Written by: Geoff Johns
Art by: Gary Frank
Colours by: Brad Anderson
Letters by: Rob Leigh
Watchmen is one of the icons, and millstones, of modern western comics. An epic, literary, brutal and strangely romantic dissection of the superhero ideal, it’s widely viewed as one of the best comic series ever published. Its writer, Alan Moore, is one of the architects of the modern form. It’s artist, Dave Gibbons, is one of the finest comics artists in history. The story itself has influenced, and echoed up and down, comics for decades.
And now, it has a sequel.
Doomsday Clock exists on three levels, all of them troubling and all of them compelling. The most obvious is that, like the ill-advised prequels Before Watchmen a few years ago, Moore wants nothing more to do with the story. That means that any sequel takes place in his shadow and automatically starts from a difficult position.
The second is, arguably, even larger. Modern western superhero comics in particular are endlessly, relentlessly fond of post-modernism and self-referential jokes. Watchmen itself is based on this self-awareness of form and the subversion of it. Every story that has aped it has done the exact same thing.
As a result, Watchmen has become the poster child for the grimdark movement in comics. Brutal, self-referential, nihilistic and pompous. Some of those qualities are present in the book, others have been added by how its reception has changed over time. As a result, Johns has talked openly about how Watchmen is essentially a representation of every dark, dour comics story and the popularity of that approach in Doomsday Clock. The post-Rebirth DC universe in turn is being set up as an alternative. This idea, of two conceptual siege engines tearing at one another, is interesting in principle but requires everyone involved to be on their A game. Otherwise, Doomsday Clock will become nothing more than another cover version of a song everyone is tired of hearing.
Finally, there’s the ending of Watchmen itself. Without spoiling it, the ending is a startlingly well put together moral dilemma. There is a definitive villain but the outcome of his villainy is, at least in the short term, altruistic. It’s a troubling, untidy ending that demands a sequel even as we realize that any further stories would change the original forever.
So, Doomsday Clock has an almost impossible task. And, amazingly, it pulls it off with this first issue.
Years after the events of Watchmen, the world is minutes from destruction again. A hostage situation in the White House sees senior officials killing one another. The President is an absentee. A newly re-formed Russia is storming Europe. Adrian Veidt is on the run, wanted for millions of counts of homicide. And in prison, a man with Rorschach’s face breaks a couple of oddly familiar criminals out for a very surprising mission…
Johns’ script cleverly plays with the expectations of Watchmen and subverts them at every turn. The nine-panel grid is broken at emotional high spots, cleverly adding emphasis to everything from brutality to a single, perfectly balanced moment of jet-black humour. That precision is matched by Frank, Anderson and Leigh’s art, which gives the book the same precision as the original art team but with a modern twist. The book feels like Watchmen, but it also moves with the fluidity of modern DC comics at their best.
The script manages the same difficult balancing act. Johns reintroduces Veidt, Rorschach and their world while giving it a twist all his own. The new Rorschach is especially interesting, far less polished and far less violent than his predecessor but perhaps more morally adaptable too. The payoff to that plot is especially satisfying and also seems set to be the primary engine of the series. The Mime and The Marionette, the two criminals he breaks out, are more than a little similar to the Joker and Harley Quinn. Their motives, or whether they’ll meet their counterparts, is still uncertain. But as entrances go, The Marionette’s silent, balletic destruction of his fellow inmates is about as impressive as you can get.
The ending is the only place the book wobbles a little, as we transition from the Watchmen universe to the DC core one. The tonal shift sets things heavily against the Watchmen universe in a manner that’s understandable but suggests the odds are already weighted in the DCU’s favour. Time will tell if this becomes more balanced over the 12-issue series, but, right now, it’s a little troubling.
That being said, Doomsday Clock is far better than anyone dared hope. it’s clever, grim, nuanced and feels necessary rather than mandatory. The clock is ticking, but, for now, we’re all happy to watch it count down.