From Superman to Super-Being:


Dr. Manhattan and the Nuclear Sublime

Theodore Weiskel declares in The Romantic Sublime, "The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human." (3) While this concept remains stable, ideas about the source of this transcendence differ from author to author: Longinus sited it in rhetoric, Burke in nature, and Kant in mathematics. Taking Kant's ideas, Weiskel develops the concept of the egotistical or Wordsworthian sublime, a state in which the individual perceives something much larger/grander/loftier than s/he, is struck by anxiety induced by the occasion, and recovers in a moment which goes something like, "Sure, it's large/grand/lofty -- but I can still contain it in my mind. I must be even larger/grander/loftier." Or, as Frances Ferguson explains in Solitude and the Sublime: "Weiskel combines the schemata of structural linguistics and Freudian psychoanalysis to suggest that the sublime comes into its own when it creates not merely individual objects by reference to a perceiving individual but also the individual subject as a fantasmic producer of objects." (16)

Transplanting the discussion from European soil to American and pleaching it into new forms, Rob Wilson attaches the notion of landscape to the sublime in a recent book, American Sublime. Wilson declares: "The genre of the sublime helped consolidate an American identity founded in representing a landscape of immensity and wildness ('power') open to multiple identifications ('use')." (5) Wilson goes further in his discussion of the "nuclear sublime," which he sess as a subset of the American sublime, one of those multiple identifications. Amidst such a plentitude of possibilities, the task of defining what exactly is contained in the term "nuclear sublime" becomes crucial. One of the definitive distinctions rests in the cause of the sublime moment -- in the nuclear sublime, the existence of nuclear technology is that cause. The sublime moment itself also changes, becomes "Not only can I hold this staggering thing (a nuclear explosion) in my mind, but it has been 'created' and maintained by my fellow human beings." Note that the nuclear sublime holds supremely negative connotations in a way the mathematical sublime never has. While one can argue that columns of numbers helped create the science responsible for nuclear technology, those columns are not associated with disasters as monumental as Hiroshima or Nagasaki, diasasters so large that we cannot perceive them except through a strange kind of synecdoche, so that a blackened silhouette, a clock with its hands arrested, a row of hospital cots serves as the only possible representation.

Nonetheless, the nuclear sublime, despite its associations with guilt and shame, holds within itself the promise of human transcendance to which Weiskel refers. It stands for more than a resistance to or denial of the existence of nuclear weapons (which it must, since that historical existence cannot be negated); it represents a realization of supreme destructive power and a choice to not employ that power, while celebrating its other aspects, such as the beautiful simplicity of sub-atomic theory. This is the nuclear sublime depicted in Alan Moore's comic book, Watchmen.

The series, written by Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, followed on the heels of Moore's elevation of DC Comics' regular series, The Swamp-Thing, from straggler to star and the achievement of numerous comics industry awards for his series MiracleMan. Watchmen, released as a twelve issue limited series in 1986, was published the following year as a graphic novel which became, at one point, a Book of the Month Club alternate selection.

Watchmen's reception did not initiate a disruption of the comic book tradition. In the early 1980s, comics, in the form of the graphic novel, had begin to test the boundary between high and low art. Art Spiegelman's Maus won a Pulitzer prize; critics hailed Love and Rockets, drawn and written by the Brothers Hernandez, as the cutting edge of the medium (Benton 17); and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns took a figure embedded in popular culture and transfigured him, spawning story collections and an animated series and changing the casting of the batman movie from Bill Murray to Michael Keaton, turning the script from campish comedy to special effects laden thriller. But Watchmen, more than any other graphic novel, demonstrated the psychological complexity possible in this new form.

Like Moore's other early works, Watchmen deals with the definition of hero and the intrusion of the superheroic into a more "realistic" (resembling our own) world. In Watchmen costumed heroes, men and women who chose to "dress up in gaudy opera costumes and express the notion of good and evil in simple, childish terms" (Moore 65) have enjoyed a brief vogue, but their actions are cut short when a real superhuman appears, created (in an "origin story" that nodded at traditional origins like Spiderman's radioactive spider bite) by a nuclear accident. Jon Osterman, a nuclear physicist, is accidentally caught in an experiment that involves removing the "intrinsic field" from a concrete block. His own intrinsic field removed, his particles scattered, Osterman reassembles himself and in the process gains what seems to be omnipotent control over the physical world. The transformed Osterman, rechristened "Dr. Manhattan" by the government (for obvious reasons), resembles the human with increased perception John Locke describes in "An Essay on Human Understanding," a being who:

	would come nearer to the discover of the texture and
	motion of the minute parts of corporeal things: and in many of
	them, probably get ideas of their internal constitutions; but
	then . . . be in a quite different world from other people:
	nothing would appear the same to him . . . (quoted in Hertz 95)

At one point in the book, Manhattan's lover Laurie describes him in words which echo Locke's:

	. . . the way he looks at things . . . this world, the real world,
	to him it's like walking through mist, and all the people are
	like shadows, just shadows in the fog.  I mean, tonight, right?
	I walked out after twenty years and y'know what I bet he's
	doing?  His big, emotional reaction?  He's either smartening up
	for his TV interview, or watching quarks get stuck to gluinos.
	Maybe both. (78)

Manhattan effortlessly floats through a world in which the other heroes have to struggle. Without blinking an eye, he can teleport away an unruly crowd threatening the White House or stop the war in Vietnam by striding through the landscape in two hundred foot high form. Manhattan's power-laden presence exposes the original heroes for shoddy facsimiles. Shortly afterward, their chosen occupation is outlawed by the government.

Manhattan's power is, of course, only a small facet of the work. Watchmen employs postmodern techniques of storytelling, combining pages of narrative with embedded texts: notes for an advertising campaign, a desk calendar, newspaper articles, pages from one hero's scrapbook and another's autobiography, as well as a comic book, Tales From the Black Freighter, shown as it is read by a minor character. But despite the dense and multiplicious storyline, Dr. Manhattan emerges a key player in the text and, strangely enough, this superhuman figure may be the character with which the reader most closely identifies. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud makes an observation which sheds light on the relevance of Dr. Manhattan to the reader:

	. . . the face you see in your mind is not the same as others see.
	When two people interact, they usually look directly at one
	another, seeing their partner's features in vivid detail.  Each
	one also sustains a constant awareness of his or her own face,
	but this mind-picture is not nearly so vivid; just a sketchy
	arrangement . . . a sense of shape . . . a sense of general
	placement.  Something as simple and basic -- as a cartoon.
	This, when you look at a photo or a realistic drawing of a face 
	-- you see it as the face of another.  But when you enter the
	world of the cartoon -- you see yourself. (35-36)

Which leads us to the question: what character is the reader's nexus of identification in Watchmen. The answer is inescapable: what character is the most simply drawn, androgynous, hairless, scarless, with a minimum of clothing? To take this query even further, what character escapes all question of reader's skin color by being an impossible, Krishna-like blue, the god-like color used in advertisements demonstrating the absorbency of diapers and sanitary napkins, a color which implies both science and cleanliness, as opposed to red or green, both of which signal some connection to organic life. This conclusion is interesting, particularly when we realize that Dr. Manhattan is more than hero or superhero -- he is a superbeing.

Other characters radically misread Dr. Manhattan, treating him as a high-powered version of themselves, an Uzi instead of a rifle; but he is, in fact, something altogether different, and the distance between them as vast as that between a crossbow and an A-bomb. One hero, Captain Metropolis, attempts to revive the superhero tradition, forming the Minutemen, but another hero, the Comedian, demonstrates the absurdity of such an attempt in a nuclear world -- destroying Metropolis's chart of social ills (labeled: anti-war demos, promiscuity, black unrest, campus subversion, etc.) by setting it ablaze, declaring; "It doesn't matter squat because inside thirty years, the nukes are going to be flying like maybugs." (46)

One could argue that Dr. Manhattan symbolizes this nuclear threat -- that he changes the lives of those around him like an irresistable force of technology, in the same manner that the American public's life was changed by the Cold War. Like nuclear technology, he clearly is seen by the governments within the book as the deterrant which keeps nuclear war from breaking out. But this is more than an over-simplification, it is a misreading.

To trace this misreading , let us look at another aspect of Watchmen's plot. Ozymandias, self-billed as "The Smartest Man on Earth," intends to end dissension between different countries by creating an imaginary threat which will unify the earth. He is the hyperexpression of Horatio Alger principle: instead of a poor boy who works hard and is given money which makes him rich and powerful, he is a rich boy who gives all his money away and then works hard in order to become rich and powerful a second time. Employing artists, musicians, scientists, and the brain of a dead psychic, Ozymandias creates a monstrous alien creature which he teleports to the middle of New York City. The creature dies instantly, broadcasting mental images of a horrifying, alien world, and killing most of the population of New York. Convinced that the creature represents the reality of an outside menace, world leaders unite, and the threat of war fades. Ozymandias creates, in effect, a false sublime, a signifier whose signified exists only in the imagination of those reading that signified, in this case the world leaders.

To accomplish this, Ozymandias must first eliminate the main impediment to his plans, Dr. Manhattan, who he fears is powerful enough to stop him. In fact, in trying to rid the world of Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias pushes this misreading of "Manhattan = nuclear threat" on Manhattan -- exposing several characters close to Manhattan to radiation, or otherwise causing them to develop cancer, almost as though Manhattan were a Rilkean angel, destroying those around him with his starkeren Dasein, his stronger existence. Reading his own existence in this fashion, Dr. Manhattan exiles himself from Earth.

But Dr. Manhattan represents not missile silos, but the human spirit in action, just as the other heroes demonstrate alternative facets of human existence. While the ever-youthful Ozymandias clearly serves as a walking embodiment of mental power, the other heroes, their bodies aging, scarred, overweight, represent the body and its inevitable decay. The three poles form a triangle with Manhattan at one tip representing spirit, Ozymandias at another representing mind and the Comedian at the final one, standing in for the body.

This simple categorization demonstrates how, in the world of comic books, divisions of black and white are often embodied -- characters split into good and bad halves, a hero's secret identity, in the shape of their costume, literally comes alive and attacks them, and the devil appears to bear the soul of a supervillain away, making some comics resemble nothing so much as medieval morality plays.

Ozymandias is a creature of pure logic, and therefore cannot achieve the sublime, since that demands the emotions. The figure of Dr. Manhattan does not represent nuclear weaponry but, rather, our own feelings about such weaponry, the conglomeration of awe and fear and pride that surrounds the issue of nuclear armaments. And it is his struggle, throughout the course of Watchmen, that places our feelings about such weaponry, our attempts to comprehend its magnitude, on stage. Let us look next at that struggle.

Initially, Dr. Manhattan is a human being changed by the experiment which removes his "intrinsic field," a transformation forced on him by external forces. He exhibits superhuman powers, manipulating objects outside himself, but at the same time marks himself as human through sexual encounters with Janey Slater and Laurie. As the comic progresses, he grows away from that sexuality. We witness his introduction of multiple selves into the lovemaking, which might be construed as an act of renewed interest, but it turns out that at the same time even more selves are working on scientific experiments in another room, revealing the act for the half-hearted attempt it is.

It is not until Manhattan exiles himself to Mars that he contemplates and internalizes the sublime. His exile is vital to this undertaking. Ferguson observes, " . . . both [Burke and Kant] link . . . the sublime with individuals isolated either by the simplef act of their solitude or by a heroic distinction that sets them apart even as they participate in social enterprises." (3) For Manhattan, the experiences of external sublimity, the fact that he is sublime in body, but not in mind, causes him to feel paralyzed, trapped. He muses on the nature of time. observing that he is a puppet, pre-destined in everything he does, existing in every moment but at the same time dissociated or distanced, being the one who watches himself acting, rather than the actor, sounding much like Wordsworth describing the sublime moment in poetry.

This moment of Manhattan's "stuckness" is associated with watches, assemblages of cogs and gears, and it will be concepts associated with thermodynamics which move him out of this moment. He is "reborn" through experiencing what is perhaps a variant of the mathematical, Fibonaccian instead of linear, seeing and experiencing the random forces which have spiraled together to create Laurie. He says to her:

	. . . in every human coupling, a thousand million sperm
	vie for a single egg.  Multiply those odds by countless
	generations  . . . until your mother loves a man she has every
	reason to hate, and of that union . . . it was you, only you, that
	emerged.  To distill so specific a form from that chaos of
	improbability, like turning air into gold, that is the crowning
	unlikelihood. . . the thermodynamic miracle. (307-309)

We see the sublime moment enacted here -- the exposure to a sublime force, the resultant paralysis or anxiety, and the movement beyond that paralysis through an affirmation of human ability to incorporate, mentally or symbolically, that sublime force, allowing the individual to experience him/herself as something more than human, something miraculous. But in the world of the comic book, such psychological moments cannot be left internal -- they must be acted out in some manner. And so, Dr. Manhattan returns to earth, and a confrontation with Ozymandias. Ozymandias destroys him, forcing Dr. Manhattan to reassemble his atoms, to recreate himself once again. At the same time, he disassociates himself from the entity he once was, referring to that past self in the third person, (399) implying that he is no longer Jon Osterman, but rather a new, self-created entity, establishing that he has become something more than Osterman either pre or post nuclear transformation.

It is after this final act of re-creation that Manhattan engages in several activities which seem to have even more significant than the other superhuman acts he has performed; Christ-like, he walks across water, and proceeds up a wall in a moment which recalls scenes from the old Batman show, where Batman and Robin were shown painfully progressing up the side of a building, stopping to chat with celebrity cameos along the way. It is this moment, more than anything else, that shows he has moved beyond the ordinary heroic. What the other heroes can do only with the aid of technology, he accomplishes unencumbered even by clothing.

This outward expression of internal state emphasizes that the application of literary theory to the comic book form is a valuable undertaking. McCloud justifies the study of comics by pointing out that:

	Comics is a sight-based medium.  Thw whole world of visual
	iconography is at the disposal of comic creators, including the
	full range of pictorial styles, from realistic representational art
	to the simplest cartoons -- to the totally abstract and the
	invisible world of symbols and language. (202-203)

While agreeing with McCloud, I would add that the world of the superhero allows psychoanalytic theories a unique arena: heroes and villains represent the simplest and most complicated ideas and the human psyche to be played out in pictorial form. Superheroes have an established tradition, rules by which their narratives are expected to operate, allowing the author space to break or cleave to the reader's expectations. In Watchmen, Moore plays with these traditions and, in doing so, exposes and underscores the fact that these heroes are more than individuals -- they are expressions of human drives and thus, like the heroes that preceeded them, exemplars of the comic book tradition.

Works Cited:

Benton, Mike.  The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History.  
Taylor Publishing Company: Dallas, Texas, 1989.

Ferguson, Frances.  Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the 
Aesthetics of Individuation.  Routledge: New York, 1992.

Hertz, Neil.  The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the 
Sublime.  Columbia University Press: New York, 1985.

McCloud, Scott.  Understanding Comics.  Kitchen Sink Press: 
Northampron, Massachusetts, 1993.

Moore, Alan.  Watchmen.  Warner Books, Inc. : New York, 1987.

Weiskel, Thomas.  The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure 
and Psychology of Transcendence.  Johns Hopkins University Press: 
Baltimore, 1986.

Wilson, Rob.  American Sublime: The Genealogy of a Poetic Genre.  
University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1991.


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