Doomsday Clock (2017-2019) by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank

WATCHMEN was a bona fide literary comic, a standalone deconstruction of superheroes, of masked protectors, a pulling-apart of self-appointed hierarchies and relinquished responsibilities. It challenged the reader, not just through the artistry of it all, but the ethical ambiguities and questions it raised. For decades it was left alone – while it had huge impact and influence, there were no real attempts to adapt, expand, or extend it, and its writer Alan Moore was outspoken about the ways that would be a bad idea. Eventually, adaptations came. A fairly literal film, a disastrously unnecessary and point-missing gargantuan prequel series, a mixed but fascinating attempt to (mostly) pull the comic into a new context in a television sequel, and this, DOOMSDAY CLOCK, a sequel mashing up the WATCHMEN characters with the mainline DC Comics characters.

Only two issues of the comic really spend any time in the WATCHMEN world. It’s notable how much the television sequel digs into the social and political reality of how the world could’ve developed from the comic’s 80s setting, where DOOMSDAY CLOCK frantically recedes from it as quickly as possible, moving to the comfort of the byzantine world of Superman, Batman, and so on. This is because it’s not really a WATCHMEN sequel. It’s an airless, storyless exercise in tinkering with the continuity of DC Comics characters, having them interact with a few DC ones, and perverting the WATCHMEN comic to justify the childishness and endlessness of these modern superhero comics.

The vision for DOOMSDAY CLOCK was set out quite clearly by then-president of DC, as well as the writer Geoff Johns himself. In a foreword to the reboot comic that set up DOOMSDAY CLOCK, Nelson said ‘The thing about Geoff that this book demonstrates so clearly is his love for the core attributes of the DC Universe and its characters. They are, by the way, attributes he personally shares: optimism, hope, idealism and selflessness….Within the first panels of the book, our key protagonist describes “the day I met my hero.” In so doing, he found “hope and inspiration” and became part of a “legacy.” That, to my mind, sums up what superheroes are all about.’ Johns, in an interview promoting DOOMSDAY CLOCK, said ‘Thematically, and metaphorically, there was no better choice than to use Doctor Manhattan. If you’re going to have a conflict between optimism and pessimism,, a battle between the very forces of hope and despair, you need to have someone who personifies the cynicism that has leaked into our hearts and also has the ability to affect the entire DCU….Just the idea of Superman talking to Doctor Manhattan gets me excited. What does that look like? Their ideologies are so vastly different, and the circumstances we put them in are very interesting. And there’s a hundred layers to this book….We know we have all these rules, but we’ve got to break a few rules to tell the best story. And I think it’s going to do more than people think…’

There are not a hundred layers to this book. It does not break a few rules. It does not tell the best story. It does not do more than people would think. It is an advertisement for DC Comics. It perverts the characters and story of WATCHMEN to bleat the word ‘hope’ a lot, and try to justify the endless reboots and continuity obsession that plague modern comics. It spends its first few pages timidly imagining how the world of WATCHMEN might have evolved, then scurries away to interminably tinker with the continuity of various DC superheroes.

[spoilers for DOOMSDAY CLOCK below]

One of the main motifs of the comic is the phrase and concept ‘you see what you want to see’.

I did not want to see this.

Or this.

Or this.

Or this.

It’s all a joke. It’s not just typical comic tropes that WATCHMEN never exhibited – endless resurrections that render life and death meaningless, building up a kind of barrier, an inoculation around investing in a narrative where nothing means anything because everything perpetuates forever. It’s the utter perversion of taking WATCHMEN, a multifaceted, nuanced, complicated work about hierarchy, culture, vigilantism, and turning it into a simple-minded, preening insistence that childishness is good, optimism is the answer, hope hope hope, comics are good, rebooting comics is good, continuity obsession is good, it’s all good – just please keep buying the comics. There’s no artistry here, and not only in the very literal way the art mimics the style of the comic instead of following its spirit and innovating – again, the television sequel is cause for embarrassment as for all its fault, at least it had some understanding of the WATCHMEN comic, something DOOMSDAY CLOCK sorely lacks). It’s mildly horrifying how Superman is twisted into some cultish Christlike worship – if you, dear reader, follow the example of this fictional superhero we will try selling you repetitive comics of forever, then in a millennia, our unchanged, static American way will bloom into utopia! We just have to put all our faith not just in children’s characters, but in the industry that endlessly perpetuates repetitive, affirming stories with these characters!

It’s all hollow, the iconography, the characters themselves. A new character asserts himself as the new Rorschach, and this is framed as a positive thing, some kind of meaningful or necessary iteration of the Rorschach character. Why? There is nothing inherently of worth in the Rorschach character. He’s a borderline psychotic loner type. There are so, so many of these. What’s special about him? He’s from WATCHMEN, which Geoff Johns has now subsumed into DC Comics continuity.

Constant, peeking-over-the-shoulder editorial oversight is a great, commendable thing, a bastion of hope and optimism and the way of the future, according to DOOMSDAY CLOCK, a comic that worships the existence of characters while having no actual use for them. It’s somewhat hilarious how only the first and last issues of the comic really do anything, the rest mostly just mashing up various WATCHMEN and DC Comics characters. The self-congratulatory tone valorising the power of characters continuing to exist and sell is so incredibly offkey with the original WATCHMEN comic that it’s the only part of the whole endeavour that ever threatens to be interesting. Moore was interested in challenging the reader, probing complicated and difficult questions, Johns is interested in affirming the reader, reassuring the reader, hollowly mimicking past comics while propelling a ‘story’ about how the masses of contradictory lore one absorbs if they keep up with this stuff actually make sense and are moving ever forward in a positive direction.

How fitting it is that this mess was written by the man Moore called out for plundering his decades-old scraps rather than iterating or daring to create anything new – ‘I was noticing that DC seems to have based one of its latest crossovers in Green Lantern based on a couple of eight-page stories that I did 25 or 30 years ago. I would have thought that would seem kind of desperate and humiliating, When I have said in interviews that it doesn’t look like the American comic book industry has had an idea of its own in the past 20 or 30 years, I was just being mean. I didn’t expect the companies concerned to more or less say, “Yeah, he’s right. Let’s see if we can find another one of his stories from 30 years ago to turn into some spectacular saga.”’. Johns’ idea of iteration was to turn from scraps to meal, perverting the entire WATCHMEN comic instead of the twenty-four pages of Green Lantern comics Moore wrote. The whole thing is very TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER; built off the ruins of WATCHMEN, a disgusting, bloated raft of corpses driven by a man blind to the putridness of his task and intent – but since DC Comics owns WATCHMEN perpetually, at least it’s not actual piracy! One refrain of ‘hope’, and a sea of continuity.

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