Since I don’t subscribe to HBO, I wasn’t able to watch the TV series Watchmen when it first ran, despite everyone telling me it was the best thing ever. However, to honor the Juneteenth holiday, last weekend HBO allowed everyone to watch it for free, so binged the nine episodes, viewing three per day from Friday through Sunday.
I’ll get to my impressions of the show in a moment, but first, my history with Watchmen in general. I had heard of the graphic novel but had never read it until just before the film came out in 2009. In fact, I think I’d only ever read one graphic novel, which was a short one consisting of maybe two or three issues of a comic. A friend had sent it to me as a present, either birthday or Christmas, to encourage me to get into the genre, but it didn’t work.
Sure, I read comic books as a kid, but always leaned toward the so-called Bronze Age holdovers and wasn’t really into the New Age stuff, because they were just too gritty and dark for me.
Oh… there is a concept in comics of the format being divided up into at least four ages: Golden (1938-1950), Silver (1956-1970), Bronze (1970-1985), and New (1985-Present).
In a nutshell, the Golden Age is when all the classic super heroes were introduced, including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America. They were a cheap source of entertainment, especially during WW II, and it wasn’t uncommon for a single issue to sell a million copies.
Near the end of the war, though, tales of super heroes fade in popularity, replaced by genre comics — sci-fi, westerns, romance, etc. — but then Cold Age paranoia and prudishness intruded, linking comics to juvenile delinquency. To avoid government censorship, the industry created the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a self-regulating body similar to the movie industry’s MPAA.
The Golden age heroes started to return and the next generation began to appear — Spider-Man, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men. There’s also an emphasis on superhero teams, and this is when the Justice League is fully formed from its origins during the Golden Age. This is also when The Avengers appear.
Side-note: It’s why Captain America is the First Avenger even though Supes and Batman came first — they played for a different team.
While all of this is going on, underground comics, not subject to the CCA, are thriving, and their subject matter is strictly adult.
The Bronze Age comes about when the comics start tackling social issues of the day, underground comics have an influence, and supernatural and horror stories also become popular. The power of the CCA also fades and the rise of Star Wars leads to the comic industry following suit in merchandising tie-ins, toys, T-shirts, and more.
Frank Miller “reboots” the Golden and Silver Age heroes in dark and gritty versions, and then Alan Moore publishes Watchmen. Its first appearance was in 1985, in the 50th anniversary special of DC Spotlight, although the series itself ran twelve issues from September 1986 to October 1987, with the omnibus edition being published later that year.
This ushered in the New Age of comics, a big part of the reason being that Watchmen took all of comic history to date, turned the characters on their heads, imagined an alternate historical timeline, and then threw it together into something amazing.
In the original graphic novel, we meet several generations of “masked heroes,” beginning with The Minutemen in the 1930s. While they aren’t exactly the comic heroes we know, there are some analogies, but the first and most mysterious of them is Hooded Justice, who pops up in New York and takes down criminals until the 1950s.
After he refuses to reveal his true identity to the House Un-American Activities Committee, he disappears, later to be found floating face down in the Hudson River, claimed a suicide but assumed a homicide, depending upon whom you ask.
(This is all established in the graphic novel, by the way, so it’s not a spoiler to the series.)
There are other first generation heroes, like Captain Metropolis, Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Mothman, Silk Spectre I, and Nite Owl I, although only Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre and Nite Owl make it out alive to the next generation.
Round two, the Silver Age heroes, are Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and the Comedian although eventually masked heroes are outlawed, with only Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian staying semi-legal, but only because they go to work for the government.
By the way, Dr. Manhattan is the only one who actually has superpowers, acquired during an accident with a quantum physics experiment back in the 1950s.
Now I knew none of this because I’d never read the book, but then in 2008 I saw a trailer for the film Watchmen, and it blew me away. I think this is the final 2009 trailer, but they didn’t change much from one to the other. It’s worth the watch. Pun intended.
So I watched the trailer over and over online, intrigued by everything in it, and then ran out and bought a copy of the graphic novel, which I proceeded to binge-read over the next few days, using most of my lunch hour at work to down the next chapter.
For one thing, it proved me wrong in thinking that “comic books” were not a literary form. Watchmen certainly was worthy of being a novel — in fact, the only graphic novel to be included in the Time Magazine top 100 novels list.
For another, it went beyond comics, and each chapter would include some sort of literary insert, like an excerpt from a made-up book, a fake newspaper clipping, a brochure, subversive literature, and so on.
Each insert would either shed new light on what had come before or set up breadcrumbs for what would follow, and it added a nice level of multiple narrative voices telling a story that may or may not be true.
I was not disappointed by the film version — unlike lots of fans of the book — although I did enough research to realize that skipping the two print spin-offs: Before Watchmen and The Doomsday Clock were probably a good idea, since they seemed to be nothing more than cash-grabs by DC Comics, with no involvement from Alan Moore. (Not that he’s involved in anything but the original book.)
So when I heard that HBO was making a mini-series, I was at first skeptical. I wondered whether they weren’t going to try to adapt the original again, in which case, why bother? And then, this trailer dropped.
Clearly, not an adaptation of the series, but a sequel, although it looked both amazing and confusing — none of the familiar heroes in sight, only one shot that might have been Nite Owl II’s vehicle Archie, but still plenty of masked heroes. And I couldn’t watch it without subscribing to HBO, but even this was not incentive enough.
Luckily, I managed to remain mostly spoiler-free (other than who Jeremy Irons was playing) for eight months, watched three episodes per day for three days and, just like with the graphic novel, all I can say is… wow.
The series managed to feel like the narrative structure of the book, tie in the first and second generation masked heroes and then bring in a third in the modern day, and then be about something even bigger than the original.
After all, the big fear when the graphic novel came out was the Cold War and the end of the world via nuclear holocaust. In fact, the whole point of that story is that one of the masked heroes takes it upon himself to avoid humanity’s annihilation by creating the perception of a new threat that exists outside the control of the USA or USSR.
Let’s just say that the new series has equally megalomaniacal characters, but also managed to hit upon humanity’s true, current existential threat a year before it popped into the forefront.
If you’re a fan of the graphic novel or movie, you won’t be disappointed by this one. If you have no prior experience of Watchmen, you won’t need it to enjoy the show but do yourself a favor if you feel like binging: read the graphic novel first, then watch the movie, then settle down and binge.
Oh yeah… after the freebie from HBO, the series is also now on Amazon Prime, and was recently released on DVD, so there’s that.