Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank
Colorist: Brad Anderson
Letterer: Rob Leigh
[This title was provided to us by DC comics in advance of its release. The review that follows is spoiler-free.]
I never wanted a Watchmen sequel. When I first started reading comics I was– and really, still am– of the belief that stories are best when they have a beginning and an ending. Like a shooting star casting through one’s field of vision, it comes in, twinkles and sparks, and passes over the horizon. And among all the stars of those first comics I read, Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen burned the brightest.
While Watchmen wasn’t a perfect work—I don’t think such a thing exists—it was bold and coherent with its message. Moore and Gibbons knew exactly what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it. The precision of the story and their understanding of its characters are undeniable. And for all its structural trappings, the best part of Watchmen was that it never overstayed its welcome.
But here we are, several decades later, on the eve of the release of Doomsday Clock #1, Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s new installment in the Watchmen universe. Branded as a story where the characters from Watchmen meet the DC universe, it is perhaps equally apt to call it what Jim Lee did this past summer—a “sequel” to Moore’s and Gibbons’ seminal work.
And that’s troubling for me on several levels. From a simple narrative perspective, I feel like the arcs on most of the characters in the Watchmen universe are complete ones—yes, as Dr. Manhattan says, nothing really ever ends, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that continuing the story would be revelatory to the reader.
Then there’s the human issue. The legal rights issue. The one pundits and industry insiders have been litigating in public for decades now. The one where, as the story goes, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were either screwed out of their rights to Watchmen by DC or were the unfortunate losers of a situation neither party realized would ever occur at the time of their contract’s signing—the way the story slants very much depends on where you fall on the issue. Either way, it’s a well-known fact that Moore didn’t, and doesn’t, want more stories told with Watchmen characters. But he’s not in a legal position of power to enforce the position.
And with those issues in mind, my position on Doomsday Clock should be relatively self-evident, but in truth, it isn’t. I’m conflicted. This is an issue that nags and pulls at me every time I think about anything involving Watchmen. I think it’s awful that DC’s relationship with Moore (and Gibbons to some extent) is so sour. And in an industry where more often than not, creators have historically been sidelined in favor of publishers’ bottom lines, in a fight like this one, my inclination is to side with Moore.
Moreover, in 2012, DC released Before Watchmen, a set of Watchmen prequels. Those books, in a final analysis, were half-cocked. If we’re being blunt, they felt closer to plays for fans’ wallets on the basis of nostalgia than they did to stories with their own messages. Thus, history is not on DC’s side for making a Watchmen universe story work.
That all said, I can’t help but think that Doomsday Clock #1 poses a captivating question: if the Watchmen universe is the embodiment of a cynical world, what happens when it butts up against the “hopeful” universe Johns has branded the current DC Universe as? Which worldview is ultimately stronger?
It’s a question of extremes that many of us find ourselves living out right now, as we look at competing, seemingly incompatible philosophies that pit protectionism against globalism. It’s one that the opening pages of Doomsday Clock examine in the first issue’s most overt homage to Watchmen, as we pan up from a doom-saying sign to a mob storming the offices of Adrian Veidt, Rorschach’s journal describing the context of the scene unfolding before us.
Strangely—or perhaps unsurprisingly—the elements of Doomsday Clock that most overtly homage Watchmen are the parts of this book that work the least for me. I don’t think the creative team nails the tone of Rorschach’s journal writing in the opening pages. And while you could explain some of that dissonance away via some other information presented to us in this comic, words like “undeplorables” feel too much like buzzwords than substantive critique.
Obviously the narration is meant to connect the events of this story to the events unfolding in modern America, but the excerpts here beat the nail over the head in a way that the original Rorschach’s journal entries didn’t. Those original screeds, while prescriptive about the way society worked, were simultaneously personal. Things like using the dog carcass in the alley as a metaphor for the reality of his city; like holding his father and President Truman up as paragons of “good men.” These entries taught us as much about Rorschach as they did about the world around him. They presented a specific perspective, whereas Doomsday Clock’s entry feels more like a gruff omni-present narrator bluntly laying out the situation facing the world. The personal elements—the most important parts—are lost, here.
The same is true of the text-based interstitials that appear in Doomsday Clock #1. Now granted, I found things like excerpts from Hollis Mason’s in universe biography, Under the Hood, to be somewhat grating to read in the original Watchmen. For whatever reason, it’s hard for my brain to switch to a predominantly textual way of consuming information when I’m in the middle of reading something mostly visual. But I do think those essay passages and interviews were important in the original Watchmen because they shaded interesting parts of the universe that we otherwise wouldn’t get to see. To be honest, I wouldn’t have blinked if the creative team had just dropped the interstitials completely in Doomsday Clock, but since they didn’t, I wish that they had presented us with newspaper clippings that did more than just reiterate Ozymandias’ failures to us. I wish they had told us something about some of the new characters introduced in Doomsday Clock #1, for example.
But not all of Doomsday Clock’s attempts to channel Watchmen fall flat. Artist Gary Frank, in conjunction with colorist Brad Anderson, do a singular job of channeling the artistic style that made Gibbons’ work in Watchmen so memorable. Everything you loved (or maybe just what I loved) about Gibbons’ wonderful nine panel grid layouts are all here—the tight focus in action sequences, intensely detailed facial expressions, and moment-to-moment transitions galore. While many have channeled the legacy of Watchmen through their use of the nine panel grid in storytelling—Tom King and his collaborators are perhaps the most obvious examples at the moment—there’s something special about seeing this style and approach applied once more to the content that made it famous, but with a twist.
And in this twist of characterization, the reason why Johns would find tackling Moore’s legacy in spite of the hairy issues it raises becomes clearer. Over the years, Johns has become known as something of a doctor for DC properties he considers under-served– Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, Aquaman, are just some of the more successful characters that he is considered to have helped repair the reputations of over the years. Reinvented them, so to speak, much in the same way that Moore and Gibbons reinvented Charlton Comics characters for the original Watchmen series. And while Rorschach’s character may not have needed a reinvention in a vacuum, there’s evidence to indicate that the way the public interprets Rorschach has become skewed in a way that may necessitate a response. So if Johns thinks he has the answer to this problem, I’m willing to hear him out.
So in the end, our discussion of Doomsday Clock comes back to the beginning. It comes back to premise. And again, when it comes to premise, I remain hesitant about this series. Several of the more overt homages to Watchmen in Doomsday Clock #1 fall flat. They do the book something of a disservice, really, because Doomsday Clock is much more impressive when it uses Watchmen as an inspiration than as a guidebook. The deconstructive, meta-fictional question the creative team poses through Doomsday Clock is its most subtextual, yet easily its best usage of the Watchmen brand. The original characters introduced here and their morbid senses of humor feel much more natural and refreshing than another lecture about how there are bad people on “both sides.” And finally, the small peek that we do get to see of the DC Universe is easily Johns writing at his best, giving us a cliffhanger as chilling as touching steel on a winter’s day.
Whether Doomsday Clock ends up being worth it in the end will depend on whether or not it was worth it to overtly bring the Watchmen into the DC universe instead of indirectly channeling the tone, style, and characterizations of Moore’s and Gibbons’ work into a story that only takes place in the DC Universe. And that’s not an assessment I’m prepared to make at this time. If you’re inclined to dismiss Doomsday Clock out of premise, I don’t think that anything here will change your mind. But Johns, Frank, Anderson, and Leigh do make a valiant first attempt to climb the critical mountain they’ve built for themselves here, and in my eyes, they get further than I initially expected that they might.