Most superhero stories follow the same basic formula: Villain threatens the world, hero saves the world, wash, rinse, repeat. The most famous comic to ever subvert that well-worn formula is surely Watchmen, the legendary 12-issue series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that changed superheroes forever. Its ostensible villain, the impossibly brilliant Ozymandias, is actually trying to save the world, while so-called heroes like the eccentric detective Rorschach seem to take far more pleasure in crippling and killing criminals than they do saving anyone. The only superpowered character, the atomically omnipotent Doctor Manhattan, is actively uninterested in the fate of humanity.
By placing superheroes in a hyperrealistic world filled with sex, paranoia, politics, and violence, Watchmen elevated comics to high art; it is, in fact, the only graphic novel included on TIME’s list of 100 great books. As a consequence of Watchmen’s success, it seems like every superhero story since has desperately tried to emulate it. This is how we end up with movies like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel forgoes inspirational flying sequences to glower morosely and do more harm than good. (That film’s director, Zack Snyder, even helmed a big-screen adaptation of Watchmen in 2009, so the influence is clear.) But despite their impact, the Watchmen characters have never actually brushed up against the mainstream DC canon of Superman, Batman, and the Justice League — until now, that is.
This week sees the launch of Doomsday Clock, a new 12-issue series from writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank that will finally bring the Watchmen characters face to face with the iconic DC superheroes they were originally designed to parody and subvert.
“It’s had more impact than anything,” says Johns, who made his name with iconic runs on The Flash and Green Lantern before rising to become chief creative officer of DC Entertainment, about Watchmen’s influence. “The tone, the characters, the behaviors, the thematics, how they told the story — everything was massively influential on comic books. Everything was so deep and grounded. Gary and I are trying to have echoes of that.”
Doomsday Clock has echoes aplenty. The opening sequence should look very familiar to Watchmen readers. The first page is laid out in the nine-panel grid format Moore and Gibbons employed so heavily. Like its legendary predecessor, this comic begins with Rorschach narrating darkly about the state of society: “The undeplorables scream to hear themselves, deafened in their echo chamber, blaming the other side for what they have instead of who they are.”
Such a parallel may seem blasphemous to Watchmen devotees, and both Johns and Frank are aware of the challenges involved in re-litigating such beloved material. But just as Watchmen was attuned to the sociopolitical climate of its day (juxtaposing urban decay with the paranoia of Reagan and Thatcher increasing nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union), so too is Doomsday Clock. Perhaps Rorschach’s mention of “deplorable” sounds familiar. According to Frank, Doomsday Clock didn’t really take shape until after last year’s presidential election, and the rising political tensions that have come with it.
“When Geoff first pitched me the idea, I had two simultaneous reactions: The first one was, ‘Oh yeah, that’s cool,’ and the other was that I didn’t want to go anywhere near that, because people would crucify us,” Frank says. “But Geoff kept coming back to it. I understood people’s worry, that Watchmen is perfect and you should just leave it be, it’s fine on its own. But we kept talking and every so often, Geoff would have more ideas. There was a sense that something was coming together. Then, after the election, he started talking about how everybody was so polarized and the world was becoming so disconnected from each other. It was at that point it became clear he had something to say with his project. I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I’m in. It’s an idea good enough to risk the ire of a million Watchmen fans.’”
Beyond the real world, Doomsday Clock also has a lot to say about the fictional DC universe. This crossover was first hinted at last year in DC Rebirth, the one-shot comic by Johns and Frank that launched the publishing initiative of the same name, bringing DC heroes back to their core strengths while also propelling them in new directions. (Superman has a son! Batman’s getting married!) That story ended with Batman finding Watchmen’s iconic bloody smiley-face button hidden in the depths of the Batcave, the implication being that recent trends of darkness and misery in DC comics have been the direct result of reality manipulation by Doctor Manhattan.
Doomsday Clock itself opens in the Watchmen universe, a few years after the end of that book. Ozymandias’ grand plan (staging a fake alien attack on New York City to help people of the world unite and end Cold War tensions) has now been publicly revealed as a lie. With people rioting in the streets, Ozymandias and Rorschach (or whoever’s wearing Rorschach’s mask these days) think the only solution is to find Doctor Manhattan, wherever he’s gone off too, and hope he can fix their mess. The coming collision of worlds will allow Johns and Frank to engage a meta-fictive debate about the nature of superhero stories — should they be dark or optimistic? Was Watchmen a positive or negative influence on comics? — while also telling an entertaining story of their own.
“The thing I really enjoy about this is, it goes beyond the story of the books and pages, and into our world,” Johns says. “The thing Watchmen did really well is, it was about our world. This book is about a lot of different things. It’s about redemption, corruption, failure, madness, politics, and perception vs. reality. It’s about a lot of different things — not just what Watchmen means, but what Superman and the DC universe mean.”
Order Doomsday Clock #1 here.