Doomsday Clock #1 is here, and it mostly lives up both to its predecessor and to the anticipation many of us have felt since its announcement, in my opinion.
It would be easy to dismiss a book like Doomsday Clock as a cynical effort to capitalize on nostalgia for Watchmen, one of the greatest works of comic art ever produced. But issue #1, penned by Geoff Johns with pencils by Gary Frank and color by Brad Anderson, is the work of a creative team that not only knows how to tell a story in keeping with the stylistic vernacular of the original, but also has something to say, something to add to the statement that Moore made three decades ago.
What is probably most striking about Doomsday Clock is how much it looks and sounds like Watchmen while still remaining its own book. Frank and Anderson have clearly put a great deal of thought into the visual vocabulary of the Watchmen world, and Johns’ writing is both in keeping with the tone of Moore’s prose without sounding like a slavish imitation. It’s recognizably and distinctly Johns’ writing, but it still sounds like Watchmen.
Also like its predecessor, Doomsday Clock is clearly a commentary on the politics and social life of its time. The opening panel calls to mind the deaths of Superman and John F. Kennedy as we witness the violent disillusionment that the people of Watchmen’s American are experiencing after they learn the truth about Ozymandias’ scheme at the end of Watchmen. This sets up what will probably be the major theme of the story: the disillusionment of Watchmen pitted against the hope and compassion of the mainstream DC Universe.
And like Secret Empire this summer, Doomsday Clock is clearly trying to be topical. For the most part, Johns handles this fairly well. If I could level one criticism against Secret Empire, it’s that it ended up exaggerating current events to the point of hysteria and absurdity at times (for example, turning Trump’s travel moratorium into Hydra butchery of Inhumans). For the most part, Doomsday Clock doesn’t seem to suffer from this problem because the political strife and the threat of totalitarianism very much proceed from the events of that world’s past.
But I stress “fairly” and “for the most part” because in some ways Doomsday Clock is just as heavy-handed as Secret Empire.
For example, the beginning of the issue tries a little too hard to identify this world with the 2016 America that elected Trump, and the language of contemporary America placed in 1993 Watchmen-America comes off as trying too hard. Like Nick Spencer in Secret Empire, Johns doesn’t seem to trust his readers to be able to make connections between the events of Doomsday Clock with the real world or to expect that they’re capable of thinking about politics in any sort of nuanced way.
Perhaps the worst offense concerns the appearance of a real-world political figure. Near the beginning of Doomsday Clock, we learn that the free press in the U.S. (and apparently across the West) will be replaced by a state-run news network called the National News Network., and it turns out that one of the spokesmen for this network is William F. Buckley, Jr. In the real world, Buckley was a conservative writer and commentator, and regardless of what one thinks of his politics, anybody who knows anything about Buckley would know that he would find the idea of the National News Network absolutely abhorrent.
I get the impression that Johns (like many others) identifies Trump with conservatism and cast about for a recognizable conservative name to be the spokesman for the state news. The problem with this view is two-fold: first, Trump is a lot of things, but conservative is not one of them; and second, Johns can’t know much about what Buckley actually believed if he thinks that Buckley would go along with the elimination of the free press.
One might argue that this isn’t the William F. Buckley, Jr. who existed in the real world. After all, this one is a young man in 1993, and the real Buckley was born in 1925. But that’s a pretty thin defense. If this Buckley isn’t supposed to hold the same views as the real one, why name him after the real one at all? Is this Buckley supposed to be what happens to conservatism under the right circumstances? That, too, seems a very thin defense.
In other words, it’s hard to see the inclusion of Buckley in this book as anything other than a slap at conservatism, which is the last thing that the world needs right now. We are in the mess that we’re in largely because people with different political opinions seem incapable of doing anything except demonizing and caricaturing each other. Johns might disagree with Buckley’s views and want to critique those views in Doomsday Clock (and that’s fine), but he ought to disagree with what Buckley actually thought, not the I-heard-about-this-guy-on-Twitter or the I-saw-a-Facebook-meme-about-this-guy version of Buckley.
What makes this most shameful is that Johns has a point in worrying about the freedom of the press. We face real threats to that freedom and to intellectual freedom generally (and yes, Trump is one of those threats), but Johns does his readers a disservice because he doesn’t trust them to make connections between the ideas in the book and what’s happening in the real world.
These complaints aside, Doomsday Clock #1 is a promising start to a series that could have been a disaster. I just hope that it proves to be a little more nuanced in future issues. The themes and ideas that the book sets up are important and deserve a thoughtful, nuanced treatment.