Doomsday Clock #1
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
2017 has been a pretty weird year, and yet the existence of a Watchmen sequel a little over three decades after Alan Moore made arguably the comic book medium’s definitive work still feels hard to believe. Reading through Doomsday Clock #1 feels like observing something from a parallel universe, both because of the weight that the title inherits from its source material and the inherent dissonance between that source material and the imminent inclusion of the main DC universe. Writer Geoff Johns plays with this space well, effectively creating suspense for whatever the coming months will hold, and the art team of penciler Gary Frank and colorist Brad Anderson walk the fine line of using the visuals to further the goals of the Johns’ plot while paying homage to the distinct and recognizable style of the original.
Geoff Johns knows he’s writing a Watchmen sequel, and wastes little time in establishing this book as such, with much of the opening playing direct homage to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work, and though this opening shows Gary Frank direct in his paying homage, it also manages to be subtle in ways that the rest of the issue often isn’t. The opening narration is another story, as they instantly revel in the lack of subtlety and penchant for creating something larger than life that Johns deftly excels at. Beginning with a riot and a sign that says “the End is Here,” Johns’ choice of words here are deliberate, when Rorschach’s narration muses on “undeplorables,” “tolerance,” and when a news broadcast on the next page mentions American’s breaking through the “border wall” into Mexico to escape nuclear annihilation.
That this comic is so upfront is not inherently poor writing. Instead, it reveals the genre difference between Doomsday Clock and Watchmen. That comic wasn’t a superhero story, but the brutal, conspiracy-filled deconstruction of the capes-and-tights genre, simultaneously revealing the impotent anxieties of childish super-do-gooders and the chilling implications of real-world superpowers played to their geopolitical limits. Doomsday Clock is a successor to Watchmen in many ways, but given the buildup we’ve already taken to get here, it isn’t a mystery.
Rorschach’s introduction in both texts for evidence of this shift. Moore’s Rorschach spends his first six pages stalking through shadows silently apart from his narration. Johns’ Rorschach uses dialogue before the reader sees him, and his words alone cause criminals to back away. In that regard, the philosophical stances between the original Watchmen and its modern-day counter couldn’t be more different. Moore’s Rorschach was a broken and unstable man. Johns’ Rorschach is a Big Damn Hero.
This introduction is also a strong showcase for Frank’s art, and shows the playful weaving of Dave Gibbons’ inspiration via nine-panel grids and obsessively symmetrical panels before breaking from this style completely. When Frank breaks from the nine-panel layout, he does something artistically very interesting. With perhaps one exception, every large panel in this issue has some intersecting component, whether it be dividing the panel by character or light placement, or as the Rorschach introduction utilizes, prison bars. The effect is that these breaks from the recognizable Watchmen house style end up feeling at home in Frank’s new narrative and artistic space.
Rorschach’s narration and some of his talking points will make readers feel like something has changed despite its obvious familiarity as he ventures deep into a prison in search of a particular inmate. The comic gives two in-text reasons for this, and both are believable enough that this won’t seem like Johns doing a bad impersonation of Moore’s Rorschach but rather than Johns is trying to tip readers off to something else. After introducing readers to some memorable new characters and getting some unexpected but welcome comedy in a book as deadly serious as Watchmen, we are greeted with a familiar face that lays out the bare bones of where the plot will go over the next 12 months.
If the opening scenes of the comic showed the aftermath of Watchmen on a large, geo-political scale, the following scene shows the aftermath on a personal level. This scene is strong, but also reveals one of the weakest elements of the issue. Just as the throwaway lines in the beginning were on the nose, this scene suffers from the same problems. Where Watchmen issue titles were allusions to other works and would close with a larger quote repeating it, the story between was often thematically linked to those quotes, but never explicitly referenced. Doomsday Clock #1 wants to make absolutely certain that you are picking up what it is putting down with one of its characters literally connecting the dots between the title allusion and the events of the comic.
The comic’s other high point is when it officially integrates the DC Universe into the world of Watchmen. The introduction of this character is interesting in just how different it is from the introduction of Rorschach — despite the feeling of encroaching doom, there’s also a glimmer of optimism to the characterization that goes a long way furthering the tone that Johns is going for. Meanwhile, Frank’s skill in smaller panel layouts shouldn’t be overlooked. Not only does he make the locations in the comic feel like dynamic places that exist beyond the confines of any one panel, but he does this even when using a 12-panel page. These high panel counts never feel like they are restricting the art, or like Frank doesn’t have the room to do the things he wants to do, whether that’s altering what is expected in panel layouts or leaning into the Gibbons’ inspiration, as he does exceptionally with pages explicitly referencing the mirror-esque layout of “Fearful Symmetry.”
Anderson’s coloring in the closing moments is his highlight, as the color choices and the way he makes the lighting so vivid perfectly reinforces the moods of both the script and Frank’s drawings. With how effective Anderson’s coloring is for the flashback, it illustrates why his rendered coloring feels unsettling when used on Watchmen. Gibbons’ flat colors helped reinforce the pulpy nature of comics, but it elevated the dread imbued in Moore’s scripts. Anderson’s colors are reflective of how the technology of comic art has removed much of that pulp aesthetic that seems inherent to the medium itself.
Where Johns exceeds Moore is in how much of a page-turner this issue is. Watchmen rewards slow and close readers of each panel, but never reaches a point where readers find themselves quickly devouring its issues. Doomsday Clock #1 is filled with dialogue and narration, but Johns’ skill in crafting a spectacle is second to none in the modern age of comics. This isn’t a mystery story and it isn’t perfect, but as the third act of an epic that began with Rebirth and continued in The Button, it’s hard not to get chills at the onset of this blockbuster comic.