Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Watchmen Book Club: Chapter IV

Chapter IV: Watchmaker

This chapter offers not only a biography of Dr. Manhattan, but also the most detailed information yet about the history of this mirror-vision of the United States. It makes sense, given how much American history and Dr. Manhattan have intertwined.

I love how Dr. Manhattan's origin story is so textbook superhero. Accidentally locked in an experimental vault and hit with a blast of radiation. Might as well have been gamma rays or a spider bite. And yet the results are so atypical. Dr. Manhattan makes all other superheroes obsolete --not to mention all other weapons, armies, governments, and gods. The only thing standing between Dr. Manhattan and world domination (not to use such a cliched phrase) is his relative disinterest in the idea.

We see a lot of how Manhattan is corralled, almost immediately, by the U.S. government. "The Superman exists, and he's American," was the first public statement made. Say what you will about Cold War-era America, they were on the ball right here.

So Dr. Manhattan becomes the lynchpin for U.S. nuclear superiority, as we've heard before. The process by whch that happens isn't really much of a process at all. It just kind of makes sense for the U.S. to wrap him up tight, and Osterman doesn't put up much resistance.
What resistance he does put up is mostly sartorial in nature. You can't make him conform to your bourgeois standards of clothing, man! He's a free, naked being at heart! But as far as his misgivings about the morality of intervening in the war in Vietnam (or not intervening in the Kennedy assassination), he's bemused but ultimately passive. Whereas Edward Blake let himself be co-opted by the government because their fascist interests dovetailed, Osterman just seems to be playing out the string.

Which brings us to Dr. Manhattan's temporal displacement, which provides the structure for this chapter. He experiences everything that happens along his timeline at once. Past, present, and future, all happening, all the time. It's tough to get a grasp on what that might mean for someone, psychologically and spiritually, but it's pretty safe to say it's a big reason for Jon's bewildered and distant personality. It's no wonder he prefers to occupy himself with math and physics -- those things that are constant.

The watchmaker-as-worldmaker metaphor is an interesting one -- it made me think of Neil Gaiman and one of my favorite quotes from a book ever (the "God is a hope, a dream, a myth, a watchmaker..." paragraph from American Gods).

Some other random notes:

-- Interesting that Nixon asks Dr. Manhattan for intervention in Vietnam, while Jon makes a note of Kennedy pointedly not asking for similar intervention in Cuba.

-- LOVED that image of the nervous system with eyes as Jon was beginning to re-assemble his body.

-- Jon's conversation with Hollis Mason -- a casual dropping of his knowledge of the electric car and how, thanks to him, it would soon be cheap and easy to mass produce (and thus make Mason's second chosen vocation as obsolete as his first) -- cracked me up.

-- Interesting how the other heroes view Dr. Manhattan. Mason sees him as the death knell for "masked adventurism" as he knew it, while Adrian Veidt can only focus on the technological advances.

-- Liked the off-hand note about Edward Blake solving the Iranian hostage crisis and how it bought him immunity from his critics. So even in a universe where Reagan never got to be president (due to Nixon's dissolving of presidential term limits), at least someone gets to use the Iranian hostage crisis to their advantage.



NYOne said...

Ok, I bought and have been reading Watchmen specifically to follow along with the Low Res Book Club, so I ought to actually contribute. I'm struggling with the book - I find reading a graphic novel much slower going than I'm used to, and I can't really root for any of the characters, so that's tough. That being said, it's clearly an amazing vision and intricately put together so I can certainly appreciate it, even if I'll never love it.
I'm interested in learning more about Osterman - you would think he would be so far above basic "human" interactions and yet he seems genuinely upset by the implication that he was carcinogenic to colleagues and friends. And why bother taking up with Laurie in the first place?

Anyway, it's taken me about half of the book to get in to it, but I think I'll at least feel a sense of accomplishment when I finish.

Love reading everyone else's input, along with your analysis.

jessica said...

Regarding taking up with Laurie, maybe he doesn't see himself as having a choice. He does it because he's seen it and knows its happens. It's like the Kennedy assassination. He's sad and upset about it, but there's nothing he can do because, to him, it's already happened even before it happens.

Heather said...

Any tips on how to make reading a graphic novel a better experience (for those of us bound to the typical literature)? Your insights are really interesting (more than I'm able to pull from it because of my textual limitations).

Joe Reid said...

Hmm, I'm not sure what you're looking for, Heather. Besides this and the Sandman books, I haven't really ready any other graphic novels, but I also didn't find them to be that inaccessible as a medium.

Maybe some of you guys can offer better insight?

I will say, and this is the only time I'm going to brush up against spoilery stuff, but if you're finding the Tales of the Black Freighter stuff to be too difficult to navigate, you should know that while it comments on, amplifies, and reflects the main plot, it doesn't really ever become integral to the plot. So if you feel like you need to skim that stuff to keep yourself on the right track, that won't ruin everything.

Nicole said...

I loved the nervous system with eyes too! It was adorable.

I think it was interesting that even before his accident, he seemed a bit disinterested in people, or at least in Janey. She seemed way more into him than he was into her. He also didn't really do much to fight his destiny, even before he started experiencing the past, present and future all at once. I mean, he resented his father forcing him into the nuclear field, but didn't do much to change it. Passive and distant even before the accident.

I also enjoyed seeing 16 year old Laurie - she was much less angry than present day Laurie. Of course, I'd agree she had a right to be angry with John during their last fight. Talk about multi-tasking! Plus, don't you get the idea that of the two things he was doing, the work was probably MUCH more interesting to him than she was?

Heather, this is only my second attempt at reading a graphic novel, bit the only thing I would recommend is to pay attention to the artwork as well as the text. My first tendency was to focus only on the words since that's what you do with a regular novel, but the artwork tells a large portion of the story as well. I try to really look at each panel as I'm reading.

aaron said...

To those that find reading a graphic novel, "difficult" or "slow going", take some comfort from the fact that most everyone I know struggled with reading graphic novels at first.

I think some of it is due to the fact that reading a comic, especially one as dense and layered as Watchmen, engages both halves of the brain. Reading words uses the left half while looking at artwork requires use of the right half. And, that can be a bit tiring or off-putting.

The first time I read Watchmen, I couldn't read more than a chapter at a time because my head would actually start to hurt. Now, after reading as many comics as I have, I don't have a problem with it.

I can't speak for anyone else, but my usual method of reading comics is to first read any text in a particular panel, then closely examine the artwork in that panel as I feel that helps fill in the blanks, and then after I have read a full page, I glance at the layout of the entire page to see if there is anything else to notice.

This isn't spoilery, but for those of you looking to glean something extra from the artwork and the layout, pay careful attention to Chapter 5 as there is a lot going on. Moore and Gibbons were especially clever with that one. The title of the chapter should help in figuring it all out.

Sus said...

This was my favorite chapter. The trippy mindblowing back-and-forth-and-back again of Osterman's story was amazing. I think I read it three times before I moved on. Then I went back and read it again when I was done with the whole book.

My tip for graphic novels/comics is to read the whole page, then scrutinize/read each panel on the page separately.

Greg said...

Anyone looking for almost complete background information that might help you get through the chapters, there are quite a few sites that have page by page annotations. Here is one that also has a series timeline

dan mac said...

Dr. Manhattan to me is an interpretation of Nietzche's ubermensch, and the quote "the superman exists, and he's American" always sticks out to me as evidence of this. I confess I've never read Nietzche, but from what I've read about Thus Spoke Zarathustra part of the idea of the ubermensch is that by merely existing he creates his own morality and values, separate from what rules the ordinary man. Dr. Manhattan's distance from others, his inability to accept ordinary standards (like clothes) strikes me as ubermensch behavior.

Just by existing he obsoletes, even destroys the idea of the ordinary man. How can man and superman exist in the same world? How can a street level hero like Nite Owl still have an impact in a world with Dr. Manhattan? The other heroes understand that Dr. Manhattan renders them superfluous. His existence acts as a Cold War deterrent; by simply being, he redefines the global balance. At the same time, on the meta level the character redefines our notion of the superhero.

It's significant that Dr. Manhattan's genesis is the utter destruction of Jon Osterman. He's obliterated at the most fundamental atomic level.

It's a horrible concept, really. Moore imagines the future of the superhero, forecasts what the ultimate superhero would be and realizes he'd have to be something completely separate from humanity, that by attaining ultimate power, he would in fact no longer be a hero, for he'd be beyond the concerns of the ordinary world.

I believe in Dr. Manhattan Moore gives us the first post modern superhero, perhaps the most ambitious aspect of Watchmen.

Greg said...

Also going back to the chapter with Blake's funeral and the cufflinks I liked how the earrings that Jon had made for Janey were also the hydrogen atom.

The one thing I did find weird and hard to wrap my head around was the fact that while Jon was living his whole life all at once, he was also living his life before he became Doctor Manhattan, which would mean when he was a kid he could see the future.