Watchmen is the greatest superhero comic book of all time. It forms, along with Kazou Koike and Goseki Kojima’s manga Lone Wolf and Cub and Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan Gimenez’s The Metabarons, my personal holy trinity of graphic fiction. It is a dense, frustrating, moving, powerful, disappointing, valuable work of art that rewards re-reading. I’ve probably read it all the way, from beginning to end, at least four times, and there are parts of it that I’ve read ten times or more. My reactions to it tend to be based on my mood/mindset at the time of reading it.
When I wrote this essay on DC’s cynical cash grab "Before Watchmen" project I was of the opinion that it was too cold and too meticulously engineered to be emotionally engaging, haha. But I was also despairing at the state of the comics industry, and I’m much less despairing now.
And a big reason for my optimism for the future of comics has to do with DC. And their Watchmen-exploiting event comic Doomsday Clock is a huge part of that optimism.
The writer of Watchmen, Alan Moore, is our greatest living comics writer. He is a powerful creative force who clearly sees himself on a continuum of creativity that stretches back hundreds of years. Artists have always used characters and themes and events that have come before in order to illuminate the world in which they’re creating their work. Watchmen was of course based on Charlton’s characters—but even more than that, it was based on situations from Charlton comics. For instance, did you realize that the Dr Manhattan/cancer subplot came from a Captain Atom story that spanned issues 83 and 84 of his title (November 66 and January 67)?
Reprinted in the indispensable Action Heroes Archives Vol 2, featuring Ditko’s best Charlton superhero work.
Moore either plundered the works of the past as a shortcut in his storytelling, or he sought inspiration in the works of others to advance art in the modern age. Depends on your point of view. Regardless of how you feel about Moore’s work and whether or not he’s a hypocrite for decrying the use of the Watchmen universe by current DC creators, you cannot deny the fact that the Watchmen characters are DC’s Intellectual Property, to be exploited in whatever means they see fit. What we can hope for is that they use that Intellectual Property in a way that is exciting to readers and moves comics art forward.
Doomsday Clock seems to be a decent extension of the Watchmen story that is also serving the interests of commercial storytelling.
One of the most disappointing aspects of Before Watchmen was its very premise: those stories were prequels. Rather than deal with the questions raised by Ozymandias’s incredibly cynical and stupid plan to save the world, they sidestepped the messy implications in favor of telling “stories” (and yes those are sneer quotes around that word because, well—did you actually read the stuff that was published under the “Before Watchmen” banner? ugh) that had no consequence and didn’t advance the story or characters in any meaningful way. Doomsday Clock makes an attempt right from the opening page, as we see a crowd of protesters outside what we come to find is Adrain Veidt/Ozymandias’s building.
Over those images we get narration that’s lettered in a style very reminiscent of Rorschach’s. But while the lettering might at least superficially appear to the same, the voice is off. This isn’t Walter Kovacs. At least, it’s not Moore’s Walter Kovacs. Is the scripter, Geoff Johns, trying to approximate that voice and doing a bad job, or is something else going on?
Clearly this Rorschach read the original's journal ("split open the world's belly"/"tire tread on burst stomach"), but couldn't quite match his let's say "unique" vision and voice.
Johns has become one of the best comics writers working today, and he’s doing something actually really clever with the narration: giving us a Rorschach that’s not Rorschach at all, but someone pretending to be Rorschach. And, like a writer taking on a piece of Intellectual Property he doesn’t fully sympathize with, this character is off by… just a little bit.
Anyway, in a symmetrical nod to the original series we see “Rorschach” breaking into a prison to break someone out. This person is the Marionette, a new piece of Intellectual Property. Rorschach reveals that he’s not the real Rorschach at all. For one thing—this Rorschach is a person of color.
We don’t know yet why the Marionette is needed, but we do know that she won’t leave without her husband, a violent psychopath called the Mime. There are fun few sight gags based around this character, such as the bit in which the three have to sneak deeper into the prison in order to retrieve his weapons which are at best invisible and at worst—well, maybe they don’t even exist at all.
The Marionette and the Mime are, like the main Watchmen characters, based on characters that originally appeared in Charlton comics—Punch and Jewelee.
At the same time rioters are breaking into Ozymandias’s building, we see a group of heavily armed people breaking into Ozymandias’s Antarctic fortress of solitude Karnak—there they find an x-ray (conveniently still hanging on a lightbox) which appears to show a skull with a tumor in it. When Rorschach brings the Marionette and the Mime to Nite Owl’s underground headquarters we learn that his partner isn’t Nite Owl but Ozymandias—who makes a big show of saying that he has cancer.
Now, Ozymandias is a fantastically manipulative man, so there’s no way of knowing at this point whether he actually has cancer or not. He did, after, all, manage to convince people that he was the smartest man in the world—yet he came up with a hugely, massively stupid idea to save the world at the end of the original Watchmen series… so who knows?
Ozymandias reveals that, for some reason, they’ve got to find Dr Manhattan—“Wherever he’s retreated to.” At which point the scene shifts to Metropolis, where Clark Kent has a nightmare in which his Smallville parents are horribly killed. He’s never had a nightmare, apparently.
But: Perhaps most importantly, we see that Clark Kent/Superman’s bedside reading includes B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two. Oh, boy—imagine the cheek of that. A sort-of “sequel” to a classic work of literature, which deals with the creation of a utopian society. The means of creating that utopia involves engineering an environment in which human beings are made to believe they’re doing what’s in their own best interests while serving the good of the larger community.
Although utopian by today's standards, Walden Twowas (and is) controversial to the point of being labeled dystopian because of its alleged premises and practices (e.g., Krutch, 1966). Its premises are criticized for dismissing purpose, mind, and freedom, without which social justice putatively has no foundation. Its practices purportedly involved behavioral engineering and mind manipulation (Matson, 1971). Critics also allege that the premises and practices were dictated by Skinner and his science. As one critic put it, Skinner's utopian vision could “change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined” (Jessup, 1948, p. 192). These criticisms, however, miss their mark. They equate Skinner's vision with essentialist premises and practices, whereas these were assumptions or discoveries that were then demonstrated to work, not a priori features of the behavior-analytic utopia.
What does the placement of this book mean? I suppose we’ll have to wait for future issues to find out. But my guess is that Johns and Frank are alerting us to their intentions with this book.
Gary Frank isn’t the most dynamic comics illustrator. His panels don’t necessarily convey movement, but his staging and composition are fantastic, and he does an outstanding job of clearly delineating the story. It’s realized in a way that recalls Dave Gibbons’s original illustrations while managing to feel authentically new. As you can see from the scans I’ve dropped into this review, his work is an integral part of the comic’s success.
As someone who has written comics featuring licensed Intellectual Property, I can tell you that there is immense pressure from multiple sources to construct something that meets a lot of disparate needs… and not all of those needs are what you’d call “artistic.” It appears that Moore and Gibbons were not interfered with in any meaningful way by editorial or legal or marketing people (the early 80s was a different time, though—for crying out loud now EVERYTHING is potential movie/TV/video game fodder and as such EVERYTHING gets touched by some outside hands!). This can’t have been true of Doomsday Clock, which is part of a DC Universe that is vitally important to Warner Bros. The fact that this first issue manages to feel like something more important than just trademark maintenance is a real achievement.
I’m looking forward to future issues!