Among other things, Watchmen was about cynicism: cynicism about superheroes, about politics, about sources of information and knowledge like the news media––indeed, cynicism about humanity. Doomsday Clock is touching that same nerve for today’s audience, tapping into the lack of faith that many of us have in our most important institutions.
The Supermen Theory
Issue #2 of DC’s bold (some might call it “blasphemous”) integration of the Watchmen world into the same universe as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman raises questions about why most of the world’s superheroes are from America. A conspiracy theory (called the “Supermen Theory”) detailed in the issue’s prose back matter suggests that the U.S. government is responsible for the creation of most of the world’s metahumans, an idea that the writer of the news article at the end of DC #2 says is “unsettling” for many people.
The Supermen Theory (whether or not it’s actually true) provides an interesting twist on the ideas that Civil War explored. In the Marvel Universe, people get tired of “living in the wild west” (as Maria Hill puts it) and want the government to regulate superhero activity. In Doomsday Clock, however, it looks like people are afraid that the government has been controlling superheroes the whole time. It’s interesting to think that both of these instincts––the desire for more government control in order to keep ourselves safe and the fear that the government might have more control than we realize––are both typically American attitudes, and both can be at work at the same time.
The Witch Hunt
The first scene in Doomsday Clock #1 shows a city in chaos because people have learned the truth about Ozymandia’s plan in Watchmen: that he had created a monster in order to “unite” the world and end the cold war, killing millions in the process. As Lex Luthor points out, it is no surprise that instead of bringing people together, Ozymandias only succeeded in dividing them even more than before. One of the last trusted superheroes in the Watchmen universe betrayed his people, and now they want his head.
And in Doomsday Clock #2, we see the people of Gotham rioting and protesting against their Caped Crusader. They take to the streets because the “Superman Theory” hasn’t just made them lose faith in their government, but in Batman, too. Though they’re clearly wrong about the Dark Knight, who can blame them for reacting with anger and resentment at the constant feeling that they have no real control over their world or even over their own lives? And in their anger at the government and the metahumans that it supposedly created for its own purposes, the people turn on Batman, who surely does not deserve their hatred.
Our Eroding Faith
No person or human institution deserves faith in the religious sense, especially not the government. That is probably the thing that scares me most about Trump and many of his most enthusiastic followers. Too many people speak as if there is some loyalty that is owed to the President himself (not to the office, but to the man). (To be fair, I think that we saw the same problem with many Obama supporters, too.)
However, for a self-governing society to work, we have to be able to have some measure of faith in our most important institutions––in the separation of powers into three branches of government, for example, and in the ability of the system to moderate the worst qualities of a bad President or Senator. If we can’t have some faith that our system basically works, then we cannot participate in the running of our society as free citizens, and we can’t treat each other as such. When we lose all faith in the structures that hold our society together, we stop being fellow citizens with one another and instead become threats and competitors for power.
There is no doubt that many institutions in society have lost credibility. One could list a hundred reasons why government and politics have lost it: the secrets revealed by Edward Snowden several years ago; the revelations that the DNC worked to disadvantage Bernie Sanders’ campaign; revelations about the sexual misconduct of many politicians and officials. (That list could go on and on.) Meanwhile, other institutions have suffered blows to their credibility in the last couple of decades: various religious groups and institutions have been hurt by sexual abuse scandals; every day it seems that another teacher is exposed as a pervert; police brutality has damaged the reputation of all law enforcement officers; the turmoil in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal seemed to call into question everyone who has held a position of power. Mainstream news media of all kinds have too often failed to live up to their mission of unbiased reporting, and an alternative media has flooded the internet with so much untrustworthy information that it difficult to know what to believe about anything anymore.
Most people would cheer the exposure of wrongdoing and corruption as “progress,” and in many ways it is. But as we find more and more reasons to be cynical and pessimistic, the more divided and the less able to self-govern we will become. We must share some common values and beliefs, and we must be able to have faith in the institutions––civic, political, religious, and others––that tie us together. Without those institutions, our society falls apart.
But what if those institutions don’t deserve our faith? you say. Trust me, you’ll find no one more sympathetic to that question than me. I have a deep distrust for political figures, administrators, and anyone else who holds a position of power. But the answer to that question is not cynicism or pessimism. For example, it doesn’t do anything to help the problem of bias in the news media to comment “#fakenews” on every news article that we don’t like. It doesn’t help that we have a President who points at journalists and says “You’re fake news” in news conferences. It doesn’t help that he wrings his hands about how bad it is that the free press is free. The solution to that problem of bias and fake news will be a stubborn adherence to truth and holding high standards, not constant droning about how we can’t trust the media at all, and certainly not simply turning to alternative news sites run by people who have no journalistic standards at all.
In the first two issues of Doomsday Clock, Johns and Frank have worked hard to create a world in which faith has no place. It’s a depressing thing to see . . . mostly because that might be our world, too. It’s tempting to say that our institutions have become too corrupt and too infested with the cockroaches who feed on that corruption to be restored. Yes, it’s tempting to despair, but I tend to think that the system is strong enough to survive periods in which the people in it are corrupt.
Only time will tell if I’m right, though. It will be interesting to see where Doomsday Clock will end up as it pits the cynicism and ugliness of the Watchmen universe against the hope and sincerity of the DC universe. At this point, I suspect that Johns’ vision of the world in which we live will end up being more prophetic and more realistic than the one that we saw in Secret Empire last summer.