Before Watchmen: Dr.Manhattan #1

by deerinthexenonarclights

“They call it the ‘Uncertainty Principle’. I’m sure it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy’s on to something. Science, perception, reality, doubt.  I’m sayin’ that sometimes the more you look, the less you really know. It’s a fact, true fact. In a way, it’s the only fact there is. This heinie even wrote it out in numbers.”

(The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Coen Brothers)

In his now infamous TED talk JJ Abrams introduced the idea of the ‘Mystery Box’ that has driven his myth-heavy, question over answer approach to writing. Of the box he said this: “It represents infinite possibility, it represents hope, it represents potential… mystery is the catalyst for imagination [and] maybe there are times where mystery is more important than knowledge.” Before Watchmen is, in many ways, an opening of such a box; it is inherently about answering what we had before only been able to imagine, about replacing mystery with knowledge. The series so far has taken Schrodinger’s cat and called it, time of death 2012, but so far Dr.Manhattan seems different; he is a character who has lost the capability for mystery, one plagued by having all the answers, that is, until now.

Since I have been harsh on him in the past I feel I should start by saying that Straczynski’s script here is very strong, despite some stutters. The notion of the ‘box’ that he has built this issue around is perhaps a little blunt to those of us familiar with the theories but the constant return to it throughout the comic is contrived in the best possible way since it shows just how much time and thought has gone into it. The number of small callbacks and constant creativity in the delivery only support this statement. He also does a stellar job of writing an inordinately smart character, something one cannot do without being similarly inclined.

His partner on the project, Adam Hughes, does a similarly admirable job on art. His style is straight, unassuming and a little bit sexualised; it’s very old-fashioned and that is entirely the point. He uses an off-white stock (or mimics one well) and this stains the text boxes an borders in a very particular way while the scratchy, scribbled lettering provided by Steve Wands – specifically in the boxes of narration – harkens back to another era of art entirely. So both he and Bermejo were tasked in subsequent weeks with evoking a particular era but the approaches couldn’t be any more different; one literal and one conceptual, a telling divergence.

Bermejo was the artist on the other book in Before Watchmen‘s ‘second wave’ of titles, Rorschach. Rorscach was the simplest thus most satisfying start of the prequel titles thus far, and that makes sense because Rorschach is also the simplest, straightest and most visceral of the characters: he speaks in a coarse staccato and only when violence or a virulent ‘hurm’ won’t work. Doc Manhattan though sits on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, he is as far from street level as one can get and yet he still shares some traits with Walter: he too speaks rarely and in short, monotonous sentences those times that he does, he too a sociopath. Their books reflect this relationship neatly; both the correlation and the divergences.

Whereas Rorscach rode the character off in its own original direction, J. Michael Straczynski’s script here can be directly attributed to one obvious source; he quite clearly read and was riveted by the infamous sequence of Manhattan on Mars. The structure of this issue – and presumably his series as a whole – mirrors that exactly with the good Doctor delving deep into his memories in a myriad of differing directions; cinematically speaking the issue is one massive montage. If the same couldn’t also be said for his Nite-Owl scripts then I might be want to praise Straczynski for his boldness.

Unfortunately though that is not all they share, this issue also suffers from the same thing that crippled that read, it’s repetition. Not only does Straczynski ape the ordering of that scene but his story takes us to many, if not all, of the exact same beats within that scattershot set-up. We see Jon staring at the photo, having the photo taken, at the lab and behind the locked door.  In fact it’s not until the final few pages that we are actually given something ‘new’, though the wait is well worth it.

At first I simply assumed that it was a typo, or a crack in continuity; I thought I was so clever to spot it: twenty eight seconds on the clock. Then it is brought up again when Jon’s mind returns to the scene, when he looks back into the box a second time and sees something different. The more you look…  This twist that occurs is very, very interesting in that it provides the possibility of irrevocably changing the canon while also never concretely altering anything at all; it will simply re-skew our perspective on things, create a parallel narrative. It’s precise and outside the box like a good Manhattan book should be, I’m very intrigued to see where Straczynski takes it.

Unlike Rorschach though this isn’t a book based on plot, it is instead much more interested in philosophy, particularly this potent notion of uncertainty. Firstly, the flaws: the Doctor Manhattan of this book is uncertain, he wonders and that, to me, doesn’t track with what we know. He is a character that states, not questions. It seems to me then that Straczynski is actually the one speaking, that those narration boxes actually contain the ruminations that ran through his head when he first read the infamous chapter of the classic text. This is him questioning when it should be Jon answering, the time streams are out of sync.

That said though once you get passed this – and it really shouldn’t be too hard to – you’ll find that the questions he asks are actually very interesting ones. It is here, showcasing his unique ideas that Straczynski really shines: Perspective is a theme that he perjures from Moore but he adds more to it, possibility is something I’ve personally thought on but never before seen tackled in text and then of course uncertainty, perhaps the most important of the lot. He also asks these questions in intriguing ways; hinting at rather than hammering out the crux of concepts, so that we too can ponder them and perhaps in time write our own follow up piece.

So I was asked many questions by this book but given only the one answer and that was to why JMS seen as such a superstar writer: When he backs himself the boy can write – I would follow this by saying that Adam Hughes can draw, but I don’t think that really needs saying by this stage – and so I hope his boldness continues throughout this mini-series because while it may not be flawless or omnipotent like its lead this title takes some big swings and that alone makes it the most exciting Before Watchmen book thus far, even if its not quite the best.