The DC Universe is getting turned upside-down again. Following the New 52 relaunch that rebooted all the company’s major series in 2011, then again with DC Rebirth last year, the new Doomsday Clock title sets the Watchmen and DC superhero universes on a collision course. What makes this crossover tricky business is that the original Watchmen transpired during an alternate historical timeline in which superheroes had been outlawed, the U.S. won the Vietnam War and Nixon was still president as of the story’s starting point in 1985.
While Doomsday Clock is a self-contained story arc, its year-long narrative will have repercussions within the current DC Comics universe. The second installment of the 12-issue limited series hits stands on Wednesday, Dec. 27. Perhaps if it becomes a modern classic, it could be a clever concept for rebooting the troubled DC Cinematic Universe. (Or they could just pull a Dallas: It was all a dream.)
When Playboy sits down with Doomsday Clock writer Geoff Johns, it is clear he is a serious student of Watchmen, the classic series/graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. President and COO of DC Entertainment, the 44 year-old Johns says he has read Watchmen at least 50 times, and certain sections hundreds of times.
The idea for Doomsday Clock was first sown as a seed for a Dr. Manhattan/Superman crossover earlier last year. Johns initially mentioned it to artist Gary Frank–they have teamed up constantly since 2005–and the duo spent eight or nine months volleying it back and forth, including a meeting on the set of Wonder Woman in London during the summer of 2016.
“I don’t think they can make a movie out of this.”
“Gary Frank is the only artist I can see drawing it,” Johns asserts to Playboy. “There’s no other artist who could really invoke both the style and storytelling of Dave Gibbons in a different way because Gary is his own artist. But he comes from that same school–clean lines, great storytelling, emotion. I think Gary is criminally underrated as an artist.“
After last year’s tumultuous presidential election shook up our social fabric, Doomsday Clock came alive inside Johns’ brain. He soon won over Frank with his concept, and then DC Comics green-lit the series. "We put everything we have into it,” declares Johns. “The reason to do it is that Gary and I have a really great story to tell, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done together over the years. There’s not a single story that we’ve done that I haven’t been proud of.”
When asked for his quick pitch for the series, Johns replies, “[It’s] the world and thematics of Watchmen colliding with the world and thematics of DC Comics, and then exploring what that means. I think the contrast of the two universes–I don’t say that on an epic scale, I say that on a very personal scale–is fascinating to me. I love the depth that we’re diving into.” He says that to enjoy Doomsday Clock, you need to know Batman and Superman. And make sure you have read the acclaimed Watchmen, whose anti-heroes turned the superhero paradigm upside down when it was released in 1986.
Doomsday Clock begins in late November 1992, seven years after the apocalyptic finale of Watchmen. After the insidious disaster plan of former hero Ozymandias–which involved a faked alien attack that murdered millions of New Yorkers and begat a peace process that rippled throughout the world–a reporter has uncovered information that revealed it to be devious deception.
Now, America and Europe are falling apart. Angered U.S. citizens are out for Ozymandias’ blood, the government has gone haywire and all American television networks are being replaced by the ubiquitous propaganda channel National News Network. With the European Union falling apart, Russia is making invasive military inroads into that continent and launching a nuclear strike against the U.S.
Racing against an impending proliferation of mushroom clouds, the psychotic vigilante Rorschach, believed to be dead, frees two jailed supervillains (the Marionette and the Mime) to assist Ozymandias in a grand but vague plan: to bring God back to a fraying world and save it. He also has four hours before the Russian nuclear strike to get it together. At the end of the first issue, we find Superman consumed by a terrible dream involving his parents. Supes never has nightmares.
In the newly released second issue, we learn how Ozymandias and company are catapulted into our modern world, which is very much a classic DC cross-worlds narrative. Batman, Lex Luthor and two other Watchmen characters factor into issue No. 2, which begins to hint at Ozymandias’ new master plan. (You’ll find out what Lex Luthor thinks of his original one.)
Rorschach narrates the entire story, but Johns does not see him as a hero or as taking sides in the apocalyptic world he confronts. “To me, Rorschach is apolitical,” he declares. “He’s neither side. People can read into it however they want, but it’s really skewed through Rorschach’s point-of-view. And I’m not going to shy away from it.”
Superheroes usually offer the masses hope of fighting the good fight, but we live in a more complicated world where things are not usually black and white. Many people simply want to know who’s bad and who’s good. “That’s really what this series is about,” Johns explains. “Which side are you on? Which side is the right side? Is there black and white, or is there only gray? You nailed it right there. I think the aggregate of Watchmen is cynicism, and the aggregate of DC is optimism, and you see those two worlds colliding. And what’s the aggregate of that? What’s more real?”
Naturally, everyone’s got skeletons in their closets. “This is really about that because when you see our heroes encounter each other, you’re going to see that contrast of philosophy and opinion,” says Johns. He wants to elevate the material beyond pedestrian concepts of squaring off heroes from different universes to see who’s mightier.
A protégé of classic Superman director Richard Donner, Johns tries to bring levity to heavy stories. While many DC Comics titles have taken on a darker tone in recent years, oftentimes quite successfully, taking their cinematic renderings down that same path has not worked out so well. The dour Man of Steel and the oppressive Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice were overwrought slugfests that felt hollow, whereas Wonder Woman, which Johns reportedly had creative control over, was fun, engaging and majestic.
While it sounds like the concept for Doomsday Clock could play well on the big screen–despite having to be abridged, Watchmen translated well as a film–Johns disagrees. “I don’t think they can make a movie out of this,” he says. “This is all about this story in this medium. It’s not designed for any other medium. The other thing I like about this is that with all the movies out right now, sometimes the comics almost feel like licensed comics. This is what it’s exactly supposed to be for the medium it’s in.”
He adds that Doomsday Clock is a totally different thing from anything he has ever written. He also addresses the concept of darkness that in particular has infected modern movies. “There is a dark tonal quality to a lot of it,” he explains of his new title. “But there’s a lot humor to it and a quirkiness that I bring to the comic and the characters. People have a default to, ‘If it’s dark, it’s realistic,’ and that’s just not true. All of us smile and laugh during the day. The world is not a dark place. The world is both dark and light. I think the danger is when people say, 'It’s really grounded and realistic because it’s super fucking dark and bleak.’ This is dark—it’s not bleak.”
A guaranteed critic of Doomsday Clock will be Watchmen creator and author Alan Moore, who has never been pleased with any cinematic renderings of his work (as their plots and themes are usually altered), and who vehemently opposed DC’s Before Watchmen prequel comics back in 2012. (Gibbons, however, expressed support for Before Watchmen and the movie.) Moore has stated before that the Watchmen comic was meant as a limited series and as a specific story, and that is it.
“I’ve never met the man,” Johns says of Moore. “He’s an amazing writer, and I understand the hesitation and skepticism that could come with doing something with these characters. I totally get it. Again, if I didn’t believe so much in the story, I wouldn’t do it. I love Watchmen, I love the DC universe and hopefully this is going to be a story worthy of those characters. It’s the best I believe we can do.”