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How Doomsday Clock & Death of Superman Fit Into DC’s Rebirth Continuity

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
How Doomsday Clock & Death of Superman Fit Into DC’s Rebirth Continuity

Literally from Gary Frank’s very first panel, the upcoming Doomsday Clock invites comparisons between the world of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and DC’s main-line shared superhero universe. D-Clock (for obvious reasons, we can’t just abbreviate it DC) begins on November 22, 1992, some twenty-five years “ago”; but alludes rather pointedly to several 2017 geopolitical touchstones. November 22, 1963, for example, was also the date President John F. Kennedy was killed (an event still relevant in Watchmen‘s timeline).

RELATED: Doomsday Clock: Read The First 6 Pages of DC’s Watchmen/Superman Event

This year’s November 22 is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which Geoff Johns picked as a release date because of his affection for reading comics over the Thanksgiving break. In the comics world, however, November 1992 is infamous mainly for one thing: the death of Superman. As written and pencilled by Dan Jurgens, and inked by Brett Breeding, the Man of Steel met his end defeating the monster called (yes) Doomsday in Superman vol. 2 issue #75. According to the Grand Comics Database, that issue came out in comics shops on Thursday, November 19, 1992.

So, Doomsday Clock is set three days after Superman died, and kicks off by describing a superhero-free world beset on all sides by nightmare scenarios. While that’s the most obvious starting point, there are a few other factors to consider. We’ll start by examining how things were in the real November 1992, how they compare to Watchmen‘s world, and what it might all mean for the story that’s coming.

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Page 2:

Forward Into The Past

November 22, 1992 was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Probably the year’s biggest story was Bill Clinton’s November 3 election as President of the United States. Otherwise, earlier in the year

  • President George H.W. Bush and Russian president Boris Yeltsin had pronounced the Cold War officially over;
  • North Korea agreed to allow inspections of its nuclear power facilities;
  • the former Yugoslavia descended into civil war;
  • riots raged across Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers who beat motorist Rodney King;
  • Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida;
  • Johnny Carson retired from “The Tonight Show”;
  • Turner Broadcasting introduced Cartoon Network;
  • Microsoft released Windows 3.1;
  • actors John Boyega and Daisy Ridley were born within a few weeks of another (March 17 and April 10, respectively); and
  • Superman co-creator Joe Shuster died on July 30.

Clearly that’s not a comprehensive rundown, but it gives you an idea of what the year was like. Needless to say, 1992 lacked the Internet as we know it. Regular folks who wanted to get connected electronically joined bulletin boards and communities like CompuServe, Prodigy, and the just-rebranded America Online.

So much '90s hair

President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton speak at Superman’s memorial service, from “Superman: The Man Of Steel” #20 by Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove

Of course, 1992 was a big year for comics as well. The marketplace was rocked both by the upstart Image Comics and the rise of gimmick-driven marketing. Although this tended to involve relatively superficial strategies like cover enhancements (including multiple variant covers for 1989’s Legends of the Dark Knight #1 and 1991’s X-Men #1), the death of Superman helped fuel a spate of “retire and replace” plots at both DC and Marvel. A skeptical readership predicted correctly that most retirements were temporary (the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern being one notable exception); but the point was to goose sales, and that they did.

Somewhat counterintuitively, DC had been expanding its most marketable characters into multi-series franchises. Besides the four “weekly” Superman titles, in 1992 the Justice League and Green Lantern each had three books and a quarterly anthology. There were three regular Titans series (counting Deathstroke the Terminator as a Titans book); and the Bat-books got their third in-continuity regular series (Shadow of the Bat) in the summer of 1992. That made it the fourth ongoing Bat-series (Legends of the Dark Knight was out of continuity).

Because the Superman books’ weekly schedule demanded an appropriate increase in adventures, the sarcastic suggestion to kill off the headliner ended up being taken seriously. In hindsight it looks like the inevitable product of market forces and narrative risk – the original idea was to have Clark Kent and Lois Lane get married, but the upcoming Lois & Clark series nixed that – and that in turn seems reflective of 1992’s comics zeitgeist. Green Lantern and Flash were full of neo-Silver Age storylines, while Grant Morrison and Richard Case were wrapping up their Doom Patrol run and Neil Gaiman and his artistic collaborators were just hitting their stride on Sandman. Mostly, though, it was a period when creators and publishers tried to monetize comics’ limitless possibilities by channeling that can-do spirit into ever-increasing attempts to outdo one’s competitors.

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Of course, today we might call the early 1990s the “Chromium Age,” full of superfluous pouches, gratuitous sharp edges and over-the-top artistic choices presented in foil-enhanced, die-cut packages. In that respect the death of Superman at the hands of a sharp-edged beast – and arriving in a sealed black polybag that also contained a souvenir black armband – epitomized its worst excesses. When the dust had settled a few years later, DC had started to build a (fairly successful) legacy structure out of its perpetually convoluted history.

Nevertheless, by the middle of the 2000s DC was in another kind of funk, driven in part by downbeat arcs in Superman (“For Tomorrow”) and Wonder Woman (her blind duel with Medousa); plus the grim Bat-crossover “War Games” (in which ex-Robin Stephanie Brown was apparently tortured to death) and 2004’s event miniseries Identity Crisis (wherein we learned the JLA’s rapey, mind-wipey secret history). It all culminated in 2005’s mega-crossover Infinite Crisis, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Phil Jimenez. In its first issue – following a fight with Mongul designed to echo Moore and Gibbons’ “For The Man Who Has Everything” — Batman mocked Superman by saying “the last time you really inspired anyone was when you were dead.”


The sickest of Bat-burns, from “Infinite Crisis” #1 by Geoff Johns and Phil Jimenez

For what it’s worth, Infinite Crisis was a sequel to a landmark mid-1980s miniseries which many thought couldn’t and shouldn’t be sequelized; and it too rested on the extradimensional interventions of characters who had apparently been placed way off-limits. In short, this post is probably not the last time we’ll compare Doomsday Clock to Infinite Crisis.

Case in point: Since Infinite Crisis issue #1 also opens with scenes of horrific destruction (told partly via snippets of news reporting), today it reads as thematically very similar to the D-Clock preview. However, we must separate the significant parallels from the superficialities. With Infinite Crisis, Johns argues that Superman’s death forced DC’s superhero community to rededicate itself to the Man of Steel’s example. (With 2002-03’s Superman: Day of Doom miniseries, Dan Jurgens even posited that Superman’s death was the DCU’s version of 9/11.) Eventually, though, the superheroes backslid, including his Trinitarian colleagues: Batman’s strategies and technology fell into two different sets of wrong hands, and Wonder Woman was forced to kill a supervillain on live TV.

Accordingly, with Doomsday Clock Johns may be trying to compare Superman’s death (and eventual revival) with Ozymandias’ squid-monster attack. Both forced their respective communities to stop and re-examine themselves, although clearly the stakes were much more serious for Watchmen‘s world. Nevertheless, both were fueled by combinations of optimism and grim pragmatism. Ozymandias crafted a far-ranging conspiracy, which killed and/or traumatized thousands of innocent people, in order to shock the United States and Soviet Union out of war; while Team Superman’s editors, writers and artists sought to tell a high-risk, high-reward story they knew would have to be reversed.

Page 4:

The Physicist And The Farmer

Thus, at the heart of both stories there’s no guarantee of permanence, even without taking Rorschach’s journal into account; and there is backlash as well. Aside from the general decline of Chromium Age marketing, no one is putting their children through college with mint-condition copies of Superman #75; and D-Clock shows us the far worse consequences when Ozymandias’ scheme – a/k/a “The Big Lie” – comes to light. Rather than putting humanity on the road to global unity, Ozymandias’ attendant crimes and cover-ups have not only undone all their positive effects, but have plunged Watchmen‘s world even deeper into chaos.

D-Clock may not be a direct parallel with Superman’s death, but both Watchmen and the Death of Superman arc exploit the idea of Superman for their own narrative and/or practical purposes. In Watchmen, as in the real world, Superman is a fictional character, and in fact an inspirational figure — inspiring the first generation of costumed crimefighters, including Hollis “Nite Owl” Mason. However, the short-lived careers of Nite Owl and friends sour the public’s appetite for fictional super-people, and superhero comics give way to horrific, EC-esque pirate comics, which endure long after Superman and his colleagues have faded into memory. When Doctor Manhattan, the world’s only superpowered being, comes along in the 1960s, the idea of a capital-S “Superman” has withered into a more generic Nietzschean “superman.”

Doctor Manhattan

Doctor Manhattan on Mars, from “Watchmen” #4 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

DC had different goals for the Death of Superman. The wide net it cast sought to snare not just the regular superhero-comics reader, but also the nostalgic (who would presumably be sorry to see Superman retired permanently) and the investment-minded. Superman’s eventual return was an even bigger deal (narratively if not financially), running through all four Super-titles for a total of twenty issues spanning four-and-a-half months in the spring and summer of 1993.

Aside from the financial incentive to keep publishing Superman comics, the books’ creative teams were exploring what Superman meant to DC’s shared universe. Naturally, they started with the idea of Superman as an ethical paragon with beliefs grounded in a salt-of-the-earth upbringing. This view posits that someone given immense power must choose to use it both wisely and unselfishly, but in a manner understandable to readers.

Watchmen turns this on its head, making its “superman” an aloof being whose powers almost supersede his morals, by necessarily changing his perspective. Before becoming Doctor Manhattan, Jon Osterman was the son of a watchmaker. Thus, forced out of normal human perceptions, he regards all of space and time mostly as a vast web of interconnected activity, to be studied but not necessarily appreciated. Contrast that with the traditional portrayal of farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent raising young Clark among the flora and fauna of rural Kansas. Doctor Manhattan does come to appreciate the beauty of singular, unique creations (i.e., people), but instead of rededicating himself to protecting humanity – something Superman would have done – he leaves Watchmen‘s universe for his own personal journeys of exploration and creation.

Speaking of personal journeys, the Superman who died in November 1992 was arguably further along in his own character development than previous versions had been. This Superman had been rebooted in 1986 as someone more in touch with his Earthly roots than his Kryptonian background, such that he saw himself as Clark first and “Superman” second. His romance with Lois had already resulted in her learning his secret and their becoming engaged (although the latter happened before the former). Lois and Clark would go on to marry and have a son, but in terms of major life events, Clark/Superman was about as far along as he was going to get. Put another way, there wasn’t much left for the character except a series of extraneous (and temporary) changes: having his powers altered, becoming a benevolent dictator, joining a newly-discovered Kryptonian society, etc. Since conventional wisdom holds that Superman risks becoming “boring” if he comes across as “too good,” one wonders if this sort of event-driven plotting wasn’t part of the frustration Johns’ Infinite Crisis dialogue expressed.

Page 5:

The Seven Year Itch

We’ve talked before about the intersection between Watchmen‘s fictional chronology, the DC superhero books’ fictional chronology, and DC’s real-world publishing calendar. Here’s a brief summary:

"Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?" by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson

Detail from the cover of the “Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” collection, by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson

  • December 1984/January 1985 (real-world): DC debuts Crisis On Infinite Earths, its 12-issue 50th-anniversary miniseries. (Its individual issues appear on newsstands a month after their Direct Market publication dates.)
  • July 1985 (DCU): The month in which the bulk of the Crisis occurs. It’s over by August 1985.
  • October 1985 (W): The month in which the bulk of Watchmen occurs. It’s over by November 1985 (when Doctor Manhattan leaves Earth), with an epilogue at Christmas 1985.
  • November/December 1985 (RW): DC publishes COIE #12.
  • May 1986 (RW): DC retires the pre-Crisis Superman with Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?”
  • May 1986 (RW): DC debuts Watchmen.
  • June 1986 (RW): DC debuts the post-Crisis Superman in John Byrne’s 6-issue Man of Steel miniseries.

Depending on how you want to use it, this chronology can argue against making Watchmen a part of the DC Multiverse; or it can reinforce the idea that Doctor Manhattan left the world of Watchmen in order to tinker with the main-line DCU. When published originally, Watchmen was quite firmly a post-Crisis work, not only coming out six months after Crisis #12, but set three months after the fictional Crisis ended. Accordingly, fans couldn’t explain it away as part of the old Multiverse.

However, if Watchmen were part of a heretofore-unknown aspect of an even larger DC cosmos — perhaps one whose calendar was conveniently synced with the DCU’s — one might see some room for a Watchmen follow-up wherein Doctor Manhattan left his Earth in November 1985 in plenty of time to tweak 2011’s main-line DCU. After all, Doctor Manhattan sees all of his own personal history simultaneously, so the years themselves don’t make much difference to him.

Into this mix D-Clock may end up positing that its November 1992 is actually synced up with both the real-world November 2017. Either way, D-Clock starts off about seven years after Watchmen ended. Thus, we may want to look at what was happening with DC’s superhero line seven years ago.

As it happens, in March 2010 DC wrapped up another Johns-written crossover, the Green Lantern-centric Blackest Night. Although its zombie-ish Black Lanterns gave the epic a very horror-movie feel, it ended by reviving a dozen characters who had been killed off in previous DC events. By the fall of 2010, Blackest Night‘s sequel Brightest Day was following many of these characters as they sought to rediscover their places in the world. Nevertheless, Blackest Night capped a years-long event cycle which had begun with 2004’s Identity Crisis and continued through Infinite Crisis, 52, the Sinestro Corps War, and Final Crisis. With every year bringing some new upheaval, the end of Blackest Night signaled that DC was taking stock of its shared superhero universe and repositioning itself for the future.

This DC did, although not quite how anyone might have expected. Instead of building on the plotlines and character arcs which Brightest Day explored, DC used the time-twisting Flashpoint (written by Johns and drawn by Andy Kubert) to reboot its superhero line into the New 52. Once that had run out of narrative steam, May 2016’s DC Rebirth special hinted strongly that Doctor Manhattan was responsible for the “meddling” which resulted in the New 52’s changes.

With all that in mind, let’s consider a revised chronology, assuming that Watchmen‘s timeline is 25 years behind the real world’s.

– November 1985 (Watchmen): Doctor Manhattan leaves his Earth.

– November 2010 (real-world): DC is in the middle of Brightest Day (as well as other character-tweaking arcs like Superman‘s “Grounded,” Wonder Woman‘s “The Odyssey” and the Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman Incorporated relaunches).

– April 2011-August 2011 (RW; corresponds to W’s April 1986-August 1986): Flashpoint; Doctor Manhattan’s whereabouts are unknown.

– September 1986 (W): Doctor Manhattan steals 10 years from the DCU timeline?

– September 2011 (RW): DC launches the New 52.

– November 1992 (W)/November 2017 (RW): Doomsday Clock begins.

In this view, the November 22, 1992 date is more symbolic, signifying Superman’s death but also chaotic societal upheaval generally. The seven years between Watchmen and Doomsday Clock correspond roughly to the seven-plus years between the end of Blackest Night (when DC was starting to get itself back together after the previous six years’ worth of constant Big Events) and the start of the New 52.

The DC Rebirth special reveals the additional wrinkle that Doctor Manhattan took 10 years from the DC timeline. This alluded to the New 52’s significantly-shorter five-year timeline, in which Superman and company had only been operating for some five years. Apparently, without Doctor Manhattan’s “theft,” the post-Flashpoint DCU would have had 15 years of modern-day superheroic activity. Although this is sure to be a D-Clock plot point, we haven’t talked that much about it, because the length of the timeline is more of a shared-universe conceit than it is a hard and fast measurement. Neither the ten years that Doctor Manhattan stole nor the fifteen-year timeline really match up with the seven years between Watchmen and Doomsday Clock. In any event, “fifteen years” is just shorthand for “enough time for all these stories to fit.”

However, it does reinforce the idea of November 22, 1992 as a more symbolic date. If DC still had a fifteen-year timeline in September 2011, it would have placed Superman’s debut no earlier than 1996.

Page 6:

Clock King

Despite Watchmen‘s hopeful ending, it’s hard not to notice that the superheroes are to blame for the society which needed saving. From Hollis Mason’s reading of Action Comics #1 to Doctor Manhattan serving as a one-man nuclear deterrent, the world of Watchmen wasn’t that well-served by its costumed crimefighters. Many readers took this to mean that superheroes must be downbeat, damaged and/or misguided in order to be taken seriously.

Thus, Watchmen helped further the proliferation of grim and gritty super-people against which superhero comics have struggled ever since. Doctor Manhattan is what Superman “would” be like, but the reverse cannot be true. Superman has nothing to teach Doctor Manhattan. In Watchmen‘s context, Superman only encouraged Hollis Mason to believe in clear-cut moral lessons – as Mason’s autobiography put it in Watchmen #1, “the basic morality of the pulps without all their darkness and ambiguity” – and that costumes were cool. That’s not far removed from a kid tying a towel around his neck and thinking he can fly; but it’s not quite all one can take away from a Superman story.

Doctor Manhattan and His Clock in Watchmen

Doctor Manhattan’s Martian castle, from Watchmen #4 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

The more we go over these parallels, the more convinced we are that Doomsday Clock will be Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s attempt to put Superman-style ethics to the ultimate test. Watchmen started off as a formalistic examination of the superhero genre’s various facets, using Charlton Comics’ characters as a springboard; but what if Doomsday Clock has Superman try to “fix” that world? The Justice League had the best of intentions when they attempted to liberate the Crime Syndicate’s Earth (in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s JLA: Earth 2), so it couldn’t go much worse than that, right?

If there is one theme which runs throughout Geoff Johns’ recent DC work, it is that no character is beyond rehabilitation. Hal Jordan’s problems weren’t just conflicts between Earthly responsibilities and cosmic duties, he was also possessed by an evil space-bug. Barry Allen wasn’t just a “police scientist,” but a CSI, like those folks on TV. The Trinitarians went through a bad patch, so they took a year off to reconnect and recharge. The Anti-Monitor is connected to the New Gods. Classic Wally West embodies DC’s legacy system. No matter how bad it gets, the characters themselves contain the seeds of their own salvation. In this respect, if superheroes are part of what ails Watchmen‘s world, then why can’t the “real” Superman help save it?

Admittedly, all this comes out of six preview pages and some dot-connecting, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see it unfold this fall. Doctor Manhattan helped destabilize the world of Watchmen, so naturally we expect him to save it. We just think he will get a little emotional support from a truly unexpected source.

How do you see Watchmen connecting with DC’s larger history? Let us know in the comments!

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