Doomsday Clock #1
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero's head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
- Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”
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.
Mirroring the way that the first issue of Watchmen zooms out from the bloody button amidst Rorschach’s narration, Doomsday Clock #1 opts for a “The End is Here” sign as its point of focus, a subtle nod to the briefly visible “The End is Nigh” sign from the original, as this issue’s zoom reveals a riot as opposed to Moore’s dispassionate city street. The opening panels also reveal the lack of subtlety that the comic revels in. Johns’ choice of words here are deliberate, when what appears to be 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 is so upfront is not inherently poor writing, and if anything reveals the genre difference between this comic and the original Watchmen. That comic wasn’t a superhero story, but a brutal mystery, a conspiracy-filled deconstruction of the capes-and-tights genre that simultaneously reveals the impotent anxieties of childish super-do-gooders and the chilling implications of real-world superpowers played to their geopolitical limits. But while Doomsday Clock is a successor to Watchmen in many ways, given the buildup we’ve already taken to get here, it isn’t a mystery - see 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’ 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’s 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. The first is that this Rorschach considers it “far too dangerous” to write anything down, making an already fractured character even more so. And when Rorschach finally arrives at the cell he was looking for, one belonging to the villainess Marionette, it becomes abundantly clear that this blob-faced vigilante is definitely not the same character that we read in 1986 — particularly since Doomsday Clock’s Rorschach is revealed to be a person of color. This may be subverted in later issues, but as it stands, Rorschach as a person of color is a baffling decision, given how the original Rorschach’s far-right views felt so linked to his upbringing as an abused, impoverished and psychologically disturbed white man.
Meanwhile, Rorschach’s recruitment of the Marionette for a mission to “find God” leads to one of the two highlights of the comic – the introduction of the Mime, Marionette’s partner. Committed to total silence, the Mime quickly defeats the inmates around him, with the blood collected around his mouth as he smiles clearly evoking images of the Joker. This character also shows off Johns’ sense of humor, as the Mime leads Rorschach and the Marionette to an empty locker for his “weapons” — two imaginary pistols that he pantomimes to Rorschach’s annoyance. For a book as deadly serious as Watchmen from the writer of Blackest Night, the Mime makes for a surprising chuckle.
Yet Rorschach’s benefactor feels less of a twist, as Rorschach leads the criminals to Nite Owl’s lair, where a fugitive Ozymandias is waiting for them. Disgraced and on the run after his brutal plan to stop the apocalypse in Watchmen was exposed to the general public, Ozymandias needs the Marionette, Mime, and Rorschach to find Doctor Manhattan and save the world. With nuclear war imminent, they don’t have much time – and with rapidly spreading cancer, neither does Ozymandias. 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. The title, “That Annihilated Place,” is a reference to the Horace Smith poem “Ozymandias.” That is blunt on its own with Adrian Veidt’s codename already clearly being a reference to that poem, but makes thematic sense given this comic exists in the aftermath of his ideals shattering in front of him. It does get excessive, however, when Ozymandias begins pontificating about his namesake and the poem and spells out the thematic implications for the audience.
As Johns then detours into the main DC universe, the comic closes on the second high point, as Clark Kent tosses in bed alongside Lois Lane. Dream and nightmare sequences are often the worst parts of the comics they inhabit, but a combination of Johns’ skill in contextualizing Clark’s nightmare as a well-written flashback of the night the Kent parents died and Frank’s artistic excellence in creating both a sense of space and emotion in a series of small panels. When Clark wakes up, he leaves readers with the most memorable line of the issue: namely, that he’s never had a nightmare before.
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 twelve 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.”
Meanwhile, Anderson’s coloring in the closing moments is his highlight, as his choices for Clark’s school dance evoke a dreamlike sense of nostalgia and elevating a panel of a devastated teen Clark as a surprising contender for the most memorable of the issue. With how effective Anderson’s coloring is for the flashback, it illustrates why his rendered coloring feels unsettling when used on characters like Rorschach and Ozymandias. 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.