How 'Doomsday Clock' Dares to Touch the 'Watchmen' Legacy

The new series isn't the first time DC has tried to build off the success of the seminal 1987 work.
Courtesy of Gary Frank/DC Entertainment

One of the reasons that DC Entertainment's new comic book series Doomsday Clock has the impact that it does, is that it pushes the world of Watchmen in a direction it hasn't gone for 30 years: Forward. While the company has returned to the Watchmen well multiple times in the decades since the original series' release, the focus has always been on recapturing the past.

By the time Watchmen finished its run in late 1987, there were already spin-off projects in the works — created with not only the approval, but the assistance of, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Three Watchmen role-playing game projects were published as part of the then-contemporary DC Heroes line. There was a Sourcebook establishing the rules of the world, and two additional modules — Who Watches the Watchmen? and Taking Out The Trash — that featured new story elements created by others with input from Moore himself.

If that seems at odds with the now-common insistence that Watchmen should forever stand alone as a complete work of art; it's worth noting that Moore apparently didn't always feel that way. In a 2008 interview with CBR.com, Ray Winninger, one of the writers of the RPG material, said, "I remember that Alan was excited about extending Watchmen in various directions. I remember him mentioning a couple of things he was interested in — a Tales From the Black Freighter comic with Joe Orlando and some of the other old EC artists and maybe a Minutemen miniseries."

As relations between DC and Moore soured over a number of different elements — including concerns over censorship, as well as contractual disputes over Watchmen royalties and merchandise — the writer severed ties with the publisher, looking to other opportunities suddenly available to him in the wake of Watchmen's success. This seemed to seal the deal on anymore Watchmen material… for just over a decade, at least.

Around the turn of the century, it appeared that things had changed. If nothing else, the relationship between DC and Moore had become far more complicated; Moore alleged that DC was reneging on the terms of the original Watchmen contract, which he said had a rights reversion clause after the book was no longer in print for a year, by keeping the book in print continuously. Yet, at the same time, he was publishing new work at DC after the publisher purchased Jim Lee's Wildstorm company where Moore had recently set up a new imprint. Despite having publicly sworn to never work with DC again, he lived up to his Wildstorm contract in order to keep his collaborators employed, he explained.

It was with this uneasy alliance as backdrop that DC announced plans for a 15th anniversary Watchmen re-release, with a hardcover created in cooperation with both Moore and Gibbons, as well as all-new action figures of the book's main characters. Both creators were involved with a promotional video for the project before Moore withdrew his support over DC pulling a story of his amid fears of libel. In an interview at the time, he said, "I'm having nothing to do with the Watchmen project. I completely disown it." (Neither the hardcover nor the action figures were released after Moore withdrew his cooperation.)

He wasn't exaggerating. In a 2010 interview, Moore revealed that, prior to the 2009 movie adaptation, DC had offered him and Gibbons the literary rights to the property in exchange for approval for spin-off projects and what Moore called "secondary properties." He turned them down, he said, because "I wasn’t going to take the rights back at this stage after they had pretty much, in my opinion, raped what I had thought to be a pretty decent work of art. I didn’t want them throwing me back the spent and exhausted carcass of my work and certainly not under terms that would apparently allow them to go on producing witless sequels and prequels ad infinitum." Completely disowned, indeed.

Following this development, Warners not only released Zack Snyder's Watchmen movie, but also a spin-off Tales of the Black Freighter animated DVD, telling the story of the pirate comic interludes from the original work. In 2012, DC then announced Before Watchmen, the umbrella title for nine prequel projects investigating the lives of the original project's main characters in the years leading up to Watchmen's 1985 setting. Controversial by its very existence (given Moore's upset over the rights issue with the original work), the series failed to appear at the top of either sales charts of critics' lists, seemingly closing the book on Watchmen as an ongoing property…

…Until 2016's DC Universe: Rebirth special, which ended with Batman discovering the bloodied pin of the Comedian that had served as the iconic calling card of the original series, a prologue to Doomsday Clock, the 12-issue series mixing Watchmen mythology with the DC Universe that releases its first issue Wednesday.

Doomsday Clock differs from all other attempts to extend the Watchmen franchise in a couple of meaningful ways: It mixes its characters with the DCU heroes, most obviously, but perhaps most importantly, it's the first time anyone — in this case,  Geoff Johns and Gary Frank — has told a story set after the original series, or even dared to address the notion that, just maybe, a plan to save the world via giant squid might be flawed in some way. (The opening pages of Doomsday Clock No. 1 make it clear that it didn't work, exactly; spoilers.)

Johns has spoken about the risks of creating what is, in essence, a sequel to Watchmen, and living up to the monolithic impact of the original story. By daring to imagine a story beyond that first one, he and Frank might be the first creators to prove that Watchmen can exist outside of the shadow of its own creators.

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