Chris Peruzzi is a comic book superhero historian who is passionate about how today's comic book heroes are the new mythology for America.
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?
To quote the Bugs Bunny cartoon, "Have you ever had the feeling you were being... watched?"
It takes a while to notice this common denominator in a lot of the science fiction stories we see in both graphic novels and in the media. Lately though, it's been as obvious as a large ripe pimple on the end of the nose of your prom date. There is a common literary device that's been used more and more since Frank Capra came up with the idea of Clarence the Angel in It's a Wonderful Life in 1946.
Somehow, somewhere, someone is always watching humanity.
Now, who would want to watch us? We're a relatively unremarkable species. We have opposable thumbs, the ability to reason, and we are capable of creating things like skyscrapers, airplanes, rockets, rock and roll music, and nuclear bombs. Douglas Adams in the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy proposed that human beings are the third smartest life forms on this planet—subordinate to dolphins and white mice. The dolphins have edged us out because they avoided creating skyscrapers, airplanes, rockets, rock and roll music, and nuclear bombs.
Nevertheless, we are an interesting species to watch, and, apparently, we need to be guided in case we decide to accidentally blow up the universe or something. I know this scares the bejesus out of some of you, but have no fear, we are being watched by a race of beings that will put the brakes on any self-destructing plans we may make before we're ready to use them.
These incredibly powerful, incredibly advanced beings are watching us outside of time and are taking notes. Plus, they're not only watching us - they are watching alternate versions of us in other dimensions for all of the alternate decisions, paths not taken, and other permutations that could happen in those scenarios. Therefore, if we screw up, there's a lesson to be learned for another alternate reality.
Most of the time, these beings have sworn an oath to not interfere with whatever we're doing. Others are watching and just monitoring our progress. Some are watching all of our histories subjectively as an observer as time is a structure from a non causality ball of wibbly-wobbily-timey-wimey . . . stuff. They see our existence as one whole event and they can insert themselves at any point in our history.
Marvel Comics calls them Watchers. DC Comics calls them Monitors. Fringe calls them Observers. Star Trek calls it The Guardian of Forever. And the Brits who enjoy a good episode of Doctor Who call them Time Lords.
Let's take a look at the people looking at us.
Marvel Comics: The Watchers
Back in 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a new character into the plot line of the Fantastic Four called "The Watcher".
The Watcher for Earth is Uatu. He watches us from the "blue area" of the moon. He's part of an intergalactic race of individuals who are so advanced we are ants to them. They have powers and abilities far beyond any of us and have god-like power. Yes, and they are immortal and have hair-cutting technology far beyond what we know today. (Seriously, is being bald part of this gig?)
Do you know what he can't do? Interfere with us.
I may have phrased that incorrectly—it's not that he "can't" do these things, it's that he has taken an oath to not do these things. His entire race took this oath because they once gave a race of people technology that they weren't ready for and they blew themselves up. Uatu is under the same restriction.
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So you know that any time that Uatu makes an appearance in any story, it's like a referee blowing his whistle during a basketball game and you really should pay attention to what he has to say.
Most of the time, we see Uatu introduce alternate timeline stories at the beginning of his "What If?" stories. He gets to watch not only what we're doing now, but what we didn't do and the repercussions of those actions—so he's pretty busy doing his job and being the universe's Rod Serling.
DC Comics: The Monitors
It only took DC Comics twenty some odd years to come up with the same concept that Marvel was toting since the sixties. Instead of Watchers, we have Monitors.
Not too much of a stretch, but just enough to avoid a copyright suit.
Actually, we have Monitors, plural, now. Just prior a couple of years prior to DC's continuity reboot in 1984, Marv Wolfman came up with a character called The Monitor —who watched everything. He was born on one of Oa's moons at the beginning of the creation of the DC multiverse. His counterpart is the Anti-monitor who was created on Qward in the anti-matter universe and is his mirror opposite.
In a battle, the two of them attacked each other and incapacitated themselves for nine billion years. When the Anti-monitor woke, he began to take over some of the positive dimensions making the Monitor weaker. As more dimensions fell, the Monitor felt a need to observe our earths to find the best and brightest to combat the Anti-monitor. This brought about The Crisis on Infinite Earths which merged all of the parallel universes into one big common universe.
The Monitor is killed in the Crisis.
Later on, the universe is split into a multiverse again—52, to be exact. With the new multiverse reboot, there was a new origin to the first Monitor which was a projection of an Overmonitor who sent him into the multiverse as a probe that got split into two beings—positive and negative—Monitor and Anti-Monitor. With the creation of the 52 earths, a new race of monitors was created to feed off of the stories that were produced by each of these earths—like vampires.
After the events of the Final Crisis and Superman's use of the Miracle Machine, the 52 Monitors get wiped out with only one surviving one to report back to the Overmonitor as its probe.
Fringe: The Observers
Any comic book fan who's watched Star Trek knows where J.J. Abrams got most of his ideas.
The Observers are the Watchers. The Fringe alternate universe is very much like the Star Trek Mirror universe (except they are alternate versions, not evil versions). With the alternate universe plotline, you need to have someone watching it.
Here we have the Observers.
While we have heard that there are many different realities in this series, we are concentrating on no more than three. These can be boiled down to decisions made in this universe versus the alternative decisions making the other universe. What do I mean by that? We have a universe where John F. Kennedy lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon. We have a universe where the character of Sherlock Holmes never existed. What path has destiny taken because of these events?
The Observers watch all of this alternate history and try to make sense of it.
Up until recently, the Observers are doing nothing but watching humanity, taking notes, and doing their best to take care of dimensional anomalies . . . like Peter Bishop. Through the interference of the Observer named September, humanity has been able to avoid some disasters. Although, it could be argued that due to the initial interference of September in helping Walter Bishop save the alternate version of Peter from drowning that he created a paradox in the two universes.
Now that we're into the fourth season of Fringe in the episode "Letters In Transit" we've found out who the Observers are. They are essentially beings that are far more evolved than humans and have destroyed the earth's resources in the year 2609. They have traveled back in time to take over the planet and turn it into a totalitarian state.
Star Trek: The Guardian of Forever
I mention this because of the necessity of an alternate reality and a controlling device.
One of the best episodes from the original Star Trek series was called "City on the Edge of Forever" by Harlan Ellison. In this episode, Kirk and the landing party encounter this . . . thing—which is not living and not a machine that allows people to travel back into history. It is much like a time-traveling device.
Doctor McCoy, due to an accidental overdose injection of cordrazine, goes insane and travels back in time to accidentally alter history so that the Federation no longer exists. So, the current landing party is trapped with the knowledge that the entire universe has changed except for them in this alternate reality.
The guardian's purpose is to observe and answer questions. And it will also allow people to travel back in time.
It does not interfere. It does nothing but record and allows passage.
For those of you who have never seen this episode, it is a classic. It guest stars Joan Collins and is one of the pivotal character-defining moments in the history of Captain Kirk.
Robert Frost spoke of the road not taken. All of these stories, one way or the other, touch on the other path.
What we have with all of these characters is a look at what might have happened. It's very much like a ringside seat on being Clarence the guardian angel in It's a Wonderful Life. George Bailey has taken his life to be a horrible failure and yet when we remove his character from history everyone's life is worse for it.
The Watchers, Observers, Monitors, and Guardians are there to tell us how things might have been different if one element of the universe changes or is removed.
It's not a great job, the hours are long, the work is tedious, and the pay is lousy . . . but someone has to do it.
There was nothing in the job description about having a weird haircut.
This device that is being used and has been used since It's a Wonderful Life. A group of extraterrestrials, be it aliens, angels, or machines is nice to have. It gives the reader a warm feeling that no matter how badly we screw up, there's another alternate dimension where a character almost exactly like us gets it right—and it's refreshing to know that someone is watching him do it.
Questions & Answers
Question: What about the Time Lords of Doctor Who maybe Jack Kirby and Stan Lee borrowed "The Watcher Race" concept of Marvel Comics from the "Time Lord Race" concept of Doctor Who when UK Marvel owned Doctor Who Monthly until the 1990s?
Answer: That is possible. It does seem to be a common thread.
© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi