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.