A guide to the comics, movies and mis-steps that led to the upcoming HBO adaptation of Watchmen...
No doubt inspired by the Latin phrase 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?', generally translated into English as 'Who watches the Watchmen?,' Alan Moore's 1986-87 comic book series landed in the DC world like an atomic bomb, shattering preconceived notions of what comic books could be and what comic books had always been. Adult comics as an idea go back to Will Eisner's The Spirit, but Moore was on the cusp of what comics could look like if targeted to a more thoughtful, mature audience. But how did an 80s cult comic book series spawn a growing media empire, with multiple comic series, graphic novels, video games, a movie, and a television series? Perhaps just as crucially, how did a single comic book maxi-series stay trapped in development hell from its first printing until the early days of the 21st Century?
To understand where Watchmen came from, an attempt will be made to understand the mind of the series' key creator, Alan Moore. Moore is a notorious mad genius with the air of a dishevelled Rasputin who worships a Roman snake deity that he himself believes to be a hoax. He's burned every bridge possible in the comic book world, fought with multiple major movie studios, lives in his hometown of Northampton to avoid public attention, and has devoted the bulk of his career to bringing old or neglected properties back from the dead, as it affords him a great deal of freedom to do whatever he wants to said properties.
Previous to the genesis of Watchmen, Alan Moore and artist Gary Leach (later Alan Davis) revived a 1950s UK knock-off of DC's Captain Marvel. In 1953, Fawcett Comics, when faced by a lawsuit from DC over the name Captain Marvel, discontinued the publication of the comic series in the United States. That led to a serious problem for Len Miller, whose publishing company L. Miller and Sons had been republishing black and white Fawcett comics in the UK. Fawcett's Captain Marvel transformed into Marvelman, Fawcett's logos were knocked off by Miller's company to ensure a sense of continuity, and Marvelman continued publishing until 1963, at which time Miller filed for bankruptcy and the Marvelman family of comics ground to a halt.
Moore took the bones of Marvelman, gave him a dark and gritty reboot, and kicked off a new anthology starring the character that was so successful in Britain, it ended up being published in America by Pacific Comic and Eclipse Comics as Miracleman, to avoid further litigious interest from Marvel Comics. For those keeping score at home, a British author gained fame in America thanks to American reprints of a British comic featuring a British comic book character ripped off from a character originally created by an American company created after the American company who created the character went out of business. Moore, during this process, began to have disagreements with his Miracleman publisher Dez Skinn. Arguments over money have proven to be as much a theme in Alan Moore's professional life as his reliance on wiping out existing comic book continuity and using familiar characters in unfamiliar ways.
Between his work with Warrior on Miracleman and his success on various 2000AD and Marvel UK titles, Moore eventually caught the attention of DC Comics editor Len Wein, who gave Moore the opportunity to work his revisionist snake magic on one of DC's lesser-known titles, a mediocre-selling monster book called The Saga Of Swamp Thing. Given free rein with that character, Alan Moore started doing Alan Moore things, digging deeply into modern issues like environmentalism, telling experimental stories, connecting the character to the culture of Louisiana, and connecting Swamp Thing to a wider DC supernatural/magical universe through characters like The Spectre, The Demon, Phantom Stranger, and Deadman. Moore would create John Constantine at this time, kick off a British Invasion era of comic books, and leading to the foundation of the recently shuttered Vertigo imprint.
Enter the Mighty Crusaders and Charlton Comics
During the Silver Age of comics, Archie Comics looked at the success of Marvel and DC superheroes and decided, “Hey, we can do that!” Archie revived the Mighty Crusaders, a superhero team of characters originally created in the 1940's. That experiment, unfortunately for Archie, was unsuccessful, and the Mighty Crusaders reboot lasted only from 1965-1966. However, the characters were revitalized during the comics Bronze Age, when Archie Comics looked at the success of Marvel and DC and decided, “Hey, we can do that!” Rather than launching a new Mighty Crusaders comic, Archie entered discussions with DC about DC publishing the new line with Archie taking a cut.
This put an idea into the mind of Alan Moore. There were no Superman-level heroes in the Mighty Crusaders; they were mostly normal people with extraordinary abilities or gadgets in a more grounded universe than the standard DC level. When negotiations between Archie and DC failed (Archie would relaunch the Mighty Crusaders themselves in a 13-issue series between 1983 and 1985), Moore took his original idea for the Mighty Crusaders - The Shield is pulled dead out of a river under mysterious circumstances - and pitched it to DC after DC bought up the Charlton Comics line of characters. DC, despite approving of Moore's work on Swamp Thing, said no to using Charlton's characters for this dark and gritty reboot, but told Moore to flesh his idea out using all new heroes.
Enter Zack Snyder
For those unfamiliar with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic series, it would be an easy thing to catch up on in a short amount of time. The original Watchmen series was only 12 issues, and due to contract language between DC and Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons, should the comic ever go out of print the rights to the characters would revert to the original creators. Unsurprisingly, Watchmen is now in its 25th printing. While the graphic novel might feel daunting at 416 pages, it's one of the most propulsive books I've read, with Moore's mystery plot snagging immediate interest and Gibbons and John Higgins' artwork enriching the story with background details that reward multiple readings. This is a graphic novel whose art is as interesting as its story, if not more so, and it maintains a unique look that makes it immediately identifiable upon first glance, by design.
To say that Watchmen, in the #18 slot ahead of works by luminaries like Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. That the book influenced generations of comic writers and artists is without question, and it continues to be one of DC's biggest cash cow properties (it's in its 25th printing for reasons other than DC keeping the rights from Alan Moore).Time magazine list of 100 best books of all time, the only graphic novel that shows up is Watchmen is routinely hailed as one of the finest comic book creations in the history of the medium, and is one of the books for which the phrase 'graphic novel' was created. On the Watchmen was successful from the first issue would be putting it mildly; the book's first issues sold so well that DC actually overtook Marvel in the direct sales comic book charts.
The comics series proved so popular that the rights were optioned by 20th Century Fox in 1986, when Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver first took an interest in the tale. Moore was offered the chance to write the script for the film by Fox, but refused, and the first draft went to screenwriter Sam Hamm. In 1991, Fox gave up and the rights were picked up by Warner Brothers. Silver and Gordon brought on board Terry Gilliam and writer Charles McKeown to take the film adaptation back closer to the comic book source material, but that effort soured too. Silver could only raise $25 million for the film, a quarter of what he felt was needed, and Gilliam dubbed the project as unfilmable.
Lawrence Gordon would not be denied. In 2001, he turned to Universal Studios with producer Lloyd Levin and brought David Hayter on board before having a difference of opinion with Universal and taking his project to Revolution Studios. Revolution couldn't pull it off. Paramount announced they'd bring Watchmen to the big screen in 2004 with Darren Aronofsky as director. When Aronofsky dropped out, Paul Greengrass stepped in. Paramount, like so many before, gave up. Then Gordon and Levin turned to Warner Brothers, who ironically is a corporate sibling of DC Comics. Tim Burton refused the project, and it ended up in the hands of Zack Snyder and Alex Tse, who finally succeeded in bringing the Watchmen to the big screen with mixed reviews.
Anything that spent so long in development hell must be based on a pretty great property, because a lot of people spent a lot of money trying to turn the graphic novel into a movie, and the resulting movie made $185 million dollars despite not getting the rave reviews of the graphic novel. Whether or not the critical opinion that Snyder stayed too close to the comic books holds water, there's something about Watchmen that continues to draw attention, hence the forthcoming series from HBO.
Enter The Minutemen
So, Watchmen is a huge critical darling, and people have worked incredibly hard to bring the property to life. What is it about Watchmen that people like so much? Part of it, no doubt, is due to the unique vision of Alan Moore himself. He took a central concept - what Marvel calls street-level heroes minus one supremely powerful being - and crafted an entire universe around them that's wildly divergent from our own.
For Moore, the world of Watchmen diverges from our timeline in 1938. A masked vigilante named Hooded Justice stops a grocery store robbery. Coverage of that event inspires Hollis Mason to take up his own mask and superhero identity, dubbing himself Nite Owl and using his knowledge of gadgets to create a collection of gimmicks to help him in his desire to join Hooded Justice in the vigilante hero game. Their visible successes kick off a fad of costumed heroes, in which people, inspired by Hooded Justice and DC's Action Comics, become vigilantes. Buffeted by a wave of immigrants fleeing Europe prior to World War II, an enterprising Polish immigrant named Laurence Schexnayder uses his beautiful longtime friend and future wife, Sally Juspeczyk, as the first manufactured superhero, Silk Spectre. Spectre's successes at stopping crime - which are really hired actors being beaten up by his wife with police paid off to support the stunts — Schexnayder puts an ad in the paper to assemble a super-team dubbed the Minutemen.
With the success of the Minutemen at home, and the success of Minuteman Edward “The Comedian” Blake during World War II, costumed heroes become all the rage, saving America from a terrorist plot and successfully stopping or jailing most of the super villains that rose up to fight them. America's victory in WWII helps the hero fad continue, while the heroes in comic books are slowly supplanted by pirate books — who needs fake heroes when you've got real ones in your universe?
The exploits of the masked heroes aren't without problems. A bank-sponsored superhero named Dollar Bill dies after being shot during a robbery when his cape tangles in a revolving door. When outed by the press as a lesbian in 1945, original Minuteman member The Silhouette was kicked out of the group and brutally murdered due to the publicity. The original hero, Hooded Justice, disappeared after the masked heroes were called before Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. The Comedian enters the service of the US Government, becoming something of a problem-solver for several administrations. Meanwhile, in 1959, a physicist named Jon Osterman is disintegrated during an experiment that seems to kill him. Then, his body begins to slowly reassemble itself in Gila Flats, ushering in the age of the first true superhero, Dr. Manhattan.
These costumed heroes, led by Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, begin to alter the world in drastic ways. The Vietnam War, which in our universe cost thousands of lives and took decades, is wrapped up in six months once President Richard Nixon gets Osterman to intervene in Vietnam. Nixon easily wins reelection, and due to his overwhelming popularity, the 22nd Amendment is repealed, which allows Nixon to set himself up as the President for as long as he continues to win elections. With the efforts of The Comedian, and the mysterious murders of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Nixon easily wins a second election and further tightens his political control over the US. Tensions with the Soviet Union simmer continually thanks to Dr. Manhattan, who tips the balance of the Cold War strongly in favor of the United States and forces the Soviet Union to take a back-seat to America's global hegemony for fear of Manhattan-based retribution.
Tensions also simmer at home, as unrest and crime continue to spark throughout the 60s and 70s, despite an accelerated rate of technological achievement with electric-powered cars, video walls, and other high-tech gadgets fueled in no small part by the combined efforts of the meta-human Dr. Manhattan and the genius businessman Ozymandias, the world's smartest man. A new generation of vigilantes, led by Rorschach, become more violent and eventually, a wave of police protests and riots leads to the passing of the Keene Act, which outlaws all masked vigilantism not sanctioned by the federal government. A federal government which plays increasingly fast and loose with international laws, acting unilaterally throughout the globe (bombing Beirut, sending The Comedian in to stop the Iran hostage crisis, and so on) and increasing tension with the second-tier Soviets, who begin developing nuclear weapons.
The Cold War, it seems, was inevitable in the Watchmen universe, no matter how many alternate fuel cars and floating magnificent airships dot the landscape.
Enter Damon Lindelof
HBO's series based on Watchmen, also called Watchmen, is based as much on Zack Snyder's film as it is Alan Moore's series of comic books. What it is not based on, as far as I can tell, is the unofficial/official Watchmen sequel called Doomsday Clock, which is actively being published by DC as we speak, with a new edition coming out every few months. This comic takes place after the events of Watchmen, but considering the TV series started shooting after issue four of the comic, and issue 11 of the comic has not come out, I believe there is no need to read the sequel, even if two characters from the sequel, Mime (who has invisible weapons) and Marionette (who uses razor wire as a weapon) may have been ported into the series from the comics. (NB: Marionette and Mime are not yet confirmed, but rumored, to be part of the series.) Doomsday Clock involves conspiracies, hostile takeovers, Superman, Black Adam, the Joker, and a host of other elements that definitely won't be involved in the series.
Before Watchmen, a prequel series launched to middling to positive reviews, might be more important. When Watchmen first launched, Moore and Gibbons had an idea to go back into the past of the Watchmen world and fill in the gaps between the Minutemen of the 1940s and the Crimebusters attempt of the 60s. Potential series pitches made were Rorshach's Journals and The Comedian's Vietnam War Diary, as well as a proper Minutemen series. I would also doubt that these prequels would carry much weight in HBO's series, but if you feel like being a completest, there is a compendium which puts all 37 Before Watchmen books into one 1064 page volume that will probably not be necessary.
Enter your local bookstore
From what is known of HBO's Watchmen series, it's more concerned with the time period after Ozymandias's plot from the original series happens to the 21st Century. Aside from Dr. Manhattan, no characters currently known in the Watchmen universe have something like meta-human powers. Ozymandias is simply a very smart man who has made a fortune in the business world, who like his inspiration Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, is the peak of human physical conditioning. Nite Owl and Nite Owl II are guys with a knack for creating gadgets and using them to fight crime, as was their inspiration Blue Beetle (Ted Kord version). The Comedian was dedicated to keeping peace through violence, as was his Charlton counterpart Peacemaker. Rorschach is simply Moore's attempt to create the perfect Steve Ditko character, right down to his strong K-last name and unusual mask and look, which are also inspired by Charlton's The Question. Mime and Marionette, should they actually appear in Watchmen, are simply Charlton's Punch and Jewelee, two very skilled thieves with access to high-tech weapons and gadgets and the amorality needed to use them to kill countless innocent bystanders.
These costumed adventurer types aren't so much gifted or special, but simply dedicated and determined. They have tools, and they use them to fight crime, and make themselves figures of legend in the process, like any sports star or media figure. And like all figures with strong personalities, these exiled heroes are capable of gathering followers, or inspiring others in their wake. While the only active character from Watchmen that will appear is Ozymandias, this is a world shaped by the characters, ideas, and events from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' groundbreaking comic book series.
Certainly, like any TV show, there won't be an extremely high barrier of entry for those unfamiliar with the comic or the movie, but given just how much inspiration the heroes of the 80s will have on the characters of 2019, it's a worthwhile investment to read, reread, or re-watch Watchmen. Most have a lower opinion of the film adaptation than the comic, and that's understandable, but it's easier to digest a 163-minute film, a 186-minute director's cut or a 215-minute ultimate cut than a 400-page novel. The graphic novel is preferred, especially if it can be read several times, but if there is a time crunch or a long trip planned, the 186-minute director's cut is the superior version of the Watchmen film and more true to the original material.
Reading the source material probably won't be required to enjoy Damon Lindelof's take on Watchmen in the 21st century, but it will definitely help. I didn't read any of A Song Of Ice And Fire, but I had a lot of help from friends and devoted fans to tell me a little more about George R.R. Martin's world. Catching up on Watchmen would be much, much easier, and just as rewarding. If nothing else, your time will have been spent reading an incredible graphic novel.
Watchmen comes to HBO in the US later this year. See the first teaser trailer and more here.
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