Heroes Never Rust #86 by Sean Ironman
Watchmen: Non-Chronological Storytelling
The fourth issue of Watchmen is a centerpiece for delving into Doctor Manhattan’s character. At the end of the third issue, he teleports to Mars. There, he builds a massive clock tower and, basically, reflects on his life. Reflect might not be the right word. Doctor Manhattan is the one vigilante with superpowers. He sees time differently than we do, with events taking place simultaneously. He is, at once, in the past, present, and future. The issue with all of this, of course, is that the reader is not Doctor Manhattan. At the end of the day, no matter how experimental a comic is or prose is, a person reads one sentence at a time, views one panel at a time, in sequence. These smaller pieces add up. Letters to words to phrases to sentences to paragraphs to pages. Even in comics, a visual medium, the reader views events in a sequence. An issue that many stories may have (comics or prose) is showing non-chronological storytelling. When your story features a character who literally views the world non-chronologically, the problem may be exacerbated. The reader needs to understand the story, regardless of whether he or she likes the story or not. Understanding the events presented is important.
Doctor Manhattan goes through his entire history from being a boy wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker to attending Princeton to meeting Janey Slater to falling in love to his accident and supposed death and eventually his rebirth as a superpowered being to becoming a vigilante and meeting Laurie, the second Silk Spectre. There are other events that I’m leaving out, too. All of this is taking place as Doctor Manhattan reflects on his life from the story’s present day on Mars. To keep track of all of these different time periods (over a few decades), the story is given a framing device of Doctor Manhattan searching/walking on Mars. The frame is returned to time and time again, actually similar to a car revving. Each time, the story leaves the frame, the story gets a little bit more confident going further into the time periods and returning to the frame less and less and jumping from time period to time period without being taken back to the present day. Readers are still firmly placed—they aren’t thrown around time, so they can keep track of events.
In visual design, like on the comic book page, a viewer/reader needs a line of sight. A viewer/reader needs to understand how to read a page—basically a line to move a viewer/reader down and across the page. A story needs a similar line. Readers need through-line to move them from scene to scene. The frame story of Doctor Manhattan on Mars is that line. It gives the reader a base to feel safe and secure. I have written about this before, but it is important for a reader to feel like the writer is in control, that the writer is not just throwing whatever is on the top of his or her head at the reader.
Comics have a bit more leeway on changing the scenery and time period suddenly because readers are capable of processing images faster than text. Just changing the colors and images between panels is enough to communicate to a reader that there has been a change in time and setting. So, comics can change scene faster and still have the reader keep track of what is going on. But, Watchmen also uses text. If there’s one thing I learned about transitions in prose (and I think this goes for nonfiction as well) is that beginning writers tend to overthink them. Elbows and knees are ugly. How many people can say that the most beautiful part of their partner is the elbow? There are exceptions, I’m sure, but the elbow serves a utilitarian purpose. It’s not meant to be beautiful. The same with transitions. Transitions are utilitarian. They serve a purpose to move the reader from one place in the story to another place in the story. Many beginner writers try to turn transitions into art. In Watchmen, readers are moved from one time period to another period in a simple manner—“It is 1985. I am on Mars. I am fifty-six years old.” You cannot really get simpler than that. Readers get the year, the place, and the age of Doctor Manhattan, the narrator. The text firmly places us into the time period. The transition is also written in a style befitting Doctor Manhattan—there is no emotion. Alan Moore uses the text as not only a transition, but also as a means for characterization. But, the transitions are not overdone. They fit the voice of the character, and they move readers from place to place. And that is it. The transitions do not do the heavy lifting. They get the job done, and the story moves on.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.