Part 1: The Comics
Note: There are NO spoilers in this section.
I first started reading Watchmen several years ago, when I was still in high school and going through a superhero phase. At the time, I only finished eight of the twelve issues, but even ¾ into the collection, I was able to conclude two things:
- Watchmen was the most unique set of hero stories I had ever encountered.
- Alan Moore was officially one of my favorite writers.
The form interested me at least as much as the content, and that was certainly a new experience for me. I was endlessly fascinated by the final pages of each issue, where the panel format would give way to some other genre. It might be an autobiography excerpt, a newspaper clipping, exchanged correspondence—a different thing with every issue. The flexible form expanded my understanding of how writers and artists could add meaning to a narrative, sometimes in surprisingly non-narrative ways. Issue after issue, I kept remarking to myself, “I didn’t even know you were allowed to do that!”
I finally got around to completing the comic maxiseries this year, in 2020, because of the HBO Watchmen (2019) series release. (I refused, like I often do, to watch the show without having fully read the book. And my God, I’m so glad I did!)
I think the most noticeable thing about the comic characters was their brilliant, unique, psychological profiles. If there was a central question the comics asked of each character, it would go something like this: “Forget the whole ‘saving the world’ BS, what’s the real reason you decide to dress up in some glorified Halloween costumes and go around beating people up, hmm?” And for almost every character, the question produced extraordinarily fascinating answers—answers which varied surprisingly from character to character. One thing I’m sure they all have in common, however, is that every last one of these characters is stark, raving mad. And somehow, as opposed as some of them might be to each other ideologically, all of them are right, in some way, about something. That takes some incredible writing skill to achieve.
The plot was a surprisingly slow burn. Perhaps Watchmen is not as action-packed as your average costumed hero tale. Where bombshells do appear, though, they are ruthless. The writers don’t give a damn about your shock and are not interested in easing you into comprehension. Things happen, then they’re done, and you’re left alone to deal with the consequences, as a reader, just like the characters are. The dominant thought in my head when I reached the end of the maxiseries was, “WTF did I just read?!” It’s worth mentioning that the heavily political climate of the overarching story was invaluable. It helped me understand the significance and motivations of several key characters. Much of world politics doesn’t make sense to me, so it was a surprise that I appreciated its role in Watchmen. But I admit, in the context of this story, all the costumed heroes would have seemed frivolous in the absence of such high stakes.
Part 2: The Comic-Based Series
Note: There are NO spoilers in this section.
I don’t know that it’s possible to talk about HBO’s Watchmen without shouting. Personally, I have never seen brilliance like this before, but I hope to God that one day, I’ll see brilliance like this again. Maybe even help make brilliance like this before I die.
In this world, there are people who like reading. There are people who like watching TV. And there are people who love story. Once upon a time, I might have fallen mostly into the first group, but over the years, I’ve become primarily a member of the third. So, for me, the fact that I cannot talk about HBO’s Watchmen series in isolation from DC’s Watchmen comics is a huge part of the brilliance. This is how you do story!
HBO’s Watchmen isn’t an adaptation of the comic books; it’s a continuation. A sequel, if you will. I suspect I’d have been confused as hell if I’d gone into the show with no idea of the original story. The series does what it can to fill you in, but I still believe that to fully appreciate the genius, reading Issues 1 through 12 of the comics first is your best bet.
The continuity might have been the most impressive part, for me. It seeped through every aspect: motifs, typography, themes, characters, timeline, even plots and individual scenes. People familiar with the comics might immediately recognize the motif of the Comedian’s bloody, smiley-face badge. I was almost irrationally excited to see that motif replicated in the HBO series with the bloody police badge. Additionally, it was a small but beautiful aesthetic detail to have all the subtitles for non-English dialogue in the series appear in the yellow sans-serif font that graces the cover of the graphic novel collection.
The choice of artform does lead to significant differences, though. The graphic novel was more preoccupied with character psychology than character development, but the series did so much better with the latter, not only with the newer characters like Looking Glass and Sister Night, but also with older ones like Laurie and Jon.
I may inevitably sound like a snob here, but in terms of plot twists and revelations, I honestly believe that there are things that will absolutely not hit you quite as strongly as they should if you aren’t already familiar with the graphic novel. I can’t articulate which scenes those are for the sake of spoilers, but if you’re thinking of watching Watchmen, I strongly recommend you go and find the comics to read first. That’s all I’ve been trying to say for the last 400 words.
Part 3: My Unfiltered Thoughts on the Whole Thing
Note: THERE ARE SPOILERS in this section!
One recurring thought when I finished the comic maxiseries was that Adrian Veidt and Thanos would have gotten along splendidly. I think both villains had very good points! It’s something I think about nearly all the questionable characters in Watchmen: Everyone is mad, but also, everyone is right. Rorschach was deranged, but I could see his point of view. Ozymandias was a murderous megalomaniac, but he also made hella sense. Dr. Manhattan didn’t have the emotional spectrum of an actual human being, but he said so many brutally true things! (Of course, to my surprise, in the HBO series, he does develop the emotional spectrum of an actual human being.)
Lady Trieu though? I’m sorry, but I can’t find a way to redeem her madness with logic. I mean, at least Ozymandias was trying to avoid an impending, worldwide disaster. And he was more interested in neutralizing a dangerous, nearly apathetic god, rather than becoming one. Regardless of how Trieu tried to justify herself, it just felt like she was a megalomaniac for megalomania’s sake. I mean, if you want to kill Dr. Manhattan to prevent evil racists from stealing his power, I may not approve, but I can at least understand your thought pattern. But going the extra mile of taking that power for yourself just sounds like overkill to me.
Speaking of Dr. Manhattan, though, I found his evolution pretty stunning. For most of the comics, I thought of him as a cold, unfeeling god who was utterly bored by humanity. It came as a genuine surprise to me when he decided to help save the world because of the “thermodynamic miracle” of Laurie’s father, of all things. What I never expected was for Jon Osterman to fall so deep in love that he would masquerade as a human, even become a human, so he could make the woman he loved happy. That was the most anti-Manhattan thing I could possibly think of, and that was what made the bombshell of Calvin so profound. I promise you, when I heard the “rumor” of Dr. Manhattan masquerading on earth, I thought it might be Topher. Topher seemed too emotionally advanced for his age, too cold and logical, and he was able to do at least one physics-defying thing in the series. Topher, not Calvin, was the most Manhattan-like human in the series, before the big revelation. In any case, I didn’t think it was possible to do with Dr. Manhattan what the TV series successfully did with him, and for that, I was blown away.
In the comics, the first time I found myself really liking Dr. Manhattan was during the scene with Laurie on Mars, particularly the conversation about Laurie sleeping with Dreiberg. I laughed my head off at Laurie’s frustration with Jon for being shocked at something he already theoretically knew he would be told. It was my favorite scene in the entire graphic novel. I was delighted to find that the mood of that scene was replicated with Angela, in the scene where Jon finds out about her parents’ death. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed the consistent parallels between the Laurie-Jon relationship of the comics and the Angela-Jon relationship of the TV series.
Another thing I enjoyed immensely was the brilliance of the Adrian Veidt subplot. I would commend all those who figured out immediately that the Lord of the Manor was Veidt, because I was lost for a hot minute. There was a meta-quality to the Manor scenes, in that everyone on Europa had a role to play in the theater of Veidt’s captivity. The irony, of course, is that Veidt himself was the director of this theater of captivity, to help him cope with the reality of his captivity. And even more of a head-f*ck was the fact that within this theater of captivity, he actually had his servants enact plays in a theatre setting!
As fundamental as Veidt was to the graphic novel’s plot, he didn’t appear much until near the end of it. The series thus gave me a much deeper insight into Veidt’s character than the comics were able to. Like I said, the series was much better at character development than the graphic novels were. Old characters were sincerely refreshed.
Take Agent Blake, for example. It took my brain ages to accept that she and Laurie Juspeczyk were the same person. Her character had evolved, and hardened, even more than Jon’s character had evolved. A mystery I haven’t quite managed to solve is how, if the identity of her father traumatized her so much, she grew up to completely adopt his last name. Blake/The Comedian was never married to Laurie’s mother. Throughout his life, he never claimed Laurie as his own. So what’s Laurie’s logic in adopting his legacy, even nominally? The best I can come up with, considering Agent Blake’s new fatalistic cynicism, is that she has resolved to intentionally embrace personal trauma and tragedy, because what’s the point of rejecting something that continuously follows you all the time, anyway?
While we’re speaking of character development, I’d like to say that Angela Abar’s character development was sexier than any other character’s development in Watchmen… except maybe for Will Reeves. These guys’ backstories take the cake. So much more fascinating and formative than Ozymandias’ backstory, or Jon Osterman’s, and even Rorschach’s. I mean look at how that sweet little girl turned into this savage! And see how that furious Black policeman became this laid-back old man who acts like he’s just in the world to have a good time, to the bafflement of everybody around him.
Now, Hooded Justice certainly played with my emotions. From the first time I saw his costume in the Watchmen comics, with that rope around his neck, I thought, “A symbol of lynching? This guy has to be Black.” But then the little glimpses I got of his eyes consistently suggested that he was a white man, so I forced myself to accept that I was wrong about his race. And then Watchmen the TV series happened, and I SCREAMED. Man, this is how you do story! And let’s talk motifs and legacy. Isn’t it fascinating that Sister Night’s costume involves a black spray-on eye mask, the complete inverse of HJ’s eye makeup, designed to make him look Caucasian!
On the topic of legacy. I love the play of the Smartest Woman in the World being a direct descendant of the Smartest Man in the World. It just goes to show, chale. No matter how smart you are, if you’re a fool, your foolishness will still show you pepper. In any case, I really love what they did with Nostalgia. Veidt came up with a fragrance, and Trieu turned it into a drug. Talk about family business, huh?