EW's Christian Holub and Darren Franich discuss their feelings about the new DC/Watchmen crossover
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?