We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.”
The above line by southern gothic novelist Carson McCullers, which both serves as the end quote at the coda and from which the issue takes its title (“Places We Have Never Known”), similarly shares with the issue the themes of nostalgia, the loss thereof, and a familiar feeling for something seemingly unknown.
On the very first page the Marionette whiffs a bottle of Veidt’s perfume Nostalgia, quipping “They don’t make this anymore… That poison that you replaced it with. Millennium? Made me gag.” On the textual level, this is entirely in line with the established Watchmen chronology. All throughout the original series advertisements were shown throughout the background for the fragrance. On the penultimate page of the final issue, however, a new billboard has replaced it for a product entitled Millennium, with the pitch “This is the time. These are the feelings.” To further emphasize the point, in the panel directly above it is an advertisement for a double showing of famed Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s works The Sacrifice and Nostalghia, framed in such a way as if to suggest that nostalgia is itself being sacrificed.
Nor is Tarkovsky’s nationality inconsequential. The panel directly next to the ad for Millennium features a poster with the American and Soviet flags intertwined, reading “One World, One Accord” and on the opposite end of the panel with the Tarkovsky films is a new fast food place entitled “Burgers and Borscht.” No longer is there any need to look to the Golden Age of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, to wallow in nostalgia for a time before the divisions of the Cold War. The feelings promised by Millennium are intended to be those of unity and optimism, promising a new golden age now that Ozymandias’ gambit had seemingly succeeded. Of course, the cause such optimism is already undercut in the mind of the reader, who has just heard Dr. Manhattan’s admonishment to Adrien that “Nothing ever ends” and is about to see in the next page the fragility of peace purchased with a lie.
This pessimistic perspective serves as the subtext to Marionette’s musings on the musk of Millennium and Nostalgia. The new world won by Ozymandias is even worst off than before, with society further decayed, nuclear war fully realized, and this time no Dr. Manhattan to intercept most of the missiles and mitigate the devastation. If such are the times, and such are the feelings, they stink. Even clinging pathetically to the past is still better than ambulating ambivalently towards Armageddon.
On the metatextual level, Johns seems to be suggesting here that we lack genuine feelings of nostalgia anymore. Such is certainly a shocking statement, since seemingly the current generation is the most nostalgic ever, twenty-and-thirtysomething man-children obsessed with reboots, remakes, remasters, and regurgitations of any media that allows us to relive the childhood we never transitioned out from. But it may be that Johns is suggesting that this does not even rise to the level of genuine nostalgia – of a longing for something lost – but rather the attempts of developmentally arrested adolescents to petrify the familiar. That the generation represented by Millennium should be by cosmic coincidence the Millennials is fortuitous for Johns’. And if this is indeed a deliberate analogy, it may be seen as an apology for his writing of Doomsday Clock, a defense against those who want the Watchmen universe to be preserved in amber without prequels or sequels; that their purported fondness for Moore’s magnum opus does not even really rise to the level of nostalgia. While I’ve no compunction over the existence of Before Watchmen or Doomsday Clock, I nevertheless hope Johns is not making so strong of an indictment against those who disagree. Johns’ messaging here is ultimately unclear, but bears further exploration.
The reverse of nostalgia is an outright rejection of the past, an iconoclastic crusade against tradition, seen in this issue in the DC side of the story. Lucius Fox comments, in the wake of a Russian propaganda campaign, “Bruce, the Bat isn’t the symbol it used to be. It’s become a disease.” This recalls to mind Michael Caine’s quote “Batman is the way the world sees America.” The supplemental material following the issue’s conclusion seems to support that parallel, with the rest of the world suddenly casting aspersions on America for its hemogenic hold over superheroes, while simultaneously and from the same catalyst a mob violently protests Batman’s vigilantism. The similarity of the scene to the protests which led to the Kean Act in the Watchmen universe are lampshaded by Ozymandias. “It appears this world is years ahead of ours in some ways. Behind in others.” But both with respect to the wave of anti-traditionalist iconoclasm and America’s loss of standing in the eyes of the world, the stronger similarities here are being drawn between Earth-0 and our own Earth-33.
If the loss of nostalgia is seen in the developments at the issue’s start, and the “urge for the foreign and strange” comes at the midpoint as Ozymandias et al quantum tunnel to the DC Universe, then the strange sensation of being “homesick most for the places we have never known” comes towards the tail end. As Ozymandias and Rorschach converse, the former states:
Although there are vast differences between our earths, the greatest divergence if the sheer number of men and women wearing masks, including some who are entirely fictional on ours.”
“Fictional on our world? Maybe Manhattan created them…”
“Or he could be one of them.”
Veidt’s rather pedestrian theory is that Manhattan is merely guised as a costumed do-gooder. Rorschach’s theory echoes those of fans following Rebirth in thinking that Osterman reshaped reality throughout the DC multiverse, maybe even that his was the hand seen by Krona at the moment of Creation. It comes closer to Johns’ metatextual musings in this exchange, for the reader knows that Adrien’s words are true in a way he does not yet imagine, but which follows from his observation that what is seemingly fictive from his former perspective may be more real than he thought, for the opposite could hold as well. Just as Nathaniel Dusk was pure fiction for Veidt but historical fact for the denizens of the DC Universe, so too is Veidt himself for someone fictional, namely we the readers. Which begs the question: to whom are we mere characters? It raises a relationship between metafiction and metaphysics that Watchman scribe Alan Moore regarded as the key to understanding all of reality.
And therein lies the longing, being homesick for a place which we have never known. Whereas nostalgia is the desire for what is known, Sehnsucht is the longing for what is not known. It is what Lewis in his autobiography called Joy, elsewhere saying “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” This too is the central tenant of Tolkien’s anthropology, in which he asks rhetorically through the character of Finrod, “Or is there somewhere else a world of which all things we see, all things that either Elves or Men know, are only tokens or reminders?” Moore’s fellow British Invader Grant Morrison said of the same,
In the brane model of the multiverse, all history is spread as thin as emulsion on a celestial tissue that floats on some immense, Brahmic ocean of meta-stuff… Stranger, my arrival in this place felt like a homecoming. All the cares and fears of the mortal realm were home, replaced by the hum of immaculate industry, divine creativity, and, through it all, that unmistakable always-known sense of deep familiarity, of belonging and completion.”
Deft as it might be, this is the theme Johns is toughing on through both Ozymandias’ dialogue to Rorschach and the quote by McCullers. It too bears examination in subsequent issues.
Visually, Doomsday Clock uses the juxtaposition of text and image pioneered in Watchmen to wonderful effect. On page two, in reference to the Marionette and the Mime, Rorschach’s narration caption reads “They see world through warped lens,” with the spherical shape of a security camera’s lens literally warping an image of the footage it captured. At the bottom of the same page, when Rorschach comments to Ozymandias “you’re getting your hands dirty again,” the panel is a close up exclusively of Veidt’s hands doing manual labor. On page ten, Ozymandias opines “Marionette represents a moment in Jon’s past,” juxtaposed above an image of her spraying the Nostalgia on herself, with a second caption at the bottom of the panel continuing, “One that I can use to remind him of who he was….”
There is so much more to say with respect to all the allusions and themes and imagery and much, much more, all in ever panel of every page of Doomsday Clock. It never rises to the heights set by Watchmen, but is much denser than even a fan of Johns such as myself imagined he’d produce. Like Watchmen, this will definitely merit an annotated edition once the series is complete and collected under one cover. Even I’m uncertain as to how much I’m reading into his writing here is intentional, and any insights from the author will be welcome indeed.