DOOMSDAY CLOCK and Geoff Johns’s Apolitical Superman

Love it or hate it, Doomsday Clock and its publishing history have caused a lot of discussion about DC Comics and its future. Some fans question the ethics of using Alan Moore’s creations against his wishes. Others complain about the publishing delays. Still, other fans feel a sense of narrative betrayal at DC, seemingly abandoning whatever plans they had for the rest of the DC Comics universe to catch up “one year later” with Doomsday Clock‘s status as canon thrown into question. Finally, some simply didn’t care for the story.

For my part, I enjoyed the entirety of DC Rebirth and its narrative culmination, Doomsday Clock. I think Superman, in particular, had one of his best runs in Superman and Action Comics in a long time, and I thought Doomsday Clock was a celebratory love letter to the character. Sure, it had its flaws, aside from the delays (which Johns has indicated might have been avoided if he had been given the amount of lead time he originally wanted), but I really enjoyed its second half in particular. I thought Johns and Gary Frank did a good job sticking the landing. If Johns’s and Frank’s work has a flaw, it is in their depiction of an apolitical Superman.

Before I go further, I must give credit to where credit is due, and thank the long-since-forgotten Twitter user whose tweet has been lost to the ether, who got me thinking about this problem. When Superman was first created, he was a hero of the working class, an idea Grant Morrison returns to in his Action Comics run for the New 52. Superman opposes corruption at the highest levels of society for the good of those who are crushed by it.

In Doomsday Clock, Superman takes up another tactic. In a world where a conspiracy theory called “The Superman Theory” claims that 97% of the world’s metahuman population lives in the U.S. because they have been created as an army to serve U.S. interests, a super-soldier army ready to be deployed if the proper circumstances arise. The constant battles between superheroes and supervillains are a “false flag” meant to cover up this fact. Now, countries around the world are arming, creating their own metahuman armies, and metahumans worldwide are being persecuted, with many escaping to the Middle Eastern country of Khandaq, ruled by Black Adam, for refuge. When Doomsday Clock begins, Superman is the only superhero who remains above suspicion, trusted by all the world’s people and governments.

In a CBR interview from shortly after the release of Doomsday Clock‘s final issue, Johns indicates that he wanted to explore Superman as a foundation for the mythology of modern superheroes, as a symbol who transcends the stories that are written about him and the political conflicts the world finds itself in. I do question whether we need an transcendent, apolitical Superman. Do we need a Superman who is “above the conflict” of, let’s say, Black Lives Matter? Do we need a depiction of Superman as a centrist who tries to find common ground between people, equivocating between two positions on the political spectrum that aren’t always morally equal?

In depicting Superman as timeless and mythological, Johns fallen into the trap that Umberto Eco diagnosed decades ago in his famous “The Myth of Superman” article. Eco argued then that the problem with Superman (and superheroes in general) is that they never really change the world they live in. They participate in local acts of charity, but they never really change the status quo. While there are certainly corporate reasons for that (the show, as they say, must go on), what this does is shape the imagination of readers to accept the status quo in society as it is, unable to picture a radical reshaping beyond just individual acts of charity. You can’t reduce the division and conflict in our society by simply saying, “If everyone would get off of social media, stop yelling at each other, stop focusing on identity politics, and just listen to each other, then we would all get along.”

One scene that stands out, and it’s one I’ve seen the Twitter-verse comment on frequently, was Superman’s defense of a supposedly Trump-filled White House against a group of formerly persecuted metahumans, defending the White House against the threat of a person of color from the Middle East (the guy made of sand). In some ways, it feels like a repeat of the Killmonger-problem in Black Panther. A character puts forward a number of legitimate complaints about oppression of minorities in the world, chastises the comfortable for their complicity in it, but who is depicted as angry and violent, thus delegitimizing his point and reaffirming the status quo. One thinks of Superman’s plea to the metahumans of Russia and Khandaq who come to the U.S. to apprehend Superman in Doomsday Clock #12. Superman asks them to be careful because there are civilians in the area. Black Adam’s response, “Since when has that ever stopped your country?” rings true, but is immediately delegitimized and forgotten because he is marked as “the bad guy.” His very legitimate critique is made invisible. Surely this status quo should disturb us as much as the break from it we experience in this show of violence.

I understand the appeal of transcendent hope, and I sympathize with the message that we all need hope. I myself am a religious person, but we religious folks have a saying: “You’re so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” Johns’s Superman lacks the political edge of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, which again, Morrison touched on in his own Action Comics run.

I say all of this as someone who genuinely liked Doomsday Clock and its ending and thinks that DC should’ve stuck with the narrative thread leading into it (which they are now trying to retroactively fix).

However, placing Superman above the fray, beyond “outdated identity politics,” removes him too far from the conflicts that define everyday human existence for countless people who don’t have the luxury or privilege of being above the fray, who can’t escape their identities (and are disenfranchised because of those identities). Johns and Frank certainly dealt with issues of racism and xenophobia in their Superman and the Legion of Superheroes story in the 2000s, so it seems like an odd choice in messaging to castigate identity politics and to depoliticize Superman. If that story taught us anything, it’s that we need a Superman who critically interacts with and addresses issues of identity, racism, immigration, and sexism…even in the 31st century. That involves picking sides.

Being above the fray won’t help anybody.


Matthew Brake
Matthew Brake
Matthew Brake is the series editor for the book series Theology and Pop Culture from Lexington Books. He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming Religion and Comics series from Claremont Press. He holds degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy from George Mason University. He also writes for Sequart and the Blackwell Popular Culture and Philosophy blog.