Doomsday Clock 4: Discussion

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).

Reggie is cray cray

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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10 comments on “Doomsday Clock 4: Discussion

  1. Daaaamn Drew and I had very different takeaways here. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the points that you made Drew, I think I’m just coming at it with different expectations. As I mentioned, Doomsday Clock clearly invites itself for comparison to Watchmen. However it’s important to separate it as its own entity – hard as it may be.

    You are correct in saying that Reggie’s “why” for becoming Rorschach is never explicitly explained – I suppose we are just meant to fill in the blanks ourselves. I would have preferred if we got a look at what the larger cast was doing while telling Reggie’s origins. I was initially frustrated by this, but I suppose I found myself being a moth to Doomsday Clock 4’s flame.

    Why the emphasis on Mothman though? The supplemental materials are just letters he wrote to his sister – something that doesn’t seem likely to be addressed or revisited.

    • I found myself thinking a lot about the distinction between homage and cheap imitation in this issue. I think they might look pretty similar, at least at first blush, which is why I was so willing to give this series a fair shot after the first issue. But the more this series wears on, the more it feels superficially derivative.

      I’m really starting to wonder about the decision to ape the stylistic elements of Watchmen. I understand the instinct, but I’m not sure it makes sense in practice. Shouldn’t there be an equal influence from the DC house style? Or, perhaps more relevantly, I think it draws a lot of unflattering comparisons that might not exist if this series weren’t obviously trying so hard to be like Watchmen. It suggests an itinerant refusal for this series to distinguish itself in any way, which leaves it feeling like a pale reflection of the original, flattened out to look a lot like it without any of the actual depth.

      • That’s been the big problem with Doomsday Clock from the start. There is very little to Doomsday CLock except a shitty patische of Watchmen. Johns just repeats everything that Moore did, but with no understanding of literally anything. Every used without the understanding of what it was used for and why it was done the way it did, just an attmept at replication. You can’t seperate it from Watchmen, because literally the only thing in Doomsday Clock in it that is not a superficial copy are its themes, which are ‘Watchmen is bullshit’, ‘Comics need to go back to where they were before Watchmen’, ‘Alan Moore is a horrible person for caring about creator’s rights’ and ‘Watchmen’s strong stance on anti-fascism is completely wrong. Go fascism!’.

        You say the DC influence is missing, but there is a lot more missing. Like a plot. By issue 4 of Watchmen, we’d had massive explorations of the world of Watchmen, two deep dives into characters and multiple major story beats like Dan and Laurie reconnecting and Doctor Manhattan leaving Earth. So many things had actually happened.
        Nothing actually happens in Doomsday Clock. The Watchmen characters travel to the DC Universe and… nothing happens. There is no forward momentum, no defining moments that actually define a character’s direction in the future.

        Credit where credit is due, this is the first time in five issues (including DC Rebirth) that Johns has not written the worst issue in living memory, if only because issue 3 is hard to beat.

        But Johns does nothing except embarrass himself again and again. All he does is make the rest of DC’s garbage fire look good. Hell, he makes Tom King look good.

        Johns does nothing except copy Watchmen so poorly that we are left with nothing but the world’s worst piece of fascism apologia. He can’t see anything outside of Watchmen. He doesn’t understand Watchmen. He just misses the point again adn again. Then praises fascism.

        Even by the standards of current DC, DC should be ashamed

  2. Drew, isn’t there another set of recurring visual and thematic motifs in the form of being attracted to the light? Mothman flies out to the Sunny Side Up Diner, he walks into the burning wreckage of The Fitzgerald, two different bugs fly into glowing bug zappers. This one really worked for me on both an in-story and meta level, as Long’s drawn to the shiny objects in his environment, latching on to Rorschach even though it’s probably bad news for him. And I think the same thing applies to the ambition and stylistic choices of Watchmen, which are too bright and powerful for Johns and Frank to ignore. Again, possibly to their overall detriment.

    Over all, I really liked this issue. I think the connection(s) to the original series were clever and I liked old man Mothman.

  3. On the difference between Kovacs and Reggie, it is worth noting that while Reggie’s story does not match the psychological depth and care Alan Moore does put into Kovacs, it does fit the persistent lie of mentally ill people being inherently violent and dangerous. Despite the fact that the statistics suggest the complete opposite, this lie is a horrific cudgel used to demonize the mentally ill (especially to distract from real issues, like gun control).

    Which is to say, it is yet another example of Rebirth in general and Doomsday Clock is particular’s gross reactionary/Trumpism values. As always, yet another example of DC’s guiding ideology being hate

    • Do you think that the writer did it on purpose in terms of cultural context or for narrative purpose?. I don’t think that the writer have an intended message that was bad and horrible.

      • Going too deep into what an author intends is never the wisest move, you have to find the balance between the Authorial Intent and Death of the Author (I quite like the idea of the Implied Author, who is very specifically not the author themselves but what the actual story suggests the intent of the story was)

        But to me, the problem is a combination of factors. First, Johns has always been a particularly average writer that got lucky. He has had maybe one good idea, and was also the man that was lucky enough to do the one thing everyone else had thought of but hadn’t actually done, and because of that was lucky enough to be the person that got to make Green Lantern big. Despite the fact that he constantly hobbled it with his own hang ups, like focusing the attention on the least interesting character. Which is to say, that he should never write a book like Doomsday Clock. Were he not such an embarrassment of a writer at the moment, Tom King would be the sort of choice you would want. He was going to mess a book like this up, and that would include unintentionally despicable messaging.

        Secondly, Johns has always been primarily a nostalgia artist. It has been the central theme of all his work, a wish to depict an idealised version of what he remembers from when he was a kid. This is not an approach conductive to self reflection or growth. Mentally ill people are dangerous is a toxic element of the past (and the present), but a nostalgia artist will always paint over that. Because to acknowledge that would be to break the idealised vision of the past nostalgia relies on. A nostalgia artist, not properly managed, will repeat the horrible mistakes of yesteryear.

        And lastly, Johns and DC banked all in on nostalgia, purposely sacrificing many of the important values that they used to have to protect from this sort of thing. DC YOU wasn’t perfect, as the accidentally transphobic Batgirl issue proved (though kudos on everyone involved for an actual, real apology and fixing the issue in question), but back then, DC had values like modernity and diversity that they cared about. THey values empathy. And now, after pushing all their chips on nostalgia, they stopped caring. And when you stop caring about others, it is very easy to demonise entire groups of people, which is why DC does so on a weekly basis.

        Very few people mean to be hateful. But hate comes from a lack of empathy. And the sort of awful reactionary ideals I am decrying come from that mixture of hatred and nostalgia. Which means Doomsday Clock’s consistent screaming out of ‘Fascism is good’ or how it demonises the entire mentally ill community is the natural consequence of the ideals they follow. Whether or not they mean to promote that message doesn’t change the fact that they are following down a path where that is the natural ending.

        To put it simply, they certainly intend to do the things that led them to that message, even if they didn’t intend the message. And that is not a good thing

        • Do you think that the concept of nostalgia itself was bad? Does the idea itself needs some kind of a limit?.

  4. Nostalgia is like alcohol. Consume responsibly. Star Wars and Indiana Jones are fantastic examples of what can be done with nostalgia, and a key element is how they combined nostalgia with modern and innovative elements that the original serials that inspired them didn’t. For an obvious example, Princess Leia is an acclaimed character who simply couldn’t exist in the same way in those original serials, though of course there are many things that were done to both movies to make them more modern. FOr a more recent example, Thor Ragnarok and the Last Jedi both use nostalgia fantastically. Thor Ragnarok is inspired by the 80s movies, but provides the same sort of modern update and an international (hell, totally Kiwiana) perspective that those original movies didn’t. WHile Last Jedi is all about updating Star Wars to the modern day, for all the love and nostalgia it has for the original movies (and it has so much love for them), it is all about the need to modernise Star Wars and learning from the last 40 years.

    On the other hand, nostalgia is ultimately backward facing and superficial, neither good attributes. Look at a show like Happy Days. Released in the 70s, as a nostalgic look at the 50s. But the 50s were a time of segregation and Jim Crow. And a time where everyone lived under the spectre of nuclear annihilation and McCarthyism ran rampant. The 50s were not a good time to live. The fact that the 70s was on the other side of Martin Luther King is a fundamentally good thing, and nostalgia for the 50s erases problems like that. All who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and nostalgia is all about forgetting history. Compare Happy Days to the Iron Giant, a movie specifically about the xenophobia and nuclear annihilation in the 50s. It is nostalgic, but it is also critical of its own nostalgia for greater effect

    Honestly, a big reason why It was better than Stranger Things, other than being much, much better paced and not having created the giant stinker that was Stranger Thing’s second season, was that It grappled with the 80s problems. Stranger Things erases the bad parts of the 80s, while It uses Pennywise specifically as a metaphor for racism, sexism, neglect. Pennywise and the effect he has on Derry represent the flaws of the 80s. It is nostalgic and fun because it is nostalgic – it certainly has no hate for New Kids on the Block – but the nostalgia goes alongside the deconstruction

    And especially today, nostalgia has dangers. Ready Player One was always a terrible book, nothing but the most superficial elements of geek culture listed with truly awful prose and so obsessed with it nostalgia that it fundamentally does not get why those nerd properties actually do matter. But the reason that culture so viciously turned against it instead of forgetting about it was that the combination of the rapid transformation in the the cultural discussion of representation in media and the shadow of GamerGate making very clear the dark side of the particular type of geek culture Ready Player One celebrated. The book’s celebration of the exact sort of gatekeeping culture that spawned Gamergate and the book’s misogyny and transphobia all spawn from its look at geek culture purely through the lens of nostalgia, erasing both its flaws and the more modern iterations that had attempted to address those issues.

    And then there is the fact that nostalgia has a political dimension, especially in today’s world of ‘Make America Great Again’. Nostalgia’s superficial vision of the past is actively sought after by hateful people. MAGA and everything it stands for, which is just the subtext of the Republican party positions made text, is all about wishing to return to that superficial version of the past that never existed. They want to return to the 50s of Happy Days, and that means erasing all the flaws of the real 50s. They want to return the a version of the 50s where black and brown people weren’t segregated, they just weren’t there (and never acknowledging that those two stances are the same thing). And this is the important part. This is why it is so important that nostalgia is properly managed. Why it is so important that nostalgic movies like Star Wars or Thor Ragnarok balance those elements with such specifically modern elements so that they could only be from that time Because if we aren’t moving forward, there are forces pushing us backwards

    I’ve been reading classic comics recently, and you can see a lot of the positive changes that have happened throughout comics. Some of these runs still hold up (Simonson’s Thor is as good as you have heard), while others really, really don’t (if Marvel Studios fuck up Infinity War, they will at least be able to rest knowing that, in all likelihood, they made a better story than the original Infinity Gauntlet). The most obvious are the improvements to technology, especially colouring. Layouts and pacing are also massive improvements. Layouts have become much more diverse and creative as innovative comics have been released that rewrite the rules, while changes in the ways stories are paced and serialised allow stories to go deeper and to have long run arcs not feel constantly hijacked by outdated pacing requirements.
    But one of the biggest improvements is the writing of women and PoC. PoC are almost nonexistent, while women are almost uniformly dreadful. As much as I love Simonson’s Thor, his women were a pain to read because literally every thought they had was around their love of one character or another. The writing is so sexist that the quality noticeably dips whenever a woman takes control of the narrative (and that’s ignoring the horrors of Starlin’s sexism in Infinity Gauntlet). And that’s the problem with nostalgic retreating into the past of comics. THe best superhero comic of the past is of course better than the worst of today, I would never pretend otherwise. But even the worst modern comic has been improved by changes that have happened to comics as a medium. Which is to say, comics should always seek to move forward

    And that’s the problem with Geoff Johns. He will always be limited by the fact that he’s a nostalgia artist. Just writing superficial versions of what came before. There needs to be more than just nostalgia, because nostalgia is superficial and you need something else, whether it is It’s deconstructive intent or Star Wars’ innovative spirit to go alongside it. Meanwhile, Geoff Johns is so focused on nostalgia that some of his plot points can literally be found in letters he sent in as a kid that then got published.

    And that’s the problem with DC. They banked in on nostalgia, to the point where they threw out other values like empathy. Nostalgia is so important to the current DC that they have made a point to erase many of the improvements that they have made. And that’s ignoring the fact that Doomsday Clock attempts to set creator’s rights back decades.
    The current DC’s focus on nostalgia has manifested in a specific rejection of many of the most important modern values, like originality, representation and many others. DC have committed themselves to nothing but the superficiality of nostalgia. This means that the average DC book is superficial garbage, better only than books like Doomsday Clock or Mister Miracle, books so empty and devoid of value that they serve only as embarrassment in how little they understand and how much they pretend they do. Better to stay silent and look a fool, than open you mouth and prove it.
    And it isn’t just that it is bad. Because as I said, just as Happy Days erases the bad parts of history, DC’s has erased so much positive progress they can’t help but be offensive. Like how Doomsday Clock keeps accidentally being pro-fascism or demonises mental illness. Or how a queer woman can’t seem to get a book without spinning out of a straight white man misogynistic arc that ‘put her in her place’. While no character has entered King’s Batman book without his character getting grievously butchered (Joker, Riddler, Ivy, Daredevil I mean Batman… Shall I go on?), it is sadly fitting that Selina Kyle has been treated so horrifically and had her character taken back decades in such a gross act of misogyny that THE book that represents Rebirth’s lie about Love is instead defined by the hatred of women.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with alcohol.
    Nostalgia in Star Wars A New Hope is the perfect wine to accompany a master chef’s dish
    Nostalgia in It is the necessary pleasurable part in what is otherwise a sobering, serious evening.
    Nostalgia in Happy Days is a hard night’s drinking – fun, but not to be done night after night, and should be moderated with lighter loads
    DC is currently the alcoholic in desperate need of an intervention because they are hurting everyone around them and they keep hitting women

    • (Also, the worst part about writing about It is the fact that it is named It. Really easy to make sentences unintentionally ambiguous.

      And are there any intersectional vocabulary guides? I’m aware of transmisogyny and misogynoir, but no others. There is a real need for a much larger vocabulary guide to more easily differentiate specific intersectional oppressions. They would have been so useful for this particular post

      Also, I was going to state this in the main post but forgot, it is worth rememberign that while Marvel Legacy was a confused comic with lots of issues, it did treat Sam Wilson, Jane Foster and Riri Williams with respect and placed them on a pedestal and treated them as important, which provided a necessary counterbalance to the more nostalgic elements. And that while Marvel have and still are on a long, problematic journey to do things right and have made many mistakes, the fact that they are trying means a lot)

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