Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Trade Weight: Doomsday Clock - The Complete Collection

 2021, DC Comics

--DC is a mess--

Everything DC Comics is kind of a mess these days.  The DC Extended Universe movie universe ("DCEU") is a failed experiment that Warner Brothers just keeps plugging money into trying to figure out something that will rival Marvel Studios' brilliant IP-building.  The DC-CWverse (formerly "Arrowverse") has felt a little aimless following the big Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover circa Dec 2019-Jan 2020, with many of its long running series coming to an end or starting to feel the weight of their many years, and new pilots like Painkiller and Green Arrow and the Canaries (or whatever it was to be called) stalling out the gate.  The one thing DC was always great at, animation (especially that for all-ages), has been kind of absent (DC Superhero Girls burned bright briefly... is Teen Titans Go still a thing?), and their direct-to-video animated movie department seems mostly focused on animating popular comic stories. In comics, DC fired Dan Didio two years ago and started scaling back operations, leaving it leaderless, and taking a new publishing approach of distancing their series from having to maintain over-complicated continuity.

It's not that there haven't been successes.  The disconnected films, like Shazam and Aquaman were great fun, pointing that maybe stand-alone realities are the way to go. Original TV shows for DC's streaming service (now absorbed into HBO Max) Doom Patrol and Harley Quinn have been really quite good or great. In comics, Tom King hasn't let me down yet, Milestone has returned, Tom Taylor's writing Nightwing and Wally West is The Flash again.

But I'm not as enthused as I once was. 
DC has see-sawed waaaaay too much over the past decade, and frankly, I put it at the feet of Geoff Johns.

--The road that Johns paved--

I like Johns, but not unequivocally. I think his need to play with his childhood toys in the late aughts, Barry Allen and Hal Jordan specifically, kind of ruined what DC's greatest strength and advantage over Marvel was: legacy.  I mean, Johns had a great run on JSA, and really seemed to get the history of the DC Universe, but he also couldn't let go of it.  With Green Lantern, bringing Hal back led to the Spectrum Corps, but it also led to Kyle Raynor (the comics Green Lantern) and John Stewart (the animated Green Lantern) being pushed aside.  Kyle in the comics struggled for a new identity.  They made a borderline unwatchable movie about Hal Jordan which Johns had a heavy hand in. 

Following the return of Hal Jordan, Johns penned Infinite Crisis.  With its direct ties back to Crisis on Infinite Earths, was Johns' first big foray into course correcting and explaining deviations in the DCU.  This is the series that introduced a very evil Superboy into DC continuity who has been one of John's mainstay go-to bad guys for a decade and a half.

Infinite Crisis led into the epic weekly series 52, where Johns, partnering with Greg Rucka, Mark Waid and Grant Morrison, reinstated a new multiverse into the DCU.  Meanwhile, Johns (with Richard Donner) also made a stab at introducing a child into Superman's life, which didn't really take.

Then, in bringing Barry Allen back, he pushed Wally West aside.  Wally was the Flash of both comics and animation.  It pushed Bart Allen aside too, which in a way started the restricting of the next generation of heroes.  As Marvel was building up its next gen of Young Avengers and  X-Men, and solo stars like Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, Miles Morales Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen, DC started turning back to the past, and then in a blind fit of madness, wiping the slate clean.

Thanks to Johns, and Barry Allen, there was Flashpoint, which I deem to be the nadir of DC's 25-year obsession with event-driven publishing.  To be completely honest, I've still not read it in full, but the concept just reaffirmed my distaste for Barry Allen as the Flash.  If he's the better Flash, he should know better than to muck with time. Obviously the New 52 was the direct end result.  The New 52 was never going to be anything but a short-term ploy for DC, and while it may have benefited them financially in the short term, in the long run it was an abject failure.  The indirect end result is a large piece of the decade-long spiral into darker DC realities.  Flashpoint. The New 52. Injustice. Metal and the Dark Multiverse. Arrow. Man of Steel and the Snyderverse. "Fuck Batman" Titans. Animated Frank Miller adaptations.

Amid the new 52 Johns also penned the Forever Evil event, where the villains of the DCU took over the world and then had to combat an even greater foe, and then two years later DC Universe:Rebirth (trading off Green Lantern: Rebirth and Flash:Rebirth) which effectively retconned the New 52 and created a new hybrid  reality.

I'm not saying the quality of any of these are bad.  Johns is a good writer, and a lot of his output is great reading.  But I look at so much of what he did as a writer for DC and it was a lot of monkeying with the larger architecture of the DC Universe.  As Chief Creative Officer of DC for 8 years, he working with Dan Didio and Jim Lee to plot the path, he's the one who physically laid the bricks.

--Who mans the Watchmen?--

In 2011 (though Johns may have had nothing to do with the decision, but hard to tell given he was CCO) DC started laying the groundwork for more Watchmen product, with long advance notice of the 2012 debut of the Before Watchmen titles, and the fan griping to go along with it.

Watchmen was a sacrosanct text for the longest time, a portrait of pure artistic vision.  The foundation upon which modern superhero comics (and maybe the American comics industry as a whole) was built. To touch it in any way would potentially dilute its impact.  Any falter in how it, or the characters within were presented, and it could tarnish the whole conceit of superheroes as something modern, meaningful, relevant, artful.

Well, with a stab at making a film in 2009, Zack Snyder got the adapted visuals bang on, but missed all the nuance.  Even still, following the film, the collected edition of Watchmen became a massive and sustaining bestseller.  More Watchmen was inevitable.

Yet in the wake of the film,  people already were pointing a damning finger back to The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen as the guidepost what happened to the American comics industry in the years following their near simultaneous publications. Grim'n'gritty'n'sexy'n'cool dominated the 90's, but that was catering not to an adult audience, but a hormonal teenage one.  DC dabbled in this, but they didn't go hardcore like Marvel, Image or the indies did.   The fallout of the "Death of Superman" wasn't a plunge into darkness, but the introduction of new legacy characters.  It didn't stop them from getting there eventually, with things like Identity Crisis in 2004 (where a villain rapes a heroes wife) and, yes, Flashpoint and the New 52.

Alan Moore has said that creators have ostensibly taken the wrong inspiration from Watchmen.  Per an interview with the AV Club in 2008: "I think that what a lot of people saw when they read Watchmen was a high degree of violence, a bleaker and more pessimistic political perspective, perhaps a bit more sex, more swearing. And to some degree there has been, in the 15 years since Watchmen, an awful lot of the comics field devoted to these grim, pessimistic, nasty, violent stories which kind of use Watchmen to validate what are, in effect, often just some very nasty stories that don't have a lot to recommend them.... The gritty, deconstructivist postmodern superhero comic, as exemplified by Watchmen, also became a genre. It was never meant to. It was meant to be one work on its own. I'd have liked to have seen more people trying to do something that was as technically complex as Watchmen, or as ambitious, but which wasn't strumming the same chords that Watchmen had strummed so repetitively. The apocalyptic bleakness of comics over the past 15 years sometimes seems odd to me, because it's like that was a bad mood that I was in 15 years ago. It was the 1980s, we'd got this insane right-wing voter fear running the country, and I was in a bad mood, politically and socially and in most other ways. But it was a genuine bad mood, and it was mine. I've seen a lot of things over the past 15 years that have been a bizarre echo of somebody else's bad mood. It's not even their bad mood, it's mine"

 Moore wasn't trying to "correct" anything, he was using the medium of superheroes as a means of exploring humanity, and to express his concerns over it's trajectory at the time it was created.  It was also an experimental storytelling playground.

For the better part of Geoff Johns' career (mostly at DC) he's either been trying to influence DCs future, or correct continuity.  With Doomsday Clock he's doing both, while at the same time adopting the edifice of what Moore and Gibbons did in 1985.  

Doomsday Clock looks like Watchmen, it's structured like Watchmen, it contains Watchmen characters and references...but its purpose is so, so much less.  The spirit of Watchmen is not contained within.

--A doomed review--

Let me just say, before I continue, that I enjoyed reading Doomsday Clock.  It's a very engrossing read.  It presents a compelling in-world scenario as well as a mystery that unfurls nicely.  The framework upon which the story hangs is a beefy one, build by masters of storytelling, and just in attempting to emulate that structure, Johns with frequent collaborator Gary Frank (with colorist Brad Anderson and letterer Rob Leigh) manage to deliver the impression of importance.  Like Snyder's adaptation, it adopts its cues and approximates the rhythms, and does so skillfully enough to entertain, but its missing soul.  It's a cover song, performed by an artist that likes the tune, but doesn't really connect with the lyrics.

This 400-page tome starts roughly 7 years after the events of Watchmen, the lie Adrian Veidt had created has been exposed and the world is collapsing.  Protests ring out as distrust runs rampant.  Rather than successfully bringing the world together he's torn it down practically to the ground.  It's on the verge of nuclear annihilation.  There's one hope at salvation, Dr. Manhattan, and he's nowhere to be found, at least not in this reality.  So Veidt, a new Rorschach and two criminals from their past escape in the Owlship to the modern day 2020 DC Universe in search of the missing blue god.

The opening chapters feel the weight of its apocalyptic scenario for Earth-Watchmen.  The new Rorschach is intentionally too on the nose of the old Rorschach so as to add the weight of the original when perhaps said weight isn't really there. This Rorschach seems to be as astute and as ruthless as the original.... 

Once on Earth-Rebirth, there's a situation at hand, a rumour that America's uneven proliferation of superheroes compared to the rest of the world is as a result of secret government experimental programs. Protests erupt, distrust abounds.  It's a much different reality, this Earth full of heroes, but the same problems persist.

Early on you get the sense that maybe Johns is working through a lot of the issues of the day, but then I remember that a lot of the Black Lives Matter protesting and capital building storming hadn't happened yet.  But still, disinformation and bull-headed belief in feelings-over-facts I thought would make for a potent undercurrent...but they never really get much past a patch on the surface.

By the end of the second act, the gritty groundedness of Watchmen gives way to the spandex-clad reality of the DCU.  It's a story that slowly turns from maybe having something to say to just being another superhero event comic.  There have been stories of distrust in heroes countless times...right out of Crisis On Infinite Earths event came the Legends event which found Glorious Godfrey, a then-equivalent to a modern-day right-wing mouthpiece, spouting off against the heroes and rallying the layperson against them.  That storyline feels even more relevant today, with certain supposed "news" media sowing discord among the public by proliferating lies and repeating propaganda.  Those machinations are at play in Doomsday Clock but they're buried under the importance of telling a story that's set up to reframe a superhero universe.

And it's too bad, it's really to bad.  There's a lot of craft and care put into this.  Gary Frank does what may be the best work of his career here, bringing something of his own to the 9-panel grid structure.  Franks figures, forms and faces have never been more expressive and emotive, it's really gorgeous to look at.  Similarly, Johns really was trying at matching the level of storytelling intricacy that Moore did, putting so much work into back-matter world building, and seeding throughout his own "Black Freighter" in the form of a Noir movie starring a dormant DC-owned detective.  His sifting through annals of DC's pantheon and pulls out so many deep cuts, there is clearly love and care here in what he's doing.  At a certain point it even seems that Johns might be making a case that superheroes as a storytelling construct have no place in modern society...but that train is abandoned rather quickly.

But the end result is not even close to Watchmen caliber.  

While Watchmen will still be completely readable and resonant two decades from now, Doomsday Clock is here to serve one purpose... yet again correct the continuity problems of the DC Universe (and answer questions like where are the JSA? Where is the Legion?).  In the wake of DC Universe: Rebirth there were still continuity flaws and gaps that couldn't be explained.  Just as there were gaps in the New 52.  And gaps after Final Crisis, and Infinite Crisis and Zero Hour and Crisis On Infinite Earths and every other attempt to sew some sort of logic into decades upon decades of storytelling with characters who barely age.

I like that Johns ties in all the timeline fudging directly around the need to keep revitalizing Superman, as the DC Universe indeed does revolve around him.  It a good acknowledgement.  But Johns doesn't just stop at trying to fix the currently broken DC Universe, or addressing why it keeps needing fixing, he also tries to project five different points of future DCU continuity up to 30 years in advance that infers so much the hubris of the writer and his sense that he's the architect of the DCU.  I would almost have preferred a Morrison-esque injection of himself into the proceedings as the grand architect, indicting thins grand decider or the reader as complicit beings of unknown origins for their part in continually messing up the reality.

If it serves another purpose - integrating the Watchmen into the DCU for future exploration - then that's kind of the worst possible scenario.

--Aftermath and aside--

The fallout of Doomsday Clock was rapid, and before it was even finished another event befell the DCU, Dark Knights: Metal, which changed everything even more (has to be the absolute fastest retcon in existence).  Today, there's Future State and other untethered realities that allow basically any story to be told and be a part of any canon.  It all exists at once.  It's all valid.  Just enjoy what you want to enjoy, don't worry about how it impacts anything else.  It's a reality I like, but also one that's hard to invest in.

I wish Doomsday Clock had been a part of this new, post-Metal reality, where it was its own stand-alone, self-contained product, with a beginning, middle and end that owes very little to any specific continuity.  It really needed to separate itself from the "now" of the DC Universe (at a certain point I thought it was taking place in 1992 DCU), but since it couldn't, it will be forever tied to 2020 which means it will age and creak, pretty rapidly.

The argument that Watchmen shouldn't be continued at all is, now, a moot point. In Multiversity: Pax Americana, Grant Morrison reverted the Watchmen characters back to their Charlton Comics analogs, providing a playground to mess with the Watchmen without actually messing with Watchmen.  But Watchmen is a brand now, and that will be taken advantage of whether anyone likes it or not.  We now have four separate projects that have been built around it, to their own varying levels of success (and failure).  If anything, Watchmen needs to be left alone, in that it shouldn't be operating outside its own reality.  It becomes abundantly clear in Doomsday Clock that being part of a sprawling superhero reality isn't a great fit for the property. It plays nice for a time, but eventually gets crushed under the weight of everything a shared universe represents.  With the exception of Dr. Manhattan (who is perhaps too outsized for the DCU), the characters get lost.  Who needs an Adrian Veidt when you have a Lex Luthor.  Who needs a Rorschach when you have a Batman or a Question.  Who needs Marionette or Mime when you have the Joker. 

An enjoyable enough read for people steeped in DC lore, but not a very accessible read for someone looking for a sequel to Watchmen.  For that, I would direct them to the brilliant 2020 HBO TV mini-series that takes the established world of Watchmen and tries something different, technically complex, that harnesses the bad mood of the 2010s and makes a work of art out of it.  It's expands upon the world of Watchmen without parroting Moore and Gibbons or leaning on the past like a crutch.  It has ambition and purpose, but also entertains wildly and surprisingly. While Doomsday Clock barely scratches at commenting on our modern existence, HBO's Watchmen transfers the temperature of the day to another far more effectively.

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