Doomsday Clock #4 review

Maybe this is on me, but I just was not engaged.

It’s strange to say that, because I’ve enjoyed reading Doomsday Clock so far.  More than that, I enjoy writing about it, because it feels like it’s about something.  It’s similar to why I love Mister Miracle: while that series is firmly, unashamedly rooted in some of the most outlandish corners of the DCU, it’s taking its time telling a story about humanity.  In a time where stories feel the need to get bigger and bigger with each passing month, the fact that there’s a series that almost takes pains to keep the focus so small is quite an achievement.

Doomsday Clock, on the other hand, is as broad as Mister Miracle is focused, in that it seeks to merge two previously unrelated universes into one.  That’s ambitious enough, but taking one of the most highly regarded stories in comics that was almost proud of its closed-ended nature and giving it a sequel?  The fact that it works at all is nothing short of a miracle.

And for my money, it has been working, at least as well as it could be.  While not a masterpiece, this is still a grand entertainment with some big ideas and genuinely interesting new characters.  Even if I’m not entirely sold on the cast of Watchmen finding a new home in the DCU, I’m enjoying reading the attempt and engaging in analysis of the story.  It’s always nice to read something and want to write about it, and I’ve greatly enjoyed reading and writing about the first three issues of Doomsday Clock.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that, after three dense but well-paced issues, the story has come to a dead stop.  Issue four here is by no means bad in any way, but it is guilty of a far greater crime: it is almost criminally boring for long stretches.

And it really shouldn’t be either.  The entire issue is dedicated to the backstory of the new Rorschach, one of the most interesting and compelling mysteries Geoff Johns has presented so far.  To his credit, he answers almost any question you could possibly have about this new man under the hood, so we’re not left wanting anything in regards to his character.  His history, family, motivations, and name are all revealed, and his story is competently told.  I won’t outright spoil who he actually is, but I will say that several readers have correctly guessed his identity.  He even has an actual connection with Walter Kovacs, even if tangentially by reputation rather than personal association.

His story is told in parallel, moving between the present and the past.  In both time periods he’s interred in mental institutions, which might be the biggest narrative flaw in this story.  It’s not confusing and the narratives never blur together, so it’s not a matter of a flawed narrative structure.  The problem is it feels like we’ve already read this before.

To Johns’ credit, he’s done a pretty solid job of keeping his own voice while working with Alan Moore’s characters.  They largely speak and act like you’d expect them to, and while there have certainly been some nods to Moore’s style, it’s never felt like Johns was trying to emulate him outright.  While that mostly remains true here, the broad strokes of this issue just feel way too similar to several plot points in Watchmen.  We’ve already seen Rorschach imprisoned before, staring blank-faced as his fellow inmates threaten him and as a psychologist makes attempts to understand him.  That it’s a new man under the mask doesn’t make it any less derivative.

Considering I haven’t felt like Johns has fallen into imitation trap to this point, it’s disappointing to feel this way.  Like I said at the beginning of the review, it may just be me, but this story didn’t click.  It’s well-told and illustrated, so it’s not that the craft is lacking.  I just never really felt engaged in the story itself.  The big revelations don’t fall flat, per se, as I found some of the details interesting.  It’s the presentation as a whole that fails to deliver, as it’s all just so dry.

It would have helped had there been other scenes and subplots with other characters interspersed throughout the narrative, even just to break up the pacing.  But no, this is all Rorschach, save for a single panel of Alfred conversing with Batman and a few brief glimpses of Saturn Girl.

During his previous stay in the asylum in his homeworld, Rorschach befriends a fellow patient named Byron Lewis, alias the Mothman.  Lewis was a bit player in Watchmen, one of the Minutemen who was referred to here and there.  It’s when he interacts with Rorschach that this issue feels the most alive, but even then it’s because his story is far more compelling in context.  He’s a truly tragic, sympathetic figure, yet his entire purpose is wrapped up in fleshing out Rorschach’s backstory.  I wish he had been given more of a spotlight and arc than he gets here, as Rorschach is (likely by design) harder to connect with.

Besides Lewis, Johns has proven to have a better grasp on the DC characters than he does on the world of Watchmen, though that’s not to say he’s been failing with their characterizations either.  I won’t even condescend and say that this style is beyond his skills, because no, that’s not the case.  My lack of engagement was due less to the content and more to the presentation.  Nothing Johns wrote is in any way bad from a literary standpoint, and Gary Frank and Brad Anderson’s visuals are stunning as always.  Letterer Rob Leigh’s use of staggered, rough word balloons and parchment-like narration boxes capture the tone quite well too, as they’re one of the few things that are a direct lift from Watchmen yet they work in the context of Doomsday Clock.  The issue, then, is how Johns himself tells the story and not the story itself.

No surprise, but this  series is still absolutely gorgeous to look at.  Even when primarily confined to the stale corridors of mental institutions, Frank and Anderson’s pencils and colors are consistently dynamic and interesting.  There are lots of greys, blacks, and browns, yet it never feels dirty or muddy.  Everything is clean and clear, to the point that the occasional splash of color stands out even more.  There is some imagery whose purpose is unclear, at least right now, particularly the repeated motif of a mosquito flying into a bug zapper.  The blue flash when the bug dies is pretty self-explanatory, especially at the end of the issue, but the use of a mosquito instead of, say, a moth is curious.  Then again, maybe the use of a moth would lead to unwanted symbolism with Mothman, and the mosquito is supposed to represent somebody else?

So even with some narrative shortcomings, the book looks phenomenal.  Not the least bit surprising, but it’s worth noting, especially when Frank draws an amazing plate of pancakes.

Though I’ve been fairly critical of the writing, I do appreciate some of the choices Johns makes in illustrating the new Rorschach’s deteriorating mental state.  At first he’s a normal guy, fairly well-spoken and with a distinct personality.  After the “attack” on New York at the end of Watchmen, he is left broken, yet still lucid.  Over time he begins having more and more hallucinations, however, and when he discovers his unlikely link to Kovacs he reaches a sort of breaking point.  His dialogue and narration go from fully formed sentences to terse, fractured phrases.  It’s a pretty clever way of showing how the new Rorschach is emulating the speech and mannerisms of Kovacs before him.

The back matter is actually very compelling, though it could prove a tough read on smaller devices.  It’s a collection of handwritten letters from Byron Lewis, alias the Mothman, addressed to his sister Betty.  Given that his scenes were the most moving of the issue, I’m glad we’re given even a brief glimpse into his life.  The notes are “handwritten,” so if you’re viewing on a small screen you may need to zoom in a bit, but it’s well worth it.  What’s most surprising about the letters is, to me at least, they don’t indicate any sort of deteriorating mental state.  Rather, what Lewis may have been suffering from was pure heartbreak and a type of separation anxiety.  Over years and even decades he writes to his sister, never receiving return correspondence.  It’s genuinely sad and made all the worse by his eventual fate as detailed in the story.  To that end, the issue ends on a high note.

Recommended if:

  • You’ve been reading Doomsday Clock.
  • You’ve been dying to find out all there is to know about the new Rorschach.

Overall: The lofty ambitions of the story are undermined by an unsuccessful execution.  From a technical standpoint everything here is fine, with a script that accomplishes what it sets out to do and visuals that, once again, engage and elevate the material.  The problem is in the sense of repetition, with story beats and structure feeling almost lifted from Watchmen.  Instead of feeling like a parallel, it comes close to being derivative, and given that Johns and company have successfully side-stepped that trap to this point it’s a shame that it veers so close.  Still, Doomsday Clock is a book that never fails to ignite great discussion, and this month is no different.

SCORE: 6/10