So at this weekend’s New York Comic Con, DC Comics released an ashcan printing the first six pages of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock, the upcoming Watchmen sequel that promises to give us the spectacle of Superman vs Dr. Manhattan.
My response to this, of course, can be best summed up by Mr. Charlton Heston.
I’ve gone into my feelings before about how DC Comics snookered Alan Moore on the Watchmen rights, sticking to the letter of their agreement while violating its intent. I’ve also written before about why I think this book is a bad idea from the get-go, and how badly Geoff Johns seems to have misread Watchmen. So I won’t go into either of those topics again. Hell, I wasn’t even going to acknowledge this book’s existence. I heard about the ashcan, and saw that every page had been posted on-line within hours of it being handed out. But I didn’t look at it. I was predisposed not to like it, so I figured why raise my blood pressure over something as stupid as yet another soulless corporate funnybook?
But then I saw that Rich Johnston over at Bleeding Cool had done an annotation for the ashcan, so I figured, why not? Rich is a pretty big Alan Moore fan, so I thought he might be willing to sling a few amusing barbs at this book. But also (in spite of his reputation), he tends to be pretty fair about things like this, and I hoped he would be able to give me some insights I might not be willing to make on my own. I hate to be a hater, after all. So I took a deep breath, and plunged into the world of…
DOOMSDAY CLOCK: THE ASHCAN
by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank
When I started writing this, I launched into an in-depth, page-by-page takedown of this thing, but about four pages into that, I realized I was going too far. What you really need to know is this:
Watchmen is a structuralist masterpiece. A work of elegant simplicity that patiently layers on little things until they add up to great depth and thematic richness. It deals in powerful iconography, crystal-perfect turns of phrase, and earthy dark comedy to puncture all the high-falutin’ ideas. It’s simultaneously subtle and shocking, sacred and profane, serious and fun. And all of that is established, in miniature, in the first six pages.
Hell, just look at page four:
It may seem unassuming at first glance, but embiggen that thing and really pay attention. That one page, all by itself, gives us the newsstand, the Gunga Diner, Tales of the Black Freighter, some electric cars, one of the Knot-Head punks, a foreshadowing of the death of Hollis Mason, and our first close-up view of Rorschach. And it’s all fed to us as background details that don’t distract us from the story, but still train our eyes with visual cues that pay off when we see these things again later and already know them. It also rewards us big-time when we go back to re-read and realize how much of that stuff was there all along. It’s an amazingly compact and elegant piece of comics storytelling.
Doomsday Clock is more or less the opposite of that. It lacks subtlety and detail. The language is leaden and imprecise. There’s no humor, and no sense of fun about it. And instead of letting us soak up details in the background, everything is foreground. If it’s important, attention is called to it, and it’s done in such a way that it distracts us, and makes it harder to tell what actually is important. For an example, let’s just take page four of the Ashcan:
So what we’ve got there is a bunch of soldiers silently infiltrating Ozymandias’ Arctic headquarters while it’s explained via voice-over that all independent press is being shut down in favor of government-run propaganda. And those two foreground elements divide our attention. The news shutdown seems like a pretty major plot element, and it’s made moreso by the meltdown that one reporter has in the middle of the page. But we don’t actually see him having it, so the impact is blunted. And the people we do see while it’s happening are nameless, faceless, and silent, utterly devoid of any personality that makes us think they’re important. So we’re left with a page that has only one clear reason for being there: it shows us that Ozymandias has a brain tumor.
And, hey… I’ll give Johns credit for revealing that visually, and not having one of the soldiers break a full page of silence to explain it to us. That visual reveal, with no unnecessary exposition, is better writing than I expected from this thing going in, and I appreciate it. Most mainstream super hero comics aren’t written that competently. But this is not your average mainstream super hero comic. This is the sequel to fucking Watchmen. So I expect more than basic competence.
Which is, ultimately, the real problem with Doomsday Clock: Geoff Johns is extremely competent. He can cobble together a crowd-pleasing super hero story with action, plot, melodrama, and all the intricate delving into comics continuity that gets fanboy hearts pumping. But for this project, he needs to be a lot better than that, and he’s not up to the task.
It didn’t take all six pages for me to decide that, either. No… For me, it became very obvious just from page one:
The most obvious observation to make about this page is how closely it mirrors the first page of Watchmen. It starts in close-up, and the camera slowly pulls back until it’s several stories up, with the action narrated by an entry from Rorschach’s journal.
And yes, I know: Rorschach is dead. And wildly out of character. But it’s only six pages. This may be a new Rorschach, somebody who’s taken up the mantle after his journal became public. I’m hoping that’s the case, anyway, because this is just off. Johns has made some noise about how Rorschach is a great vehicle for making these broad statements about the state of American politics because he’s “so apolitical,” which… That’s so wrong I don’t even know where to begin. But, look. Here’s the first page of Watchmen, for comparison:
So, yeah. The scenes are different, but the technique is the same.
And technique is where the similarities end, because Moore’s Watchmen opening works better on just about every level. It opens with one hell of an iconographic image – the blood-stained smiley face – and keeps it visually simple. The button in a puddle of blood, the guy hosing the blood off the sidewalk, the madman walking through the puddle and leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind, the camera moving on up past them… It’s a darkly funny, but easily digestible, bit of slapstick playing out simply enough that we can pay proper attention to the apocalyptic narration that sets the tone for everything that follows.
Johns’ scene isn’t particularly hard to follow, but it’s busier and makes less of an immediate impact. It’s a scene of escalating mob violence, with an angry crowd reaching a breaking point, overturning a police car, and charging a handful of riot police. At first, the action seems to play in conjunction with the narration, the mob representing the “undeplorables” on the left, the cops representing the “totalitarians” on the right, the closing of the gap when the crowd surges representing the two sides devouring each other and everything in-between.
(An aside: Undeplorables? I know the Hilary Clinton speech he’s trying to riff on there, but wow. The original statement was clunky enough, but he’s somehow managed to make it sound even worse.)
But, anyway. After all that strangely modern political commentary (this scene is taking place in 1992, after all), we then find out that the riot is happening in front of Veidt corporate headquarters, and seems to have been inspired by the revelation that Ozymandias killed New York as part of a secret plan for world peace. So… What the hell does partisan politics have to do with that? This isn’t a Black Lives Matter demonstration gone horribly wrong. It’s a lynch mob on the hunt for the biggest mass murderer in human history.
Moore’s narration doesn’t have a direct correlation to his images, either, but it doesn’t pretend to. It’s an upsetting, disjointed narrative set over images of an upsetting amount of gore. The connections are visceral, and meant to set a tone.
It’s also a lot better-written. There’s a certain crazy poetry to that initial journal entry, a dark lyricism and a rhythm that makes it compelling. It dances across the page at just the right pace. There’s not too much of it in any individual panel, and even within those panels, it’s broken up between caption boxes in such a way that it forces pauses and breaks in all the right places. There’s even a bit of comic relief, when this arch-conservative madman pines for the days of President Truman, the Democrat who dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima. It’s a masterclass in presenting monologue in comics, and Moore makes it look easy.
Too easy, apparently, because Johns’ take on it is a complete mess. The language is clunky, the metaphor is labored, it goes on too long, and it lacks rhythm. It’s just an awkward piece of writing, tripping over itself in multiple places, with imagery that doesn’t conjure up anything. Seriously. Really think about some of that stuff.
“Brains boiled over by grotesque nightmares of a fictional invader.”
“An intestine full of truth and shit strangled us.”
I know he’s referencing the psychic attack from the end of Watchmen in that first line, but holy crap! He sounds like an over-serious 12-year-old trying to imitate Alan Moore! And if Johns was 12, I’d be a lot more forgiving. I mean, that intestine line almost works. Or it might, if he tweaked the phrasing a bit to make it dance instead of thud.
But that’s only the beginning. Moore’s monologue is also better because of its brevity. It ends in six panels, ending the tirade just in time, and leaving that bottom page-wide perspective shot to relieve the tension with a joke. It’s playful and clever, a great pay-off to a very serious build. But Johns’ version continues into that final panel, and spills over onto the next page.
Speaking of which… Johns has made much of how he’s “following the rules of Watchmen.” By which I think he means that he and Gary Frank are working in the nine-panel grid. But there’s another pretty big rule of Watchmen storytelling that he seems to have missed: scene changes only happen at page breaks. One scene can flow into another mid-page, via flashback or a character physically moving from one place to another on-camera. But if a scene is changing completely, to a different place and different characters, that only happens at the page break. And it’s always accompanied by a clever transition. That thing Moore does where the final words of one scene speak to the beginning of the next. It’s Moore being clever, and he really is rather clever. But it’s also Moore at play, having fun with the writing, and that in turn makes Watchmen fun to read. Johns seems to have missed that aspect of the book, and Doomsday Clock suffers because of it.
But I suppose that’s only fitting. It looks like Johns is following Watchmen‘s storytelling rules in much the same way that DC Comics followed their contract for the book itself: clinging to the surface while utterly violating its spirit.