Watchmen #3: The Judge of All The Earth
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins
I know that you’re probably looking at this piece thinking “Ugh. Watchmen, and particularly ‘The Judge of All The Earth,’ has been talked about to death. I swear, if this is another analysis of The Black Freighter theme, I will scream.”
I know you thought that, because I did, too. This particular chapter has been done to absolute death and acts as a throne of worship for Moore’s subtlety and foreshadowing for the rest of the series. But honestly, I found new life in this chapter by realizing one thing: for a series held so holy by comic book fans, the characters are actually made painfully dull and unimaginative by recognizing the fact that, while each person in the chapter lives and acts on idea that they have it all figured out in one way or another, they know absolutely nothing aside from their own selfish, or self-serving, viewpoints. (Yes, even UberGod McBlueballs, Doctor Manhattan.)
The chapter sets itself up for this kind of analysis. Moore, in all his crazy wisdom, basically lays the idea out flat by having a particular focus on the ever-charming Bernard, the newsstand vendor. Throughout the issue, there’s a combined five pages of Bernard going off on tangents about how his opinions on the impending war with Russia, the news of Doctor Manhattan, and the state of the world should be paramount because he sees the news before anyone else in the world does. The chapter even opens with him talking about how nothing can get past the people who sell the news:“I’m a newsvendor goddamnit!” he says, “I’m informed on the situation!”
Clearly he’s painting himself stupid with delusions of grandeur – all because he gets different stacks of paper every morning before anyone else and has all of the information – not dissimilar to the thought process of characters like Doctor Manhattan, who have the world at their fingertips in a more literal sense. While it may seem like the humorous ramblings of a side character running parallel to the ‘real’ drama involving Silk Spectre and Doc Manhattan, Bernard’s tangents instead present a singular picture of the mindset of the overwhelming majority of other characters present.
Never mind The Black Freighter as a plot device; this self-righteous old goat is clearly the real metaphor for what’s actually happening.
Sure enough, this realization was followed by Jon (now “Doctor Manhattan”) in the next scene, where he is… kind of having sex with Silk Spectre…? Well, having sex in the sense of, he made two copies of himself to spit-roast her while he busied his original self with work under the guise of “I thought you’d like it”… and then doesn’t realize why that might be a problem.
Not only did I understand this from Laurie’s perspective — the idea that the intimacy and trust she craved from Jon had been stripped after the accident that made him Doctor Manhattan in the first place — but I genuinely got angry at all the gall of Doc to assume the needs of his lover.
All of that is intentional in the scene, obviously, as this is the turning point that ultimately ends their relationship. However, it’s all written from a perspective meant to sympathize with Manhattan, not Laurie: he’s a God, he’s more or less omnipotent, and he doesn’t know how to exist among humans and their emotions anymore. (Cue the blue guy sitting existentially on a space rock, as I roll my eyes.)
I can preemptively hear the Watchmen Cult fanboys raving in my Twitter mentions, like, “But Laurie has her faults, too! She doesn’t even try to understand things from Manhattan’s perspective!” While this is not untrue, Laurie’s faults and inability to look into other perspectives fall secondary to the amount of abuse she takes throughout the series from characters like Manhattan – who have a literally godlike ability to see the needs of others and choose to ignore them for their benefit. For an omnipotent being that has the ability to know all there is to know within multiple universes, I find it very difficult to believe that Manhattan doesn’t possess the ability to know why the emotions of his loved one are not only valid, but something to be looked into with the heart that he still has.
Of course, because it’s Alan Moore writing, this continues to go by the wayside, if not into a grey area, hammered in further by Dan “Nite Owl” Dreiberg asking Laurie if she’s just blowing things out of proportion. Maybe she’s just not seeing things from Jon’s point of view.
While I can appreciate that Moore likes to play for being multifaceted in his characters, in this case it includes Dan being the “uninformed but well-meaning” angle as a contrast. I get it. I understand the intent, but I really have to question if he actually serves that role by being blissfully ignorant or if it’s just Moore using smoke and mirrors to make us believe that all of the ignorance as a whole is intentional. I call shenanigans on all of it and it just makes it all seem even more toxic.
Don’t get me wrong, though. My point is not just a pro-women ramble on how Laurie gets shit on for amusement and hollow plot progression in this chapter. (If not the entire book.) Although that, honestly, seems like enough to me. I felt the same way about Doctor Manhattan’s lack of awareness when reading his television interview portion of the chapter. It’s brought to his attention that his interactions with previous friends and lovers has given them cancer and, instead of using his wisdom and all-knowingness to navigate and mitigate the very public situation, he melts down.
Sure, I can understand an idea of the pressure surrounding his particular brand of celebrity, but for what reason does his meltdown happen if he is not able to understand emotion anymore? If he is not able to truly grasp the weight of individual human feelings after his accident, then a breakdown of that magnitude (and the subsequent temper tantrum that strands him on a space rock) would be completely uncharacteristic compared to knowing how badly he hurt his loved ones by showing the same carelessness.
Does God get to be that picky in a fictional universe or is this just poor writing?
Perhaps this was purposeful on Moore’s part to hammer in the severity of impending doom, as the John Everyman gives in to uncertainty in the face of demise. More than anything, though, I see it as a mark of not only the laziness of what the Watchmen universe considers “superheroes”, but also the ignorance of those who revere Moore as a progressive voice for what the world needed at the time, and even — to an extent — now.
Of course, the real peak point of the chapter for me is the ending: Russia is dropping bombs in the Middle East. The end is, indeed, nigh, and the only person to not become wrapped up in their own nonsense is surprisingly my dear Bernard, who admits that not even he know everything. There is nothing in the situation that he could have predicted, and he gives up guessing; even going so far as to give away his newsie cap and tell the man from the corner not to worry about paying for his book because life is too short.
To be completely frank: after reading over it another few times, Bernard is the only one who actually admits that the all-knowing pedestal he had built for himself was much too high. If the side-character and “every man” of the series is able to do that while the heroes are stubbornly throwing temper tantrums, why do we still regard the Watchmen in their entirety as the focal points of this chapter when there is no growth?
The quote used to close things off is from the Book of Genesis, saying “Shall not the judge of earth do right?” Despite relishing in how much this quote feels apropos in proving my point, I think one that would have been much more fitting is: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know only one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
Chloe Maveal has written all over the comics internet – including pieces published by Polygon, WomenWriteAboutComics and The MNT. Chloe’s also the Culture Editor-at-Large for The Gutter Review. You can find them on Twitter here!
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