Thursday, 12 March 2009

Does Dr. Manhattan act as a figure of the reader in Alan Moore's Watchmen? (This post picks up right here. Turn that double em-dash into a colon and forget you read the rest . . . but for continuity's sake I will rewind one sentence.) Unless you happen to be Dr. Manhattan: For brevity and bandwidth I'll skip the move into this flashback and focus on the one out of it. In the left panel you have Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam. The fireworks behind him celebrate V.V.N. The body before him carried the child of the man in the coffin on the right until said man shot it in the chest [thanks JPRS] and turned that woman into a body. Note that unlike the panels discussed earlier the expression on Manhattan's face doesn't change. What has happened has already happened and he cannot change it without changing what has already happened. Make no mistake: he can change it. He can prevent the Comedian from shooting a pregnant woman in the chest. He even tells the Comedian not to do it: But as the Comedian does it anyway . . . then complains because Manhattan didn't turn the bullet into water. The conventional reading of the novel stipulates something importantly philosophical is behind Manhattan's reluctance or refusal to act here. I think the answer is much more mundane: unlike Ozymandias, who experiences in memory the emotions he felt in the moment, the unmoored-in-time Manhattan feels nothing not because he has abdicated moral authority before the throne of universal indifference, but because for all his power within the novel he merely functions as a figure of reader. (To answer Rich's creepily accurate pre-emptive criticism, I would say that Manhattan doing nothing with his power trumps its potential.) In the narrative present he amounts to little more than a M.A.D. weapon that maybe leaks carcinogens. The conceit that he can be anywhere at anytime structures the fourth issue of Watchmen and calls into question whether Manhattan's flashbacks are actually flashbacks. More constantly forces us to consider the status of what we see. Take these panels from the first issue: What is the relationship between the central and flanking panels? Are we getting the detective's mental reconstruction of the struggle based on the evidence at the scene? Is Moore juxtaposing the actual struggle with the detective's reconstruction of it? What about these panels from the sixth issue: Does the narrative jump to the perspective of a dying Kitty Genovese there? Is that Rorschach's reconstruction of the last thing she ever saw? Point being: throughout the novel Moore exploits the then-to-fore unexamined conventions of comic transitions. He literalizes the oldest of the old standbys—the scene-to-scene transition—by granting Manhattan the power to teleport from one scene to another. These characters have been transported from one scene to another via this transition the whole book to no ill effect. But when Manhattan transitions them from a studio to a parking lot or New York to Los Angeles, their stomachs bark and they vomit uncontrollably. What the reader painlessly accomplishes—what you, dear...

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