On Doomsday Clock, Watchmen And Pax Americana
At the stroke of Midnight, Wednesday the 22nd of November 2017, comic book shops across the land opened up, such was the demand for Doomsday Clock.
From the superstar team of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, Doomsday Clock is, for the uninitiated, a sequel to Uber-comic Watchmen, one which promises to give us the spectacle of Superman vs Dr. Manhattan.
A disclaimer; I don't like Geoff Johns.
A clarification; I don’t know Geoff Johns, it’s his writing I don’t like. I don’t like his writing on a basic level. His dialogue strikes me as deeply wooden, his dramatics feel horribly overblown, and I don't often like his big ideas when he sets in to reform a series.
But this is Watchmen. One of the greatest, one of the most artful, thoughtful and intellectual comic books of all time.
And Geoff Johns? Geoff Johns is one of the worst possible choices for a sequel and/or response (responsequel?) to Watchmen.
If you HAVE to do it, if the men came and they made you, then you’d at least want to go for someone with a command of the craft, someone who’s strengths include playing with language and structure, not ‘Bwaaargggh and then this guy fly’s in to the action and it’s all totally like bwooooooosshhh and it’s so awesome and dope and sick’.
Maybe look at, y’know, writers. Writers like Brian Azzarello, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, James Robinson. Hell, when they did Before Watchmen, they at least had the wherewithal to get the likes of Azzarello, Darwyn Cooke and J Michael Straczynski.
Doomsday Clock is an integral step in the grand DC wide strategy titled Rebirth. Indeed, the first seeds of a Watchmen sequel were planted in the special One shot ‘Rebirth’ released in May 2016, written by, you guessed it, Geoff Johns. The entire idea of Rebirth from a narrative standpoint, is that Dr Manhattan has stolen ten years from the DC characters' lives. Their world has been made more cynical and unhappy than it used to be, and they don't remember the time they have lost (for the most part).
Johns is on record as saying (and the comic itself makes this very clear) that the point of Rebirth is to return hope and optimism to DC super hero comics. Which is fine. I mean, mandated company-wide tone is a bit… concerning, but hey ho. The thing is, if that's the case, why do it in this heavy handed, front loaded manner? Why not just... write stories with more hope and optimism in them?
Geoff Johns wrote Flashpoint, which created The New 52 and he wrote Justice League, the lynchpin title of The New 52. This was him, this was his baby. These are the comics directly preceding Rebirth, over five years of storytelling that had robbed DC characters of ten years of their history at best, or rewritten and/or removed their entire histories at worst.
So, in a very literal, tangible way, it's not Dr Manhattan that has been making our heroes miserable. It's… Geoff Johns.
We appreciate the effort, Geoff, but if you feel so bad about it, trust me, an apology would have sufficed.
Of course, sceptical voices might point out that You’re going to sell considerably more comics telling people that it’s “DC vs Watchmen” than you will if you just say, “We’re going to be more optimistic in the future.”
‘We get it’, I hear you say. ‘You aren’t a fan of Johns and you think they are trying to make a bigger deal of this strategy than they need to in order to fleece more money from readers. Let it go, Duffy. Spare us the diatribe.’
And hey, if it stopped there, then I’d not be raining on the parade of the many, many fans both the writer and the strategy in question undoubtedly have. I’d recuse myself form the debate, regale in the DC comics I do love and wait this one out. Eras come, eras go.
But that’s not where it stops, and that’s not where my problem lies.
See, Johns has decided to take a very specific approach to make amends (whilst pointedly never acknowledging the fundamental lynchpin role he played in the mess he’s trying to clean up).
Instead of fronting up, Johns’ blames Watchmen for all the ills of modern super hero comics. He has said this is DC Comics response in kind to the eviscerating statement Moore made about superheroes and mainstream American comics (with DC obviously being the Progenitor, the Big Daddy and, when it comes down to it, The One With All The Big Icons).
He’s not just having a pop at all those bandwagon pretenders that followed in its wake. He’s having a pop at the work itself, claiming that its much-vaunted psychological rigour, philosophical underpinnings and narrative verisimilitude is in reality nothing more than cynicism.
And here layeth my problem.
I’ll give Johns this much; Watchmen spends a lot of time looking, nay, wallowing, in the darkness. Comic book Super heroes, all but by design, do what they do from a strong conviction of moral righteousness, and Watchmen is, in large part, about the dangers of such steadfast convictions taken to the logical extreme.
SPOILERS for Watchmen, I should forewarn you, follow from this point on. I should also forewarn you that if you’ve not already read Watchmen, I am thoroughly ashamed of you.
Seriously, get your backside in gear and read Watchmen. Go on, the rest of the article will still be here when you’re done.
I’m not kidding. Go read it.
How good was that?! Amazing, right? Really good stuff.
So (as you just read) Ozymandias makes himself into a monster in service to what he sees as the greater good. Rorschach loses his mind and then his life pursuing his own conviction and even makes the point blatant for us when he decries compromise as a surrender.
But it’s not the Ozy and Rorschach show.
Nite Owl is revivified by love. The guy gets his mojo back (amongst other things…) via his relationship with Silk Spectre, who herself has to confront harsh truths, but in the process finds herself and repairs a strained relationship with her Mother. Most importantly, Dan and Laurie establish a connection as heartfelt and, yes, optimistic, as you could hope for.
And Dr Manhattan? He is in danger of becoming cold and distant, that’s certainly true. But unless you didn’t read Watchmen properly, you can’t have failed to notice that Dr Manhattan learns to embrace the miracle, the preciousness, of Human life. That all sounds very hopeful to me. Some characters fail and fall. Some characters are subjected to truly horrifying and gruesome fates. But other characters emerge from the story redeemed, reborn and reshaped by the events, for the better. There’s nothing cynical about that at all.
Any reading of Watchmen which leaves room for Dr Manhattan to become a villainous deity, seeking misery and strife, strikes me not just as shallow, but also as pretty… well…
And really, heinously stupid.
Couple things to note from the issue itself- Geoff Johns has set this in 1992, 7 years after Watchmen ends. He fails on several counts here. First, he lays his modern political commentary, such as it is, on the door of 1992, which rings false. Second, he ignores, or plain just forgets, that the 80s of Watchmen was not the same as our 80s (ditto 50s 60s and 70s).
Glaringly, he also has a news broadcast mention the ongoing disintegration of the European Union- which was formed in 1993 with the signing of Maastricht Treaty. So in his mind, the European Union has come into being, been a thing and then disintegrated a year before it started in the first place, in a historical context that makes its existence less, not more, likely to have happened in the first place, given the fundamental political shifts Watchmen saw play out in its alternative history. That’s laughably poor.
As for how Doomsday Clock measures up to its illustrious predecessor? Poorly. Watchmen is a structuralist masterpiece. A work of elegant simplicity that patiently layers on little pieces, gradually adding up to significant thematic depth and weight. It deals in powerful iconography, crystal-perfect turns of phrase, and earthy dark comedy to puncture all the high-falutin’, intellectual, unapologetically philosophical ideas. It’s simultaneously subtle and shocking, sacred and profane, serious and fun. And all of that is established, in miniature, in the first six pages, so it’s not like I’m being unfair to Johns by just comparing his opening issue to the entire 300 pages of Watchmen.
Moore and Gibbons gave us an amazingly compact and elegant comic. Doomsday Clock is more or less the opposite of that. It lacks detail and really (really, REALLY) lacks subtlety. The language is imprecise, clumsy and leaden. There’s no humour, or I should say no clever humour, to it. And where Watchmen forces us to soak up background details that enrich the whole shebang, everything in Doomsday Clock is foreground and heavily, heavily spotlighted. If it’s important, attention is called to it- because they lack the craft and the class of Moore and Gibbons. This is Ed Sheeran trying to sing like Pavarotti.
Want an example? Okay, but you asked for it.
Spoilers for Doomsday Clock follow.
You really won’t need to bother reading it after this. Or ever.
In Doomsday Clock, a bunch of soldiers silently infiltrate Ozymandias’ Arctic headquarters while it’s explained via voice-over that all independent press is being shut down in favour of government-run propaganda. And those two foreground elements divide our attention, so both lose impact. The news shutdown seems like a pretty major plot element, and it’s made moreso by the meltdown that one reporter has in the middle of the page. But we don’t actually see him having it, so the impact is blunted. Instead we keep looking at the nondescript soldiers doing very little of anything other than standing around- silent, nameless, mostly faceless and utterly devoid of importance. So we’re left with a page that has only one clear reason for being there: it shows us that Ozymandias has a brain tumour, which in itself is some laughable soap opera stuff when it comes to shock tactic storytelling, cheap engineering of character motivation and the excuse Johns has lazily cobbled together to completely change the character of Ozymanidias.
Johns has previously made some noise about how Rorschach is a great vehicle for making these broad statements about the state of American politics because he’s “so apolitical,” which in and of itself is a truly baffling statement to hit out with, one which makes me question his knowledge of politics as much if not more so than his knowledge of his source material, not to mention his basic reading comprehension skills.
There a stench of imitation hovering all around the book straight from the cover. This is clear even on page 1, where they try to ape the technique of the opening page of Watchmen (I could get really geeky and argue that the opening page of Watchmen is the cover, as every issue of Watchmen has the cover serving also as the first page, the first panel, of that issue).
Moore’s Watchmen, surprise surprise, Opens far more effectively, on just about every level. It opens with one hell of an iconographic image – the blood-stained smiley face – and keeps it visually simple. The button in a puddle of blood, the guy washing the blood off the sidewalk, the intense lunatic walking through the puddle and leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind, the POV moving on up past them… It’s a darkly funny, but easily digestible, bit of slapstick playing out simply enough that we can pay proper attention to the heavy yet skilful narration that sets the tone for everything that follows.
Johns’ scene isn’t particularly hard to follow, to be fair, but it’s certainly busier and definitely makes less of an impact. It’s a scene of escalating mob violence, with an angry crowd reaching a breaking point, overturning a police car, and charging a handful of riot police. The action plays in conjunction with the narration, the mob representing the “undeplorables” on the left, the cops representing the “totalitarians” on the right, the closing of the gap when the crowd surges representing the two sides devouring each other and everything in-between.
After all that embarrassingly ill-conceived modern political commentary we then find out that the riot is happening in front of Veidt corporate headquarters, having been inspired by the revelation that Ozymandias killed New York as part of a secret plan for world peace.
In an obvious case of not thinking things through, Johns’ comment on toxic partisan politics manages to equate a Black Lives Matter demonstration gone horribly wrong to a lynch mob on the hunt for the biggest mass murderer in human history.
He clearly doesn’t realise that’s what he has done, but done it he has nonetheless. The ignorance of linking that sort of modern political hot-button to a lynch-mob notwithstanding, Modern partisan political demonstrations tend to be about a lot more nuanced issues than that which is taking place here. Nobody but nobody would be taking the side of Veidt. There would be no debate to speak of, never-mind a divided, hotly contested and volatile one.
Doomsday Clock, then, is fundamentally worse-written, in an objective writing way. There’s a certain poetry to that initial Watchmen journal entry, a rhythm and lyricism that makes it fascinating, which compels the reader to keep reading, to follow down Rorschach’s rabbit hole. There’s not too much of it in any individual panel, and even within those panels, it’s broken up between caption boxes in such a way that it forces pauses and breaks in all the right places. There’s even a bit of comic relief, when this arch-conservative (trust me Johns, Rorschach is NOT apolitical. At all) pines for the days of Harry S. Truman, the Atom bomb dropping Democratic President. It’s a masterful comic book monologue, and Moore makes it look easy.
Johns, on the other hand, makes an ungodly mess. The metaphor is laboured, there is no rhythm, there’s too much of it, it goes on much longer than it ought to, the language is clunky. It stumbles over itself in multiple places, like a drunk at a Ceilidh. The imagery doesn’t conjure up any actual images, either, when you think about some of what he writes.
“Brains boiled over by grotesque nightmares of a fictional invader.”
“An intestine full of truth and shit strangled us.”
I know he’s referencing the psychic attack from the end of Watchmen in that first line, but holy moley! He sounds like a pretentious 12-year-old with delusions of grandeur trying to do his best Alan Moore.
And if Johns was 12, I’d be a lot more forgiving. But he’s not.
He’s the ‘Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment’ to give him his full title. He’s DC’s main man, the architect of their current publishing initiative and one of the biggest names in comics.
Hell, there are people who’d tell you he’s one of the best writers out there at the moment. So it’s just not acceptable for a professional comic, never mind the sequel to Watchmen, to be this poorly written. Moore’s monologue is also better because of its brevity. It ends in six panels, completing the tirade just in time, and leaving that bottom page-wide perspective shot to relieve the tension with a joke. It’s playful and clever, a great pay-off to a very serious build. But Johns’ version continues into that final panel, and spills over onto the next page.
You see, Johns has made much of how he’s “following the rules of Watchmen.” The evidence shows, however, that what he really means is that he and Gary Frank are working in the nine-panel grid. But there’s another pretty big rule of Watchmen storytelling that he seems to have missed: scene changes only happen at page breaks. One scene can flow into another mid-page, via flashback or a character physically moving from one place to another in shot. But if a scene is changing completely, to a different place and different characters, that only happens at the page break. And it’s always accompanied by a clever transition. That thing Moore does where the final words of one scene speak to the beginning of the next. It’s Moore being clever, and he really is rather clever. But it’s also Moore having fun, which in turn makes Watchmen fun to read.
Johns is not being clever, because, well… I really don’t think he is.
Watchmen is indebted as much to classic literature and poetry as it is comic books (hell, probably more so) whereas Doomsday Clock… put it this way, I don’t get the impression that Geoff Johns reads much of anything, outside of superhero comics.
The biggest sin of Doomsday Clock, though, is ultimately not the unsophisticated technique. No, the biggest sin of Doomsday Clock is also its original sin; the conceptual one.
There. Should. Not. Be. A. Sequel. To. Watchmen.
Watchmen is a Mobius loop of a story. Its beginning follows relentlessly and inevitably right to the end, which in itself ends up making the reader complicit in the horrifying imagined after-effects by bringing everything around again. The snake eats its own tail- what happens at the end of Watchmen? Seymour opens up a parcel, finds a diary inside aaannnddd…
‘Rorschach’s journal, October 12th 1985.’
We’re right back at the beginning. The loop is closed. Moore traps the reader in the labyrinthine story he constructed around us so meticulously. There’s no way out. He renders a sequel narratively impossible by looping the end into the beginning, forcing us to grapple with the ideas of the possible outcomes rather than subject us to anything so inevitably limiting and tawdry as telling us what literally happens next.
A sequel not only directly invites comparison with the original but violates the ending of one of the greatest comic book stories of all time by its very existence.
But what has Johns said? That this is a chance for DC to publish a response to Moore’s critique? Well, see, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Indeed, it was about damn time.
Thing is, It was ALSO about damn time back in 2014 when DC comics published… a response to the critique laid down by Moore in Watchmen. It was called Pax Americana, and it came from that other Greatest Comic writer of all time, Grant Morrison, along with his frequent collaborator Frank Quitely.
Morrison wanted to take Watchmen on and have a debate with it, a conversation; to address the points it makes, pay tribute to its craft and skill and deliver an admiring critique of its own, making some succinctly powerful points about the argument presented therein.
Instead of a direct sequel, Pax Americana sees Morrison and Quitely re-think and update the self-reflecting narrative techniques used by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and apply them to a whole new story which asks, as Morrison put it, "what if Watchmen had been conceived now, in the contemporary political landscape and with the Charlton characters themselves, rather than analogues? So the cover has a close-up on a burning peace flag and a Delmore Schwartz quote – ‘Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn’ – and it all blossoms from there.”
That is the smart way to follow Watchmen, the well thought-out, intellectually rigorous way to respond to the themes of that work.
It takes the original on in an almost anything-you-can-do style gambit- So, you’re using a nine-panel grid? That’s cool- I’m using 8. You used analogues of the Charlton heroes? I’m using the actual heroes themselves. You play around with time, going backwards and forwards down the years? I’m going to wield time around like a baton in rhythmic dancing and do it far more challengingly than you ever managed. You’re arguing that any man made symbol (in this case, the superhero) is tainted by the artifice of agenda and scheme, looking instead to the virtue of the ordinary person and their ordinariness? I’m going to extol the virtue of the symbol as the vehicle by which the ordinary person transcends.
The issue itself is a bona fide triumph. It’s a comic-book about the past and a comic-book about the future. A comic-book about order and chaos, fantasy and reality, duality and pluralism, formalism and the Avant-Garde… even, in fact, about Moore versus Morrison. Pax Americana is both a tribute and a challenge to Watchmen, honouring its approach and themes while making a very different argument about storytelling and the nature of heroism.
This feels like a conversation between the two books, instead of a ham-fisted attempt at a copy. It plays by Watchmen‘s rules to a degree, but pivots and ups the ante on them, starting with 8, then breaking it down to 16 panels in places, or drawing the reader’s eye across the page by wrapping it around a stairwell, going into staccato variations for action spreads and, in what may be the most insane two-page spread ever seen anywhere, whacks us with a 32-panel extravaganza that maps four different characters around a single large room, across three different timelines, to demonstrate a murderer's method and motive.
Watchmen‘s final argument really seems to be that the only real heroes are regular people, trying to help where they can. Once you get into agendas and grand plans, you’ve left the path and turned into something monstrous. That’s how you get a cynical killer like the Comedian, an inflexible, repressed psychopath like Rorschach, or a well-intentioned but ultimately heartless schemer like Ozymandias. But never forget, there’s also Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, two flawed and all-too-human people who just want to help. That’s why they’re the ones who get the happy ending, the ones Dr. Manhattan (whose journey goes beyond heroism and into godhood) smiles upon before leaving humanity behind.
Pax Americana, on the other hand, argues that their flaws are less important than the inspiration they provide. Grand plans can work out just fine, if we have the courage to believe in the potential the super hero represents.
Pax Americana leaves its own outcome in a state of unfinished uncertainty. The grand plan may be going, uhm, to plan, or it may completely crash and burn. Like in Watchmen. The reader has to find that answer themselves, depending on what you believe in.
Like in Watchmen.
THIS is how you do a sequel to Watchmen. You challenge it. You engage with its themes and complexities while telling your own story that’s just as rich. And most importantly, you do all that without disrespecting the wishes of its creator.
All this is clear from one moment in Pax. In fact, there’s more of a response to Watchmen in one page of Pax Americana than there is in the opening issue of Doomsday clock and, I’ll bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in yours, than there is in the entirety of the Doomsday Clock series as a whole, too.
"I had to take a closer look," Captain Atom says, breaking his pet dog down into its constituent parts, like a lab experiment. "I thought the pieces would explain the whole." Then, almost in tears, "But – it's hard to love the pieces . . ."
While Watchmen is a masterpiece of design, Morrison contends that life is a maelstrom of contradiction. As much as Pax Americana pays admiring homage to Watchmen's structure and technique, it's also a strong riposte of Watchmen.
In short; if you’re looking for a comic that takes on Watchmen? Forget Doomsday Clock and dig out Pax Americana, instead.