I suppose we can’t have it both ways with this series. Last issue, I felt like the narrative came to a relative dead stop, as the story flashed backward to give us an origin for the new Rorschach. It wasn’t entirely unwelcome, and taken in its own context it was a gripping read, but it took up the entirety of the issue. There was very little, if any, advancement in the plot, and with longer and longer delays it’s getting harder to keep up with this story. What’s worse, it’s getting harder to stay interested in the story in general, which is never a good sign.
And then this issue drops, and it moves the story forward inch by inch. If the previous issue looked back, this one looks forward, but barely. It feels disingenuous to complain that a story isn’t moving forward, only to criticize it for not moving fast enough when it does. That’s how I feel with this issue of Doomsday Clock, try as I might to give it a fair shake.
Don’t get me wrong: from a technical standpoint, this series is still top-tier. The writing is excellent, the art even better, and it manages the impossible task of making the world of Watchmen (almost) fit with the DCU. When I read Doomsday Clock, I appreciate the craft that goes into telling the story, and at times I even love what’s being done in the telling. There are quite a few moments this month that rank among the best scenes we’ve seen in this story to this point. There are also just as many scenes that promise greatness that is never realized. It’s frustrating, as a reader, seeing such potential and knowing it may be months before there is any payoff. That leaves me, as a reviewer, in the unenviable position of reconciling what the story is versus how it’s being presented, if it can be done.
The first thing you should know about Doomsday Clock #5 is that it is dense. There’s scarcely a plot thread or character that Johns has introduced that isn’t touched upon at lest briefly, which is welcome after such a focused fourth issue. We open on Adrian Veidt lying in the hospital after his encounter with Lex Luthor and the Comedian. He’s “lucky,” we’re told, because even after a twenty story fall he only suffered a fractured rib and a pulmonary contusion. The irony, of course, is that he’s dying of a brain tumor, which we’re reminded of on the cover and in the first few panels of the issue. It’s curious, then, how they weren’t able to discover this, though surely it will come into play later in the story. Either that or this is the worst hospital ever, which is also a likely scenario.
Veidt wastes no time in escaping his “captors” as he outsmarts the doctors and security watching over him. It’s a pretty great scene, seeing his calm menace gaining the upper hand over medical professionals and law enforcement officials. He makes his way back to Archie, Nite-Owl’s ship, only to run into…
Yeah, I’m not gonna lie: this scene was pretty awesome.
Honestly, I wish we got more between Veidt and Bruce, but what’s there is great. They have some decent verbal sparring, each trying to outsmart the other, and it’s fascinating to read.
It does take a while to get anywhere, though, as there are a host of smaller scenes spread throughout. The advantage to this is that there’s scarcely a plot point that isn’t touched upon: the Comedian makes a brief appearance; Marionette and Mime have a bit to do before their spotlight in August’s issue #6; the “Supermen Theory” plays out as talking points on various news broadcasts; and Superman himself finally shows back up after his brief appearance at the end of the first issue (though some of the mystery surrounding Lois’ absence in current Superman comics is taken away). It’s not necessarily a bad thing leaving the readers wanting more, as is the case with most of the subplots here, and I’d rather clamor for more from a story than think “this is too much.” Even with a higher page count, though, a lot of these subplots get short shrift, to the point that they could have been excised entirely without much effect.
I used the word dense and it’s certainly applicable. There is a lot going on here, both narratively and thematically. While it’s a generally heavy read, Johns does inject a bit of levity here and there. The story is never so dour that it feels like a slog, though it does veer a little too close to self-seriousness a few times. To that end, seeing Firestorm argue with “himself” on live television is a welcome respite.
Besides Veidt and Batman, the other major players are Johnny Thunder, Rorschach, and Saturn Girl. Each of their stories involves some sort of institutional escape (much like Veidt’s, come to think of it…), and while it doesn’t appear that way at first their stories are pretty closely linked. Thunder escapes from his retirement home so that he can make his way to an abandoned steel mill in Pennsylvania. He’s looking for his friend Alan’s lantern, he says, and needs to get it back so he can reunite with his friends. It’s remarkably sad, especially when he’s attacked by a group of thugs.
It bears repeating that Gary Frank and Brad Anderson have been bringing their A-games to this book. From front to back, this issue looks fantastic, both in the general line and coloring work and in the image compositions. They make clever use of the nine-panel grid without being completely confined to it, allowing for larger panels when necessary. More than that, they use the grid to play out scenes in an almost cinematic manner, using each panel like a frame of film. Subtle lighting changes between panels move the action forward when the scene itself is relatively static, and Frank evokes Dave Gibbons’ style in Watchmen by having different characters’ actions play out in parallel.
The visual parallels here are fantastic, even if the attack of Thunder was reminiscent of Hollis Mason’s murder in Watchmen. I particularly love the mirror image of Thunder and Batman being punched. It’s a simple technique, yet highly effective storytelling.
It doesn’t play out the same way as the murder in Watchmen, though, as Roschach and Saturn Girl come to Thunder’s rescue and their plots converge. Of any of the stories presented here, this was the one that was best constructed and held my interest the most. As I said, Thunder is a tragic, sad figure, a frail old man who is likely the last bastion of hope for the characters in the story.
Things are slowly moving forward with Doomsday Clock, which is a definite positive. With all the delays in the schedule, though, will it ultimately matter? Even when the story is told so well, if the rest of the universe is moving on, will the mysteries of Rebirth be worth it in the end? That’s maddeningly rhetorical, I know, and there’s no way to answer it. All I can say is, as a story, Doomsday Clock is fantastic and even potentially a masterpiece. Here’s hoping it can get back on a set schedule and retain that level of quality.
The back matter consists of a few reports from Trouble Alert, an in-universe magazine. Dated May 30, 2019, the rag sheds more light on the Supermen Theory and its effect around the world. At first it’s a tad dry, reiterating Metamorpho’s involvement and his M.I.A. status. It’s when the Alert starts listing off other metahumans that things start to get interesting. There are teams around the globe, from Russia to Israel to China, and it’s fascinating reading the lists of familiar heroes and villains allied with a particular country. It seems, for instance, that the Justice League of China is no more in the future of Doomsday Clock, instead folding into the ranks of the Great Ten to become the Great Twenty.
Black Adam gets a bit of focus as well, with one report detailing the history of Kahndaq and Adam’s proposal of a metahuman sanctuary. The readability of the back matter rises and falls on its relevance to the larger narrative, and this collection hits the sweet spot: it’s interesting information on its own, and there’s nothing here that feels like filler or fluff. Even the back-page Metropolis tourism ad has its place, carrying a rather somber, even sinister undertone.
BONUS: A pretty unsettling variant cover featuring the Joker.
Thought he’s only in a few panels in the issue proper, I wasn’t a huge fan of Frank’s Joker design. This cover is absolutely chilling, though, and I hope he looks more like this in upcoming issues.
- You’re still invested in Doomsday Clock.
- You’ve wanted the story to look forward instead of back.
- I mean, that Gary Frank can draw, can’t he?
Overall: Doomsday Clock is an incredibly well-written and gorgeously illustrated piece of comics storytelling. It’s dense and engaging, somehow managing to marry two universes that likely shouldn’t have had any interaction. It is also slow and beset by publication delays that make it understandably difficult to keep up with. Focusing on craft and viewing it on a technical level, there’s very little reason to not recommend this series. However, it’s understandable that enthusiasm that was once sky-high has cooled to the point of indifference, and it’s hard to argue that either. Doomsday Clock could potentially be a masterpiece, it just needs more consistency.