It took me a long time to realize that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel Watchmen is one of my favorite books. It was a slow realization born of careful analysis and frequent returns to the material. For the uninitiated, Watchmen is a superhero murder mystery. In an alternate version of America, the country won the Vietnam War. President Nixon successfully rallied the nation to pass an amendment removing term limits from the presidency, allowing him to be elected again and again. He also outlaws the once-popular costumed vigilantes, aka superheroes, that helped end the Vietnam War and maintained order during violent protests following the assassination of JFK.
Rorschach, one of the last surviving superheroes, believes there is a conspiracy to eliminate the last of the costumed crime fighters. The novel opens with the brutal murder of The Comedian. From there, the surviving Watchmen face unexpected attacks from unknown assailants. Is it coincidence or conspiracy? And does it matter at all when Cold War tensions seem poised to destroy the world?
Watchmen faces an obvious hurdle as a constantly challenged piece of literature: it's a superhero story. It doesn't matter that it's a deep and nuanced text questioning the moral authority of politics and law in the 1980s. People in America still think comics (like cartoons) are for children. A text this mature--violence, nudity, and drug use abound--was never meant for children to read. Yet, time and again, parents assume that comics are for kids and get riled up that their child could be exposed to such adult material.
It's this dark and thoughtful content that has grown on me over the years. I can't say if Watchmen is my favorite novel of all time, but I can say it contains my favorite chapter in any novel.
Chapter IV is the first illustrated origin story in Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan is a large and imposing superhero. His appearance is shocking: bright blue skin, minimal (if any) clothing, a visual representation of a Hydrogen atom emblazoned on his forehead, and a seeming inability to connect with humanity.
He gained the ability to see through all time and break matter apart at a subatomic level in a terrible accident. The superhero known as Dr. Manhattan was a brilliant scientist named Dr. Jonathan Osterman. By fate, he wound up locked inside an experimental nuclear testing facility. His colleagues watched in horror as he was annihilated in the reactor.
However, Osterman was not destroyed. He somehow gained the ability to piece himself back together, molecule by molecule. The accident meant that he could control everything and nothing in the world.
This power gives writer Alan Moore the ability to craft a stunning existential crisis in Chapter IV. Dr. Manhattan's origin takes a backseat to his personal issues. This is a man who can no longer relate to his own humanity. He knows when everyone he's ever met will leave him, become ill, and die. He sees the creation of stars and the destruction of all life on earth at all times. There is no space and time for him; it all happens at once.
Chapter IV of Watchmen can bring me to tears if I don't brace myself for the experience. The first page alone forces you to take your time. The short, almost clinical statements of Dr. Manhattan fight against the random flow of his thoughts. There is no time and place. It's all happening simultaneously and Dr. Manhattan has given up trying to piece them together in a logical way. It's free association without the comfort of style and nuance that mark the greatest Modernist thinkers.
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