Doomsday Clock is a bold — some might say sacrilegious — project for DC Comics to be producing. Doomsday Clock #1 seems almost calculated to subvert expectations of sacrilege, right down to a six-page preview that carefully reveals the resurrection of an infamously dead character. But it is not to be dismissed so easily.
At its simplest, Doomsday Clock is a crossover between DC’s main setting and the setting of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, bringing the two together for the first time. The previews for the comic have promised that it will expand on a reveal from the end of 2016’s Rebirth #1, which kicked off a successful new editorial direction for the comics publisher — i.e., that all the recent changes to canon that fans hadn’t liked were caused by Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan messing with the DC Universe timeline.
[Warning: This review will contain spoilers for Watchmen. It’s a 30-year-old book, and you should probably read it.]
The first six pages of the comic, released during New York Comic Con, establish that Doomsday Clock is set several years after the events of Watchmen. That makes it the sequel to the 1985 series that the publisher has long contemplated — or threatened — making, against the wishes of one of its alienated co-creators. Those first six pages also reveal the inexplicable return of Rorschach, who met a spectacular and final end within the pages of Watchmen.
That alone is enough to make any interested fan nervous. But DC has also promised that Doomsday Clock will be a contained, finite series that maps itself after Watchmen in structure and form, not just subject. It’s not a story about Superman and Doctor Manhattan punching each other through the sky, writer Geoff Johns has insisted. Instead, it’s a story that questions whether cynicism is more or less valuable than hope.
Thirty years ago, Watchmen held up a dark mirror to the idea of the superhero. In response, the genre has thrown itself into a multi-decade love affair with the gritty anti-hero. With Doomsday Clock, Johns appears to be using the DC Universe to hold up a mirror right back at Watchmen and, in doing so, maybe even defend the genre’s aspirational, optimistic core.
Though, again, you might not be able to see that from the first six pages.
Doomsday Clock #1 opens in an easily identifiable tribute to Watchmen’s iconic opening, with it’s oft-repeated-in-a-try-hard-growl “I’ll look down and whisper ... no” monologue. We get seven panels depicting a slow zoom out from street-level details to a birds’-eye view. Rorschach narrates, decrying the sins of his fellow citizens.
His monologue does the book no favors, a classic example of Poe’s Law. Knowing almost nothing about Geoff Johns’ take on Moore and Gibbons’s characters, we could be forgiven for not being able to tell whether we’re supposed to buy in to Rorschach’s nihilism. But once you return to his thoughts after finishing the first issue, you have a much clearer answer: No. Here we have a decidedly unreliable narrator.
But what we do know (and what I can tell you before the issue comes out on Wednesday) is that it takes place several years after the climax of Watchmen, in which Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt created a hoax of an alien invasion, motivating the United States and Russia to end the Cold War and usher humanity into a new era of peace, prosperity and nuclear disarmament. At the beginning of Doomsday Clock #1, we see all of that progress unravel, as the hoax has been uncovered, and angry crowds scream for Veidt’s blood.
Rorschach’s opening monologue in Doomsday Clock may feel like something you’d read on Reddit, but the first issue is not above needling him a little. Watchmen was not a comic without humor, but what it had was decidedly dry and dark. Doomsday Clock #1 is surprisingly funny — not primarily comic, but funny enough that it actually made me laugh several times. The humor works in ways that let me know that the comic wasn’t too full of itself, and felt comfortable occasionally taking the piss out of its characters, too. This, too, feels like a response to Watchmen, just like Doomsday Clock’s use of the nine-panel grid or the reframing of the issue’s first panel as its cover image.
Johns doesn’t stop at bringing back Rorschach (and one other notable Watchmen mainstay) for Doomsday Clock. He also introduces a handful of brand new characters that instantly feel like a part of an already intricate setting. The writer does the much-needed work of adding characters of color and a plot-forward, assertive woman into the Watchmen setting, and does it in a way commensurate with how Moore and Gibbons created the story’s original cast.
And even the story’s more current elements can feel like a reference. To place Doomsday Clock #1’s in our own timeline, Johns threw in recent, relevant political details. But he has also pointed out that, despite their familiarity, the first issue’s political references are over 10 months old. Doomsday Clock is, even from its first issue, absolutely a post-2016 election story. It’s about 2017 politics and written in 2017 — lest we forget that Watchmen was a comic about the ’80s written during the ’80s.
Oh, and Rorschach’s resurrection? Only three pages after revealing the goop-faced vigilante, Doomsday Clock #1 twists the character in a more interesting direction than those taken by any of the hundreds of masked, monologuing imitators that have come after him. So if you think you have a good handle on the premise of Doomsday Clock, trust me, a huge skeptic of it myself: You’re going to want to give Doomsday Clock #1 a try.