By Clyde Hall. “What if superheroes existed in the real world?” At some point, we’ve all pondered this, and in 1986 the answer came. Watchmen is one of my favorite books. Not favorite comics, favorite books. It’s literature, and it’s perfectly told as a stand-alone story. Besides the 12 issue limited series, the ‘Watchmen: Who Watches the Watchmen?’ and ‘Taking Out the Trash’ DC Heroes RPG modules by Mayfair Games, and Watchmen Sourcebook RPG aid also by Mayfair, all written by Alan Moore or composed with his help, constituted for me the necessary Watchmen entirety.
But it’s hard to resist putting your own mark on legendary characters and to court profit from a property you own. Thus came DC’s Before Watchmen with prequel stories from giant talents of the 2012 comics landscape. DC seemed bent on bringing its New 52 universe closer to a Watchmen aesthetic by largely darkening their settings and heroes. Honestly? For as much as they tried to make Captain Atom into Dr. Manhattan, he could have been renamed Captain Manhattan.
Finally, Rebirth began, which saw the company returning to more fundamental depictions of its iconic characters in well-crafted stories. For many, DC was back on track. And with this change came official word that the Watchmen and the DC Universes were set to collide at last! Personally, if the post-New 52 changes came at the price of a Watchmen/DC Universe co-mingling, I was ready to ante up. Not partake in the limited series but tolerate its existence as I had Before Watchmen previously.
Curiosity and optimism in Rebirth won out, though, and I began reading the preludes which led us to Doomsday Clock. Issue #5 of the 12-issue limited series is on stands now, and while my answer to “Should DC have done this?” remains “No.”, I readily admit that they are doing it better than I expected. I do look forward to each new issue, I do feel pangs of curiosity between the bi-monthly releases, and I do like some of what writer Geoff Johns has done.
Issue #5 finds Adrian Veidt hospitalized after falling with style from twenty stories, and soon he’s managed his escape with Bubastis in tow. The DC Universe continues its descent into chaos and anti-metahuman sentiment, more heroes and villains declaring they were part of a superhuman arms race instigated by the U.S. government. Rorschach and Saturn Girl leave Arkham behind to search for Dr. Manhattan. Johnny Thunder travels to Pittsburgh seeking a mystic item. Batman and Veidt meet, Black Adam takes a hand in the international crisis, and Mime and Marionette explore just where the heck they are with their own sociopathic charm. Events are tied together by a background thread of media reports and a Nathaniel Dusk movie marathon. Given the stunning Gary Frank variant cover, it’s a foregone conclusion that the Joker also makes his appearance.
One of the achievements of the series is portraying the Watchmen characters well. Central figures like Veidt, established and fleshed out previously, could easily be mishandled. Johns writes him effectively and bestows on him some of the best dialogue of the issue. Dismissing Batman’s judgments while comparing what each has done to better their respective worlds is pure Ozymandias. The new Rorschach continues to develop as an intricate, compelling variation on the original. Mime and Marionette have my full attention; they’re vile and insane, but they do it with such panache and chaotic joy it’s hard not to savor their scenes.
Post-Rebirth continuity remains largely without reference to the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Justice Society, and members of each taking active roles in this issue makes my heart sing. Also, given the scope of Doomsday Clock, having the past and the future of the DCU represented feels important. Nostalgia buff that I am, the Nathaniel Dusk bits come off as a clever way to utilize the DC reality as a background device, serving a similar role as Tales of the Black Freighter. Gary Frank’s art, from character expression to action sequences to melodramatic quiet moments, is numbingly attractive. The restraint of the panel layout makes me long for the mad splash opportunities he could take advantage of.
Issue #5 is concerned with interlacing, the interpersonal clashing and mingling of characters from both realities as the DC world crumbles. This would be awkward, but mostly Johns maintains the story flow. The inclusion of the Comedian, however, is an eddy to the current. Unlike Veidt’s handling, Blake’s comes off as artificial, just a cog needed for the narrative unless resurrection changes a character’s dialogue voice and tones him down to mere support status. Lois Lane’s reliance on her editor to spur her to action also contradicts her usual portrayal as a strong and savvy senior reporter, making those scenes smack of filler.
And there are occasional moments when the dialogue rings if not false, then of expediency to overcome the chasm of world disparity. When Johnny Thunder cringes at the lethality of an attack on gang members, Saturn Girl assures him they were all going to OD anyway. It’s stone cold and comes from a character who should share Thunder’s aversion to killing, given she’s from a future where leather is outlawed. That disparity is a problem that Veidt has already touched on, one that interferes with the original “What if superheroes existed in the real world?” tenet. The DC Universe, filled with many more powered beings than the single Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen reality, is not like the ‘real world’ we or the original characters are familiar with.
Insisting on the Alan Moore format of lyrics, literature, and impactful media at the end of each issue chafed early on, and by this issue it’s become a sore point. It may be intended as homage, but Moore utilized it (innovated it) in such a way, the back matter in this series is coming off weak as dishwater. Such reverence for the original source material in pursuit of reminiscence reinforces the unlikelihood Doomsday Clock will add in a significant way to the mythos of a classic. And it brings into question revisiting a work completed 30+ years ago instead of giving writers and artists license and latitude to embark instead on the next game-changing watershed.
But it’s that same reverence that has compelled DC to lavish much thought and care into crafting this series, now almost to the halfway point in its telling. The storyline does keep me returning, with portions fleetingly close enough to the original in tone and style to take me straight back to 1986, being on the doorstep of the LCS as they opened to get the next Watchmen issue.
With issue #5, DC is piloting a good series – not great, but good. One now working toward a resolution of all that’s come before, with several ways I can imagine it failing, and far fewer satisfying endings. My hope is that Johns, Frank, Anderson, and Leigh will continue to surprise us in all the right ways, will intensify their considerable efforts so that by #12, Doomsday Clock will have proven its significance on its own terms. It’s the kind of hope their work on Rebirth has rekindled in this DC fan.
Written by Geoff Johns.
Art by Gary Frank.
Colors by Brad Anderson.
Letters by Rob Leigh.
6.5 out of 10