Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Doomsday Clock #1

Furthermore if you want to sell science fiction, your chances would be considerably greater if you tried to write a completely original story for one of the magazines, rather than basing your work on the characters and background of an already famous TV show. Originality is valued more highly in science fiction than in any other branch of literature. Hence, no matter what your affection for the Star Trek characters — which I share— you will in the long run be better off creating you own.
James Blish.

There is nothing wrong with writing a sequel to a long established, classic work. Many great works of literature have been created in that way, such as…


Well, for example…

I’ll get right back to you on this.


We are in an alternate America; 25 years in the past but somehow a dark reflection of 2017. There is an international crisis going on, but the President is playing golf; “the wall” has come down and people are fleeing from the USA into Mexico; someone is holding a placard saying “make America safe again”. In the foreground, a riot is going on, possibly between liberals and conservatives; in the background news reports talk of Russia invading Poland and the US preparing a nuclear strike. The narrator, a masked man, leaves the riot zone and breaks into a prison; he rescues a woman, claiming to be able to reunite her with her infant son; and then her husband, who is mute and communicates in mime. The narrator expects to be dead by the end of the day. They travel through forests and sewers to a secret base where another masked man is waiting for them. There is much talk about other masked characters, some of whom are dead and some of whom are in hiding. The two masked men have a scheme to save the world by “finding God”. There is a final cutaway to two other characters, sharing a bed, one of whom has just dreamed of the day his parents died in a car crash. There is no suggestion of how these two characters connect with the rest of the action, although the dream-father tells the dream-son that whatever happens is part of God’s plan. 

The thing is reasonably well-paced and quite pretty to look at but there is no real hint of what the story is going to be about; why we should care particularly about these characters; or how much we should be concerned about a wholly fictional America blowing itself out of existence 25 years ago. Granted, this is the first of an (oh god) twelve part series; but 32 pages is a long time to keep the reader wondering “what is this thing going to be about?” Although the story turned out to be about very many other things as well, the question “Who killed the Comedian?” was asked on almost the first page of Watchmen. 


But this is not a comic book. It is a piece of conceptual art. It’s content is unimportant; it says what it says by virtue of existing.

A continuation of Watchmen without Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons is a very, very bad idea. But the history of comic books is littered with very, very bad ideas. The New Gods without Kirby or Howard the Duck without Gerber come to mind. In some cases these very bad ideas yielded pretty good comics. But we are not talking about an inferior talent taking on some auteur’s characters and running with them. The comic book industry was built by people who took other people's characters and ran with them. The one thing I learned in my year of reading nothing but Captain America is that Cap is a folk hero. He isn’t a singular work of art created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon; he is the end result of a torch being passed from Kirby to Lee and from Lee to Englehart and from Englehart to Byrne and from Byrne to Brubaker. Captain America is who he is as a result of their cumulative efforts. Twenty years from now he will be someone else entirely.

That’s also the definition of folk music. As the musicians play, standing behind them is the ghost of the person they learnt the music from. Standing behind the ghost is the ghost of the player they learnt from, and so on, back to the beginning of music. You are only a folksinger when you understand that soon you will be one of the ghosts. 

There is no shame in being an inferior talent. When we are talking about Alan Moore or Jack Kirby or even Steve Gerber more or less everyone is an inferior talent.

Very stupid people have said that there is Nothing Wrong with inferior talents writing Watchmen fan fiction because Watchmen is nothing more than Charlton Comics fan fiction. This is nonsense, of course, the kind of nonsense spouted by the kind of fan who holds creators oddly in contempt. But it is undoubtedly true that Alan Moore’s first commission from DC comics was to pick up an existing character and run with it, as fast as he could. By the time he was done, there wasn’t very much of the original character left.

Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein. Len Wein also edited Watchmen as well as creating some character called Wolverine. The first issue of Doomsday clock is rather pointedly dedicated to him. 

If you haven’t held the thing in your hands, it is hard for me to convey the sheer horror of the Doomsday Clock artifact. The title is printed in yellow on black text down the left hand side of the cover. There is a little yellow doomsday clock under the title, and a big doomsday clock on the back page, which is otherwise black. There is four pages of diegetic text after the main comic strip. There are four pages of in-house adverts, black and white with a single quote from each character. 

Which is to say: the first issue of Doomsday Clock is trying to be as physically similar to the first issue of Watchmen as it is possible for two comics to be. The ubiquitous Watchmen graphic novel reproduced the comic book issues exactly (including text pages and front and back covers) so any collected edition of Doomsday Clock will match Watchmen on the shelf. Some years ago, Jeffery Archer wrote a feeble short story about Judas Iscariot and arranged for it to be published in double column text with verse numbering and fake leather covers suggesting to gullible readers that this was some how a new section of the Bible. Doomsday Clock is very nearly as absurd a piece of hubris.

But the really fiendish thing is this. The various doomsday clock devices all have a teeny tiny Superman “S” motif where the “XII” ought to be. The black and white adverts are illustrated, not with Watchmen characters but with characters from DC comics: a quote from the Comedian adorns a picture of the Joker and a quote from Ozymandias has Lex Luther staring out underneath it. 

If anyone truly believed that the Watchmen were just one more group of comic book characters — that it was as natural for Geoff Johns to have his turn on Doctor Manhattan now Alan Moore has finished with him as it is for Dan Slott to have a go at the Silver Surfer  —  then no-one would feel the need to produce a comic which is a pastiche of itself. No-one expects a 2017 issue of Captain America to look like a 1943 issue of Captain America, except maybe for some special anniversary edition. Everyone involved in constructing this artifact knows that Watchmen is a singular text; twelve issues created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and there can’t possibly be any more of it. The packaging of Doomsday Clock is, I suppose, intended to conceal the stupidity of the idea of adding more chapters to Watchmen. Instead it screams out its stupidity on every page. 


Watchmen, of course, ended on a big question mark. Ozymandias has forced America and Russia to bury their nuclear differences by staging a fake alien invasion, but Rorschach has discovered the plan and posted his diary through the mail box of a right-wing newspaper. We are left not knowing if this package will ever be opened. Many interesting questions are thus left hanging: was Rorschach right to never compromise even in the face of Armageddon? If the paper discovers the truth, should they reveal it? Is the killing of millions to avert nuclear annihilation at any level justified?

Alan Moore didn't foolishly forget to tell us if anyone ever read Rorschach's diary, any more than Ibsen carelessly omitted to tell us whether or not Mrs Alving administered the suicide pill to her dying son. The whole point of the book is that it asks a question and doesn't answer it -- that it leaves both outcomes suspended as eternal possibilities. No one reads the diary; nuclear war is averted; but it is based on a lie and Ozymandias gets away with a million murders. Someone reads the diary; Ozymandias is exposed; everyone knows the truth; the world has to face the very real possibility of annihilation. 

Within three panels of Doomsday Clock we have been told yes, the New Frontiersmen did publish the diary; yes, it was believed; and yes, nuclear war between America and Russia is very much back on the agenda. So pretty much the whole point of Watchmen is wiped out in a page. In place of the very specific question “Who killed the comedian?” we are offered the very general one “What, exactly, is Rorschach up to?”

There is a riot going on, and we pick up a few things from news stations: Ozymandias is wanted for genocide; Robert Redford really is president; America and Russia are gearing up for war; American politicians still use the term "Ruskies".
Rorschach is still the main character, and still keeps a very wordy diary ("we split open the world’s belly, secrets came spilling out, an intestine full of truth and shit strangled us” etc etc.) He keeps making reference to “God” having turned his back on the world, and intends to somehow "call God down". Of course, at the end of Watchmen, Rorschach was inconveniently dead — atomized by Doctor Manhattan. This character insists that he is truly Rorschach, but he very definitely isn’t Kovacs — at one point he takes off his glove and reveals that he’s a black man.

(Please, god; please don't let him turn out to be the kid at the news-stand.) 

Most of the strip consists of fake-Rorschach rescuing someone called the Marionette and someone called the Mime from prison: the Marionette is absolutely essential to whatever it is fake-Rorschach is trying to do; but we are given no hint as to her background or her connection with him. They go along the sewer to Nite Owl's old base, but it turns out that the person Rorschach is working with isn’t Nite Owl but Ozymandias, who has cancer. (He also has a baby Bubastis, which made me want to hurl the comic through the window.) It transpires that the God who Rorschach wants to find is Doctor Manhattan. "This is our mission. All of us. We need to find Jon.” Doctor Manhattan presumably being the only person who can prevent this volume's nuclear holocaust. 

At which point we cut away to Lois Lane and Clark Kent in bed. (They have been legally married since 1996, although they would still have been single in 1992.) Clark is dreaming about the death of his earth-parents, in a car crash on the day of his high school prom. There have been many, many reboots since I last read a Superman comic, so I don’t know if this is how they currently canonically died, or if we are supposed to go “Gadzooks! That’s not right!” I assume that these final pages are taking place in the DC Universe while the rest of the comic takes place in a different Watchmen Universe, but that’s only because (the last time I looked) Superman and Rorschach didn’t share a continuity: nothing in the art or the captions makes this at all clear.

Ozymandias specifically recalls Doctor Manhattan saying “I’m leaving this galaxy for one less complicated” so I think we are supposed to infer that the regular DC Universe is the “less complicated” place he ended up, or possibly that DC Earth is the human civilization he threatened to create. I suppose that Ozymandias is going to find some way of hopping between universes and winding up on DC Earth. We can expect a big argument about whether Superman or Doctor Manhattan is the better God, with doubtless some meta-textual musings about whether comic books were better before or after Watchmen.

How they are going to spin this out to 360 pages I cannot imagine.

I have no doubt you could augment an earwig to the point where it understood nuclear physics, but it would still be a very stupid thing to do! 
The Second Doctor

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. 

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Doomsday Clock and Watchmen is copyright DC Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

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Andrew Ducker said...

Thank you!

Justin Mohareb said...

Of course! Young Bernie was saved by elder Bernie's hug! No, that's terrible.

Huh. I can't recall a single black character from Watchmen who survived.

Mike Taylor said...

I have a horrible feeling that I am going to end up reading this thing, one it comes out in a single paperback volume.

Mark Schaal said...

I'm guessing that there is very little chance that Doctor Manhattan never comes and this all turns out to be a DC adaptation of Waiting for Godot.

Unknown said...

Thank you very much for reading this so I don't have to.

I. Dall said...

" In a book which he wrote as a response to Virgil's detractors, Asconius Pedianus set forth a few of their objections, especially those concerning his plot and the fact that he took most [of his material] from Homer; but he says that [Virgil] was wont to defend this very crime thus: "Why is it that they, too, do not attempt the same 'thefts'? Indeed, they will perceive that it is easier to steal the club of Hercules than a line from Homer." http://virgil.org/vitae/

Robert said...

Surely he's meant to be the psychiatrist - but I'm pretty sure he died too.