Doomsday Clock, Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, and Brad Anderson
Image: WikiFandom

Masterpiece or Mess? Reevaluating DC Comic’s ‘Doomsday Clock’

Understanding the appeal of Doomsday Clock has nothing to do with it being a good or bad comics series. The real question is: does it matter?

Doomsday Clock: The Complete Series
Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, and Brad Anderson
DC Comics
October 2020

If they had said this 10 years ago, when I asked them for that, then yeah, it might have worked. But these days I don’t want Watchmen back. Certainly, I don’t want it back under these kinds of terms.

– Alan Moore

That was Alan Moore, talking to Wired Magazine in 2010, referring to particularly poignant rumors that were starting to circulate, relating to a possible series of prequel stories that would be published by DC Comics as a world-building event. This series would deepen the masses’ knowledge and immersion in the universe the British author had, alongside artist Dave Gibbons, helped birth the creation of Watchmen in a then-already-distant 1986. By then, reissues of the graphic novel’s 12-part storyline had already become the stuff of legend, to the point that the comic would regularly be featured in the publishing company’s list of Best Sellers on a yearly basis.

In spite of any disagreement or unwillingness to collaborate, said prequel series, entitled Before Watchmen, eventually came out in 2012, exploring storylines that would feature household names on both scripts and graphic design. However, the limited run was panned by critics and audiences alike, aghast at its inconsistent plots and underwhelming character development. 

Only five years would go by between the official release of Before Watchmen, which focused on the individual journeys of some of the protagonists from the original narrative, and the first series’ de-facto sequel. What first started as a teaser for DC’s “Rebirth” initiative (which reset the chronologies of many of their most important characters) would go on to become a milestone of its own and, as such, generate as much attention as a limited-series comic could in the second half of the 2010s. With the company’s main creative head, Geoff Johns, as a writer, the Doomsday Clock project promised to fulfill the expectations held close to the heart by fans. The characters from Watchmen would eventually merge with the mainline DC continuity, providing insight into what effectively detonated their timeline’s last resetting. (It would also explain the many similarly-conceived-and-marketed resets that came before). Doomsday Clock would set the tone for the remainder of the new storylines to be explored in the foreseeable future. 

In 1992, roughly seven years after the cataclysmic events of Watchmen’s 12th issue, the world is again on the brink of collapse. After the uncovering of Adrian Veidt (AKA Ozymandias)’s diabolical plan to unite a divided world and avert a nuclear holocaust – a plan that consisted of dissecting a psychic’s brain and employing special effects teams to devise a gigantic monster, which would then be dropped in downtown New York and produce a shockwave that would kill hundreds of thousands. It would generate lifelong trauma for millions more – the former superhero-turned-businessman allies himself with a new Rorschach, a character initially shrouded in mystery following the original one (Walter Kovacs)’s demise in 1985. 

Teaming up with a duo of criminals and escaping into the DC Universe just as their own world is about to be obliterated, they land in Gotham City only to witness a reality in which superheroes, albeit commonplace just as much as in their own past, have greatly fallen from grace. The so-called “Supermen Theory”, which defends the idea of the Government of the United States manufacturing its own metahumans, has turned Gotham’s population against their loyal protector, Batman, and alienated Superman, the most powerful being in their world. Amid this, Ozymandias and Rorschach II devise a plan to locate their overpowered being, Jon “Dr. Manhattan” Osterman, who is believed to have escaped his native reality years before. He is suspected of having a hand in the disappearances of several heroes as timelines appeared to change, seemingly out of nowhere.

The link between the DC and Watchmen universes finds its footing first and foremost in the graphic structure of the issues, which preserves the nine-panel grid aspect established by the trio of Moore, Gibbons, and John Higgins in the ’80s. Additionally, the quotes at the end of every issue and the world-expanding apocrypha that bridges each one hit home as they provide familiar elements to longtime fans of the original graphic novel.

As for the characters themselves, Doomsday Clock is a mixed bag: whereas most of the characters from Watchmen retained their characteristics in a way that would allow for expansion (Dr. Manhattan’s stoic austerity and Veidt’s coy manipulation being noticeably well-written), some of the new ones lack a deserved growth processes, various flashbacks be damned. Rorschach II shines in more than a few moments, especially when it comes to his connection with the original hero to carry the name and the consequences of Ozymandias’ plan. The same cannot be said about the duo of bank robbers that tag along in their extradimensional trip, the Mime and the Marionette. Whatever chemistry the two might have falls flat as they serve as mere plot devices. Furthermore, as Doomsday Clock unfolds, other familiar faces pop up, displaying behaviors that, while not dissimilar from those of their original appearances, might hit differently (or worse than before). 

However, convoluted storylines, confusing plot solutions, and underwhelming conclusions to riveting arcs were not Doomsday Clock’s Achilles heel. In this case, the problem was more prosaic. The release schedule was set to be monthly, starting in November 2017 with the first issue’s release, and expected to end in December 2018. An unforeseen break in March and April of that year dismantled that original timeframe, and the series was switched to a bi-monthly format. Reoccurring pushbacks continued well into the following year; the 12th and last issue was eventually released in December 2019.

These delays, paired with a sense of inconclusiveness regarding the story itself, drew heavy criticism from audiences and the media alike. More than a few readers gave up halfway through, frustrated at the experience of having to wait for further developments in an epic that seemed too long and seemingly would not go anywhere. But understanding the appeal of Doomsday Clock does not have with it being good or bad comics series. The real question is: does it matter?

Never mind the lack of involvement by any of the parts responsible for conceiving the original Watchmen, Doomsday Clock does not offer any reassessment of the original plot. Every event depicted is inconsequential to the 1986 story. That impacts the new DC universe and its subsequential series of mega-events. The saga should be considered its own thing, at least due to the introduction of new characters that are simultaneously connected with the events of the first graphic novel at the same time as they could easily exist apart from it (or in spite of it).

The storytelling strategies used to portray the state of disarray in which the main characters in the DC continuity don’t do the larger picture any favors, either. A subplot that involves Black Adam becoming the refugee leader/spokesperson for discriminated metahumans/ruler of the fictional city of Kahndaq following the aforementioned “Supermen Theory” is cryptic to the point of annoyance. While it works as social commentary, little more than that comes of it, and the reader might feel it as a forced, barely-excused attempt to shove as many characters on the same page as possible. A sequence on the planet Mars, which has significant importance in Moore’s story, is a prime example of this sort of tool being employed.

Doomsday Clock would prove to have a lasting impact on the editorial directions followed by DC in the years ahead. The maxi-saga Dark Nights: Death Metal (issued between 2020 and 2021) takes place immediately after the resulting changes from merging the two universes and is a companion to the then-concurrent event Generations. Flashpoint Beyond and The New Golden Age (both from 2022) follow threads previously initiated and are far more successful. This is not to say that Doomsday Clock is an editorial failure. The complete storyline was first republished in two parts, released again as Doomsday Clock: The Complete Collection in October 2020 and as Absolute Doomsday Clock two years later.

The delay in the saga’s original publication led it to overlap with the beginning of HBO’s Watchmen, a live-action series that, like its comic counterpart, intended to be a true sequel to the events of Alan Moore’s masterpiece (the author himself, predictably, steered far from wanting anything to do with either of them). While the television production did find levels of acclaim previously thought unattainable, though, Doomsday Clock, for all its trappings and missteps, does warrant another shot. Don’t be alarmed by ongoing confusion and seemingly purposeless plot devices being thrown around. Unlike what Dr. Manhattan famously said, some things do (or should), for better or worse, end, indeed.