Most of us think time moves one way, past -> present -> future. Not Dr. Manhattan. For him, everything happens all at once. Because of that, we’re going to analyze his character in reverse, from the end to the beginning. We’re still curious about what makes him tick, what he wants, and why he does what he does, but imagine it on rewind.
You might accuse us of being cold-blooded like Dr. Manhattan. Or is he blue-blooded? Wait, does he even have blood at all? Just because he’s the character in Watchmen with the least human appearance doesn’t mean he lacks human emotion. Compared to Rorschach or Veidt, the man formerly known as Jon Osterman is motivated by love (of his father, Janey Slater, and Laurie Juspeczyk) rather than rage or ambition. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; it’s time to start at the end.
After Watchmen’s climax, Dr. Manhattan says sayonara to Earth and disappears into outer space. Let’s start with the obvious. This is something only he is capable of. Ever since the accident at Gila Flats, Dr. Manhattan has learned to “walk across the sun. [He’s] seen events so tiny and so fast they hardly can be said to have occurred at all” (XII.18.3). Whether he’s Superman, God, Frankenstein, or D (none of the above) isn’t what’s interesting about him, though.
How does a being like Dr. Manhattan care about “tiny” human lives, when the entire universe is at his command? Forgive us for getting all metaphysical (whoa now), but this question is the exact opposite from the one the rest of us face. Unlike the omnipotent (i.e. all-powerful) Dr. Manhattan, we’re tiny grains of sand spinning on a rock in an unfathomably large and beautiful universe. Or so science tells us… Perhaps Moore is suggesting that if Dr. Manhattan can care and love beings who are so far beneath him (us), then we have no excuse not to treat each other that same way.
Janey Slater, Laurie Juspeczyk, and his father who pushed him to become a nuclear physicist. These are the characters that make Dr. M more than just a robot or a golem (as opposed to a Gollum) fighting for the US Government. Why does Moore give Dr. M a love interest anyway, let alone two? Isn’t he interesting enough as is?
Flip from IV.8.4 to IV.10.4, and prepare to be amazed. That’s straight out of the Twilight Zone, but it’s not what Dr. Manhattan is all about. Now look at the very next page, and there’s Dr. M and Janey Slater celebrating Christmas together in 1959. On IV.11.9, even though he not only sees the future but has already lived it, he still lies to Janey Slater to keep her feelings from being hurt. Maybe that’s an emo way of looking at the big blue guy, but it’s just as important as his muscles and explosions.
And it’s what makes Watchmen another beast entirely from most other superhero comics. Moore doesn’t dwell on the nature of his powers; in fact we never know what Dr. Manhattan is or isn’t capable of, whether he can turn his fingers into laser cats or not. But we do know that the middle part of his life is filled with relationships. Now onto the beginning.
Young Jon Osterman’s childhood in Brooklyn is where he starts out and therefore, it’s the last place we’ll visit. Imagine he is 16 years old, working on his father’s pocket watch. It is August 7th, 1945, the day the US drops the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Good storytelling is all about surprise and inevitability. Since we already know what becomes of Dr. Manhattan (named after the Manhattan Project), now we see how he gets there. Jon’s father admits to his son, “My profession is a thing of the past. Instead, my son must have a future” (IV.3.7). If only he knew how right he was. In the same way our grandparents pushed our parents down certain roads and our parents nudge us to do this or that, Papa Osterman urges his son to become a nuclear physicist. Without this, young Jon would never become Dr. Manhattan.