By Michael DeLaney and Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Michael: I’d rather not spend each issue of Doomsday Clock comparing it to Watchmen, but dammit if that’s not what Geoff Johns and Gary Frank want me to do. Doomsday Clock 4 takes a break from the new ensemble of “heroes and villains” that has been established, and instead zeroes in on the new Rorschach. Much like Walter Kovacs in the sixth chapter of Watchmen, Doomsday Clock 4 deals with Rorschach’s current incarceration, as well as his origins.
Thus far, Johns has been extremely successful at creating new characters from the bones of Watchmen that perfectly fit in with its world — Doomsday Clock‘s Rorschach is no exception. We see how he came to be from what I can assume would be a new edition of “Rorschach’s Journal.” Though he is unwilling to tell the staff at Arkham anything about himself, we learn that Rorschach’s name is Reggie Long — the son of Walter Kovacs’ therapist Dr. Malcolm Long. Reggie’s transformation into Rorschach is a byproduct of Adrian Veidt’s master plan, his father’s fascination/dark obsession with Walter Kovacs, and some helpful advice from an old hero from Watchmen‘s bygone days.
Doomsday Clock 4 kind of sacrifices its ongoing narrative to tell Reggie’s origins, but it is still a damn fine comic book. Month after (bi)month, I am impressed with how much respect and attention to detail Johns and Frank are giving this book. Like Watchmen‘s Dave Gibbons before him, Frank is resonating the words on the page with effective, symbolic imagery.
Sometimes it’s a little on the nose, like when Adrian Veidt’s face is the missing puzzle piece , while other times it is a little more subtle and quiet. Frank uses the same motif of the rorschach inkblot test several times throughout the issue: in silhouettes, in shadows, in the bodies of his dead parents in his mind’s eye. Here are a couple examples:
In Watchmen, Kovacs had similar reactions of violence and sexual imagery when he took the inkblot test with Malcolm Long.
Doomsday Clock 4 is the first issue that feels like Doctor Manhattan’s presence is felt in the “present” moment. Rorschach wonders who and where Doctor Manhattan is as he passes a similarly blue, bald, shirtless man in Mr. Freeze. The best example is the final page of Doomsday Clock 4:
“See what we want to see.” To be honest I didn’t see anything on this page on my first read through — maybe because I didn’t want to see it? There are a couple of things to note about this final page. The first is that tiny piece of paper that floats down to the floor — a photograph of Jon Osterman (Doctor Manhattan) and his girlfriend Janey Slater. Doctor Manhattan carried this snapshot around with him throughout Watchmen, making it the clearest physical sign that he was present in Arkham Asylum in some form or another.
The second thing to note is the smokey atom symbol that the mosquito’s corpse makes after it touches the blue light. Is Manhattan a bug zapper in the DCU? Probably not. What’s more likely is that these final panels are symbolic of what’s to come for our heroes. Rorschach and Veidt are seeking out Doctor Manhattan, and it’s quite possible that when they encounter him they will crash and burn like that little bug.
Walter Kovacs was a tragic figure, so Reggie Long would have to be equally tragic, no? We see that Reggie has suffered a handful of ordeals: he witnessed the mayhem of Veidt’s plans firsthand, he was driven insane and institutionalized by that very ordeal, and now Batman has thrown him in another madhouse in Arkham Asylum.
Reggie makes a friend in Byron Lewis AKA Mothman — one of the original masked heroes of The Minutemen. Lewis teaches Reggie his philosophy of “see what you want to see” and even trains him to fight.
Byron teaches him everything he knows — everything EVERYONE knew. In this case, Reggie could be a stand-in for you or me, someone who has read and been influenced by Watchmen. You could make the argument that Reggie is a Watchmen/Reggie fanboy. After his psychotic break, Reggie took solace in the friendship of a former masked hero in addition to his father’s psychological evaluation of a sociopath vigilante. In Rorschach he saw what he wanted to see and became what he wanted to be. And there’s definitely a sprinkle of some daddy issues in there as well. I’m not sure he’d have the same penchant for pancakes, but what do I know?
Drew, did you find yourself impressed by Doomsday Clock 4 like I was? In addition to the supplementary materials, this issue was heavy on The Moth — any insight or observations you’d like to make on his character? Does Rorschach and Veidt’s partnership make any more sense to you now that it’s been explained? And most importantly, how about that Bat-disguise? That was a nice touch.
Drew: It actually feels entirely unnecessary to me. It’s not like Batman needs a disguise to gain access to inmates at Arkham, and it’s not like Matthew Mason uses some revolutionary technique to get any information out of Reggie — that character could have been either Batman not in a disguise or just not Batman at all, and it would have had the same effect. It’s a meaningless detail that suggests either that Batman doesn’t trust anyone at Arkham to ask routine questions about patients’ identities (which would make sending anyone there an ill-advised move), or that he just has so much free time on his hands that he refuses to delegate even the most mundane tasks to the professionals he purportedly does trust.
But “entirely unnecessary” might be a good summary of my feelings on this issue as a whole. Reggie’s backstory does a good enough job explaining why he would want to kill Veidt, but why in the heck he would don the mantle of Rorschach is oddly unaddressed. Where Kovacs was a deeply suspicious nihilist, readily condemning society as a whole, Reggie has a score to settle with one man. Where Kovacs’ affinity for the black and white imagery perfectly matched his own simplistic moral outlook, Reggie quickly abandons his own revenge plot to seek out Doctor Manhattan in an alternate universe. Where Kovacs’ violence springs from a richly detailed history of abuse and bullying, Reggie’s violence springs from him being cuckoo for cocoa puffs (which would actually support the black-and-white imagery a bit stronger).
I don’t mean to diminish Reggie’s trauma — his grief is complicated by whatever psychic effect Veidt’s creature had — but precisely why it would manifest as violence needs a bit more explanation. Writing it off as “crazies be crazy” diminishes his humanity, and robs Reggie’s story of the post-9/11 commentary it seemed designed for. For me, the result is a man who only resembles Rorschach on the outside (and only because he inexplicably chose to dress and act like him).
And that superficiality seems to permeate the issue. The characters lack the depth and motivation of Watchmen, and the art — while irrefutably gorgeous — feels largely perfunctory. It might be too much to expect this issue to attempt the chapter-spanning symmetry of Watchmen‘s fifth issue, “Fearful Symmetry”, but I’d at least expect to pick up on some more symbolism or repeated imagery than we get here. Sure, there are a few inkblots that we see more than once (with appropriately Watchman-ian match cuts), but where are the smileys, the the blood spatter, the hands of the titular doomsday clock? These were inescapable in Watchmen, but are almost entirely absent here. That may speak to a world more chaotic than the clockwork universe of Watchmen, but then the match-cuts and that closing hint of Doctor Manhattan’s symbol are entirely out of place.
But maybe we should be focusing less on the Watchmen half of this crossover. So much of the look of this series — the nine-panel grid, the hand-drawn speech balloons, the strict absence of sound effects — is lifted directly from Watchmen, which makes me wonder: how is the DC Universe making itself relevant (or even felt) in this issue? Perhaps that’s an unfair question to ask of an issue that spends so much time in flashback, but I think it’s a very fair question to ask of this series as a whole. Is this a sequel to Watchmen that happens to be set in the DC Universe, or should we be thinking of this more as a straightforward crossover? So far, even though this series ostensibly takes place in DC’s home turf, everything is designed to make this look and feel like Watchmen.
Maybe it’s the superficiality itself that DC is bringing to the table? Watchmen‘s psychologically nuanced characters are answered here with characters motivated entirely by the untimely death of their parents — it doesn’t get more DC than that! I’m sorry to get so negative about this issue (and that DC is getting caught in the crossfire), but this issue felt a lot more like a list of things that happened than an actual story. What is drawing us through the narrative beyond some desire to see what happens next? What is the soul of Doomsday Clock? I’m looking for an answer, but until I find one, this series will continue to feel, well, soulless.
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