Can Doctor Manhattan truly be considered a man any longer? It’s not a question that Doomsday Clock proposes, at least not directly, but in preparing for this review I began running over how I was going to describe him. “A man,” I kept wanting to say, because it’s an accurate descriptor. After all, before the accident that imbued him with near limitless power, he was Dr. Jonathan Osterman. Sure, he was a brilliant nuclear physicist, so saying he was “just a common man” may not have given his intellect and accomplishments the credit they deserve, but still, he was just a flesh and blood human being. He had feelings, emotions, dreams, and desires, just like the rest of us.
After his accident in the Intrinsic Field Subtractor, though, he became something both less and more than human. Anatomically he still resembles us, with a body that– save for being completely devoid of hair and with skin that is tinted blue– is still recognizably that of a human male. And not even his powers shed doubt on whether he is still a human, because what are comics if not a platform for the fantastic? We look at Superman, an alien with power beyond anything that a normal man would ever be able to obtain, and still see a man.
Why? Because of his compassion. Superman, strong as he is, is still capable of emotion and connection. He loves, he mourns, he rejoices. He is human.
That is what Doctor Manhattan lacks: emotion. He may have the appearance of a human, but he is not a man. His great power allows him to see atoms dancing in galaxies on the edge of the furthest reaches of space, and he can carry on conversations in the past, present, and future as if it were all occurring at the same time. So even if he has knowledge and insight that we could not even begin to understand, he approaches it all with a cold detachment that never let’s him truly know things. So advanced is his mind that the everyday trials and tribulations of men and women are no more significant to him than the struggles of an ant would be to us. He can see and observe and have an intellectual understanding, but he is devoid of compassion and empathy.
No matter how great his power, though, there is one thing that Manhattan shares in common with humanity: even he is capable of fear.
After a fashion, that is. Love that lettering from Rob Leigh, too. Perfect fascimile of Gibbons’ unique fonts and balloons from Watchmen.
That’s where we find him at the beginning of this issue, as he runs over several events in the past, the future, and the relative present. He “remembers” an unnamed member of the Legion of Superheroes sacrificing himself in the 31st century, while simultaneously seeing Alan Scott become the Green Lantern in the Forties. Then Manhattan moves Scott’s lantern, causing the would-be hero to fall to his doom, and suddenly… nothing.
And not the inky, starlit darkness of space. There is literally nothing. Not in 1940, not in 3019, not in any other seemingly random date Manhattan tries to view.
For the first time in a long time, Doctor Manhattan is faced with uncertainty, and it’s pretty fascinating.
That is the main crux of Doomsday Clock #9, which is one of the less focused issues of the series to date, but still a good read in its own way.
Johns jumps between three separate locations throughout the issue: Doctor Manhattan on Mars, Batman in the Batcave, and a comatose Superman in the Hall of Justice. The Superman scenes are perhaps the least illuminating, but they’re rather touching, as Lois is standing vigil over his unresponsive body. Lex Luthor appears and tries to convince Lois to work with him, as he believes there’s more to the “missing heroes” story than even Lois is aware.
While these brief scenes are interesting– especially with a bombshell of a question Luthor drops at the end– they’re fairly indicative of one of the most disappointing elements of this story so far: Superman is almost a non-entity. After his brief appearance at the end of the first issue, he barely showed up again until the previous installment. Granted, there was some really great stuff between Superman and Firestorm in issue 8, and given that he’s Superman, even when he isn’t front and center he’s still an active presence. But here, he lies unconscious while two other characters converse. I guess, for me at least, it’s a case of wanting more from a character in a story that hasn’t yet finished. We still have a few issues to go, so my feelings may completely turn around before all is said and done, but I still don’t feel that we’ve been given an adequate look at Superman’s perspective in the narrative.
It’s the other two plots that carry most of the actual narrative weight, though, with a “ticking clock” mechanic in each story that ratchets up the tension. After the brief preamble with Doctor Manhattan, who has retreated to Mars after the events of the previous issue, we see scores of heroes making their way to the red planet to confront this unknown menace. I’m not going to lie: it is pure comic booky glee seeing such a wildly diverse group of characters fly in space ships to do the impossible. Big Barda and Mister Miracle join Hawkman and Hawkgirl, while members of the Titans make the journey with several of Earth’s Green Lanterns. Weirder characters like the Metal Men, Doom Patrol, and Justice League Dark are present as well, along with the likes of Nightwing, Batgirl, and the Outsiders.
And that’s just barely scratching the surface. Seeing Frank draw so many unique and beloved characters is a treat, even if their goals are questionable at best. I mean, sure, sending the Marvel family or Captain Atom to investigate a being of unknown power? That makes sense. Even having guys like Blue Beetle and Steel along for the ride in a technical capacity is understandable. But Doctor Manhattan is an unverified force to every single one of these characters, so sending an endless horde of heroes doesn’t seem like the brightest idea to me. At the very least you’d think they would go in waves, with some heavy-hitters scouting the situation and calling in backup as needed.
It would have been a good excuse to bring more of the other Watchmen characters into the fold too, as they are all but absent here. Save for a very brief appearance by a maskless Rorschach, Manhattan is the sole representative of the world of the Watchmen. Like Superman’s involvement in the story, this is more up to personal preference, as there may not have been a way to organically incorporate Ozymandias, Mime, and Marionette on this mission. Still, at least one of them could have provided counsel on how bad of an idea it is to confront Manhattan head on.
Batman at least recognizes how foolish this plan is, as he attempts to contact anybody en route to Mars while he recovers in the Batcave. His scenes are brief, but incredibly tense, especially as they’re intercut with the escalating conflict on Mars.
Honestly, the book gets a little terrifying here. There’s a sense of dread as Doctor Manhattan deals with his newfound uncertainty. He may not be afraid, at least not in a way a normal human would be, but he takes clear delight in toying with powers that are ultimately beneath him. I mean, he can take out Green Lanterns and some of the DC Universe’s most powerful magic users with barely a wave of his hand, and then effectively play with their energy constructs as if they were nothing more than putty or clay.
As a little aside, some of the characters who go on this mission were fun to see. It’s not outright spoilery, but just in case…
Several Charlton characters tag along, including Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and the Question. These characters inspired the Watchmen characters Nite-Owl, Doctor Manhattan, and Rorschach, respectively, so seeing them in this story is pretty fun. Never in my life did I imagine that I’d ever see Captain Atom try and fail to defeat Doctor Manhattan, and yet, here we are.
Firestorm– or at least Ronnie Raymond and Professor Martin Stein– were shanghaied into joining the mission as well, which adds some additional drama. Ronnie is pretty gung ho about going to Mars, whereas Stein feels they were brought along without consent. To make matters worse, Doctor Manhattan reveals something to Ronnie that makes it appear as if the experiment that fused him and Stein together wasn’t exactly an accident at all.
With three issues to go, there’s still plenty of story to tell, and plenty of opportunity for Johns, Frank, Anderson, and Leigh to end on a high note. There’s yet to be a point where this series has been truly bad, but it still doesn’t feel completely necessary. It’s dense and always worth reading, I’m just waiting for it to get truly great.
This is the leanest backmatter section yet, but it’s no less illuminating. Consisting of a single case file, we read Doctor Martin Stein’s plans and motivations for what would become the Firestorm project. It lends credence and veracity to the claims that some meta beings were, in fact, created, and that Stein’s machinations with Ronnie Raymond weren’t as altruistic or accidental as we believed. Really, that’s all it is, the single page, but it’s nicely designed by Amie Brockway-Metcalf.
- You’ve been reading Doomsday Clock.
- You want to see Gary Frank draw tons of your favorite DC characters.
- Any and all references to Ferro Lad tickle your fancy.
- Guy Gardner, the Best Green Lantern™, has a big role.
Overall: Less focused than other chapters, but still a gripping story. Gary Frank is clearly relishing the opportunity to draw such a huge cast of DC characters, and that alone is worth it. The story is approaching the final quarter of its rich, dense narrative, and if nothing else I never regret reading and reviewing it. While this issue had a few narrative contrivances and wasn’t quite as clear in its trajectory than others, it’s still a perfectly readable issue. Here’s to hoping that the whole series comes together in the end.