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The History of the Watchmen: TV, Movie, and the Comics

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BY April 28, 2020
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Every artistic medium has its masterworks, and when the subject is comic books, the history of the Watchmen must be acknowledged. Since the publication of the original 12-issue series, a loyal and protective following sprung up around the universe created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Originally published by D.C. Comics, the Warner Bros. subsidiary now owns both the story and the original characters created for the book. Today, Moore and Gibbons (and editor Len Wein) all see The Watchmen as a complete, standalone tale. D.C., however, presses forward with new content for these characters, without their creators. In both the pages of the comic books, in Zack Snyder’s feature film, and on HBO, new storytellers are carrying on instead. Whether or not they can reach the heights Moore and Gibbons achieved is the real question on the minds of fans.

To understand what this story means to both fans and the world of comics, you have to understand the history of the Watchmen in context. Because, as good as the story is on its own merits, Moore’s tale is inseparable from the mid-1980s when he wrote it. Much of the political themes in it are born from real-world politics at the time. Also, the statement Moore makes about superheroes, these figures of myth, applies as well. People responded to the pure-of-heart heroes for a long time. But as real-world institutions failed them, so too did their ability to be entertained by the thought of a hero. While Moore’s hero characters are all sympathetic, they are more deeply flawed as human beings than any costumed character to date. This was the first time comics were being deconstructed by people who loved comics.

The Watchmen Introduces A World Close to Midnight

A key feature of the Watchmen comics is real: The Doomsday Clock. It is an organization of scientists that warns about the threat of global extinction from nuclear war and/or climate change. In the 1980s, however, it was all about the Cold War. Many see the time of President Ronald Reagan as the beginning of the end of that tense time. However, during his first term, Reagan refused to even engage with the nuclear-powered rival. Domestically, people lost faith in the institutions they were meant to rely on. Specifically of concern to Moore was the increasingly draconian view on criminal justice popular during the time. These heroes didn’t want to save innocent lives or take responsibility for the power they’d been given. They wanted to see people punished in violent and permanent ways. This was a society angry at the world.

Arguably, the political arc of the 1960s and 1970s reflects what was happening in comic books at the time. During the 1960s, people responded to real-world turmoil by turning to Silver Age comics. Costumed heroes who were Good Guys fought costumed villains who were Bad Guys. Like all good sci-fi they were both silly and serious. However, as the upheaval of the sixties cooled into the malaise of the seventies, people didn’t trust those kinds of heroes anymore. The Watchmen is one of the first works to deconstruct the idea of costumed superheroes with both cynicism and tenderness. The history of the Watchmen is the history of the world and its relationship to symbolic figures of authority. And its ultimate message is: Don’t trust any of the bastards.

The Watchmen Characters and Their Comics Counterparts

history of the watchmen
Image via DC

One of the first flashes of inspiration for the Watchmen was that Moore wanted to write a murder-mystery. Specifically, he wanted a series that opened with the murder of a popular costumed hero. At the time, a number of Silver Age comic houses were closing up shop, unable to evolve their kid-friendly heroes into characters modern readers wanted. Moore originally wanted to use the characters from MLJ Comics’ series Mighty Crusaders. After this, he tried to use the roster from Charlton Comics, but D.C. recently purchased them. Even though Moore worked for D.C., they wanted to protect that investment. So, instead Moore created his own characters, which was ultimately better for the story.

The Comedian

This character is based on the Charlton character, the Peacemaker. In the comic books he was a pacifist diplomat who used non-lethal violence to fight for good. As the series went on, it got darker and he became a killer. The Comedian wears a mask and uses guns, possessing far-above-average fighting skill. He is still a working hero, sanctioned by the government to do dark and violent things in the name of freedom. He thinks life is all a big joke, hence the name. Also, the only original “Minuteman” still operating. From what we see of him in the story, the Comedian was never actually a “hero.”

The Silk Spectre

Based on the character Nightshade from the Charlton line-up, the Silk Spectre was one of the most popular original heroes. She, along with “Captain Metropolis” started the 1940s super-group, the Minutemen. She gave birth and retired, but her daughter assumed the Silk Spectre mantle during the 1970s and 1980s Watchmen era. The first Spectre’s sexual assault at the hands of the Comedian is a plot point, as is the reveal that the second Spectre is the Comedian’s daughter.

The Nite Owl

The Nite Owl is directly inspired by the Blue Beetle, both mantles more than one person wore. The original Nite Owl from the Minutemen era was Hollis Mason. A cop, Mason started wearing the outfit in response to villains “masking up” in outlandish costumes. Dan Dreiberg assumes the mantle in the Watchmen era, though his version of the Owl more resembles Batman. Though both Mason and Dreiberg are more Peter Parker, than Bruce Wayne. They are the figures that almost everyone in that world likes.

Rorschach

This character is based on Steve Ditko’s character The Question, who had a featureless face. Rorshach, however, comes with a mask containing a kind of black and white liquid that changes shape based on his emotion. This gives his mask an effect similar to a Rorshach test for mental illness. Interestingly, Rorshach is one of the most mentally unstable characters. He’s ultra-violent, and very right-wing, looking down on sex workers, the poor who turn to crime, and LGBT+ individuals. Still, he represents the anarchist heart of the core group of heroes.

Ozymandias

This character is based on Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, in the Charlton line. Both characters were regular mortals, but they learned to push their bodies beyond average limits. A rich heir, Adrian Veidt become a showy superhero with essentially enhanced reflexes and fighting abilities. He’s also super-intelligent, rich, and even merchandised his and the other Watchmen’s alter-egos. As fans of the Watchmen know, Veidt devises a conspiracy that effectively ends the cold war by uniting humanity against a common threat. However, in creating this false threat, he kills millions of people.

Doctor Manhattan

Based on the character “Captain Atom,” who (along with the Blue Beetle) made his way to the Justice League, this is the only Watchmen character with actual superpowers. Dr. Jonathan Osterman is caught in a nuclear accident, becoming a god-like being who sees himself as more than human. Seen as the great hope of Americans for protection, Ozymandias turns them against him. Dr. Manhattan, meanwhile, leaves Earth on his own to live a more cosmic existence.

Why We Care About the Watchmen Characters So Much

If Moore and Gibbons adapted storied characters whose backstories most people knew, this tale might not work as well. If Nite Owl were Blue Beetle or, even, Batman the audience would bring their own experiences with those characters into the story. For example, people who grew up with the Batman TV show prefer the campy Schumacher movies to the more serious “Dark Knight”-inspired takes from Burton, Nolan, and even Snyder himself. By using new character, Moore and Gibbons could drawn on superheroic archetypes without any of the emotional baggage associated with even the Charlton heroes. We see the things we like about Batman, the Punisher, Superman, and other characters in the Watchmen. The history of the Watchmen, specifically the characters, was an unknown quantity to the audience.

So, not only are Moore and Gibbons able to deconstruct the very idea of costumed heroes, they can also reveal their origins. The idea that the original Minutemen suited up in order to fight masked villains is a great take on the comic book world. In fact, it’s one that the Fox series Gotham used to argue the “need” for a Batman. Yet, because these characters are their original creations, they can imbue their backstory with the themes they want to explore. For example, the 1940s-era hero Dollar Bill is sponsored by banks to stop bank robbers. They insist that he wears a cape for aesthetic purposes, and the cape catching in a door leads to his death at the hands of a villain. Still, we see enough of these characters’ backstories to care about them as much (or more) than we would more recognizable ones.

The Un-Adaptable Series Becomes Zach Snyder’s The Watchmen

History of the Watchmen
Image via Warner Bros.

In the mid-2000s, comic book films were still something of an uncertainty, at least with respect to their long-term box office bankability. The MCU only just started. Still, Warner Bros. tapped Snyder to adapt this to film. Unfortunately, while The Watchmen series arrived at the right time in terms of real-world issues and the industry, the history of the Watchmen film came out at the worst possible time. The geo-political world was in a much different state than in the mid-1980s. During the time Snyder shot the movie, the U.S. elected its first African American president, who ran on a campaign built on “hope.” Meanwhile, directors were just starting to get the hang of making the sort of idealistic superhero films more analogous to the Silver Age than the Bronze Age of the 1970s and 1980s (which the publication of the Watchmen series effectively ended).

The film caused controversy. First, Alan Moore denounced it to the point where he insisted he not be given creator’s credit. Second, the film was a faithful adaptation that changed some of the visual language and specific plot points. Yet, what really caused the film to struggle is that audiences were just not ready for stories like this. Today, with shows like The Umbrella Academy, Doom Patrol, and Amazon Prime’s The Boys, we might be reaching the point where the comic book film industry is ready for the kind of introspection that The Watchmen series kickstarted. Interestingly, the director’s cut of The Watchmen film aged very well. Snyder, despite the criticism levied at him about his penchant for “dark ad gritty” superheroes, made a film that was at least a decade ahead of its time.

How the Watchmen Film’s Ending Might Be Just as Good as the Book’s

One staple of Silver Age comics, especially for team-ups, is that a giant alien monster of some kind comes to destroy a city. In the books, only Dr. Manhattan has any significant powers. There are no aliens from another planet or things like that. The problem for the heroes, the villains, the governments, and everyone else is just people. So, in the face of imminent nuclear war, Ozymandias engineers both the ostracization of the only true “super” hero and the appearance of a giant space-monster bent on destruction. Through convoluted comic-book supervillain means, Ozymandias creates a giant psychic space squid. He teleports it to New York City, where it kills millions with a psychic attack. The creature dies almost immediately, leaving humanity a common, extra-terrestrial threat to face. An ingenious subversion of so many comic book stories, this is the perfect ending for that series.

However, the movie has less narrative space to work with. Thus, Snyder made a rather ingenious switch to Ozymandias’s plan. The super-villain plan is actually deadlier than the comics’ version. Using technology that mimics Dr. Manhattan’s “radioactive decay signature,” he destroys a number of world capitals. This effectively united humanity against the threat of an evil Dr. Manhattan. Whereas the banning of masked heroes is seen in the comics as part of what “allowed” the tragedy to take place, the film’s Ozymandias makes one of the costumes Earth’s biggest enemy. Still, this reinterpretation and other things cause some fans to say that Snyder didn’t respect the history of the Watchmen. Yet, even other critics say the film was too faithful to the book, suggesting Synder was damned either way.

What’s Next for the Watchmen?

In recent years, D.C. Comics revitalized the Watchmen universe. They published one-shot prequel novels and the Doomsday Clock series, which sees Moore’s characters interacting with the flagship D.C. heroes like Superman and Batman. Also, this fall, HBO will debut a series headed by Damon Lindelof, of LOST and Leftovers fame. The plot of the series, like any Lindelof project, remains shrouded in secrecy. However, it will be a sequel to the comic book series. A shot in the recently-released teaser trailer seems to show the aftermath of Ozymandias’ attack (at a carnival, which itself may be a visual shout-out to Moore’s Batman story The Killing Joke). The history of the Watchmen is not finished being written yet.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created a universe that took a deeply cynical view of heroes, and in doing so raised up their entire medium. So, fans of that universe and deconstructionist stories are in luck. There is plenty more coming your way, with plenty of time to read the books, watch the motion comics, and the movie all over again.

COMICSAlan MooreDave GibbonsDCDC ComicsThe Watchmen

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.

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