The superman exists, and he's American

-- Watchmen's Earth, America, 1959

With these (somewhat ominous) words, Dr. Manhattan was introduced to the public. 6 feet tall, square-jawed and a light shade of blue, Jon Osterman - now known as Dr. Manhattan (due to the Manhattan Project's association both with high technology and a horrible, deadly weapon) - is a victim of a lab accident, becoming trapped in a test chamber where the "intrinsic field" was being removed in an attempt to discover the Unified Field Theory. The removal of this field disintegrated Dr. Osterman in the first Planck time unit of switching on the device.

This was a bit of a setback for Jon, however not much of one as within a few weeks, his disembodied and quite Unified consciousness managed to figure out how to put his physical self back together from spare atoms everywhere - his interest in watchmaking while he was young (before his father pushed him into nuclear research after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945), dealing with intricate parts of a system undoubtedly helped. While he was doing that, he also figured out how to affect everything around him in the same manner. To all intents and purposes, this made Dr. Manhattan into a superhero, or a god, able to perform supernatural deeds with a thought.

In the universe of the Watchmen, the 1960s are (mirroring real life) a time of cold war, nuclear apprehension, rampant McCarthyism and two-sided propaganda, and the constant threat of mutually assured destruction - having seen Dr. Strangelove recently, I had to double-check that I wasn't confusing the two stories together; there's even a war room sequence with projected casualties and losses of a first strike scenario. Into this atmosphere of fear and uncertainty comes the superweapon Dr. Manhattan, as he is publicized and his abilities demonstrated far and wide in the hopes that it's obvious which superpower has the real upper hand. It is during these demonstrations (and from snippets of Jon's life in the previous chapters) that we, the readers, get the feeling that Jon doesn't really understand either the purpose of the demonstration, nor the effect of his powers on the Soviets (unease, fear, increase rather than decrease of paranoia) - the affairs of humans are becoming insignificant to him.

He does manage to win the Vietnam War for the USA, however.

During the further events of the Watchmen, Jon became subjected to increasing emotional trauma as his sea change manifested in subtler ways. Becoming analytical and logical as only a supreme being divested of morality can be, but holding on to the innate human curiosity, Jon's personal and social life falters and withers away. Unable to relate to other humans, the drives, wants and needs of people around him (including his lovers) become a complete and utter enigma. While his superior intellect is aware of the effect and wishes to halt or at least delay his separation from humanity, he is unable to resynchronize with the feelings of what is to him another species to be observed, a curiosity just as intriguing and remote as the interactions of subatomic particles.

The final effect of the experiment was to unstick Jon from the human perception of time. Throughout the book (although quite notably in the part of it devoted entirely to him) it was obvious that while his actions were rooted within normal human time, his perception was aware of his entire existence. Unable to change what he constantly knows is going to happen - despite having enough raw power to do so - and tired of warring with the dichotomy of wanting to be human but at the same time quite content in being what he is, Jon eventually leaves Earth for "galaxies less complicated" in 1985.

From the start of his existence to the end of the book, the disintegration of Jon's humanitas is as heartwrenching as it is complete.
A small list of powers Dr. Manhattan manifested during his stay on Earth:
  • Growing to giant human-shape (at least 100ft) in defiance of the Cube-Square Law
  • Lifting equipment of inestimable weight - several tons at least
  • Instant teleportation of self and others - no known limit of persons teleported (a whole mob was teleported once), no known distance limit (Earth-Mars confirmed, extra-galactic teleport planned by Dr. Manhattan)
  • Creation and destruction of objects at will - buildings, tanks, humans destroyed, a sizable glass domicile was created from sand. It is not known if Dr. Manhattan can create life, but it seems doubtful.
  • Early in his career, in a quietly understated yet poignant act where he becomes upset for the first (and, barring one other time, only) time, Jon rejects the ubiqutous symbol of Bohr's atom as his SuperIdentiMark™ helmet, and instead opts for a simple representation of a hydrogen atom (nucleus in center, 1 electron in orbit - a circle around a point, the whole surrounding the individual) on his forehead. He draws this with his finger, smoke curling gently from it - he experiences no pain. It is here that his connection to all things human starts to strain.

The graphic novel Watchmen, by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore. Which you should read.

"I never said 'The superman exists and he's American.' What I said was 'God exists and he's American.' If that statement starts to chill you after a couple of moments' consideration, then don't be alarmed. A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane."

– Dr. Milton Glass
(in Watchmen’s America, 1959.)

If Damordred's Dr. Manhattan is a proficient description of who he is, I hope the following will be an equally proficient description of what he means, especially in regards to the symbolism of the watch, and by extension, Deism and America’s place in the wheel of history.

While it is difficult to call any of the dramatis personae in Watchmen the protagonist, it is relatively easy to say that Dr. Manhattan is the central character. Nearly all of the events in the story (as well as its very title) are influenced by his presence on Earth. The hyperbolic version of the Cold War that exists in Watchmen’s alternate history—the principle arc of the story—is caused by Dr. Manhattan’s presence.

Dr. Manhattan’s near-omnipotence, and America’s “omnipotence-by-association,” is what causes the Cold War to crash through the dubious failsafe of Mutually Assured Destruction, and onto the threshold of World War III. And due to his other superpower, a non-linear perception of time, Dr. Manhattan cannot change the progression or outcome of such a catastrophe. To him, everything that will happen has already happened, or more precisely, is currently happening . Thusly, it is not Dr. Manhattan’s omnipotence that drives the story, but his impotence.

That even the most powerful being in the universe is unable to alter the course of human events is the principle thematic element of Watchmen, as well as a tenent of Deism. The “god-as-watchmaker” paradigm is literally all over Moore’s graphic novel; watch and clock symbolism permeates every facet of the work. However, nowhere is this more apparent than in Chapter IV, aptly titled “Watchmaker.”

In this Chapter, Dr. Manhattan narrates his own origins from the surface of Mars. We quickly learn that Jonathan Osterman, the man Dr. Manhattan once was, was born the son of a watchmaker and yearned to continue in his father’s trade. However, after the bombing of Hiroshima, Jon’s father insisted he become a nuclear physicist instead. Jon quickly makes a name for himself in the field, and falls in love with a fellow Gila Flats scientist, Janey Slater. On a date, Janey’s wristwatch falls off and is stepped on by a “fat man.” Later, Jon fixes the watch, but leaves it in his lab coat inside the intrinsic field test chamber, where he is accidentally disintegrated. Reassembling himself with his new-found superpowers, Dr. Manhattan says (over a panel depicting watch-parts) “it's just a question of reassembling the components in the correct sequence...” We later see that Dr. Manhattan has “The Persistence of Memory” hanging in his house. He picks up a copy of Time Magazine with a destroyed wristwatch on the cover, frozen at the moment of the Hiroshima blast. The Martian palace he builds is made of hourglasses and watch-hands. Finally, the chapter ends with this quotation of Albert Einstein:

“The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking...the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”

More important than the raw images of clocks and watches, is the way in which all of them come together in Dr. Manhattan’s narration. He conveys all of this information to the reader in the present tense, because he simultaneously perceives all of the events in his life . Everything is inexorable. The fat man’s feet are “heavy with destiny” as he will inevitably step on Janey’s watch. The scientists are powerless to unlock the test chamber, and so all must watch the timer tick away the seconds until Jon is irradiated. Most importantly, despite the efforts of the righteous, the world (it seems) is on a clockwork path to nuclear holocaust.

This overt allusion to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock is telling of the emotional tenor of the real America in the mid-1980s. The 1984 bulletin put the clock at three minutes to midnight, which was closest the minute hand had stood since 1953, when it stood at two. (For comparison purposes, the clock stands at seven minutes to midnight as of February 27, 2002. The furthest it has been from midnight was 17 minutes in 1991). The concept of inevitable human disintegration on a global scale was not just the stuff of comic books and movies, it was a day-to-day concern. Don’t Worry, Be Happy, indeed!


These three motifs, clockwork, nuclear war and the smiley face with blood in its eye, combine in Watchmen’s climax. The bloody smiley is the symbol of The Comedian, and is by far the most ubiquitous image in the book. It represents his nihilism; his understanding that the world is on a fixed path to destruction, and his amusement at the contortions that people will go though to futility attempt to change their fate. .

Ozymandias, in reaction to the Comedian's nihilism, devises a plan to avert World War III based on Dr. Manhattan’s ability to teleport. However, because this plan involves partially destroying New York City in a terrorist attack under the guise of a staged alien invasion, he must keep it a secret. Using the deus ex machina of tachyons to elude Manhattan, and his being the smartest man in the world to elude everybody else, the plan goes off without a hitch at 11:35pm, November 2, 1985. Ozymandias patiently informs the heroes of their tardiness at three minutes to midnight, as news reports flood in that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. will begin to focus their destructive efforts on space invaders instead of each other .

The inability of Dr. Manhattan to stop the murder of 10 million is deism’s answer to the age-old question: why do bad things happen to good people? The fact that he and the other heroes must remain complicit in Ozymandias' scheme by protecting his bloody illusion answers the converse: why do good things happen to bad people? Of course, terms like “good” and “bad” are meaningless in a universe in which God only sets life into motion and is disinterested in the results. Fittingly, Dr. Manhattan’s last words include his intention of creating life in “galaxies less complicated,” as he dissolves into a mushroom cloud inside Ozymandias’ orrery .


In the end, Dr. Manhattan is the character that epitomizes Moore’s droll double-entendre title. The superheroes are indeed watchmen in the traditional sense. But they are also watch-men, powered by cosmic clockwork and unable to change their own fates or the fate of the world they wish to protect.

Moreover, the fact that this deist God is an American reveals Moore’s ultimate point about America’s place in the world. Dr. Manhattan’s failure to prevent Kennedy’s Assassination is our first understanding that he is more impotent than omnipotent, as well as another tacit condemnation of Manhattan’s causation of the impending nuclear war. As Ozymandias is revealing his plan he quotes Kennedy’s intended speech from that fateful day:

“We in this country, in this generation, are by destiny rather than choice, the watchmen on the walls of world freedom.”

It is ironic how relevant these words remain, nearly 20 years after Watchmen was written, especially considering our new Cold War was largely instigated by a terrorist attack on New York City. It is also somewhat ironic that, despite half a century’s efforts in nuclear non-proliferation, the Doomsday clock’s position at seven minutes to midnight is the same as when the clock was invented in 1947.

As Dr. Glass might say again today, “We are all of us living in the shadow of Manhattan.” And all we can do is watch.

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