Doomsday Clock: The Impossible Watchmen Sequel

Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's Doomsday Clock #1 hits stores this week, and it's like we never left the world of Watchmen.

How, exactly, is anyone supposed to make a sequel to Watchmen, the single most celebrated graphic novel in history? The lead-up to DC’s Doomsday Clock has felt less like the hype that usually surrounds your average comic book event story, and more like the release of a blockbuster movie. From a marketing standpoint, the stakes are certainly high enough. A Watchmen sequel is a difficult thing to justify to fans. So while Doomsday Clock may not have a nine figure budget behind it, and is unlikely to sell nearly as many copies as your average blockbuster sells tickets, it still feels safe to say that there’s a lot riding on this.

Watchmen, like Star Wars, also had a series of prequels released (in the form of 2012’s Before Watchmen), and those fell prey to some of the same problems. Even at their best, and despite an assortment of top notch talent, Before Watchmen was obsessed with making connections and absurd overtures to the events of the main work and never felt like it was truly a part of that world. But just as the Star Wars franchise learned from those mistakes, Doomsday Clock feels like it belongs to the recent wave of big screen legacy sequels. Like Creed or The Force Awakens, Doomsday Clock is set years down the line from the classic stories, introducing a handful of new characters who immediately feel at home, and is so visually perfect and fluent in the franchise’s language that it can’t feel anything but authentic.

One key that makes Doomsday Clock feel like a completely organic extension of the original series is Gary Frank’s art and Brad Anderson’s colors. Frank, long regarded for the remarkable realism he brings to superheroes without sacrificing their dynamic elements (if you haven’t read his collaborations with Geoff Johns on Superman, I can’t recommend them highly enough) turns in what might be the best work of his career. Even with the frequent use of Watchmen’s trademark nine-panel grid, the sense is never that he’s actively imitating Dave Gibbons, but the art and color makes even a crowd scene as evocative of this world as Rorschach’s mask.

For Doomsday Clock writer (and DC Entertainment President and CCO) Geoff Johns, who spoke with reporters at New York Comic Con last month, Gary Frank was “the only artist” he felt was right for the story. “If Gary doesn’t want to draw it,” he recalled telling DC brass, “then I’m not going to do the book.” He took a similarly hard line when he approached the artist. “I have to tell this story but I can only tell it with you. I can’t tell it with anybody else. Gary’s not an artist that’s like: ‘I can’t wait to draw Wolverine.’ He just doesn’t care. He wants to draw a good story.” Frank was so impressed by Johns’ pitch that he agreed.

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And Doomsday Clock #1 is indeed a good story.

Opening seven years after the final pages of Watchmen, the world is closer to destruction than ever, long buried secrets have been revealed, and it’s not clear who is a greater danger to the population – the world’s governments or the people rioting in the streets. Watchmen was a slow burn, introducing its characters at a comparatively lethargic pace, letting background details do much of the heavy lifting to let you know that you aren’t in a world you’re familiar with. Doomsday Clock doesn’t need that luxury, and rather than build to its apocalyptic scenario, it lays it out on page one, and its mysteries have to be heard above the chaos. Rather than the paranoia that was a hallmark of its predecessor, there’s an urgency here that is appropriately evocative of a ticking clock. We open on what would appear to be a story’s final act, and only then do we start to get a picture of what’s happening. 

Doomsday Clock aims to feel timely, and while some of the dialogue in the opening pages occasionally tries a little too hard to make the parallels between the November 1992 of the Watchmen universe and the increasingly chaotic real world of today, that settles down considerably once the stage is set. “I think that there’s a demand for political content in this story and I think to avoid it would be disingenuous, trying to do something with Watchmen,” Johns said. “It’s about story structure, thematics. If we’re going to do it and use the characters, we need to respect where the material came from and what they were trying to do with it.” In fact, the rapid fire nature of the reveals early on mirrors the “what horrible thing have I missed this time” feeling most of us have every time we hit our newsfeeds.   

Much of the publicity surrounding Doomsday Clock, and the hardest pill for Watchmen purists to swallow, has been over the promise that it will bring the world of Watchmen into conflict with the core DC Universe. That’s only alluded to in the first issue, and it’s far too early to tell how well that element of the story will work. But Geoff Johns has long had a reputation for doing the seemingly impossible at DC Comics. An incomplete list of difficult tasks he has accomplished (alongside artistic collaborators like Ethan Van Sciver, Gary Frank, and others) includes the resurrection of Hal Jordan and the subsequent elevation of Green Lantern to the kind of sweeping space opera it hadn’t been in years, bringing Barry Allen back from the dead after a 20 year absence, and the effective “fixing” of the entire DC Universe in the space of 80 pages with 2016’s Rebirth special, without the messiness (or bad publicity) of a reboot event. But for the moment, without any additional distractions, the first chapter of Doomsday Clock has already done the impossible and made me believe that the story of Watchmen’s world didn’t have to end with the execution of Adrian Veidt’s plan.

Doomsday Clock arrives in comic shops on November 22. We’ll have more details on it throughout the week. I’ll answer spoiler-free questions on Twitter until release day, too!