For fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 comic book series Watchmen, this week is a strange moment in time. On Sunday evening, HBO’s Watchmen—at once a sequel to, and response to, that original comic—aired the final episode of its first season. Today, the final issue of DC’s Doomsday Clock, the 12-part comic book miniseries that combined the Watchmen and DC Universe characters, hits shelves. Somehow, 32 years after the conclusion of the original comic, Watchmen is ending all over again.
It should be noted that the HBO series and Doomsday Clock coexist separate and apart from each other, in different fictional universes, despite in theory both emerging from the same starting point. The opening of the latter sees an apocalyptic event seemingly decimate New York City in 1992, but the television show’s New York has been left unscathed since the squid attack of 1985, despite an understandable drop in tourism since. Both come at the idea of the legacy of the original from different angles, and—despite some shared ideas—have very different ideas about what Watchmen, as envisaged by Moore and Gibbons, actually represented.
Of the two, Doomsday Clock is the most traditional and, ultimately, the least successful. (Those two things are, unsurprisingly, not unrelated.) There are multiple reasons for this—including the fact that the series was beset by massive delays, with what was intended as a monthly serial when it launched in November 2017 quickly slipping into a bimonthly, then entirely irregular schedule—but what truly doomed the project was an inability to deliver on what was, admittedly, an ambitious idea at the heart of the story.
The original Watchmen was a comic book series that redefined what superhero comics could be, and in Doomsday Clock, writer Geoff Johns created a story that made that subtext text: Dr. Manhattan, the omniscient blue nude that dominates the original Watchmen, has visited the DC universe of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman and, unbeknownst to everyone, changed its history to create a colder, more violent world. As the series continues, however, Johns only builds on that idea in the most clichéd and conservative ways. More and more heroes appear and overwhelm the narrative as everything devolves into endless fight scenes and narration that is forced to explain the bigger ideas because they’ve become lost in the action.
Ideas aren’t the only thing to get lost as the series goes along. As the cast grows, many characters who were ostensibly protagonists get pushed to the periphery, disappearing for interminably long stretches as Johns and artist Gary Frank seemingly forget about them. It’s as if the DC universe itself takes over and demands more space. In the final issue, predicting Superman’s future, and the futures of his fellow heroes, gets as much attention as closing out the stories of Doomsday‘s original stars, all of whom have become afterthoughts by accident. It’s a sign of how overwhelmed Doomsday Clock becomes by the superhero status quo it seeks, not entirely successfully, to challenge and address.
The same can’t be said of HBO’s Watchmen, which proved to be as intricately constructed as the comic book that inspired it, filled with mysteries and puzzles that weren’t even revealed to be puzzles until their secrets were laid bare. (That Ozymandias status reveal!) If Doomsday Clock was a story interested in the meta impact of Watchmen on the comic book medium, Watchmen the show was one fascinated by the implications of the comic’s facile promise of “superheroes in the real world,” and something that drove directly through the ways in which the original fulfilled and failed that promise.