Sunday, June 9, 2019

Doomsday Clock #10: Superman and Dr. Manhattan


Doomsday Clock #10 was unusually packed in reinterpreting DC history, and there are so many facets to it, I will split my comments into two posts. In this one, I will focus on the major players in the issue and what seems to be the message of the issue, at this late stage in the game, comprising a lot of the message that Johns intends for the series. In a second post, I will comment on the Justice Society and the striking – to me – omission of Batman.

Doomsday Clock #9 featured one of the most sprawling casts the DCU can muster, with a huge force of superheroes taking part in a showdown on Mars. Issue #10, in contrast, shrank the whole story down to a few principal characters; though a few characters from the past and some from this story had extended cameos, almost all of the major narration focused on a few men. These characters are not merely playing roles in this story. Johns uses them to deliver a reframing of the history of superhero stories. It is probably most instructive to see these major characters in the issue as archetypes, standing for major eras in comic book / heroic fiction. The focus of the issue is primarily about the use of and messages conveyed by Johns' use of the following: Nathaniel Dusk, Alan Scott, Superman, and Doctor Manhattan. Along the way, there is heavy use of Carver Colman, the actor who plays Dusk in the movies.

The story intertwines, in a legitimately weird way, several different substories – some of them classics of the superhero genre – some more obscure stories from the past, one – of course – Moore's Watchmen, a comment on the superhero genre, and then the main plot of Johns' work that we're discussing here – Doomsday Clock, along with the side plots and stories within a story. All told, we have nearly a dozen separate fictional universes wound together into one larger story. But, unlike the pre-Crisis or Morrisonian DC Multiverse, these worlds are not parallel. Part of what Johns is doing here, within his story and no doubt to launch a reframing of DC's sub-universes is to discard the notion that all these separate universes are separate but equal. C'mon, we always knew that Earth 3 and Earth 19 and Earth whatever were not universes equal to Silver Age Earth One. Most of the universes in the Multiverse are and always were derivatives of the main DCU. Johns is advancing the conversation in this issue by recognizing that in the cosmology, the main Earth is special, and other things flow from it.

The story has so many threads going, of such different kinds, that the issue alone needs a map of them, or at least a list. It goes as follows:

1) DCU timelines, keying around the origin of Superman:
            Golden Age 1: Superman debuted in 1938 before Alan Scott
            Golden Age 2: Alan Scott debuted in 1940 in a world without Superman
            Silver Age: Superman debuted in 1956 in a world without Alan Scott
            Byrne: Superman debuted in 1986, long after Alan Scott
            Birthright: Same Golden Age backstory as GA2
            Secret Origin: Same Golden Age backstory as GA2
                        Wally West and Johnny Thunder remember this
            New 52: Same Golden Age backstory as SA
            Rebirth: Same Golden Age backstory as SA
            Seemingly inevitable reboot: Same as Secret Origin?
2) The Watchmen Universe
3) The Nathaniel Dusk universe
4) Carver Colman's story: He inhabits various DCU timelines, possibly all of them, though we only get direct indications of his intersection with the first two DCU timelines, and after that, at least in the one we last saw, he is dead.

One of the jarring aspects of the story is how profoundly obscure Dusk and Colman are, and yet Johns elevates them to central roles in the story. The Colman plot takes a man of no particular importance and gives him one of the most influential roles in DC history, with the (in some respects) godlike Dr. Manhattan pairing up with him in a strange and somewhat incomprehensible partnership, meeting once a year in the same location. It is easy to see how Dr. Manhattan's vision of the future provides a pivotal, life-changing boost for the career of Colman, but less obvious why the company of such an unimportant man would be a draw for Dr. Manhattan. Similarly, the Dusk sideplot is, on the surface, a distraction from the main story, of no causal relationship to it. Neither Colman nor Dusk seems of interest on a par with the superbeings who headline the series. Why did Johns give them these roles?

For Dusk, the answer is clear: He is an archetype of the detective genre. His kind starred in comic books, novels, and movies, peaking in approximately that order. The "D" in DC stands for "detective" and that hearkens back to 1937, a little over a year before the debut of Superman. One of the detectives who launched the Detective Comics title in issue #1 was Bruce Nelson, name-checked by Johns in the end materials in Doomsday Clock #3. Nelson and other, generally similar, tough guys who tackle crime appeared in the monthly title for 26 issues until they were overshadowed by, and ultimately replaced and virtually eliminated by a new feature in that title — Batman. Ultimately, old-style detectives did not survive contact with the likes of Batman; he immediately took over the cover art of the title and the conventional detective stories inside the issue rapidly became scarce, as well. A similar rise and fall took place in the movies, as well, with the film noir genre starting to peter out during the same mid-50s timeframe that, in Johns' story, sees the onscreen death of Nathaniel Dusk. Dusk serves as a single example of that kind of character, standing in for comic book Bruce Nelson (whose run ended in 1940), and movie detectives like Nick Charles, Mike Hammer, and Sam Spade, whose popularity also rose then fell (but later enjoyed various revivals).

Dusk's story, though, is packed with references to the meta-story arc that Johns gives us about DC history, most obviously when he is given a glass globe representing a "world" from the past, and he smashes it while using it as a weapon, with the voiceover narration echoing a Crisis on Infinite Earths tagline, "Worlds live. Worlds Die." Just as various DC timelines (and eras) have died, just as the eras of comic book and movie detectives ended (or, at least, greatly waned in popularity), Dusk's storyline came to a definitive end in The Adjournment. Moments after Dusk shatters the globe, he is shot in the back, and his world – his time as a detective in the movies, anyway – also dies.

Much the way that Batman and other costumed heroes ended the run of Bruce Nelson and his kind, Dr. Manhattan elevates, then indirectly ends the life of Carver Colman. Colman initially feels (literally) blessed by the presence of Dr. Manhattan in his life, wondering if the erstwhile superhero is an angel. But from the beginning, their association takes Colman down a tragic path. Colman's movie success brings him fame and riches, but his fame combines with secrets and lies to attract the blackmailing that ends his life. Colman receives from Dr. Manhattan in much the way that Faust received from Mephistopheles, getting precisely what he wished for in the short run, but damnation in the long run.

Clearly, the rise and fall of Dusk and the actor who played him, Colman, are told in parallel fashion, both killed from behind in successive panels after being betrayed by a woman they loved. As I have suggested that Murray Abrahams plays a part intended to parallel that of Dr. Manhattan, we see them occupy the same position in that pair of panels. However, Abrahams is actively the killer, facing Dusk and pulling the trigger, while Dr. Manhattan passively brings about the end of Colman, with his back turned as Colman is killed. As Dr. Manhattan himself narrates, he could have stopped it, but did nothing. He is a being of inaction in a world where the heroes practice action.

"Action" is the title of the issue's story, and it should be interpreted on a few different levels. It is yelled by the director on the set, and it is what, in Dr. Manhattan's formulation, distinguishes Superman from himself. It is, of course, the title of the series that launched Superman, the title whose first issue appeared on the newsstands on April 18, 1938, the very date during which Dr. Manhattan appears in the DCU. Johns also slipped the title of the famous comic book into the climactic dialogue at the end of Infinite Crisis, with Superman telling Superboy Prime that being Superman is "about action." (Much the same synopsis of heroism delivered a couple of years later in Batman Begins: "It's… what we do that defines us.")

Dusk and Colman are no-name characters used as archetypes in Doomsday Clock, and Dr. Manhattan is also an archetype, created by Alan Moore to make a comment of his own. It may be easy to forget reading Doomsday Clock in 2019 that, if there is a single character that Dr. Manhattan was meant to represent, it was Superman, at least Superman as he was when Moore plotted the story around 1984. Blue, buff, godlike, weirdly dysfunctional in relationships with women, incapable of symmetric relationships with the people closest to him, phenomenally self-absorbed (as Moore has Superman say of himself in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, "over-rated and too wrapped up in himself"): These are the characteristics of Bronze Age Superman that Moore packed, with distaste, into his rendition of Dr. Manhattan.

Dr. Manhattan is toxic, and he was meant to be. Moore was trying to use him to tell comics fans, see how sterile, self-serving, and off-putting your heroes really are. Johns turns Dr. Manhattan loose in his interactions with Colman, all of his godlike powers ultimately availing his friend nothing when he watches unconcerned as Colman is murdered by his own mother.

Remembering this, consider the question that Dr. Manhattan has asked of the blackout following his upcoming encounter with Superman: Does Dr. Manhattan destroy the universe or does Superman destroy him? The interesting thing is not to take this as the headline on a "versus" thread – how do the powers of the two characters match up in a fight – but how do the two visions of a comic book superhero square off? And here, I think we return to the message that Morrison closed on in Final Crisis, with Mandrakk representing, for the most part, Alan Moore in that story and Dr. Manhattan representing Moore's worldview in this one. If Moore was right, the superhero genre was on a path towards oblivion way back in 1985. This is 2019, and the good guys haven't given up yet, so Johns has plenty of room to take the opposite side of the argument.

And in case there's any doubt where that is going, the final lines of the end materials, featuring the screenplay of The Adjournment give it away: Dusk, seemingly shot dead during the scenes that were filmed, survives the shooting and recuperates to walk again. The good guys aren't dead yet.

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3 comments:

  1. Absolutely phenomenal analysis Rikdad. My only gripe with the story is that they haven't addressed Jor-El/Mr. OZ and his involvement with Manhattan in the story yet.

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    1. I've also been waiting for clarification on that, but I'm not sure we'll get it. However, we do now know that Manhattan played a central role in killing Ma and Pa Kent in current continuity, part of Manhattan's effort to shape a darker more introverted Superman—one more to his personal liking. If killing Superman's adoptive parents (who we now know had quite different values than Jor-El) was all about re-shaping Superman, then maybe keeping Jor-El alive was another way of trying to re-shape the Man of Steel into something Manhattan better understands or wants.

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  2. What happened to your Justice Society comment?

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