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The sharpest of swords: Doomsday Clock #1-3 (review)

The sharpest of swords: Doomsday Clock #1-3
DC Comics, February 2018
Writer: Geoff Johns

We have read promotional interviews relating to Doomsday Clock #1 (published by US publisher DC Comics), and more specifically, those interviews with Geoff Johns, the writer who purports to advance Alan Moore’s comic, Watchmen. It is akin to observing a novice sword-swallower talk himself into the task of sliding a steel blade down his own throat.

Here is an extract of an interview Mr Johns gave to CBR:

We’re really trying to do a story that is both honoring what Watchmen is, honoring what DC is, and doing something that’s all our own at the same time. Something that you’re going to read, and because there aren’t a million crossovers and there’s not a million other books tied to it, you’re going to go, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’ve got no idea. But I want to read.” And hopefully when you’ve read issue #2 — first off, hopefully it took you a while, and you’re going to go back and read it again. Because there’s so much stuff in there, and there are a lot of layers to the characters, a lot of layers to the story, a lot of things that people are going to miss, a lot of things that people are going to probably have to stop and look up, that are both from our world and the DC lore.

The way we read this comment is that there is no arrogance in Mr Johns’ voice, but that instead his comments reek of self-doubt.

Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty

As there should be – the hand which holds this particular scabbard should uncontrollably tremble. Watchmen is no ordinary comic book:

a. in 1988 it received a Hugo Award. The Hugo Awards are the world’s preeminent science fiction awards.

b. in 1988, Watchmen won four Eisner Awards: Alan Moore was awarded best writer for his work on Watchmen. The Eisner Awards are the world’s preeminent awards for comic books;

c. in 1987, Watchmen won three Jack Kirby Awards for Achievement in Comic Books – awarded prior to its release;

d. In 2003 Time Magazine listed Watchmen amongst its 100 best novels since 1923.

e. As noted by Wired magazine it is the best selling graphic novel of all time.

A summary of the innovative storytelling techniques in Watchmen was well-articulated in Slate magazine in 2009:

A fourth dimension is opened up when a comic book about pirates being read by the freeloading kid at the newsstand becomes part of the narrative, amplifying and commenting on the action. Visual details linger from scene to scene, linking disparate locations and characters; conversations started by one character are finished by another; and every detail, every image, every sentence seems to contain the entire DNA of the story. There is no center because it’s all center. The lurid violence of the superhero plotline is overshadowed by truly heroic acts of forgiveness, selflessness, and the facing of hard truths by characters who would normally barely merit a glance in an issue of Batman.

So why is Mr Johns attempting to revive Mr Moore’s work? Wired Magazine reported in 2010 that DC Comics offered the rights in Watchmen to Mr Moore if he agreed to write prequels and sequels to the story:

“DC Comics co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee said, “Watchmen is the most celebrated graphic novel of all time. Rest assured, DC Comics would only revisit these iconic characters if the creative vision of any proposed new stories matched the quality set by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons nearly 25 years ago, and our first discussion on any of this would naturally be with the creators themselves.””

But Mr Moore refused, utterly contemptuous of his former employer and its ongoing exploitation of Watchmen, which Mr Moore, in essence, regards as a breach of an undocumented agreement over control of the text. Wired Magazine noted in conclusion,

“… if you’re looking for prequels or sequels to the Watchmen comic or film, you might want to see an optometrist first. Because it’s probably going to be a while before you see anything at all.”

And so, seven years after Wired’s assessment, Mr Johns has bravely stepped onto the stage.

Doomsday Clock takes its name from the simple clock icon which was extensively used in Watchmen, measuring the time to apocalypse with the swing of its minute hand. This in turn references the symbolic clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which dramatically warns humanity of the minutes to nuclear midnight. In Doomsday Clock, the clock icon from Watchmen has been replicated, but with a Superman symbol fixed at twelve. On the face of it, that clumsy intertwining signals a disaster of creative judgement.

The dire prequels

To extend our sword-swallowing analogy, to look at the results of precious efforts to adapt the work, Watchmen is more a scimitar than a straight blade. A prior, meeker endeavour skewered notable victims through the chest. In 2012, DC Comics launched Watchmen prequels, penned by writers with significant reputations such as Brian Azzarello, Len Wein, J. Michael Straczynski, and Darwyn Cooke. As a consequence of being prequels, these stories were designed not to interfere in the Schrodinger’s Cat conclusion to Watchmen, because they predated the climax of the story. The comics instead explored the characters’ respective histories.

Slate’s assessment of these prequels was dripping with contempt:

Rorschach and Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan have been raised from their resting place, and Moore—and the rest of us—now get to watch them stagger around, dripping bits of themselves across the decades, until everyone has utterly forgotten that they ever had souls.

The LA Times was barely more polite:

If the people who commissioned these comics really wanted to pay tribute to Watchmen, perhaps they could have tried to reproduce the circumstances of its birth: giving gifted writers and artists the latitude to make something new and fresh in its tone and execution. Instead, they’ve saddled those creators with extending a groundbreaking work into a glossy but lifeless franchise.

Fast Company said, in respect of the prequels:

Sure, an impressive roster of industry professionals has signed up work on the prequels, but the downside likelihood of disappointing the audience is huge–especially an audience that may already have the knives out because of the ethical issues at stake. It’s also important to note that people’s affection for Watchmen is based on the tour-de-force nature of work itself and not necessarily the characters, which makes the franchise a bit more fragile than, say, Batman, which can obviously survive a little bit of rough treatment now and then.

And Forbes magazine noted,

“I’m terrified that the original story will get watered down to the point that in a few years, my son will be begging me to watch the new Watchmen cartoon. I really don’t want to see that happen.”

Death, knives, terror, or blood are the recurring themes in these critiques. (Almost three decades later and the sword is still sharp. ) In 2012 The Guardian newspaper reported that DC Comics’ then chief editor Dan DiDio was compelled in 2012 to defend the prequel comics in the media, but he noted “even our own internal staff were having problems with it”.

The stories themselves in the prequels were for the most part not bad. But they were blunt replicates of the masterpiece, condemned as fakes by the master.

American Peace

There was one other notable effort by DC Comics to replicate Watchmen, called Pax Americana, written by the esoteric Grant Morrison. The single issue was published in November 2014. No second issue ever followed the first. There is no surprise to that: Pax Americana was a remarkably complex work. The single issue took two years to create. It is a fitting salute to Mr Moore’s work on Watchmen. It utterly stunned many critics, as we noted at the time it was published. Mr Morrison successfully swallowed the sword, in our view. But it was done as a homage by technique, not as a direct interference in the franchise itself or its story. Mr Morrison used the characters upon which Mr Moore based his character. He did not purport to add to the Watchmen canon, and thereby damage its creative integrity and the masterful ambiguity of its conclusion.

The problem with Geoff Johns

We have been very skeptical of Mr Johns’ writing in the past. Mr Johns is prone to sensationalist and immature plots. We have previously noted his terrible work on Justice League #50, featuring a weaponised baby which shoots lightning from its face upon command. It was a nadir in a genre not especially renown for its creative literary quality.

Despite a significant output, little of Mr Johns’ work to date is in our view likely to be ever considered or remembered as classic writing.

Assuming the sequel is fit to be written, Mr Johns is on the face of it not fit to write it.

The Rorschach Test

In issue #1 of Doomsday Clock, we see the reappearance of Rorschach. This character, a psychotic, uncompromising, ultra-moralistic superhero, was killed at the conclusion of Watchmen. It quickly evolves that this Rorschach is not the original: the man behind the fluid mask is actually black. The original Rorschach was a white man with red hair.

Mr Moore’s version of Rorschach had a bleak, unique origin which is not easily replicated. Of all the characters in the Watchmen cast, this one is in our view the most difficult to capture, because of the unique, deeply troubled mix of brutal violence and stark morality.

On the basis of the first issue, we assumed that this new person under the mask and fedora was Rorschach’s prison psychiatrist. At the end of issue seven of Watchmen, Mr Moore quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “Look not into the abyss, for the abyss also looks into you.” Rorschach’s account, during therapy in prison, of the brutalities he witnessed, and which destroyed his sanity, plainly traumatised his psychiatrist, who horrifies his wife and friends with a recount of Rorschach’s story of a dismembered baby fed to dogs. The abyss stared back.

Rorschach’s madness has indeed spread like a contagion, but as it evolves in the second issue, not to the doctor but instead to a man driving a car when Adrian Veidt’s monster was teleported into the middle of New York.

How the new Rorschach is imbued with the madness of the original is unknown. The epilogue background material to each issue – a meta fictional plot device from Mr Moore’s original – suggests that the original Rorschach’s diary was stolen. We assume the thief is the new Rorschach and that the man’s psyche was adversely affected by reading the diary.

While the character certainly has violent tendencies – at the conclusion of issue three, Rorschach threatens to gouge out Batman’s eyes – the character also comes across as vague. He mistakes a book in his interior jacket pocket for a fork, and is never sure what the time is. Rorschach’ cooperation with Batman, Veidt, as well as with the Mime and Marionette (see below) is almost benign, and sometimes a little confused. This might be a consequence of exposure to Veidt’s telepathic monster: it certainly killed many people but did it also addle the brains of others? Or it might be that Mr Johns is trying to create a small amount of space between the old Rorschach and the new Rorschach.

There is the paranoia, but not the same sense of unforgiving brutality. Until the final page of the third issue, the dialogue suggests a kinder, quite muddled Rorschach. That in our view was a good tactical call by Mr Johns. The writer has resisted the temptation of laziness, to create a character which identically cloned the cyclopic violence of the original. Instead, there is an unknown element. Mr Johns has introduced an element of intrigue into this new Rorschach.

Silence and Strings

Mr Johns introduces two very good characters in the first issue: The Mime and Marionette. The Mime in particular is quite mad. Rorschach helps both character escape from prison, and their departure is delayed by the Mime’s urgent need to gather “special” weapons which are stored in a locker. Rorschach reluctantly allows the escape’s side trip to retrieve the Mime’s weapons to occur, even as alarms are screaming and their window of opportunity to escape is closing. But the Mime’s belt, guns, and holsters are imaginary: he puts on a belted holster and places imaginary guns into each of them. Even Rorschach is bemused by what he has witnessed.

It is not until the third issue that we learn the truth: the guns (and knives which the Mime also carries) are, terrifyingly, invisible. A pistol in the Mime’s hand is vaguely observed in the lingering smoke after its discharge. And as for the Marionette, she wields an almost invisible razor-sharp garrotte. The Marionette controls the string: the string does not control her. This is a very clever.

And the bank robbery at the beginning of the issue, featuring the Mime and the Marionette, is extremely well-written. It even features snappy gallows humour: the Marionette removes the index finger of the odious bank manager, only to learn that his palm print opens the safe door, leaving the plainly frustrated Marionette to ask her terrified hostages where the severed finger rolled to on the floor.

Ozymandias’ Tumour

Watchmen‘s mastermind villain, Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias), is present in the series, working with Rorschach. Veidt reveals that he is suffering from terminal brain cancer. Veidt’s remedy in Watchmen to save the world by uniting it against a faked alien threat which wiped out a big chunk of the population of Manhattan has been revealed.

This is perhaps the saddest consequence of Doomsday Clock. Schrodinger’s Cat is dead, after all, and Watchmen‘s concluding illusion of dancing on the edge of a knife is shattered.

Veidt is now the world’s most wanted man, as he should be for the atrocity he has committed. Having manipulated Dr Manhattan, a god-like being evolved from (and only merely shaped like) a man, to leave the Earth, Veidt decides that he must bring Dr Manhattan back. This is in order to achieve the fix to the world’s problems which Veidt failed to deliver. There is an implied sense conveyed to the reader by Veidt’s dinged pride and desperation that Veidt is trying to achieve this before his brain cancer kills him. Mr Johns conveys this sentiment with nuance.

It is Veidt’s dimension-hopping modification of the flying owl-shaped vehicle owned by Nite-Owl (who has not appeared in the series) that conveys Rorschach, Veidt, the Mime and the Marionette to DC Comics’ mainstream continuity Earth, just as the New York of Watchmen is reduced to flame by a nuclear missile.

Mr Johns must bring the cast together to create action, and executes this necessary plot advancement not so well. Why does a dimension-breaking device need to be stored in a flying vehicle? Could the bright door which opens into the parallel universe where Dr Manhattan has found refuge have just been replicated in Nite-Owl’s basement? Mr Johns has resorted to the Back to the Future (1985) cliche in this advancement – that travel to another dimension involves actual travel. And why have a bright gaping square in the sky represent an interdimensional portal anyway? The novel and fascinating manner of “rolling cloud disappearance” of the aliens in the motion picture Arrival (2016) was an instantly iconic science fiction departure: none of its subtle mystery has rubbed off on Mr Johns’ yellow glowing window. This is merely an embellishment of the Silver Age Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill, a very silly mechanism enabling the speedster superhero to travel in time.

The Comedian Problem

By issue two we have the improbable return of the Comedian, and issue three (sort of) explains how the Comedian was saved by the god-like Dr Manhattan. The Comedian’s involvement is very problematic, and not just because of the emphatic manner of the character’s death in Mr Moore’s original work.

Mr Johns has resolved to weld the events and characters of Watchmen into the mainstream continuity of DC Comics, featuring the altruistic sunshine of Superman and other do-gooders. Excluding periodic, faddish, and reversed excursions into dark characterisation (notably, killing three criminals, leading to amnesia and a nervous breakdown in 1987, and the character’s murder in 1992), Superman traditionally and typically engages in ultimately harmless punch-ups with super villains, a genre element typical of the naive and silly Silver Age of American comic books (c. 1955-1972) alluded to earlier.

In comparison, the amoral and ruthless Comedian in Watchmen shot his heavily pregnant girlfriend in the chest after she lacerates his face to the bone with a broken bottle. Early in Watchmen we witness the rape of a character called Sally Spectre by the Comedian. Mixing Watchmen and DC Comics’ mainstream continuity, the sort of thing often read by pre-teens, seems prima facie self-destructive.

As so we, in the first issue, witness Superman as a bespectacled teen, miserable at a school dance. His romantic interest, Lana Lang, is dancing with Superman’s best friend Pete Ross. Nothing can harm Superman, his parents note as they drive away after delivering him to the dance. But that dialogue overlays the image of the young man seated on a bench in a music-filled school gymnasium, wearing an ill-fitting suit, utterly broken-hearted. This is no doubt a foundation stone to some later subplot about Superman’s emotional make-up: how he is alien but more human than his peers. This sequence in issue 1 is hasty and unoriginal.

A forlorn teenaged Superman is however a startling counterpoint to the Comedian’s sinister appearance in issue 2, stepping out of the shadows in the office penthouse of villain Lex Luthor’s skyscraper headquarters. The Comedian wields a high powered rifle with a laser sight. He is intent on avenging his previous defeat at the hands of Veidt, and unlike the banter typical of comic book villains, does not mess about. Luthor is shot in the abdomen. Veidt suffers a head wound and only escapes by throwing himself through a window in Luthor’s tower – a clever mirror of Watchmen’s opening action famously depicting Veidt throwing the Comedian through a high rise window to his apparent death. Mr Johns writes the Comedian’s reaction well: the character seems to appreciate the irony, and openly respects Veidt’s skills in surviving the drop.

How can Mr Johns possibly fuse these two starkly different concepts into one plot? DC Comics has had Superman interact with quite terrifying characters such as the Joker. But how can a shared continuity accommodate both the idealistic Superman and the amoral Comedian?

Perhaps it is fair to say that DC Comics’ tone has changed to the point that even its mainstream titles are as gritty as Watchmen. We have seen DC Comics’ mainstream titles such as Identity Crisis (2004) feature rape. But has the altruistic tone of superhero comics washed out to the point that the characters of Watchmen can be absorbed without friction?

Slate recounts a quotation from Mr Moore:

“The thing that I most regretted about Watchmen: That something that I saw as a very exciting celebratory thing seemed to become a kind of hair shirt that the super-hero had to wear forever after. … [T]hey’ve all got to be miserable and doomed. That was never what me and Dave intended.”

DC Comics’ superheroes now all must wear that hair shirt. The better analogy is that Rorschach’s affliction is indeed very contagious and with Doomsday Clock has spilled over into DC Comics’ much broader pool of characters.

The Comedian’s survival from his fall is explained by Dr Manhattan’s intervention. How his body nonetheless appeared on the streets of New York is not apparent, and neither is Dr Manhattan’s motivation in saving the Comedian and dragging him into the dimension of Superman and Batman.

Issue 3 is most notable for the interesting interaction between Batman and Rorschach. This meeting is the one which, perhaps, was most anticipated by DC Comics’ readership. Rorschach is clever enough to work out that billionaire Bruce Wayne, identified by Veidt as one of the smartest men on the planet, has a secret under his mansion. Rorschach does what no one else has: he breaks into the Batcave, and eats Batman’s breakfast.

Mr Johns resists the urge to have this result into a stereotypical superhero fight between the two. Instead, Rorschach gives Batman the diary of Kovacs, the original Rorschach, to read by way of explanation. Batman’s reaction to that is to dupe Rorschach into a cell in the grim mental institution, Arkham Asylum. From his cell, Rorschach offers Batman the opportunity to apologise and release Rorschach from captivity. But Batman, aloof and certain of his decision, walks away without looking back or pause.

This hubris sets the scene for future confrontation. Rorschach broke the Mime and the Marionette out of a mental facility and so has a proven track record in jailbreak. He knows Batman’s secret identity, and is cunning. The best guess is that Batman will pay dearly for the decision to trick Rorschach. Mr Johns constructs the springboard for future animosity with skill. As Batman smoothly tricks Rorschach, Mr Johns smoothly tricks the reader.

“The New DC – There’s No Stopping Us Now”

We think it is no coincidence that the initials of “Doomsday Clock” are “DC”. Mr Johns occupies the role of Chief Creative Officer in the organisation. DC Comics’ tonal origins of “Detective Comics” are being erased with this title. When in issue 2 the Marionette finds a bottle of Nostalgia perfume (the brand featured prominently in Watchmen as an indicia of Veidt’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist) amongst her effects, she contemptuously notes that it stopped being sold years ago. Mr Johns plainly tells us where he is going, and not just with this particular title.

Our conclusion surprises even your reviewer. Should DC Comics have allowed a sequel to Watchmen? The answer is, naturally, of course not. But having done it, is it good? The answer to that is Mr Johns has done an excellent job on this title. He has thus far mastered sword-swallowing. The first three issues are well-worth reading. But more broadly, this series is a cultural pivot for the publisher. The Silver Age has never seemed so far away.