When I was a kid, my mum used to say "If you make a funny face and the wind changes, it will stay like that forever."
When I write a critique I try to start with what I honestly felt about the book or film I am talking about. I try to catch what was in my mind when the credits were rolling or when I had just turned over the final page. First reactions may not always be right, but they are always true. "It grossed me out"; "it embarrassed me"; "I was bored"; "I didn't understand it" are the most truly true things you can ever say about a work of art. "I found the tunes catchy; I was singing them all the way home" is the best thing you can possibly say about a musical. If you say "I shouldn't think the writer meant me to feel disgusted. I probably misunderstood. I will try and manufacture a response more in tune with what I imagine the writer wanted me to think," then you are no longer providing an authentic response to the work.
I try to apply this to my essays on the Bible and my essays on old comic books equally.
"This shocked me," "This confused me," "I laughed at this" can't be the end point of a critical essay. But it should usually be the starting point.
This may be what the people who say that we should "accept Talons of Weng Chiang for what it is" have in mind. And they are not quite wrong. It is valid and useful and important to say "This is a tongue in cheek pastiche of a Victorian penny dreadful. It's awfully well done and I found it exciting and funny". You can then say "But the depiction of Chinese people in it was horrible," and then go on and ask the hard questions. Some of us feel that some kinds of critics jump straight into the exegesis without having spotted what kind of work we are talking about. I have myself more than once read essays on old 1960s Doctor Who and wanted to cry out "You do get that this was a Saturday tea time adventure serial for kids, don't you?"
I get that someone's first reaction might be "The silly caricatures of Chinese people freaked me out so badly that I couldn't see anything else in the story." There is more than one authentic response to Talons of Weng Chiang, just as much as there is more than one authentic response to Paradise Lost or My Struggle.
This essay is not about Talons of Weng Chiang.
Imagine three stories.
STORY ONE: A dead child is discovered, carefully laid out on a table in a Mayfair pub. The child is of European appearance, but is dressed in traditional Indian clothes. There are no marks on his body, and he has been dead for several months. Absolutely baffled, the police ask Mr Sherlock Holmes to investigate.
STORY TWO: One evening while Mr Sherlock Holmes is in Sussex hunting for vampires, a news reporter -- in reality Moriarty in disguise -- offers Mrs Hudson a large some of money if she will provide incriminating evidence that Dr Watson is carrying on a clandestine love affair with Mycroft.
STORY THREE: Sherlock Holmes starts to wonder how there can possibly have been such a large number of bizarre murders in a single city over such a short space of time. It gradually becomes clear that most of Holmes' cases have been created, or at any rate heavily fictionalized, by Dr Watson in order to help the public understand Holmes' methods. Holmes -- ventriloquized by Watson -- wonders whether, in the future, any of these fake cases will be turned into plays or even moving picture stories.
For the sake of argument, let's call stories of the first kind "Open", stories of the second kind "Closed" and stories of the third kind "meta".
A story of the first kind creates a new situation, and then shows the reader how an established character reacts to it or deals with it. The story is about the new situation much more than it is about the character. Sherlock Holmes can solve as many different murder puzzles as writers can devise; and the mystery of the Indian Prince could be perfectly well investigated by some other detective.
A story of the second kind generates a new situation from within a pre-existing structure: the writer looks at established characters and comes up with a new way for them to interact. "The baddie tried to convince the goodie that the goodie's friend was in love with the goodie's brother" is, of course, an intelligible narrative; but the particular interest of this story depends on us already knowing and caring about who Holmes and Mycroft are.
A story of the third kind is a story about other stories; it is a piece of literary criticism masquerading as a narrative. "What if Watson was falsifying Holmes' career?" is only an interesting question if we already know and love the Holmes canon. "What if Some Guy's friend were writing inaccurate short stories about his career?" would be of hardly any interest.
Most series fiction on TV -- Doctor Who, Star Trek, Columbo -- deals with stories of the first kind. The writer creates a new monster, a new planet or a new crime and then imagines how the Doctor, Captain Kirk or Columbo would deal with it. Soap-operas, on the other hand, are almost by definition stories of the second kind: the established characters are the starting point, and the writers try to come up with new ways for them to come into conflict or misunderstand each other. And while stories of the third kind are rather rarer in mainstream fiction, anyone writing Sherlock Holmes stories or Superman stories or Doctor Who stories is sooner or later going to be very tempted to write a story about how those kinds of stories work.
Traditional, jobbing writers have tended to think that proper stories are always stories of the first kind. Fan fiction writers are much more likely to write stories of the second kind. But as culture eats itself and all writing turns into fan fiction, stories of the second kind become more and more common. In the olden days, Doctor Who writers were discouraged from using established villains as points of departure. The writer pitched an idea about time travelling terrorists or a funeral planet and the script editor said "Hey...we could put the Daleks in that as well." But fan pitches always take "what if..." questions as a point of departure. What if the Daleks went after the Key to Time? What if the Guardians and the Time Lords came into conflict about who controls the timelines? If Major Clanger and Papa Smurf had a fight, who would win?
My honest and authentic reaction to the final instalment of Doomsday Clock is utter bafflement. I don't fully understand what is supposed to have happened; I don't fully understand why I am supposed to care. And I don't know who half the characters are. I have re-read it; and re-read the issues which preceded it; and even read the episodes of Batman and the Flash which form a kind of prequel; and I am still confused. So I cannot offer you an assessment: all I can do is share my confusion....
The final panel ends with a boy arriving at a house, claiming that a friend of his father has promised that the couple who live there will take care of him; and that "Jon" calls him "Clark". He looks a little like a young Clark Kent, but he has the Doctor Manhattan hydrogen symbol on his forehead. I had to spend several minutes flipping through pages to work out what was going on here. The child is the son of Mime and Marionette; the couple who adopt him are Dan and Lauire, Nite Owl and Silk Spector from the original Watchmen. One of the first questions raised in issue #1 was why Doctor Manhattan wouldn't kill Marionette while she was pregnant, when he has had no compunction about killing humans in the past. It turns out that his time sense told him that her child would make Laurie, who he used to love, very happy some day. In the space of two or three panels, Doctor Manhattan has taken the child of Mime and Marionette, brought him up, and transferred his powers to him. (Mime and Marionette also have another child of their own, so that makes it okay.)
Doctor Manhattan understands that the Watchmen world is grimdark and that the DC Universe is hopeful because of the existence of Superman; and that what makes Superman a hero is having loving parents like Jonathan and Martha Kent. His tinkering with time -- including moving the power battery a few inches so Alan Scott never becomes Green Lantern and the Justice Society never comes into being -- has made the DC Universe grimdark like Watchmen. He is now making the Watchmen universe more hopeful by supplying it with a Superman. That's why he takes the child and gives it to Laurie and Dan. Why it had to be this particular child and why it had to be those particular parents I am unclear about. I get that Superman is a Hero because he was adopted and brought up by a good, salt-of-the-earth Smallville couple. But surely any empowered child and any loving couple would have done the trick?
Halfway through the comic we get to the meeting between Superman and Doctor Manhattan that we've been building towards since issue #1.
Superman confronts Doctor Manhattan on Mars. Doctor Manhattan admits that he's the one who has been editing DC continuity; removing the Justice Society from history and causing the death of Superman's parents and generally getting poor reviews from the fan community. "I am the one who you are going to destroy" says Doctor Manhattan. "Or I am the one who is going to destroy everything." "Maybe there is a third choice" says Superman. The third choice is, and stop me if you have heard this before, Love. Superman points to the picture of Jon and Janey at the fairground before the accident.
So Doctor Manhattan destroys the universe.
Like, totally. Black page. Another black page. A whole page of black panels. And then blow me if we don't go into a whole "destruction of Krypton" sequence (drawn in the style of John Byrne) and lots of little panels of Superman arriving on earth in lots of different times and places. Because in every parallel world there has to be a Superman.We go right back to the scene in issue #1, where Pa and Ma Kent drive their car into a tree right after Clark's high school prom; but this time Superboy is there to save them. Because now Superman isn't the first Superhero on earth; he can be inspired by the heroes of the past; and thus become a much happier hero much earlier.
"Because the Justice Society exists again, so does Superboy and because Superboy exists again so does the Legion. As the metaverse reforms, time catches up."
It goes on. "Every time there is a change in the metaverse, the multiverse grows. To preserve every era of Superman." In 1938, Superman was the only Superhero, and that had implications for his character. In 1968, he was one of thousands, and that had implications for his character as well. Over the years, DC has rebooted the character many times, giving us a singular version who can work in a contemporary comic. The DC:52 reboot, largely regarded as a failure, decreed that Superman was a relatively recent arrival on Earth, and that humans still treated superheroes with suspicion. Fans felt that this produced a version of the character too far from his roots. So: it was Doctor Manhattan messing with the timeline that created the DC:52 version of Superman; and now Doctor Manhattan has set things right. But that version, along with every other version, still exists as a parallel world. (Doomsday Clock, uniquely, takes place in "the metaverse"; the universe of which all the other worlds are copies. Future DC comics will, I suppose, take place in one of the parallels. The Clark Kent of mainstream continuity is never going to say "And then there was that time I met the big blue naked guy on Mars.") There are lots of parallel worlds we have never heard of. "On July 10th 2030 the Secret Crisis begins, throwing Superman into a brawl across the universe with Thor himself and a Green behemoth stronger than even Doomsday who dies protecting Superman from these invaders."
Please, please, make it stop.
Final scene. Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias in front of the Washington Monument. Ozymandias thought that the only person who could stop the Watchmen universe degenerating into atomic war, again, was Doctor Manhattan. But he knew he couldn't ever persuade him to come back and do it. So everything which has happened has been a plot by Ozymandias to engineer a confrontation between Manhattan and Superman, because he, Ozymandias, could see that Superman would be able to persuade him, Doctor Manhattan, to save the world. By saying "all you need is love", apparently.
Doctor Manhattan destroys every nuclear weapon on earth and then "gives his powers" to the Earth, and to the boy, and then ceases to exist. The Watchmen universe has its own Superman. DC Continuity is restored to something like the Silver Age Multiverse. And we never have to waste any of our lives reading drivel like this as long as we live.
In or about 1983, Roy Thomas decreed that Jack Kirby's Eternals should become a part of the Marvel Universe. Roy Thomas believed everything should become part of the Marvel Universe which is why Spider-Man met Conan the Barbarian and SHIELD fought Godzilla. He put his plans in motion in Thor #283 under the headline "They said it couldn't be done!" To Marvel's credit, Thor #284 included a letter from a fan beginning "What they said was that it shouldn't be done..."
The incorporation of Watchmen into the DC Universe is something which should not have been attempted. And no-one should have tried to tell us what happens after the final panel of the final page of Watchmen #12. Anyone who sees a novel with an open-ended conclusion and thinks "I know, let's close it off!" didn't ought to be writing fiction in the first place. But having made the bad call, it beggars belief that Geoff Johns could have written a comic so unremittingly, tediously boring. (The aforementioned Eternals/Thor crossover climaxes with the Destroyer walloping Arishem with the Odinsword, which may shit on two different Kirby koncepts but is nevertheless, kind of kool.) Characters called Ozymandias encounter characters called Luthor and someone called Batman meets up with someone called Rorschach but there is no sense of magnitude or audacity. Just pages and pages of exposition. No-one is having any fun. For goodness sake: if you are going to mix up incompatible settings, at least give us a double page spread of Superman with Captain America's shield in one hand and Thor's hammer in the other.
Doomsday Clock is a narrative of the third kind: not a story, but an essay. It is completely uninterested in the themes and questions raised by Alan Moore in the original comic. But it doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say about the DC Universe. Superman's story has been told in lots of different ways over the years, and the different versions of him are all equally valid. We can like the muscular liberal pulpy version from the 1930s and the smiley campy cartoony 1960s version as well. Hold the front pages.
A story which deconstructed the characters of the DC Universe in the same way and to the same extent as Alan Moore deconstructed his own Watchmen characters might have been worth telling. But while Watchmen leaves the whole idea of Superheroes in ruins; Doomsday Clock asserts the primacy of Superman (and therefore DC Superheroes) over everything else.
I suppose that is what we would expect. On the last page of Watchmen, Alan Moore tells us that Ozymandias appears to have successfully saved the world from nuclear war; on the first page of Doomsday Clock Geoff Johns tells us that the ploy didn't work and the world got blown up after all. So naturally, the end result of Doomsday Clock is to reconstruct the idols that Watchmen had so comprehensively torn down.
There could, in fact, be some interest in a Watchmen sequel of the second kind -- one which looks at the characters who Alan Moore left alive at the end of his epic; looks at the situations they were left in; and then imagines what would have happened next. Did Robert Redford really become president? What did Laurie do after Doctor Manhattan left earth? Did Ozymandias live out his days in peace? How was Rorschach remembered? What would it be like to be born ten or twenty years after the giant squid destroyed New York?
And with very fine irony, the final instalment of H.B.O's Watchmen TV series came out in the same week as Doomsday Clock #12. It turns out that you can shit on Alan Moore's legacy but nevertheless create a compelling story.
All the objections still apply. It is wrong to take over someone else's characters without their permission -- while, indeed, they are alive and begging you not to do so. It is silly to write sequels to works which require none. But "this should not have been done" and "this is artistically bad" are two different propositions.
Yes: I know. Alan Moore is not the first writer to have been screwed by his publisher. Young writers often are. If there was a loophole in his contract then there was a loophole in his contract.
When Len Wein created Swamp Thing, he knew he was creating a new entry in DCs roster of narrative workhorses. He must have fully accepted the possibility that other hands -- Alan Moore's not the first -- would take over his character when he was done with it. But still. Alan Moore had his first big success by dissecting someone else's creation.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Simon could not possibly have envisaged anything like Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? when they created Superman. But by 1986 Superman had grown way beyond his original creators; and DC Comics were paying them a moderately generous stipend. But still: one of Alan Moore's most fondly remembered works is the hypothetical final chapter in the life of a character he never created.
Alan Moore did not, in the end, write a deconstruction of Captain Atom and Blue Beetle. But he wanted to; and if he had done so, he would have been the last in a long line of distinguished creators who have ripped Ditko off. And of course, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a very interesting new thing created entirely out of already existing old things. There isn't a single character that Alan Moore hasn't borrowed from another creator. That's kind of the point of it.
It is wrong for H.B.O to "borrow" Watchmen to create a new artistic work of their own. It is equally wrong for DC to have done so. Doomsday Clock is a catastrophic artistic failure; H.B.O's Watchmen TV series is a resounding artistic success. But both are moral offences. What we said was that they shouldn't be done.
Two wrongs. That was what my mother used to say. "Two wrongs don't make a right."
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Watchmen and Doomsday Clock are 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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