Doomsday Clock #3, or, Rampant Speculation: Totally Cool and Totally Normal

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When it’s not Blanton’s, AMIRIGHT BOYS!?

Spoilers ahead for Doomsday Clock #3…

If Doomsday Clock #1 is an exercise in evoking powerlessness and Doomsday Clock #2 is a primer in a spectrum of reality and fiction, the third issue of Geoff Johns and Gary Franks’ Watchmen/DC crossover series is a marriage of the two. This third chapter bounces back and forth between a number of narratives, calling back to the intermittent Tales of the Black Freighter portions of the original Watchmen. But where those interludes represented a single work of fiction within a fictional “real world” the traversal of fiction within Doomsday Clock is less a game of pong between two works and more a frenzied exploration of a densely layered onion of narratives.

Piggybacking off of my writing on Doomsday Clock #2, there’s a penetration of the fictional spectrum in this issue that brings with it at least the implication of an increased ability to harness and exert power over the world the more fictional a character gets.

The outer most layer of the onion in question is the world. Our world. Us. The readers. Holding a comic book. We are so often the masses portrayed in Doomsday Clock’s first issue. Inundated with dreadful headlines we are so often powerless to effect. We are not fiction. We are reality.

The Watchmen Universe, while a fiction, is only truly separated from our own world by one aspect: Doctor Manhattan. That’s that grit I mentioned in my first Doomsday Clock post. That grit implies realism, or invokes a sense that something fiction is at least “more real” than other less gritty works. The surrounding dystopia is obviously a fiction but the element of fantasy separating the Watchmen Universe from our own is just one big blue dude. In this sense the Watchmen are more fictional than us, but more realistic than…

The DC Universe: where fiction runs rampant, where some things are gritty but others actually smile once in awhile. Super powered aliens, space cops, metahumans, multiverses, one inter-dimensional Crisis after another. You can’t pinpoint just one fantastical element responsible for the divergence between us and the world of Batman and Superman. Even to the characters of the Watchmen Universe the DCU appears fictional, with Ozymandias stating last issue that certain heroes within the DCU are characters in he and Rorschach’s world.

Ozymandias, Rorschach, the Marionette and the Mime travel deeper into fiction, and with that traversal there appear to be side effects. Last issue we saw the Mime use a pantomimed lock pick to escape his bonds. This issue, we see him actually use the pantomimed gun we’ve only ever seen him brandish in the Watchmen Universe. It fires and a head explodes. It works. And not only that, Frank’s depiction of the gun in the DC Universe lends it a hint of shape and form, the presumably make-believe gun now becoming real when brought in to a comparatively make-believe universe. Similarly we see possible side-effects of the aforementioned traversal of fiction in our new Rorschach, who we learn in this issue is in all likelihood basically just some guy. He talks of having blood on his hands and then, as he showers, we see that blood appear as he clutches his head. Now, is he clawing his head open and making it bleed? Like, a lot? Maybe. Or perhaps the metaphors, the make-believe, in which he speaks are given more power, more potency in the DCU.

With that wild speculation in mind, I can’t help but feel the text implying an increased power, and increased ability to affect change, the more “fictional” an entity becomes.

We, the readers, have no superheroes or caped crusaders. The Watchmen Universe has a smattering heroes but only one is truly super-powered. In the DC Universe everyone and their mother is a superhero, even, perhaps, the formally less remarkable refugees of the Watchmen Universe.

But there’s a hiccup in that theory because the DC Universe is not the farthest Doomsday Clock penetrates into fiction. Within the DCU we’re given continued allusions to an actor, Carver Coleman, and the grizzled gumshoe he’s most famous for portraying, Nathaniel Dusk. Coleman is of the same fictional stock as Batman and the lot, a denizen of the DCU, but Nathaniel Dusk, a character in a movie within the DCU, is a layer deeper.

Throughout Doomsday Clock #3, we’re show scenes from the final Nathaniel Dusk film, The Adjournment. It’s as deep as the fiction goes in this issue and yet it’s the most realistic story in the book so far. It’s a detective, a cop and a murder mystery. No powers, no vigilantes, no nothing. Nothing but the characteristic grit of noir. So where has that power gone? That power that seems to grow and grow the more fictional it becomes?

If nothing else, it certainly rebounds and penetrates back out toward reality, as we see some old-timers in a retirement home hailing Carver Coleman as a hero, presumably because he was Nathaniel Dusk. Perhaps there’s a law of diminishing returns in regards to this perceived increase in power. Perhaps that power can only penetrate so far into fiction. Perhaps the power is not affected by how many layers of fiction it is bundled in, but by the amount of excessive grit it is saddled with.

Whatever the case, there is some shit going on with this Coleman fella, and there is most definitely some shit going on with Nathaniel Dusk.

(Reveals bulletin board of color-coded thumb tacks and torn up portions of comic books)

 

No, you’re “a bit much!”

What’s more, is Rorschach’s journal, as an artifact from a “realer” universe, now imbued with a yet unseen power? It’s already been revealed that after the events of Watchman the original Rorschach’s journal became a powerful document in its own universe.

All this, and Doctor Manhattan still hasn’t even shown up yet! Or has he? I’m just saying, is Batman Doctor Manhattan? He previously spent time on the Mobius Chair, an object that got Manhattan’s attention once before, shortly after Batman relinquished it. And the button showed up in Batman’s cave. And it makes little sense that Batman would walk a man who know’s his secret identity into Arkham Asylum and lock him up. So, you know… what is going on?

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Home for the Holidays, or, The Court of Owls

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BAM! BIFF! POW! OWL!

The recent Batman: Noir release (a format presenting seminal Batman stories in black and white inks without any color) of writer Scott Snyder, artist Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion’s The Court of  Owls has proven an excellent opportunity to revisit a story that has cemented its place as a Batman classic despite being less than a decade old.

The new Noir formatting of the story is not exactly the second format I’ve encountered this story in. I read it first as individual comic books, then as a nicer pair of hardcover trades. There’s an excellent version that is just Capullo’s original pencils and, of course, the academic, oversized Absolute Edition. Anytime the opportunity arises I find myself eager to reencounter Snyder and Capullo’s first Batman collaboration in a different light, as I consistently find myself drifting back to the tale once or twice a year. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, which I saw a dozen times in the theater because I was a high schooler on summer vacation and the world was my oyster and time had no meaning, Court of Owls is the Batman story I interact with the most.

But why?

There are plenty of Batman stories I love, but none that I inevitably meander back to with such frequency.

DC Comics already regularly markets The Court of Owls as a Batman essential alongside the likes of Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, but more than perhaps any other Batman story, Court of Owls has the mythological backbone of a near-universal rite of passage.

For those unfamiliar with The Court of Owls, the story concerns a Batman at the height of his prowess discovering an illuminati-like organization that has haunted Gotham’s past and is pulling the strings to manipulate the city’s future. Readers are introduced to a Bruce Wayne who can and does readily wax philosophic about Gotham. It is his city. He knows it to the marrow. He informs the reader of Gotham’s history, of Gotham’s architecture, of its heights and depths, and he does it with the sort of offhanded virtuosity one would provide an oral history of their closest friends and family.

And then he discovers that that knowledge is at best incomplete, and at worst an elaborate façade.

In The Court of Owls, Batman undergoes a rite of passage most, if not all, of us will confront at some point in our lives: the subversion of his perception of home.

Court of Owls challenge Batman by calling into question the structural integrity of what he believe Gotham to be. The worst part? Nothing about Gotham City has actually changed. The threat Bruce Wayne stumbles upon is one that dates back centuries. The adversary he faces is ingrained in Gotham and has been for longer than he ever can be. In grand, mythological fashion, Batman’s undertaking in Court of Owls mirrors the sort of realization that comes with hearing the unabridged, adult version of the history of the town you grew up in, or with returning home after that first semester away from college to find everything so different and so eerily similar. It’s a story about our relationships with home, about how home can define us, betray us and strengthen us, about how even when everything  we think we know about our home suddenly feels false the inherent truths we hold about our home can still ring true.

In Court of Owls, Batman, like each of us, has to contend with those aspects of his relationship with Gotham that are concrete and those that are fluid and the fact that what makes those aspects concrete or fluid may be entirely out of his control. It’s a struggle that is gorgeously rendered by Capullo in the story’s unforgettable middle chapters (originally published as Batman #5 and #6) in which Batman is stalked through his new nemesis’ stalking grounds.

I find myself returning to the Court of Owls time and time again because it so beautifully articulates and examines our relationships with home. It is Batman punching and kicking his way through the internal monologues we have when we return home for the holidays and wander through neighborhoods that suddenly seem so much smaller. It’s a batarang to that weird sensation of finding out some grown-up you knew as a kid is actually an utter jackass, or some mean old lady you rolled your eyes at was a saint. More than an excellent Batman story, the Court of Owls is an excellent human story, one that deals with the horrifying sensation of tectonic plates beneath our parents’ house shifting that we all find ourselves experiencing at one point or another.

Doomsday Clock #2, or, How to Keep it Real in a Fictional Universe

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Ah yes, my favorite Watchmen character: Box of Assorted Clothing and Cosmetics

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. Spoilers ahead for Doomsday Clock #2…

The second issue of writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank’s Watchmen/DC Comics crossover event Doomsday Clock spends very little time exploiting the sense of dread and impending doom so masterfully curated in the debut issue, instead seeing those nuclear fears realized and moving on to an examination of a  spectrum of perceived reality amongst superheroes.

In the opening panels we’re introduced to the concept of a sort of identity vendor within the Watchmen Universe who sells costumes and monikers, which, Doctor Manhattan aside, is all a superhero really is in the Watchmen Universe. Rorschach, the Comedian, Ozymandias, names and costumes the lot of them. And yet, even within the world of Watchmen there is a spectrum of realness and legitimacy which those characters have and so many others who buy monikers and costumes do not.

The new villain introduced last issue, the Mime, is a personification of this sort of nebulous discrepancy between real and fake superheroics in a world that only actually has one real superhero. Last issue we saw the Mime retrieve his pantomimed “guns” from a storage locker and this issue we see them in action, so to speak. Watching security camera footage of a bank robbery carried out by the Mime and the Marionette, we see him successfully coercing information from a bank teller by miming pointing a gun at her. We never see him fire psychic bullets or whack anyone with an invisible pistol, but the gun is perceived by the bank teller nonetheless. There or not, in effect the gun is real.

Perhaps then, in the Watchmen Universe, the reality of a superhero or supervillain is a matter of imposition of will, a scale of how deftly one can wield their own imagery and mythos within the world around them, their true power being influence. We see this influence reflected in the same bank robbery in a picture of the bank teller’s son, who we see cradling an Ozymandias action figure. Ozymandias is not only a moniker and a costume, it is a moniker and a costume that penetrates the surrounding culture, that means something to the world around it.

In crossing over to the proper DC Universe, Ozymandias, Rorschach, the Marionette and the Mime enter a world in which that influence and legitimacy might just translate to something more, something palpable. In the DC Universe, the Mime’s pantomimed lock pick works.

DC’s universe has always carried with it the weight of myth, their characters less a reflection of the world outside our door than monuments to ideals and beliefs. It’s fitting then that Doomsday Clock seems interested in exploring the potency of myth as its narrative moves across universes more and less like our own.

In its inaugural issue Doomsday Clock concerned itself with very real world fears. Its second issue sets up an exploration of what effect, if any, very unreal world stories have on those fears. When Batman saves Gotham, what effect does that have on the DC Universe? What effect does that have on a separate fictional universe in which Batman is a fiction? What effect does that have on our world, here and now, and how real is the effect of that fictional salvation, particularly in the face of very real dread?

And to think at this point Doctor Manhattan hasn’t even gotten involved in the proceedings. Two issues in Doomsday Clock promises to be one wild ride.

Doomsday Clock #1, or, True Grit

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That guy who’s way to excited for the Justice League movie.

When the intermingling of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s comic book classic Watchmen and the rest of the DC Comics universe was first teased last year in the comic DC Rebirth it was immediately framed as a battle between hope and grit, between the wholesome hope of old school Superman and the intellectual grit and despair of Doctor Manhattan. After 30 years, the Superman of yore was finally going to stick it to the grime and misery that has pervaded superhero comics since the heralded arrival of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and bring back hope and color and fun.

Enter last week’s Doomsday Clock #1, the first issue in the aforementioned crossover, written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary Frank.

Much of the first issue of this twelve-issue limited series is concerned with setting up the status quo of the world of Watchmen after the events of the original series, and it’s a status quo that is a slog to internalize. Set in 1992, the world we’re shown in Doomsday Clock is a frightening one. It’s funhouse mirror reflection of our world today make it particularly upsetting and paranoia-inducing. I found myself becoming more worried about the real world and what could become of it while reading the pages of Doomsday Clock. And then I found myself wondering, “is this what it was like to read Watchmen in 1986?”

One of the first comic books I read, I encountered Watchmen on a summer vacation in 2008, after having seen the trailer for the then-upcoming film adaptation during repeated viewings of The Dark Knight. It blew me away and still does every time I read it, but for me it will always be something of a period piece. The world it satirizes and discusses is one that predates me and so while I can read it and understand that it is gritty and grim, that grit and grim has always been mostly aesthetic rather than directly indicative of the world around me.

And perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps that’s why so many were quick to sick a colorful, smiling, curlicued Superman at the patient zero of grit and grime like a cheerful attack dog. Where the vein of bleakness in Watchmen was a direct reflection of the world that produced that work, in many works since then that darker tone has become an imitation of Watchmen itself, a reflection of a reflection that loses its poignancy somewhere between mirrors.

Doomsday Clock #1 isn’t the condemnation of grit some might have expected, rather it’s a recontextualization of it. A reminder of why Watchmen was the way it was. Doomsday Clock is more a reconstruction of the equation behind Watchmen than the end result. The darkness in this first issue isn’t an imitation of its predecessor, it’s an imitation of its own time and place, which makes it incredibly effecting.

As a reader, by the end of Doomsday Clock #1 I felt more concerned about the world than I had before I read it. That’s a vulnerable and unpleasant journey to be taken on by a story. After Doomsday Clock’s first steps I’m left to wonder about what I suspect will make or break this story: what will the issues to come do with the vulnerability the first issue elicits from me, and how authentically will it be done? One expects some semblance of hope to prevail, but would that hope ring as true as despair does here?

Classic funny books!

A Superhero Movie, or, Wonder Woman

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\m/  [INSERT HEAVY METAL CELLO HERE]  \m/

Wonder Woman is undiluted superhero cinema the likes of which audiences have been without for, at least, the better part of a decade.

The latest film in DC Comics’ shared cinematic universe, the DCEU, blends the brand’s own penchant for powerful imagery and mythological scope with the Marvel films’ revolutionary approach of having protagonists that are actually charming rather than being miserable bastards.

But unlike most any entry in the filmography of either brand, director Patty Jenkins ‘ Wonder Woman tosses aside any substantial reliance on being a sequel or a prequel or a tie in. Similarly it doesn’t feel like a “take” on a superhero movie. Ant-Man is something of a superhero heist film. Iron Man 3 is a superhero buddy cop flick. The Dark Knight trilogy is a series of superhero films set in “the real world.”

Wonder Woman, more than any superhero movie since perhaps the first Iron Man (before the credits) feels like uncut superheroism. It’s primary concern is conveying the story of someone with extraordinary abilities using said abilities to better the world around them and the film serves as a testament to just how power that idea can be even without the bells and whistles of sub-genre tropes and crossovers and tie-ins. Bells and whistles I absolutely adore by the way, but bells and whistles that, as the likes of Age of Ultron can attest, can prove prohibitive.

Wonder Woman is a reminder of why popular culture went bonkers for superheroes in the first place, a reminder of the resonance these figures have in modern mythology, a reminder that at their best these logos and costumes can be mirrors of our morals and aspirations.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s much-lauded no man’s land sequence, in which Wonder Woman makes her way out of Allied trenches to take on attacking Central forces. It’s a set piece that’s, for me, proved more affecting and overwhelming than any other superhero action sequence in recent memory, not simply because of the deftly handled action, but because of its context.

The scene is preceded by Wonder Woman first encountering a man beating a horse that has gotten stuck in the mud along with the carriage it is towing. She is told to do nothing, to look at the bigger picture. Then she encounters the wounded. She encounters the sick. The hungry. Always she is told it cannot be helped. Finally, she hears of the occupied village across no man’s land, which she is also told to ignore in favor of a larger objective. And finally she puts her foot down.

Faced with the evils of the world, close to being overwhelmed by the profound horrors of it all, Wonder Woman stops, identifies a problem she can solve, and solves it.

Queue no man’s land and electric cello shredding.

Wonder Woman is a great film as a whole, but the no man’s land sequence in particular proved to be straight up transcendent. It will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever felt paralyzed by the wickedness of the world. When she rises out of the trenches, Wonder Woman rises above the fears that one person cannot block the tides of villainy, above the idea that there are too many problems in the world and therefore dealing with any of them is a waste of time.

It’s that idea, and it’s unencumbered communication to the audience that will undoubtedly mark Wonder Woman as a staple of superhero storytelling. It’s not a movie that’s exciting because it serves as a springboard for bigger, louder films in the future, or because it ties into another film and weaves into a larger whole. It’s not thrilling because it puts superheroes into some other genre, or because it subverts the superhero genre. Wonder Woman is fantastic because it digs down past franchises and cinematic universes and intellectual properties to offer something seemingly all too common and yet all too rare: a straight-up superhero movie.

The DCW Superhero Crossover Spectacular, or, Literally Legends of Tomorrow

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TABLEAU ATTACK!

CW’s recent superhero crossover, an alien invasion story spanning the shows Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, is the kind of goofy, exciting, carefree storytelling that’s usually written in action figures and movie soundboard beat boxing. Creepy aliens, time travel, space travel, lasers, fire, explosions and a variable toy box of heroes and villains make the Invasion crossover a sight to behold.Despite their success (what was once just Arrow has now spun-off into four different shows airing four nights a week) it’s still remained easy for some to roll their eyes at CW’s DC lineup. It’s not held in the same esteem as the likes of Game of Thrones or even Netflix’s various Marvel series. But unlike Game of Thrones and Netflix’s various Marvel Series, the DCW isn’t tailor-made for the world weary TV-MA audience. It’s for everyone.

I couldn’t help but chuckle when the heroes of the DCW were commended by the President of the United States in full superhero attire, but there was a part of me that has rarely shown itself since I turned 12 that absolutely, unapologetically, unequivocally loved it. The DCW is everything DC’s films struggle so hard to capture. They’re everything DC Comics are aiming to recapture with their new Rebirth initiative. They’re uplifting and exciting and fun and they never wink at the audience for it. There isn’t an ounce of irony in the performances of these characters. They are absolutely going for it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen is the the Robert Downey Jr. of the DC Universe, and the performances that have followed in his wake have followed his example.

But you aren’t going to see any of these shows on year end lists. You aren’t going to hear about Stephen Amell pulling $50 million. I’ve yet to heard of any angry positions insisting the cast and crew who commit so fully and enthusiastically to these roles, ludicrous as they may be, have been robbed by the Emmys. No one’s going to reference Arrow in a think piece on prestige television.

Yet.

Watching the likes of Firestorm and The Flash stand next to the President I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something monumental for popular culture to come.

If I were a betting man I’d wager that the DCW circa 2016 is comparable to Star Trek in 1968.

The people writing blogs and tweeting and think piecing and compiling Best of 2016 lists for major publications aren’t the vessels through which these shows’ influence will be felt. These are shows a family could watch together, think pieces are for shows with orgies. But the kids who get sent to bed at 8:45 on Sunday night just might be a different story. Maybe no one at your office is talking about the Invasion crossover, but I’m willing to bet people on the playground are.

Sure kids love Iron Man and Batman, but Green Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl are the heroes that are in their home, week to week. They’re the Adam Wests, William Shatners and Linda Carters of the day.

Watching the Invasion Crossover bob and weave through the characters and story threads of four different television shows I couldn’t shake the feeling that the event was bigger than I could appreciate, that across the country there were ten year olds in their living rooms just losing their shit like nobody’s business.

The DCW is far from obscure television, but it’s playing the long game. Despite its current popularity I’d be shocked if NPR ran a story about the Invasion crossover, but I won’t be surprised to hear the creative forces behind the genre fiction of tomorrow citing these characters and stories as a major influence.

Batman v Supermen (and Women), or, I Am Gotham

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A bunch of friends having a great time.

The world will disappoint you. On particularly heinous days it can be almost impossible to keep that disappointment from lapsing into loathing. It’s a battle for our own outlook that we wage with ourselves every time we read a headline and it’s the conflict at the heart of writer Tom King’s first arc on the newest volume of Batman (issues #1-5).

When Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo ended their run on Batman I thought there was a chance my compulsive need to analyze Batman might’ve taken an arrow to the knee, but King, and artist David Finch have crafted a fantastic, timely Batman story that won me over entirely by the end of the first issue. This is a story I’ll be wearing down the spine of when it comes out in paperback.

I Am Gotham finds Batman confronted with the prospect of two new super-powered allies, Gotham and Gotham Girl, who’ve been inspired by the Dark Knight to defend their city. It presents Batman with a question that’s been lobbied against him since his first meeting with Superman decades ago: in a world of superheroes with godlike powers what heroic relevance can one ordinary man really have? It’s a point that is beautifully illustrated in that aforementioned first issue in which nearly the entire contents of the book are dedicated to Batman figuring out how to solve a problem that takes Gotham and Gotham Girl all of a panel to solve.

But by the end of the arc King makes it clear that Batman’s power doesn’t lie in his money or gadgets or training. If Batman does have a superpower it’s his relentless belief in his city.

Batman’s disappointment in the world around him never lapses into loathing. He does not hate Gotham, he does not give up on Gotham and he never will. No matter how atrocious the headlines it produces are, Batman will never give up on his world’s potential to be better, and that requires an internal fortitude beyond flight or super strength.

Tom King’s Batman is as much a pillar of perseverance as he is a pillar or fearlessness and bravery and after the conclusion of “I Am Gotham” I couldn’t be more excited to see where he’ll take the character next.