Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Doomsday Clock: The Nathaniel Dusk Films

One structural similarity between Doomsday Clock and Watchmen is that each contains a prominent story-within-the-story. In Watchmen, that takes the form of the comic book series Tales of the Black Freighter, and in particular one story, "Marooned," from that fictional series. In Doomsday Clock, the parallel effort is a movie series starring an actor named Carver Colman as a detective named Nathaniel Dusk, and in particular the details of The Adjournment, one film from that series. This is potentially quite interesting, as a story-within-a-story can be quite revealing about the main story yet to come, and – even if not useful for forecasting – it says something about the way that Johns is crafting this story, and his overall message.

Part of what makes this interesting is the incredibly recursive nature of a story that has a story-within-a-story homaging an earlier story that also had a story-within-a-story. In fact, that understates it considerably. The layers are so numerous that it becomes almost maddeningly complex, a narrative equivalent to the visual phenomenon called the Droste effect, where an image contains a smaller version of itself that also contains a smaller version of itself, ad infinitum. To demonstrate the complexity of the situation here, let us consider the facets created by the story-within-a-story of Watchmen alone:

1) The main Watchmen plot (including multiple subplots)
2) The plot of "Marooned" and other TotBF stories
3) The fictional creators of TotBF.
4) Real people included on the fictional creative team.
5) Works of fiction in the real world that influenced TotBF.

Now, adding the equivalents from Doomsday Clock, double that from five planes of reality to ten, and instead of a handful of interlocked relationships, we have literally dozens. This is complicated yet more by the fact that the Watchmen Universe only consisted of a single work you can hold in your hand, whereas the DC Universe has been described in literally tens of thousands of works – and make no mistake – Johns is reaching into some fairly obscure old material in creating some such connections. There are effectively, therefore, six levels in the Doomsday Clockversion because creators of the Nathaniel Dusk series may be chosen from: (A) The real world; (B) Existing DCU characters; (C) Totally new characters debuting in Doomsday Clock. Moreover, we have multiple timelines at play in the DCU, and this is a fact that I am quite sure willprove relevant to Nathaniel Dusk. In duplicating Watchmen's use of a story-within-a-story (henceforth, for brevity, SWAS) Johns has something so remarkably powerful for its multiple layers that I can't readily recall a comparable device elsewhere in literature. Someone more avidly avant garde might let this SWAS take over the entire story; I do not think this is likely to be the direction that Johns will go, but I think he has devoted whole pages to it for a reason, and that it is going to get more interesting as it goes on.

Tales of the Black Freighter

Moore includes a considerable amount of text and art in conveying "Marooned" and I am not going to attempt, in this post alone, to reviewing that in detail. I will point out some high-level observations and offer just a few examples to back them up.

First, "Marooned" is a comic book, like Watchmenand other things upon which it comments are comic books. However, "Marooned" is not in the superhero genre but rather the pirate genre. It is quite full of horror, however, and in that regard TotBF certainly resembles to some extent Swamp Thingwhich has a horror element and whose writing duties, like TotBF, rotated from one writer to another, including Moore, who is the writer of Watchmen. The end materials for Watchmen#5 describe the history of TotBF and offer real world artist Joe Orlando as an artist on TotBF, and includes a drawing by the real Joe Orlando (portraying, in an interview, a slightly different fictional Joe Orlando). So TotBF has a lot of interplay with the real world.

Now, how does "Marooned," in all its detail, relate to the main Watchmenplot? The array of little clever details are quite numerous, and I will make no attempt to list them, but I will offer one example that shows that some of the plot mirrorings are fairly superficial and pointed in scattered directions: Someone taking a phone call inWatchmenmistakes the name "Rorschach" for the words "raw shark." Earlier in "Marooned," the protagonist has eaten raw shark meat. This is undeniably deliberate, but what does it mean? Perhaps we can note that Rorschach is as mean as a shark or that he is "eaten" because the phone call leads to his arrest and the main plot leads to his death, but none of that is very deep, or serves as useful foreshadowing. It's just a phrase that occurs in one story while the same idea (though not the exact phrase) occurs in the other.

What is the main story arc of "Marooned"? It makes one shudder to recall. A shipwrecked man meets repeated horror in his efforts to return home and save those whom he loves. The protagonist's associates, family, and even their dead bodies are devastated and defiled as he attempts to achieve some good outcome. Ultimately, he causes all of that devastation – everything would have been far better if he'd done nothing at all. And only in the final scene, when he realizes how damned he and his efforts are, that he surrenders himself to the infernal Black Freighter, climbing aboard as the newest member of its damned crew. Bleakness leading to greater bleakness leading to ultimate bleakness.

Is "Marooned" foreshadowing the main Watchmenplot? It certainly mirrors it in tone. Does it mirror it in plot, and if so, who is the protagonist? The doomed sailor from "Marooned" tries to do well, but fails repeatedly to make meaningful improvement in his situation, and ultimately, his act of violence that is meant to do good does the ultimate evil. He meets this fact with resignation. Who in the main plot does so? Veidt, the Comedian, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, Doctor Manhattan – all these nominal heroes come to see that their acts of violence have done no real good. Even Rorschach, in his final moments, meets the futility of his predicament with resignation, asking Doctor Manhattan to go ahead and deliver the inevitable death zap. However, only Veidt plays the active role in making the final violent climax occur. If the protagonist closely represents anyone, it's Veidt. The looser tone of resignation, however, is certainly seen all over Watchmen. So, could a savvy reader have used "Marooned" to predict where Watchmenis going? Maybe someone can tell a story to that effect, but I doubt it. "Marooned" only reaches its conclusion a few pages before Veidt tells the details of his plan to Rorschach and Nite Owl. Perhaps if someone stopped reading Watchmen#11 mid-way, then put the issue down and spent a long time thinking they could have used their cogitations to predict what was about to follow three page-flips later. Even then, we'd have to trust that they hadn't finished the issue first. I myself read Watchmenin the single paperback volume and certainly don't remember setting it down to try to make predictions.

But I think Doomsday Clockmay be different. I will go out on a limb and make some specific predictions for things I think we're likely to see before the Nathaniel Dusk storyline is complete.

Similarities and Differences

First, one remarkable alignment that may indicate how closely Johns is following Moore's structure: TotBF was mentioned/shown in Watchmanissues #3, 5, 8, 10, and 11. Five issues into Doomsday Clock, the Nathaniel Dusk films have been mentioned in issues #2, 3, and #5, suggesting that Johns is following Moore's structure considerably, but not to the last detail.

On the surface level, we can see many similarities between the two cases: Both are fictional narratives in a visual medium. Both are serials. Both are genres – pirate and detective – besides superhero that were once very popular in comic books. Both have death and murder as prominent elements. And, in both cases, we are given not only the story-within-a-story's narration, but also its backstory, with information about the creators who are a mixture of real-life creators and those who are fictional. Both of them also have a limited autobiographical feel – TotBFis a comic book, Moore's own medium, and the backstory of Tales of the Black Freighterrotating from one main writer to another reminds me of Swamp Thingbeing passed on to Alan Moore, who was in the middle of his run when Watchmenwas written; meanwhile, Geoff Johns began (and continues) a career in film, the medium of the Nathaniel Dusk stories.

That is a good transition into the sharp differences between the two cases; they are in different media. They are aimed at different generations: TotBF is being read by one of Watchmen's youngest characters, a boy named Bernie; The Adjournment is being watched (primarily, that we see) by a man named Donald who is in Johnny Thunder's assisted-living facility, and is probably about 90 years old. We can already be assured that they have distinctly different plot structures: Adjournment is a film noir whodunit, with a complex structure – as many as four victims or would-be victims and at least two killers. Marooned, on the other hand, was an endlessly bleak horror story, a failed journey leading inevitably to tragedy, with events both within and outside of the protagonists' control always leading to greater horror. But, unlike Adjournment, there are no unknown identities in Marooned, at least none that last long.

The Motive?

So what is the point of Adjournment? I think there's a probable answer to that, but it's more likely that we can figure it out from what we can already guess about Doomsday Clock than vice versa.

In and of itself, Adjournment is a murder mystery. If it proves to mirror Johns' larger story, then we will find all kinds of parallels between them. The victims and killer in the movie will represent equivalent figures in the DCU.

Alternately – or additionally – there seems to be an important subplot in which the creators of Adjournmentwill have directly played a role in the DCU. We know that Coleman Carver had a room full of timepieces in his home, and these have been important to both Doctor Manhattan and victim of timeline manipulation, Wally West. Moreover, some Golden and Silver Age characters have been mentioned in the Nathaniel Dusk backstory; these characters' presence may be a throwaway, or may turn into something very important.

One thing that has been telegraphed to us already, as of DC Rebirth#1is that the New 52 reboot of 2011 and concurrent actions appearently taken by Doctor Manhattan if not others, is being portrayed as an unfortunate worsening of the DCU, removing the Justice Society and a decade of relationships such as Barry and Iris. Having passed that decree as truth, Johns must assuredly be on a path towards undoing those deletions. And so we have two major retcons to un-retcon.

That brings us to The Adjournment. Our murder mystery has two victims. It also has two killers, and one of the killers will turn their sights on the detective who is trying to solve the case. To tie the just un-retcons we expect together with the Adjournmentplot, I suggest this: The older murder victim represents the Justice Society. The younger murder victim (divorced) represents the lost loves and legacies that the New 52 retcon removed. The latter was, apparently, removed by Doctor Manhattan, and the former by a wish that Johnny Thunder made to protect the JSA. Johnny tells us this in Rebirth as: "McCarthy yelled, 'Take off your masks!' You know I was only trying to protect them. I'm sorry for what I did."

This is a very specific reference to a story published in Adventure#466 1979 with key scenes set in 1951. In that story, an unnamed Joseph McCarthy demands that the JSA unmask themselves. They do not comply and retire from crimefighting, even though they continue to live their civilian lives. Apparently, Johnny Thunder, in this timeline, made a wish to his Thunderbolt that protected them from McCarthy but removed them from ever having been the JSA  – perhaps even from ever having lived.

There may be a tiny Easter Egg confirming this. Early in that story, the leader of a gang of anti-JSA criminals tells his colleagues, "…having failed to come up with a plan to stop the JSA once again, I must declare this meeting adj…" The word that is cut off is obviously "adjourned," and the title of the Coleman Carver movie is The Adjournment. However, what was more significantly adjourned was not a meeting of a bunch of criminals, but the outright existence of the Justice Society. It is that which the movie symbolizes. The detective's last name is Dusk, signifying the end of a day and the beginning of night. The act by Johnny Thunder ended the "day" of the Justice Society and brought on a long, dark night.

And it's here that I make a prediction that goes to the core of the difference between TotBF and the Nathaniel Dusk films: The damage done in "Marooned" was complete, total, utterly bleak, and irreversible. That's what Watchmen was about, but is obviously not what Doomsday Clockis about. The Justice Society will be made to have lived again. And now, note the timeline. McCarthy's hearing with the JSA took place in 1951, before the last two Nathaniel Dusk movies. The current timeline, therefore, forked off from the one we previously (pre-Flashpoint) knew. Therefore,The Adjournment is from 1954 in a timeline that didn't use to exist, and will be somehow altered again. If the events of Doomsday Clockundo Johnny Thunder's errant wish, then the world in which The Adjournment was made will not have existed, and so I predict that by story's end, we will see a new version of the Nathaniel Dusk series. Perhaps there'll be different plots, in which the deaths of the older and younger man do not occur. Perhaps different actors. Perhaps the films will not exist in this form at all. This will be a stylistic flourish for Johns to reveal late in the story, and we'll see that the new/restored timeline is a happier and more optimistic one.

Behind the Scenes

A more complex situation is the behind-the-scenes one. The characters of older DCU stories are mentioned in the materials concerning the Nathaniel Dusk series. Up to nine of these are mentioned in Doomsday Clock#3. One more that I missed: Bruce Nelson, who is a detective who debuted all the way back in Detective Comics#1. (Nelson's story began in San Francisco but inexplicably moved to New York in the second issue, perhaps DC's first retcon. Doomsday Clockplaces him in San Francisco.)

We know that some of the individuals who, in the post-Crisis timeline, became some of the Golden Age's superheroes, are still alive in the current timeline, but did not become superheroes. We also know that Johnny Thunder did something to prevent the JSA from having their careers. Perhaps the explanation can be found in an older comic that went a lot like that. In JLAvol1 #37, an evil version of Johnny Thunder tells the Thunderbolt to make it so that the JLA would never exist. Going back in time, the Thunderbolt systematically makes one change after another to prevent any of the JLA members from beginning their careers – for example, stopping the lightning bolt that gave Barry Allen super speed, preventing the explosion of Krypton, and diverting Abin Sur from Earth and his meeting with Hal Jordan. If Johns is following that formula here, then all of the JSA's civilian identities should have lived normal lives with middle adulthood in the 1940s and 1950s. Carver Colman would have been 28 years old when the JSA debuted in 1940. He is suggested to have been an "American hero" in DC#3. His murder, in the current timeline, took place in June of 1953 or 1954, and he was murdered with his own award trophy, the same way that the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, was killed in Watchmen#8 with the trophy shown on the issue's cover.

Cumulatively, this builds suspicion that Carver Colman actually is one of the Justice Society members whose lives were rerouted by the Thunderbolt in its alteration of the timeline. How can this be? According to the end materials, Colman's purported mother was not his real mother, as claimed in a letter found after his death. If he was removed from one family and placed with another, perhaps this was the alteration made to the timeline to prevent his hero identity from emerging. Perhaps his real name is one that we know as the secret identity of a Justice Society member.

If so, who? The strongest signs point to Hourman. Above all, Colman had a room full of clocks, called a "ticktock room" in the celebrity gossip. Rex Tyler's nickname (yes, this would seem to give away his secret identity) was Tick Tock Tyler – this is surely not a coincidence on Johns' part, and is either the giveaway clue or a red herring. One more, subtler clue in DC#2: A present-day ad for a drug called Travodart is made by the "Bannermain Chemical Co." Bannermain, as other readers have pointed out, is very close to the name Bannerman, which was the name of Rex Tyler's boss and the chemical company for which Tyler worked until he eventually became the boss and named it Tyler for himself. If Bannerman remained the name of that company, then Tyler not only failed to become Hourman, but perhaps failed, also, to live any of his life as Rex Tyler. Yet another clue regarding his death: A woman in Johnny Thunder's retirement home calls him a "deviant" and part of the modern backstory of Tyler is that he battled addiction to the Miraclo drug that provided his powers. So, we may find out that a change made early in Tyler's life put him on the path to become Carver, and an untimely (no pun intended) death. If so, the restoration of the timeline to include the Justice Society will also save Tyler.

It is also worth noting that the name Carver Colman sounds a lot like the Carter Hall identity of the JSA's Hawkman, so perhaps that is who Colman was in the original timeline. If so, note that the older Carver Colman fan is named Donald. Don Hall, the Dove half of the Hawk and Dove duo, could conceivably be retconned as a relative of Carter Hall, which could explain why he is a fan of Colman, as an actual relative of his. However, the age does not seem to fit.

Then again, perhaps a Colman is just a Colman, but one who had significant ties to the Golden Age heroes; John Law and other Golden Age characters are tied to his story, and he may be more of a catalyst than a main player in the backstory of the JSA that was, now isn't, and will be again.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Doomsday Clock 5

As Doomsday Clock approaches the halfway mark, we have several storylines, each of which contains some degree of mystery. Most characters in the story are profoundly unaware of what is coming. The two most central characters, Dr. Manhattan and Superman, have been seen rarely and sporadically. The subplots themselves seem highly disconnected. Explosive confrontations are about to take place. This is the point when complexity and confusion may be peaking, and the story will soon have to sort out the uncertainties and present some thunderous showdowns.

First, Doctor Manhattan is doing something in the DC Universe. We have hints about his purpose, but most clear is that he is responsible for the changes that took place with Flashpoint. Part of this is the removal of the Justice Society from the timeline, and we know that Johnny Thunder wishes to restore them; this will almost certainly succeed in some form.

Second, Veidt wants to retrieve Doctor Manhattan from the DC Universe and get him to return to the Watchmen Universe and stop – or reverse – the nuclear annihilation in progress.

Third, there is the Superman Theory which concerns an unknown number of masterminds; perhaps someone has been manufacturing superheroes and supervillains in America by activating people's metagenes and perhaps someone is seeking to reveal and stop this and/or turn public sentiment against all superheroes – perhaps most centrally Batman. Then again, this could all be the work of a single mastermind. Lex Luthor is certainly related to this, but how? And how is this related to the other plots at all?

As a backdrop to these and the larger story, there are a number of parallel subplots involving tension between Russia and the United States. Such plots existed in the original Watchmen, in the 1992 Watchman Universe, and in the present DC Universe, not to mention such history and fact in the real world. These plots are probably not logically connected, but the obvious thematic similarity seems a knot to untie.

With that, Doomsday Clock#5 explodes with many incipient and imminent confrontations.

The issue's first panel is the brain scan from February showing Veidt's tumor. This is his own personal "doomsday clock" as its growth, if left unchecked, will incapacitate and kill him at some time in the future. The (seemingly) sign of his inevitable death is ironically coupled with the text of Metropolis hospital workers who deem him "lucky" because he survived a long fall with minimal injuries. The overall effect is that common people are ignorant of coming danger. In this case, it is some background characters' and the danger is to Veidt alone, but this is suggestive of larger plots in which common people are unaware of disaster that is coming, while Veidt is, perhaps, uniquely aware. In a more immediate sense, everyone in the hospital is unaware of Veidt's origin and abilities, so he is easily able to free himself and make his way to the Owlship.

Meanwhile, there is a showdown transpiring in Gotham City, the sheer complexity of which is rare if not unprecedented. Batman has been injured by a crowd, and is now unconscious where a fallen Bat-Signal has killed someone. On the scene are the Joker and his gang, while Marionette and Mime are headed to the same location, and the Comedian is pursuing them. And, in an unfinished thought, Veidt suggests that the escape of Marionette and Mime was intentional, and will draw out Doctor Manhattan. This could lead to a complex brawl where, possibly, nobody is on anybody else's side. Then again, the Comedian could side with Batman or the Joker. Possibly, even, the Joker and Batman could align against the intruders from the Watchmen Universe. Seemingly the most likely outcome of the inevitable battle is that Doctor Manhattan will come onto the scene and through his vast powers, make the fight meaningless. But then what? Something that Veidt is planning?

Veidt himself seems to have a new objective. Learning in snippets of overheard conversation about Superman, and what he represents, Veidt will likely take the Owlship to Metropolis, and orchestrate a meeting between Superman, the DCU's symbol of hope, and Dr. Manhattan. But to what end, and to what intended end? Veidt sees the DCU in stark terms, and his only goal is to get Dr. Manhattan to return to his own universe and save it.

The other collection of major characters in the story is an Odd Couple that has become a trio and may soon become quartet or more. Saturn Girl, New Rorschach, and Johnny Thunder are in Pittsburgh, where the oldest of those has sought and now found what appears to be the last physical link to the Justice Society: Alan Scott's Green Lantern. There are lots of Easter Eggs along this path: We see Johnny Thunder's reading materials that include "The Mystical Land of Badhnisia" (only the first few letters of each line are shown, but there's nothing else that it could plausibly be), "Aladdin," and a newspaper story titled "Green Fire Consumes All-American Steel." Badhnisia is the country where a young Johnny Thunder was first connected to the power of the Thunderbolt. Aladdin is, of course, the real-world genie story which inspired the Johnny Thunder character, and as we learn, the Green Fire is the source of Alan Scott's ring power. Moreover, "All-American Comics" is the title in which the Golden Age Green Lantern first debuted. If the Green Lantern's lantern physically exists in post-Flashpoint/post-Rebirth continuity, this suggests that the Justice Society is not completely expunged from the timeline, and we will inevitably find out how they may return. Perhaps an old Alan Scott will be able to use this lantern. Perhaps someone else will. Somehow, Johnny Thunder will get his Thunderbolt back. Somehow, Jay Garrick will reemerge from the limbo into which he passed after his brief appearance during "The Button." The Justice Society is coming back, whether as young men and women, old men and women, or some other reincarnation. Their return will mean a lot to the timeline of the DCU, in whatever form it takes. They could also, at full power, help provide a serious check to Dr. Manhattan if any coming confrontation becomes a fight. As powerful as Dr. Manhattan is, he could perhaps be matched by the power of such figures as Green Lantern, Doctor Fate, the Thunderbolt, and most certainly by the Spectre. Then again, the JSA subplot may be primarily a vehicle for returning a team that Johns loves to DCU continuity.

Several of the storylines are now advancing a common symbol: A bright light that can attract someone powerful. Saturn Girl says that a bright light can easily attract Dr. Manhattan. It's not coincidental that in the same issue, we see the Bat Signal broken, because it is a bright light that attracts Batman. This also gives added meaning to the last issue, in which a bright light attracted Mothman in the Watchmen Universe, and bug-zappers attracted insects. We may soon see Superman serve as the (metaphorical) bright light that attracts Dr. Manhattan.

It is time to recognize that the Supermen Theory subplot in Doomsday Clockis taking us back to a place where we've been before. First, the Luthor in Doomsday Clock is far from the Luthor we've seen wearing the Superman symbol and serving in the Justice League. He's closer to the sociopathic businessman introduced by John Byrne than the post-Rebirth Luthor, as affirmed by his obvious affection towards Lois Lane. And, hearkening back to another Geoff Johns project that came later in that continuity, this plot of creating superheroes by awakening metagenes was also a subplot of 52. In that story, Lex Luthor had a widely-publicized method of creating superheroes, which he used to various evil ends, including the deliberate murder of most of them by switching their powers off suddenly at midnight on New Years Eve. In Doomsday Clock, we don't know who has been creating superpowered people, if indeed any centralized authority is doing so, but the bigger story is the fear and conspiratorial paranoia surrounding it. If Luthor is to be believed, a metahuman who has been a member of the Justice League is the one behind it. Or is Luthor's claim pure hype and lie? 

The international superhero story also references 52. When a terrorist is about to kill journalist Jack Ryder on video (in imitation of real-life incidents), the terrorist is himself torn apart by Black Adam; this resembles a scene early in 52when Black Adam kills the villain Terra-Man. Black Adam goes on to invite all superheroes to his territory in Kahndaq. The end materials to the chapter document teams of superheroes operating in several countries around the world, including Russia, the British Isles, France, India, China, and Israel. These superheroes draw upon many source materials, including 1990s Justice League titles, the League of Heroes and other old Batman stand-ins as resurfaced during Grant Morrison's Batmanrun, and even the Super-Friends (moreover, the publication which cites this information is called Trouble Alert).

At this point in the story, what might stand out most is how much is going on without anybody knowing for sure where this is going. With the possible exception of the offscreen Doctor Manhattan, who in this story understands what is going on? Veidt has a plan and his plan may still be on track, but he was surprised to see the Comedian, doesn't know the ins and outs of the DCU, and was apparently taken surprise by the collapse of peace on his own world. The Comedian is somehow twice finding the trail of other people from his universe despite their sudden appearance, and he seemingly must have assistance from Doctor Manhattan to find trails that appear out of nowhere. Saturn Girl is from the future and is also a mind-reader, so she may understand the big story, but her sudden freakout during the hockey game seen during "The Button" is at odds with her calm confidence seen at other times, and implies that something about her state of mind is somehow troubled.

Meanwhile, among the stars of the DCU, another dynamic is slowly taking form, which is likely to be more important as the legacy of Doomsday Clock. Superman is the nominal star, and will surely be seen more in the series' second half. But so far, we've seen quite a bit of an ineffectual Batman: His Batcave was found out by someone who's spent only months as an imitation superhero. He underestimated new Rorschach, who also knows his secret identity. Batman was surprised that new Rorschach escaped, but Veidt is shown to have a keener mind, saying "of course" when told of the escape. Batman furthermore underestimated Veidt, allowing him to eject him from the Owlship, and was pulled to the ground and beaten senseless by a crowd of ordinary people.

Meanwhile, Superman is what people can "believe in" and it is Superman as a symbol of hope that will be put up against Doctor Manhattan's nihilism while Batman's vigilante tactics have led to his popularity in Gotham City to collapse.

The original Watchmen series ran immediately after Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. The two series were not logically connected, nor planned in coordination with one another, but they did build upon similar themes. Both replaced a shiny, smiling superhero with a Machiavellian vigilante who didn't mind breaking bones if the ends justified the means. Both showed the more powerful beings in their world as too detached, and ultimately unreliable. DKR was a powerful affirmation of Batman and both implicitly and explicitly beat down the idea of a Superman.

Doomsday Clock #5 may be sending the signal that this work is not only an anti-Watchmenbut also an anti-Dark Knight Returns. DKR changed comics. Whatever its general effect, it also had the specific effect of seeing Batman climb in popularity and Superman decline, as I've argued here. Perhaps what we are seeing is Geoff Johns' bid to boost Superman and undo the effect of DKR. We'll learn more next issue.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Doomsday Clock 4

One of the dramatic elements of Doomsday Clock and the various prequels in the story arc is the way characters are brought onstage. This began with the very appearance of the Comedian's button and Dr. Manhattan back in DC Rebirth #1, and the appearance of Superman's logo at the end of The Button and continues into the current series. Perhaps the biggest surprise of DC #4 is the fact that it centers so completely around the new Rorschach, one of Johns' new characters. A series that is about the encounter between two worlds and only has eight more issues to do so is still setting things up, and if one of these issues is devoted to one character, there must be a good reason for it.

Readers may be tempted to find this issue – with no Superman, little Batman, little Veidt, and no Mime and Marionette – advancing the main plot comparatively little, but this only highlights a number of brief, intriguing connections to the main plot. Devoting an entire issue to the new Rorschach indicates in flashing red letters that he is going to become a very important figure. The remaining issues of Doomsday Clock are likely to feature a battle for this young man's soul.

As previously hinted, new Rorschach is Reggie Long, the son of Rorschach's psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Long. He was orphaned by Veidt's alien plot, and also driven mad by it. This issue has so many scenes that reflect other scenes, in itself or in previous works, that it can make you feel like you're looking down a hall of mirrors. We see Reggie twice spend time in mental asylums; once on each Earth. Both times, his placement there earns our sympathy, but is not without justification. Both times, he meets superheroes who are in there with him; both times, that superhero helps him escape. We should perhaps note the asymmetries where they occur: One, Watchmen's Mothman, is a figure out of the past, whereas the other, Saturn Girl, is from the future.

Another double-up in Doomsday Clock that is highlighted by the Mothman's story is the similarity between the Watchmen old-timers and the Justice Society. Both teams were driven underground by pressure from their respective governments. It is interesting to note that this plot development – copied many times in subsequent goverment-vs-superhero stories – began with a 1979 JSA story scripted by Paul Levitz. Why is this relevant? Both backstories name-check the real-life HUAC which advanced the anti-Communist witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In both cases, the superheroes are confronted by a McCarthyesque government panel and are driven into retirement or other unpalatable options. What makes this similarity relevant is the ongoing Johnny Thunder cameos, particularly in Rebirth wherein he implies that he chose to protect them by making them "go away" when the committee asked them to unmask. Placing this in the larger Doomsday Clock story suggests some complicated relationships between timelines. If Johnny Thunder commanded the JSA to disappear, and Dr. Manhattan is also manipulating timelines, then we have two forces altering history for the worst. That seems overly complex. Perhaps Johnny Thunder and/or the Thunderbolt are agents of Dr. Manhattan. In fact, the Thunderbolt seems like an appropriate candidate to be Dr. Manhattan given their similarity. In any case, this reflects on how events in the Watchmen universe may have served as a pattern for alterations made to the DCU.

A scene with striking overtones of older DC / JSA lore is the rooftop encounter in which Reggie and Mothman met. Reggie was about to commit suicide by jumping from a height but didn't because he coincidentally met Mothman, who also seemed to be jumping to his death. The original Mister Terrific, Terry Sloan, was contemplating suicide when he happened upon a woman who was also intending to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge. Later, Michael Holt was also contemplating suicide when the Spectre spoke to him, leading him down the path to becoming the second Mister Terrific. Reggie has a similar encounter but his path was already turned in a dark direction, and he became a new Rorschach.

So consider now the life of Reggie Long thus far, and the various origin stories it resembles. He loses his father and mother and seeks vengeance upon their killer. This is Batman's origin. He sees the gravest horrors and emerges from a fire to begin a life of adventuring. This is Rorschach's origin. He contemplates suicide but meets someone else and this saves him. That's Mister Terrific's origin. Look at the cover of this issue, also its first panel: The tall stack of pancakes and syrup remind Reggie of the wealth of Batman. That's not his story: Even the smallest bedroom in Wayne Manor feels too luxurious for him. This Rorshach identity surely isn't working out. Going forward, I think we're very likely to see Reggie turned by good influences from the DCU into something more akin to Mister Terrific.

Meanwhile, in the goodness-deprived Watchmen Universe, Mothman's life ends as a bit of a bad joke, as a moth kills itself by being drawn to flames. This is one of three times in the issue that we see an insect incinerated: The Mothman is one. The other two are mosquitoes, zapped by electricity. This pattern is also not coincidence, and readers who felt that this issue was too slow-paced were missing portentous hints as that pattern went forward. We (and Reggie) see a mosquito flying down the Arkham hallway, and into a bug zapper hanging in front of Killer Croc's cell. Later, we see the Mothman killed by fire. But the third time, looking very much like the first, the mosquito is not killed by the bug zapper. Just short of entering the device, the second mosquito is killed from behind by a white bolt that leaves a trail of smoke with Dr. Manhattan's hydrogen atom insignia: The second mosquito is killed by Dr. Manhattan. We also see the photo that reminds him of his past life as Jon Osterman floating in the breeze. Why – what does this tiny, insignificant event mean? First, it tells us that Dr. Manhattan is present at that point in Arkham Asylum. Is that a clue to his "secret identity"? Maybe. So far, if we find out that some Arkham resident is "really" Dr. Manhattan in disguise, it would be a hollow reveal: We've hardly seen any of them doing anything interesting. Perhaps more significant, it shows us that Dr. Manhattan is at work in the DCU, tampering with events. And more specifically, it shows us that he is in Arkham as Saturn Girl meets Reggie Long. This is something he wanted to have happen, or at least, condones.

That visitor from the future, Saturn Girl is smiling and cheery throughout her brief appearances in this issue. This leaps out as an anomaly. We first saw Saturn Girl's current visit to the 2010s in DC Rebirth #1. She is serene, saying that everything will be all right. Later, during the opening moments of The Button crossover, she is terrified and panicked, telling us that Superman will not arrive to help and everyone will die. Now, she's serene again. What is responsible for the whiplash turn in her demeanor? Is this mere emotional instability? Probably not, because she refers to knowledge of events that drive her responses.  But why the alternating responses? It's probably too soon for us to know, but Dr. Manhattan's manipulation of timelines seems a likely answer. Remember, Saturn Girl is not precognitive – she's telepathic, and happens to be from the future. What we're likely seeing at this point is an experiment that Dr. Manhattan is carrying out, and Reggie Long, a "mosquito" in comparison to the vast, indifference of Dr. Manhattan, is probably on a path towards the light (to use this issue's metaphor), from the darkness of Rorschach and Veidt's grand tragedy to the light of Mister Terrific, a character who, in both previous versions, turned from suicide to hope.

Nevertheless, we should remember what happened to that mosquito. Dr. Manhattan killing for no reason is chilling. Because he can just as easily turn that power to killing anyone else. But the photo of Jon and Laurie might give us hope. He's still clinging to memories of humanity. He is letting Saturn Girl take Reggie down a path towards the light, and we need that experiment to succeed so that Dr. Manhattan can believe in the light. Later, he's going to turn things dark again, as Saturn Girl's panic revealed. But later still in this series, he's going to meet the greatest representative of the light. He's going to meet Superman.