Thursday, August 8, 2019

Doomsday Clock: The Golden Age and The Metaverse

Doomsday Clock #10 mentions, a striking ten different times, the date April 18, 1938. This, it has been determined, was the date that Action Comics #1 went on sale. The title of the issue's story is "Action." The closing quotation is, "Every action has its pleasures and its price." We are both told of, then shown, the famous act from the cover of Action #1, Superman lifting a car full of wrongdoers over his head before smashing it into rocks. There is no light touch being employed here. DC #10 is about how the introduction of Superman changed everything. And then, how that event that changed everything was itself changed, or, using a term that emerged decades later, retconned, and how things followed from there.

There's something exciting, I find, in seeing artists with more modern and refined skills and color technologies revisit the classic moments and eras of comics. You see in in The Killing Joke, and in Tony Daniel's and Lee Garbett's work on Grant Morrison's Batman run. DC #10 lets Gary Frank redraw Superman's introduction to the world and there's something powerful and fresh in seeing his fine technique re-render Superman's smirk embodying a bold confidence that the "Boy Scout" Superman lacked in later renditions. The impact of that Superman is echoed when Johns and Frank re-present us with the origin of the Justice Society in (again, using the newsstand date from the real world) November 1940. The gathered heroes speak with reverence of Superman, the best of a remarkable lot, and they pause their meeting to wait for his arrival, an arrival that, a bit sadly, never occurs. The Flash, Jay Garrick, says that if the Justice Society is to work, that they need Superman. Green Lantern, Alan Scott, replies that Superman is a busy guy. Sadly, this is all correct. Superman does not make it to their meeting, and ultimately, the Justice Society does not succeed. But this is all a blend of two different things: What happened to the comics in the real world (the Justice Society went out of print after 11 years) and what happened in the comics (at the Justice Society's first meeting, it was asked why Superman wasn't showing up, and he never did).

This blend of the world within the comics and the historical – publication – history is fertile ground. Johns re-creates and gives new life to a special time when the DC Universe is born and the very first time when any of their characters speak of Superman. (In the Red Tornado's debut, with the cover date November 1940, Ma Hunkel makes DC's first cross-storyline reference to another superhero, Green Lantern.) There was a time, Johns reminds us, when the short but sensational first two and a half years of Superman inspired a colorful explosion of many other superheroes, and then it was all undone. Ultimately, DC un-did and re-told their own origins, but here, for the first time in years, Johns has DC reassert that first beginning as the true beginning. And he gives it back to us as something called the Metaverse. But even he changes it.

If you examine the JSA's first story, from All Star Comics #3, it goes a bit as Johns shows it to us in DC #10. He's got the right cast of characters and the round table. Johns and Frank pay attention to the details, many of the tiny details, like the order they sat in, and who has which hand on the table. Johns places Johnny Thunder and a camera in position to capture a photo with the cover/splash page art. (Johnny is himself present in the story but absent from that art.) With that sort of attention to detail, it's worth noting what Johns changed. In All Star #3, it is indeed pointed out that Superman is absent, and it is indeed observed that he is likely too busy to attend. Which of the superheroes has which lines is one thing Johns changes, but what I find most striking is who is left out. For in reproducing faithfully eight superheroes, plus Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt, plus the mention of Superman, Johns deletes, or skips, others. In All Star #3, the Atom asks about "Superman, Batman, and Robin." He also mentions the Red Tornado. In DC #10, the only absent hero named is Superman. Why skip Batman? Maybe Johns is making a dramatic cosmological decision here, one that will be examined in the remaining portion of the series. Maybe he is not so subtly amplifying Superman ("Why is he the center of this universe?") and quietly deemphasizing Batman, but in a re-creation so faithful that they pay attention to who has which hand on the table, I find the subtraction of Batman to be striking.

For the moment, though, we have another sort of subtraction presented to us. Superman, after being given to the world in 1938, is later subtracted from 1938 and reinserted with new origins, in 1956, 1985, 2011, 2016. If you look closely, you see the designs of the rocket change to that from Birthright and from Superman: Secret Origin. There are seven different Superman reboots here, Johns picking publication years to communicate years within his story.

DC has retold the story of how the superheroes began several times. If we reduce the matter just to Superman and Green Lantern, the major Earths and timelines in continuity have gone like this:

Golden Age: Superman, then Alan Scott
Silver Age Earth One: Superman, then Hal Jordan
Silver Age Earth Two: Superman, then Alan Scott
Post-COIE: Alan Scott, then Superman, then Hal Jordan
New 52: Superman, then Hal Jordan

If you get into the fine details, it's actually uncertain what, if anything, from DC's past retcons Johns is showing us when he shows the JSA origin suddenly shift from the approximate events of All Star Comics #3 to a reality without Superman. There was never a retcon in any "Earth" with a Justice Society that had Superman's debut shift from 1938 to 1956. If one returns to the strict details of 1985-1987, COIE did not produce a world without the 1938 debut of Kal-L, because Kal-L retained a memory of fighting with the JSA, noted in (among other places) the last issues of both COIE and Infinite Crisis, and even Power Girl retained this memory once events in Infinite Crisis reminded her of them. The 1956 debut of Superman seems to belong to the Silver Age Earth One continuity and the 1940 Superman-less debut of the Justice Society seems to belong to the Post-COIE continuity, which are different Earths and different timelines.

It seems possible that Johns is proposing a new cosmology, perhaps akin to Hypertime, in which all timelines and continuities are separate realities, not necessarily existing side by side on different Earths. It's also possible that we could think up details that Johns isn't even trying to raise, and so I'll pause before parsing the text of old retcons and DC #10 like a lawyer applying strict logic and the law to a case in order to determine what Johns means by the Metaverse. It is clear, though, that he sees a sort of hub-and-spoke nature to DC History: There is a main reality, and there are variations of it, and at the center of the main reality, there is Superman – and not Batman.

Whatever the rules of this cosmology, we can speak of the key players, and what DC #10 shows us is that, alongside other bad actors who have triggered changes in the Multiverse, Dr. Manhattan has caused one of the divergent realities, specifically creating the New 52 reality by allowing Alan Scott to die. As he himself now recognizes, he is one of the villains of DC (meta)history. We can expect Superman and other heroes to reverse the harm that Dr. Manhattan has done, and quite likely, we will see a Dr. Manhattan who has learned from the DC superheroes how to perform magic shift from "inaction" to "action" and, inspired by the hope that Superman provides, return to the Watchmen Universe and undo a nuclear war.

There's a bit more of a mystery story, though, still left in Doomsday Clock. We now have multiple pointers indicating a special role to be played by Johnny Thunder's Thunderbolt. Dr. Manhattan killing Alan Scott in July 1940 would not seem to delete the JSA superheroes that had already debuted, such as Sandman, Hawkman, and the Flash. We know that Johnny Thunder, dispirited by the McCarthy hearing asked the Thunderbolt to protect the JSA, and this apparently hid them entirely from the timeline, perhaps as a second crucial step following Dr. Manhattan killing Alan Scott. Johns has called attention to Alan Scott being bold before the McCarthyites on a completely separate occasion, and perhaps without Alan Scott, the JSA hearing goes much worse, less heroically. Is it a coincidence that the last moment of the Justice Society meeting before the reboot occurs is when Johnny Thunder asks the Thunderbolt to interact with Superman, or is that event a trigger? (Incidentally, Johnny Thunder did indeed use the Thunderbolt to summon Superman in the final pages of All Star #7.)
Yet another striking moment in DC #10 shows Johnny Thunder on the set of Carver Colman's movie in 1954, as an errand boy: Just a random detail or a significant tie between Johnny Thunder and Dr. Manhattan? And, to the point, is the Thunderbolt actually Dr. Manhattan, or is the Thunderbolt simply a separate entity with powers that work a bit like Dr. Manhattan's? It is certain that the final two issues of Doomsday Clock are going to put both Dr. Manhattan and the Thunderbolt to work in setting things on a new path, and issue #10 begins to define the cosmology in which that path exists.


  1. Good questions all, Rikdad. That each issue is now being spaced out by 2-3 months makes anticipating the answers frustrating. I miss the days of the 1980s when a Roy Thomas could deliver four complex issues of "America vs. The Justice Society" in a four-month span.

  2. It's interesting to me that the time between the JSA's run ending in 1951 and Barry Allen's debut was 5.5 years while the Rebirth saga itself, from Rebirth #1 to Doomsday Clock #12 is going to take more than half of that time to tell! This is definitely a slow-cooked meal. That said, not a lot of the monthly titles have my attention lately.

    1. What do you make of all the Multiversal goings on in titles like Justice League? Where the Monitor is playing an important roll, and new revelations about the DC Multiverse are being revealed ie Perpetua? -- I wonder if anyone is going to bother to connect everything back to Doomsday Clock.

    2. As I mentioned in comments on my later post, I haven't been reading Justice League, so I haven't been up on them at all! I may try to catch up, but the fragmentation of the title into different teams and Snyder's love of the deus ex machina wore out my patience. I'll take another look, though.