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Wednesday, 11 March 2009


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Hi there. I've been reading here since at least your first Watchmen post. Your excellent post on the first page of chapter 4 is what motivated me to read the novel. I wasn't disappointed, but while I've read all of the Sandman series and a few other more recent graphic novels, I never read anything that preceded it, nor have I read McCloud, so a lot of Watchmen's novelty was lost on me, unfortunately.

Anyway, I'm not so sure I find this a convincing read. I had it in mind as I was going through the novel (on account of your teasers), and the panels from the Comedian's funeral you show here, in particular, seemed to resonate with the idea. But while there is no here-and-there or now-and-then for Dr. Manhattan, he's still not a mind-reader. In your earlier post (dealing with Ozymandias' transformation), I thought the zooming-in over the course of 4 panels indicated more of a shift from actual to virtual (physical to mental/present to representation, something like that). It's the kind of shift that the reader can accomplish, but that Dr. Manhattan cannot. In a lot of cases, such as the murder of Kitty Genovese that you point out here, and Rorschach's vision of the dead dog when looking at the inkblot, you could argue that the panels depict the past instead of a memory, but Drieberg's dream sequences in the 7th chapter are an of the reader going somewhere Manhattan can't.


PS I thought "nothing new under the oxen in the sun" was pretty funny. It's my favorite chapter, both of Ulysses, and of the old testament.

Rich Puchalsky

I'm all about the creepy accuracy! But while I think that you're sort of on the right track, I don't think that your answer really addresses my objection.

There are two sorts of beings who can flip around within a comic book in this way, after all. One is the reader. The other is the author. Does "doing nothing with his power" trump its potential? No -- because by the end of Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan does do something with his power. He takes affirmative action to dispose of a witness who would cause the plot to fail.

So why can't he change the Comedian's bullet to water? Because, well, what kind of story would that make? The Comedian is about to shoot a woman carrying his child, and she is saved by deus ex machina. How trite. The constraints on Dr. Manhattan are the constraints on the author. He can change whatever he wants, but he can't make the story fail.

He also can't change the external conditions that generate the story. Watchmen is a story about, among other things, nuclear confrontation. So Dr. Manhattan can't simply destroy every nuclear weapon, because that would vaporize the story. That's one of the points of the long piece of text in which it's explained that he could detect and stop most of, but not of, a massed nuclear strike. (Another is a jab at the Star Wars defense fantasy, of course.)

I think that my interpretation incorporates the strong points of yours but fits the case a little bit better. Dr. Manhattan is just too otherworldly to be a stand-in for the reader, who, being a sort of mass figure, has to be ordinary in some sense. But as an authorial stand-in, he's sort of an ironic version of the Gary Stu. Moore is far too good a writer to write a real Gary Stu -- well, up until that mage guy Jack Frost or whatever his name was in Promethea -- but Gary Stu, like the Dr., by definition can't be beaten by any ordinary human.

And finally, the Vertigo authors really did think about this kind of thing a lot. Alan Moore is full of mystic stuff about -- well, read Promethea. Grant Morrison ended Animal Man by having a walk-on by Grant Morrison. And Neil Gaiman spent Sandman #6, which I recommend yet again, basically explaining why he had to stand by, saying dully "don't do it", as his characters got carved up.

On a more general level, it's questioning the need for story, the need for drama -- M.A.D. is nothing if not a drama. I've written a lot about this, but I think that only CR ever really got it.


Minor question: "figure of author?" Why are we in post-article land here? Google is no help.


Shoots her in the head, or the chest?


Rich: In what sense can Dr Manhattan "change whatever he wants"? Yes, he has enormous power, but at the same time... well, as Laurie says, "[you're] the most powerful thing in the universe and you're just a puppet following a script" (Chapter IX, p. 5) And Manhattan knows this: "I'm just a puppet who can see the strings."

That's the sense in which Manhattan is a reader stand-in (and this is where I thought Scott was going with this -- sorry if I'm stepping on something you're planning to write or, alternatively, just re-treading something that's dreadfully obvious to everyone).

Just like Manhattan, we follow the action of the story, knowing that everything is scripted and determined, and knowing that now it's been written there's nothing that can be done to change it. Parallel to Manhattan's timeless perception, we have the pages before us and can flip back and forth between the past, present and future of the story at will, while knowing at the same time that "Time is simultaneous [and] the whole design is visible" (IX, p. 6)

So why didn't Manhattan stop the bullet in 1971 (or in 1963, for that matter)? For no more reason than that isn't what happened. This of course sounds nonsensical from a purely in-world perspective -- that is, from a perspective in which things are explained in terms of cause and effect, and intention and motivation. Why did the snow-globe shatter? Because Laurie dropped it to the ground. Why did Veidt carry out his plan? Because he wanted to save to world.

These causal and teleological explanations are all we have in the real world, and all the (human) characters have in the story world. But from our lofty perspective on the story we can perceive another kind of causation -- authorial causation, things that happen because the author wanted them to. Of course strictly speaking, this is the only kind of causation that's at work in the story; and although he isn't quite aware of that, Manhattan does know that the ordinary notions of causation that everyone else believes in are not operative. "Everything is preordained. Even my responses." (IX, p. 5)

The author, within limits, can do what he likes. Manhattan can only follow the sequence of events the story dictates. In that sense he is nothing like the author, and much closer to the reader. He has the whole story rigidly in front of him, unchangeable, timeless, and arbitrarily accessible. And, to complete the parallel, he even has a pleasant sense of suspense in the last chapter! (XII, p. 7)


Dr. Manhattan is afraid of his powers. Any time that he uses them outside of the dictates of higher authorities (there are no higher powers, of course), things go wrong. Maybe not big things, but enough that he seems very reluctant to act without outside authorization. Part of the depth of the story is his struggle with this, and his ultimate decision to create a new world in which he can act, because he's not interfering with anyone sentient, or existing causality. His decision to kill in order to protect the conspiracy comes out of, I think, a recognition that Ozmyandius has assumed a position of power, and Dr. Manhattan has acknowledged his authority.

I don't think Dr. Manhattan's inactivity can be seen as anything other than a last gasp of his humanity, a habit of mind that he tries to break, in the end. I also don't see why he can't be the mechanism of our unmoored-in-time perspective: there's no reason he can't be unwinding and rewinding parts of the human narrative (including documents, etc.) in an order which makes sense to him, including following Rorschach for a time to figure out why he acts the way he does at the end.

Rich Puchalsky

Logopetria: "So why didn't Manhattan stop the bullet in 1971 (or in 1963, for that matter)? For no more reason than that isn't what happened."

But the reader knows that they are reading a comic book. Sure, Watchmen is about among other things comics and how they are read, so it comments on the tendency of readers, which authors encourage, to encounter the text as a block of narrative, to think that things within happen because they had to happen (c.f. science fiction and the "suspension of disbelief"). As you write, we're quickly driven towards authorial causation.

"The author, within limits, can do what he likes. Manhattan can only follow the sequence of events the story dictates. In that sense he is nothing like the author, and much closer to the reader."

You intend the first two sentences above to contrast, but in some sense they really don't. As I described in my first comment, Manhattan's limits are very much like the author's limits.

How, in an ordinary authorial sense, could the author have a pleasant sense of suspense at the end? There's bits from, to take the first example I Googled, the interview here. Why does Rorschach take his mask off at the end? Moore doesn't know; it just felt right. Why is Tales of the Black Freighter there? Well, originally Moore and his collaborator had thought they'd have comics, but not superhero comics, so they threw it in, and later Moore realized, aha, it could also serve as a central metaphor. So yes, the author can be surprised. Most authors talk about the story taking itself somewhere, or the characters doing things, that they didn't anticipate.

And keep in mind that this is Alan Moore we're talking about in specific. He believes in story-archetypes, things that authors bring out of their heads, but that in some sense already existed -- he thinks of himself as a sort of magic-worker of the unconscious. I'm probably garbling things really badly; no doubt someone has written a text on Moore's view of magic. But we're getting into Sandman territory again, with its obsessive re-return to where writers get their ideas from. The Vertigo authors didn't think of themselves as autonomous agents; there's a lot of "the puppet that can see the strings" there.

Rich Puchalsky

I probably should just blog about this at this point, now that I have a blog. But I really like chatting with people, not opining as such. So I'll point out that the killing of Rorschach by Manhattan, at the end, bears the marks of a demiurge-incident -- one in which a character must die in order to solve an authorial problem.

The classic case of this, or at least what I take to a sort of reference case, is the ending of Mieville's Iron Council. Mieville has said, in an interview, that he couldn't write the revolution either failing or succeeding -- thus the time-freeze. But that's also why Judah has to die at the end, rather than be coerced into undoing what he's done. He's executed not so much by his comrades as by Mieville himself.

So Rorschach is executed by Manhattan in order to make the plot come out. Where there is an obvious double meaning of "plot": Veidt's plot, Moore's plot.


If you'll pardon the tangent, I thought this was interesting:

But when Manhattan transitions [other characters from place to place], their stomachs bark and they vomit uncontrollably.

With one exception: Rorschach.


I agree with logopetria, as much as I find SEK's literary argument interesting.

Dr. Manhattan is not merely omnipotent; he's also omniscient (at least as it involves him). He knows exactly what has, is, and will happen at the same time, seeing time as the facets of a jewel, or the mechanism of a clock. And at least as far as he tells us, the future is in fact predestined. He doesn't stop the Comedian because he won't stop the Comedian, and so on.

What I find interesting about this is his statement about both feeling surprise and acting surprised even though he knew what was going to happen, and his actions throughout the book, including his reactions during the TV Q&A, his interactions with his first wife and with Silk Spectre, and so on.

I would like to advance two hypotheses: one is that Dr. Manhattan went insane sometime between the accident that destroyed his intrinsic field and his re-emergence, or sometime after; the other is that he's the epitome of the magnificent bastard.

The first follows from this - at least in some regards, Dr. Manhattan's archetypal function in the book links the question of Superman (what would a human being do with unlimited powers and invulnerability? Would they still be human?) with older questions about the nature of God (how does omniscience, omnipotence, and omni-benevolence work in a world with sin and pain? If God knows all and knew it all at the moment of creation, are we responsible for our actions, does free will exist? How do you reconcile predestination with free will? etc.) So the question becomes, what would happen to a human being who all of the sudden experiences all of time at once and is possibly helpless or capable to change it? How would they cope with the combination of exact knowledge of what will happen, and the knowledge that tbeir infinite power over matter is helpless to do anything about it? How would they cope with the living experience of predestination? My argument is that the mind would shatter, H.P Lovecraft-style, and produce, almost in self-defense, two personalities. One is the Godhead, that knows all and sees all without emotion, the other is the Man, who still experiences events and emotions as they happen, who thinks through things, who reacts and chooses and acts. The two operate simultaneously, such that the Godhead knows what Ozymadnias will do or what the truth of Dr. Manhattan's cancer-giving status is, but the Man is kept just enough in the dark to make sure that his omnipotence doesn't conflict with his omniscience.

The second possibility is that he really does know everything, and is either truly helpless to do anything about it and simply follows the script, or that he knows everything (or even decides everything), and acts to make sure it happens, while pretending otherwise (the only evidence we have of his inability to change the future comes from his own words). Consider the only stumbling block of his omniscience, the supposed possibility that Ozymandias' tachyons/psychic explosion are supposed to block his omniscience. We only have Dr. Manhattan's word for it that they do. What if he was lying? What if he knew all along what Ozymandias was doing, and let it happen because it was supposed to happen, or because he wanted it to happen (because it was supposed to?), or because he didn't care. We know he survives the omniscience-disturbing event, so he theoretically could have known way back when Rorschach tells him about the mask-killer who the killer is and what's going to happen; he might even know that he doesn't cause cancer when he's asked on TV, but feigns a freakout and leaves Earth because he knows that's what he's supposed to do to make the event happen, and so on.

The more I think about it, the weirder it gets.


Alright, my attempts to comment on your comments have turned into a post. (That's a good thing. Best thing about blogging actually.) But that means you'll have to wait until tomorrow to read my response, because I've got a few more loose thoughts to tie into neat little bows now that I've confirmation my reading isn't altogether nutty.


I'm attracted to this interpretation, but suspicious of it, because the two scene transitions you cite, o SEK, seem to have much more important contextual justifications.

For the latter one it's worth comparing to the final pivotal point in Kovacs's psychological development. With Genovese Kovacs sees the chalk outline in the paper, and then we are presented either with his imagination of the supreme indifference of the everyman to the problem of crime, or the indifference 'wie es eigentlich gewesen ist' (I don't like the Genovese perspective idea because it seems that in both panels the tenants are looking down and past the reader); in any event, when Kovacs is later in warehouse, he sees the girl's underwear in the incinerator, he sees the cutting board, he suddenly connects it to the bone the dogs are fighting over. But he doesn't try to picture the scene, we don't get a flashback, we don't get any conjecture; I believe our hero is silent. And in a sense we're being taunted, because there's a (trite comparison ahead) Rashomon quality to this little girl's fate, a vague suggestion of sexual impropriety, no clear question as why she was killed rather than returned. But this time, there's no indifferent audience. There's a sense in which there is something so disturbing about what has happened - and we don't know what has happened - that it is now the crime, rather than the collective spectators to crime, that takes front and center.

On the contrary, with the scenes of the comedian dying it's pretty hard to interpret the pink panels as anything but how it really was. The whole thrust is a comic counterpoint to what the detectives are speculating. It must have been a bunch of guys! (Just one.) He was getting soft! (Eyes filled with rage.) And likewise with more subtle jokes... that the political establishment would never commit murders (he was the assassin), the worry that Rorschach might get involved (too late!), the Bond-worthy puns. I take it the point is to pose the dilemma of the Comedian's stark brand of comedy right from the start (cracking jokes about a not-funny reality), but also to establish early a theme about looking past superficial surfaces to the mysterious but masked truths.

So... I'm just skeptical, given that those two perspective-shift episodes are doing such very different things, that they might also be part of a consistent pattern of comparing our ability to shift our perspectives without experiencing la nausée to Dr. Manhattan's.

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