Before Watchmen Review: Dr Manhattan

by clementinepumpernickel

Well…. I guess that looks pretty?

To backtrack: the first time I read Watchmen was when my friend Graeme lent it to me, when our collective parents took us (Graeme, his little brother Iain, my brother and myself) on a trek through the hills of rural Perthshire, Scotland. I don’t remember the precise circumstances surrounding the event, but I have a vague recollection of us listening to Appetite for Destruction on the car stereo, which dates the event to our early teens, before grunge really kicked in. It was a beautiful day, and Perthshire really is a beautiful area of Scotland, but all I recollect are the hushed tones and steely glint in Graeme’s eyes as he said ‘Man, you REALLY need to read this.’

‘Really?’

‘Really’.

‘Is it Dark Knight Returns good?’

‘Yeah, yeah. Probably better.’

‘Whoa.’

And so the challenge was on — to try to get through all twelve chapters whilst our parents toured us all over the lovely hills of the area, sweltering in the back of the car. (You can probably guess — I was a long way off having a girlfriend at this point.) At one point the folks had pulled over besides a lovely river and were probably making a barbecue, but I was stuck in the back of that car boiling, getting through this dense masterpiece. And Graeme was absolutely right; what a game-changer.  I remember being so mad at the ending of Watchmen — oh, by the way, it Ozymandias who is the killer (fuck you spoilerphobes! It’s been almost three decades!) — but on reflection, he literally is the smartest man in the world. (Moore has said that the ending is contrived/Outer Limits ish, but for this reader in his early teens, it was the icing on the cake.)

Fuck you Perthshire! I wanna read Watchmen!

The reason I mention this rambling anecdote is quite simple: Watchmen is not a comic but an event for many people, one of those cultural touchstone points that act as a lens through which they view popular (geek) culture.

And does this sequel/prequel measure up?

In a word: no.

I guess the odds of me enjoying this were stacked against it from the get go (and for the record, I’m usually quite good at divorcing cash-ins from their progenitors, and so I quite liked The Thing pre-make, for reasons I will discuss in a future post).

The problem is that this isn’t really a comicbook: it’s a replicant; it’s a fake. It’s like that scene in the Next Generation episode ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’ where Guinan tells Tasha Yar that she shouldn’t exist in this universe: this is wrong.

This could be the most expensive fan fiction ever produced, but at least with fan fiction, there is a passion behind the crudeness and humping.  And don’t get me wrong — it looks beautiful. Adam Hughes doing interior work is a sight to behold; I just wish he was doing All Star Wonder Woman, or working on Grant Morrison’s Wonder Woman proposal, instead of this dull, plodding excuse for a comicbook. But there is little passion on display here, just product.

And the blame falls at Straczynski’s feet. He takes Moore’s original narrative gimmick of the universe as clockwork, and turns it on its head by introducing Manhattan’s ability to see multiple universes (a la quantum mechanics). Which, as a concept — is actually great. There are lots of possibilities: let’s visit a world where the Comedian murders Ozymandias; let’s visit a world where there are more superheroes than Dr Manhattan; let’s visit a world where Rorschach stops Ozymandias in Antarctica. These are spitballing (pretty shit) suggestions, but the point is lets see what the consequences are of John playing with the timestreams; let’s shake things up. (Actually, now that I write that, I still think that you are limited with what you can do in alternative universes, because it’s the story beats that really make Watchmen unique, but that’s covering old ground.)

Does the writer boldly set out on new paths, playing with the Watchmen mythos? Nope. Instead we get a rehash of Dr Manhattan’s experiences up and down the timestreams, hitting on many of the same beats as the original, only now adorned with Adam Hughes’s beautiful homages.(On a side note — is it just me, or is Adam Hughes terrible at drawing Dr Manhattan’s cock? Dave Gibbons was waaayyy better at really rubbing your face in Manhattan’s rancid little pecker, but Hughes gets by with a couple of limpid lines, a far cry away from his practically naked anatomically exact good-girl art that he is so famous for. Actually, it’s probably just me.) Unnecessary blanks in Moore’s story are filled in whilst Straczynski does his level best to ape Moore’s ‘inner monologue’ for Dr Manhattan, adding to the overall ‘redundant vibe’ of the whole affair.

Perhaps Straczynski will start becoming awfully clever in the next three issues of this comicbook ; perhaps the other Before Watchmen books are realy pushing the envelope in exciting and original ways. I only know that I won’t be around to find out.

But it does look awfully pretty.

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