Reviewed: Doomsday Clock series, DC Comics
In the first issue of the four-part Before Watchmen: Doctor Manhattan series, released in 2012, Manhattan muses on the philosophical implications of the regularly misunderstood Schrödinger’s Cat experiment. ‘Boxes contain mysteries,’ Manhattan explains. ‘Boxes are mysteries. Until we open them, we can never really be sure what’s inside.’
Doomsday Clock is Geoff Johns, Gary Frank and Brad Anderson’s sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ ground-breaking 1986 series Watchmen. Beneath the narrative, the nostalgia and the history of animosity between Moore and his publishers, it’s a box that contains a mystery about what’s next for the comics industry in general. Launched in 2017, the 12-issue series released its final comic in December last year, preparing the ground for another reinvention of the DC canon this year.
The plotting and dialogue across the series is tight and intelligent, as you’d expect from industry veteran Johns, and the artwork by Frank and Anderson is detailed and filled with drama. It’s a fitting homage to the original work, with a dark aesthetic and updated technology. Together they do a pretty good job of reining in and making sense of what could easily have been a pretty ropey concept.
Over its nearly hundred-year history the comics industry has had to reinvent itself many times in response to changing market-places and the demands of regulatory bodies, most famously those of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, which was intended to protect children—the key audience for comics in the early days of the industry—from sensationalist stories, violent imagery and inappropriately sexual content. Since George Pérez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985), which was intended to address sprawling continuity issues that had developed over the decades, these reinventions have been introduced to readers as portfolio-spanning reboots, retcons and reimaginings that alter the fundamentals of the various publishers’ titles. They rework some characters’ backstories, introduce new characters and bring others to a close (only to be brought back in later reboots).
In the first few decades of this new century these reinventions have come thick and fast, as the industry has attempted to grow alongside its burgeoning cinematic companions. It has also struggled to introduce diversity to a format that has historically been dominated by white patriarchal structures and the dramaturgies of the male gaze. The observation that mainstream comics have been a bastion of impossibly muscled white male characters and chronically underclothed and exaggeratedly breasted female characters is something of a hangover from the early to mid 1990s (I’m looking at you, Image Comics), but as the long arc of social history has continued to bend towards inclusion, more and more publishers have attempted to reimagine canonical characters and to introduce more women, people of colour and LGBTIQ+ superheroes into the mainstream. This, predictably and sadly, has sparked outrage among conservative commentators and white supremacist incel fanboys, who see any attempt at inclusivity and diversity as an intolerable intrusion of political correctness.
However, the external pressures on the comics industry have recently seemed to settle down, and the success of these properties on screen has attracted a broader audience to the comic book form, which can only be a positive. Despite this, there are clear indications that the financial situation for these print publications is still troubled. Online comic readerships haven’t really filled the widening gap, and consequently, although the most recent reboot of continuity for DC was in 2016, an all-new reboot—Generation Five—is being mooted for October 2020. The past eighteen months have given a few clues about the direction it might take.
This is where Doomsday Clock comes in. Alongside the portfolio-wide Year of the Villain event that encompasses the most familiar titles (Superman, Batman, Justice League, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash), there has been a liberal distribution of nods to the future in more prestige format projects such as the Heroes in Crisis mini-series and, notably, Doomsday Clock.
Written and published at the height of Reagan- and Thatcher-era politics and Cold War tensions, Watchmen was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ superhero allegory for the fear of humanity’s imminent nuclear annihilation. It’s entirely separate from the familiar DC universe: there’s no Superman, no Lex Luthor, no Batman or Justice League. Instead it presents analogues of these famous archetypes in the persons of Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach and the Minutemen.
It was a massively successful stand-alone story that is regularly ranked as Moore’s best work, and remained outside DC continuity for two decades. Moore was famously at loggerheads with DC over the rights to the Watchmen characters and world, believing that—although the contract for Watchmen stated the ownership of the intellectual property would revert to Moore and Gibbons once the comic went out of print—the company had no intention of releasing the characters. Yet the company has indeed reprinted Watchmen since its first publication (and why wouldn’t they, since it’s been such an ongoing success?), they have been shy of exercising their contractual rights to reuse the characters in new projects with or without Moore’s input.
In 2012 this changed with the announcement and release of a series of short prequels, Before Watchmen, focusing on the individual characters created for Watchmen. It was to be written and drawn by some of the leading talents of the time, including Len Wein, Brian Azzarello and J. Michael Straczynski. Furthermore, a new Watchmen TV series that picks up from where the original comics left off was created for HBO (owned by Warner Brothers, which also owns DC) by Damon Lindelof, and was released with the new Doomsday Clock comic series.
In 2017 the DC Rebirth series (fourth in the long line of reboots) picked up threads from previous versions of the DC universe, particularly focusing on the events of the Flashpoint story line—in which Barry Allen, the current universe’s version of The Flash, travelled back in time to save his mother from dying at the hands of Eobard Thawn, the Reverse-Flash. In doing so, The Flash drastically alters the future, resulting in a war between Atlantis (led by Aquaman) and Themyscira (led by Wonder Woman). It also created an alternative Batman time line, in which Thomas and Martha Wayne survived the shooting in Crime Alley as their young son, Bruce, took the bullet, leaving the grieving father to become the Batman of a new universe.
One of the incredible strengths (and often weaknesses) of the comics industry is its decades of intertextuality and the hundreds of characters and stories it can call on for reinvention. In the Rebirth launch issue, the introduction of the Watchmen universe to the regular DC canon is teased when a mysterious button (we’d say badge—a yellow, smiley-face button with a splash of blood on it) appears in the Batcave, sparking a story called The Button that played out in four issues across Batman and The Flash comics. In this story, Batman and The Flash return to the Flashpoint universe to find the origin of the button.
Fans of the original Watchmen series would immediately recognise this as a key image from the original 1980s comics. This is the badge that The Comedian, a Vietnam vet turned vigilante, was wearing when he was thrown to his death from the top of a building at the beginning of Moore and Gibbons’ comic, and it’s also the front cover of that first issue. It’s oddly jarring to see this souvenir from one completely separate fictional world—which also functions as an iconic marketing tool in our world—appear as a major plot point that leads into the 12-issue Doomsday Clock series, the event that finally absorbs the Watchmen universe into the main DC continuity.
The Button crossover series flags a bridging of these two worlds in more ways than just the inclusion of the bloodied smiley face. The original Moore and Gibbons work relied heavily on a strict nine-panel grid for its art work throughout; so does The Button and so will Doomsday Clock. The epilogue to The Button teases fans with a familiar protagonist when a giant, light-blue hand picks up the smiley-face button, which has appeared now on another planet. Fans of Watchmen will immediately recognise this hand as belonging to the atomic super-powered Manhattan. Even the first pages of the Rebirth launch comic begin with a nine-panel grid focused on the gears of a watch alongside a reflection on the meaning of time—a key theme of Straczynski’s Before Watchmen: Doctor Manhattan series from 2012.
Doomsday Clock is full of this kind of fan service self-referencing, almost seeming to revel in its licence to do whatever it wants with Moore and Gibbons’ characters and world. It included some very obscure DC characters from the 1980s; for instance, it brings back the hard-bitten noir detective character Nathaniel Dusk as the hero of a series of black-and-white movies that play in the background of the main story. The two themes eventually intersect, as the actor who plays Dusk, Carver Colman, has been meeting Manhattan over the years.
The Doomsday Clock story pits Batman against two new characters, Mime and Marionette, who would be at home in either the mainstream DC universe or the Watchmen world, while also reluctantly working with a new Rorschach, who is inspired by the journals kept by the original Rorschach before his death at the end of the 1980s book. At the end of the original, Manhattan tells Ozymandias that he plans to leave this galaxy for a less complicated one. Doomsday Clock takes this as the stepping-off point for its narrative, suggesting that the less complicated galaxy he chooses is the mainstream DC universe, the world that includes Batman, Flash, Superman et cetera. Ozymandias is attempting to follow him, to escape his world, which is once more facing imminent destruction.
As with the original, the politics of the day serves as the background for the narrative. In the 1980s, the theatre of nuclear annihilation is front and centre; today there are also placards in those posters that read ‘Make America Safe Again’. Rorschach refers to ‘undeplorables’, the rise of totalitarianism, the collapse of the European Union and a revived nuclear threat, this time from North Korea. New existential fears and very real anxieties pulse on every page.
Ozymandias takes the new Rorschach, Mime and Marionette to the DC universe where they discover that this world too is on the brink of crisis. A widespread belief in a ‘supermen theory’ that accuses the world’s governments of developing ‘supermen’ in a kind of arms race to use against each other has resulted in mass protests, civil unrest and rising international tensions—again underpinned by the threat of all-out war. The Watchmen characters seek out allies in their search for Manhattan, Ozymandias attempting to join forces with Lex Luthor and Rorschach with Batman. Mime and Marionette team up with Joker, and, as each issue passes, more and more characters from the regular DC world are brought into the search.
Ultimately it’s revealed that Manhattan has indeed been hiding in the DC universe and, as already revealed in the Before Watchmen series, has been altering all the other possible universes to ensure that only one remains, in which the disasters of the Watchmen world did not happen. This includes altering previous DC timelines, suggesting that all the previous crises and reboots have been the doing of Manhattan. He has changed the stories of DC’s heroes time and again, harking back as far as the retconning of Golden Age DC heroes such as the original Flash, Jay Garrick, (retconned in 1956), Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern (retconned in 1959), and the Justice Society of America (cancelled in 1951). Inevitably this leads to a confrontation between Manhattan and Superman, in which Manhattan regains his hope for the future and restores the previous timelines.
Doomsday Clock opens the way for DC to bring back a rollcall of characters that have been written out of existence. It’s a much more comprehensive solution than the original attempt at solving crises of continuity in Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was only made more complicated by subsequent reboots (Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, The New 52 …) The final pages of issue 12 tease future reboots, including one that happens in 2020 (presumably the Generation Five reboot), one in 2025 titled Time Masters and another in 2030 to be called Secret Crisis, in which the god Thor and a ‘green behemoth’ (clearly intended to be The Hulk) battle Superman and Doomsday.
Not long after the release of this final issue, Arris Quinones, the host of the comics-focused YouTube channel Variant Comics, drew connections between simultaneous mentions of Marvel characters in DC comics and references to DC characters (specifically Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and The Flash) in Donny Cates’s new Thor series for Marvel, and suggested that these appearances are far from coincidental. Instead, Quinones suggests, they may be pointing to a potential future corporate merger of the two comics industry giants.
The cover of Doomsday Clock issue one shows an angry crowd holding placards that read ‘The End is Here’, referring to the end of Watchmen and the fake alien invasion created by Ozymandias as a way to convince humans to put aside their political differences and unite against a common enemy. But it might also be hinting at the massive shift such a merger would represent.
Doomsday Clock is a mystery in a box—and that mystery is what comes next for the comics industry itself. A merger between the two dominant companies could have seismic repercussions for the industry as a whole. Doomsday Clock might be a sign of DC trying to get out in front of the anticipated changes, or it might just be a self-aware acknowledgement that at some point another DC–Marvel crossover is inevitable. Only Doctor Manhattan can know for sure. •
Robert Reid is a freelance playwright, historian, game designer and critic. He is a co-founder of WitnessPerformance.com, where he reviews theatre and dance. His plays The Joy of Text and On the Production of Monsters were produced by MTC in 2011 and 2012.