The Watchmen mystery at the center of DC Comics' Rebirth saga entered a new phase this week with the announcement of Doomsday Clock and the release of The Flash #22, confirming that Dr. Manhattan is the antagonist responsible for reshaping the universe into its New 52 configuration for some as-yet unknown purpose. This development had been teased all the way back in the 2016 DC Universe Rebirth one-shot by Geoff Johns, Ethan Van Sciver and Ivan Reis, which concluded with imagery heavily drawn from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' timeless classic, along with the quote that "nothing ever ends." Fans, for the most part, were intrigued and excited by this central mystery and what it meant for their favorite heroes -- a marked difference from their reaction to Before Watchmen four years earlier.
So... what changed?
On some levels, if you were outraged by Before Watchmen dipping back into Moore and Gibbons' holy well, you should probably be incensed by these characters' inclusion in Rebirth, as well -- and make no mistake, there is certainly a contingent of readers who feel this way. But for many, myself included, there is a sense that the Rebirth arc is an inherently different beast. Something that, if not quite worthy of ruling at the right hand of Watchmen, is nonetheless an intriguing project that does honor to Moore and Gibbons' creations and could only be told with them.
Also, there's the matter that Before Watchmen came first.
When Before Watchmen was announced, reams of Internet-paper and gallons of digital ink were spilt discussing its implications: Watchmen's status as a work of art, Moore's vehement feeling that this should not be done, DC's justification of using properties it owns to tell new and exciting stories, boycott threats against the creators involved, and so on. It was an extremely controversial project, leaving fans with the choice between picking up a gorgeous new comic by Darwyn Cooke, or shunning a project they found inherently distasteful.
But whether or not you think DC should have published Before Watchmen, the immutable fact is, it did.
Once DC had weathered the storm of publishing new Watchmen material against the strong wishes of its co-author, of course it was going to do it again. Of course it was. This inevitably softened the resistance to any future appearances by Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias and company.
But there are more important reasons that Rebirth is on stronger footing than Before Watchmen.
No Concept, No Consequence
If Before Watchmen looked like a cash grab, that's because it was very difficult to point to any reason these stories need to be told. What was the concept? "This is what happened before Watchmen" is not in any way a compelling narrative, however strong any of the resulting individual series may have been. The fact that DC billed it as a showcase for its premiere writers and artists only made it feel more cheap and tawdry. There was no story, just a sandbox.
Compare Before Watchmen to another infamous prequel epic, Star Wars Episodes I-III. In both cases, we know exactly how the protagonists' stories end. But in the case of Star Wars, there is a central question: "How did the noble Jedi Anakin Skywalker become the evil Darth Vader?" This is not the place to debate how well George Lucas and company pulled off this story, but there is a strong concept, there are character arcs for, especially, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin; in short, there is a reason to tell this story.
Watchmen was a dense, intricate, singular story, with characters so richly developed that readers can infer decades of heroic lives lived, of disappointments and betrayals. But those off-the-page stories are in no way demanding to be told; the beauty of a book like Watchmen is that it tells you everything you need to know about these characters. What happened before, in the deepest sense, really doesn't matter.
Critiques on Infinite Earths
So what makes Rebirth and the forthcoming Doomsday Clock different? Well, to quote Geoff Johns out of context, "It is all about the story." First and most basically, there is one. And it takes place in the present, thus moving characters forward, rather than scavenging through their past. But more than that, it matters what kind of story Rebirth is.
From its beginning, Rebirth has been framed as a restoration, a return to the hope and heroism that had been lost or diluted in the New 52 universal reboot. This framing has taken place not just in Johns' and other creators' statements about the initiative, but in the stories themselves -- Wally West, upon his return from the Speed Force, notes that "a darkness from somewhere has infected us," even as it stole ten years from our heroes' lives. Watchmen, published in 1986, is often credited along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, released that same year, with advancing a trend toward more sophisticated -- but also much darker -- superhero stories. In this context, establishing Dr. Manhattan as the villain, or at least the antagonist, responsible for manipulating the universe to remove its best and brightest elements feels not only acceptable, but imminently appropriate. Indeed, using the Watchmen characters in this way has the potential to heighten the metacritique of recent comics history in a manner that simply would not be possible without them.
In short, the Watchmen characters' use here is analogous to Moore's own choice to use characters from Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz in Lost Girls, or Nemo and Mina Harker in League of Extraordinary Gentleman, or Lovecraftian mythology in his books for Avatar Press; yes, you could tell the story without these characters, but it wouldn't be the same story. Moore recognizes the power of the cultural imagination to imbue stories with added meaning, behind the structure and events of the plot itself; in Rebirth, DC is using that same power, this time employing Moore's own creations.
Someone Really Should Have Been Watching the Watchmen
Whatever else Rebirth and Doomsday Clock turn out to be, they're doing something new with the characters. "Why is Doctor Manhattan manipulating the DC Universe, for how long and to what end?" is a compelling question, one that holds intriguing implications for the core DCU. And so far, the story as it has played out through Superman, Batman, Titans and The Flash has lived up to its premise. These are some good comics. Are they enduring classics on the level of Watchmen? Probably not; for one, the epic is too diffuse to ever be collected in a single satisfying volume. But if DC was ever going to use these characters -- and it was -- it appears that finally its giving real thought into what they mean and deploying them appropriately.
There is the danger, of course, that after Doomsday Clock Doctor Manhattan will show up as the arch-fiend in every third storyline or event, suffering the kind of overexposure that once left readers exhausted of the Joker, Darkseid and Superboy Prime in their turns. This would be a true disservice to the Watchmen legacy, and should be avoided at all costs.
But on the evidence of the story at hand, it really appears that DC has learned its lesson, that it will not diminish the cultural cache of these characters, that any use of Watchmen heroes and concepts should be taken with care, should be special.
Time will tell, of course. Nothing ever ends.