Doomsday Clock #4
“Walk on Water”
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist/Cover artist: Gary Frank
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Rob Leigh
Editor: Brian Cunningham
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $4.99 US
I’ve been a fan of Geoff Johns’s writing for some time, but this single issue may be the best thing he’s crafted in his career. Much to my surprise, this event book takes a bit of a hiatus to explore the background and psyche of the new Rorschach, and it’s a fascinating character study. Despite the controversy over mining Watchmen for new stories over the objections of Alan Moore and his fans, it really feels that Johns does right by the source material here. This is completely unlike anything Johns has written before. This issue feels more like an organic extension of Watchmen than the three preceding it. Even if one hasn’t read the first three chapters of Doomsday Clock, one could easily delve into this character-focused issue for a satisfying read in and of itself.
After the Batman tosses the mystery man named Rorschach into Arkham Asylum, deciding his story of coming from another universe in search of a god-like, quantum-energy being, the second man to don the blot-test mask works to survive among the monsters spawned by the Gotham underworld. His stay in Arkham prompts him to think back to his youth, the trauma of losing his parents and going mad when an “alien” creature decimated New York, and a stay in a another psychiatric facility that prompted his transformation into the heir to the demented Rorschach legacy.
Gary Frank boasts a much more detailed style than Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, but he nevertheless achieves a consistent look here to the source material. He embraces the nine-panel grid approach, adapting it slightly to offer a couple of larger panels here and there. I was immediately struck by the first panel in the book (depicted on the regular cover). The pancakes and the plate — offering both the circular motif of Watchmen and an immediate signal this issue will focus on Rorschach — seems exactly like something we would have seen in the series that inspired this one. I was also impressed that Frank manages to make Zebra-Man look fierce and intimidating instead of silly, and I appreciated the softness and kindness he instilled in Mothman in the flashback scenes.
Speaking of Mothman, Johns adeptly offers a secondary character study in him here. There’s something consistently hopeful about him, how he keeps escaping from the psychiatric facility using his knowledge of aerodynamics, but his absences are only temporary, by his design. Of course, there’s a sadness to him as well, and it’s spelled out brilliantly in the supplementary material at the back of the book, consisting of letters to his sister, begging for forgiveness and some sign of familial love from those at home who’d spurned him.
Zebra-Man’s conversation with Rorschach was a bit unsettling. Johns portrays Arkham like a prison, where inmates align themselves with others for protection, which brings with it an ugly price. It felt a bit harsh for something set in the DC Universe, but then again, Doomsday Clock has set itself apart as something much edgier than the typical DC super-hero fare, walking a line between its usual genre content and the more mature tone of Watchmen. Fortunately, it’s a fleeting scene, and the notion isn’t explored any further later in the comic.
While knowledge of Watchmen isn’t necessarily required to appreciate this origin story of the second Rorschach, having read the classic series would definitely make this story resonate more for the reader. The character’s identity offers an interesting connection to the original. I like how Rorschach II’s psychiatrist at Arkham mirrors the first Rorschach’s doctor in Watchmen, at least in form, and I was surprised to learn of the psychiatrist’s true motive in visiting and assessing the John Doe in Arkham.
I was thoroughly impressed with the complexity of the plot, as Johns flips back and forth between flashbacks and Rorschach’s time in Arkham. He and Frank skillfully provide the cues the reader needs to appreciate where and when they are in the story, but they’re not so overt as to interfere with the flow of the story.
Ultimately, what makes this story work is that it’s about a young man’s effort to establish a connection with his work-obsessed father and to deal with his grief over having lost the opportunity to make that lasting bond upon his death. That he finds the connection through Rorschach boasts a certain logic to it. Throughout his life, he always ceded control — never pushing for more time with his dad, letting friends walk over him, submitting to bullies — so his effort later in life to grab some kind of power and control through Rorschach makes a lot of sense. Until now, he’s come off as a rather pathetic figure, but now, he’s quite sympathetic. 9/10