Same thing I did with The Dark Knight, only this time about the fourth issue of Watchmen. The same caveats apply.
In Making Comics, Scott McCloud argues that there are six means of transitioning from one panel to the next; in the fourth issue of Watchmen, Alan Moore aims to confound all of them. (Heads up: I don't discuss them all here.) Unless otherwise indicated, all citations are of McCloud.
The issue opens with Dr. Manhattan brooding on the pink Martian soil:
In the first panel, Moore establishes the present moment via the present tense: "The photograph is in my hand." The word-picture combination here is duo-specific; that is, the words and the pictures deliver roughly the same message, such that the elimination of either wouldn't change the meaning of the panel. Note how specific Moore and Gibbons are here: the nouns in the sentence correspond precisely to the images in the panels because they went with a close-up of his hands holding the picture.
That said, it could be argued that this panel is not duo-specific because the tense of "to be" provides readers the temporal baseline from which the narrative will diverge. In that case, the word-picture combination would be intersecting, meaning "the words and pictures cover some of the same ground, but each add significant detail or perspective to the scene." Given the importance of time to the issue, the tense of "to be" could certainly qualify as a significant detail. But you would have to argue that.
One compelling reason to think of the combination as duo-specific is tonal: duo-specific panels evoke the tone of children's books. When a book implores a child to "See Dick run," the words render the picture redundant and vice versa because the book's trying to teach the child how to read. So when Moore informs with words what Gibbons tells literate adults with pictures, the effect is one of condescesion, i.e. the very emotion in which Manhattan traffics.
In the second panel, the dialogue is word-specific; that is, "the words provide all you need to know, while the picture illustrates aspects of the scenes being described" (130). Word-specific captions are often used to compress time—slap "thirteen years later" on any picture and there you are, thirteen years later—but here Moore uses them to move us back and forth through time. Without the captions, the transition from the first to second to third panel would seem occur via action-to-action, because the panels follow a single subject in a series of actions: Dr. Manhattan holds the photo, drops it, picks it back and sits down. (Keep in mind for later: were that the case, we would have inferred actions not actually pictured.) The word-specific captions inform us that the transition is actually scene-to-scene.
McCloud defines scene-to-scene as "transitions across significant distances of time and/or space" (15). Moore deliberately confounds that expectation in order to prepare the reader for twenty-six pages focused on a character for whom:
- the year 1959 (mentioned in the first panel) is no more significant a distance in time than twelve seconds from now (depicted in the second panel)
- Mars (depicted in the first three panels) is no more significant a distance in space than the Gila Flats (mentioned in the third panel and depicted in the fourth)
The movement from the third panel to the fourth occurs via a traditional scene-to-scene transition:
Because readers instinctively place importance on the center of a panel, the composition of this panel suggests nothing of importance is on the wall. Gibbons draws our attention to the destroyed part of the display. How different is our perspective from Manhattan's? The next panel—the only one in which we share his perspective—indicates his line of sight. It looks something like this:
That's a rough approximation, but it allows us to see extrapolate what Gibbons would have needed to include in the shot to preserve Manhattan's line of sight while centering the panel on the photograph:
Yet another rough approximation, but now we can speak more directly about the decisions Gibbons made in framing the shot as he did. The slightly off-kilter approach of the actual panel forces the reader to search for what Manhattan sees; whereas the centered approach of our hypothetical panel directs the reader's attention on the photograph. We could argue that the actual panel is superior because it duplicates the action it depicts; that is, just as Manhattan searches for meaning in his past, the panel compels the reader to search for meaning within the frame. Like Manhattan, we know what we're looking for—we just don't know where it is (even though it's been there all along).
And it's been there all along because page is like a panel: the reader instinctively grants importance to the people or objects occupying its center. Look what occupies the center of our page:
The issue focuses on how nostalgia alone (ahem) tethers Manhattan to the human race, so it makes narrative sense that the only time we see through Manhattan's eyes is when he looks at the photograph. Note how expertly Moore and Gibbons confuse us here. The transition from the fourth panel to the fifth seems to be a movement from subject-to-subject, that is, a transition whereby the panels shift from one object or person within a given scene to another. (Think conversations on television: shot of Person A, then Person B; back to Person A, then back to Person B &c.) Because he can unstick himself in time, we can't tell whether we're in Gila Flat twenty-seven hours ago and Manhattan has just pulled the photograph from the wall or on Mars in the narrative present. In the former case, we have a subject-to-subject transition from the fourth to the fifth and a scene-to-scene from the fifth to the sixth; in the latter case the reverse would be true, i.e. we have a scene-to-scene from the fourth to the fifth and a subject-to-subject from the fifth to the sixth.
Why would this matter? Because even though he experiences time in a non-linear fashion, he still inhabits a world of causes and effects, so the order in which events occur still matters. If he stares at the photograph in Gila Flats, we can infer he's been brooding for the better part of a day because he's still staring at it on Mars in panel six. But if he's staring at it on Mars, that inference wouldn't be supported by the text.
The transitions between the remaining panels are subject-to-subject; however, if the asymmetry in panel four makes us uncomfortable, the same thing can be said about the composition of the entire page. The composition of the first and seventh panels (on the upper- and lower-left hand side of the page) are identical. If placed next to each other, we would have a moment-to-moment transition as the narrative slowed down in order to emphasize small changes. (We could argue that because the entire sequence occurs in the span of ten seconds, the entire page moves from moment to moment. More on that later.) Even separated, those two panels grant the page a stability that the second and ninth panels ruin. The second and ninth panels aren't similar: they're identical.
They depict the exact same moment. In narrative time, the ninth panel occurs in the present while the second panel flashes forward. Why would this be important? Look at the captions: Manhattan thinks two completely different thoughts at the exact same moment. I don't mean that in the Freudian sense—his id's not conflicting with his ego here—I mean he's actively pursuing two distinct lines of thought at the same moment. Moore and Gibbons use comic conventions to normalize the impossible situation they depict.
One final note: the issue addresses the vastness of space and meaninglessness of time, but it does so within tight panels. For technical reasons, bleeds—the expansion of the panel to the page edges, as with the top "panel" from Warren Ellis' Desolation Jones—were not common in '86. Still, this sequence of panels would have been a perfect opportunity to use one, because bleeds make big things look bigger. But Gibbons and Moore confine Dr. Manhattan within the 9 panels-per-page layout used throughout most of the book.
Another final note vis-a-vis possible class discussion: since Manhattan can experience time howsoever he pleases, could we say that the entire book transitions from aspect-to-aspect? After all, aspect-to-aspect transitions involve showing different aspects of the same moment (as in these panels depicting a war-torn New York in Brian Wood's DMZ) and Manhattan experiences all time as different aspects of a single moment . . .