…And the Superhuman Review – Before Watchmen: Doctor Manhattan #1

Every week, Chad Nevett and I will be reviewing an issue of Before Watchmen through a discussion of each issue. We continue with Doctor Manhattan #1 by J. Michael Straczysnki (writer), Adam Hughes (art) and Laura Martin (colors).

Chad Nevett: Once again, J. Michael Straczynski goes back to the origin of a character to remind us that everything we knew was wrong! Or... not exactly true. Or not the whole story. Or whatever. I want that man to write my biography so I can find out some new, weird facts about my birth that call into question my whole being. I really do. Prove that my daddy ain't my daddy, Joe!

Er... anyway...

I actually didn't mind what Straczynski did here. I guess it calls for you to see Manhattan's powers as similar to observing events rather than his consciousness simply flipping up and down the timestream, inhabiting each moment while living it. That fundamental difference is what JMS hinges this story on -- the idea that you can't observe something without changing it. And if Manhattan observes his own history, he will change it. Sort of. It's an interesting idea, just not one that I find entirely consistent with the character we were shown in Watchmen.

Brian Cronin: Yeah, this comic was worlds better than Nite Owl, as Straczynski came up with an interesting narrative approach in this book with the whole concept of Manhattan visiting moments in his own life. I think it gave us some interesting insights into his life pre-Manhattan, especially the idea that even before he became Doctor Manhattan, he was already prone to being detached from life.

While I have said in the past (I think even in one of these Before Watchmen reviews) that the first meeting of the second attempt at the Crimebusters is one of the most amazing pieces of sequential art that I've ever seen (Dave Gibbons deserves an award just for that sequence), it still amazes me how interested Straczynski is in that scene, as this is the second comic he has had set in that sequence. The idea that Rorschach was Manhattan's original choice was a clever one (although I loved the idea that they were told to write their IDs on pieces of paper and Rorschach somehow drew a perfect Rorschach test on his), especially the glimpse at what that future might have looked like.

I thought Hughes' artwork was outstanding.

His design work was strong, as the pages were laid out impeccably. His character work was quote good, as well. The expressions on the various characters' faces spoke volumes (the way he caught the glimmer in Silk Spectre's eyes was really impressive). Here's a question for you - of the artists out there best known for their "T 'n' A," who do you think is the one whose greatness is most obscured by their "T 'n' A" rep? Hughes is definitely up there, right? I think J. Scott Campbell is another guy who people tend to overlook how good of a comic book artist he is because, you know, he draws calendars of slutty fairy tale characters. Campbell is actually an excellent storyteller in his sequential work.

Laura Martin's colors were outstanding, as well. A very lush presentation. She is really quite masterful as a colorist.

It was interesting to see Nite Owl in his later years as a costumed hero. It will be quite intriguing to see how they broke up in Minutemen. Will Cooke get that far, do you think? One place I think Hughes slipped a bit is in his depiction of Nite Owl. He sure didn't look like he had gained twenty pounds.

Do you think Manhattan's detached nature is because he is genuinely detached or because he is so obsessed with control that he can't help but become detached in the process?

CN: Well, issue five of Minutemen is supposed to have something BIG. Something that may just piss everyone off.

Showing that Osterman was somewhat detached before he became Dr. Manhattan was a good move. I didn't like the scene where the girl basically laid out all of his problems, dared him not to be like that, and he responded with a blank stare and a refusal. Again, JMS's inability to do anything subtle makes an appearance. After all, what we saw of Osterman in Watchman was a shy, withdrawn man -- but one that seemed to want to not be like that, to engage with others to a degree. I didn't particularly like Straczynski working against that idea. That scene makes me wonder if the Osterman JMS is showing would ever be as bold as he was shown to be with Janey. They're not at direct odds, but there's an inconsistency there, caused by his inability to not go overboard to try and make a point.

Hughes is different from other artists known for drawing cheesecake stuff. He's more akin to Terry Dodson than any other artist working in mainstream superhero comics -- maybe Frank Cho as well. I rather enjoyed the chance to see what he could do with some interior work at this point in his career and I was not disappointed. His clean, simple line work is exactly what you need with a story that jumps around like this one does. You need solid, clear art that will always let you know where and when you are.

When I finished this issue, I did have my doubts about this series -- more than any other, I'm not sure if there will actually be a point to this one that won't rely on veering so far from Watchmen that it's essentially unrelated. But, that's me.

BC: Oh yeah, that scene with the girlfriend was rough. What's funny, though, is that Hughes (for me, at least) saved the page by having a bunch of nice visual touches (looking at her askew through the lens plus the car in the background arriving, her getting in and it driving off).

I think Stracynzki's lack of subtly was less of an issue with Doctor Manhattan since so much of the character is inherently over the top. I mean, the dude had multiple versions of himself fuck his girlfriend so he wouldn't be distracted! Dude built a giant clock on the moon! Subtly was never a big part of Doctor Manhattan.

That being said, yeah, as much as I enjoyed some of the ideas in this issue and how they were presented, it seems like through the way that it has mostly just revisited the events of Watchmen so far it is also the most inconsequential of the seven Before Watchmen series (it will undoubtedly be unseated for the title by Moloch when that comes out).

Question - do you think Doctor Manhattan is a transformed Jon Osterman or do you think he is a new being that happens to share Osterman's memories, Anatomy Lesson style?

CN: Moloch will be great. Eduardo Risso, motherfuckers! Although, given Azzarello's involvement in these books, the fact that JMS is writing that one for Risso to draw just seems all kinds of wrong.

Answer - Transformed. If only because pulling an "Anatomy Lesson" with this character would be too fucking groan-inducing. At that point, I'm fully jumping into the anti-JMS camp, because that's just lazy, Moore-baiting sort of writing.

And to address an earlier concern, wouldn't Rorschach have used his mirror-image 'r' symbol that we saw him use as a calling card in Watchmen? Why the unnecessary change?

I also want to put a bit of a spotlight on Steve Wands's lettering. Wands's work here really impressed me. He seemed to be going out of his way to make the lettering look like Gibbons's lettering from Watchmen.

We haven't seen much of that so far. Kind of like Amanda Conner being the only artist to go for the nine-panel grid. So much effort seems spent on running away from Watchmen and being something DIFFERENT that the few people who are making the effort to be similar stand out -- and, oddly, in a good way.

BC: Risso is amazing, but come on, it's Moloch! The only thing that would make it awesome is if it is just filled with dreams, drugs, waking nightmares, alcohol and cock end endless balls.

As for the lettering, I absolutely agree. It made the book striking right out of the gate like we were seeing a deleted scene from Watchmen.

I also agree that it is transformed, but the whole "you're right, your son is dead" stuff made me concerned that we were talking Anatomy Lesson here.

By the way, John Higgins is awesome, but we really did not need basically a recap strip for the back-up. It is two-pages told sequentially! You can't take breaks in the middle of it to recap the story!

CN: It can be Osterman transformed and still have Manhattan say that he's dead. It's not uncommon for change to be equal to death in situations like this.

I can understand Higgins wanting to re-establish what's going on -- and to emphasise specific things as he begins writing the feature. Almost a quick boiling down/summing up that lets you know how he sees it and where he might be going from here. It's not amazing, but I understand why he did this and don't think it's that bad of a decision.

Thinking about it, the only real direction this series can go in from this point is full-on crazy alternate reality fan fiction where Manhattan keeps altering things so we can see a variation of Watchmen play out until, at the end, it just means that his consciousness doesn't just move forward and backwards, it moves sideways and nothing ever really changed. Oh wait... that would be kind of dumb. Especially since I just said it. Spoilers?

BC: I don't like it because I think a sequential tale like this has to be written in a way that if you ever did combine it into one big story, it would make sense. This particular story, though, will now have a point where there is a recap/farewell followed directly by a recap/introduction. Any narrative momentum will be dulled.

But yeah, outside of that bad decision, I can't find much fault with what Higgins did. It was a good recap as far as recaps go. And his art was as nice-looking as ever.

And you can't worry about spoiling the rest of Doctor Manhattan when we already spoiled the fact that the Crimson Corsair was going to end with the hero teaming up to fight crime with the ghosts of the young boy and the newsstand dealer whose spirits were blasted through time by the explosion in Watchmen #11. So once we spoiled such a major plot point as that, anything else is fair game! Including the Minutemen finale where Silhouette and Dollar Bill return as Black Lanterns...

CN: I'm still annoyed that we never got Watchmen #13 with Rorschach as a Black Lantern during Blackest Night.

BC: You just know that somewhere at DC someone is kicking themselves right now for not thinking of that idea at the time.

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