Watchmen #4 and The Structure of Time

It’s rather intimidating to write analytically about Watchmen. The comic series/graphic novel is one of the greatest of all-time and is perhaps the most influential book in the medium. There have been countless essays, papers, videos, and more written and published about it. So instead of talking about Watchmen as a whole and dissecting what it did for comics and trying to make sense of its many themes, I’m going to focus on one specific issue. Watchmen #4 is my personal favorite of the series, and maybe my favorite single issue of all-time. It is the “Doctor Manhattan” issue, in which we get an origin story for him and a glimpse inside the mind of the all-powerful blue being. More than that, though, is the way that writer Alan Moore (and illustrator/letterer Dave Gibbons & colorist John Higgins) use time itself to structure the emotional beats and overall narrative of the issue.

“In twelve seconds time, I drop the photograph to the sand at my feet, walking away. It’s already lying there, twelve seconds into the future. Ten seconds now.”

This single quote, appearing in the second panel of the first page, sets up much of the thesis for this issue. It introduces the idea that though time (or a timeline) may occur linearly, it doesn’t necessarily occur singularly. Using the photograph as an example Manhattan explains that it already exists where it will in the future while being in his hand in the present. This is taken a step further when he says that the same photograph is still in the frame he retrieved it from twenty-seven hours before the present (Manhattan being on Mars).

The idea that things have their place in space and time, and that these places exist simultaneously is a large concept and it’s used to explore how Manhattan views the world. The issue explores several different time periods over 28 pages and does so by using repetitive phrasing to establish time and location. The establishment of these times and locations come from Manhattan himself and are devoid of any real emotion about the events. He is simply stating what happened and when.

Watchmen #4
Image via DC Comics / Written by Alan Moore, Illustrated & Lettered by Dave Gibbons, Colored by John Higgins

The use of repetition with establishing times makes it easier for the reader to follow events, and also allows events we’ve already seen, or have yet to see, to stand out in readers’ minds even if they aren’t what’s being shown on the page. For instance, Manhattan mentions a fight he will be having with Janey before we see it, but then when we get to the fight his narration also makes mention of past events we’ve already seen. This blur of past, present, and future further emphasizes that Manhattan is experiencing all of these events simultaneously, which further illustrates the idea that time doesn’t happen singularly.

Early in the issue, we get a glimpse at how far-reaching Manhattan’s powers of observation are when he first enters the bar that will eventually contain the photograph he retrieves. Upon entering, prior to his accident, he gets a strong feeling of déjà vu as the art shows him in the building after his accident. The moment lasts an instant and he doesn’t comprehend what it was, but it works to illustrate that because of his accident, his entire life is and always will be happening simultaneously to him.

One thing Watchmen is famous for is the use of the nine-panel grid. This issue, of course, continues that, with the notable exceptions being the combining of panels to make larger images for significant moments. However, even when this happens the overall shape and size of the page layouts stay true to the nine-panel grid form factor. The use of the nine-panel grid gives Gibbons and Higgins an incredible amount of storytelling real estate and the pair shine with it. Every detail, character emotion, landscape, set-piece, and word is rendered immaculately and is all in service of the story. Higgins colors are especially standout during all of the scenes that take place on Mars, with the pink sand contrasting brilliantly against the bright blue of Manhattan himself.

Watchmen #4 9 panel page
Image via DC Comics / Written by Alan Moore, Illustrated & Lettered by Dave Gibbons, Colored by John Higgins

The grid also allows for moments that don’t take place near each other in time to be as closely connected as possible and have it make perfect sense. Pages can traverse scenes that take place days, years, and decades apart in a single row of panels. This allows the story to hit various emotional beats in rapid-fire succession while again emphasizing that to us, and Manhattan, that these events are happening simultaneously.

Manhattan mentions that though he can observe the past, present, and future, he cannot change it. That it’s already set in motion and for all his power he is powerless to stop it. This is true in a meta and literal sense. The pages of the comic are indeed already set in motion and in that regard, the past, present, and future of the story exist simultaneously and cohesively in the bound book (or digital copy) you hold when reading it. We, like Manhattan, can observe the whole of the story, we can skip around to the end or the beginning, but we cannot change it.

“Things have their shape in time, not space alone. Some marble blocks have statues embedded in their future.”

This is my favorite quote in the issue and the one that continues to ring around my head the most. Is it irrefutably true? Is everything already set in motion with our pasts and futures existing right now, unbeknownst but unhindered by our present? Is that famous marble statue destined to be chiseled out or can something come along and change it? I won’t fool myself or you into thinking I have the answers to these questions, but the fact that I have these questions to ask because of this issue is something I’m grateful for. The concepts explored within these 28 pages are vast, and to wrap it up in the story of one man’s life, within the context of an even larger story is nothing short of astounding. For those reasons and more, Watchmen #4 remains my single favorite issue of comics ever.

Watchmen #4
Image via DC Comics / Written by Alan Moore, Illustrated & Lettered by Dave Gibbons, Colored by John Higgins