What is Watchmen on HBO? What’s it about? What is Lindelof doing? What is going on!? We explore just that, putting voice to the ambitious ‘remix’ concept, recapping the original comic, & looking at the different themes and approaches between show & comic. Bring on the squid. 🦑
- Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross writing music for the show early
- Watchmen: Teaser
- Watchmen: Comic-Con Trailer (since removed from HBO’s channel)
- Watchmen: Trailer
- Watchmen: Featurette
- Watchmen: Dave Gibbons Illustration (Promo)
- Watchmen: Motion Comic (2008)
- Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009, directed by Zack Snyder)
In 1986, ‘Watchmen’ was created by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons.
In 2019, ‘Watchmen’ was created by TV showrunner Damon Lindelof.
Watchmen was a comic, a graphic novel, exploring several ideologies and their logical endpoints, exploring free will, determinism, and the construct of time, exploring the ethics of vigilantism, exploring the sexual psychology behind people who would wear crazy outfits and call themselves superheroes, exploring institutions and culture and politics and the nature of society.
Watchmen is a TV show, a sequel of sorts to the comic, set decades later. It examines the idea of appropriation – taking something and subverting it beyond the intentions of its creators -, as well as the ethics of anonymity, the toxicity of nostalgia, the legacy of racism, questions of brutality and escalation between individuals and institutions, between citizens and the police, and the limitations of cure-all gestures for societal problems.
Watchmen the comic ruthlessly deconstructed the idea of superheroes and heroes in general, icons of power, strength and personal responsibility that deem themselves fit to be ‘watchmen’ those that watch over others and impose their will upon people’s lives, whether they do that dressing up as an owl, or as president of America.
Regarding the comic, Lindelof says viewers don’t need to have read it to watch the show, but that of course it’s enriching to the experience, and that hopefully the show encourages people to go back and read it.
‘Our version of Watchmen, if it becomes a gateway drug for them to go buy the original 12 issues that are now packaged as a graphic novel and read it, it is one of the greatest things ever written and illustrated in my humble opinion.’
Both ‘Watchmen’s are set in an alternate history where, in 1938, some odd people – ordinary people, nothing special or superhuman about them – started dressing up in strange costumes and fighting crime. Hooded Justice was the first, then a policeman calling himself Nite Owl, then more and more, military men and burlesque dancers and all sorts. They called themselves the Minutemen, and enjoyed fame and some measure of crime-fighting success for a while, before fizzling out as the years went by. Not much else was different from our real world history for a while, besides superhero comics going out of style when so-called ‘actual superheroes’ were around – pirate comics became the hip thing instead.
Then, in 1959, a watchmaker-turned-nuclear physicist was disintegrated in a freak accident, but miraculously managed to reassemble himself in a blue, godly, genuinely superhuman form – Doctor Manhattan. His superheroic abilities tipped the scales of the Cold War in America’s favour. As the 60s and 70s went on, new so-called superheroes emerged – again, all just ordinary humans dressing up. Some of these are in the TV show, several decades older, like Silk Spectre, played by Jean Smart, or Ozymandias, played by Jeremy Irons.
Meanwhile, the actual superhero Doctor Manhattan went out and won the Vietnam War. The Watergate scandal never went public, and President Nixon won term after term after term. Controversy and declining public opinion saw ‘Superheroes’ eventually outlawed, besides those that worked for the government, like Doctor Manhattan. The others tended to retire, except the uncompromising Rorschach.
Later, in the 80s, a giant alien-looking squid materialised in New York, killing millions. The surprise and threat of alien attacks diffused the apocalyptic Cold War tensions, seemingly setting Earth on the track of world peace – but the journal of Rorschach was published in a hard right-wing newspaper, and its contents detailed a conspiracy implying the alien was a hoax crafted by the retired superhero Ozymandias. Doctor Manhattan also left Earth, saying he was off to create new life elsewhere.
Decades later, now in the territory of the TV show, Robert Redford has been President – a liberal one, quite different to Nixon – for decades. In this alternate history Earth there is no Internet, no smartphones, but there are forms of reparations known as Redford-ations! A group called the Seventh Cavalry wear facsimiles of Rorschach’s mask and swear by his journal. They mount attacks on the police, who take to wearing masks in turn, ostensibly just to protect themselves.
When both cops and criminals wear masks and act brutally towards each other, what questions are being raised? Even without the masks, what do the kind of tensions that see citizens and cops attack each other tell us? What does the show’s scenario of these citizens being a fringe white minority, fighting a police force with several black cops such as our main character Angela Abar, mean? Where does this idea of lone-wolf enforcing law and order, from either side, come from, this perceived heroism, and how is it informed by history?
Damon Lindelof, the showrunner of TV Watchmen, the man asking these questions, previously wrote the very-acclaimed show The Leftovers, and the very-watched show LOST. In May, 2018, not many months after HBO ordered the show, Lindelof posted a disarmingly candid letter to social media detailing his history with the comic, and intentions with the show. He described how, over the years, he’d been offered the chance to adapt Watchmen for television three times, and after saying no twice, for reasons like-
‘Alan Moore has been consistently explicit in stating that Watchmen was written for a very specific medium and that medium is comics, comics that would be ruined should they be translated into moving images. The man offering me the opportunity pauses for a moment, then responds – “Who’s Alan Moore?”’
Who is Alan Moore? The legendary comics writer, novelist, magician famously dislikes adaptations of his work for reasons like the fundamental lack of creativity, the reducing and distorting of aspects key to his works, and show business scuminess – the ways he has been manipulated, misrepresented, and mistreated are vast and vile, particularly with Watchmen as a property. So, as a huge admirer of Moore and his work, it’s easy to see why Lindelof would feel anxious and like he has to justify himself. But, finally, when offered the opportunity to make Watchmen for the third time, he accepted, telling fans
‘If you are angry that I’m working on Watchmen, I am sorry. You may be thinking I can’t be that sorry or I wouldn’t be doing it. I concede the point, but I hope it doesn’t invalidate the apology, which I offer with sincerity and respect.
Respect. That’s second and twicemost. I have an immense amount of respect for Alan Moore. He is an extraordinary talent of mythic proportion. Mr. Moore had made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want anyone to “adapt” his work. To do so is hubris. Worse yet, it’s unethical.
There are a million ways to rationalize unethical behavior – I could argue that Mr. Moore’s partner, the brilliant artist, Dave Gibbons, is equally entitled to authorize access to his masterwork and that he has been kind enough to offer us his blessing to do so. Or I could offer that Mr. Moore cut his veined teeth on the creations of others; Batman, Superman, Captain Britain, Marvelman , Swamp Thing and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, not to mention The Charlton characters upon whom his Watchmen characters are based… So am I not allowed to do the same?’
If we see time in non-linear terms, like Doctor Manhattan, Moore responded to this sort of line of argument twelve years earlier, in 2006, when pointing out most of those characters Moore worked on he understood as a company’s characters, not his, that he was just working on for a while. With Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons were told – in Moore’s own words…
‘It was going to be a title that we owned and that we would determine the destinies of…we thought we controlled and we owned these characters. Now, there is a huge difference between the two of those things.’
If we zoom back to the relative present, in an interview promoting the show, Lindelof said:
‘Alan Moore is a genius, in my opinion, the greatest writer in the comic medium and maybe the greatest writer of all time. He’s made it very clear that he doesn’t want to have any association or affiliation with Watchmen ongoing and that we not use his name to get people to watch it, which I want to respect. As someone who’s entire identity is based around a very complicated relationship with my dad, who I constantly need to prove myself to and never will, Alan Moore is now that surrogate. I do feel like the spirit of Alan Moore is a punk rock spirit, a rebellious spirit, and that if you would tell Alan Moore, a teenage Moore in ’85 or ’86, ‘You’re not allowed to do this because Superman’s creator or Swamp Thing’s creator doesn’t want you to do it,’ he would say, ‘Fuck you, I’m doing it anyway.’ So I’m channeling the spirit of Alan Moore to tell Alan Moore, ‘Fuck you, I’m doing it anyway.’ That’s clickbait, guys! Clickbait!”’
But back to his heartfelt letter, Lindelof resolved that, regarding adapting Watchmen,
‘I am not allowed. And yet…I am compelled. I am compelled despite the inevitable pushback and hatred I will understandably receive for taking on this particular project. I once said that if one were a true fan of something, they weren’t allowed to hate it. A prominent writer took me to task for such heresy, arguing that just because one was the creator of a show, this did not permit them to pick and choose who was and wasn’t a fan of it.
What I love most about television is that the finished product is a result not of singular vision, but the collective experience of many brilliant minds. I have the pleasure of sitting in a Writers Room each and every day that is as diverse and combative as any I’ve ever been a part of. In that room, Hetero White Men like myself are in the minority and as Watchmen is (incorrectly) assumed to be solely our domain, understanding its potential through the perspectives of women, people of color and the LGBTQ community has been as eye-opening as it has been exhilarating. We’ve committed to doing the same in front of and behind the camera. And every single person involved with this show absolutely adores Watchmen. But in the spirit of complete honesty, we also sorta want to… uh…
And here’s the most fascinating part.
‘We have no desire to “adapt” the twelve issues Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons created thirty years ago. Those issues are sacred ground and they will not be retread nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted.
They will, however be remixed. Because the bass lines in those familiar tracks are just too good and we’d be fools not to sample them. Those original twelve issues are our Old Testament. When the New Testament came along, it did not erase what came before it. Creation. The Garden of Eden. Abraham and Isaac. The Flood. It all happened. And so it will be with Watchmen. The Comedian died. Dan and Laurie fell in love. Ozymandias saved the world and Dr. Manhattan left it just after blowing Rorschach to pieces in the bitter cold of Antarctica.’
Sidenote: While it’s interesting in its own ways, the film adaption of Watchmen really isn’t a substitute for reading the comic. Questions of the quality of the film aside, there are significant changes, and Lindelof’s devotion is clearly to the specifics of the comic, rather than the film’s broader strokes and own idiosyncrasies.
To be clear, the show absolutely is set thirty-four years after the comic, and so by how most of us use the word ‘sequel’, it indeed absolutely is a sequel. But writers are writers and can be more persnickety with words than the rest of us. And as for artists, well, Dave Gibbons, artist for the comic, has said of the show…
‘What particularly attracted me to this was what Damon had in mind was not a prequel or sequel, but an extrapolation, What Alan and I did with Watchmen was we initially said, what if superheroes really existed? What would they be like, and what would the world be like? Which is quite a big question. I think what Damon is asking here is the question, if that had happened back in 1986, what would the world be like now? That 30 years is a long enough time that all sorts of things can happen, and you end up a million miles away from the circumstances of the graphic novel, but still with extreme fidelity to it. There isn’t anything in this that contradicts the graphic novel. So to me it is an amplification of it, rather than a dilution. If you’re familiar with Watchmen, there’s all sorts of stuff that’s going to make your little fanboy heart happy. If you’re not familiar with it, it stands alone as a really interesting alternate reality story.’
Lindelof, in his letter to fans, clarified:
‘This story will be set in the world its creators painstakingly built… but in the tradition of the work that inspired it, this new story must be original. It has to vibrate with the seismic unpredictability of its own tectonic plates. It must ask new questions and explore the world through a fresh lens. Most importantly, it must be contemporary.
The Old Testament was specific to the Eighties of Reagan and Thatcher and Gorbachev… ours needs to resonate with the frequency of Trump and May and Putin and the horse that he rides around on, shirtless.
Which means the heroes and villains — as if the two are distinguishable — are playing for different stakes entirely. The tone will be fresh and nasty and electric and absurd. Many describe Watchmen as “dark,” but I’ve always loved its humor -worshipping at the altar of the genre whilst simultaneously trolling it.’
Lindelof goes on to thank the fans, and offer an interesting take on Doctor Manhattan before signing off:
Regarding the writing, Lindelof says the show’s nine episodes were painstakingly plotted out as their own complete story, ending with completeness and resolution. When filming these episodes, crew would run around with copies of the comic recognising directors match and reference panels of the comic with their shots.
So there’s a definite faithfulness to the artistry and technique of the comic in the show. But more fundamental seems to be the very idea of appropriation.
‘We had to be aware that we as writers were appropriating Watchmen, and it was not ours. Other people had created it and we were taking it. Sometimes when you appropriate something, you make it about what you thought it was, and the original intention of the artists who made it in the first place becomes secondary to you forcing your will upon it. We thought on a meta/pretentious level, it would be really interesting in the show if characters had done the same thing to Rorschach. The Seventh Cavalry-’
-the cult of Rorschach that attack the police-
‘-is appropriating Rorschach. He’s been dead for 30 years so he doesn’t get to say, ‘you misunderstood me. I wasn’t a white supremacist!’ They’ve decided what he was. We thought that was an interesting idea to embed in the show since we were doing it ourselves.’
As far as the other big telegraphed theme of the show, the legacy of racism, it’s baked into the show’s very setting, the Oklahoma city of Tulsa.
‘The superhero genre always feels like it takes place in New York, Gotham City or Metropolis. And Gotham City and Metropolis are just New York paradigms. So I was like: What does a superhero show look like in Oklahoma? That idea was interesting to me in terms of what it would look and feel like and kinds of people we would populate it with.’
In 1921, what’s considered the worst incident of racial violence in American history took place there, the Tulsa race massacre, the Black Wall Street massacre, where hundreds died, hundreds more injured, thousands were arrested, homes and businesses and neighborhoods burnt down – an estimated equivalent of 32 million
of today’s US dollars worth of property destroyed -,some literally by firebombing and aerial assaults from planes. Lindelof thinks looking back to this sort of history is vital for the kind of Watchmen story he is telling.
‘I asked myself, what in 2019 is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Americans and the Russians? And it just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America…. What’s creating the big cultural anxiety? For me, it’s the anxiety of a reckoning. So that reckoning, that process, the identification of white supremacy as a bad guy in a superhero comic book that could not be defeated — the Klan wears masks, but why are they never the villains in a superhero story? Those ideas felt like natural fits for “Watchmen.” The original is provocative, it’s dangerous, it’s groundbreaking, it’s political, it’s unsafe. The idea for the show had to check all those boxes.’
Lindelof also says…
‘In a traditional superhero movie, the bad guys are fighting aliens, and when they beat the aliens, the aliens go back to their planet and everybody wins. There’s no defeating white supremacy. It’s not going anywhere, so it felt like it was a pretty formidable foe.’
As for a central conflict of masked white supremacists fighting masked police, well, way back in 2017, in the earliest days of this adaption, Lindelof said:
‘What we think about superheroes is wrong. I love the Marvel movies and we saw Justice League this morning and I’m all for Wonder Woman and Batman and I grew up on these characters, but we should not trust people who put on masks and say that they are looking out for us. If you hide your face, you are up to no good.’
Two years later, he said:
‘That connects with what I think is the central core of all “Watchmen” ideology, Which is when you put a mask on, it brings out this part of you that is basically like, “fuck all y’all. I’m going to do what I’m going to do”.’
Perhaps his views on anonymity have further developed, perhaps not, and as he says, the magic of television is that it’s spawned from multiple points of view rather than just one, just his – so for all his importance, Lindelof’s takes are not capital-t ‘The” takes of the show. It’s more useful to hear the goals and philosophy of the creative team rather than any sort of thesis statements before actually watching the show.
As far as the two masked groups fighting, Lindelof says
And reasserts that…
And as far as politics, setting aside the Seventh Cavalry with their black-and-white masks at odds with the moral complications of their war with the police, there’s Robert Redford having been the president since the 1990s in the alternate Watchmen world. Lindelof explains part of that idea is
So, an evolution, a remix, a sequel-we-don’t-call-a-sequel to Watchmen the comic, but realised on HBO, with actors like Jeremy Irons and Jean Smart, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross doing the music, who were such megafans of the original comic that they actually approached HBO about doing the score first, and started writing the music before the show even began shooting, so the whole thing has been crafted around their sound.
‘We know that we made something that’s potentially dangerous and upsetting. We know that we appropriated a beloved graphic novel and we know that white supremacists appropriating the mask of someone who was construed as a hero in that graphic novel is not going to be loved by everyone. But we still feel like it’s interesting. The show in and of itself is a Rorschach test — everybody’s going to see something a bit different, based on who they are and what their relationship with “Watchmen” is.’
In 1986 Watchmen made such an impact that its squidly grandeur still haunts the present day. In 2019, let’s watch and find out.