It's been known since last year's DC Universe: Rebirth one-shot that Watchmen character Doctor Manhattan has done something to the DC Universe. Follow-ups have trickled out across DC's publishing line since that comic, but are set to be explored fully in Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's Doomsday Clock, a 12-issue series taking the controversial step of introducing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen characters to DC Universe heroes likes Superman and Batman.
Scheduled to debut in November, Doomsday Clock has remained mostly shrouded in secrecy -- though that changed in a significant way on Friday night at New York Comic Con, with Johns leading a panel dedicated to the series on the convention's main stage, and revealing the first six pages (black and white and unlettered) to the audience.
The panel's moderator, The Magicians author Lev Grossman, took the stage to ask if fans were "ready to watch two introverted middle-aged men stare at their phones."
"This is a nice big room for a comic book," Johns told the audience, with Grossman estimating there were about 3,000 people in attendance. Johns told fans in attendance that they would get an ashcan comic with the first six pages of Doomsday Clock #1, along with some other promo items available only at the panel.
Grossman asked Johns when he first read Watchmen. "I was 12," Johns said. "There's almost too young," Grossman responded. "There's a lot of glowing blue penis in there."
Johns thanked Grossman for putting Watchmen, a comic book, on Time Magazine's list of the 100 best books. "The fact that you did that is huge," Johns said. "I'm sure you had a lot of people looking at you sideways, that you put a graphic novel on your list." "Yeah, I got used to that," Grossman said.
"Watchmen was a really intense and new look at comics," Johns said. "The mid-'80s for DC was a really crazy time. There was nothing else like it at the time. The impression it's had on readers and creators is undeniable."
Johns said it's effectively impossible to have read Watchmen and not be influenced by it as a writer.
Grossman asked if Johns had ever previously thought of intersecting the worlds of Watchmen and the DC Universe. "I never thought about it for a lot of reasons," Johns replied. "I actually never thought about it until a year-and-a-half ago when I was writing the Rebirth special. For me, DC has always been about heart, heroes and humanity. It felt like some of the humanity had been ripped away from the books. Who would have the power, the inclination -- the curiosity -- to remove that humanity from the DC Universe? And the ability to do that? Doctor Manhattan and Superman, you've got one that's an alien, that's probably the most human of superheroes. And you've got one that's a human, and is probably the most alien of all superhumans. I thought, a conversation between those two would be amazing."
"Back then, all I was going to do is hint at it," Johns said. "It wasn't until the story that coalesced in my head, and I pitched Gary -- Gary said, 'I have to draw this story.' Then we committed to it last year."
Grossman asked what Johns thought the DC Universe had been missing. "It was missing those personal relationships, it was missing emotional storytelling, for me," Johns said. "I wanted to get back to the essence of these characters. That's what made me more interested in contrasting it with Watchmen."
"This was such a challenge on every level," Johns added. "The expectation of even scratching the surface with Watchmen, doing anything with those characters, it's daunting. It's daunting as a creator, not even the outside pressure of, 'It's sacrilege,' which I get. If I do something like this, I've got to go to a place I've never gone. It's going to take much more time than an issue of something even as complicated as Blackest Night."
Johns said he encountered skeptics when relaunching characters like Teen Titans, Booster Gold and Aquaman. "I've done some Superman books, I've done a few Batman things, but I like when it's a challenge," Johns said. "This was perhaps the most daunting challenge. When someone says, 'You can't do that' -- I kind of want to do that."
Grossman said Johns must have felt the "astral projection" of Alan Moore over his shoulder while writing the book. Johns said he definitely has. "He'll never read it, he'll never look at it, I know that," Johns said. "But there's a lot of people who love that work, and there are a lot of people who love the kind of work we do. I think we've earned the right to try."
Grossman asked about the effect of the 2016 United States presidential election on Doomsday Clock. Johns told a story of meeting with Gary Frank last summer on the London set of Wonder Woman, and talking about the initial origins of the story, though at the time he didn't feel like he had to do the story yet. "It kept sticking in my head, and then the election happened in November, and a few things followed it, and the story went in my head," Johns said. "I called Gary the last November and December, and I called Gary. But it's taken a while, and it's taken a while to write, because there is so much internal pressure and so much external pressure."
Johns said Frank was the only artist who could draw this story. "Gary's art is just phenomenal, and you'll see why he's the only artist," Johns said. "He's got the echo of Dave Gibbons in it, and it's emotional. It's all about the story. I'm proud of everything I've done with him, and I know the way he told a story, and the way we work together, was the only way I culd try and do this book."
Gary Frank lives in Italy, and Johns said he talks to him on the phone every morning at 6 a.m. Pacific time. "We talk all the time," Johns said. "We talk, and I tell him the intent of everything I'm doing before he reads it. So he knows the intent of it all."
Grossman asked about how Doomsday Clock pays tribute to Watchmen stylistically. "When you open the book, I wanted people to go, 'That has an echo and reminds me of Watchmen," Johns said. "The storytelling is based on a nine-panel grid, though it varies from that.
Johns showed the first page, unlettered, to the audience, which opens with a narrator saying that it's November 1992 -- establishing how long it's been since the end of Watchmen -- though he's not sure what day it is -- confirming that it's an unreliable narrator. The narrator isn't happy with the direction the world has gone in, because it's a world "without a god" -- without Doctor Manhattan.
Page two, Johns shares, shows news reports of a world that's heading into a bleak direction. Peace is crumbling, as a result of the climax of Watchmen.
Page three includes a look at news reports of Ozymandias, who is now the most wanted man in the world for the murder of three million people.
Page four sees Russian soldiers looking for Ozymandias unsuccessfully, and an image of an x-ray with a tumor (which was teased by Johns a few months back at Comic-Con International in San Diego).
Page five, sees the "National News Network" taking over for independent news outlets, establishing that nuclear war is imminent. It cuts to a prison, and a prisoner looking to get out while an unseen figure yanks away a guard's keys.
Page six is the reveal of who attacked the guard and took the keys: Rorschach, who is the unreliable narrator heard since page one. That gets a huge ovation from the audience. Rorschach asks if the prisoner still wants out, to which he replies, "No way man, I'm cool."
Johns said that Rorschach (who died in Watchmen; his return is not yet explained) is a central figure in Doomsday Clock, searching for Doctor Manhattan. "He's in a very familiar place, if you read DC Comics," Johns said.
Grossman complimented Johns for including a good amount of humor in the pages of Doomsday Clock that the author has seen so far. "People think if something is gritty, serious and dark, it's realistic," Johns replied. "I think people laugh every day. Humor is necessary, and it's a part of life. That's realistic. The stakes are high, obviously, but there is a humor, a quirkiness and an oddness throughout the whole series."
Grossman asked if Johns agreed that Watchmen forced change in superhero comics. "In some ways, it did," Johns said. "In some ways, the creators took it on board, and I think audiences did, too. It definitely influenced everything, but I don't think it forced everybody to do it. But it certainly had such a huge impact and influence that it could look like it did."
"I think comics and storytelling have evolved over the past 30-plus years, both in ways that were influenced by Watchmen and were influenced by other ways," Johns said. "I wouldn't be telling the story if I didn't think Superman and Doctor Manhattan could be in the same panel, and not have an interaction that wasn't worthy of it."
Grossman asked if Watchmen had something to say to the DC Universe, does the DC Universe have something to say back to Watchmen? "That's exactly why I'm telling this story," Johns answered.
Johns stressed that there are no tie-ins to Doomsday Clock -- the 12 issues stand alone, and you don't need to read anything else.
"He is the most fun character I've ever written in my entire life," Johns said of Rorschach. "He's not a nice man," Grossman said. "That depends on your perspective," Johns replied.
Grossman asked the question on everyone's mind: "How naked is Doctor Manhattan?" Johns pointed out that there are times where he's naked and times where he's not naked in Watchmem, so, "We've got follow the rulebook. I didn't write the rules."
Another question on people's minds: Is this a political story? "Rorschach helps with that, because his viewpoint is so apolitical, in a fascinating way," Johns said. "It does have political overtones. I don't think you can do a story about Watchmen without it."
"This story, if you want to boil it down, is about a lot of things, but this story is about extremes," Johns continued. "I think this world has become an extreme world. Everyone's moving to extremes for a lot of reasons."
Audience Q&A time. First question: "What did DC learn from Before Watchmen that you took to heart, and did you give Alan a call"? "I don't even know if Alan has a phone," Johns answered. "I tried a seance, but I didn't get anything. Just my grandfather, and he yelled at me about cleaning up my room."
"I didn't work on Before Watchmen," Johns continued. "I read it when it was coming out. One of the things I wanted to do was, look at the rulebook. I think there's a rulebook when you're working with these characters. They did something different, and I'm trying to do something different. I like that we're going to move beyond, and for me, that was more exciting than trying to fill a hole in. But that's a personal preference."
Next fan asked a question from Johns' status as President and Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment, specifically what DC concepts he'd like to see on the big screen. "I don't really want to answer that question in case it does, so I'll stick to Doomsday Clock," Johns answered.
Will the villains of the DCU play into the story? "I can't write a book about the DC Universe without the villains, because they're the best part," Johns answered. "Yes, you will see villains in there. The interactions will be very interesting and unpredictable. Ozymandias and Lex Luthor -- that was a fun scene to write. When you have two guys in the room who think they're the smartest person, and they are, it takes a long time to write that scene."
A fan asked Johns how he plans to push characters in new directions without doing something "crazy like making Captain America Hydra." "Well, Superman's not going to be a Nazi, or anything like that," Johns replied. "It's just the balance of the writing. You'll see in the book, and hopefully we balance it and people enjoy it."
Will the time difference between the two universes -- DC being in the present day, and Watchmen being in 1992 -- be addressed? Yes, when the two worlds meet in the story.
"The Black Freighter is such an iconic part of Watchmen, but we have something very different that we're going to be experimenting with in the series," Johns said.
A fan asked if readers will see who is more powerful between Doctor Manhattan and Mr. Mxyzptlk. "I haven't really imagined a fight between Doctor Manhttan and Mr. Mxyzptlk, but never say never," Johns said, clearly a little amused at the thought of the two characters interacting.
Next person up at the microphone asked about Johns' role as a "fixer" of forgotten or underrated characters, to which Johns replied that he sees himself more as someone who "unlocks" a character's potential. "I just write the stories I write, I don't necessarily go about trying to fix things," Johns said. "I'm drawn to characters who are underappreciated."
Final question of the panel asked about writing an all-powerful character like Doctor Manhattan: "As a writer, what is it like to put either restrictions on yourself or the character?" "He has no restrictions, except his head and maybe his heart," Johns answered. "It's actually really fun to write a character that has no restrictions. But he certainly has a point of view and something he's up to."
The panel ended with a trailer for Doomsday Clock, wrapping with the release date of Nov. 22, 2017.