Doomsday Clock launches this week — and two generations of comic nerds have some thoughts
This week sees the launch of Doomsday Clock, a new 12-issue comic book series from writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank that will finally bring DC superheroes like Superman face-to-face with characters from Watchmen. That Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel is one of the most important comic books ever; Watchmen permanently changed the superhero genre with its high-level storytelling, grand ambitions, and grounded takes on supposedly majestic figures. Those characteristics have endeared it to both comic nerds and mainstream readers alike — which also means they can get protective of it.
EW writers Christian Holub and Darren Franich hail from two different generations of comic fans, each with his own relationship to Watchmen and its legacy. Ahead of Doomsday Clock‘s launch this week, they got together and discussed their feelings, anxieties, and hopes for what this new series could accomplish. Check that out below, and pre-order Doomsday Clock #1 here.
CHRISTIAN HOLUB: So Darren, at this point you and I have both attended special events at comic cons advertising DC’s upcoming Watchmen crossover, Doomsday Clock. You reported on the panel at San Diego, and I talked to Geoff Johns, the DC star who will be writing the series, at New York Comic Con last month (when they released the first six pages of issue 1). So I thought it’d be a good idea for the two of us to discuss our feelings about this series as the first issue approaches this week.
The question of using Watchmen characters like this is potentially controversial, given the long-standing abuse of Alan Moore’s intellectual property, but there doesn’t seem to be as much hubbub around Doomsday Clock as there was around, say, the Before Watchmen prequel comics a few years back. Johns thinks people will accept it if there’s a good story, and he seems confident in his story. I must say, I’m intrigued by Doomsday Clock so far. One thing I like is how, even though this was used as the initial tease of DC Rebirth, it looks to be a fairly self-contained story. No tie-ins have been announced, and Johns told me that you don’t even need to be aware of the little hints about Dr. Manhattan in recent DC comics to know what’s going on.
Darren, you and I represent two different generations of DC/comic fans. I think we should start off by maybe discussing our personal history with Watchmen. How did you first read it? Do you still appreciate Watchmen or does it now seem blasé to you? Are you interested or horrified by this whole crossover idea?
DARREN FRANICH: Watchmen will never be blasé. Watchmen is a masterpiece, even if it seems blasé to call it a masterpiece. I still remember the first time I read the graphic novel, I stayed up all night, I got to the end, was desperate to keep the high going that I went back to actually read all those text-only interstitials. I would read a complete book-length Under the Hood if Alan Moore wrote it. (You know I’m not joking, Christian, I read all of Jerusalem!)
I was a big reader of comics from 1991-1998, a very weird time for DC. I came in when Superman died, stuck around through Green Lantern’s mass murder-suicide, left right before Lex Luthor became president. This whole Dark Age retroactively looks like fallout from Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns – and I read Dark Knight Returns when I was both way too young and precisely in the right demographic. But I experienced Watchmen in reverse, late in my era of comic addiction. So it felt to me like the epitome of that comic book era, or anyhow, the epitome of my experience as a young comic book reader. It was great when I was barely a teenager and thought I knew everything. It’s even better now that I’m old enough to admit I don’t know anything. I used to relate to Rorschach, then I felt like I was Dan, now I think Laurie is the most pivotal character, and I can’t decide if it’s good days or the bad days when I feel like Dr. Manhattan.
But, funny you mention Before Watchmen. When DC announced that prequel series-of-series a few years back I was, ahem, rather fervently opposed to it, for a variety of pretentious young-dummy reasons. A lot has happened since then that makes me more optimistic about reboots – Hannibal, DuckTales, Fury Road – so I’ve tried to keep an open mind with Doomsday Clock. And, based on what I saw at the San Diego panel, it seems clear to me that Johns wants to make a larger point with the Watchmen aspect of this story. He’s pushing the narrative forward, where Before Watchmen still strikes me as an elaborate act of wheel-spinning, a strip-mine operation of Intellectual Property without much value added.
And now here is where I admit that I am very, very confused about Doomsday Clock, because I have only the most glancing awareness of what’s been going on with the DC Universe this decade. How did you first experience Watchmen, Christian? How did it fit in with your experience of DC comics in general? And can you set the stage a bit for how Johns has been building up to this new saga?
CHRISTIAN: I definitely read Watchmen too young. In fact, I think I was still in junior high. That was about the time I first read Sandman, too. I usually tell people these facts about me so they can better understand why I am the way I am.
However! If any young’uns are somehow reading this, I would not necessarily recommend reading Watchmen that early, because that’s a hell of a lot to wrap your head around. I probably missed a lot on my first go-through; I definitely skipped the text installments, which as you and I both know totally changes the context of the story. Luckily, Watchmen is conducive to multiple readings and actually does get better every time you read it. On different readings you can appreciate the beauty of Gibbons’ art (such as the one issue that’s entirely symmetrical), or Moore’s wheels-within-wheels plot machinations — you can focus on the psychological mindf— of Rorschach’s story or the thought-provoking deconstruction of Dr. Manhattan’s stories.
That said, Watchmen’s influence on comics and pop culture at large is, I think, up for debate. Although it opened up the floodgates to comics being considered literature, its main effect on the comics themselves has sometimes seemed to be popularizing violence and darkness in superhero storytelling — particularly in the original Image Comics wave that must have been prevalent during your original fanboy days. This is, of course, the “lowest common denominator” thing that happens with every zeitgeist-changing piece of art. Other artists want to emulate it, but of course not everyone has Alan Moore’s cosmic-sized brain, so they take the elements they can, which happen to be the most superficial. Certainly this seems to be what Zack Snyder glommed on to about Watchmen, both in his 2009 film adaptation and his subsequent Superman movies. His Superman resembles Dr. Manhattan (in his colder moments) more than any Man of Steel I’ve ever read.
This is what interests me about Doomsday Clock, because I believe the essence of Johns’ project here is taking these meta debates about Watchmen’s legacy and embodying them in characters themselves — particularly Superman! He did this once before, in the 2005 event series Infinite Crisis, which coincidentally arrived at the peak of my DC fanboy phase. There, the textual conflict between Superboy-Prime, the Golden Age “Earth-2” Superman, and the modern Superman was very much a debate about superhero violence and the toxicity of nostalgia. Here, I’m making an educated guess that some of the conflict between Dr. Manhattan and Superman will also be a debate about superheroes in general. Should they react to our world as it is (a particularly dark conceit these days), or should they inspire us to move beyond it? Should they acknowledge real-world death and violence, or pretend everything can be good? (Please forgive my oversimplification here.)
This debate, more than anything, is what the DC comics themselves have been hinting at regarding Doomsday Clock. Back in 2011, DC sales were faltering against Marvel so they made a Hail Mary and rebooted every single one of the series from the ground-up. The initiative was called “The New 52.” Unfortunately, most of these reboots bought into that oversimplified post-Watchmen idea that the way to make superheroes modern and resonant was to make them extremely violent and sexual. Once it became clear that this New 52 style wasn’t working out so well, DC rebooted again last year in an initiative called “Rebirth.” The DC Rebirth one-shot that kicked off everything ended with Batman discovering the Watchmen bloody smiley face in his cave, but the main idea of the issue was that DC comics should favor “hope” and “optimism” again. Their plot explanation seems to be that Dr. Manhattan has somehow made his way to the main DC Universe, and that his reality-shaping powers were the culprit behind the New 52’s violent reshaping of the comics.
The first six pages of Doomsday Clock certainly give us a photo-negative of “optimism.” Picking up six or so years after the end of Watchmen, that world is now in disarray after the publication of Rorschach’s journal. Riots have broken out in several recognizable Watchmen locales: Adrian Veidt’s office building (where he first faked his assassination), his winter fortress (where he delivered the immortal line “I did it 35 minutes ago”), and the prison where Rorschach was once held. And, surprise! Rorschach is there too, despite being atomized by Dr. Manhattan at the end of Watchmen.
I mentioned that Watchmen’s legacy may have been somewhat twisted by its many emulators. Funny enough, Rorschach might be the most misunderstood in that regard. Darren, what do you make of Rorschach, then and now? What do you make of his return, and these first six pages in general? Certainly they seem to at least demonstrate artist Gary Frank’s chops, right?
DARREN: Since I was barely in elementary school when I saw Superman bludgeoned to death by a blade-boned monster, I will now counterargue your parental guidance suggestion. Young’ uns, read the hell out of Watchmen! It will confuse you and there are some parts that are as inappropriate as everything you’ve already seen on YouTube, but it will teach you skepticism and melancholy!
You’re right to point out that Watchmen kickstarted a conversation, “Are comic books literature?” which ran alongside the ensuing “Are video games art?” debate. Both of these critical discussions have faded this decade, possibly because a couple generations have been raised more on superheroes and video games than on art and literature. Which is neither a bad thing or a good thing, and even Alan Moore himself seems to be a little unsettled by how seriously people take comic books today. Like a lot of the great comic book writers of the ’80s and ’90s, Moore has a deep-down love for the goofy-pop childishness of an earlier era of superhero narratives. Like, his turn-of-the-millennium pulp-pastiche Tom Strong almost seems like the roadmap for the kind of comics he’d prefer – imaginative and bright and phantasmagorical, sometimes “serious” but never in the gritty-mud mode that Image Comics represented.
Which, by the way, important to remember that Image Comics was more the glitzy backwash of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns than Watchmen. Without going all the way into Snyder’s Watchmen, almost every foundational stylistic element he utilized in the adaption process felt more Miller-esque than Moore-esque, beautiful heroes fighting bloody battles in slow-motion. You could almost say the movie is a better adaptation of Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, since Snyder foregrounded the whole “alternate-’80s” aesthetic and even (in the great opening credits sequence) took the extra step of resetting Gibbons’ costume designs into iconic American-historic images. But Gibbons’ art is incredibly humane and delicate, to a poignant degree – Dan Dreiberg’s lonely-boy dadbod suggests Paul Giamatti more than Patrick Wilson – and Snyder is baseline mythic and hyperbolic. So Snyder’s Watchmen feels most of all like a love letter to colorist John Higgins, those radiant blues on Dr. Manhattan, those shining neon lights.
But again, not going all the way into the movie, let’s save that for another day! I am very intrigued by the possibility Johns wants to use the Watchmen characters as a way to comment on Watchmen itself – even if I think there’s something a bit faulty about using Watchmen as a symbol for the era that followed it. I’m also intrigued because pretty much the only thing I’ve read by Johns is Infinite Crisis, which was the second strangest crossover DC has staged in my lifetime. My main memory of Infinite Crisis is the issue where Superboy – a symbol for the most absolute innocent notions of comic book storytelling – kills a whole bunch of Teen Titans. That sequence is kind of awesome but also WAY bloodier than any of the dark age superhero comics Johns seems to be criticizing. (SUPERBOY JUST PUNCHES OFF PANTHA’S HEAD.) Maybe the POINT was to ramp up the violent hyperbole to 11. Counterargument: Sometimes it’s better to practice than to preach, and the fact that DC is pitching “Rebirth” as a reboot to fix all the problems with their LAST reboot isn’t super encouraging.
All that said: I like how these opening pages immediately establish a feeling of all-encompassing doom. Watchmen pricked at a lot of late cold war ideas and spoke to a generation raised on the brink of nuclear oblivion. But it had a gradual build, which was part of the point: A redheaded loon might be walking around with a sign proclaiming “THE END IS NEAR,” but most people in Watchmen America were reading pirate comics or flirting with old flames or watching famous people melt down in TV interviews. Doomsday Clock starts off in a more apocalyptic space. Speaking as someone on the west coast who woke most mornings this summer googling “North Korea Missile Launch” just in case, the wild edge of these opening pages certainly speak to me! And I dig how Gary Frank’s art here pushes to emotional extremes: Facial expressions are either raw emotions (the rage of protestors, the shock of the soldiers, the horror of the convict) or eerily serene newscaster blankness. Something else I like – that specific date at the start of the issue, Nov. 22, 1992. That’s just a few days after the real-world publication of the Death of Superman, clearly a moment of totemic significance for Johns’ perspective on the darkening of the superhero world.
That said: Something in the recreation of Watchmen‘s style feels strange to me here. There’s the grid pattern, the opening pull-back tilting outward from a close-up, the splash half-page Rorschach reveal, the presence of real-life historical figure William F. Buckley Jr: Yep, this is the format! And that X-Ray of what looks like brain cancer: Interesting! But the whole news cacophony, and the quick cuts from far-flung locations – Veidt’s tower, the Arctic, the prison – that feels WAY more Frank Miller to me, an echo of the talking-head Greek Chorus from Dark Knight Returns. Watchmen #1 opens with, like, two regular-guy cops talking – and page 5 is just 9 panels, no dialogue!
And then there’s Rorschach. I think it’s interesting that you talk about how this character’s been misunderstood, because you could argue that misunderstanding is built into him, right there in the name. He’s a tough street vigilante, with recognizable influences in comic book history, but an essential aspect of his arc in Watchmen is how completely Moore dives into his psychology. I’m talking Watchmen #6 here, the issue that is simultaneously least essential for the overaching narrative and therefore most essential for explaining why Watchmen is so special. That’s the issue where Rorschach sees a shrink, and we spend more time with the shrink (Dr. Malcolm Long!) than with Rorschach. This issue is, itself, sort of a Rorschach test for people – it could be seen as “explaining” Rorschach, it could be the issue where you say “YEAH, MAN, HE’S ONTO SOMETHING!”, it could be the issue that fully encapsulates how bugf— crazy Rorschach is, or it could be conclusive evidence that there’s nothing to figure out with Rorschach at all.
It’s comparable to the cumulative effect of the Dr. Melfi scenes from The Sopranos, which came to a similarly ambiguous conclusion. So I guess what I make of Rorschach here is, to be mealy-mouthed, equally ambiguous. Resurrecting a character who was so famously dead can only make that character seem less human than “iconic.” Which could be the point, and my own vague based-on-nothing sense is that this ISN’T the Rorschach we know, that Walter Joseph Kovacs’ molecules are still scattered in the snow, and this is someone else donning the outfit. (Maybe someone familiar? An emotionally bruised Dan? A dying Ozymandias? SEYMOUR???)
It’s an immediate shock. Which I like: There’s no point doing this story if you’re going to tiptoe around what Moore and Gibbons did. But, like, if the point is to decry an era defined by endless deaths and resurrections, is the best move to start with a resurrection from a famous character death? I don’t know! Christian, how do you feel about the world-building around these opening pages, the ’90s setting, the clear nods to present-day geopolitics, the overall tone? Is it weird to you that the utopia at the end of Watchmen seems to have barely lasted five years? And what’s your hope for where Doomsday Clock goes from here?
CHRISTIAN: That’s a fascinating point about Frank Miller! Although his artistic achievements are on par with Moore’s and Gibbons’, maybe his attitude was just easier to imitate.
I will also join you in singing praises of the Rorschach/psychiatry issue, undoubtedly the part of Watchmen that made the biggest impact on me during my first few read-throughs. Like Sandman #6, it burned into my brain at a young age, and left a permanent impact.
As for the new geopolitics at play, I rolled my eyes at a couple of the more obvious references in that opening narration (“deplorables” gets a shout-out, as do some well-worn clichés like “American dream vs. American nightmare”). Even so, I appreciate that Doomsday Clock is at least trying to respond to the current zeitgeist, which has changed so much in the past year. In fact, when I recently talked to artist Gary Frank, he said he had been just as reluctant about messing with Watchmen as any of us would be … until the election, that is. At that point, he decided he and Johns did have a story to tell that was worth upsetting this sacred cow.
Obviously everyone reading this will have different interpretations of last year’s presidential election, but I think most people can agree that the world feels somewhat unhinged right now. Old institutions have proved more brittle than they appeared, and no one seems quite sure what’s going to happen from one moment to the next. This uncertainty could be dangerous and it could be revolutionary, but I think if there was ever a time to bring Watchmen back, it would be now, at this moment, and see if these characters and concepts still have anything to say. I’m interested, at least, to see where Johns and Frank are going.
I will confess my one worry: Earlier this year, Marvel published a big crossover event comic called Secret Empire. Like Doomsday Clock, Secret Empire was a remix of an earlier story published decades ago. The hook was that Captain America, everyone’s favorite noble patriot hero, was revealed as a secret agent for the Nazi-adjacent organization Hydra, and set out to take over the Marvel Universe. It could have been an interesting exploration of resurgent American fascism, but literally as soon as I first published news of the twist, there was uproar and backlash. Fans did not buy into the story, and as things continued, Marvel denied there was any overt political commentary intended. So fans had to endure the horror of seeing their favorite inspirational superhero become a quasi-Nazi conqueror without any insight or intellectual payoff. In the end, it was all just sound and fury and spectacle, signifying nothing. It didn’t resonate and it didn’t sell, and may have driven away many fans. Secret Empire’s failure was even cited by the New York Times as a possible reason why Marvel recently replaced its editor in chief.
So will Johns and Frank use the Watchmen iconography to tell a compelling story about our current era and how superhero stories have changed over time? Or will it just be more meaningless spectacle? We get our first look this week with Doomsday Clock #1. Thanks for chatting, Darren! Since this series is going to be a whopping 12 issues, we can check back down the line and see how things are holding up.