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Watching the ‘Watchmen’: A critical conversation on 3 canons

2019 has been a big year for the beloved ‘Watchmen’ franchise. But which series soared like Manhattan and which fell to their doom?

Warning: Major Spoilers Below

If you love Watchmen, 2019 has been a big year. It saw the release of 3 essential titles: Watchmen (the excellent HBO series), the middling Doomsday Clock, and the delightful Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt. While all proved quite different, all three works remained rooted in the history of Watchmen and engaged in conversation with that essential text in one way or another. Today, our own Ritesh Babu and Vishal Gullapalli examine all three entries and discuss what went right, what went wrong (and why), and where we now stand as the dust has cleared.

Doomsday Clock (DC Comics)

Ritesh Babu: Obviously, this is the sort of “big” one, the first one to kick them all off. It’s the one that’s been going on for years now and it’s what finally concluded this Wednesday (12/18). The big promised culmination of the “Rebirth” initiative, built on the conceit of “Watchmen meets the DC Universe.” Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson, and Rob Leigh are the guys at the helm here.

Vishal Gullapalli: I’m not going to pretend I’ve been positive on Doomsday Clock at any point since the first issue came out, but even then I feel like it seriously fizzled out due to its delays and schedule switching. This series took over 2 years to come out, and by the end it almost feels like an entirely different story being told, both in terms of the plot and the overall message. What this story promised and what it delivered are two incredibly different beasts to wrangle.

RB: Oh definitely. The moment you see the words “Earth-5G” or witness the Bendis/Sook Legionnaires, you spot very clearly just how much has shifted and changed since its initial debut. The entire narrative is, effectively, engineered to be a countdown to this inevitable meeting between Superman and Doctor Manhattan, the Unstoppable Force vs. the Immovable Object. And pretty consistently, you’re told, either Superman destroys Manhattan or Manhattan destroys everything. And with this choice that’s presented, we finally arrive at the moment when it finally happens.

So you get that repeating image of Superman about to punch something, ostensibly Manhattan, but Superman merely punches an antagonist to defend Manhattan. The end result is Manhattan is now inspired for the very first time and is now a Superman fan. The idea of hope, which Manhattan needs to learn, happens through sentimentality and reminder of love.

But therein lies the problem. The idea of Superman able to actually change Doctor Manhattan? Alright, you can pursue that. But the actual execution of that idea, this thing which should be so vital, happens over just 4 pages, wherein Superman defends him, startling Manhattan and then reminds him of Janey, his first wife. And it feels like the most nightmarishly rushed and ill-conceived way to handle it. That Superman-Manhattan back and forth could’ve been the entire book, really, or even the complete last half. I do not buy that Manhattan, who’s lived through his terrible world and let endless atrocities occur or even aided them, changes his mind because Superman punches a dude and brings up Janey. That rings false, at its heart.

VG: The idea that, thanks to Superman changing Dr. Manhattan, the good doctor just snapped his fingers and fixed all these problems that the world had been having since 2011 does not come out in a compelling manner at all. It’s a magic wish to save the day in a story that’s been entirely about how there isn’t an easy solution. It’s wholly unearned and is an entirely unsatisfying ending. Especially since somehow even though the entire history is re-written, everything that went wrong, largely due to the absence of the now restored history, still went wrong exactly the same way to preserve this story in ‘canon’. It gets even worse by the end, as Manhattan creates a Superman in the Watchmen universe (even naming him Clark).

This isn’t the only part of the story that the conclusion totally flubs, though. A big part of Doomsday Clock has been the new Rorschach, Reggie Long, who is the son of the psychiatrist who treated Rorschach while he was imprisoned during the events of Watchmen. This (black) kid eventually grows up and takes up the mantle of (the bigoted) Rorschach without really knowing everything there was to know about his namesake. By the end of the story, Reggie is so dejected and cynical that he believes that the world is just too divided and angry, and that people focus too much on identity politics rather than improving the world, which is deeply unsettling. 

Geoff Johns placing this statement in the mouth of a black character in a medium that was recently infested by a hate group complaining about all characters and creators that weren’t cis straight white men looks terrible. It’s incredibly bad optics, only made worse by the fact that one of the most visible ringleaders of this movement was Geoff Johns’ buddy for quite some time. The political commentary of Doomsday Clock has always felt half-baked, but this conclusion is downright insulting.

RB: Right. Perhaps no choice is more emblematic of Doomsday Clock than its handling of the Rorschach legacy. The HBO series, of course, presents it as that of bigots, white supremacists, hatemongers and the alt-right, which makes sense given Walter Kovacs’ politics. However, Doomsday Clock plays the legacy as a misguided black youth obsessed with Rorschach, which is certainly a choice. And then you have Batman telling him to take this mask, this symbol of a bigot, a hatemonger and continue wearing it to warp and change its meaning, a poor attempt to mirror Batman’s origins of using the darkness and the symbolism of a bat positively.

Since day page 1, the book’s been peddling the both sides angle, but that moment with the ranting on identity politics is perhaps the most blunt expression of said politics. All art is political, and Watchmen is famously and explicitly so, and it’s clear Doomsday Clock wants to mine that. But where as Watchmen had a great deal to say, DClock comes off as facile.

I read the issue not long after the results of the British election, with the Tories victorious. And just days prior, you had Alan Moore, an anarchist, coming out and writing letters and making videos telling people to vote Labour, championing liberal values and the need to take the power away from a group that literally wants to tear down the National Health Service, continue austerity, hurt the poor, and do plenty more terrible things. Then this issue comes out, yelling about identity politics and liberal self-righteousness and how we need to get off our phones and extend an olive branch to the other side. It’s all so painfully tone deaf. I think when you’ve read enough, especially certain writers, you know when the character is talking and when the writer is talking, and this is very much a Geoff Johns editorial moment here. There’s also the fact that Reggie is a man from 1992 Watchmen and thus has no concept of ‘digital bile’ or ‘weaponized phones’, he hasn’t been around long to be aware of anything about our culture. So it really reads as nonsensical, at best. All the yelling about identity politics is often something done by angry alt-right individuals, and it’s a textbook term from the handbook of Comicsgate and many other such abysmal groups. 

The whole moment comes off as willfully disregarding to the real struggles faced by people. How on earth do you “both sides” things, where one just wants to just be given the rights, freedoms people deserve, and the other is staunchly against that? Equating both sides to Superman and Manhattan to say everyone needs to get along just feels not only careless, but thoughtless and deeply irresponsible. Some people are not well-intentioned, they only crave power and relish hurting others. The work just opts for this ridiculously simple point about hope and making up that it is so at odds with what it wants to be. It may be a textbook resolution of superhero stories, but context is vital here. The work invokes the context of Watchmen, tries to be relevant and comment on the current zeitgeist, and in that scenario, all it manages is this messy, vague, broad strokes generalized point that is a substitute due to a lack of a meaningful viewpoint. It’s part of why we get “How Manhattan Learned To Stop Worrying and Stanned Superman.”

VG: This whole book ends up feeling like Johns’ response to Watchmen is a response to Watchmen the movie rather than the actual comic. He’s responding more to the discourse and general idea of Watchmen more than the text itself. It’s fixated on the plot and characters and saying that if Superman were there, he’d be able to make it better, when the entire point of the comic is for there to not be a Superman. 

Watchmen channeled a lot of the 1980s’ Cold War terror to tell its story and its message, but Doomsday Clock does not feel like it’s channeling 2017-2019 in any meaningful way. Geoff Johns said that the reason they decided to tell this story was the 2016 election, but beyond the poor editorializing Ritesh pointed out earlier, there’s nothing that signifies the time period this book came out in. What’s there is shallow and puerile, and it’s only made worse by the other Watchmen sequels and responses released this year

Watchmen (HBO)

RB: The proper big sequel, which has been effectively Event TV for the last 9 weeks. If DClock sort of approached Watchmen with the idea of the crossover, to serve this narrative of continuity changes, which Watchmen has little to do with, this seized on the biggest attribute of the original text: political relevance. It’s trying to tap into the zeitgeist and leans hard on what’s relevant to us now, which is white supremacy and the alt-right. 

Besides being showrunner, Damon Lindelof is the curator for a writers room with several POC, which is worth remembering. The whole roster here is Nick Cuse, Lila Byock, Christal Henry, Carly Wray, Cord Jefferson, Claire Kiechel, and Jeff Jenson.

VG: Ritesh and I had vastly different experiences watching this TV show — Ritesh watched every episode every week, and was surprised by a lot of the contents as they aired. I, on the other hand, binged it all over two days after the whole thing finished, and did not have a week to sit down and let the contents stew and theorize each episode. That being said, we both came away from the show with similar takeaways, and I feel like I can speak for both of us when I say that the show is far, far more interesting than Doomsday Clock. Funnily enough, all of this show was released in the break between the final two issues of Doomsday Clock, further amplifying the disparity between the two.

The TV show takes a much more 2019-centric angle, focusing on the Tulsa Race Riots as a major influence on the direction the show takes. It says a lot about being a black person in America, and calls out a lot of the rhetoric that white supremacists spout as the bigoted trash it is. While it’s definitely not perfect at addressing all the facets of this idea (the fact that a main character literally puts on blackface is not really addressed), it’s far more ambitious, successful at its goals, and relevant than Doomsday Clock ended up being.

RB: It’s genuinely wild when you compare the ambitions of the works. HBO’s Watchmen opens on the Tulsa 21 Massacre, puts a spotlight on the very real figure of Bass Reeves, and is very much about white supremacy, how it’s plagued american institutions forever, and how insidious it can be. 

The show is, for the most part, incredibly well put together, very tight, and keeps its momentum going really well, bringing new ideas and thoughts to the table. Episode 6 is perhaps the most affecting piece of comic media for me this year. Regina King as Angela, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Doctor Manhattan/Cal — you have this story that really tries to be about appropriation and the idea of genetic trauma. Then there’s also the other central idea, the law. The opening of the show with Bass Reeves showcases him as a hero capturing a villain, but in a lot of ways, the scene underlines the impossible nature of that, because both the good guy and the bad guy are lawmen. It should also be noted that the show is littered with a lot of detail, from Peteypedia, which is its backmatter, to references to Blaxploitation films and more.

Yet for all its genuinely inspired intelligence and ambition, it’s definitely flawed. I mentioned episode 6 and I want to go into that and its take on Manhattan, because taken together, they represent the wide disparity between the HBO series and the Moore/Gibbons/Higgins book. Moore has quite recently reiterated his viewpoint that the first big American superhero story is Birth Of A Nation, the KKK movie, and talked about how, with exceptions, largely superheroes are a right-wing white supremacist power fantasy. And it’s a comment that certainly irked a great many people, but it’s also I think a viewpoint you see reflected in the original text. Hooded Justice, the first big hero, is this man in that sort of Klan-esque hood and he’s someone that sympathizes with Nazis and is generally implied to be terrible. And if Superman is a big template for something like the DCU, Hooded Justice then is the template for the Watchmen world. So it tracks that a lot of the Watchmen heroes are rather terrible. 

But the thing is, Lindelof and company still quite like superheroes, or at least have a more favorable view of them. And so that’s why the show absolutely has to go back to those fundamental roots and re-write Watchmen’s history, thus making the text unreliable. It serves the story’s narrative of the superhero being another thing that’s appropriated and co-opted by white people from black people, but even beyond that, the show had to make that shift. Now does that miss the point of Moore or just willfully ignore it? Absolutely. But its reasons for doing so are at least somewhat understandable given the story it’s striking toward. 

VG: It absolutely is. Lindelof and all the writers of Watchmen chose to sidestep the core story of Watchmen, which is rooted in what the world was like in the 1980s, and instead used it as a springboard to tell a story about what the world is like in the 2010s. A world where cops are almost indistinguishable from criminals, white supremacists hide just outside of plain view (and even then not really ), and multi-billionaires with resources unimaginable to the common person. It’s a fantastic extrapolation of the Watchmen story as well, evolving the world in a fairly believable way from where the comic ended.

Episode 6 (titled “This Extraordinary Being”) turns the entire foundations of the Watchmen universe upon its head in a spectacular fashion. Here is where we discover that the child we watched survive the Tulsa Massacre that occurred almost a century ago grew up to be a police officer in Tulsa. We watch him discover the racism that’s baked into the blood of the police department, and we watch him nearly be lynched by his own fellow officers for daring to arrest a white man for a crime he clearly committed. And, finally, in what might be the single best moment of the entire show, we watch him put the hood and noose back on to save people on the street. Will Reeves, this black man who grew up orphaned with distinct trauma, was the first superhero, and he had to wear a hood so people wouldn’t realize he wasn’t a white man. This is an incredibly bold change to the mythos that, for me, shows just how ambitious this show was. 

RB: It’s certainly the moment that the show really makes its mark. It’s also the moment that most evokes Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier, which is fun. And then from that, you lead into the big conclusion. And to loop back to the earlier point of the differences, if Manhattan’s a very terrible figure in the work, this man who expresses interest in a 16-year-old Laurie, lets Comedian harm a pregnant woman, and does plenty of awful things, here he’s played as much more of a romantic figure. I feel the show is weaker when tackling the old, existing stuff, as opposed to the new stuff (Jeremy Irons’ Ozy excluded — he’s a blast), and this is part of that, because as you said, Manhattan takes on the likeness of a black man, in a show explicitly about appropriation of black identities by white people, one built on race and it’s not addressed beyond a “problematic” joke.

There’s, of course, the idea of redistributing power, where in Manhattan wishes to pass them onto Angela, which can be seen as an attempt to fix things. Because he is and always will be who he was, which is a white man who took Vietnam, who’s later appropriated a black man. Manhattan has too many terrible things associated with him and so the only way to close things out becomes the death of the character, with the power redistributed and granted to someone like Angela, a black woman, who is traditionally not someone, if ever, to be granted such things. And so the show ends on that, which is exciting, the idea that the person of color has now been granted the power which belonged to a white man. What could come from that could very well be really interesting.

VG: The treatment of Manhattan literally appropriating a culture that is not his own is my biggest gripe with the TV show, because there’s a lot of depth to that subject. In Jim Shooter’s Secret Wars 2, the Beyonder takes a human form as a white man, which isn’t really noteworthy because it’s an omnipotent being taking on the form of those in power. This is the opposite — the most powerful being in the world has taken on the form of one of the most oppressed groups in America, and that’s something that needs to be explored. 

There’s a concept introduced earlier in the TV show called “genetic trauma,” which is basically the idea that when a group of people suffers a massive trauma on the scale of what black people faced in America for centuries, their children inherit this trauma without having actually suffered through it. Basically, it’s nearly impossible to be a black person in America without the trauma of slavery and Jim Crow (Max Bemis’s Moon Knight run introduces this idea with respect to Marc Spector, a Jewish man, inheriting the trauma of the Holocaust despite not having lived through it). Dr. Manhattan, though, was born a white man (albeit Jewish) and inherently is incapable of understanding the common trauma that black people face, and his appropriation of their appearance is just as shallow as the skin he’s created for himself.

There’s so much consideration put into the racial baggage that Watchmen dissects that this missed opportunity doesn’t ruin the show in the least. One example is the Victims of Racial Violence Act — an incredibly modern idea mirroring the debate around reparations for slavery going on today. Black people received funds from the government as reparations for the history of racial violence and discrimination they’ve suffered, and there’s a large contingent of people who use this as ammunition against black people, making a slur out of the act. 

RB: This brings up the key antagonistic force haunting the show consistently: The Seventh Kavalry, led by Senator Joe Keene, Jr. They’re not the true antagonist, of course, given the final twist of Lady Trieu, but what they represent, this legacy of Rorschach and more importantly a legacy of white supremacy and hatred, can be traced back all the way to the KKK. Lindelof is no stranger to cults or insidious movements, especially given The Leftovers, but this is a lot different, given it deals specifically with race. There’s a scene which literalizes the idea of how art can harm people of color, which is a bit of an odd, if curious idea. It also needs to be said, it is genuinely wild to me that the show put Fred Trump in as a member and antagonist and the first individual the first hero of the Watchmen world ever kills is Fred, thus preventing Donald. I’m blown away that this got away with it and got made, really.

Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt (Dynamite)

RB: Peter Cannon is, of course, the original Charlton hero Ozymandias is based on. And this book, with that original figure, responds to Watchmen. If HBO’s Watchmen really went all in on the political relevance angle of the original work, Peter Cannon picks up on the actual craft angle. It fully implements the storytelling tricks of Watchmen, which were what Moore himself considered to be the most notable and worthwhile parts of the work. And that tracks, given it’s by Kieron Gillen, who’s both a massive fan of the text and knows Moore personally. Gillen aside, the book’s got a lovely team here with Caspar Wijngaard, Mary Safro, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou.

VG: At the risk of sounding pretentious, I feel that Peter Cannon is the absolute best response to Watchmen that could possibly be constructed in 2019. It focuses on the canon’s impact on comic books as a medium, and how its legacy beyond just a darker tone in stories was an obsession with tricks, like the 9-panel grid, when what we needed to do to honor Watchmen was move beyond it. It also uses the styles of British creators outside of Moore to tell its point, becoming an experiment in style that succeeds with flying colors.

RB: Absolutely. It’s simultaneously this rigorous dissection of all that’s come since Watchmen while being a celebration of all the great British creative talent that’s helped shape the comics landscape. And it is very much that meta-fictional take on things, moving though Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Eddie Campbell to finally arrive at Kieron Gillen. One of the fundamental ideas at the heart of Watchmen is the idea of pastiche to serve a purpose. That’s its first teaching, and Peter Cannon applies that lesson instantly, giving us an Ozymandias pastiche that allows for a conversation about creators/ Peter Cannon’s a creator, Thunderbolt is effectively his Earth-3 Doppelganger, and he’s the Watchmen figure, since Adrian was based on Peter. 

And what’s also really great is its relationship to queerness. It is explicit about making the lead queer and weaves this wildly ambitious metatextual epic about formalism in comics that’s also a story of learning to love rather than be detached. In a lot of ways, it’s a story of a man rediscovering his passion and falling in love all over again, both with his genre (superheroes) and his partner (Tabu). It’s such a triumphant queer superhero narrative.

VG: Choosing to make Peter Cannon a gay man was a really inspired choice on Gillen’s part. It’s not about making an explicit point but rather make what would already be a fantastic story something empowering for a group that rarely gets the opportunity to feel empowered by superheroes. But what Gillen’s most striking choice in this comic is the message he chooses to send to readers and writers alike — “This? All of this? You did it 30 years ago. Please. Let’s try something else.” It’s the most direct response to Watchmen possible, addressing not only the original work and its fans but the hordes of derivatives and inspired works that we’ve gotten for 3 decades. Watchmen isn’t as renowned as it is because of some easily replicable mechanical trick — it got the reception it did because it was something wholly new. Gillen proposes that to truly succeed Watchmen, we can’t just run towards 9 panel grids and deconstructions of bronze age superhero tropes — we must innovate. 

This is a difficult work to compare to HBO’s Watchmen because Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is a comic about the medium and culture of comic books, not television. But comparing it to Doomsday Clock reveals so much about what both creative teams took from Watchmen itself. Both stories frame the characters of Watchmen as the enemy, and put themselves in the position of a response/spiritual sequel, but that’s where the similarities end. Compared to Peter Cannon, Doomsday Clock seems like an almost farcical exercise in self-indulgence. Doomsday Clock’s response to Watchmen is such a shallow one, where Johns and Frank decided to make the story 12 issues (just like Watchmen) and have the internal twist be that Ozymandias was engineering the entire situation from the start (just like Watchmen). Peter Cannon, true to its word, tries something new, while Doomsday Clock is rigidly stuck in the old.

RB: And to make it worse, it’s Johns not just repeating Watchmen, but virtually everything else as well. The Superman hope message is one he’s done in every big Superman story of his (LoSH, Lo3W, etc.), but most vitally in Infinite Crisis, wrangling with continuity. And this is basically Infinite Crisis: 9 Panel Grid Watchmen Edition. Even the Metaverse is a terribly repackaged dime store Hypertime by Morrison. The idea of a sentient DC Universe? Again, a bland regurgitation of work that Morrison was doing in the last two decades. But if Morrison’s story (in Action Comics, which DClock takes the conceit of Superman/DCU being ‘edited’ from) was a nuanced exploration of the fundamental contradiction of Superman — an idea meant to serve the people against corporations, but in reality serves a massive corporation and a meditation on power and reboots/retcons/changes done to this icon — Johns’ story is none of that. It just takes all these done-better things and does a poor cover without much of value to really say beyond whats’ been said, by others or Johns previously.

It’s a work so mired in the old, the repetition, that it has no concept of the new, which is entirely what Cannon’s about. DClock’s a book where The Comedian’s purpose is to just be nostalgia made flesh and blood. And he’s zapped away at the end, having done nothing, because again, this is a story reliant heavily on the past. Its idea of the future, too, is a never-ending repeat of the past’s patterns in eternal reboots and crises. Cannon, on the other hand, asks us to go beyond ourselves, go beyond the genre and uncover new techniques and ways of telling stories, new methods of thinking, and even demonstrates a path forward to a new horizon. It’s a book firmly about the future.

VG: The final pages of each really tell the whole story. Peter Cannon ends on Peter and Tabu walking into the unknown, ready to try something new. Doomsday Clock, on the other hand, ends on a rehash of the old — Doctor Manhattan makes a child Clark and has him raised by a loving family, so he would one day grow up to save the world of Watchmen. Like we mentioned earlier, it feels like Geoff Johns’ only takeaway from Watchmen was “this would have been a good world if Superman was there.” Gillen, on the other hand, proposes something far more nuanced — all the world needs to be good is for the world’s smartest man to seek out and cherish the human connection. It’s not a surefire way to success, but it’s a very strong start, and far more than Doomsday Clock’s proposal. 

This concept of human connection saving the day is also something that Doomsday Clock tried to espouse as well, in its deeply flawed way. Doomsday Clock’s message of “we need to get out of our safe spaces and connect with the other side” is a pallid, dreary attempt at Gillen concluding with Peter vowing to be better for his partner whom he has neglected. At the end of the day, Peter Cannon doesn’t need a Superman to make his world better — he has to try and be just a regular man. It’s not the most inherently virtuous person in the world that will save us, but the flawed man who chooses to be virtuous (a conclusion with shades of Ennis).

RB: And if Watchmen left things entirely in our hands, Peter Cannon’s a book that asks us to join hands, alongside its characters, to reach for the impossible. It asks us to make better comics and better stories, and at the end of the day, that is what it posits Watchmen was about: Comics can and should be better and better is not static, better is a direction. And the direction? Forward, always.

 

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