So I really didn’t want to do this. But somebody told me what happens in Doomsday Clock #12, and it pissed me off so much that I had to go back and finish reading the damn thing. Just so I could hate it intelligently.
And, holy crap.
It’s even worse than I expected.
But before the knives come back out, let’s make this all official and such…
Doomsday Clock 9-12
by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank
I covered the first eight issues of this travesty in earlier columns, which can be found here and here. But if you (understandably) don’t wanna go back and slog through all that, here’s what I thought in short form:
As a mainstream corporate super hero event comic, Doomsday Clock is pretty damn good. But as a sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, it’s garbage. Geoff Johns has built the whole thing around the theme of “hope vs cynicism,” but that theme fails right out of the gate because Watchmen is not a cynical work. It’s a book about people struggling to do some kind of good in an imperfect world. Some of them fail, and fail spectacularly. But others succeed just as spectacularly, inspiring a cold watchmaker god to an understanding of the miracle of life. That’s not cynical. It’s life-affirming. So Doomsday Clock works from a flawed premise, and falls flat on its face because of it.
Unfortunately, however, it’s all the surface gloss Johns is borrowing from Watchmen – which is to say, the structural rigor and focus on character over plot – that makes the book as good as it is. If he’d done this with, say, the Earth Three characters rather than the Watchmen characters, I might be lauding it as his best work. As it is, I think he bit off more than he could chew. He can tell a crowd-pleasing yarn (especially if the crowd he’s pleasing loves old super hero comics as much as he does). But a literary author, he is not. His themes and characters lack depth, his prose is clunky, and he’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer. A Watchmen sequel calls for better, and he can’t deliver.
That’s where my head was in relation to issues 1-8 of this dog, and (having read those on a dare), I was determined that I wasn’t going to read any more. But then an over-enthusiastic friend told me about issue 12, and I was so appalled that I couldn’t help myself. I had to see if the rest of this book was as bad as it sounded. Because I knew I was going to rant, and I hate to do that from a position of ignorance. So here we are.
The thing that really blows my mind about these last four issues is how much of the stuff I liked about the first eight isn’t really on display. Johns is still aping the structural stuff, but he’s still just aping it. There’s no purpose to it, except to copy Alan Moore. Meanwhile, genuinely interesting characters like Mime and Marionette all but disappear, and lack whatever depth they previously had when they do pop up. Superman and Firestorm, with whom he’d been doing some interesting stuff, both flatten out a bit in these issues, as their personal character drama starts to take a back seat to the plot. Ozymandias had already been reduced to two-dimensional super-villainy, and largely continues on that path in spite of what I think was supposed to be a surprise twist in his plan to save the world from nuclear armageddon.
We do get a lot of character development on Dr. Manhattan, mind you, and though it ultimately falls flat, I don’t think all of it is a complete train wreck. The idea Johns is playing with here is that, after Watchmen, Manhattan explored other dimensions and came across the DC Universe. Upon crossing over, he discovered that it wasn’t a normal reality, but a malleable timeline in constant flux, with events shifting in relation to Superman. Periodically, everything changes as his emergence in the world moves forward in time. It’s been that way since 1938, and will continue that way until his timeline converges with that of the Legion of Superheroes, at which point some kind of super-powered transcendence will occur and humanity will attain… some kind of… moral… perfection… or something…
Yeah. What that really sounds like to me is an attempt to imprint continual reboots on the fictional reality, giving an actual storyline excuse for the major super hero publishers’ most desperate marketing ploys. Which, of course, is exactly what Doomsday Clock is really about: the triumph of commerce over art, with creative intent taking a distant back seat to the interests of the company. Johns can dress that shit up all he wants, justifying the exploitation with the inspiration Superman provides the world. But in this case, that inspiration’s being manipulated toward purely corporate needs.
Not that I think art can be separated entirely from commerce, of course. Creative people need to make money just like everybody else. But I’m not sure the best interests of the creatives are being served by the kind of commercial exploitation DC Comics represents, and this attempt to wrap it in virtue just rubs me the wrong way.
But I digress.
Taking the moral / commercial aspect of Doomsday Clock out of the equation for a moment (but ONLY for a moment), I could see the Dr. Manhattan we have at the end of Watchmen finding this thing he calls the “Metaverse” and wanting to experiment with it a little. His epiphany was all about the miracle of human life, after all, the intricate web of events that leads to the creation of people as they are, and not as something else. Here, he’s found a universe that is infinitely malleable, where he can alter the web of events to make someone different than who they originally were. If nothing else, he might consider it a good test lab for the human life he was setting out to create. A place where he can watch the web of cause and effect unfold, learning about any potential pitfalls before he starts from scratch. And, since the people of the Metaverse don’t seem to be aware of the changes, it’s not like he’s causing any actual harm. Hell, he might not even consider it to be entirely real.
And this is where Johns’ idea falls apart. Because that’s not why he does it. Mostly, he seems to do it out of idle curiosity.
Note the stuff in there about hope. Johns makes a further misstep by claiming that Manhattan has somehow removed hope from the Metaverse. But that’s patently not true. The timeline he created was the “New 52” timeline, and that was going along fine. As I noted in my review of Johns’ Rebirth comic, way back at the beginning of this mess, none of the DC characters in any of the relaunched books I read seemed any sadder about their existence, in general, than they’d been about their previous one… until Geoff Johns himself came along and made them remember the things they’d “lost” because HE was sad they were gone. I take particular issue with his characterization of the New 52 Superman.
That last panel directly references Grant Morrison’s relaunch of the character in Action Comics, which I read. And that Superman was anything but more distant from humanity. Morrison talked a great deal about how the early Superman was a socialist firebrand, a guy who sided with the weak against those who would abuse or exploit them. So his Clark Kent was a crusading reporter who went after corruption with a vengeance, both in the pages of the Daily Planet and as Superman. If anything, he was more passionate about everyday human life than he’d been in ages. So while the idea that Manhattan made Superman more distant serves Johns’ thesis, it is unfortunately dead wrong.
He’s also wrong about Dr. Manhattan himself. At the end of Watchmen, he has transcended humanity. He understands it, and even loves it, I think. But he understands and loves it like God does, because for all intents and purposes… He’s become God. So he’s distant by human standards, but those are no longer standards by which he can be measured. Which means that business about how he relates better to the more distant Superman doesn’t play, because Superman, in spite of his vast physical power, is still very much human. And this business here plays even less well:
Johns is continually taking Manhattan to task for allowing bad things to happen. He brings up the pregnant woman Eddie Blake shot in Vietnam several times over the course of the series, and here he’s trying to establish the idea that Ozymandias “got away with it,” and that Manhattan let him. But in that, especially, Johns is missing the point. Ozymandias’ punishment, like the protagonist of Tales of the Black Freighter, is eternal damnation. The last time we see him, that crushing realization is just starting to take hold. But I’ve always thought it might be the worst punishment anyone gets. “Nothing ever ends,” after all.
But we were talking about Dr. Manhattan. As I said, he’s basically become God the last time we see him in Watchmen, and that puts the bad things he allows to happen in a different context. God lets bad stuff happen all the time. So when he doesn’t stop Blake from shooting the pregnant woman, and allows Adrian Veidt to stew in his own internal damnation… That’s called foreshadowing and metaphor.
Then we get to issue 12, where Manhattan is faced with Superman’s pure shining beacon of hope, and is inspired. What’s he inspired to? Well…
First he puts all of Geoff Johns’ favorite spandex toys back in the box, bringing back the Justice Society and the Legion of Super Heroes, and presumably all the old continuity that goes with them. Then he goes and saves his own world from nuclear armageddon, seeing to it that Ozymandias gets physically punished for his crimes because the existential anguish of eternal damnation isn’t enough. Then he steals Mime and Marionette’s kid to raise as his own (but that’s okay, because they’re gonna have another one, and that’s a fair trade, right?). Then he gives that kid all his super powers (because at this point, having been stripped of meaning and metaphor, that’s all they really are anymore), and goes back to the day he got those powers in the first place to prevent his own origin story so he can live happily ever after as a normal human being with his first wife, who he’s suddenly and with no pretext whatsoever decided that he’s always loved most of all in spite of the fact that they got divorced in his original timeline. And in doing that, he also becomes a deadbeat dad, sending Manhattan Boy to be raised by Silk Spectre and Night Owl (REMEMBER THEM? I HOPE SO, BECAUSE HERE THEY SUDDENLY ARE!). And he names the kid Clark. Because of fucking course he does.
On some level, I am amused by the idea that EVEN GOD HIMSELF is inspired by Superman’s example. But I don’t think that’s what Johns was shooting for here. I think he ignored the stuff about Jon Osterman transcending humanity to become God, because there’s not a whole lot left to do with a character like that.
Which I would argue is among the many reasons YOU DON’T DO A WATCHMEN SEQUEL IN THE FIRST PLACE. But that attitude doesn’t exploit those corporate properties enough, so nobody’s going to listen to that nonsense. I mean, having an evergreen best-seller clearly isn’t good enough. WHERE THE HELL’S MY MOBY DICK II, GODDAMMIT?!
Again, I digress.
I could go into detail on the many tiny things that make this book as bad as it is. Like how the film noir sequences that have been peppered throughout the series don’t pay off metaphorically the way their counterpart “Tales of the Black Freighter” pages do in Watchmen. Or how Dr. Manhattan’s realization that “Everything Ends” is in direct opposition to his simultaneous realization that Superman will be continuously reborn. Or how this idea that Superman’s timeline will one day meet the Legion’s doesn’t work, because the Legion keeps getting moved forward in time, too. Or how it doesn’t quite work that Superman’s the crux of everything when the very first change to the timeline makes the JSA HIS inspiration, when he was originally theirs. Or the way I can’t decide if Johns thinks he’s writing John Constantine well…
…or if he’s just trolling fans of comics that are better than his.
Then there’s the absolutely appalling moment when Batman and Alfred try to talk Rorschach into continuing his super hero career, in spite of the fact that the man has brain damage and is clearly in need of psychological help.
But that’s small picture, and the big picture is damning enough. What I keep coming back to, every time I dip a toe into this disaster of a comic, is the mistaken impression that Watchmen is a cynical work without hope, and that Superman is all hope, all the time. Neither of those things is true. Superman is certainly an inspirational character, but he’s also a corporate property that made his owners millions while predatory publishing practices left his creators living in poverty. And while Watchmen itself isn’t cynical, it did inspire a wave of cynical copycat books that transformed the super hero genre into something… I dunno… UGLIER than it had been before.
But that’s not what Johns is writing about here. He’s writing about an evil funnybook that took away his favorite toys. It’s “Superman Good, Watchmen Bad.” But pitted against Alan Moore’s layered, more nuanced writing, the simple four-color super hero morality Johns champions in Doomsday Clock seems silly, rather than inspiring. That does a disservice to both mainstream super hero fare, and to Watchmen itself.
And that makes me sad.