Geoff Johns Not as Good as Alan Moore in Watchmen Shocker
♦Tripwire’s Contributing Editor PETER MANN takes a look at DC’s Doomsday Clock#1…
Doomsday Clock #1 by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, and Brad Anderson
If you read much of the commentary around Doomsday Clock, Geoff Johns’ attempt to unite the DC Universe with the universe of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen, much of it revolves around the ethics of DC comics capitalising on the Watchmen property in this way. There’s a great deal of bleating about this, and an equal amount of aggressive “he knew what he was getting into”, “Alan Moore plagiarises JM Barrie/Robert Louis Stevenson/HG Wells etc.” and so on. So, to make things clear, Alan Moore signed a contract, it was a bad contract (although its problems were only noticed at a later date, as there was no reasonable expectation of Watchmen running to endless reprints on the evidence of previous collections), but life’s tough, so suck it up. On the other side of the equation is a huge amount of whataboutery and ad hominem attacks. Alan Moore writing dubious quasi-porn with characters from Peter Pan may be tasteless, but it has no real equivalent In Watchmen. Others point to the fact that the characters in Watchmen are all derivative of the Charlton characters, and although that’s where they may have started, it is disingenuous to suggest that Nite Owl is a dead ringer for Charlton’s Blue Beetle. In the process of reinventing those characters, Moore added character traits, motivations, back-story and many more elements not visible in the Charlton characters. If this wasn’t the case, then DC has no need to replicate Watchmen at all: it owns the original Charlton characters, and can surely do as good a job with those as with the characters from the Watchmen universe? Of course, those of us who have had to suffer through DC versions of those Charlton heroes recognise that they have no such ability, and if anything, their versions of those characters have peeled the last elements of lustre from them.
So, Moore has no credible claim to stop DC using these characters. Equally though, DC have already demonstrated their incompetence to use them effectively in the abortive and generally forgotten, Before Watchmen disaster. It seems that collecting the great and the good of the world of comics and applying them to a group of characters is of little use if the character’s creators are not really involved. And so to bed. Or at least to Doomsday Clock #1 the first part of another attempt to use Moore’s characters, and this time to fuse them definitively with the DC Universe.
Let’s start with the bringing together of two previously separate worlds.
If we rewind in time a little bit, we will recall that the disaster that was the New 52 led to DC Rebirth, an attempt to put the DC Universe back on a firm footing, and most of all to provide a great deal of fan service to fans who had been alienated by DC’s attempt to update and rationalise its universe. At the end of Rebirth, Batman discovers a Watchmen smiley badge in the Batcave. This, along with some well-judged leakage of the pages in question made Rebirth an instant bestseller and gave the reformulation of the DC Universe a strong footing for its first few months of sales. Those sales were kept high by a fairly constant trolling of the readership, with storylines that might resolve the Watchmen conundrum. Hints were dropped, the manipulation of time was alluded to, a mysterious “Mr Oz” along with appropriate shots that seemed to mirror the Ozymandias branding from Watchmen was produced, but until recently all roads led to ambiguity. I have a strong suspicion that at the time of the Batcave / Watchmen universe linkage no-one had any idea of how this was going to be resolved, and it was simply a marketing ploy. Geoff Johns would seem bear this out when he talks of pitching the Doomsday Clock idea to Gary Frank: it didn’t seem to be around May 2016 that he was doing it.
But that was then, and this is now. And now we have the culmination of 18 months of hints, plots that didn’t go quite where people thought they would, and finally, trailers for the event itself. So how does Doomsday Clock stand up? And how does it compare to its illustrious predecessor?
In Watchmen #1 we learned of the death of the Comedian through Rorschach’s investigation into it. We were introduced to all the major characters, as Rorschach pursued the “mask-killer,” and thereby learned a great deal about the background of the world that Moore and Gibbons would explore in the next 11 instalments. In Doomsday Clock #1 we begin with a summary of sorts of what’s happened in the world of Watchmen since, er, well, Watchmen. Johns inelegantly mixes elements from contemporary US politics into the 1980s setting of Watchmen, and establishes that Adrian Veidt’s world-uniting gambit has failed and that Veidt is being sought for mass murder. The revelation of Veidt’s treachery seems to have led to a breakdown in law and order, a missile attack, as well as the removal of the free press and the creation of a National News Network controlled by the government. Yeah, the government. That’s President Robert Redford, who appears to have become a fascist, not unlike another blonde-haired media character who might come to mind. We follow a SWAT team breaking into Adrian Veidt’s lair, to find him gone.
We then switch to a retread of the prison scene from Watchmen #6. Except that this time Rorschach’s breaking into a prison to release Mime and Marionette a team of villains based on Punch and Jewlee (who originally battled Nightshade and Captain Atom at Charlton co mics). Rorschach is using the safety of Marionette’s child to coerce her into whatever the heck it is he wants her to do. This Rorschach proves he’s not the old Rorschach by showing Marionette his hand – it’s black. More on this later. This prison break goes on for quite some time. It’s followed by Rorschach, Marionette, and Mime walking down an underground tunnel. For a long time. A very long time. Eventually, Rorschach opens a door to show, ta-da, the Owlcave. But it’s not Nite Owl who lurks in the shadows, oh no, it’s fatty Ozymandias. I say “fatty” because this version of the “O” man seems to have gained weight along with a brain tumour in the intervening three years.
Cut to Metropolis: where Clark Kent/Superman is having a bad dream involving prom night, and the death of his parents by a drunk driver.
And that’s it. In summary: the world has gone to shit, prison break, long walk, fatty Ozymandias, bad dream for Superman. I didn’t know what to expect from Doomsday Clock, but I was pretty certain I wasn’t going be bored. Which goes to show, that as William Goldman said: “nobody knows anything”. The biggest problem with Doomsday Clock is that it’s tedious, and stages everything as if we should just be glad to see the reappearance of Rorschach, Ozymandias, and frankly, a cast of nobodies. Perhaps we’re supposed to be excited about Rorschach and Superman appearing in the same comic. Frankly, I’m underwhelmed.
The script isn’t the only problem though. Sadly, we also have the art to contend with. I like Gary Frank’s work, but he is an illustrative rather than a graphical storyteller. This leaves him incredibly exposed when using the strict panel grids that characterised Watchmen. Look at this example:
What is actually happening here? In the first panel, we can clearly see the prison guard has been grabbed by the back of his collar and has his back to the bars. In the next panel, he’s mysteriously turned through 180° and his assailant has the front of his collar. Yes, we can all fill in the inter-panel actions that may have got us to this state but this kind of clumsy storytelling persists throughout the issue. This lack of attention to storytelling is not helped by the colouring which is muddy throughout. In fact, in this panel:
The supposedly shocking revelation that Rorschach is now black is muted because it’s hard to see he’s black – the muddy colouring leads us to suppose that it’s just part of the mise en scene. Weirdly Marionette looks more like a photo that Rorschach has his hand upon than a real human being. These visual miscues hamper the comic all the way through. Compared to the elegance and control of Dave Gibbons’ storytelling in the original this looks hastily put together.
The colouring is problematic all the way through, and constantly prompts comparisons with the original. It is plain that Dave Gibbons and original colourist John Higgins worked out a colour scheme for Watchmen that they used consistently throughout the 12 issue series. There is no such consistency here, except perhaps in Brad Sanderson’s mind. If anything, there is too much colour. Frank is an accomplished line artist, and the black and white pages that were released from Doomsday Clock look better than the finished coloured pages. When your artist elaborates shadows and faces using line work, adding to it with digital colour is overkill. As Frank is the kind of artist to go to the trouble of putting Rorschach’s head in Marionette’s pupils (along with a bright yellow light source that is nowhere to be seen) the overall effect is just messy.
The story is dull, the storytelling is poor, the colour is muddy. But wait, there’s one last thing that might redeem this. Yes, we’ve got some tedious text pages just like Alan Moore’s! There may be some interesting stuff in these pages. By this point, I really couldn’t care.
If you want DC’s motives in doing this, simply turn to Page 4. After the self-consciously “classy” covers and a two-page spread of everyone who had anything to do with this, facing directly onto the first page of the story is a full-page ad for Batman: Creature of the Night. On the inside back covers, we have a spread for DC graphic novels, with Superman and Wonder Woman sharing a look at Rebirth.
After Doomsday Clock, however well or badly it turns out, what you have to look forward to is a series of poorly written and drawn DC comics, based on the Watchmen characters, and that will be as successful as DCs version of the Charlton characters. As I said earlier, DC will never do anything decent with this property, because they simply don’t have people with the chops needed to do that: if they had they would have done it with Before Watchmen or with the Charlton heroes themselves.