guess what is sorta frustrating is that there are phenomenon to express what’s being explored here (as Mike listed, both Chaos Theory and the butterfly effect come to mind). What probably makes Schrodinger’s cat the most viable option for comic book purposes is that it’s the most inherently graphic model – any time there’s a box and/or a cat, you’re evoking the main themes of the piece.

      • Right. Plus, the Schrodinger’s cat model has ties back to quantum physics which makes it more personally relevant for Jon. That, however, brings us back to the problem of why JMS would gloss over that part.

        • Yeah, I look at it more as a missed opportunity to bridge the gap a little more. But as Patrick mentioned, the cat in the box is a visually satisfying thematic symbol. And personally, I just find the many worlds theory more interesting. IN FACT there’s an even better quantum model that actually fits into the multiple universe theory: The Quantum Suicide Machine. Long story short, you could sit in front of a gun controlled by the 50/50 orientation of a quark and pull the “trigger” endless times. You will never die. Your consciousness will continues along the reality in which you survive for infinity (creating many worlds wherein someone has to clean up your corpse too). Again, not as simple and pleasing as the cat.

  2. The thought that observing something inherently changes it is a common enough in other sciences, from chemistry to anthropology. It’s the observation part that is really interesting here. Throughout the issue, we’re reminded that Jon is watching this all play out. It enhances the voyeuristic qualities inherent in comics (goosed by a totally gratuitous sex scene), which suggests to naysayers that these prequels only exist because we read them. A lot of Before Watchmen titles seem to deal with justifying their own existences, which is a fascinating pet theme that such a project would have. Whether this is a chip on the writer’s shoulders or our own is inconsequential, but it does make me wish George Lucas had bothered to work so hard to justify the Star Wars prequels.

    • I’m not sure if the application of Shrodinger’s Cat to the quality of the prequel issues is intentional or not but I love the concept. Correct me if I’m wrong here, though: it doesn’t quite work. See, the comics were published in multitudes, therefore long before I ever crack an issue many other readers and bloggers have come to an online consensus that I may hear about from a friend who reads comics and blogs before I ever decide to crack open an issue or not – how could my observation of the book, then, effect anything whatsoever?

      • Yeah, but in terms of fictions – they don’t affect you unless you take them in. Going with Drew’s Star Wars example, if you had only seen eps IV-VI, and refused to see I, II and III, then the histories of those characters are a mystery to you, and therefore undefined. I’m reminded of the old Moore-ism “This is an imaginary story… but the again, aren’t they all?” The only reason we accept a story as “true” is because we experience it in someway.

        • I always loved that. Moore is lucky to have expressed that sentiment around the time of the Crisis when the term “imaginary story” was used and it has that nice literary ring. Now he would have to say ‘This is an Elseworlds story… but then again, aren’t they all? Well, actually, I suppose most stories are relegated to the main DCU and therefore would not be categorized as Elseworlds’.

      • Physically, I have no idea, but then again, I have no idea how our observing a quark or something prevents it from existing in any other state, which is why the whole notion Schrodinger’s cat doesn’t make sense to me. The cat is obviously either dead or alive, we just don’t know which until we see it. I’m not sure how other observers work in quantum mechanics (if somebody else sees the cat, does that collapse the possibilities down to one? Does the cat count as an observer itself? What if it were a person in the box?) so I don’t know how others having read a comic before you can affect what happens within.

        Ultimately, though, I think the act of observing a work of art does have some power, since it actually can’t be good or bad until it’s observed. That is, “good” and “bad” are subjective qualities, so can’t exist until someone applies them (by observing it). You can have an idea whether or not you’re going to like a comic before you read it, but you have to actually read it to know for sure.

        • Yep, this is what I was pondering – I know nearly nothing of academic physics but I always understood the quark thing to be that we had recorded them to physically change when they are observed. We can’t know what our perception of something may be until we observe it but I always thought the quark principal that JMS has married to the Shrodinger idea for comic purposes mean that the object literally altered upon being observed and that this is the concept JMS was playing with. This book just has me swimming in the deep end… love the art, though

        • It’s totally correct to be confused by this. This is not the same as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which literally involves changing an outcome by shedding light on it. Schrodinger created the Cat experiment to illustrate just how bonkers quantum theory is. So if you’re confused by any real world (or macro-world application) you are sharing and understanding Schrodinger’s problem.

  3. Drew, I’m such a sucker for that kind of meta stuff. I never considered the reader’s role in changing the continuity. Agghh!!!

    • Yeah, I got so wrapped up in the idea that the reader was part of the fiction, that I wasn’t considering that the fiction was part of the reader. Good read, Drew.

      Mike – have you caught up on Rorschach? We saw a pretty clear commentary on fan disappointment in the first issue of that one, but it kinda fades away in the second issue.

  4. I think this is a really interesting way to tackle the problem of telling an origin story for a character who’s origin is explicitly explained in the original.

    “Then Jon stepped in the box and became Dr. Manhattan. OR DID HE?!?”

  5. Okay so Grant Morrison must did me a solid a really blew my fuckin’ mind. I know that’s supposed to be his thing but it rarely actually works like that for me. Here, though, he’s done it. Quoted at NYCC he says one of Multiversity’s featured worlds will depict “the Charlton heroes done in the style of Watchmen.” This is literally one of the biggest what-if’s in comic history and he’s the one guy in all of comics I would have any interest in seeing write it. For Moore to do it (not that he ever would) would just be redundant, but who knows WHERE the hell somebody like Morrison could take this…

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