So a couple of weeks ago, we took a look at Geoff Johns’ Doomsday Clock, his Doctor-Manhattan-Meets-Superman comic, and talked about how it’s a pretty good example of the Big Corporate Spandex Crossover™. As a sequel to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, however, it’s god-awful. And that’s what we’re (finally) here to discuss today.
Granted, in the time since I read the damn thing, my ire toward it has cooled from white-hot intensity to a sort of inarticulate disgust. Whether with the book for not being better, or with myself for pushing through and reading all eight freaking issues, I’m not entirely sure. Probably both.
But that disgust is why this column is late. I floundered through the first draft, spending a page talking about how doing a Watchmen sequel is an inherently bad idea, and how having the Watchmen characters meet the DC Universe characters is a worse one. It diminishes Moore’s work, and makes the DC characters look bad in comparison. I still think all that’s true, mind you, but it’s big-picture, and I needed to be ripping into the comic itself instead of discussing generalities. So I set all that aside and took a while to think.
Now, however, I’ve got my mind right, and I’m ready to lay into this sumbitch. You might wanna take a step back, though. This is gonna get ugly, and I’d hate for anything to splash on ya.
Okay… Where to start? There’s a lot wrong here, and any number of things would offer a good way to crack this book open. Johns writes with all the subtlety of a hammer to the head. But I think I’ll start with maybe the most basic and obvious flaw: the characters. While Johns has handled the DC characters with unusual (for him) complexity, the opposite is true of his take on Moore’s characters. He’s dumbing them down, missing nuances that flatten these three-dimensional characters down to two.
Or one, in the case of the Comedian. Granted, I’m not sure that Moore ever gave him more than two dimensions to begin with. As the one unrepentant shit-heel in the book (not to mention the deadest), Eddie Blake never gets entirely fleshed out. We see him primarily through other people’s memories, most of which involve things like attempted rape and shooting pregnant women. Only two things give him any depth at all: a genuine and apparently life-long affection for Sally Jupiter (in spite of the attempted rape), and his abject horror at Ozymandias’ plan to save the world. Even after all the terrible things he had done, the cold calculation of what Veidt had in mind broke Blake’s spirit.
In Doomsday Clock, though, Johns hasn’t given him the chance to demonstrate even that little bit of depth. Either resurrected or snatched from the moment of his death by Dr. Manhattan (it’s hard to tell which), he’s pretty much been reduced to his surface gloss as a gun-toting goon. There’s still four issues left for Johns to do something other than write him like a second-rate Punisher, of course, but my faith in that is not strong.
I’m even less impressed with what Johns has done with Ozymandias. Moore’s Adrian Veidt is a good man who knowingly turns himself into a monster for the best of reasons. He’s no less monstrous for it, and all his machinations may not have even been necessary, but his intentions remain noble. In Johns’ hands, though, he’s… just a monster. The doubts that were so obvious in the closing pages of Watchmen…
…aren’t on display here. And by the end of issue seven, any sense of good intention has pretty much been erased. He’s revealed as a remorseless manipulator, hurtful to and contemptuous of the pawns he’s using in his chess game with the gods. At the end of that issue, he pays some lip service to wanting to save “everyone and everything,” but it rings hollow because we’ve already seen him leering evilly as his plans come together, like the Republic serial villain he once claimed not to be.
But that’s pretty much what he’s been reduced to. By the end of issue eight, when we learn that he’s somehow engineered an international incident involving Superman, Firestorm, and Vladimir Putin, it’s pretty clear that he’s just a megalomaniac. And just in case it wasn’t completely obvious to everyone reading, Johns closes the issue with a quote that once again shows off his gift for hammer-head subtlety:
Moore used the same technique in Watchmen, of course, closing each issue with a quote that’s meant to inform the chapter we’ve just read. And Moore’s quotes do just that, resonating with the story and serving as a little coda to the action. Some of them are better than others, but all of them are appropriately oblique. Johns’ attempt to ape Moore’s technique isn’t oblique at all, though. His quotes have been blunt and on-the-nose, commenting directly on the action and telling you exactly what you’re supposed to think about it all. They lack nuance and subtlety. Much like everything else here.
His treatment of Dr. Manhattan is another example. We haven’t seen much of him in Doomsday Clock as yet, but what we have seen indicates that he’s conducting an experiment on the DC Universe. Rather than going to another galaxy to create life, as he says in the Watchmen page above, he evidently hopped dimensions instead, and found the Earth inhabited by the DC Comics super heroes. He wanted to join them, but (for reasons yet to be revealed) he abandoned that idea and set about changing history. And it’s his interference, evidently, that created the timeline the company’s been following since the New 52 line-wide relaunch that started seven or eight years ago.
Now, I’ve discussed why I think that’s a bad reading of Watchmen before, but the short version is this: In Watchmen, Jon Osterman has an inherent compassion about him that he’s in danger of losing because his transformation into Dr. Manhattan has given him perceptions beyond the human norm. He’s becoming distant and detached, but that inherent compassion allows him, in the end, to have an epiphany about the value of human life. And that epiphany, in turn, leads him to leave human affairs behind on his way to becoming some kind of creator-god. Now, we don’t (and, I would argue, can’t) know what sort of creator he would ultimately become. But Moore’s character arc for him indicates that he’s rising toward some kind of positive enlightenment. That makes Watchmen a life-positive, and even hopeful, story.
But Johns’ reading of it is different (and, I think, rather poor). He focuses on the book’s much-discussed realism, and rejects it as cynicism. So his Dr. Manhattan seems distant and cold, manipulating human beings like lab rats to satisfy his curiosity. Certainly, this satisfies Johns’ claims that Doomsday Clock is all about “a war between cynicism and hope,” and it lets him personify that war as a conflict between Dr. Manhattan and Superman.
But it makes me think that he just doesn’t freaking understand Watchmen.
He’s doing his best to copy it, though. You can see that in his treatment of Rorschach. Watchmen had an issue devoted to Rorschach’s history, so Doomsday Clock does, too. But Moore’s version is genuinely affecting, the story of a scarred man who overcame a terrible childhood to become a hero, only to fall into madness after a particularly disturbing case shattered his already-fragile psyche. Always a bit strange, he becomes a violent obsessive who thinks nothing of torturing or killing the criminals he fights. It’s both horrifying and sad, and inspires a kind of pity for the character that he would no doubt angrily reject. When he’s killed by Dr. Manhattan, it’s hard not to feel bad for him.
Johns, thankfully, doesn’t try to resurrect that character after his perfect death. Instead, he gives us a Rorschach copycat, a young mental patient who parlays a few martial arts lessons and a crazy level of self-assertiveness into a seemingly successful crime-fighting persona (which, you know, talk about your thermodynamic miracles…). He takes on the Rorschach identity after reading the real Rorschach’s journal, released to the world after the end of Watchmen.
An aside: this is another travesty of Doomsday Clock: it ruins Moore’s marvelously open ending…
…which left us all wondering whether the journal would be plucked out of the crank file to bring Ozymandias’ scheme crashing down around his ears.
“YES,” Johns tells us. “That is exactly what happened! Enjoy the sensation of that delicious uncertainty turning to ash in your mouth.”
Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, yeah. NuRorschach. He’s a middle class kid who got picked on in school, then fell victim to Ozymandias’ attack on Times Square, surviving but getting his brain scrambled in the process. He’s delusional and sad, but in a kind of pathetic way. I feel bad for him, but I ultimately don’t care much about him one way or the other. He’s not as appallingly violent as the original Rorschach, but he’s also nowhere near as compelling. Much like Doomsday Clock itself, he’s a bland copy.
Which brings us to the real reason this book is such an awful sequel: Johns is copying the surface of what Moore does in Watchmen, and he’s copying it well enough that it’s very good commercial super hero writing. But he’s missing the depth that makes Watchmen a work of art.
Bear with me for a minute here.
Watchmen is a structuralist masterpiece, a dense and incredibly complicated work with lots of moving parts that all work together to make the whole stronger than the sum of its parts. The nine-panel grid, for instance, restrains the action, giving it a certain rhythm and pace it wouldn’t have otherwise. That effect ripples out, with scene changes only happening on page breaks, adding another, higher level of rhythm and structure to the story. Then it ripples out even further, with the series alternating between plot issues that advance the story and character issues that define the cast through flashback and realization. But all that structure is also a metaphor for the web of cause and effect (seen through those flashback issues) that shapes the characters’ lives. That more cosmic grid can be horrifying, but it’s also beautiful if you can pull back far enough to see it. Dr. Manhattan (much like the reader) can, and that is the basis of his epiphany. His thermodynamic miracle.
In Doomsday Clock, Geoff Johns also uses a nine-panel grid.
And that’s about as far as it goes.
To be fair, there is a moment (in issue eight, I believe) where Doctor Manhattan steps off a checkerboard floor at the moment he enters a part of his own future that he can’t see. So Johns is obviously aware of the metaphor, and that’s not a terrible way to reference it. But he can’t resist having Manhattan talk about it while he’s doing it, so he loses points for hitting me in the head with that damn hammer again. That shit hurts, man.
Then there’s the larger thematic stuff that Johns is doing an even worse job with. Like Watchmen‘s commentary on comic books. The whole thing is a meditation on super hero comics, of course, but Moore takes it far beyond that, and each bit of the comics commentary (like everything else in Watchmen) feeds back into the whole.
Tales from the Black Freighter is the best example of this. These pirate comic sequences feel like a non-sequitur at first, a bit of clever world-building taken too far. They are neat world-building, though, showing us what comics look like in a world where real-life super heroes have made their fictional counterparts less popular. But they’re the start of a trail that leads deep into both the plot and theme of the series. The text back-up in issue five, for instance, seems to be a discussion of comics history, and of how the Black Freighter comic came to be. But it also introduces us to Black Freighter writer Max Shea, who we learn in that same article has gone missing. And he’s not alone. A seemingly-unrelated sub-plot reveals that a large number of creative and scientific people have disappeared. And following that trail of breadcrumbs leads us to Ozymandias, who hired all those missing people to create the fake alien creature he used in his attack on New York, then had them disposed of to cover it up.
But the Black Freighter story has other ties to Ozymandias, as well, because by the end it’s become a metaphor for Adrian Veidt’s master plan. Just as the hero of the pirate story makes himself a monster in the name of saving his loved ones, Adrian Veidt does the same thing in the name of saving the world. So when Ozymandias dreams of the Black Freighter…
…all those disparate threads are drawn together, woven into a stronger whole.
So how does Johns respond to all of that in Doomsday Clock?
That’s a scene from The Adjournment, a black and white film noir featuring the character Nathaniel Dusk. The Adjournment is Johns’ answer to Tales of the Black Freighter, a story-within-the-story that comments on the main action, and will, I’m sure, tie into the conclusion. I’m doubly sure of that, in fact, because Johns (always afraid that somebody might not get it) has already had Dr. Manhattan say something about having visited the set of the film.
Hammers, man. It’s been three weeks, and my skull still hurts.
Anyway. The Adjournment. As you might be able to tell from the scene above, it’s a painful thing to read. Not the worst take on the hard-boiled detective genre I’ve ever seen, but not very good, either. I thought it was intended as parody at first, but as the issues dragged on, I came to believe that, no, Johns actually thinks that’s good. And, as with many things about Doomsday Clock, he is very wrong. The language of that kind of hard-boiled detective fiction has to sing. It has to have a bit of poetry about it. And Geoff Johns, it seems, has very little poetry in him.
But I digress.
Like his use of the nine-panel grid, Johns’ work on The Adjournment copies Moore, but goes no deeper than the surface. It’s a movie thing rather than a comic book thing, which is fine, I suppose. Even if I thought Johns was capable of doing justice to a Watchmen sequel, I wouldn’t want or expect him to follow the original with complete slavish devotion. But there’s no greater commentary going on here about movies, either, or about comic books being translated into movies, or… Anything. I’m sure it will connect to the main story (HAMMERS), but it won’t be subtle, and it won’t dovetail with multiple things at once to provide a deeper understanding of the work as a whole, because there is simply nothing for it to dovetail with.
Y’know, Nathaniel Dusk is an interesting case. He was the star of two 1980s mini-series by Don McGregor and Gene Colan. They were published by DC Comics under the standard work-for-hire deal, but weren’t part of the company’s super hero continuity. These were realistic period detective stories, revolutionary in their day because of a new technology that allowed them to reproduce Colan’s pencils directly to the page without inks. This was in the early days of DC’s attempts to publish new and interesting things, an initiative that also brought us Mike Barr and Brian Bolland’s Camelot 3000, Frank Miller’s Ronin, and, ultimately, Watchmen itself. It was kind of a big deal, but Nathaniel Dusk wasn’t successful enough to continue, and as far as I know, the character’s never appeared again.
So maybe Johns is developing a larger theme here about characters that DC owns, but doesn’t use. Or maybe he’s making some kind of statement about characters who should never, ever, meet Superman. That’s certainly true of Moore’s Watchmen characters, and it’s true of Nathaniel Dusk, too. And, hey! Sgt. Rock and Easy Company come up at some point in Doomsday Clock, as well, and they’re also characters best-left in their own milieu, where their existence isn’t made futile by the presence of the Corporate Icon. Maybe this whole thing will turn out to be a big statement on creative purity, and why making a quick buck on a bad idea is no way to run a funnybook company. Maybe the Doomsday Clock is actually counting down to a creative apocalypse in mainstream super hero funnybooks!
This is Geoff Johns we’re talking about here. So obviously, this is a story about how no works of art are above commercial exploitation by their legal owners, no matter how “important” or “acclaimed” or “good” they might be. Nothing, after all, is more important than bringing back the Justice Society.
And that, my friends, is why Doomsday Clock sucks.
What?! No, not the Justice Society! I love the Justice Society. But… Ah, hell. If you haven’t gotten the point by now, all the hammers in the world won’t help…