Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Microreview [Comic]: Doomsday Clock by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank

Hey-look-at-me-I'm-doing-Watchmen comic with some nice touches, impossible ambitions and silly morals

DC Comics did a fine job in resisting the urge to do a Watchmen sequel. It took them 30 years to pull the trigger and come up with a story that continues from where Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons left off in 1987 — a notable feat for an entertainment corporate giant. The topic is not as hot as it once was, though. I remember Watchmen fans vowing to never again read anything by any comics creator who dared to contribute to the Before Watchmen project which comprised several miniseries interpreting the pre-Watchmen activities of the characters in 2012—2013. Brian Azzarello, J. Michael Straczynski and others were criticized quite harshly but this time around writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank survived doing their own take on Watchmen pretty much unscathed as far as I can tell. The first issue come out at the end of 2017 and it took them two years to complete their 12-issue miniseries Doomsday Clock, but now the whole thing has been released as a graphic novel.

So, is there still somebody who watches the watchmen after 30 plus years?

The original Watchmen by Moore and Gibbons defined the feel of revisionary superhero narratives for decades and is probably to blame for establishing the whole nihilistic subgenre in mid-80's along with Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. It has since been adapted and supplemented by a Zack Snyder blockbuster movie in 2009, the multiple prologue miniseries of Before Watchmen by a Azzarello, Straczynski et al and a TV series by Damon Lindelof that was aired on HBO last year. Each of these works took Watchmen in their own direction. Whereas Snyder made it into heavy-handed spectacle that ramped up violence, faithfully replicated much of the plot and missed all the themes, HBO's Watchmen is a fresh take on racial politics in the US. That is something that Englishmen Moore and Gibbons completely left aside and there is not a single black costumed adventurer in Watchmen, which the new Watchmen series takes issue with. On the comics front, Before Watchmen was an uneven collection of prequel tales, some quite good and others more forgettable. It's a huge thing page-wise but in its scope nothing compared to what Johns and Frank are aspiring to.

Doomsday Clock is the culmination of New 52 and Rebirth story arcs which relaunched the whole DC universe, and it seeks to combine the separate worlds of Watchmen and the DC heroes, pitting the blue quantum-powered overman Dr. Manhattan against Superman. In the story, Ozymandias dimension-hops with a new substitute Rorschach (because Moore and Gibbons blew the original up) and two super criminals into the DC universe to search for Dr. Manhattan. The world of Watchmen is again on the brink of nuclear disaster, desperately needing a divine intervention, but Dr. Manhattan has left. In fact, he has jumped into DCU to cause troubles for its heroes and rewrite their timelines for… who knows why? The weakest part of the set-up is that some of the stuff just does not make very much sense, but the plot rolls forward nicely and soon the reader gets plenty of other story threads to worry about.

Johns and Frank's main addition to the Watchmen lore is the criminal duo of Marionette and Mime who are actually based on old Charlton comics characters, just as all the original Watchmen cast. As the new Rorschach, they have recruited a supporting character from the original graphic novel, and that works quite well too. All in all, there are a lot of enjoyable and intelligent elements which, sadly, just do not come together well enough to make it a very memorable. There are just way too many characters, as practically everyone who is somebody in the DCU makes an appearance and the story is even peppered with some real-world personalities like Vladimir Putin and a US president whose name is not mentioned but who likes short sentences and superlatives. At least the most prominent players Batman, Joker, Lex Luthor and Superman are interesting, but the major backdrop of the story dealing with a sort of a cold war of superhumans of different nations is just a mess.

Visually and narratively, Doomsday Clock is trying very hard to be like Watchmen. It's a 12-issue limited series employing a 3×3 panel layout, with the last pages of each issue reserved for extracts from different documents originating in the storyworld — newspaper clippings, government files et cetera. Panels of the main storyline and a story-within-a-story (this time a noir detective movie) overlap and comment on each other, and the title of each chapter is lifted from a quote that is revealed in the last black panel next to the shape of a yellow doomsday clock clicking closer to midnight issue by issue.

At the end of the day, however, it's just a new DC superhero crossover epic with a happy end. It sets up some interesting dichotomies between two superpersons: Dr. Manhattan is so far beyond any of his fellow humans that he is losing his humanity altogether, whereas Superman who is not a human at all but an illegal alien who embodies superhero morality and compassion for humankind. It admittedly tries very hard, but I'm not convinced that Doomsday Clock will be something that anybody is going to be celebrating in ten years, let alone 30. In addition to copying so much of the stylistic stuff from Watchmen, having some of its moral ambiguity and open-endedness would have served Doomsday Clock well. That is not what Johns and Frank were after, however, and at the end of the book we learn how everyone gets what they deserve and how everything ends. Sigh. A Watchmen sequel where absolutely nothing is morally gray and everyone's either a good guy or a bad guy just doesn't cut it.

When compared with Lindelof's TV series, the other Watchmen sequel that came out during the same time, Doomsday Clock is not doing very well. Watchmen, just as the original Watchmen, does something unexpected, challenges its predecessors and says something important about the social and political reality that surrounds it. Doomsday Clock offers some familiar ticking, but the reader can rest assured that it will never get to midnight.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for ambitious effort

Penalties: -2 for playing too safe

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 – "an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

SPACEFARING KITTEN, an extradimensional enthusiast of speculative fiction, comics, and general weirdness. Contributor since 2018.

Reference: Doomsday Clock Part 1-2 by Geoff Johns & Gary Frank [DC Comics, 2019 & 2020]