By Matthew Brake
In 2016, DC Comics, particularly writer Geoff Johns, made a bold move and tamped with one of the most sacred cows in comic book fandom—Watchmen.
After the initial success of the New 52 reboot, which saw DC Comics do away with years of complicated backstory in order to draw in new readers, longtime DC fans began to bemoan the loss of certain characters and relationships that were eliminated from their sacred comic book canon as well as the lack of hopefulness in their favorite characters (particularly Superman). That, and diminishing sales, led DC to launch a new initiative—DC Rebirth! This initiative would restore many of the elements that longtime fans felt had been missing since the launch of the New 52.
In DC Universe: Rebirth #1, Johns created the means by which the changes to the DC Universe could be explained. The timeline had been altered and literal years taken away from the characters by the titular Dr. Manhattan from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons famous Watchmengraphic novel. This effectively merged the worlds of Watchmen and the DC Universe. All of the explanations were to be revealed late in the maxi-series Doomsday Clock, which after running into multiple delays, has finally come to a conclusion, and I for one was quite satisfied with it (it’s honestly a good time to be a Watchmen fan, given the popularity of the series on HBO as well, which also recently concluded. Coincidental timing perhaps?).
For those of us who read it, we learned that after the end of Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan had penetrated into the DC Universe, and while there, discovered how important Superman was to the very structure of what he called “the Metaverse.” Dr. Manhattan began to then mess with Superman’s history, removing certain elements from it all in an attempt to see how the universe would change around him. With each new change, the DC Universe, and Superman, became darker.
This is obviously a meta-commentary on the influence Watchmen has reportedly had on comic books since the 1980s, influencing them toward a darker “grim and gritty” sensibility.
But something happens in Doomsday Clock #12. Having believed that Superman would destroy him for tampering with his life, Superman actually saves Dr. Manhattan and shows that hope need not decay (as Dr. Manhattan had stated that it would in issue #9). By the end of the story, Dr. Manhattan saves the day by restoring the DC Universe and rescuing Superman by bringing his erased allies back into existence, and he even returns to his own Earth inspired by Superman to fix it, right its wrongs, and embrace humanity (and one other surprise which I’m not going to spoil in this post).
While it is true that Watchmen has probably had a maligning influence on the DC Universe (if only because Moore and Gibson’s imitators confuse violence and despair for “maturity” and sophistication), Johns asks his readers, “Can’t that influence go both ways? Can’t Superman and hope influence Dr. Manhattan and the world of Watchmen?”
As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes in The Divine Milieu regarding the presence of evil and malignant influences in the universe, “As they try to penetrate into my universe, their influence (if I have enough faith) suffers the lot common to all created energy; caught up and twisted round by your [God’s] irresistible energy, temptations and evils are converted into good and fan the fires of love” (125).
So, too, Dr. Manhattan, while he might’ve thought he was negatively influencing Superman, ended up being influenced by him and the hope that he stood for. He found himself caught up and twisted around by a symbol of hope bigger than himself. The evil that found itself trying to “soil” the universe ended up being used by that universe to “offset” the evil it created “by one of those recastings which restore the universe at every moment to a new freshness and a new purity” (125).
As Doomsday Clock comes to an end, the DC Universe is recast and made fresh again, coursing a path toward its future.
So likewise, the despair, pain, and malignancy that infests our lives shouldn’t be taken as the final word on our existence.
For hope believes all things…
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu. New York. Harper Perennial. 1960.