By Geoff Johns (writer), Gary Frank (pencil) & Brad Anderson (colors). (2017-2019)
The original Watchmen is a seminal 12-issue superhero comic by Alan Moore (writer) & Dave Gibbons (artist), published from 1986 to 1987, that transformed the comics world. A superhero tale in which all-but-one of the superheroes have no superhuman powers at all.
The decades since have spawned a number of remakes, sequels, prequels and spin-offs. Zach Snyder's movie adaptation has its adherents, and the HBO miniseries sequel was, in my opinion, excellent. But other than that they have not been very good. I initially thought the 12 issue sequel Doomsday Clock comic would fall solidly into this group, and passed it by when it came out a couple of years ago.
But on reading it last week, I really enjoyed it. It really swings for the fences, providing a smashing tale, with good arcs for both old and new characters, and a genuine attempt to advance the conversation that Watchmen started by deconstructing the superhero.
We last saw Dr Manhattan at the end of Watchmen, having been isolated from humanity by Adrien Veidt's plans, tired of his entanglement in the messy complexity of people's lives, threatening to leave the galaxy "for one less complicated".
In Doomsday Clock, Adrian Veidt, genius that he is, invents a means to follow Dr Manhattan, seeking his help with the re-emergence of imminent nuclear war brought about by the revelations in Rorschach's journal, and it becomes clear that the place Dr Manhattan has journeyed to is the DC universe, populated by Superman, Batman, and the whole stable of DC heroes.
Various other Watchmen characters make their way, or are transferred to, the DC universe. This has been described across the comic industry as "the crossover event nobody wanted", but personally I felt it was really well done.
Two of the most prominently deceased Watchmen characters are brought back into play, using mechanisms I thought were legitimate and, on occasion, laugh-out-loud satisfying as they reached their resolution.
In particular, they find a way to bring back Rorschach. Or, at least, a Rorschach. Another individual picks up the mask. This seems like the most controversial of the many decisions in the book, but it's handled deftly, and there are both similarities and differences between the old and the new Rorschach, making it an interesting character in its own right. In some ways this transformation is reminiscent of HBO Watchmen's treatment of Hooded Justice - retaining everything we already knew about the character, but performing an astonishing piece of narrative ju-jitsu to utterly transform everything about what that meant.
The DC heroes slowly realize their world is being altered by Dr Manhattan's manipulations, tying this crossover into the latest of the DC universe's "crisis" events, as Manhattan experiments with this reality, in order to understand it. In doing so, he uncovers deep truths that affect the inter-relationship between all the DC time-lines and universes, establishing that historical stories, such as Superman's original appearance in Action Comics of the 1930s, represent realities that still exist, out in the multiverse, unaffected by subsequent commercial re-ploughing that forever drives Superman's origin story further forward in time over the years. All these worlds, including the various DC pre-crisis worlds, are accessible to Manhattan's powers.
Incidentally, this enables DC to undo the changes wrought by the last few years' unpopular "New 52" era. This meant nothing to me when I started reading, I know basically nothing about American comics, only being familiar with the fabulous British 2000AD. I was spurred into reading around the DC lore, and by the time I was done, I understood that the New 52 reality included things like The Justice League's alternate roster, the early death of Clark's parents, which distances Superman from humanity and changes the character dramatically, the loss of the Justice Society of America from Earth, and the loss of Wally West's Flash. All these and more are written off as the effects of Dr Manhattan's meddling, isolated and preserved in just another spun-off part of the multiverse, while being jettisoned from the privileged metaverse, the core template from which all subsequent multiversal threads are forged, as it reverts to more-or-less its former state when Manhattan's changes are undone during Doomsday Clock's story.
In doing all this, Manhattan exhibits his usual clinical detachment from the human consequences of his actions, setting himself up as the villain of the piece, an uncaring "being of inaction", in contrast to Superman, the literal "man of Action" (Action comics, that is).
This forms a genuine riposte to Watchmen's criticism of the superhero genre. Yes, the DC heroes inhabit a simpler world, but there is a mythological power in what they represent as symbols. Particularly the value of hope, as personified by Superman, which - quite literally, in this tale - makes all other things possible.
I was especially pleased with the quiet, understated places Doomsday Clock goes with Mothman's, back-story. The character in Watchmen was only a punchline, a recurring throwaway reference to instability and alcoholism, telegraphing his subsequent mental breakdown. But here, we see him fully fleshed out.
Like the rest of the Watchmen heroes, he has no magical superhuman powers, but is still able to pull off entirely unexpected and superhuman-seeming stunts, merely by the virtue of his own unique kind of extreme mental and emotional resourcefulness. Flawed, but aware of his faults, and able to pull it together, he befriends the younger Rorschach II during their overlapping stays in a mental institution, becoming a beacon of warmth, kindness, and generosity to the younger man.
He acts as a symbol, if you will, that just as Watchmen's ruthless gaze influenced the wider world of comics, so the comic world gazes back. They see us, all the real-world, fully-rounded humans, trapped in the depths of our pathos, and they wonder, when will each of us learn to transcend our humdrum limitations, to act on our hopes and dreams, and fly...