Reading “Watchmaker”

One thing about Watchmen that I’ve always found fascinating is the ways in which it exploits the comics format to tell its story.  The fourth issue, “Watchmaker,” is one of the most notable examples in the series.

Like with issue #2, which focused on taking a look at the life and character of Edward Blake the Comedian, this issue is all about exploring Jon Osterman, Dr. Manhattan.  Osterman is the only one of the superheroes featured in the series to have genuine super powers.  His backstory involves a nuclear experiment gone awry where he was trapped in a test chamber and disintegrated, and then in the ensuing days either he or an impression of himself pieced together a new body with full control over all matter at the atomic level.  One of the side effects of Osterman’s powers is a dissociative view of time; that is, he experiences the entirety of his personal timeline simultaneously and has no ability to change the outcome of future events.

Osterman really is a pretty pitiful character; Moore’s opinion about a nonlinear experience of time is decidedly in the realm of, “IT SUCKS.” (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

The way Moore and Gibbons demonstrate this dissociation is in how they structure the story of this issue.  Here, Osterman serves as our narrator, flashing back and forth between past events in his life and the present moment with occasional small glimpses into the immediate future.  For Osterman, all of these scenes happen at the same time, much like a reader can observe multiple panels on the comic book page at the same time.  It’s a really delightful narrative trick, and I don’t get tired of it.  As an aside, the adaptation of this issue is one of my main complaints with the Watchmen movie; the point is to be able to see all the significant events in Osterman’s life as a tapestry that your eye can wander over free of linearity in a way similar to how Osterman himself experiences his life, but the limitations of film (that images must be presented in sequence connected to time) prevent the adaptation from achieving the same effect that the comic does.

Besides points of structural interest, this issue also offers up a meditation on the watershed moment of humanity harnessing nuclear energy.  Osterman’s origins are based in science fiction (the idea of an “intrinsic field” might have some relation to the concepts of the strong and weak nuclear forces, but as far as I can tell Moore is just making up something that sounds good), but everything about his origin story echoes with symbols of the dawn of the Atomic Age.  Osterman’s intended profession, before his father informs him that his future is in physics, is as a watchmaker (the title of the issue is pulled from the quote from Albert Einstein reflecting that had he known the power he was going to help unleash, he would have become a watchmaker instead).  In the chain of events that lead to his disintegration, Osterman witnesses a fat man step on and break Janey Slater’s watch while a little boy cries nearby; these features of the scene at the fair all echo key icons from the early history of the atomic bomb (Fat Man and Little Boy were the code names given to the two bomb types that were eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and within this issue Moore highlights the watch that stopped at the moment of the blast in Hiroshima).  After he reintegrates, Osterman uses his ability to easily synthesize any raw material to kick start a technological revolution in America, mirroring the advances heralded by the advent of nuclear energy in our world.  The parallels are pretty clear; Osterman’s transformation marks the beginning of a new era in the world filled with obscene power to destroy and incredible potential to create.

The metaphor is an unsubtle one.  I find it less interesting than Osterman’s dissociation, but it’s significant to the story at large.  Remember, Watchmen‘s central conceit is to explore a world in which superheroes really existed and actually impacted the sociopolitical movements of the twentieth century.  Dr. Manhattan’s existence is treated as a uniquely significant event, and the best real world parallel to help the reader understand that significance is the atomic bomb.  The power he brings to the table promises to improve life in a lot of ways (it’s hard to overlook the positive impact on the climate from decades of electric cars and airships in place of the last half century of hard core fossil fuel use), but it also presents some significant risks, especially with regard to the way America comes to overly rely on Dr. Manhattan for defense (the government’s plan involves bullying Soviet-aligned nations with the assumption that Osterman is capable of neutralizing any nuclear warheads that would be sent in retaliation, ignoring the fact that for all his power Osterman is still one man who can be removed from play with the right pressure applied to him).  Dr. Manhattan comes along in a fashion that precludes the systems in which he’s embedded from learning how to handle such a drastic change to the status quo.

The tragedy for Jon Osterman is that his nonlinear perspective traps him in a position where he can only observe himself as a single gear in an incredibly delicate timepiece.

This page is the best example of what I’m talking about with the comic format and the nonlinearity. Osterman’s experiencing his life in at least five distinct moments of time on this one page. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

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