By Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
Oct. 24. 2019 -- Watchmen arrived on HBO Oct. 20, to rave reviews, viewer excitement and … well, honestly, a lot of anxious confusion. Let’s deal with that.
For those living under a rock for the last 33 years, Watchmen was a 12-issue comic book series published by DC Comics in 1986. Based on a line of C-list superheroes that DC had just purchased, the series explored the ramifications of superheroes had they really existed – how police and government agencies would react, what sort of people would become superheroes or villains, and so forth. Plus there was a crackerjack story, involving a murder mystery, the Cold War, clockworks, Mars, the Manhattan Project, insanity, erectile dysfunction, genetic engineering and a giant, telepathic squid that materialized in New York City. And, honestly, I’m just scratching the surface here.
Written by the legendary Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, etc.) and drawn by the almost legendary Dave Gibbons (Green Lantern, Dan Dare), it was a commercial and critical hit that is still in print – and in demand – today in graphic novel form. (If you haven’t read it, go read it. Right now.)
DC Comics has published prequels (a series of “Before Watchmen” miniseries and one-shots) and one sequel (Doomsday Clock), and Zack Snyder of Batman v Superman infamy directed a so-so movie adaptation in 2009. Alan Moore was involved in none of that – famously, he hates adaptations of his work – so the original stands alone as a monument to the power and potential of comic books, by one of its few, true geniuses in the field.
And now it’s a prestige TV show, airing on Sunday nights on HBO. It’s being showrun – if that’s the right verb – by Damon Lindelof, whose work on Lost and The Leftovers gives him a lot of street cred with me. (The only other showrunner I’d trust with the property is Noah Hawley, of Fargo and Legion fame.)
Watchmen began with this cover on issue #1 in 1986, which was also the first panel of the story, depicting the happy-face symbol of amoral “superhero” The Comedian in a gutter running with blood.
The premiere episode came at the viewer hard and fast, and didn’t explain much. So allow me to do so:
Thirty Years Later: Lindelof wisely leaves the original Watchmen events intact and untouched in 1986, a year and an era to which they are inextricably linked. This show takes place in the present, but the effects of the original book are everywhere you look.
In politics, Richard Nixon never resigned because Woodward and Bernstein were assassinated. Nixon then won the Vietnam War by sending Dr. Manhattan – the only character with actual super-powers – to defeat the Viet Cong single-handedly. Vietnam then became the 51st state, and a grateful nation rescinded term limits on the presidency. He served probably until 1992, and a picture in the premiere indicates his face has been carved into Mt. Rushmore.
Nixon was succeeded by Robert Redford, who is still in office. The former actor has instituted a number of items from the liberal wish list, such as strict gun control and reparations (“Redfordations”) for black Americans. A right-wing backlash has resulted, notably represented by the Seventh Kavalry (after the outfit once run by Gen. Custer), a KKK-like group who have traded in their white hoods for a mask based on a fascistic Watchmen character, the objectivist Rorschach.
Superheroes were outlawed in the original graphic novel in 1977 by the Keene Act (a politico named Joe Keene Jr. gets name-dropped in the premiere), and are still illegal in 2019. But now uniformed police wear masks, and detectives dress up as superheroes. This is the result of an event only mentioned so far, but not seen: the “White Night,” where police families were targeted for assassination.
Luddites Return: The giant squid attack (seriously, go read the book) resulted in a backlash to technology, because people thought it had come from another dimension using phone lines, television signals or similar. So there are no cell phones or Internet in Watchmen. In fact, all tech has been hobbled.
The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921: The first scene of the debut episode opens with a lot of white Oklahomans killing a lot of black Oklahomans. Sadly, this is not fiction (google it). In the process a young black boy is left orphaned in a field, with a note that says “Watch Over This Boy” in his pocket (from his father) and an also recently orphaned baby.
The final scene of the debut episode is set almost a century later, with an old black man named Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) in a wheelchair at the foot of a tree where a white policeman has been lynched, with the same note as the boy. He is likely either the boy or the baby from the Tulsa field, and is probably related to Bass Reeves, a black marshal in the old West who is the star of a serial the boy is watching in the first scene.
In between the first and final scenes, Will Reeves shows up outside the bakery – actually a front – run by Angela Abar (Regina King), who is secretly Sister Night, a detective with the Tulsa Police Department. He asks if she thinks he can lift 200 pounds, which sounds like nonsense until that final scene, if you assume the dead man weighs about 200 pounds. Alternatively, Bass Reeves was thought to have amazing strength, as did the early superhero Hooded Justice, whose face we’ve never seen. Hmm.
Regina King plays Angela Abar, who is secretly police detective Sister Night of the Tulsa Police Department.
Scattered Squid Showers: During the premiere, tiny squids fall from the sky and then turn into a liquid goo. Everybody treats this as normal. It is presumably connected to the aforementioned giant squid (honestly, read the book, awright?), which also turned to goo before it could be examined.
Where Are They Now: Jeremy Irons appears as an older man living in a castle with two servants, about which there is something very odd. (They are very likely genetically engineered, like a certain tiger named Bubastis in the original.) This character was introduced as “probably who you think he is” at the San Diego Comic-Con, and I think he’s Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt, a superhero who retired to become a corporate titan, and whose machinations are at the heart of the original book. At one point in the premiere, a newspaper headline announces that Veidt, who has long been missing, has been declared dead.
Dr. Manhattan, who sees all time at once and controls matter and energy at a quantum level, still lives on Mars. (Trailers indicate he will return to Earth.) Laurie “Silk Spectre II” Juspeczyk shows up as FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), having apparently taken the surname of her biological father, which is revealing. (Go. Read. The. Book.) There’s no sign of Dan “Nite Owl II” Dreiberg. But his owl ship Archimedes (or a very faithful reproduction) appears – and crashes – in the premiere.
Rorschach and The Comedian do not appear, for obvious reasons. (Obvious, that is, if you’ve read the book!)
Jeremy Irons is playing an unnamed character who is almost certainly Adrian Veidt, the former superhero Ozymandias, now retired after the events of the original graphic novel. Or not.
For More Information: The original Watchmen had a section at the back of each issue that fleshed out this world’s alternate history and the backgrounds of the various characters, usually in the form of “found material,” such as fictional newspaper articles, book excerpts, government dossiers, family photos, etc. “Watchmen” the TV show follows this tradition with similar material located online.
What we can ascertain from all this is that the TV show is going to try to be a lot like the graphic novel. It’s going to launch with a murder mystery, whose investigation reveals larger plots and layers of meaning. And it’s going to take an unblinking look at race, sex and politics in America, using superhero tropes as narrative vehicle and thinly disguised allegory.
Which means Watchmen is going to be terrific TV. (But you should still read the book anyway!)
Find Captain Comics by email (email@example.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Andrew Alan Smith) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).
I didn't think they'd be able to tie everything up in the ninth episode, but they did. I was quite pleased with the result. Even if the show doesn't come back for a second season, I will be satisfied it the story ends here. I recommended it to my sister and she binged all nine episodes in a day, then called me. When i suggested she might want to read the graphic novel, though, she shut that conversation right down. she's a voracious reader (or was), but absolutely will not look at a comic book.
Oh, I definitely hope it comes back for a second season. So much untapped potential.
Much enjoyed the entire series, even the ending which echoes the ending of the original comics, except that rather than a hand tentatively reaching for a document that might change everything, this time it's a foot tentatively touching water and which may portend momentous changes, but what happens next is left entirely to our imaginations, at least until someone else decides to continue the story.
Lindelof says he's more or less done, unless he gets an idea worth pursuing. And he's perfectly fine with somebody else having an idea and doing something altogether different. I can see why he'd like to step away -- quit while you're ahead, and he's more or less exhausted the original characters, which no doubt were the germ of his idea for this series. So there might be a season 2, or there might not, and it might be by Lindelof, or it might not. I guess we'll hear from HBO one way or the other ere long.
I agree with all of you in your assessments. So much potential! For example, I wasn't wild about the "Before Watchmen" stories, but one stood out: The Comedian. He was doing a LOT between the Minutemen in the '50s and Watchmen in the '80s, and most of it was really unsavory. That could be a TV show of its own, showing all the ratf*cking stuff he did (like the assassinations of Woodward and Bernstein, Marilyn Monroe and a couple of surprises). The pseudo-history of this alt-Earth is fascinating all on its own, with some things just crying out to be explained. There's also Dan Dreiberg, who was virtually untouched by the TV show.
Also, Peteypedia.com strongly suggested that Lube Man was, as many suspected, Agent Petey himself. His fate was left unresolved, even by Peteypedia.
So! Much! Potential!
And Fred, that's a really clever insight on how the two endings (GN and HBO) mirrored each other in spirit. And not only that, but they also mirrored the spirit of Dr. Manhattan's line to Ozymandias at the end: "Nothing ever ends, Adrian."
Has anybody read Doomsday Clock? It had the bad luck of running in the shadow of the TV show, which is quantum levels better. Of course, the show wasn't constricted by what the comic book had to achieve (integrating Watchmen into DC's superhero universe, so that the company will never lose rights to the characters). Sadly, in Clock Dr. Manhattan decides he was wrong when he said "Nothing ever ends." But the TV show demonstrates just how right he was.
Man, I could talk about this show for a long time, and keep tripping over new discoveries.
A quick question for you folks: WAS Rorschach's journal published? I seem to remember a line about how it was, but was written off as a "Hitler's Diaries" kind of hoax by all but the extreme right. But I may have dreamed that, or read it somewhere. What did the show do with that?
I'll admit I'm a bit leery of reading any more comics updates of Watchmen and really don't like the idea of mingling the Watchmen universe with the mainstream DC Universe. But I pretty much quit reading new mainstream comics nearly 30 years ago now, although every so often I'll get a TPB collection of a series on the outer edges, such as Morrison's take on the Doom Patrol or the recent Howard the Duck.
As to Rorschach's journal, I may be mis-remembering but seems you're on the mark, Captain, that it was published but only the extreme right took it seriously.
Some things I really liked about the tv series include that it is set more of less in our present but leaves the events of the original series as set in the 1980s rather than in some nebulous time in the past, and aside from Dr. Manhattan, the original story's characters brought back for the show are actually 30 years older and look it, so Laurie is roughly 60 years old and Adrian nearly 80 (and I do know several people in their 60s and 80s who are still in pretty good physical shape). This keeps the story grounded in the sort of predominantly real world with only one genuinely super-powered being in the works and having the other characters age as they really would as years and decades go by, so that the 16 year old Comedian of 1940 actually looks like a 61 year old when he's beaten up and thrown out of a window 45 years later in 1985, in sharp contrast to the 16 year old Peter Parker of 1963 looking no more than about 30 at most 56 years later in 2019. Admittedly, few would want to read the adventures of the Aging Geriatric Spider-Man, particularly not modern 16 year olds, having aged 56 years myself during that time, I find I can appreciate it more when my escapist fare acknowledges that particular bit of reality.
I also was highly amused by the bits with Ozymandias in his otherworldly Heaven that should have been his paradise but which he found unbearable. Jeremy Irons added much wry humor in performing the roll which may not have perfectly fit the character as written by Moore but still seemed very apt. Also enjoyed the use of Beethoven's 7th Symphony in several of those scenes.
I also much appreciated that the series blended real world events of the distant past into the narrative, bringing to light genuine horrors of the racist past and linking them to modern racist attitudes that would prefer we not acknowledge past injustices and make no apologies for them.
As with Moore's & Gibbon's original work, Lindelof and his collaborators on the tv show intended not just to entertain but to give their audience much to think about on a lot of topics, including heroism, masks, sexism, racism, what causes us to behave the way we do, what would it take to make us change, is it right to sacrifice a "few" for the good of the "many"? Would we be willing to remain quiet about horrible crimes out of fear that revealing the truth may cause even worse carnage? How long would we be willing to endure injustice perpetrated by our entire society before resorting to extreme measures to try to combat it? And so much more.
It's official: "Watchmen" won't be back for a second season.
I'm late to the party. Just this week I discovered that Hulu has the series and started watching. I'm on the 6th episode. Damn, it's good. You guys were not exaggerating.