*Retroactive Fandom* The Riddle of The Spectre


A few words of context

In 1986, when things were otherwise then they are now, and I was active in UK Comics Fandom, I wrote an article about The Spectre that was published in Arkensword, a high quality fanzine published by Paul Duncan of Coventry that was one of only two then-fanzines to enjoy a circulation of over 1,000 copies.
The piece was written in the immediate wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, as a prelude to a new version of the Spectre, written by Steve Gerber, that promised to modernise the character, and to introduce an alter ego relationship relevant to the 1980s.
No such version ever appeared, nor any hints as to Gerber’s plan. According to Wikipedia, Gerber missed the deadline for issue 1, to be drawn by Gene Colan, in order to watch the last day of filming on the Howard the Duck film, and DC cancelled the project: not worth that last day, eh? The prospect of Gerber’s series led me to publish an article on The Spectre to date, on the various, contrasting incarnations of the character that had been thrown together without the least regard for continuity between the various versions. It was fun, and I made fun of the twists and turns that were, frankly, irreconcilable.
Ironically, a few years later, I came up with one small idea that made the whole pre-Crisis history come together. Though I’d been out of fandom for some time by then, I wrote my idea up as a sequel. Arkensword was dead, as were most of the fanzines I’d read or written for. I can’t remember if it was ever published and, if so, in what magazine. I don’t even have a copy myself.
Recently, I thought of these paired articles and decided I would reprint one and rewrite the other here, to give them a decent home. That was until I re-read ‘The Riddle of The Spectre; or, Continuity? What Continuity?’. If you really want to know what I wrote in 1986, you can go hunt out a copy of Arkensword 16 for yourself, because I’m not willingly going to let anything that awful be published on my blog. I need to rewrite both. Besides, I’ve thirty years of new information I didn’t have back then to include.

The Riddle of The Spectre

The Spectre is dead: Long live The Spectre.
In the tradition of Julius Schwartz, at the beginning of the Silver Age, Steve Gerber has been commissioned to create a Spectre for the Eighties. Back then, things like that happened without any thought for previous versions, which is why so much time and effort went into Crisis on Infinite Earths. No longer will that happen, Marv Wolfman assures us: Gerber’s Spectre will be the only Spectre there has ever been.
Thus passes Jim Corrigan, died 1940, deceased 1985. He leaves behind a history so convoluted, so inconsistent, so thoughtlessly plotted as to defy the very notion of continuity itself. It has been rumoured that Roy Thomas planned to straighten all this out in a Graphic Novel, but if The Spectre of old is now dead – which was the point all along – is there any point?
But it’s a shame to leave it like that. There are happy memories for some of us invested in one part or another of The Spectre’s career, and a lot of fun to be had picking over the bones of Jim Corrigan’s afterlife.
The Spectre debuted in More Fun Comics 52, February 1940, published by Detective Comics. He was created by Jerry Siegel, with artist Bernard Bailey, Siegel’s most substantial creation outside of Superman. The Kryptonian was about the vast enhancement of the body’s attributes: strength, speed, invulnerability etc. The Spectre was possibly the only idea that could extend beyond that: incomparable, illimitable power, bounded only by the imagination. Though at that time, the imagination was pretty bounded by writer’s crude notions.
Jim Corrigan seemed to have it all made: a successful Police Detective, engaged to marry heiress Clarice Winston, bringing in half of Gats Benson’s mob. In retaliation, Benson kidnapped Corrigan and Clarice, sending Jim off to swim in a barrel of concrete. Jim died. His spirit ascended but, at the borders of Heaven, was sent back by a Voice (presumably that of God), to combat evil.
Corrigan returned as a ghost, to resurrect Clarice, who had been shot, round up the rest of the mob and frighten Benson to death with a glance. He then jilted Clarice without explanation. How could he tell her he was no longer alive, did not breathe, could not… hold her.
As The Spectre, Corrigan appeared to be dressed in white and dark green, but don’t be fooled: hood, cape, trunks, gloves and moccasin sandals were costume, the white areas were The Spectre’s body.
As a character, The Spectre’s series was full of potential rarely realised. There was a freewheeling aspect to it typical of a time when anything went because no-one knew what might work. There were even flashes of genuine imagination, every now and then, but there were too many lame monster and magic stories, the thudding dullness of Corrigan’s Captain being convinced the Spectre was behind every crime and berating Corrigan for not bringing him in, and too much stiff and stilted art from Bailey. At first, the avenging ghost used to leave almost as many bodies in his wake as did the villains, but this didn’t last as long as a later writer suggested, as Detective Comics realised they had a money-making industry on their hands and started smoothing off rough edges.

The Spectre – Golden Aga

When Charley Gaines, at All-American Publications, Detective’s sister company, ordered up All-Star Comics to promote both company’s characters, The Spectre was chosen to represent More Fun, alongside Doctor Fate. Perhaps, as a Detective Comics character in an All-American comic, there was a subconscious bias against Corrigan, but despite his popularity, he never got considered for the JSA chairmanship, the route to a solo title.
Nor did he shine overmuch, despite being potentially more powerful than all the rest of the team put together. Gardner Fox wrote him competently, but lacked the intensity that Siegel could bring to the solo series, and even had him gassed into unconsciousness in issue 13 (drawing a retcon from Roy Thomas courtesy of The Monitor in 1985). And unlike other members, changes in The Spectre’s series were not taken up in All-Star.
To my surprise, instead of being parcelled off in Corrigan’s origin story (which required two issues to complete), Clarice Winston hung around a very long time, still in love with Jim (and he still in love with her) in a very touching manner that provided an oft-needed touch of stability.
But in More Fun 74, the series was changed permanently in a bad way by the introduction of Percival Popp, the Super-Cop, a short, klutzy and over-eager Private ‘Tec who wanted to team up with Jim Corrigan. At a stroke, The Spectre became second fiddle to his comic relief, a fate that other heroes didn’t suffer until much later in the decade.
An issue later, Popp’s investigations threatened to expose the barrel of cement in which Corrigan’s earthly remains lay in the river, so The Spectre got permission from the Voice to restore Corrigan to life. Which wiped out his excuse for not marrying Clarice, except that Popp took up so much of his and Spec’s time, she was pushed out.
And in issue 90, Corrigan went off to War, leaving The Spectre behind and suddenly invisible for the rest of the run until issue 101, after which More Fun was abruptly repurposed as a comic comic. And at more or less the same time, The Spectre was forced out of All-Star by the split between All-American and Detective Comics. Thus ended the Golden Age of Jim Corrigan.
Twenty years passed. Superheroes went out of and came back into fashion. In 1966, Julius Schwartz had stopped introducing new versions of old characters and was testing the revival of JSA characters in Showcase and Brave and Bold: Dr Fate and Hourman, Starman and Black Canary, all written by Fox and drawn by Murphy Anderson. For Showcase 60, Schwartz planned to pair Dr Mid-Nite and The Spectre, but in the end went for the Ghostly Guardian alone.
I bought ‘The War that shook the Universe’ one Saturday afternoon, walking from my Gran’s in Droylsden to the newsagents at Fiveways, poring over the spinner rack, and selecting this after a good half hour’s consideration. It was a good choice. Fox wrote what was the first retcon at DC, explaining why The Spectre – an all-powerful, immortal being – should have ‘retired’ for twenty years. Ingeniously, Fox conjured up Asmodus, an evil, demonic equivalent whose arrival on Earth had cancelled out both his and The Spectre’s energies, trapping them in their respective hosts.
The Spectre was released by the death of Asmodus’s host and had to fight the demon’s plot to trap him permanently within Corrigan. But Asmodus was only the herald of the greater menace, Shaithan, who arrived the next issue and who very clearly stood for the Devil himself. To defeat both adversaries, The Spectre required illimitless power, power of and from good (which, in 1966, included American soldiers fighting in Vietnam). He was, in short an incarnate form of Good.
Response was mixed: I loved both issues but many readers didn’t, rejecting the very idea of supernatural characters and menaces in the Silver Age of scientifically minded heroes. Schwartz, who was expecting to start a solo series, was surprised at the unfavourable commercial response. Fox’s approach wasn’t entirely successful, adopting a dry, mytho-religious tone that tried to reduce The Spectre’s supernatural abilities to semi-scientific energies.
Still, Schwartz didn’t give up. A third Showcase appearance in issue 64, half a year later, winding back on all-powerful entities to a ‘mere’ ghost was added to The Spectre’s appearance in the 1966 Justice League/Justice Society team-up. This was undertaken without any supernatural elements whatsoever, The Spectre being treated as ‘merely’ a character with immense power and a pycho-matter body.
The story called for Earths-1 and -2 being pulled into hyperspace on a collision course, and The Spectre physically holding the two planets apart until, in order to save everything, he agrees to the Earth-1 Atom shrinking him to one inch and then expanding him again, a process that causes any subject so treated (except Ray Palmer) to blow up.
It all sounds a bit callous (not to mention risky for the two planets) but worry not. Being all-powerful, The Spectre merely willed the atoms of his body to regroup themselves from all over the Universe.
These two stories lifted The Spectre over the hurdle and he gained his own comic in 1967, starting with one last, and unsatisfactory, Fox/Anderson story, then falling to lesser hands, amongst whom Neal Adams had to be classed. Weird and wonderful were The Spectre’s adventures, but most of all they were not very good. It was a different failure of imagination: in making The Spectre seriously all-powerful and Good with a capital G, it begged the question of who or what could pose him a threat.
In an attempt to combat the sales drop-off, DC tried to side-slip towards the still-successful Mystery market. Steve Skeates was brought in to do this, in keeping with the prevalent trend towards Relevance. As a punishment for casually killing crooks when he had much too much power to need to do so, The Spectre was sentenced to read from the Book of Judgement, short, pallid, sub-EC stories. Once again a supporting character in his own series, The Spectre only lasted one more issue before suffering his second cancellation.
Thus far, for all its changes of emphasis and direction, The Spectre’s story has been reasonably straightforward. But that was before Denny O’Neill. This is where it starts to get tricky.
In the late Sixties, O’Neill was DC’s hottest writer and Julius Schwartz’s go-to guy for updating series that had run out of steam. On the evidence of Justice League of America 82 – 83, it’s hard to see why. This was the out-and-out worst JLA/JSA team-up ever written, a nonsense farrago whose climax set Earths-1 and -2 onto a collision course again, requiring The Spectre to once more interpose his body between them, except that this time the resultant gravities tear him apart and he dies.
Come again? He’d already done that once and survived. Furthermore, O’Neill gave the impression of never having read a Spectre story before when, in order for him to enter the fray, Dr Fate has to summon him from imprisonment in a crypt (what crypt?), although the effectiveness of this crypt has to be questioned when set against Dick Dillin having drawn Spec as attending the Justice Society meeting in the first part. That one we’ll have to put down to pure sloppiness (did Julius Schwartz really edit this?)

The Spectre – Silver Age

So The Spectre was once again dead, for four years that is. Former EC artist Joe Orlando had joined DC as an editor, but was struggling with Adventure Comics, ever since it’s long-term feature, Supergirl, had been pinched for her own title. Six issues of floundering, including the debut of the mysterious Black Orchid, then a mistress of disguise with neither identity nor origin, led to a revival of The Spectre.
This was the infamous run written by Michael Fleisher, then a fixture at DC’s offices, researching his six-part ‘History of Superheroes’ (of which only two parts ever appeared). Orlando, who had recently been mugged in the street in front of his wife, was bubbling under with rage and susceptible to Fleisher’s proposal to go back to the character’s origin as an avenging ghost. With spectacular art from the then-little known Jim Aparo, a new series was launched in issue 431.
This version of The Spectre was controversial from the start for its gruesomeness. It went back to the idea of Jim Corrigan being a ghost that transformed into The Spectre and The Spectre not as an embodiment of Good fighting spiritual adversaries but as the pursuer, and executioner, of evil men, who would be despatched in various colourful, bloodless but graphic means: a hairdresser cut in two by scissors grown to massive size, a fake fortune teller turned into crystal, tipped over and shattered, and a man turned to wood and sliced up in a band-saw, etc.
I confess that I loved it in 1974, mainly for Aparo’s art, but even then I was aware that the stories were repetitious. Evil, heartless bastard villains prey upon and/or kill innocent citizens, The Spectre kills them brutally. The only real imagination lay in the latest graphic disposal.
The series rejected all versions before it. In the letters page, Orlando dismissed the crypt as Denny O’Neill’s problem, claiming his was the Earth-1 Spectre (whilst permitting an exchange with the reporter introduced to query The Spectre’s actions in which he’s sarcastically referred to as Clark Kent, leading a rookie cop to ask if he’s really Superman). Fleisher defended himself with the faux-naif claim that all these devices came from the original series. No, they didn’t, it was a lie. Jerry Siegel never wrote a scene in which his hero animated a hand-axe to cut his girlfriend into seven separate body parts in one panel (the scene got past the Comics Code Authority since it wasn’t actually Gwen Stirling being chopped up but rather a mannequin of her: then again, The Spectre didn’t know that until after he’d eviscerated her…) and that was before you thought of comparing the art of Bernard Bailey to that of Jim Aparo.
There was even a revoltingly predictable story in which Corrigan pleaded for relief from his task and was rewarded by the Voice by being restored to a human being. Except that the Voice didn’t tell him this had happened, so Corrigan only found out when he was shot. In this series, even God was a sick bastard. Jim took to the opportunity to visit the despairing Gwen (and impliedly shag her senseless, but then it was the first time he’d gotten any in thirty-four years). Then he got murdered by a mobster and returned to being a ghost. Sigh.
That story appeared in Adventure 440 and became the perfect, if unintended, finale of the run. DC had been taking heat from fans from the start, and, as soon as sales showed a slight downturn, publisher Carmine Infantino ordered the series cancelled, leaving three stories written and paid for but not drawn (these would be drawn by Aparo in 1988 for the mini-series Wrath of The Spectre, reprinting Fleisher’s run in issues 1-3 and presenting these ‘new’ stories in the fourth).
Immediately after this charming run, The Spectre re-surfaced on Earth-2 for the 1975 JLA/JSA team-up. There was no trace of the raving ghost: instead Spec stayed invisible and intangible throughout, merely intervening with the Voice to have six JSAers restored to life after they’d been killed by the JLA (don’t ask).
Were there now two Spectres after all? Jim Corrigan turned up in a single panel of the revived All-Star 70, without a sign of his ghostly companion, but the next two, almost simultaneous appearances to The Spectre himself were both clearly on Earth-1. The avenging ghost of Fleisher turned up in a three-part Dr Thirteen story in Ghosts, to enable the great sceptic to refuse to believe in him, whilst a version evidently much closer to Fox’s messianic agent appeared in DC Presents… to prevent Superman from entering Heaven, and to teach him a lesson about hubris.
In 1984, whilst writing Swamp Thing, Alan Moore introduced yet another, and utterly magnificent conception for The Spectre, as the Guardian of the Road to Hell, only for Roy Thomas to negate this idea by having The Spectre turn up back on Earth-2, in America vs the Justice Society, a courtroom drama featuring the framing of the JSA for treason as an excuse to summarise their every adventure.
Thomas posited that there was and only ever had been one Spectre, and that he’d moved to Earth-1 for unspecified reasons. Yeah, right. This Spectre was a mess of previous versions. He was no longer invisible, intangible and benevolent on Earth-2, and instead he threatened to destroy the planet for the crime of trying the JSA (they turned down his offer to move them to Earth-1, so he quit Earth-2, forever, sobeit.)
Marv Wolfman used The Spectre in Crisis, to directly challenge the Anti-Monitor at the Dawn of Time, causing the shattering of existence, and putting Spec in a handy coma for the rest of the series. Roy Thomas used him at the start of The Last Days of the Justice Society, having him destroyed and wiped out of existence, all the way back to his start. But it was Alan Moore who gave The Spectre the closest thing to a fitting finale, even in defeat: his arrogance at his powers and his desire to use them to the glory of God leads to him allowing the bird carrying the pearl of distilled horror to pass, to summon the Ultimate Darkness, the Shadow cast out by Light. The Spectre believes he will defeat the Darkness, but he is beaten, unhooded, broken, even his powers inadequate.
The Last Days of the Justice Society came out a week later, with a passing reference to the struggle against the Darkness as ‘a mighty affair’, excusable if Thomas didn’t know Moore’s story in advance but nevertheless demeaning. Given Thomas’s attitudes to anyone else writing the JSA, the slight may well have been deliberate.
Such was the story of The Spectre, a confusion of different portrayals and states, impossible to reconcile into any cohesive history. It doesn’t matter now, because The Spectre is Dead. Long Live The Spectre.

The Riddle of The Spectre Revisited

(After some thought, I decided it was impossible to reconstruct the thoughts and associations of thirty years ago, so this part of the post will effectively be a new article, attempting to rediscover the tenor of my thoughts. Since I’m trying to reflect the ideas I had circa 1990, I’m going to ignore all later versions of The Spectre and his story.)
It started with a single moment of inspiration, from which I realised that all the contradictions and wildly fluctuating treatments of the Spectre’s pre-Crisis history could be resolved into a harmonious whole. The crucial point came in 1970, when Denny O’Neill decided to end the eighth JLA/JSA team-up by killing off The Spectre. I can see his reasoning behind that: O’Neill was much more comfortable with street-level heroes and the Sixties approach to The Spectre as cosmic incarnation of Good made it even harder to fit him into a story that he could resolve in an eye-blink than Superman.
So O’Neill imprisons Spec in a crypt from which only a séance can free him, just in time for him to intervene between Earths-1 and 2 on collision course, bouncing the two planets back where they belong but unable to prevent the gravitational forces from tearing him apart, thus killing – or rather destroying – The Spectre. But…
What if? What if, in that final moment, feeling himself torn apart, unable to recreate himself as he had in 1966, because he’d had notice of The Atom’s plans to blow him apart and time to imbue his molecules with a kind of spectral magnetism whereas now he only just has time to intervene at all, what if in that last moment as he thinks he’s falling into endless rest, Spectre’s survival instinct kicks in and he makes one final attempt to cohere, grabbing at an Earth to form upon? But he gets Earth-1…
How does that affect everything? Firstly, let’s work backwards.
Jim Corrigan became The Spectre in 1940, under order by the Voice to eradicate crime. At first, his methods are often brutal and he kills criminals with grim purpose. This was not the Voice’s intention so if we shift history slightly, The Spectre is instructed to raise Corrigan’s body from the dead and bond to it. Corrigan’s humanity tempers The Spectre’s darkness, and ameliorates his ruthlessness.
But now that Corrigan is alive again, he’s anxious to play his part in the War his country is fighting. He joins the Army, but the separation has an unintended effect: without Corrigan as a host, The Spectre cannot materialise. He can effect criminals but is invisible: he joins forces with private Detective Popp because he has no alternative: the police still don’t trust him.
This lasts until 1945 when The Spectre disappears completely for twenty years, forced into imprisonment inside Jim Corrigan by the arrival on Earth-2 of Asmodus, a demon of similar status to Spec, intent on spreading evil. The two beings cancel each other out until 1965, when the death of Asmodus’ host alters the balance. He can escape Earth, The Spectre is freed. The twenty years he has spent imprisoned, unable to use his magical energies, has built them up to an incredible level: it has also kept Jim Corrigan younger and fitter than he should be.
But this energy is not infinite. Gradually, and more so, as he faces menaces of incredible force, such as Shaithan, and the first threat of the two Earths colliding, these diminish, enough that, after a prolonged period of being absent from Corrigan, he reverts to his earliest form, that of the killing ghost.

The Spectre – Bronze Age

Corrigan’s outrage causes a permanent separation between the pair, and in order to discipline the Spectre, and ensure he doesn’t revert fully to his earlier savagery, the Voice confines him to a crypt (a-hah!) where he must read from the Book of Judgement until he understands humanity better. Only to be released by séance performed by a magical practitioner of great ability, such as Doctor Fate.
Whilst in the crypt, Spectre’s energies have again increased through lack of expenditure, giving him the power to separate the Earths from collision. But at a terrible cost…
Let’s move forward. The stress of surviving, and the enforced separation from Corrigan, leaves The Spectre weaker than ever before. He cannot return to Earth-2. It’s all he can do to ‘be’ Jim Corrigan, NYPD Detective. Slowly, his energies start to build up again, but without an anchor in the form of a human host, he reverts to his original form as the killing ghost. This time, out of step with Earth-1, he is even more inhumane the deaths he deals out more bizarre and horrific.
Back on Earth-2, Jim Corrigan is seen again only once, in a single panel of the revived All-Star Comics. Without his spirit to sustain him, the energies bequeathed him by The Spectre’s presence dissipate: I believe he doesn’t live much longer.
Finally, having borne his duty for too long, The Spectre appeals to the Voice for rest, and restoration of his human status. Besides, Gwen Stacey’s hurling of herself at him is getting too persistent to ignore. The Voice which is common to both Earths and to others, responds by granting his wish, knowing that without supernatural protection, Jim Corrigan will soon be killed again. But this is necessary to bind The Spectre fully to the Earth-1 universe. Now he is whole again.
Having died and been reborn again, The Spectre has the energies to try to return to Earth-2. He succeeds, partially, but he cannot materialise. He cannot approach the ageing Corrigan on this Earth, he is invisible but more than that, he is intangible. Understanding his estrangement from his former home, all The Spectre can do is plead with the Voice to restore the lives of six former JSA team-mates, inadvertently killed by the JLA.
The Spectre returns to Earth-1. Frustrated that he can no longer contact his old friends, The Spectre’s anger overwhelms him briefly, in opposition to the ultimate sceptic, Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker but after that he accepts his role and begins to grow in wisdom and authority. It is The Spectre who is sent to halt Superman when he threatens to break the bounds of heaven, and it is his decision to stop the Man of Steel without violence that earns him a vast increase of power.
But he hasn’t, yet, totally abandoned his life on Earth-2. With his increased energies, he fights through the barrier, only to discover his old comrades threatened with charges of Treason. Using all his energies to make himself visible, and placing himself under massive stress, enough to warp his judgement, he threatens to destroy Earth-2, and rescue the JSA. He could never have done it: not even at the height of his powers, back in the Sixties, could he have achieved that, but the bluff might serve to rescue the situation.
The JSA’s response is negative, however. They will not join with him. Spurned, The Spectre accepts the final breach and returns to Earth-1 permanently. As punishment for his recklessness, he is set to guard the access to Hell and prevent illicit incursion there.
From there, as the Multiverse is under attack by the Anti-Monitor, The Spectre travels back in time, with the heroes, to the Dawn of Time, where he is the only one with the power to stand up to the this adversary. Even he cannot defeat him, but the battle destroys everything from the Dawn of Time on, putting The Spectre in a state of shock until the Universe has reformed itself and the Anti-Monitor finally defeated.
Determined to redeem himself, The Spectre makes the mistake of assuming no greater foe can exist. He permits the passage of the Pearl of Ultimate Blackness beyond the Universe of light, sure he can overcome the Darkness, to the glory of the Voice, but to his horror, he finds himself but a child in its hands, beaten utterly, and broken. His energies have travelled back in time to the Spear of Destiny, opening the door for Hitler to undo the new history, but in his attempt to intervene he is wounded, fatally, by the Spear, and only has time to alert his old JSA comrades before he dissipates entirely…
The Spectre is Dead, Long Live The Spectre

Epilogue

Whatever Steve Gerber intended for The Spectre is lost to history: no hints, notes or rumours ever emerged from the cancellation of the project due to his deadline issues. The Spectres of Doug Moench and John Ostrander, not to mention Hal Jordan and Crispus Allen are irrelevant to this piece.
The second part of this retrospective was a self-indulgence in 1990 and is even more of one in 2020. Given that the history I’d reviewed so bemusedly for Arkensword had been swept into non-existence so far as the DC Universe was concerned, the entire piece was nothing more than an exercise in cleverness: see, look at me, I solved the riddle. That it was nothing but an exercise in advanced Roy Thomasness – but far less convoluted and congested I hoped was self-evident then as now.
I’m presenting the two pieces together in this package just for the hell of it, to see my thoughts in print. It’s not the only piece I have planned on The Spectre now I have access to the whole of his pre-Crisis history. Keep an eye open for an in-depth survey of Michael Fleisher’s little run…

Is there something they’re not telling us?


I am currently watching a Batman Rebirth Deluxe hardcover on eBay when I noticed that they have it classified as Non-Fiction.

This reminds me of the glory days when I lived in Nottingham and would walk home through Boots on my way to the Victoria Centre Food Court, and I would check their books section, and always I would find the same thing under Non-Fiction: The Lord of the Rings.

Maybe Alan Moore’s right about all stories being true?

A Portsmouth Expedition: Day 3


This is going to be the least interesting of the three posts about my expedition to Portsmouth, because it’s about the coming away again, and that is never inspiring.

There couldn’t be much more of a contrast between yesterday and today. I really did fll on my feet for that one, because when I raise the blind, everything is grey: dry, cold but enwrapped in a light mist, several points short of a fog, with vision limited to about a hundred yards.

Technically, I should be getting down to Portsmouth Harbour Station for 9.45am, but when I’m less that ten minutes walk from Fratton Station, two stops nearer, why should I? The twitchiness returns, especially as I am boarding the train at the wrong station, and besides, I prefer to do my waiting in the cold of Platform 1 rather than the comfort of my room.

So farewell the Ibis Budget Hotel, which was simple, neat and clean and ideal for my short break. I rattle my suitcase along, over the bridge and into the Sttion where no-one gives a toss about my ticket. I’ve nearly an hour to wait here, so I inculcate patience and a blank mind upon myself.

Trains tick away, each one moving my service nearer to the top of the teleboard. I finished the penultimate chapter of my current novel last night and I have a complex last chapter to write, of which I wrote three paragraphs before going to bed, and I am trying to avoid serious thought until I’m somewhere where I can write at length. But a structure is evolving in my head, no matter how much I try to keep to the business at hand.

The last train before mine is for Southampton Central. As it eases in, I estimate there are fewer people on it already than are waiting to board at Fratton. Guess it must be true what they say about the rivalry, eh?

At last, my train approaches. I board, select a quiet little space and lever my suitcase awkwardly onto the rack. I then board my headphones and resumewhere I left off with Jerusalem. We’re a long way past Petersfield before I look up and realise that we’ve outrun the southern mist, and that the sun is now beaming down and crowding it into small, feeble pockets.

In fact, by the time we reach Woking, the last stop before Waterloo, it’s a really nice day again, the sun warmer in its light than yesterday on the water. It’s too nice a day for long train journeys now, especially ones with no better purpose than coming back.

Truth to tell, I’ve spent most of the journey alternately immersed in Alan Moore’s mighty tome and developing the structure of this important chapter. Sometimes, I have lines to write down, brief paragraphs, things I don’t want to lose. The rest of it: all I need to know is what each movement is about, not the exact way it plays. This is what I mean about building a structure. As long as I know, and understand, the steps, I don’t need all of the words.

As we ease in sslowly through Clapham and Vauxhall, I pay a bit more attention to my surroundings. For a few moments we follow the line of the grey, churning Thames, four or five views between tower blocks. I catch sight of part of the London Eye. We pull in about ten minutes late.

That shouldn’t make a difference as my schedule allows me an hour here to get to Euston, so I don’t panic, even when the Northern Line ticket machine won’t accept my Bank Card. I have the cash, I get the ticket, I walk straight onto a Tube Train and I walk off it six stops later with nearly half an hour to spare.

When the Manchester Piccadilly train is called, my reservation in Coach B turns out to be a bloody long walk away. I get there only just in time to board and wrestle with the suitcase again before we’re moving off.

And it’s more of the same, reading, mp3, the occasional note, slotting words into place, for the next two hours.

I think that I can tell I’m heading North in this November of 2019 when the rain starts sluicing down some time after Milton Keynes Central. But I’m wrong about that, it’s a South Midlands belt that dires up before we reach Stoke-on-Trent. Rain streams aross my window, the theme from Department S across my ears: why do all the best theme musics come from the Sixties?

At last, I start filing my shoulderbag with all the things that have alleviated the boredom of travel, and I haul down the suitcase and get out at Stockport, where no-one shows the slightest interest in my ticket. That completes the set: no-one bothered at Euston or on the train. Outside, the wind is something fierce.

There’s a final spit in the eye from the weather, which starts to rain just as I get off the bus, and blows in my face all the way to the end, where I live. The first thing I do when I get in is stick the kettle on: I need a coffee. I also need to unpack my case, put everything away, and flop out.

Usually, when I take the week off for my birthday, Thursday is my day for heading up to the Lakes. This time, I chose something more ambitious, something I’m glad I did. Though none of this post is really about Portsmouth, I’m going to signal the end with a photo taken down there. Maybe I’ll go back, one day.

The Spinnaker Tower

Doomsday Clock 9


Doomsday Clock, DC’s on-going joke on its decreasingly loyal audience, was supposed to be complete in September or October 2018. It’s now reached its ninth issue, which was originally scheduled for February 6th, but which has been systematically, pathetically and farcically put back a week at a time for four consecutive weeks. Meanwhile, the rest of the potentially shrinking DC Universe gets put on hold whilst it awaits the signal for just when it can start joining the ‘future’ that it’s supposed to be mirroring as at issue 12, even as it awaits Geoff Johns telling them just what that future is supposed to be.

I know I whinged a lot about the haphazarrd sscheduling of Sandman Overture, but Doomsday Clock makes that look like a model of regularity, and anyway, it was set in the past and was independemt of anything else going on.

Doomsday Clock 9 has been delayed so long that I’d pretty near forgotten all about it, just written it off as something abandoned, incomplete, inessential. With still a third of it to go, it had gone beyond the great So What? Who cared if we got the rest of it, who cares what answers it will eventually provide, if we live long enough?

Having delivered myself of all that, I have to concede, for the second successive quarter, that this is a half-decent issue of Doomsday Clock, and for the same reason: the use of the Watchmen characters has been kept to a bare minimum, and Geoff Johns has not taken upon himself to (badly) piss all over them.

The only Watchman to appear this issue is Dr Manhattan, who finds himself facing battle from the entire DC superhero complement, bar two.

These are Superman and Batman, the victims of the supposed explosive end of Firestorm in Red Square. Superman’s in a coma in the Halls of Justice, with Lois as his only protector, Batman’s in bed at Wayne Manor, burned and banged and severely bruised. The world’s going to hell in a handbasket, Superman has compromised himself by siding with Firestorm against humanity, the President (an offstage Donald Trump, clearly) is throwing him to the wolves. Meanwhile, even without Batman, the Justice League has worked out that it wasn’t Firestorm that exploded but a frame-up, organised by someone on Mars: guess who?

Visually, the whole thing is a re-run of Watchmen 4, all pink sands and blue Manhattan.

Insofar as this is the DC superhero army gearing up to face a Universal threat, this is reasonable stuff, no better and no worse than any of Johns’ previous series’ (which, to be honest, don’t do that much for me, seeming to only ever be about setting up an ending that then leads into the next series). The start of the issue is incredibly static, consisting of pages and pages of three-tier single panels of groups of costumes flying to Mars, without even the banter.

Once they get there, everyone assumes Dr Manhattan is the villain and hostile, and some of the more hot-headed ones want to pile in and mix it up immediately. Some of the more stupid ones, such as Guy Gardner, are fixated on Manhattan being naked and his blue willy hanging out.

It ends up being a bit of a hodge-podge, because whilst this is going on, Johns is portraying Manhattan as he was in Watchmen 4, unanchored to linear time, though he doesn’t go to the length of duplicating the achronological sequence.

This is intercut with Lois on Earth, defending the unconscious Superman from an intruder who swears he’s only come to help, Lex Luthor, who turns out to be the one who’s sent her the Justice Society of America newsreel films, with Batman dragging himself out of bed whilst Alfred shrugs again, trying to get a message to Mars because he’s spotted something the rest haven’t and, finally, finally, getting down to this Superman Theory thing.

And Johns has rewritten Firestorm’s origin. Firestorm hasn’t actually been blown into smithereens but has been blown into two parts, Ronnie Raymond and Professor Martin Stein, both of whom have been kidnapped into space by the Justice League. Ronnie’s eager and thrilled, he has a name to clear, but the Professor is outraged, uncooperative, completely opposed, and refusing to take part even when Ronnie forces them into Firestorm again.

Then Dr Manhattan separates them again. And he takes Ronnie seven years or so into the past, to the day of the accident that created Firestorm. To eavesdrop on a phone call, by Stein, to an unknown authority. About how he’s selected Ronnie, determined he has the metagene, groomed him to be receptive, and plans to create the accident that will fuse the two together. So that ‘they’ can create a superhero – like they did with Jack (The Creeper) Ryder, Rex (Metamorpho) Mason and Kirk (Man-Bat) Langstrom – but with Stein on the inside, to spy on them…

And until now, Ronnie believed the Superman Theory was all a lie. Not that he believes the eevidence of his eyes and ears for a second. Well, you just don’t, do you? It’s always a ‘trick’, it ‘can’t be’.

Of course, we need a big ending to keep us going until another instalment of this crap arrives, which isn’t going to be any time soon since the date for issue 10 has not just been put back another week, again, but has been put back until no date whatsoever. Brilliant.

In case we’ve forgotten certain details since whenever it was the last issue came out, Johns starts by having Manhattan muse out loud whether Superman destroys him, or he destroys the Universe? Then he winds up Superheroes Assembled by showing them the last scene he sees, Superman, angry and bloody, charging at him.

Cue mass attack. Cue completely ineffectual attack. Cue dismissive wave of all massed superherodom. You know, this is not going to make the ending when Superman destroys Dr Manhattan, the one I predicted from issue 1, because Johns lacks the imagination, and certainly lacks the breadth, to give us anything but Superman killing Dr Manhattan, to secure a win over the Watchmen Universe the remotest bit more plausible.

I shall discurse further upon that topic when we are finally vouchsafed issue 12 which, if they can keep up this gruelling schedule, might even be this year, not that I would lay bets on anything but the contrary.

Doomsday Clock 7


So the hands of the Doomsday Clock have finally ground round to the publication of another issue and we get our first telegraphed sign that, as I gloomily predicted right from the start, last year, Superman will indeed defeat and even kill Dr Manhattan, it seems by knocking his block off.

Yes, the big blue guy with the non-existent costume finally comes out of hiding in issue 7, as Geoff Johns takes a handful of his cards and throws them into the air, creating a brand new pattern when they come down but, despite the pretence, not one that makes any better sense than they’ve done so far.

What the episode does is to bring together all the participating Watchmen characters, in which pool we have to reluctantly include the Mime and the Marionette, with a small role for each of The Joker and Batman, and stir them all about. In terms of presentation, Johns mixes between Manhattan’s perceptions, rooted in a conception of time as a whole, visible from every angle simultaneously (except for one month in the future when everything goes completely black just as Superman in flying at him with one fist raised…) and the rather more linear perceptions of everyone else.

Speaking of linear terms, the actual sequence of events is a mess. The Mime and Marionette start torturing the Comedian in the Joker’s lair, until they’re interrupted by NewRorscharch, Ozymandias and NewBubastis. This pair – we can’t really count NewBubastis, though she is important – have already dumped Johnny Thunder and Saturn Girl (a hero from the past and a hero from the future, each representing a team not currently existent in the DC Universe but who Johns will be bringing back), but Ozy has hung onto Alan Scott’s original green lantern (Dr Manhattan has already announced to us that Alan Scott did not become Green Lantern in this reality, the Doc having shifted him six inches over so that when the train crashed, he didn’t save himself by grabbing the lantern).

It appears that Ozy is using NewBubastis as a kind of highly-specialised gieger counter: she’s been synthesized from the fragments of DNA left remaining after the original had her intrinsic field removed in Watchmen 12, crossed with a fragment of Dr Manhattan’s DNA, making her a blind spot in his universe and drawing him to the spot.

Which works. Ozy pleads with Jon to come back to their own Universe and save everything but Jon refuses, saying he’s never going back, and leaves without Ozy being able to do anything to keep him here. But before departing, he drops a few plot-points into the mix.

Firstly, he did not spare Mime and Marionette from disintegration that time because of any sentimentality but because, from his non-linear perspective, he knew what their baby will do. No, not the one that was taken away from Marionette but the other one: the one she’s already pregnant with since arriving in the DC Universe.

The other one is that he dobs in Ozy over a slightly significant fib: Adrian Veidt’s not got brain cancer. Or any kind of cancer for that matter. Ozy has been pretending to manipulate Reggie into becoming NewRorscharch, when actually OldRorscharch was responsible for Reggie’s Dad’s complete and utter downfall.

Reggie, who has been amusing himself by punching the Joker in the mouth several times, whilst Marionette has been trying to saw Batman’s head off from the middle of his mouth upwards, takes against Ozymandias at this revelation, not to mention the whole NewRorscharch thing, ripping off his mask and doing a runner: so much for that. Mime and Marionette, happy as Larry at having another baby, take off with Not-Alan-Scott’s Lantern

Meanwhile, Ozy returns to the Owlship where Saturn Girl can suddenly read his thoughts, until he batters her and the 102 year old Mr Thunder into unconsciousness. He then flies off in the Owlship with a) NewBubastis and b) a new plan to save every world in creation. You shudder.

Cue one page of pregnant future shouts and Manhattan returning to Mars wondering whether the ultimate outcome is Superman destroying him or him destroying everything (hint: not option 2).

What we’re seeing here is Mr Oh-So-Original Johns handing us Ozymandias the would-be world saviour, only this time instead of a calm, ordered reflection, based on long-planned purpose, we have Ozy the madman, the megalomaniac. He may well have been that all along, if you judge by actions, but the overt maniacally smiling version is a cliche that we’re supposed to accept as superior to the Watchmen version. Nah, baby.

I shall repeat what I’ve already said, all along. Watchmen was based upon the wish to look at superheroes from a different perspective. Doomsday Clock is based upon the wish to look at them in exactly the same way they’ve always been looked at. Geoff Johns’ career profited from the existence of Watchmen even before he began this series.

So that’s going to be it for another two months. I know I’m biased (you hadn’t noticed?) but am I the only one to think that any momentum this turkey had has long since dried up and blown away? I bought Doomsday Clock 7 the same day I bought Heroes in Crisis 1. There’s five issues of one left to eight of the other: bet you I read the end of Heroes in Crisis first.

Doomsday Clock: Another &*%$ing Delay


Yes, this piece of shit is not just shit, it’s out of control, undisciplined, unpolished and fucking late shit.

May’s issue 5, due two months after issue 4, is now June’s issue 5, making a grand total of five months to get out two issues. I don’t know who’s to blame for this godawful mess of a delay: is someone’s subconscious guilt playing up? Oh well, defenders say on-line, Watchmen had it’s scheduling problems too, but hold on there, Clyde, you’re lying. I was there, I was buying it, there was one and exactly one delay, and that was issue 12, which was three weeks late (it did have six extra pages of art, remember).

And people actually think this story is hot stuff? I re-read Watchmen itself a week or two back. It still impresses, thirty years and as many re-readings on. Doomsday Clock stinks of being derivative. It hasn’t got an original idea in it.

This has been a public service gratuitous rant. You’re welcome.

Film 2018: Watchmen


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.

 

Doomsday Clock 3


Dear G*d, are there no depths to which Geoff Johns will not sink in his determination to shit all over Watchmen and Alan Moore?

To date, Doomsday Clock has had the minimal decency to confine its trespass into the Watchmen story to the marginally-acceptable aftermath of those long-established events. That is, at least, some form of fair game, leaving the original story intact and unchanged. But issue 3, continuing directly from the previous cliffhanger that has Eddie Blake, the Comedian, stepping out of the shadows, now jumps directly into torturing the Watchmen story into a different shape.

It now appears that Edward Blake didn’t actually die in Watchmen 1. No matter that that was the primary incident, the start of the story, a development fundamental to the entire series, Johns has waved it away. Never happened. Didn’t die. All of Watchmen is now, supposedly, based on a lie.

Johns’ construct is that everything from Veidt breaking into Blake’s apartment to Blake going out of the window and hurtling thirty floors head first did still happen, but that instead of crashing onto the city sidewalk, Blake found himself miraculously plunging into the bay, courtesy of Dr Manhattan.

Of course, this immediately brings up a few dozen questions. Like: where did the dead, head-smashed-in-from-falling-thirty-floors body come from, howcum they didn’t identify as being someone other than Eddie Blake, hang about they had a funeral for him, what was Eddie doing for the month of the story whilst the world was going to hell in a handbasket, why, and who the fuck Geoff Johns thinks he is?

I can’t say that I await the answers with any enthusiasm, but there had better be answers, though given that it’s now been announced that Doomsday Clock will skip two months after issue 4, and then go bi-monthly, p

Once this revelation is dropped on us, Blake and Veidt have a fight, Ozy throws himself out of the window and survives the fall, but only with injuries that put him in hospital, and the whole things takes eight bloody bloated pages to move us on about six inches, if that.

Elsewhere, Batman and the new, young, black Roscharch, aka Reggie (we still don’t know who he is but he was old enough to be driving a car the day Veidt’s ‘alien’ manifested so I’m assuming he will turn out to be the son on Malcolm, Rorscharch’s Prison Psychiatrist: how banal) have a weird conversation. Reggie gives Wayne Walter Kovacs’ journal to read (how did he get that back? It was last seen in the offices of The New Frontiersman). Wayne puts him up in the Manor overnight, Alfred makes him pancakes, then Batman pretends to be leading him to Dr Manhattan, but it’s only a trick to get him into a cell at Arkham. Whatever happened to knocking him out, or doping him in his sleep, if you want to imprison him? Why this ridiculous charade? Could it be to demonstrate how stupid and easily tricked the Watchmen characters are, how superior the DC ones are?

Equally elsewhere, our Punch and Jewellee-manque pair, Mime and Marionette, visit a bar to get a drink. It’s on Joker turf and the crew don’t take kindly to Joker-esque make-up. So our psychotic pair kill them all brutally (Mime’s weapons aren’t imaginary, they’re invisible), and decide to go after whoever this Joker is anyway. Uh-oh, I foresee trouble!

So far, this pair are as pointless as they see themselves being. They are also marginally acceptable, being a new creation that has no bearing whatsoever on the original story and thus to that extent inoffensive, but all they are so far is one more attempt to drag Watchmen down to the playground level of the DC Universe.

To re-state the point I made last issue, Watchmen was conceived as a hermetically-sealed, complete story, in which superheroics/costumed adventures were to be approached in a manner that was different to the orthodox/classical/traditional approach that held sway in all DC’s other titles. It was meant to be different. Johns is erasing that difference, making it just the same as all the rest.

This vividly reminds me of something. I was a much more avid reader of superhero comics back in the late Eighties/early Nineties, among them the George Perez-led revival of Wonder Woman and Gary Cohn and Dan Mishkin’s goofy, hyper-kinetic Blue Devil. These were two very different series who had in common that the central character was treated unconventionally. Wonder Woman was the outsider, a holy innocent, who existed only as Diana of Themyscira and Wonder Woman, the two being interchangeable. Dan Cassidy was a Hollywood stuntman/special FX guy who got fixed in his Blue Devil suit and would really rather get out.

And the letter columns of both titles featured a stream of letters from fans praising this individual approach, calling it refreshing and new, and eagerly suggesting that it would be even better if it were exactly like all the rest.

Whether he is consciously aware of it, Geoff Johns comes across as someone who desperately wants Watchmen to be exactly like all the rest, the things he knows and is comfortable with, and he will do anything he can to make them just as ordinary.

Outside of the firstly Watchmenworld stuff, there’s a bit of a teaser going on. Firstly, we’re continuing to get more of these supposed old film noir Nathaniel Dusk movies (with a belated nod to writer Don McGregor, but only in the pseudo-Watchmen stuff at the back). This may or may not be the present series’ nod to ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’, but it’s also used to introduce an elderly man in a nursing home, who may not be in possession of all his marbles. His name is Thunder. Johnny Thunder.

And there are references in the back material to John Law and Libby Lawrence in relation to the ‘Nathaniel Dusk’ movies. Are we going to see Doomsday Clock used as a springboard to finally reintroduce the real Justice Society of America into the DC Universe?!

Of course we fucking are, and it may be the only worthwhile thing about this benighted heap of shit but it’s a high price to pay, no matter how much my favourites they still are.

Lastly, I mentioned last time my ignorance about the ‘current continuity’ of protest on the DC Earth over the suggestion that all our favourite superhumans are actually an American military creation. Some further re-reading identifies that Doomsday Clock is supposed to have no crossovers because it’s happening in the DC Universe’s future: that the rest of the Universe will only catch up to this series at the same time it ends. So, there you go. We know what’s coming up then. If and when Doomsday Clock limps to its finishing line.

I don’t foresee any future left for me and them by then.

UPDATE: Doomsday Clock has already gone bi-monthly, with issue 4 not scheduled until the end of March. Given how long they had to prepare for this, it’s a bit bloody feeble, especially at Watchmen‘s only delay was an additional three weeks for issue 12.

Doomsday Clock 2


Before we begin, I’d like to apologise in respect of one aspect of my review of Doomsday Clock 1. In it, I recorded my suspicions about two new characters introduced into the Watchmen universe, going under the names of the Mime and the Marionette. This pair meant nothing to me. However, I quickly learned that they were based on two other Charlton characters, creations of Steve Ditko with David Kaler, Punch and Jewelee.

In my defence, I have only read one story featuring this less-than-illustrious pair, but I still should have got the connection. I therefore apologise.

In every other aspect, I stand by what I said, and issue 2 only amplifies my concerns.

This issue is more plot-oriented, and the first half of the book weaves backwards and forwards between the Watchmen universe and the DC Universe. Over extensive scenes of Mime and Marionette getting into their respective costumes, coupled with an equally extensive flashback of their last, psychotic but still bumbling job before being captured by Dr Manhattan (cue a near direct tracing by Gary Franks of a classic Dave Gibbons panel, although please note that Dr Manhattan will NOT be seen full-frontal naked in this series), we get a plodding recap of the set-up.

Incidentally, for some reason explained at this stage only by the word “Babum” (a Google search turns up a Sumerian King and a warrior from World of Warcraft, though I think it’s got something to do with baby food), Manhattan decided not to disintegrate the pair into their component atoms.

Since the sight of Laurie Juspeczik with Dan Driberg will only upset the once and former Jon Osterman, Qzymandias wants the Marionette along to manipulate Dr Manhattan into coming back.

Unfortunately, since someone overlooked setting pseudo-Rorscarch’s watch, the gang only manage to get out of Watchmenland into DCville even as the bombs are disintegrating New York people.

Meanwhile, in the DC Universe, we are caught up with Batman, or rather Bruce Wayne, and not Clark ‘Superman’ Kent as last time. Wayne’s caught up in a war with Lex Luthor over the superhero metagene and the disturbing theories that superheroes are actually covert American weapons (if this is actual current DC continuity, forgive me, but I don’t read that kind of superhero comic any more so I don’t know). People are in the streets of Gotham, marching against the Batman and he’s ignoring it because the Batman has to punch out a couple of crooks.

Enter our intrepid quartet. Ozymandias and pseudo-Rorscarch (aka ‘Reggie’) split up, each to visit the two smartest men in the world, to try to track down Dr Manhattan’s whereabouts. Mime and Marionette are left behind, handcuffed to a metal post, though it’s so damned obvious that they’ll free themselves as soon as they’re left alone (which they do).

Ozy takes Lex Luthor, Rorschach takes Bruce Wayne. Ozy explains himself and his purpose to Luthor, who summarises the masterplan from Watchmen in pejorative terms, Rorscarch eats Wayne’s breakfast then discovers the Batcave.

We close on a triple cliffhanger: Mime and Marionette’s empty handcuffs, Rorscharch confronting Batman, and Veidt/Luthor facing off against an unexpected assailant who has already wounded both of them with one laser-pistol shot: the former Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian.

So much for the plot. In terms of story, there’s surprisingly little in there until the cliffhanger. The flashback/exposition scene at the beginning is stodgy and space-consuming, the idea that Marionette can be used to manipulate Manhattan into returning has very little to justify it yet, but I’ll give that one time and as for the ending: Ozy has gone on record in this issue as suggesting that once Osterman/Manhattan reached this world, with its multiplicity of super-powered beings, he may have adopted a new superhero identity, and merged into the crowd.

Frankly, I find that psychologically completely implausible when it comes to the Dr Manhattan of Watchmen, and it’s also utterly trite when you remember that one of Moore’s central ideas in that series was to explore and demonstrate a more ‘realistic’ approach to how and why people would dress up and play hero. It’s another example of Johns twisting the Watchmen story and its world to convert it into a normative superhero story, with motivations and actions out of the conventional playbook.

Then there’s that sneer at the big story of Watchmen. Luthor doesn’t even try to conceal his contempt for it – and Ozy – and whilst we know that Moore was no great shakes as a plotter, and that this is Lex Luthor speaking, the fact that it’s a sneer directed at the original material from a position of self-assumed superiority says to me that it’s very much coming from Johns as well.

I’ve said it last time, and I’ll repeat it: consciously or sub-consciously, Johns’ agenda is to tear down Watchmen and the edifice built around it, and determinedly put the bog-standard DC Universe comic above it.

Other commentators, who are more impressed with Doomsday Clock and Geoff Johns than I am, are falling upon this ‘Superman Theory’ (here taking up the entire copy-Watchmen-back-pages) about just how come 97% of all metahumans are American as leading to a retcon of the entire DC Universe (oh, FFS, again?), and are getting very excited. I am comfortably able to contain myself on this subject, as well as the one about exactly which metahuman Dr Manhattan has been pretending to be since 1986, but promise to keep an eye out for this in future instalments.

Oh, and ‘Reggie’? I got nothing on that.

Boy, this stuff is pissing me off.

 

From Watchmen to Doomsday Clock


From this…

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.

…to this

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.

PS:

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.

We shall see.