Nathan Kiehn is a blogger at Keenlinks, a contributor at Geeks Under Grace, and the author of "The Gray Guard" ebook trilogy on Amazon.
Ticking Towards Doom
The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic representation of how close humankind is to global disaster. Created during the Cold War, the Clock encompasses a broad perspective on the state of humanity, not just regarding nuclear Armageddon. As of January 2022, the clock has been positioned at 100 seconds to midnight. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
Geoff Johns, DC architect and famed comic scribe, joined with artist Gary Frank (who Johns worked with on Superman: Secret Origin and Batman: Earth One) to craft a visual representation of this scenario. With the mainstream DC world already under pressure from mounting superhuman emergencies, the ticking hand of doom moves ever closer to midnight with the arrival of a certain blue deity. Dr. Manhattan has arrived on the scene, and sadly, he’s not here to perform a last-minute heroic surgery.
"Doomsday Clock" Credits
Doomsday Clock #1-12
November 2017-December 2019
Who's Switching the Watchmen?
Similar to my confession in my Crisis on Infinite Earths review, I would like to admit my lack of understanding regarding the modern DC Universe overall. When I read Doomsday Clock, I was generally unaware of the state of DC comics regarding the New 52 and Rebirth. That being said, as important as context certainly would have been going into this series, I wanted to read it more as a “Watchmen sequel” than anything else.
My biggest draw to this series was in fact that: the Watchmen connections. I discussed Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ series at length, praising its genuinely wonderful, detailed artistry and complex narrative, complaining slightly about its characters. I know many fans consider Watchmen the greatest comic series (or even narrative) of all time and even the idea of a quasi-sequel or other writers and artists attached to that universe may be anathema to some readers. Generally, I appreciated Johns and Frank’s ability to draw in the Watchmen characters. They begin with a simple statement made by Dr. Manhattan at Watchmen’s end and go on from there, utilizing that concept to frame this idea of the Watchmen and DC universes mingling. Their ability to pull in characters feels natural, for the most part.
Johns envisions, not so much a Watchmen sequel, but a continuation of Moore and Gibbons’ original series. The best moments of Johns’ writing sees his vision of what occurs after the original Watchmen concludes. What happens to characters such as Ozymandias? How about brand new characters, like the second Rorschach, who are impacted in interesting ways by the events of Watchmen? Johns’ ability to shape a unique, detailed “epilogue” of sorts, if you’d like to call it that, by crafting a brief look at the future of the Watchmen universe is entertaining and engaging. He doesn't alter what came before, nor is his and Frank's series a commentary on or deconstruction of Watchmen. He simply carries the characters forward.
But Johns wishes to work in new material as well, creating new characters and allowing Moore’s cast to interact with the mainstream DC Universe. His new antagonists, Mime and Marionette, are interesting characters in their own right, feeling less like a Joker/Harley Quinn rip off that I originally believed they’d end up being. They drive a small chunk of the main narrative, and Johns cleverly incorporates their origins and ongoing story into the series. Their inclusion makes for several fun sequences, and even though I can’t say they’ll ever become as recognizable as their original Watchmen counterparts, they aren’t a bad addition to the universe.
Likewise, the new Rorschach has connections to a character in the original series; you might have to swallow a small convenience pill to fully grasp his inclusion (this new character is never even hinted at in the original series but, as Johns writes it, exists during events in Watchmen where he should have been present), but like Mime and Marionette, this Rorschach becomes integral enough to the overarching plot to forgive a couple of convenient plot points.
A Rusty Watch
Less pardonable is the writer/artist duo’s consistent desire to pay homage to Moore and Gibbons’ series. Here and there, the gimmick works--Frank’s use of the nine-panel grid, copying Gibbons’ layout, evokes a visual comparison to the earlier narrative. The structure brings enough familiarity without feeling like it’s leeching off the original series. The nine-panel grid, naturally, isn’t limited to just Watchmen and Doomsday Clock, so though it’s a definite homage here, the layout design works well on its own.
But Johns often mimics a wonderful, poetic element experienced throughout the entire original series: the beautiful parallels between Moore’s narration and Gibbons’ artistry. Panels often juxtapose the text and art gorgeously, tethering them together and deepening the story. Under Moore and Gibbon's watchful eyes, these intentional parallels guide and craft not only the central narrative but foreshadow upcoming plot developments, add engaging subplots, and incorporate so much detail that these seemingly minor inclusions keep you as engaged as the primary narrative.
In Doomsday Clock, the exact same trick is used several times, to less effect. If Johns had been merely writing his own narrative, I might have been endeared to this trick. As it stands, with Doomsday Clock serving as a quasi-sequel, Johns comes off as more derivative and less clever. The connections between text and art, which often feel seamless in Watchmen or at least meticulously considered by Moore, are more forced here. Connections are less clever, images feel more steered towards making tethers between random lines of dialogue than offering any deeper meaning or compelling connection. This isn’t to say Johns wasn’t thinking through these connections, but the gimmick often feels rushed and a little on-the-nose.
Watching the World
Additionally, Johns attempts to weave in a smaller tale, similar to Moore’s inclusion of the Black Freighter comics. Johns utilizes the life of a fictional movie star and his final movie, allowing the story to graft into the frame tale he provides. In Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons’ Black Freighter contained several different parallels to the overarching series, a “story within a story” which served as a metaphor for the growing plots. Though Doomsday Clock’s cinematic equivalent certainly connects more directly to the larger narrative, the smaller story simply feels too derivative to be as impactful.
Outside the obvious Watchmen parallels, Johns tries his best to weave an incredibly ambitious tale, where he finds more success. The story actually doesn’t really need the Watchmen elements to be effective, outside of Dr. Manhattan. Johns is working to make sense of the DC Universe collectively, pulling together the various reboots (post-Crisis, New 52, and Rebirth) and making them coherent, primarily through the lens of Superman. I found the plot point compelling, perhaps only because I had recently read arcs like Crisis on Infinite Earths, John Byrne's Man of Steel, and Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright (as well as Johns’ own Secret Origin). Johns work well to take these seemingly disparate stories and weave them together in a way that identifies their inherent uniqueness while maintaining their overarching importance to the ever-expanding DC mythos.
He uses Superman's history to comment on the ever-shifting reboots and retellings of the Man of Steel's origin, allowing Clark Kent's fabled history to serve as a microcosm for the DC Universe overall. Dr. Manhattan toys with these moments, and though I am not educated on the narrative ramifications of these events moving forward, I enjoy the points Johns is making. He's trying to explain the unexplainable, the ever-altering way the DC Universe moves to encapsulates new continuity and modify the past. Johns give us a meta glimpse into the Universe, using the world to comment on the world; it makes everything feel pertinent, to an extent. It's as if Johns is trying to reassure us that Secret Origin didn't replace Birthright or that Birthright didn't replace Man of Steel--each just exist within their own version of the DC Universe.
Doomsday Clock comes with a lot to unpack. It’s not necessarily the “Watchmen sequel” some may have touted it being before it was released; if we’re being honest, the Watchmen elements are iffy at best. While they’re the reason I picked up the story initially--an early scene where a seemingly alive Comedian shoots Lex Luthor after Luthor interacts with Ozymandias made me geek out royally--the adaptive elements of Moore and Gibbons’ classic can become a little pandering. Johns misuses Moore and Gibbons’ narrative parallelism and poetry, trying to be clever when he ends up being unoriginal.
I enjoyed Johns’ ability to continue Moore’s narrative and introduce new characters, especially as those pieces impacted the story, and I appreciated the larger commentary Johns provides on the DC Universe overall. I never felt like Johns ruins Moore's characters by using them in a story that, overall, isn’t quite as simultaneously edgy and endearing as the original series (or as clever). Where Johns falters is in his direct homages to Moore--it’s funny that, seeing how closely tied to Watchmen Johns’ Doomsday Clock is, the best aspects of Johns’ series happen when he’s not overtly connecting himself to Moore’s saga. If Johns had just pulled in the characters and crafted his own original story without feeling the need to ape Moore’s prose, Doomsday Clock may have felt more impactful and original...and, if anything, it may have given fans a welcome return to the Watchmen universe after so many years of being apart.
© 2022 Nathan Kiehn