Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Doomsday Clock 2

In its opening installment, Geoff Johns' Doomsday Clock provided many indications where its story must go. In the second issue, many inevitable other shoes fall, and there may be more to the style than the substance. We knew that characters from the Watchmen and DC Universes would collide, but Johns patterns the events after stories we've seen before and, surely, foreshadows events later to come in this one.

In the first pages, the team of Veidt, the new Rorschach, and villains Mime and Marionette board a modified Owlship and make the interdimensional voyage to the DCU in pursuit of Dr. Manhattan. Johns intertwines several story threads in narrating this escape. It's a necessary plot point for this escape to succeed, or we wouldn't have much of a story. But Johns, using some of the characteristics of Moore's storytelling (and not merely his characters) signals many other things to us.

First, we learn why Veidt has calculated that Marionette, a person with no superpowers, may help him wrangle the godlike Dr. Manhattan because of their special history. Some years ago, when Manhattan arrived to stop Mime and Marionette during a bank heist, he seemed to be on the verge of killing them when he halted. Something broke through the impassive cognition of the former-human-now-superhuman when he might have killed them and led him to mercy. Instead, he apprehended the couple alive. Veidt is clearly calculating that another, forced, appearance of Marionette may remind Dr. Manhattan to leave his activities in the DCU and return to the Watchmen Universe and save it. However, we readers see something else, which may mean that Veidt doesn't understand the situation fully. At the moment of killing Marionette, Manhattan, with his super senses, heard the heartbeat of her unborn baby, signified by blue (Dr. Manhattan) sound balloons rendering the sound of the heartbeat as "BABUM". A photo of the bank teller’s young child is shown to us because the teller had just tried to use her own child as a prompt for mercy from the criminals. Dr. Manhattan's act of mercy is the pivotal event in this issue, as signified by the cover, that shows the very same midsection of Marionette's costume where Manhattan was looking and listening when he showed that act of mercy. For the Watchmen Universe's sake, we hope that Marionette can trigger that same mercy now that she is no longer pregnant. We also have a subtle reminder that Dr. Manhattan can undo physical damage when he levitates the bank manager's recently severed finger upon arrival. We also see the significance of the Marionette character name, because a marionette is a figure that is manipulated by someone else, just as Dr. Manhattan may prove to be in the metaphorical hands of Veidt.

And undoing physical damage is what is required, and certainly what Veidt is banking on. The plan for Veidt to manipulate Manhattan into saving the Watchmen Earth happens too late for him to prevent nuclear holocaust. Veidt and his team leave only moments before New York is struck with a nuclear missile. This event is packed full of references to other stories, and it might be worthy of a spoiler warning, because these point where Doomsday Clock will likely travel.

First, civilian bystanders see the nuclear missile that will kill them and exclaim, "Look! Up in the sky!" and "Is that a plane?" These are catchphrases from the older, simpler days for the arrival of Superman. Here, these phrases are darkly ironic because it is doom, not salvation that flies toward them. And here, there is a choice for the story later to make: Is this indeed their final doom, with death standing in for life, marking the Watchmen Universe as a place where evil wins, much as Earth Three with its Crime Syndicate has been deemed by earlier writers? Or, is this a temporary, reversible death that Dr. Manhattan and others will make un-happen when the story moves on? Clearly, Veidt is banking on the latter. And we get a big stylistic clue that Johns is foreshadowing such an ending when the first use of Veidt's interdimensional travel button (marked with Dr. Manhattan's hydrogen atom symbol) does… nothing. But the second time he presses it, prompted by Rorschach, it does work, and barely in time to prevent their own deaths, which really would be final because of the vitality of their mission. Here, and perhaps again later, we can expect to see an initial failure be followed by success on a second try. And ultimately, this is the likely thematic arc for the story as a whole, with the sunnier DC Universe winning out and applying its happy-ending rules to the always bleak, fatally doomed Watchmen Universe as designed by Alan Moore.

And here we see the most profound allusive symbolism of the scene, and the reason why the nuke had to hit now for it to be un-happened later: This recreates the Superman origin story, with a rocket carrying the last survivors out of the very last instant before destruction to another world where there is hope. See this scene, and this series, as a conversation between, at least, Jerry Siegel, Alan Moore, and Geoff Johns. Moore tried to kill the world of superheroes with Watchmen. Now, in 2017, Johns is reminding us of the original version of this story, from 1938, where the escape of a final survivor from the death of a world provides hope for everybody.

Though Superman is, therefore, at the very forefront of the issue's symbolism, he is not seen. The rescue squad splits up, with Veidt contacting Lex Luthor and Rorschach going to Wayne Manor.

Before meeting Rorschach, Bruce Wayne encounters a Rorschach test, the scene imitating Kovacs' such test in Watchmen. Here, the symbols prompt him to imagine major events in his own life, including his parents' deaths and his role as Batman, but he answers dishonestly, saying that every pattern reminds him of a boat, because as shallow Bruce Wayne, he wants to go boating. As a backdrop, the DC Universe has multiple events mirroring those from the Watchmen Universe, with frightened citizens protesting against Batman's vigilantism as part of a much larger plot that has only been hinted at, with the Russia of both universes stirring up some evil in what, plainly, resembles events in our Putin-Trump-afflicted world of 2017 just as the original Watchmen had a Soviet Union plot resembling its Cold War setting in the mid-Eighties. Five Russia stories, two real and three fictional. Clearly this is the larger story towards which Doomsday Clock is headed, but for now we have only hints, primarily from the end notes about a metahuman conspiracy, about the form that will take and how exactly the Russias in both universes seem coordinated. Along the way, Johns may just provide an explanation within the story for why the DCU is so America-centric. (Obviously, the historical reason is that DC and its market originate in the U.S.)

Veidt and Rorschach's first move is another stylistic flourish by Johns. In order to understand the universe around them, they go to the public library and read. This is exactly what Dick Grayson did in the classic story "To Kill a Legend." In that story, two DCU characters (Batman and Robin) travel to another universe and give it a happy ending by preventing the Wayne murders. That universe, as I noted in my breakdown of Doomsday Clock #1, is also precisely 20 years behind Earth One, where we now see that the Watchmen Universe is precisely 25 years behind the DCU's Earth Zero. The precise multiple-of-five difference in timelines and the use of the public library is a big clue that Johns has that story in mind as a template for this one. We get yet another clue that Johns is trampling on Alan Moore's gloomy vision by the Owlship landing in the abandoned carnival grounds from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. However, Rorschach hints at some dark potential when he observes that Veidt's selection of literary figures (Hemingway, Woolf, and Mayakovsky) all committed suicide.

At Wayne Manor, we see that this Rorschach is either very lucky or very good, because he almost immediately finds the Batcave. In the issue's final story pages, the slow, moody focus on style suddenly wheels into high-paced action. Luthor and Veidt have a sit-down and begin understand, but don't much appreciate, one another. Meanwhile, Batman confronts Rorschach, and in one telling panel, we see that Mime and Marionette have escaped. The larger surprise, however, in the accelerated final pages is that the Comedian is somehow alive and in trying to shoot Veidt, accidentally grazes Luthor.

In the moments along the way, we get the opportunity to see how members of each universe view the other. This is, strikingly, at the very heart of the tagline for the original series: Who watches the Watchmen? Here, Luthor and Veidt watch one another, and neither is as impressed by the other as he is by himself. Meanwhile, Rorschach sees Batman as a "monster" because he fits the psychological profile of collecting clues from those he vanquishes.

The Veidt-Luthor and Rorschach-Batman confrontations were planned, and less surprise than lead one to mull over how much each is their respective universes' version of the other. The escape and surprise appearance complicate already-complicated expectations, and clearly require later resolution. Geoff Johns is doing a very good job of making this a full and compelling twelve issues.