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"Old Photographs": The Strange Dichotomy of Doomsday Clock

Doomsday Clock is a 2017-2018 comic book mini-series that will act not only as the culmination of the story arc introduced in DC Rebirth #1, but also as the sequel to the seminal classic Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons in 1986. Doomsday Clock is written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary Frank, two people whom you can probably tell aren’t Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. To say that the mere existence of Doomsday Clock has been controversial with comic book fans and creators is putting it lightly.

The second issue of Doomsday Clock was called “Places We Have Never Known” and involved characters from the Watchmen universe entering into the DC universe. The title, like all the titles from the original Watchmen, has a double meaning: Ozymandias, Rorschach, and the others are literally going to “places they have never known” (a parallel Earth), but the title also comes from a quote by Carson McCullers:

“We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.”


The quote that gives the issue its title, then, is actually about nostalgia. In fact, this is foreshadowed quite literally on the first pages when Marionette (a new character introduced in Doomsday Clock) comments that Adrian Veidt’s perfume “Nostalgia” was so much better than the one he later released, “Millennium.” (And yes, the perfume “Nostalgia” does actually play a pretty significant role in the original Watchmen, making this reference an instance of nostalgia while commenting on nostalgia.)

This brings us to Doomsday Clock itself: it’s a book that, like the quote says, is torn between wallowing in the nostalgia for the familiar (i.e. Watchmen) and an urge to explore things that Watchmen never did, the “foreign and strange.” It’s a strange dichotomy, but one that appears to be working in its favor so far.

Let’s look at what helps and hinders Doomsday Clock in regards to this nostalgia.

Watchmen as a sacred cow.


For a lot of comic book fans, Watchmen is not just a classic comic book, it’s the classic comic book. It’s the comic book that made the best-seller list, the comic book that showed people that comics weren’t for kids anymore, the comic book that wasn’t really a comic book, but rather a Graphic Novel. It came out in 1986, just after Crisis on Infinite Earths ended and the DC universe was in flux, but Watchmen wasn’t about the DC universe. It was a book that took place in its own world and it told its own story about its own characters — but that world and that story and those characters were also commentary on all comics. Watchmen was a deconstruction on what made comics, well, comics. Why do people put on funny costumes and go out and fight crime? What would a person who attained godlike powers actually be like? What would the world look like due to the intervention of these people?

And since Watchmen was considered such a classic, a lot of comic book fans (and creators) consider it to be a sacred cow: something that should never, ever be touched again. Writing a sequel to Watchmen would be akin to writing a sequel to War and Peace. They see anything released related to Watchmen as a greedy cash grab, something that is only made to capitalize on the popularity of the original. And while these criticisms can be valid, they can also miss a larger point: that nothing should be sacred, not even Watchmen. The book itself should not be immune from criticism, nor should everything that came after the original book be considered a bad thing.


The elephant in the room (named Alan Moore).


The other thing, of course, is that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were cheated out of actually owning the rights to Watchmen and Moore subsequently quit working for DC comics completely. Since Alan Moore is considered (rightly or wrongly) to be one of the very, very best comic book writers of all time, his apparent insistence on not giving DC the time of day carries some weight.

But Alan Moore has increasingly been seen as the “old man shouting at clouds” of comics, hating both Marvel and DC for things that happened quite a bit in the past. Even if you acknowledge that DC not allowing the rights to Watchmen to revert back to Moore and Gibbons was a shitty thing, it doesn’t mean that every single comic that DC puts out is bad. And Moore tends to criticize DC when they use a concept he created, even if he created it especially for them — i.e. he criticized their use of the “blackest night” prophecy, even though he wrote it for them in Tales of the Green Lantern Corps.


The point being that just because someone created something classic doesn’t make them completely right. If Moore himself was given the job to write a sequel to Watchmen, would it turn out to be any good? Considering his recent output, I’m not so sure. Certainly, when Frank Miller created a sequel to his classic The Dark Knight Returns, the story turned out to be...not good.

There’s also the fact that Moore himself writes stories using other people’s characters — not just The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but also Lost Girls, an adult comic featuring pornographic stories about Alice, Dorothy Gale, and Wendy Darling. I doubt the original authors would have approved of those stories, but that’s the point of fiction: creating new stories out of old ones.


A return or a rebuke of nostalgia.


And so we come back to Doomsday Clock. This isn’t the first time that DC has tried to create a wider “Watchmen universe” — in 2012, DC released Before Watchmen, a group of mini-serieses and one-shots that acted as a collective prequel to Watchmen. It received pretty tepid reviews, even with the art of Darwyn Cooke and with the contribution of Len Wein (who was the original editor on Watchmen).

Where Before Watchmen failed, however, Doomsday Clock appears to be succeeding, having already gotten quite a bit of critical acclaim for its first two issues. But why is that? I believe it’s the fact that while Before Watchmen relied on nostalgia for Watchmen and its characters, Doomsday Clock both relies and rebukes that nostalgia. And it does so quite subtly: by first introducing us to what we assume is an old character (Rorschach) and then telling us that he’s actually a new character using an old name.


Quite an apt metaphor for Doomsday Clock really: a new story wrapped in an old story’s costume. A return and then a rebuke of nostalgia.

(The first issue of Doomsday Clock then introduced two characters that had never been seen before in Watchmen, but were based on Charlton characters like the rest of Watchmen had been, something so smart that it’s hard to believe nobody else thought of it.)


Doomsday Clock appears to be wearing the trappings of Watchmen — the same use of titles from quotations, the same backmatter from books and newspaper articles, and so on. But these things tell us different stories than the original Watchmen did, a story that I find myself more invested in since it will involve wide ramifications for other books in the DC universe. I want to read more about this new Rorschach and Marionette and the Mime, but I also want to know how this will impact Superman and Batman. I am torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange.

“All we ever see of stars are their old photographs.”
— Alan Moore, Watchmen

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