So this weekend – on a dare, mind you – I sat down and read Doomsday Clock.
I didn’t PAY for it, understand. My objections to this book are due to business ethics even more than for artistic reasons, and I absolutely refuse to directly contribute to its success. But I did read someone else’s copies.
Why? Because it was pointed out to me that I shouldn’t go around badmouthing the book if I haven’t actually read it. Which is fair enough. I DID read the ashcan preview of the first few pages of the first issue, and those pages were terrible. But that’s not even an entire issue, and I shouldn’t base my entire opinion of the book’s quality (separate from ethical concerns) on less than a full issue. So I took the challenge. And, you know…
It’s mostly not awful.
Considered as a Big Corporate Spandex Crossover ™, in fact, it’s pretty damn good.
Considered as a sequel to Watchmen, on the other hand…
But I guess that’s what happens when you mistake art for commodity.
Which would be a great last line for a review of this book. But instead, I think it’s my thesis statement. And that being the case, I suppose I should discuss the things that make Doomsday Clock such good standard super-heroics, and such an utter failure as a sequel to the greatest super hero story ever written. So! Let’s get the good out of the way first, if only for the sake of symmetry.
First off, the series is exploring some interesting super hero genre themes in ways that Big Corporate Spandex Crossovers ™ don’t often do. Most of these things promise a lot, but ultimately just wind up being big mindless punch-outs that only half-achieve what they advertise. Or when they do actually manage to shake up the Spandex World As We Know It ™, they’re all sound and fury, with little or no emotional resonance. They feel contrived, and formulated to make as much noise as possible without actually doing anything. Even the ones that start off with promise often descend into bullshit.
And I’m not saying Doomsday Clock won’t fall prey to that before it’s over. We’ve still got four issues to go, and lord knows Johns could still blow this thing. But he’s got a good hook, and so far, he’s been developing it well. Because what this story really seems to be about, underneath all the inter-dimensional hijinks and reality-shifting, is people losing faith in super heroes.
That’s an idea we’ve seen before, of course (in Mark Millar’s decade-old Civil War, to name just one example), but the way Johns is approaching it freshens things up a bit. There’s a conspiracy theory floating around that suggests the reason America has such a large percentage of the world’s super-powered population is because the American government has long been staging the “accidents” that have given various super heroes and villains their powers (you’d think our lax public safety laws would explain it just as well, but nooo…). A number of lower-level super-types have come forward to say that it’s true, and (in spite of the fact that everyone who’s done so is a notorious criminal) the theory is gaining traction around the world. It’s especially popular with Vladimir Putin…
…which makes the whole storyline play to the current global political moment. Though actually, this story has, from the outset, been all about our current era of “fake news” and assaults on the nature of truth. The Putin appearance just drives the point home for anyone who hadn’t already figured that out. Which is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but I’m not knocking it. Super hero comics often aren’t very subtle when it comes to public figures. Hell, give us a self-aggrandizing compulsive liar on the American side, and the portrait will be complete.
Anyway. On the one hand, this plotline is classic Johns. In bringing up the lop-sided distribution of super heroes in America, he’s trying to explain something that doesn’t really need explaining. I mean, the reason there are more American super heroes in the DC Universe is because DC Comics is an American publisher, and because that’s where the genre is the most popular. But you can’t say that in-story, obviously, so you’re probably better off just ignoring it and getting on with telling cool stories.
But here, he’s found a clever way to bring it up that takes the curse off. That whole “staging of accidents” thing is pretty great. Like many conspiracy theories, it kind of makes sense until you really start thinking about it. I mean, replacing nukes with super heroes sounds like a great idea! At least until you realize that the way this would really have to play out is that they would have been purposefully activating the meta-gene in a random bunch of people who may or may not have any allegiance to the government. Then, it starts to sound more like good a way to lose control of your country.
I kind of hope it’s partially true, though. It’s been suggested, for instance, that Simon Stagg, working in conjunction with the US government, knew all along that Rex Mason would become Metamorpho. And considering what an asshole Stagg is, that makes perfect sense.
More importantly, though, this conspiracy sub-plot shows us Our Heroes grappling with the same sort of existential dilemmas we’re dealing with every day in the era of misinformation. It’s frustrating to watch them being manipulated, unable to cut through the web of deceit, but there’s also something cathartic about it. It’s not just us dealing with this crap now. Superman’s on the case! Batman’s investigating! So there’s hope.
I’m also impressed with the pacing of Doomsday Clock. It starts small and builds slowly, taking time to explore its characters and devoting page space to side elements whose purpose isn’t immediately clear. That’s a level of patience you don’t see enough of in mainstream super hero comics, especially in these big, universe-shattering “event” books. But Johns is pacing this thing out quite deliberately, building the conspiracy plot slowly in the background before it finally explodes in issues seven and eight. And in the meantime, he builds character and sets the story at ground level, spending a lot of time with some new characters:
That’s the Marionette and the Mime, small-time super villains dragged into the DC Universe by Ozymandias. They’re sort of a Watchmen-Earth version of Punch and Jewelee (or maybe the Joker and Harley), a psychotic husband and wife team with invisible weapons and an emotional bond that dates back to childhood. That description doesn’t quite do them justice, though. Like everything else here, Johns introduces them as a mystery and slowly fills in the details over the course of the first six issues. It’s really quite effective, and their gimmick is pretty great. The Marionette attacks with an invisible “string,” a mono-filament line capable of severing body parts, and the Mime… well… MIMES his attacks, with very real guns and knives that his victims can’t see. I’d love for them to become big-deal Batman villains or something. They’re that strong.
Of course, that kind of treatment would probably ruin them over time. But, hey. This is a comic that drags Watchmen into continuity, so… Them’s the breaks, right?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In spite of all this praise I’ve been heaping upon it, Doomsday Clock is far from perfect, even as Corporate Spandex writing goes. The tone is uneven, and it’s rife with bad dialogue, unnecessary exposition, unconvincing action scenes, and the occasional nonsensical plot movement. And those are all things that kill a book for me. Truth be told, I didn’t enjoy reading it at all. And yet, it’s still strangely compelling. And I think that’s because it’s such a good example of what it is. Geoff Johns is the king of standard super hero melodrama, and this is probably the best standard super hero melodrama he’s ever written.
I’d even go so far as to say that if it was about different characters, it might be the best Big Corporate Spandex Crossover ™ ever done. Like, what if it was about, say… The Earth 3 Crime Syndicate trying to re-shape the DC Universe in their own image?
That would be appropriate subject matter for a book written this way, dealing with these issues, under this sort of work-for-hire contract deal. It would be virtually the same story at its core, that of a universe without hope doing its best to bring down a universe that’s little else but hope. But it would be doing it with characters who suit the story better. If you took the time to develop your cast properly (something Johns has already proven willing to do), you could give the Crime Syndicate characters a level of shading and depth they’ve never had, and tell a ripping good yarn in the process.
Because ultimately, that’s all Doomsday Clock really is: a ripping good yarn. It lacks the depth and discipline and (maybe most of all) the skill behind its source material. But in places, it feels like Johns thinks he’s writing something that’s just as good as Watchmen.
And he is sadly mistaken.
But that, I’m afraid, is an argument that will have to wait. We’ve run out of time this week, so we’ll have to get around to the evisceration next time. Join us if you will. But I’ll warn you: it won’t be pretty.