Comic Origins: Dr Manhattan

Dr Manhattan

Dr. Jon Osterman / Doctor Manhattan

Who is he?

A superpowered being who is contracted by the United States government. Scientist Jon Osterman gained power over matter when he was caught in an Intrinsic Field Subtractor in 1959. In contrast to other superheroes who lacked scientific exploration of their origins, Moore sought to delve into nuclear physics and quantum physics in constructing the character of Dr. Manhattan. The writer believed that a character living in a quantum universe would not perceive time with a linear perspective, which would influence the character’s perception of human affairs. Moore also wanted to avoid creating an emotionless character like Spock from Star Trek, so he sought for Dr. Manhattan to retain “human habits” and to grow away from them and humanity in general.

When you talk about comic book hero origins, most people would instantly think of Spiderman, Superman, Batman or one of the other upcoming Marvel heroes. These were always the most recognisable comic book heroes in pop culture. But the one that has always struck me as the one most brilliantly told is the backstory of Doctor Manhattan from the Watchmen. I loved how Moore revolved his story around the concept of time, or rather the absence of time, and I felt that Zack Synder brought it out perfectly in Doctor Manhattan’s monologue in the film version. There were so many little touches that only repeated viewings of the graphic novel and movie can do it justice.

To make it more digestible, there are quite a few parts to his introduction.

  1. Childhood – As a child, he was trained as a watchmaker, until he and his father witnessed the dropping of the atom bombs in WWII. And at that moment time stopped, literally. His father took the half-completed watch out of his hand and swept the tiny mechanisms onto the floor. At that moment, he was no longer destined to be a watchmaker but a nuclear scientist. One moment in time, and everything changed. Given the mood of that Cold War era, I could probably understand how people perceived the atomic bomb then.
  2. Adulthood – The life of a clumsy quiet scientest who found love in a fellow scientist. We see snapshots of their lives together, the love, the joy, the photos. This would become a moment of time in his life which Dr Manhattan will look back again and again due to his ability to percieve time differently. And despite his claims to not feel the importance of time (due to his ability to perceive past/present/future all at once). He see him slowly but surely abandoning the emotions he has for the memories, until it becomes but another part of time. He is able to rationalise time and events, but absent the emotions triggered during these periods. And we will see this come into play time and time again.
  3. The Incident – The countdown, the time on his watch, the hands on the watch stopping, the watch falling to the ground. The part where his wife-to-be could not bear to watch him die, might have played in role in influence his feelings about her over time, since he was able to play back this moment and see it as it was. A single moment of cruelty.
  4. Dr Manhattan – Time stood still for him. At first he still tried to behave like a man, presumably because he still thinks he is a man. He honours his marriage, he continues his work. But as his wife grew old and his heart grew cold. We see him becoming less and less of a human, and instead becoming a higher being looking down on humanity. This is where the backstory ends and links us back to the Dr Manhattan we know of in the present. The scene where he looks at his wife, trying to study her, as she screams and shouts at him, is one of the most powerful scenes in the story for me.
  5. Silk Spectre – This portion is the actual story and not the origin. He found love again, in a younger Silk Spectre, only to basically repeat the entire process of getting into a strained relationship with her again over time. We see him as something else, the saviour of the world who has no time for his young wife. This is the Dr Manhattan that we are introduced to at the start of the story. When Silk Spectre left, he did not react emotionally, he let her go logically. I’m pretty sure woman hate it when a man tries to rationalise with her.
  6. Conclusion – Slowly, but surely, Doctor Manhattan became less and less of a man, thinking and reacting with intelligence and logic instead of emotions and feelings. This seamlessly fitted into the ending of the novel, where two beings of supreme intellect and little else, faced off against the two emotionally charged heroes. And their final brutal scene in the story, coming not from violence, but a single thought.

From the perspective of this character. His introduction flowed almost perfectly to the conclusion of the story without need of further explanation or justification. Through the storytelling itself, Moore was able to bring out his backstory in the beautiful way I know. As part of the story, not apart from it. He represented the logic, or rather the flaws of it, as he and the other dude rationalised their actions without consideration of emotions and suffering.

Who is the hero, and who is the villain in the story? It’s not as clear cut as making one of them a monster. Damn I love Alan Moore’s work.

Go watch it first then read it! If you want to go from WTF to Ohhhhh or the other way around if you want to watch the movie with a clearer perspective.

Screw the haters! Long live Watchmen!


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