I am in something of a quandary here, given that the long overdue Doomsday Clock 5 has turned out to be an almost entirely passable comic, leaving me with little or no excuse for the expected ranting, raving and personal insults towards Geoff Johns. Instead, I am going to have to be a but analytical about why this is the case.
For a start, this is a wider issue than those preceding it. Johns has several irons in the fire, outside of his desire to rebut Watchmen‘s criticism of the DC Universe (hint: you berk, that wasn’t the point, and it’s only been one of the most successful and game-changing series of all time, but god forbid baby shouldn’t stamp his feet and say it was all wrong, thirty years after everything changed anyway) (knew I couldn’t entirely let him off, folks.) For a start, there’s this Supermen Theory, leading to a world-wide rejection of metahumans, a world-wide rejection of international co-operation, not to mention sanity, which Johns expands on this issue.
This is the at least temporary destination of the DC Universe, to be prefaced in all series, if Johns ever tells them what they’re supposed to build up to. All we know so far is that Lex Luthor isn’t behind it (if you believe him), and its getting ugly. As in rapidly approaching world-wide conflagration, a la Watchmen. Original, or what?
There are increasingly substantial references to the rebirth of the Legion of Superheroes and the Justice Society of America. NewRorscharch has escaped from Arkham and, offscreen, met up with Imra Ardeen, Saturn Girl that is, mind-reader and possessor of a ring with a very familiar L design. Somehow or other, explanation to be given later, we hope, they get to a more-or-less melted Pittsburgh steel factory in time to save 102 year old nursing home escapee Johnny Thunder from a gang of cheap street punks. Johnny’s in pursuit of a report of a green fire that, of course, turns out to be Alan Scott’s Green Lantern lantern, but why are NewRorscharch and Saturn Girl there? Buggered if I know.
And let’s go back to that scene with Lex Luthor and Lois Lane, in which Lex puts forward the belief that there is some master metahuman, creating metahumans, the seed for the Supermen Theory, except it’s not the US Government creating them. This metahuman was once a member of the Justice League…
But what makes this issue passable is the lengthy sequence with Adrian Veidt, in which his escapes from confinement in hospital, recovers NewBubastis and his costuume, retrieves the Owlship, where he discovers Batman in residence, flees from the Police and holds a debate with the Caped Crusader as to their respective purposes before dumping him at Gotham Police Station, where the Joker’s about to face up to the wholly unimportant Mime and Marionette.
Because Johns treats Veidt with respect, as a very effective and competent ‘hero’, on a level with the great Batman, and he gives him a fierce perspective that not only challenges but belittles Batman and, by extension, all the DC superheroes. Because Veidt my have failed in his Moore-conceived big plan, about which Batman is scornful, but he was trying to save everybody. He’d done so much for his world, to make it better, safer, cleaner, and what has Batman done? Played cops and robbers. Nothing else. This time it’s a Watchmen character who gets to be contemptuous of the great and glorious DC Universe’s way of doing things, and it throws a great heavy substantial weight down on that side of the balance.
But let us not forget Geoff Johns’ ultimate aim, which is to prove that his sandbox is much nicer that Alan Moore’s of thirty years ago, because Johns hasn’t forgotten it. The back-up material this time out is a paranoid report on the world-wide metahuman build-up, the armed response to the Supermen Theory. Everyone’s shoring themselves up for a defensive to an attack that isn’t coming (you bet?) and paranoia is building.
Then the last page is a sunny ad for Metropolis, safest place under the sun, because it’s got Superman to protect it. Superman will save us all, the godhead of the DC Universe will see off the menace. Nasty Dr Manhattan, your sneaky plans will fail.
I know it’s a bit out of place when dealing with a writer of superhero comics, but somebody does really need to grow up.
This is the longest film I’ll watch all year, especially as I have been watching the Ultimate Cut, for which I had to extend myself to a Region 1 DVD, as this version was never released in the UK. In addition to an extra 24 minutes of footage, this version branches in the 25 minute extra, the Tales of the Black Freighter animation, to produce a cut of about 3 hours and 45 minutes. Since the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit extended versions are part os boxsets, I have nothing that comes anywhere near this film.
A great many things have been said about Watchmen, most of which, whether positive or negative, are accurate. Whilst not being blind to its flaws, I still like the film and find it easy to become engrossed in, even for that length of time. Whilst agreeing that its near-obsessive attention to both detail and the duplication of the original comic books make it too closely suited to fanboys, I still recall going to see the theatrical version on release with my then-wife, who also enjoyed it. And all she knew, going in, was that I had been eagerly awaiting its release for ages, plus a fifteen second background summary from me, just before the lights went down!
What surprises me now is that, after being so heavily condemning about Director Zack Snyder’s dark, gloomy, obsessive approach to DC Comics films, I should find the unchanged style so effective in Watchmen. It makes for a heavily mannered film, intensely stylised, utilising sets that are meant to be real and yet which are plainly artificial. The style slows most of the movie down to a near-glacial pace, in which even the fast action fight scenes are frequently halted by super-slow-motion, focusing on individual and tiny elements in the scene, yet it doesn’t bore, or at least it doesn’t bore me.
It’s a different technique to the DC films, where the lavish use of CGI is intended to make the impossible convincing. Watchmen may feature a bunch of characters dressed up superhero fashion, be set in an alternate history in which Richard Nixon is on his fifth term as President, but there is only one actual superhuman, who’s blue, and whose powers are isolated and deliberately intended to be fantastic. Everybody else is human, well-trained human, but human, so that what they do is plausible, but the artificiality of it is underlined.
Given the dark story involved, Snyder’s technique is very appropriate to the material, in a way that it so determinedly is not for orthodox, mainstream superheroes.
For those unaware, essentially the story is that from the early Forties onwards, some people did put on colourful costumes to go out and fight crime with their bare hands. The early generation suffered losses – two deaths, one removal to an asylum – and the new generation included a genuine superhuman in Dr Manhattan, who upset the Cold War balance of power very much in favour of America. Eventually, they were shut down by emergency legislation on the back of a Police strike, leaving only those directly sanctioned by the Government, and one renegade, as much wanted by the Police as any crook.
The story starts with Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian, the last active veteran of the original generation, being attacked in his penthouse apartment, beaten and hurled to his death through the window. Rorschach, paranoid, psychopathic, insane, gets it into his head that someone is disposing of costumes. Dr Manhattan is framed as a cause of cancer in those connected to him, Ozymandias attacked by a would-be assassin, seeming to bear this out. Then Rorschach is framed for murder, trapped, arrested, his identity exposed.
Nite Owl and Silk Spectre come out of retirement to break him free, it is discovered that the plot has been devised by Ozymandias as part of a scheme to con the world into peace by feeding it Dr Manhattan as a public enemy, and the scheme’s success forces the few survivors to keep a very big secret – which the film’s last shot hints may be exposed anyway.
There is infinitely more detail than that, of course. Watchmen the comic was a hive of detail, with co-creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons cramming in an impossible amount, on all levels, background, foreground, in-your-face and behind-your-back-ground, sometimes to the extent that the series felt like a test in which you had to get at least 85% of the references to pass.
Snyder, a fan of the comic, set out to replicate it on screen as much as was physically possible, and does so perhaps that 85% of the time. Of course he can’t cram everything in, not without making a film at least half as long again, so a degree of simplification was appropriate, and most of his choices on what to eliminate are on the mark for the medium he is using. But within what he retains, and the small amount he invents, Snyder goes for everything he possibly can.
The result is a film more faithful to its source than practically everything before it, and a film that is deadened by its refusal to bring itself to life in the film medium. I’ve watched adaptations before, where I’ve known the story very well going in, and my engagement with the experience has been tempered by an intellectual appraisal of the mechanics of adaptation, but this was almost absurd. I knew virtually ever move before it happened, counted off where the original issues began and ended, was not and could not be surprised by anything, and that’s not good for a film.
Snyder’s insistence on step-by-step, blow-by-blow faithfulness leaves Watchmen with no room in which to breathe. It chains down every scene by using the comic is a domineering storyboard. The film can’t come to life because nowhere does it have room to breathe. The actors are strait-jacketed.
And yet I enjoy it so much that I have just sat down for the best part of four hours without even a toilet break. Some of it is marvelling that the comic I followed so avidly from 1985 to 1986 is there on the screen before me, that Dave Gibbons’ straightforward meat-and-potatoes action cartooning has developed three dimensions, that we can move inside the panels and stare around freely, some of it is thirty years of enthrallment with a story that changed comic books forever. Some of it is recognising all the obvious flaws, the things that made Alan Moore refuse to have his name on it or take any money from it, the things that made Terry Gilliam call the whole thing unfilmable, and nevertheless it’s here and it isn’t a witless and hollow travesty.
I have been reading things like this for so long now, that there will never become a time when I am too jaded not to revel that I can watch superheroes ‘for real’, in three dimensions. That the world agrees with what I’ve enjoyed in virtual secrecy for so many decades.
Despite his determined faithfulness, Snyder and scripters David Hayter and Alex Tse, do have to make changes. Whilst the costumes of the Forties Minutemen, even in cameo, are ultra-faithful, as are those of the Comedian, Rorscharch and, ahem, Dr Manhattan, Nite Owl, Ozymandias and Silk Spectre have been redrafted, hers to look more practical, Nite Owl’s more heroic and Ozymandias’s because, whilst there’s nothing actually wrong with it, you just couldn’t imagine Matthew Goode in the original.
Nor does good portray Adrian Veidt quite as he comes over in the comic. There, Veidt is superior but doesn’t parade it: the film’s Veidt, for whom Goode uses a slight German inflexion when he speaks in private, is noticably more contemptuous of those less clever than him, emphasising a little too much the underlying fascist aspects of his intended actions.
Malin Akerman looks the part of Laurie Jupiter (sadly, not Juspecyk, a minor detail foregone) to the life, thanks to a long, straight brunette wig. Patrick Wilson is a little too beefy and still in shape to quite fit Dan Dreiberg, whilst Billy Crudup, behind the blue CGI, makes for a very effective Dr Manhattan by simply speaking his lines very slowly, very drily and with almost no inflexion whatsoever.
Which leaves us Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach/Walter Kovacs and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian/Eddie Blake, and both are just absolutely brilliant. Each inhabits their larger-than-life parts to the full and beyond. Haley, whether under his full-face mask with its chasing superimposed blots, or dirty, unshaven, way beyond the edge without it, draws the eye at every moment. His hoarse, raspy voice, the perpetual anger, the overt craziness, you can practically smell the unwashedness. Haley, who was a fan of the comic, was dynamite, and its a credit to Morgan that his cynical bastard of a grinning Comedian is at no time swamped by the perfection of Rorschach. This pair are worth the film alone.
Of course, there’s one major change to the plot and that’s to the Big Lie. For all the determined faithfulness to Moorre’s original plot, his comic book cliche ending of an artificial ‘alien monster from another dimension’ breaking through to become a World Threat would never have worked on screen. It would have lost all but a tiny fraction of the audience instantly. Instead, perverting Dr Manhattan, America’s saviour, into a threat was the perfect alternative. It’s economical, saving masses of screentime in not having to establish the monster threat as plausible. And it’s far more plausible. A big score there.
So, overall, despite its failings, I still like Watchmen, the film, the Ultimate Cut, with as much stuffed into it as you can get. But it needs a vast amount of time and space in which to absorb it. Perfect for a lazy Sunday in the year of Film 2018.
What? Are they still publishing this piece of shit? I thought they’d cancelled the thing out of sheer embarrassment, though that may have been just wishful thinking.
It’s now two full months since issue 3 of Doomsday Clock, and the scheduling of this series is only going to get worse. Logistically, this is turning into a nightmare for DC: originally, it was supposed to be a monthly series, then it was going to skip a month after issue 4, and now, despite it still saying monthly in the indicia, it’s supposed to be bi-monthly from issue 3 onwards, meaning that the end date has now been pushed back from October 2018 to July 2019.
And the ‘now’ of this series is supposed to be the ‘now’ that the DC Universe is working towards as at Doomsday Clock 12, so that is now a shifting and an elongating deadline, except that I hear Geoff Johns is being very close-mouthed about what everybody else is supposed to be writing towards.
Even before we get onto the contents, this is looking like an almighty shambles.
But another one is now available, and what does that mean? Yes, you’re right. It’s excoriatin! time!
To be fair, this is certainly the best issue so far. That’s not a compliment, however: on a scale of 1 to 10, it still comes in at -2, but everything up till now has been somewhere like -8, -9, so it’s just a case of this issue not being egregiously offensive. It’s dull, overlong, flat and hollow, and it’s a sad case that these adjectives are by way of praise.
What we have here is the Secret Origin of the new Rorscharch, in a deliberate attempt to mirror the Secret Origin of the original Rorscharch in Watchmen 6. As such, in similar manner to Watchmen‘s alternation between plot and character, it brings progress to a dead stop. Given that Johns is plotting a more conventional, world-enveloping storyline, the effect is abrupt and awkward, amplified by this episode containing nothing of any great originality and the two month wait to get it at all. Assuming issue 5 doesn’t appear until the last week of May, that will mean a four month gap between progressive chapters, and we’re not even dealing with the audience that was prepared/forced to wait indefinitely for issues of Sandman Overture.
As for the origin itself, it begins predictably by revealing Reggie to be the son of Malcolm and Gloria Long, as everybody’s been guessing. We see some elements of his childhood, in which we’re treated again to Johns’ incurable desire to fuck about with elements of Alan Moore’s work (give up, you self-important,jealous little tw*t, you’re never going to be anything like as creative as him) as he implies that Gloria’s high sex drive in the original series was based upon maternal frustration at never having a second baby rather than a simple high sex drive, such as some people have.
No, Reggie is not a happy bunny, pushed around and bullied all his life, and then he witnesses the ‘breaking through a dimensional rift’ of Veidt’s alien monster, and Reggie is one of the thousands who go through mental tortures, in his case the obscenely vicious visions implanted in the creature.
Reggie is confined to an institution, just as he is in Arkham, which runs basically as a stale cliche. He gets a psychiatrist who tells us that patient John Doe is completely unidentifiable rather than eliciting any answers that illuminate Reggie, Rorscharch or his mission here (and anyway, the Doctor is Batman, who doesn’t seem to get the ida that he might have been more effective at this by keeping NewRorscharch in the Batcave).
No, the only insights to which we are privileged, and hell’s teeth these are slow in coming, are Reggie in the Mental Institution, which is just as much a Hell as Arkham, except that instead of getting beaten up and homosexually/sadistically propositioned by the other inmates, Reggie is being subject to ECT, drugs and beatings from sadistic staff.
But he survives, thanks to his mentor, and who is this mentor, who teaches him multiple fighting styles with which to defend himself, not to mention the mental fortitude to control his horrific visions and see only what he wants to see? Why, it is none other than, tah-dah! Byron Lewis. You remember, Mothman. From the Minutemen. In Watchmen.
Now there’s just two problems with this latest development, one of them ordinary, the other fatal. The ordinary one is that Johns is once more fucking Watchmen over, only on a slightly larger scale than the psychosexual origins of Gloria Long’s sexual drive. The thing is that Mothman is only a background character in the original, and he’s meant to be a joke as a Mystery Man. The name, honestly. The silly costume. The glider wings. He’s not to be taken seriously.
As for Byron Lewis, he’s the archetypal DC secret identity: rich socialite, nothing better to do, doing good on behalf of the plebs. He’s already something of a drinker as early as 1940 and that’s the problem. When the Red Scare comes at the start of the Fifties, Byron Lewis was interrogated pretty hard, over links he’d had with left-wing intellectuals pre-War: it exacerbates his drinking into full-blown alcoholism, leaving him a shrunken, physically and mentally crippled person wheen he’s installed in the Sanatorium in 1962.
Where he stays for the rest of his life.
But that’s not good enough for Geoff Johns. His Byron Lewis has to be serious, has to be effective and has to be over eighty percent sane. He’s physically fit for a man in his seventies, he’s a master of aeronautics and human flight, continually constructing wings and zipping off, he’s even got some control over the Lewis fortune which he directs responsibly (both economically and socially) despite being legally non compos mentis.
Hell’s bells, he even gives Reggie the Rorscharch costume after they both permanently escape from a sanatorium that’s busy burning to the ground, except that Byron just turns round and walks back into the flames, moth-like (heh-heh), in his latest set of wings.
Though there’s no mention of this immolation in the newspaper obituary that rounds out only two pages of background material (what’s up, Johns, imagination running a bit thin?)
Oh, and I said there were two objections to Mothman’s use in this context. The second is indeed, in fact literally, fatal: Byron Lewis’s death was reported in Watchmen before Veidt’s ‘alien invasion’. Missed that one, didn’t you? Hadn’t properly grasped that we Watchmen readers who read this over the original twelve months, with our obsessive thirst to work out what was coming, were alerted to every little detail. Unlike you. (I gave Dave Gibbons a summary of my theories once, after issue 8, at UKCAC in 1985, to which he replied that I was fifty percent right and fifty percent wrong, but he wouldn’t tell me which fifty percent. It was a neat stock answer: I was one hundred percent wrong!)
Of course, we may yet get the great ‘Dr-Manhattan-subtly-changed-everything-moment’ to account for this which, if it happens, would be a) incredibly lazy, b) incredibly cliched and c) fatal to the whole point as it amounts to disqualifying everything in Watchmen.
That’s the other point upon which this origin fails as opposed to the Walter Kovacs version: Kovacs becomes Rorscharch at a very early stage in his ‘origin’ and the climactic point is his transformation into the truly insane person he is in truth, a revelation that comes when Rorscarch is a long-established figure, both in his personal history and in terms of the story we were reading. Reggie Long is so far a cypher as NewRorscharch: his interest is solely as a replica of the original, instead of any characteristic of his own, and this issue reveals that he’s a bloody novice, that he’s been Rorscharch for a matter of days when this all starts. The origin undermines him, if anything, by presenting him as a cheapjack copycat.
Actually how long Reggie’s been NewRorscharch is a point upon which things have gotten somewhat confused on first reading and I had to go back to Doomsday Clock 1 to get a handle on things. Reggie becomes NewRorscharch on October 11 1992 and the series begins on November 22 1992. In those six weeks, with a global manhunt already on for the missing Adrian Veidt (who is suspected but not yet denounced by President Redford) Reggie makes his way to Antarctica, and Veidt’s home base of Karnak by means of a fortuitously supplied free ticket on a boat that Byron’s been hoarding for god knows how long, that just happens to be going to Antarctica. I mean, there are implausible coincidences and there are Big Fat Fucking Stupid Implausible Coincidences and no writer under the sun with the tiniest atom of self-respect writes something like this, Jeez.
And this boat, which runs by private invitation only to Antarctica to visit Veidt is still running for private invitees when there’s a global manhunt for Veidt and it’s heading for his home? Where nobody has thought to look just yet or, if they are not unbelievably stupid – because they do turn up – they with all the world’s resources take longer to get there than a boat from New York?
You could drop the plant Mars into a hole that big, and still have room to add Mercury, if you folded it over.
But all this tedious and ill-conceived reminiscing does, in the final pages, bring us back to the story because it inspires Reggie to break out of Arkham and cause Batman to admit he’s underestimated the man. We have two months in which to discover the implications of that.
I suppose you’d have to say that in the Eighties, I was one of those for whom Alan Moore was God, at least when it came to writing comic books. I discovered him on, simultaneously, Marvelman and V for Vendetta, in Warrior no. 1, and gleefully followed him to DC Comics, where he rapidly became the first superhero writer. And why not? Even in an eight-page back-up, Moore had the priceless gift of being able to see angles upon stories, situations, sensations that no-one had previously thought to look for, let alone discovered, but once seen seemed entirely inevitable. Every Moore story seemed to unpick and re-make the Universe, a piece at a time. Dialogue, captions, notions: no doubt Marv Wolfman summed it up for a lot of people when he said, “if he could plot as well, we’d have to gang up and kill him.”
All this culminated in Watchmen. The official story was that, once DC acquired the rights to the Charlton heroes, Managing Editor Dick Giordano invited Moore to come up with a treatment for them. Giordano, who, as editor at Charlton in the Sixties, had shepherded most of these characters onto the page was looking for something to introduce this group en masse into the DC Universe. Moore, seeing that there was only one genuine superhero among the lot, saw something different.
Moore saw the opportunity for a deconstructivist superhero series. With the exception of Captain Atom, nobody really had any powers. They were human. Conceiving his idea as, initially, a murder mystery – who killed The Peacemaker? – Moore wanted to directly address the notion of ordinary humans who put on bright costumes and went out into the streets to fight crime, hand to hand. When it came down to it, why would someone do that? How would they do that?
It wasn’t until a couple of issues had been carefully devised that Moore, who by now had Dave Gibbons attached to draw, saw the even bigger, and more fundamental question: if people did things like that, what would it do to society? And if there really was a superhuman, in the middle of the Cold War, what would he do to the world?
Reportedly, Giordano blenched at what Moore had done to his babies. In practical terms, DC hadn’t paid out for all these rights just for one use, which was all they would be getting, so Moore was asked to go away and revise his story to utilise newly created characters. This was, on one level, a good thing: Moore and Gibbons could archetypalise their protagonists, emphasising this approach’s universality, whilst using the shadow of Blue Beetle, The Question et al. to equip the likes of Nite Owl, Rorschach etc. with shadow backgrounds.
Watchmen was a massive success. It was different in many respects, deliberately so, heavily, almost obsessively designed and hyper-detailed, and alongside Frank Miller’s contemporaneous The Dark Knight Returns, was massively and misguidedly influential, ushering in the grim’n’gritty era.
It was also be be collected as a Graphic Novel, to be published on book publishing terms: once it was out of print and not in publication for two years, the rights would revert to Moore and Gibbons.
No-one expected just how successful it would be, or that it would still be in print and still selling over thirty years later. That had never happened in comics before. The rights never reverted. Moore has always regarded this as a betrayal, and it was a part of the cocktail events that led to his refusal to work again for or with DC.
Legally, DC were within their rights: the book sold and sold, it made profits for them year or year, who was going to be stupid enough to withdraw it? But this was the letter of the agreement, not the spirit, an unforeseen outcome that worked to their advantage. It would have made more sense to have re-negotiated with Moore and Gibbons retrospectively, to revise the contract in a way that reflected what had actually happened. But DC Comics were, and are, a commercial company. Why should they give away any part of their goldmine when they didn’t have to? And this was the company that had already tried to rip-off Moore and Gibbons by classifying a successful set of spin-off badges as ‘Promotional Material’ instead of ‘Merchandising’ so they could deny the creators the royalties.
Moore withdrew from DC permanently. It’s cost him a lot of money, which has got up the noses of those people, many of whom being comic book fans, who, never being prepared to sacrifice anything to principle, have attacked Moore for determinedly living by his ethics, no matter the cost.
One thing that can be placed to DC’s credit, or rather that of President Paul Levitz, has been the refusal to countenance spin-offs. Levitz, who entered the industry as a writer, though he was always primarily a businessman, refused to allow any proposals to use the Watchmen characters that did not mean Moore and Gibbons. It was not so much a door held open as one perpetually resting against the jamb, but Levitz insisted upon it. Whilst he was in charge, the Watchmen characters would not be used by anybody else, even though at all times DC had the legal right to do so.
But Levitz would not last forever. DC’s management was restructured in the 2000s and he stepped down. The company fell under the creative control of Managing Editor Dan DiDio and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. Johns certainly was one of DC’s most popular writers, though I have never rated him as highly as his general reputation would demand: DiDio I know more from the many decisions heavily criticised in the fan websites I follow in preference to actually following the DC Universe.
In 2010, DiDio, free of Levitz, decided he was not bound by any questions of morality or ethics, and initiated a series of spin-offs under the overall title of Before Watchmen. It was incredibly controversial. Debate raged between those who saw it as a breach of the sanctity, the book publishing sanctity that had always been afforded to Moore and Gibbons’ creation, and those who saw nothing wrong on any level with letting other writers and artists play with the characters. It’d be cool. We want more Rorschach, more Dr Manhattan, etc.
I sided with the former. The latter represents the age-old comicbook position that the character, not the creator, is what makes a comic good. It’s backwards-looking. To me, it’s no different than, say, Rob Wilkins deciding to write the 42nd Discworld novel. I know he wouldn’t but that, to me, is the level of sanctity demanded.
Although the creators included people whose work I would otherwise be eager to read, I was among those who boycotted Before Watchmen. I have not, nor will I ever read any part of it.
I’m laying this out because, tomorrow (as I write this section) I am going to breach that strict ethical stance, and I want the chance to consider my position before I do.
Five years ago, when DC rebooted their Universe for the fifth time, I wrote a lengthy piece about why I wasn’t going with them. The New 52 Universe was a radical departure that threw out all sense of history and legacy. It was controversial, a lot of it was crap, and last year, DC initiated a line-wide reboot-that-was-not-a-reboot in the form of DC Rebirth.
The underlying structure of Rebirth is the concept that someone, with the deliberate intent of weakening the DC Universe, stole ten years out of it. From the first, it was heavily implied that this had been done by Dr Manhattan. For a very long time, the mysterious and manipulative figure of Mr Oz in Supernan’s titles was expected to be revealed as Ozymandias, from Watchmen, though in the end it was another and even more major character return.
But a few months ago, DC announced a twelve-month limited series under the title of Doomsday Clock. It’s heavily implied that this series will lay out the complete background to Rebirth, although it’s also been stated that it will not have cross-overs into the DC Universe. Nearer the time, it was indeed confirmed that this was basically Superman vs Dr Manhattan.
We all know that, in terms of sheer power, and the ways in which it can be applied, Dr Manhattan can wipe the floor with Superman. We also know that Superman will win over him. DC would rock to its veriest foundations if Superman didn’t win.
Ethically, morally, the position is no different. This is a trespass on Moore and Gibbons’ creative rights in Watchmen, and I should boycott it as completely as I have and do Before Watchman. But tomorrow (as I write this section) I am going out to collect and pay for the copy of Doomsday Clock 1 that I reserved almost as soon as I heard of it.
The ethics are the same but the story isn’t. Doomsday Clock is going to be a major story (or that’s how it’s pitched), it’s going to bring the Watchman Universe and the DC Universe together, it’s going to spring surprises, make changes, be significant. It will change the (comics) world.
I’m not necessarily desperate to read that. I never read Flashpoint, which initiated the New 52. I read the original Rebirth issue, but I haven’t read anymore, and I made a profit, selling it on eBay. But despite the hypocrisy it entails, I do feel the need to read Doomsday Clock 1. And maybe the other eleven too. If it’s too crap, or inessential, or I just can’t stomach it, I shall drop the series and turn to eBay again. But I need to know what’s going on.
It came out on Wednesday. I’ve already spent half the week avoiding spoilers, not entirely successfully (I know Rorschach’s back). Usually, it’d be at least another fortnight before I visited Forbidden Planet again, but I can’t keep avoiding the spoilers that long. So, having addressed my hypocrisy and come to no better reason than necessity, the second section of this will be a review of Doomsday Clock 1.
I would seriously wish to loathe it and explain its multiple deficiencies and crassnesses.
Since first learning of Doomsday Clock, I have been deliberately starving my imagination of what it could possibly be. That it’s been a massive commercial success right off the bat went without saying. What it is is a comic that, so far, is so slavishly imitative of its original and yet without an ounce of its point as to question the entire point. But this is only issue 1, and it’s entirely set-up, and not much of that either.
First, however, let me record the ways this is an imitation of Watchmen. There is the nine-panel grid layout on all but one, significant yet confusing page. There is the odd title, ‘This Annihilated Place’, that epitomises the chapter and which comes from a larger, also apposite quote. And there’s the four post-story pages given over to newspaper cuttings filling in details of the intervening period. It’s a copycat, all right.
Until the end, the story takes place in the ‘Watchmen Universe’. Seven years have passed since the end of Watchmen. As hinted at at the end of the series, Robert Redford stood for President in 1988 and was elected. Rorschach’s Journal was indeed published in The New Frontiersman, but was completely ignored. Instead, trailing in the polls, President Redford drops the bombshell on the eve of the Election about Veidt’s trick.
Redford got re-elected and promptly headed straight back to the golf course: the world went to shit. Adrian Veidt, the most influential man on the planet for the last seven years, is now the most wanted man. The EU has collapsed, Russia has invaded Poland and the US has given them four hours to get out. Everything’s broken. Veidt can’t fix it a second time. The only man who can is Dr Manhattan, Jon Osterman. A small team, Ozymandias, Rorschach and The Marionette, plus her unrequested but still present husband, The Mime, has got about three and a half hours to find where Dr Manhattan went, and get him back, with enough breathing space to win.
Now that I put it that way, I can see what a stupid, comic book story it is, all fake, hyped-up apocalypse.
Now there’s a few things about the summary where we’re going to have to track back and fill in some details. Ozymandias is as expected but let’s add in the detail that he’s now got cancer, and the implication is that it’s both fatal and well-developed. Hopefully, this will be more than a plain steal from Moloch, first time round.
Rorschach? But he died, blown to smithereens by Dr Manhattan. This is not Walter Kovacs, however, but rather a new Rorschach, about whom all we know is that he’s black. He’s also a pale imitation, no pun intended. Though he’s clearly meant to be the same bull-goose looney as the original, he’s nothing like so absolute. Not only is he working with Veidt, perpetrator of the biggest crime in human history, but he’s breaking out of prison two criminals.
Actually, he’s only there for the Marionette, aka Erika Manson, but she insists she won’t go without her husband, Marco Maez, the Mime. I mean, first he has to effectively ‘bribe’ her to go by offering her the chance of being reunited with her lost baby son, but he gives in to her insistence on springing her husband. Compared to the real Rorschach, this one’s as flexible as Plastic Man.
Either Johns can’t or doesn’t feel comfortable with writing a character so absolute as the real Rorschach. The fake narrates the issue, except that instead of a Journal, this is in his head, and Johns can’t get anywhere near the genuinely disturbed mindset of Kovacs: he just cannot get the words right.
As for the two new characters, I am incredibly dubious. Apart from her being a vicious psycho, we know nothing about her nor what she does and especially not why Ozy needs her on the Get Dr Manhattan Project. Him, he’s mute, and acts like a mime. His special tools are invisible and intangible. Rorschach’s ‘joke’ about pointing an invisible gun not being funny is exactly that: not funny.
But I’ll wait for more. So far, he’s just a vicious psycho, but if either of them start manifesting superpowers of any kind…
Of course, Doomsday Clock isn’t simply a sequel to Watchmen. It’s supposed to be about some kind of merger, or at least planned relationship between it and the DC (Rebirth) Universe, so there’s a four page coda, introduced by Ozy’s tail-off line about “Wherever (Dr Manhattan)’s retreated to” which sees us transition to the bedroom of Mrs and Mrs Clark Kent.
Clark’s dreaming. It’s Prom Night, and Jonathan and Martha have made him put on a tux and go, even though Pete Ross has asked out Lana Lang. Significantly, this page abandons the nine panel grid for a twelve panel grid, three tiers of four. A shift that is immediately rendered meaningless when the next page – still the dream – reverts to nine panels. On which page a lorry shunts the Kent’s truck into a tree, killing both.
(This, I have had to look up, is current continuity, holding over from the New 52. I will make no comment about it).
Lois wakes because Clark’s screaming and hovering above the bed. She comments that she’s never seen him have a nightmare before. He comments that he never has had one before. The episode title is then revealed as coming from a poem called, appropriately, Ozymandias. Only it’s not the well-known one from Shelley but the contemporaneous effort by his mate Horace Smith (I am not making this up, nor is Johns, though I have learned about Horace and his deservedly lesser known Ozymandias only as a consequence of this quote, and since writing the preceding sentence: I presume there is a point to this wilful obscurity).
So, there we have it. In and off itself, Doomsday Clock serves to convince me that Geoff Johns hasn’t got an original idea in his fucking head. If any of his thousands od dedicated fans read this, they will no doubt seek to howl me down, most likely by accusing Alan Moore of only ever ripping off other people’s characters. This is a far from unfounded accusation, though I would draw a massive distinction between Moore’s genuine ability to bring original viewpoints to superhero comics and other genre, expanding the range of possibilities available to both story and concept, and John’s narrower field of vision which seems limited only to producing slicker, more efficient and violent superhero comics, by strip-searching other people’s creations for things he can then distort way beyond their initial ideas.
Frankly, that’s what Doomsday Clock is to me. Watchmen was created as an inherently unitary idea, with a beginning, middle and end. None of the hordes baying for Alan Moore’s head for the crime of wanting to deny them endless exploitation of the characters can deny that that was what was in the mind of both the creators and the company when the series was commissioned. What Geoff Johns is doing is pissing around in someone else’s flowergarden, and I don’t like that.
Having read issue 1 has freed me up to read those recent reviews etc. One indicates the notion that part of Johns’ purpose in this series is to comment metafictionally on the effect Watchmen had on comics. We’ve all been sadly aware that, down the years, it’s been more a case of writers and artists grabbing onto the ‘grim’n’gritty’ and amping up the blood, rapine and violence: Darkness Uber Alles, and I’ve read a lot of people suggesting that that’s a large part of Geoff Johns’ modus operandi, though I haven’t read enough of his work to comment, and far less a case of looking for the strange, the unusual, the innovative in this world of fictional characters we have available to us.
It’s a sour taste this leaves me with, but I’ll stomach it for now. Come back in about a months time and I’ll rip into issue 2. Or praise it, if praise is due. Don’t count the days, though.
Among the reviews I’ve read so far, which unlike my own have been universally impressed, I’ve read a couple of comments about the metafictional aspect of Doomsday Clock, as an intended commentary on the effect of Watchmen on comics in general.
It’s been suggested that part of Johns’ personal remit is to answer what Watchmen (and The Dark Knight Returns) did in creating the grim’n’gritty era. That he will be showing that the Universe of hope that is the DC universe in its present form is inherently superior to the Universe of cynicism that is the Watchmen Universe.
I hope not, I truly hope not. I’ve already said that I expect Superman to prevail because, as we all know, there’s no way DC are going to allow their most iconic character to come second best to anyone.
But to me, that metafictional intention, if it is correct, is nothing more than the intention to shit, comprehensively, upon Watchmen, long and hard, to diminish and destroy it by proving the orthodox DC Universe to be *better*, with bells, trumpets and whistles all over it.
Watchmen was the product of a particular time, and a particular set of circumstances. It was not meant to show up the DC Universe as inferior, but to offer a different perspective, completely separate and parallel. It wasn’t about anything so petty as who’s stronger, who’s better? Superman and Dr Manhattan didn’t co-exist, never would co-exist, meet or match up against each other, and Watchmen was the better for that.
It sounds to me as if that’s eaten at Geoff Johns, and maybe Dan DiDio until they can’t stand it. Watchmen has to be cut down to size, proved to be second class. Shat on, to put it bluntly. Then it can take its place as nothing more or less that just a facet of the DC Universe.
I’d like to be completely wrong about this, to be proven paranoid and raving. And if that is the case, I will admit it. But I’ll be there all the way, watching, hawk-like, for anything that indicates to me that this is the direction we’re going in. And I won’t mince my words about Johns if this is what is in his mind.