12. Doomsday Clock
Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, Doomsday Clock (DC Comics)
Almost four years ago now, Geoff Johns started off a mysterious storyline in his one-shot Rebirth special about what was happening in the DC universe, with hope and legacy struggling to re-emerge in an overly-dark “New 52” world.
The concluding panel of the main story was a shocker to those who know their comic books, with Bruce Wayne holding up a blood-stained smiley-face button, worn by the Comedian in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen series of the 1980s.
Watchmen was, almost no one disputes, one of the greatest graphic novels ever written, and can stand on its own as a piece of fiction, regardless of the medium. The series was also a bleak picture of the superhero genre, with the has-been heroes consumed with lust, envy, self-exaltation, and violence in a world in which Richard Nixon is always president and nuclear annihilation is just around the corner.
The Watchmen series, though, ended up initiating endless imitators, none of which could stand in comparison to Watchmen.
As I’ve written elsewhere, for me, the problem with unmitigated darkness in superhero stories is the mirror image of the problem with saccharine lightness in earlier versions of such stories. Neither rings true to our deepest intuitions.
We live in a cosmos that is both enlightened by grace and fallen into horror, that both groans at the reign of death and is amazed by the presence of grace. When stories present both of those realities we see something of what is already familiar, but unexpressed, within each of us. We see, as Flannery O’Connor put it about her own work: “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”
That’s why I think the Watchmen deconstruction of superhero utopianism was necessary but cannot be the last word. That’s the reason, I suppose, that I enjoy Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s unofficial Watchmen sequel, Doomsday Clock, in which the nihilistically powerful Dr. Manhattan comes face to face with Superman as the symbol of hope.
Throughout the pages of Doomsday Clock is an unrelenting critique of the darkening turn in superhero stories. That critique is welcome, even if the story unnecessarily bends to some “proving its Watchmen authenticity” with some, again, overly salty language and overly-edgy violence.
Still, the story is riveting, and the themes are thought-provoking, as, like Watchmen, a kind of police procedural is working itself out (in part literally, as the story-within-the-story, another Watchmen homage, is of a noir detective film) as to who is manipulating what in a world that seems to be going crazy.
The series ends soon, and I’m willing to venture that Watchmen purists will complain all the way to the end that no one should use Moore’s characters, and that I won’t be among them. I will also predict that the series will end with a metaverse bending toward hope, which is, of course, in Kryptonian, spelled like an “S.”
You can find last year’s books of the year here.
Design Credit: ©SWN/BethanyPyle