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Doctor Manhattan in Doomsday Clock #7, DC Comics (2018). Geoff Johns, Gary Frank/DC Comics

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DC Comics’ Watchmen sequel, Doomsday Clock, ends in the shadow of the HBO show

A long-awaited midnight

More than a year after it was expected to, Doomsday Clock, the Watchmen sequel-cum-DC Comics crossover, has finally come to an end. Even if Doomsday Clock had wrapped up on time, roughly around the end of 2017, there probably would have been a lot of comparisons between it and Watchmen, HBO’s critical and audience hit.

But in a thermodynamic miracle of publishing delays, Doomsday Clock #12 has hit shelves the same week as Watchmen’s finale episode. The question seems even stronger now: How does DC Comics’ own attempt to map out the future of the Watchmen universe fare in comparison to it’s TV relative?

The answer is: Not well.

Doctor Manhattan incapacitates the Martian Manhunter, Katana, Batgirl, the Flash, and Green Lantern Hal Jordan on Mars in Doomsday Clock #10, DC Comics (2019). Geoff Johns, Gary Frank/DC Comics

But first, a Rebirth recap

Doomsday Clock launched in November 2017 with a lot of hype on the part of DC Comics — most of it deserved. With art from the team of Gary Frank, Brad Anderson, and Geoff Johns, DC was pairing the chief creative officer of DC Entertainment with a familiar team of best-in-the-industry artists.

The story, as advertised, seemed to be a considered response to the ways in which the success of Watchmen has warped the superhero genre, though told through the most cliche of superhero formats one could imagine. On paper, Doomsday Clock is a space-time warping crossover that promised a final confrontation between Doctor Manhattan and Superman.

To explain exactly how that came to be, we’ll have to go back to 2016 — or really, to 2011, with the debut of the New 52, DC Comics’ first continuity reset in 25 years. Almost nothing in comics happens without controversy, but the New 52 was famously controversial. The initiative was criticized for lacking diversity, on the page and behind it; for failing to bring in the new readers it was supposed to; and, of course, for throwing the baby of beloved continuity out with the bathwater of excessive continuity.

In 2016, DC editorial offered something of a mea culpa. The company’s “Rebirth” relaunch was a tonal shift that involved a lot of renumbering of books, and it kicked off with Rebirth #1, a one-shot story that revealed that something had altered the timeline of the DC Comics universe without its heroes realizing. According to Rebirth #1, many beloved but deleted elements of DC continuity — the Justice Society, the Flash’s original sidekick, the League of Super-Heroes, Green Arrow and Black Canary’s marriage, Superman’s human parents — all had the same in-universe reason for why they were missing.

Doctor Manhattan had deleted them from the timeline.

Rebirth was a promise of change and refocusing that largely delivered. But Rebirth #1 had set up a big blue Chekov’s gun, and it wasn’t until Doomsday Clock that we got to see it fire.

[Ed. note: The rest of this post contains spoilers for both Doomsday Clock and HBO’s Watchmen series.]

The story of Doomsday Clock

A variant cover for the first issue in DC Comics’ Doomsday Clock series, bringing the DC and Watchmen universes together. Gary Frank/DC Comics

Like HBO’s Watchmen, Doomsday Clock shows us what could happen after the ending of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, but in a very different way. In the TV series, Ozymandias’ plan kept the world from descending into nuclear apocalypse, and Rorschach’s journal, while discovered, was dismissed as the dangerous musings of a certifiably delusional crank.

In Doomsday Clock, however, the publication of Rorschach’s journal was taken in deadly seriousness. Johns and Frank pick up with Ozymandias and co. mere hours before Veidt is seized by an angry mob and Russia and America launch their nukes and presumably destroy all civilization on Earth. But Adrian Veidt has a new plan: Find Doctor Manhattan and convince him to return and use his nigh omnipotent abilities to halt the destruction.

Veidt, accompanied by a hand-picked team of a young, black successor to Rorschach, and two former costumed criminals — a trio of new characters created by Johns and Frank for the series — followed Jon Osterman’s trail to where he’d been hanging out in the intervening time: the main DC universe.

Watchmen has been quietly, perhaps cheekily, positioned as one of the DC Universe’s canonical parallel Earths for years. And Doomsday Clock is also a story about what happens when Doctor Manhattan, in all his logic and power, becomes aware of the inherently illogical, nonlinear main DC continuity. How does a man who perceives all time as simultaneous perceive a universe in which the timeline itself is frequently in flux?

He’s confused by it, is the answer. And as a scientist grown completely detached from humanity, he started to experiment with it. He discovered that changes in this universe can ripple to all the other universe in the multiverse, and dubbed it the Metaverse. He discovered that many events in this universe depended heavily on the life and choices of Superman.

In seeking to understand why, Doctor Manhattan altered Superman’s backstory, erasing the Justice Society, the superheroes who came before him and inspired him, which in turn erases his childhood as Superboy, which in turn ensured that Ma and Pa Kent died in a car crash on the evening of Clark Kent’s prom.

Doctor Manhattan felt he better understood this new version of Superman, who was more distant from humanity. So he started changing other things, too, and in doing so “created” most of the major structural changes of the New 52. He also made an intriguing discovery.

Jon has trouble seeing the future in the DC universe, but the final thing he can see is Superman throwing a punch at him. Just like when this happened in Watchmen, he’s filled with an innocent and unnerving curiosity about this moment. He theorizes that there are two potential reasons for his future blindness: Either he is unable to see what happens next because it is the moment that Superman destroys him, or because it is the moment that he himself unmakes the multiverse.

Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan in Doomsday Clock #7, DC Comics (2018). Geoff Johns, Gary Frank/DC Comics

So, Doomsday Clock has been setting up a titanic confrontation between Superman and Doctor Manhattan, but it’s not like everything else has been sunshine and rainbows. Thanks to the combined machinations of Doctor Manhattan and Adrian Veidt, all of DC’s good superteams are incapacitated on Mars, while international tensions on Earth have reached a fever pitch. Except instead of nuclear annihilation as the threat, it’s countries around the world forming their own militant, nationalist superteams, who are all at each other’s throats.

The end of Doomsday Clock

Doomsday Clock #12, out this week, finally resolved three years of toying and teasing of DC Comics continuity, but did it with a thin veneer of superheroic wishful thinking.

Doctor Manhattan confronts Superman, and tells him of his sins. Superman declines to attack him, and instead reminds him of Janey Slater, his first love. And Doctor Manhattan decides in that instant to reset the DC universe, restoring all of his changes to the timeline back the way they were. (Naturally, all of the erased superheroes show up on the exact spot of Superman’s battle so they can get in on the action.)

“I see tomorrow,” Manhattan says, “The man of tomorrow. And for the first time... I am inspired.”

The next few pages, of Doctor Manhattan looking into the future of the DC Universe, might be the most interesting and moving part of the issue. Johns and Frank imagine the DC universe rippling and reforming around Superman’s origin story again and again, as editorial reboots find canonical ways to slide it further and further into the future. They place Superman adventures in 2026, 2030 (a Marvel/DC Crossover, natch), 2038 — all the way out to 2965, a hopeful estimation of publication life indeed.

But that’s about the best that can be said about the issue. After he fixes the DC Universe and sends most of the Watchmen characters home to where they belong, Doctor Manhattan goes home to his universe and simply makes all the nukes disappear and reverses the nuclear devastation. Then, over the course of four pages, he adopts a human baby, raises him to elementary school age, imbues him with his powers, and drops him on the doorstep of the incognito Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk, to be raised alongside their newly revealed daughter. Upon doing this, Jon himself fades into nothingness.

Doomsday Clock ends on the image of Jon’s “son,” complete with a glowing hydrogen atom symbol in his forehead, saying that his name is “Clark.” The issue also implies that this Baby Manhattan will eventually make his way to the DC Universe as well.

Doctor Manhattan builds his pink glass clockwork palace on Mars in Watchmen, DC Comics (1986). Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons/DC Comics

Nothing ever ends, I guess

For two sequels with very different ideas about how Watchmen continuity continued, HBO’s Watchmen and Doomsday Clock rounded out their finales with some shocking parallels. Doctor Manhattan deciding to become less detached from human life, partly by raising children. Doctor Manhattan passing his powers on before dying himself. An apocalypse averted, Ozymandias jailed for his crimes.

And to be fair, they’re sequels based on the same material. The existence of some thematic connections wouldn’t itself demand comment, except that Doomsday Clock comes out the weaker on nearly every count.

Watchmen is a story about two men with immense power growing so detached from humanity that they commit terrible crimes of action and inaction, a theme that lies like a thorn in the heart of the very premise of superhero fiction. Doomsday Clock walks right up to confront that flaw, and flinches. Its ending feels pat and self-congratulatory even in the moment — the power of Superman’s ability to inspire triumphing even over the industry’s most infamous “anti-superhero” story.

Doctor Manhattan’s ability to essentially perceive and cause editorial changes to the DC Universe invites a metatextual view of Doomsday Clock, but the series fares even worse from a wider look. Johns and Frank undo a selection of editorial decisions that shaped the New 52 by saying they were all Doctor Manhattan’s attempt to darken the Superman myth with cynicism. Metatextuality, this places the blame for unpopular DC editorial decisions on a character created by Alan Moore, famous for feuding with DC Comics over the rights to Watchmen, casting the entire Watchmen concept as a villain to the main DCU, but still one that just needs a bit of that Superman charm to solve all its problems.

At its beginning, Doomsday Clock seemed as if it might reflect back on Watchmen the value of uncynical hero stories — the value of an unstoppable hero of the people created by two Jewish, first-generation immigrant kids from Cleveland. In the end it’s presents less of an argument than a tautology. The reason why Superman is worthy to have all that power is because if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be Superman.

In an era when it’s been demonstrably proven that we have the room and the resources to make superhero stories for the big and small screen that are just as vibrant and visual as on the page, superhero comics have to offer something more than begging the question. They have to be the smartest, bravest, most daring reinventions of the genre out there, because they are where the genre comes from.

That HBO was able to make a Watchmen sequel that said more about the power of Superman than DC Comics itself should be worrisome.