Who watches the Watchmen? A lot of people, if HBO has its way. Debuted in 1986 by the writer Alan Moore and the artist Dave Gibbons, the dark and gritty superhero comic “Watchmen” was enormously influential, helping the genre to grow up and get real. For HBO, Damon Lindelof’s new TV adaptation, which premieres on Sunday, is a chance to recreate the runaway success of its last adaptation of a major nerd-culture touchstone: a little show called “Game of Thrones.”
The reviews so far are positive, which is more than might be said for the 2009 film. But unlike the movie, this isn’t a straight adaptation: It takes place decades later, when many of the central characters from the original are dead or vanished. The series does, however, exist in the same alternate history, in which Vietnam is the 51st state, Robert Redford is president, and Richard Nixon is on Mount Rushmore.
Early episodes are cryptic; it helps to have a little background. Here’s a brief rundown of the most useful things to know before watching.
Who Are the Watchmen?
Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen is a multigenerational saga about a handful of men and women who have donned costumes to fight crime since the late 1930s. These include the wealthy genius Adrian Veidt, known as Ozymandias; the reluctant second-generation heroine Laurie Juspeczyk, a.k.a. Silk Spectre; the inventor Dan Dreiberg, the second crime-fighter to call himself Nite Owl; the government agent and black ops specialist Edward Blake, known as the Comedian; the fanatical street-level vigilante with an inkblot mask, Walter Kovacs, known as Rorschach; and the only true superhero of the bunch, Dr. Jon Osterman, a scientist given godlike powers by an experiment gone awry, which turned him into a cobalt-blue being called Doctor Manhattan.
The comic follows several of these characters after the Comedian is murdered, drawing them out of a government-mandated retirement. They uncover a vast conspiracy eventually revealed to be a plot by Ozymandias to engineer a global crisis to end the Cold War. Simply put, he spends a fortune to create an enormous, psychic squid creature, which he warps into the middle of Manhattan as a staged alien invasion.
Three million people are killed, and geopolitics realign to fend off future attacks by this faked threat from beyond. The heroes agree to keep the truth hidden in order to preserve the peace — except for Rorschach, whose black-and-white morality leads him to martyr himself: He is killed by Doctor Manhattan for refusing to maintain the hoax.
What Is the Alternate History?
One of the book’s most intriguing premises is the way the presence of these “real-life” superheroes has changed the course of American history. Thanks to the intervention of Dr. Manhattan, for example, America wins the Vietnam War. Dr. Manhattan also has a profound effect on technological advancement, including the creation of economical and accessible airships.
It is heavily implied that the Comedian violently suppressed knowledge of the Watergate break-in on President Nixon’s behalf. Add a Constitutional amendment overturning presidential term limits, and Nixon remained president well into the mid-80s, when the original story takes place.
Where Does the TV Show Pick Up?
The show is set roughly 30 years later; during much of that time, Robert Redford has been president. Vigilantism remains banned except under official government auspices thanks to the Keene Act, a 1977 law named after Senator Joe Keene, whose charismatic son is now challenging Redford for the presidency. And Dr. Manhattan, who despite his near-omniscience was unable to stop Ozymandias’s plot, has fled the planet for Mars, where he has lived alone for decades.
Historically and psychically, the TV series roots itself in the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Okla., in which a white mob swarmed the prosperous black part of town, resulting in as many as 300 deaths, with thousands more displaced. In the fictionalized present day, the series pits the Tulsa police force, whose members wear vigilante-style masks to protect their identity, against a militant white supremacist group called the Seventh Kalvary, which has adopted Rorschach’s lethal methods and black-and-white mask.
What Are the Important Themes and Structures?
Moore and Gibbons’s meticulously crafted political thriller and murder mystery is reflected by its inventive structure. Each page is based on a strict, rhythmic layout based on a nine-panel grid, with slight fluctuations for timing and emphasis. The issue that reveals the origin of Rorschach is laid out symmetrically — like a Rorschach blot.
The craftsmanship of the comic is, in turn, reflected in the narrative. In his detached state, Dr. Manhattan is able to see the workings of the universe as a clockwork mechanism in which every event is predestined. Can free will exist in such a universe? If not, do the actions of the heroes and vigilantes really make a difference, or are they all little windup toys, marching on to their metaphysically predetermined end?
And what of vigilantism? Despite being positioned as the heroes of the story, with anti-vigilante forces portrayed as villainous and corrupt, the story’s costumed crime-fighters are a brutal, dysfunctional bunch whose actions are often amoral and always unconstitutional. The show picks up this element of the story and runs with it, hard.
Why Is ‘Watchmen’ a Big Deal?
Arriving around the same time as Art Spiegelman’s influential comic about the Holocaust, “Maus”; Frank Miller’s dystopian Batman story “The Dark Knight Returns”; and a high point for Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’s slice-of-life series, “Love and Rockets,” “Watchmen” helped spearhead the movement to see comics recognized as a legitimate art form. In 1987, the series was bound into a single-volume graphic novel that has been immensely popular ever since: Generations of comics writers and cartoonists have emulated its tone and, to a lesser extent, its formal daring and clockwork craftsmanship.
In a way, “Watchmen” was a victim of its own success. Moore and Gibbons signed contracts with DC Comics in which the rights to the book and its characters would revert to them once the book was out of print for a year. Because of the book’s megahit status, DC has simply never allowed it to go out of print. This led to a falling-out between Moore and the publisher, and Moore won’t let his name be used in conjunction with any of his story’s many spinoff projects. Gibbons has been more accepting. He is a consultant on the show.