This review of Doomsday Clock part 1 was commissioned long ago—before the Watchmen HBO series came out. (My thoughts on that are here.) Then last month this piece got killed. So, it has come here, where my killed pieces go to moulder and replicate.
If you find this post entertaining, consider contributing to my own efforts to survive capitalism. (I think I've said that before...but such repetition is how capitalism works.)
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Doomsday Clock, DC comics' sequel to Watchmen, is terrible, and you should not waste your time reading it. With the help of artist Gary Frank, Geoff Johns has taken Watchmen and the DC Universe and made from them his usual concoction of codswallop, bodily fluids, and stale hostess cupcakes. A full plot exegesis is pointless; you do not measure the turd in the toilet bowl before you flush it. But if you want a general sense of the smell, consider that there is a supervillain named Marionette whose father was (wait for it) a tragically murdered puppet-maker. If that's not enough, the Comedian is brought back to life expressly so he can shoot a Frank-Gorshin-esque Riddler in the leg. The narrative moves glacially from glib profundity (Superman has his first nightmare ever) to joyless nonsense (there's a grimdark Saturn Girl) and back again, aping Alan Moore's prose and Dave Gibbons' art with a crassness so complete and unrelenting that it would almost be impressive, if it weren't also so tedious.
Even in an infinite multiverse, there is no world on which Doomsday Clock needs to exist. Which raises the question: why does it? Why did DC decide to green light this exercise in soulless desecration?
You could blame the particular insular iniquities of mainstream superhero comics, with their target audience of fortysomething hobbyists obsessed with imagining the light-hearted characters of their youth, but with more blood and sex. And fair enough.
But I think Doomsday Clock's predictable superfluity is a function, not just of this one capitalist niche, but of capitalist niches more generally. As John Rieder writes in Science Fiction and the Mass Genre System:
"Seriality is… as inevitable, inescapable a feature of mass culture as one could name. The goal of producing habitual consumers, mass cultural production's raison d'etre, makes serial fiction the narrative form most strongly suited to and encouraged by it."
In mass culture, every story must have a sequel, because the goal of every story is to get the audience to purchase another story. Watchmen was always going to generate more Watchmen as the clock ticked on, simply because pop narratives always create more pop narratives, world without end. Alan Moore can stand athwart his creation yelling "stop!" , but the assembly line moves on. "Nothing ends, Alan. Nothing ever ends," to paraphrase a famous being whose proliferation in time and space mimics the pervasive omnipresence of capitalism itself.
Dr. Manhattan's world-weary dismissal of self-contained texts highlights a little-discussed paradox in Watchmen. Many people have noted that Moore and Gibbon's investment in pulp violence and superhero tropes in some ways undermines their critique of those tropes. Jeet Heer for example argues that Rorschach and Ozymandias, who are supposed to be violent murdering jerks, end up seeming badass because they do badass stuff, like catch bullets and fight off tons of assailants with household products. "Moore's proficiency at using genre tropes overwhelms the critique of genre that he wants to have," Heer concludes.
Moore's mastery of genre tropes doesn't just undermine his critique of violence, though. It also undermines his critique of seriality. Moore has set himself against projects like Doomsday Clock. He sees DC's Watchmen previews and sequels, and the HBO television series, as crass cash-grabs. They're a violation of his original artistic intent, and renege on promises DC made that the comics' ownership would eventually revert back to Moore and Gibbons. Watchmen is finished; more Watchmen is a betrayal.
And yet Watchmen itself is deeply invested in more Watchmen. The original comic loved, and elaborated on, the pulp trappings and aesthetics of the serial. The book itself was originally published as a twelve issue maxi series, and Moore and Gibbons did everything they could to emphasize and celebrate that periodicity. Each issue's back cover showed a clock; the hands advanced each issue, while red blood moved further and further down the page. Collect them all and see the whole apocalypse!
Moore's paratextual additions within and outside the story—diary entries, memoir excerpts, newspaper articles, comics—make Watchmen feel like a story with multiple authors and porous boundaries. Originally intended as a repurposing of the Charlton comics characters, Watchmen is a derivative fiction which includes and elaborates on its own fan fiction. Indeed, the story's conclusion fairly begs the reader to continue the story. The last panel shows a comic-fan stand-in hesitating over whether to pick up and read Rorschach's journal, which could expose Veidt's plot and cause the happy ending to morph into further dystopic narrative.
Moore and Gibbons essentially end their series with a cliff-hanger about whether their readers will choose to read and/or create more Watchmen. It's not a surprise, then, that, so invited, DC found creating more Watchmen irresistible. The journal is right there. You've got to turn the page.
The point here isn't to blame Moore for DC's exploitation of him. Rather, the point is that capitalist production and reproduction have a logic of their own, impervious to individual intent or genius—or rather, actually built from that intent and that genius. Like Dr. Manhattan, Moore and Gibbons' unusual abilities simply render them more inert as history, and/or the market, continues its ineluctable construction of the same grid as ever. The creators' particular mastery of the comics form and of pulp tropes like violence and seriality is, from an auteurish perspective, supposed to make their creation individual, irreproducible, and iconic. But the very iconicity—the creation of an identifiable visual style; the clock memes; the paratexts; the ambivalent narrative which, (again like Dr. Manhattan), embraces and already sees its own possible futures—are all also the same factors which make the comic ripe for revisiting, rewriting, and remarketing.
Moore and Gibbons made great art from pulp crap, triumphing over the banal impositions of work-for-hire. But doing a phenomenal job despite constraints isn't actually a thumb in the eye of the capitalists who siphon off the surplus value of your labor. It just means that you've put in more value than you needed to, enriching your bosses beyond what the contract required.
From that perspective, Johns and Frank are more savvy, and more subversive than Moore and Gibbons. The latter were model employees, giving their all to produce the best of all possible commodities. The former, in contrast, are just time servers, giving their bosses the dreck they ask for, and not an iota of value more. They know that there's no urgency, since on the clock in the culture industry, doomsday never comes. Every end is just another beginning of the same story about how power makes time into money.