“Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan” #1 is a well-made comic book. It is obvious that J. Michael Straczynski put a lot of effort into the script and Adam Hughes does some extremely pretty work on the interiors. There is much inside to marvel at in terms of construction. However, much like Dr. Manhattan’s view of life and the world, the book feels sterile. It could be successfully argued that such a product fits the character and so is perfectly engineered in balance with theme and intent, but the flip side is a comic that is smart enough to hit all the right notes and yet still not feel like live music.
There is always the chance the taint of the entire “Before Watchmen” experience is spoiling this book and so it arrives with a negative light bringing out flaws in abundance. I would worry about this except for the fact it’s not the flaws that bring this book down, it’s just its lack of internal beauty. Straczynski pulls together an image of a man — or maybe now just a being — so disconnected from the world that he’s more interested in the cogs of clockwork rather than the spinning mechanisms of love, interaction and life. Dr. Manhattan is a disconnected character and the book matches his integral structure, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a good title. Perhaps the violent passion of the Comedian, the deranged tenacity and vision of Rorschach or the depressed futility of Nite Owl balanced Dr. Manhattan in the original “Watchmen” text. As part of an ensemble, Dr. Manhattan is an intriguing aside, and deus ex machina. As a lead, it is hard to want to follow him entirely.
This book opens up some interesting ideas of time, destiny and the echo effect of every choice ever made. Straczynski sets us down a path where Manhattan finally looks in on himself and is intrigued by what he finds. The issue then unravels a long coil of possibility about what can happen when things take the slightest kink in the path and everything in a person’s future timeline is affected. In essence, Straczynski builds a mystery, even if it is most likely one with little consequence. The result is a tale that might be interesting, and is certainly structured with great thought and care, but it ends up feeling hollow. The major plot hinge seems to be that if Dr. Manhattan was always going to alter his future, and always does, then he’s not actually altering the timeline but rides along the destiny track himself.
Adam Hughes’ art is effortlessly gorgeous. His characters lithely hold grace and presence on the page. His Dr. Manhattan is simple yet still emotive. Hughes recreates a man so very well matched to the real deal as created by Dave Gibbons. There are certainly wrong ways to draw the naked blue man and Hughes avoids these issues. His beauty on the page reinforces the sterility and distance Manhattan brings to the world, but might also be the main problem of the issue: the glossy nature that makes everything seem only skin deep.
“Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan” #1 isn’t a bad comic. It is hollow and lifeless and aloof, much like the Doctor himself. The art is clean, the mystery intriguing and the overall presentation one that offers enough for a few dollars. However, in the end, you have to ask if it is worth making a new “Watchmen” comic when this is the pinnacle of what can be achieved — it’ll come close, it’ll look pretty, but it will be hollow.