Sunday, October 6, 2019

Doomsday Clock #11

Three details. Thinking over Doomsday Clock #11, I began to focus on three details ranging in scope from a few words in a single panel to the longest scene in the issue. Each of them made me wonder, why this detail? In each case, I wondered if Geoff Johns put a significant key to the finale in plain sight or if the details are just random happenstance of no great importance. Upon further contemplation, I noticed that each of the three has a parallel event in the Watchmen Universe, which inclines me to believe that there is a deliberate pattern, though that need not be the case for all three. Those three details concern:

• Batman's battle with the U.S. military.
• The reference to John Hinckley.
• Veidt revealing much of his plan in a long speech.

If these details are simply there to move the plot along in a convenient way, then people may remember Doomsday Clock as an unworthy sequel to Watchmen. If, however, they are there as a matter of design, we have an intricate finale awaiting us. I'm going to consider each of these three details in turn and then pull back to see how what they tell us is likely to fit into the finale.

1) Batman vs. the USA

In just a few impeccably drawn panels, Gary Frank shows us a fight between Batman and several uniformed members of the U.S. military. There is voiceover narration by a newscaster, but the details don't seem to match. What is Batman doing, anyway? The interfaces referring to "launch" seem to mirror similar scenes in Doomsday Clock #1, when they indicated ICBM launches and a nuclear war. I don't think that's what they mean here, though.

The answer may lie in the uniform patches.

First, we see Batman in what appears to be a missile launch facility, subduing four or more soldiers. One of them has a patch showing the Earth and space. Then, from behind him, at least four more soldiers emerge, with two arms revealing yellow patches. The narration indicates that the National Guard arrived in Gotham City in order to arrest Batman. Later, on Veidt's monitor, we get a hint that Batman has – not astonishingly – emerged from the fight victorious. What happened?

The Earth and space patch is close to that of a U.S. Space Force that existed before 2002. It appears as though Batman is preventing a missile launch that one might associate with the risk of a civilization-destroying nuclear war, one that Batman certainly couldn't stop if he needed to be in more than one launch facility at a time. Is the DCU on the verge of nuclear war?

No. The apparent scenario is that the missile launch was a staged event, designed to lure Batman into a trap that sprang when the yellow-patched soldiers – the National Guard – burst into the room, with Batman's backward glance indicating apparent surprise. Thus, the television coverage is about the relatively minor matter of Batman battling the authorities and not about the infinitely larger concern of nuclear annihilation. According to what we see on Veidt's monitor, Batman has escaped from the ambush, surprising no readers, and is free to continue his quest, as Alfred reveals, to find Reggie and join forces in confronting Veidt – the only plot point of the issue that is described in the solicitation of #11. Evidently, how that search plays out will be important in the finale.

What this shows is that the U.S. government has turned on Batman, and a later scene shows that Superman is also subject to arrest, but Superman's intention to speak with the President is sidelined by other events. Ultimately, the point of the Batman scene is not that nuclear war is imminent but that Veidt's frame-up of Superman succeeded in turning the U.S. against both Superman and Batman. Veidt has a plan and his wish to pervert American power has succeeded, although he may or may not have anticipated – or cared – that Batman would still be on the loose.

2) Why does Dr. Manhattan refer to the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley?

Not often does such a small detail seem so important. Dr. Manhattan narrates history often, but why would this particular event be chosen? Why not the inauguration of any of the 45 Presidents? Why not the British occupation in 1814?

This occurs in DC #11 during the continuation of a scene that began at the end of DC #10. Looking only at the portions that occur in #11 make it quite confusing: Dr. Manhattan is on the sidewalk in Washington, D.C. when he narrates the 1981 event, then promptly says that four hours later, his confrontation with Superman will take place. But the confrontation with Superman is in the present, not 1981, so we have two confusing gaps: 1981 to 2019 (38 years) and the aforementioned 4 hours. What is going on here?

The earlier portions of the "scene" in DC #10 shed some light on the structure, or lack thereof, of Dr. Manhattan's narration. His narration is moving wildly back and forth through time, and from event to event: About 12 years ago, Five years ago, one year ago, 1938, the present, 1954, 1971, 1938, 1954, 1985 (in the Watchmen Universe), and only then 1981, and the present. At a minimum we can say that the wild gyrations are more salient than any of the individual events.

The Hinckley assassination attempt stands out from the other events that Dr. Manhattan names in that it only involves actual historical figures. For what it's worth, it occurred in the real world and in the DCU, but not in the Watchmen Universe, in which Ronald Reagan was not President in 1981.

The location of the Hinckley assassination attempt was in Washington, D.C., about two miles from the White House, where Superman encounters Black Adam. It is plausible that the punch that lands Superman where Dr. Manhattan was waiting for him knocked him those two miles in distance. So, the location of their encounter may match the 1981 event. That could partially explain the connection, but since the event was 38 years earlier, why mention it? Why single that one event out from other events that have taken place in Washington? There are two likely answers that build upon one another.

First, there is a corresponding and contrasting event in Watchmen: It is asserted in a very small number of panels that Dr. Manhattan knew in advance of the Kennedy assassination but did nothing to stop it. (Watchmen #3: "failed to prevent J.F.K.'s assassination." Watchmen #4:  knew Kennedy would get shot but didn't do anything; he states that he "can't prevent the future. To me, it's already happening.") Brief though those may be, they do much to illustrate Dr. Manhattan's stoic indifference to humanity, and Moore included this not as an incidental minor detail, but a major insight as to the nature of Dr. Manhattan's role in his universe.


Second, Hinckley's assassination attempt may thematically symbolize Veidt's plan (whatever its precise details may be) as the attempt of a violent (and unstable?) figure to bring down a leader. And in this, if so, what is significant is not the violence that took place (alternately, Reagan's injury and Superman's incapacitation and loss of prestige) but that the effort failed (Reagan survived with a quick recovery and we may likely see Superman prevail in the next issue). Thus, it symbolizes not a successful attack but a failed one, and its inclusion bodes poorly for Veidt's plan.

What would be more meaningful would be if the contrast with Watchmen's JFK assassination is explored actively in the finale and we learn that during his time in the DCU, Dr. Manhattan intervened in the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, saving Reagan's life, and that in some other timeline, without his intervention, Reagan died. This would show the moral arc of Doomsday Clock to be one of redemption, with Dr. Manhattan losing his stoic indifference, or fatalism, or the predetermined nature of his action and inaction. While this could involve some sort of sci fi mechanism to explain it, it would also entail moral development on Dr. Manhattan's part, and the triumph of Superman's hope versus Veidt's cynicism.


3) Veidt's long, expository speech

Reading Doomsday Clock #11, my thoughts turned to a speech from Watchmen's issue #11. I'm sure most of you recall it:

"I'm not a Republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago."

That is surely one of the best-remembered lines from Alan Moore's Watchmen. It is also likely to become one of the keys to how Geoff John's Doomsday Clock is remembered. Because, if Veidt's long, expository speech to Saturn Girl in Doomsday Clock #11 (one that largely revealed things already decoded from Doomsday Clock #10 and earlier) turns out in the final analysis to be what it seemed on the surface, Adrian Veidt is at least a notch or two less sophisticated in Johns' story than he was in Moore's. (FWIW, Republic Pictures was a maker of films and not-so-well-regarded serials. Characters in Republic serials included Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and even Captain America.)

And, sure, it could be argued that Doomsday Clock's Veidt is so absolutely certain that Saturn Girl cannot interfere with his plan that his expository speech to her cannot do harm. But let's be clear about what the "Republic serial villain" line meant in Moore's original. It wasn't a tactical examination of how Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach, in Antarctica, might possibly have interfered with events in New York. It was Moore elevating his characters and his work above those of other, clumsier works from the past. Now, if Veidt has revealed the better part of his plans in Doomsday Clock and there is no forthcoming reference to his "Republic serial villain" remark from the same-numbered issue of Watchmen, it will have seemed as though Johns has dropped the ball. 

It could play out in one of three ways:

• Johns goes on with his story without returning to the "Republic serial villain" line. Veidt's speech to Saturn Girl was ultimately without major effect except to reveal his plan to the readers and one character that is no longer alive. In essence, Johns' version of Veidt will be one notch less self-aware than Moore's, and if the story itself does not address that, then Johns' story is one notch less deep than Moore's.

• Veidt is eternally a step ahead, and was knowingly speaking those words in order to facilitate his plan. We are going to get an intricate reveal in #12 indicating how he, again, is on a higher level of awareness than those "Republic serial villains."

• Before pride comes the fall: By speaking those words aloud, Veidt has unwittingly doomed his own plan because someone in a position to ruin his plan has heard them. If so, that would almost certainly be Johnny Thunder, dismissed with contempt by Veidt. We know that Johnny is close enough to Veidt's conversation with Saturn Girl to have overheard. We also know that Johnny's return to power is coming, whether it involves Alan Scott's lantern or the Thunderbolt or both. In essence, Johns' version of Veidt will be less sophisticated than Moore's, and the story will make the contrast clear.

Which of these will we see? I hope it's the third. (Though the second might set up a brilliantly complex finish that I can't anticipate.) Small details – a close-up of the lantern and the fact that Johnny could overhear the conversation – seem too salient to be coincidental. We are seemingly ripe for an ironic turnaround where Johnny Thunder – the most lighthearted and laughable member of the Justice Society – could instruct the Thunderbolt to act on what he has overheard and upend Veidt's plan, either by intervening in the Superman-Manhattan showdown and/or by having it take the lantern back to 1940 and save Alan Scott's life and Green Lantern career. This is what I think will be a pivotal event in #12, and Veidt giving his speech to Saturn Girl may be what #11's title refers to as a "lifelong mistake." It will turn out that Veidt is not Moore's bitterly cynical genius trampling over optimistic superhero comics, but is, indeed, no better than a Republic serial villain, and will have blown his evil (well, extremely Machiavellian) plan by reciting it aloud.

The Big Picture

Around the many small details in Doomsday Clock – the three upon which I focused here, and many, many others – there is a larger design and it has a striking simplicity to it, with a great deal of symmetry. From the Watchmen Universe, we have the blue superpowered godlike figure Dr. Manhattan and a counterpart of sorts, a non-superpowered genius, Veidt. From the DCU, Superman and Batman play a similar role. There are supervillains from each, with Mime and Marionette representing their universe to the many supervillains at home in the DCU. The American cast of superheroes is mirrored by other groups internationally. The international politics of the Watchmen Universe and the DCU both reflect a U.S.-Russia dynamic in the real world which is taking form and being revealed too quickly for Johns' story to capture faithfully. And as intriguing guest stars from other teams, we have another kind of symmetry: Johnny Thunder representing the past and Saturn Girl representing the future. This symmetry is not accidental, not in a story where multiple panels show off Rorschach's eponymous symmetries. And now, Black Adam's lightning calls to mind the numerous shout-outs to the Thunderbolt.

Doomsday Clock was introduced in the final pages of "The Button" storyline in Batman and Flash monthlies and it ended with a bold image: The soiled and marred Superman symbol in close-up. This told us, provocatively for an image in the pages of Flash, that the story ahead would focus on Superman. Given the small reveals in the dialogue of Dr. Manhattan and a few others in Doomsday Clock, we may interpret it more firmly according to the interpretation that Mark Waid gave us in Birthright, that the symbol means "hope." It is this idea that Veidt attacks after hearing a hospital employee say that, "Superman's the only thing you can believe in anymore." However, in Dr. Manhattan's vision of the upcoming calamity, he "saw a vision of the most hopeful among them… now hopeless." He also shows a sort of transformational disappointment in the fact that Carver Colman was once full of hope but died an early and inglorious death.

Knowing all of this, Veidt concocted a plan for the upcoming encounter between Dr. Manhattan and Superman. He knows there are two possible outcomes: Either Superman destroys Dr. Manhattan or Dr. Manhattan destroys the universe. What is Veidt's plan?

The pivotal moment in Veidt's orientation occurs in Watchmen #2 when the Comedian bitterly declares that the world cannot be saved from nuclear catastrophe by people in costumes fighting crime. On the basis of that moment, Veidt moves towards a plan to save his world by bringing about a catastrophe. In order to prevent total annihilation, he orchestrates a massacre. In order to save billions, he kills millions.

His plan for the DCU is no different. "In order for things to change, they must hit rock bottom. So what if I could turn the world against Superman?"

The dialectic in this story has been clear from the beginning: Veidt, Dr. Manhattan, and the Comedian are, in their own ways, morally bankrupt. Johns will show the DCU's leading lights upend Veidt's bleakness.

Veidt believes that the DCU will be his tomb. He likely believes, then, that Dr. Manhattan will give up hope when he sees Superman fail. He may believe that Dr. Manhattan will reboot the DCU, making it better, then return to the Watchmen Universe to save it, too. Instead, we seem sure to see things rebound in the DCU without hitting bottom. The future is gone (as the new Bendis LSH reboot already shows). But the past is not.

I believe that one or two of the DCU characters will "turn" Dr. Manhattan, this will be one or both of Superman and Johnny Thunder.

We've read many stories over the years where someone tries to corrupt or break Superman and cannot. The victory is not in Superman's immense powers but in his unrelenting sense of hope. Will this happen? Perhaps. We see Superman attack Dr. Manhattan in a rage, likely when he learns that Dr. Manhattan's manipulation of the timeline killed Jonathan and Martha Kent. But is that the last moment before catastrophe? Is there a last-second change of heart, Superman pulling back his fist in the last instant?

Or (and/or) we could get the Johnny Thunder finish. If we find out that Dr. Manhattan was, all along, the Thunderbolt, then Johnny could successfully summon him and pull him away from the final encounter with Superman, then set him to the task of fixing everything on both Earths. It is perhaps key that the death of Alan Scott "saved" the lantern from being applied to the third and final of its three roles, which have always been since its first appearance in 1940 been, "once to bring death, once to bring life, and once to bring power." Johnny could now use it for power, and be the savior in the story.

We also have Batman and Luthor both seeking to intervene, and other players, such as the superheroes on Mars, could step in as well. Between the showdown in Washington and Johnny in the cell and Batman and Reggie in Gotham, what is the key series of events? Will Johnny Thunder save Superman or vice versa? Will Batman play a key role at all?

Whatever the intricate details, I see the finale taking the form of a comedy, as opposed to Watchmen's tragedy. As the Thunderbolt always represented cheerful, humorous fun, it would be a symbolic defeat of Moore's dour pessimism if it turned out that this story transformed Dr. Manhattan retroactively into a benevolent character who has always been a bit of a gag.

I think Johns' mind may turn to a pair of JLA-JSA crossovers from the late 1970s, each of which, scripted or co-scripted by Martin Pasko, became more elaborate by adding a third world to the mix. In JLA #137, Johnny's Thunderbolt personally zapped the unpowered Marvel Family into becoming their superpowered identities. In the very next JLA-JSA meeting, the LSH was the third team joining them. The juxtaposition of Johnny Thunder and Saturn Girl in Doomsday Clock makes me wonder if Johns also remembers these stories and has chosen Black Adam as one of the major threats onstage precisely because the Thunderbolt can take the place of magic lightning and zap him into his powerless identity.

The long interval between issues of Doomsday Clock allows a lot of time for us to contemplate the story, and I for one am in favor of it. While, in many cases, I have blogged about issues the day they came out, I have pondered this one for weeks before compiling my thoughts. With weeks to go before the finale, I'm sure there is more to contemplate still.

14 comments:

  1. Do you think Johns has lost control of the story? Characters who took up so much story real estate from the Watchmen universe in the beginning have been irrelevant in the second half. I also can't believe that this was where the Saturn Girl story has been going the whole time. Did Johns bite the exposition bullet because he didn't leave himself enough room?

    Doomsday Clock's fraught production has become as much a part of the story as the story since Johns has mostly turned from comic production at this point and DC favors Scott Snyder's vision.

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    1. I think a lot of ideas that Johns had about the story as far back as the Rebirth Special have changed. I think Mr. Oz was originally going to have a purpose. I think Saturn Girl and the JSA's role may have been tweaked (it's weird seeing the Legion and JSA show up in other comics before Doomsday Clock is over). I think it's odd that the 3 Joker storyline was heavily teased in Rebirth Special and Darkseid War back in 2016 and hasn't been mentioned since, even in Doomsday Clock. I am anxious to see how Johns wraps everything up in the final issue, there is still the matter of a living breathing Comedian still to resolve as well.
      I have definitely been loving the Doomsday Clock story, but would be very interested to find out what the original plans for the story were and how things have developed and changed over the course of the last couple years.

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    2. To zero in on one example, it seems like the new LSH launch has maybe spoiled a reveal by occurring before Doomsday Clock ended instead of after. The Jor-El and Thomas Wayne stories have perhaps also fallen out of intended sequence and been redirected. I wouldn't say that those sorts of changes automatically worsen the final product, but they do introduce some noise into the process.

      I worry a bit more about the story drifting in the direction of self-called-out shallowness, as when Saturn Girl identifies a smug smile on Veidt's face. Is a smug smile the defining trait of villainy? Is a smug smile what made Alex Luthor and Superboy Prime the villains of Infinite Crisis while more relatable facial expressions made Kal-L a misled hero? I'll certainly be disappointed if that proves to be the level upon which we're operating.

      So that's a major question I raise with the nature of the expository speech since it was so explicitly called out in Watchmen.

      I think when this is over, the Comedian is going to find himself mid-air over the sidewalk with one second left to live, but maybe there's a better, surprise ending for him, too. Maybe Johns will undo Veidt's entire New York mass casualty plot. That would be a bold way of handling the sequel.

      To assemble these thoughts into a more pointed answer, I don't worry so much that changes caused by the delays (etc.) will worsen the story. The things I wonder about probably come down to Johns' original concept. If delays and time crunches cause a problem, I would expect to see them in a decreased level of complexity from issue #1 to #12. Have we seen that? Maybe.

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    3. I think Comedian is one of the remnants Manhattan has left behind like the Button and photograph with Janey Slater.

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    4. I'm also one of those people who thinks Watchmen kind of tanks it's ending so if Doomsday Clock does it too it'll be a tradition.

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    5. I felt like Watchmen #12 was good, and that the flaw of the series was that it argued against something that nobody was arguing for – that superheroes would work nicely in the real world.

      That thought just led to re-read Roger Ebert's review of the film, to get an unbiased take, and he liked it a lot, 4/4. But he was clearly responding not only to the script but to actors' performances which are not there on the page, no matter how well drawn.

      I feel like Ebert found the individual heroes' confrontation of their limitations to be powerful as a study into humanity whereas Moore wrote it as a confrontation of the idea that superhero comic books should exist.

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  2. Hi! Have you read through Earthmine's "long read" of Doomsday Clock and how it connects (STILL connects) to everything else going on in the DCU?

    https://www.bleedingcool.com/2019/10/02/long-read-a-great-big-doomsday-clock-dc-comics-conspiracy-theory/

    It's very cool—and quite Rikdadian in its approach and scope. And even if only a portion of it is true, then a truly momentous and rewarding conclusion is headed our way just in time for X-mas. Although, I'm not necessarily looking forward to the impending "Generations" reboot that DiDio showcased at NY Comic Con a couple weeks ago...

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    1. Collin, thanks for the link. I gave it one read and enjoyed it, and will doubtlessly return to it. One downside to the prolonged nature of DDC is that it's hard to piece the stories together as the total number of issues of Superman, JL, Batman, DC, HIC, etc., is now literally in the hundreds. I think he overlooked that Johns said in an interview that the returns of the two fathers reflected DrM's specific intention to sideline the two flagship heroes. I also remember some threads that I was trying to connect, WAY back in the earliest Mr. Oz days, about different titles (Superman and Flash) using almost identical dialogue to describe futuristic technology of unknown origin. It feels like those threads have been dropped by the collective set of titles because it's just been too long for the writers to keep connecting with a different series that is missing deadlines.

      Also, I have fallen away from keeping up with JL, despite my lifelong love of that series. I find Snyder's use of dark metal and other cosmic constructs to be weak storytelling and so I'm not keeping up with the core series as much as I have been for most of the previous ~13 years.

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  3. Did you notice the street sign reading "Luthor" and pointing at Dr. Manhattan? I believe Johns has been playing with the Watchmen characters and their DCU counterparts...but the corresponding character pairings have been very cleverly switched up/revealed. I think Batman has been much less effective in Doomsday Clock than he has been portrayed since before Morrison's JLA. Now Veidt is appearing to NOT be as sophistcated as his Watchmen appearance. Luthor says that the universe revolves around him. DrM has that same opinion of himself. Doomsday Clock is about Superman. And the final panel of #11 is the DrM symbol, with a particle revolving around a center...Luthor "universe revolves around me"..."Superman is the center of the metaverse"...the street sign pointing to DrM. The Watchmen - DCU doppleganger if you will is Luthor and DrM. Jon Osterman was a genius like Luthor...both are obsessed with Superman.

    Batman can't solve the day. Veidt isn't the master genius from Watchmen. Joker, Marionette & Mime, Reggie, Firestorm, Wonder Woman, Blake etc. are all secondary players.

    This is the never ending fight that Luthor and Superman have been locked in...but with the Metaverse (meta story telling) in the balance with this "Luthor" being Dr. Manhattan.

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  4. I did notice the Luthor sign, which I took to be a "sign" that Luthor is a former President, and not much more meaningful, but you offer an interesting take.

    Johns has laid out the "Superman vs Luthor" premise before, in Infinite Crisis, and this dialogue reflected that.

    But I think this Dr. Manhattan really is Dr. Manhattan. He may stand in for a darker direction of comics, but I don't see him standing in for Luthor. In fact, Johns has really led a charge in making Luthor (and for that matter, Sinestro) more nuanced than pure evil, whereas Dr. Manhattan was about making a Superman surrogate indifferent and tainted.

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  5. I think the conflict morally we have watched Jon O/Dr M wrestle with through Watchmen and now Doomsday Clock is quite nuanced. I'm not saying that Dr M in Doomsday Clock is Lex Luthor per say, but that he is the Watchmen universe version of what could have happened to Lex. Certainly the infatuation with Superman is (at least at this point in the story) central to both Luthor and Dr M. I would also posit that Carver Colman was Dr M's "smallville" once he arrived in the DCU, that he had some semblance of a friend. Much like when Lex and Clark were young and trying to find there way living in Smallville.

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  7. Sooo how about that HBO Watchmen finale...

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