Everything You Need To Know About ‘Watchmen’ Before You Watch The New Show

Ahead of the new HBO adaptation, brush up on one of the best comics ever written.

Watchmen HBO explainer

In 1986, a wild-haired Brit by the name of Alan Moore dropped the first issue of his magnum opus, Watchmen.

By that stage, Moore was already something of a superstar in the world of comics. Three years previously, he had been hired to give the DC character ‘Swamp Thing’ a facelift. Transforming the character from a hulking spin on the Universal Monsters into a brooding, existential plant with the soul of a man, Moore established himself as one of the most important artists working in the medium.

Watchmen only cemented that reputation. A Freudian takedown of every single cliche of the superhero genre, Moore’s series was fraught with Cold War paranoia, suspicion of the American military machine, and a plot that pivoted on a teleporting giant squid monster.

What is Watchmen About?

Set in an alternative world where America won the Vietnam war with the help of an army of superheroes, the series begins with the murder of The Comedian, a now-retired vigilante, and traces an apocalyptic plot.

Along the way, Moore introduces us to a series of over-the-hill do-gooders, all wracked by hang-ups; Nite Owl is largely impotent unless he’s dressed in his costume; Rorschach is an anti-social fascist; and Ozymandias is an ubermensch with a cruel streak.

Then there’s Dr. Manhattan, a walking atom bomb who has so evolved past the boundaries of human intelligence that he can see the past, the future, and the present all at once.

Nowadays, every comic under the sun wants to be adult, and dark, and brooding.

But Watchmen wasn’t simply one of the first works to push the medium into the tormented and the tortured. More than that, Moore had a reason for being so intense — something bigger than a mere desire to be taken seriously by the American literary establishment.

Moore had things to say about the pathology of people who want to do good; people with strong ethical frameworks. He had things to say about the war, and America, and violence. And he didn’t merely jam those themes into the exploits of characters in cowls. He dovetailed his medium and his message together expertly, creating a work fixated on itself, and its own history, and the broken world around it.

In the history of modern comics, there’s before Watchmen and there’s after Watchmen. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that Hollywood wanted to get in on the property almost immediately, with ex-Monty Python member Terry Gilliam attempting to mount an adaptation of the series in the ’90s.

It wouldn’t prove to be so easy. The Watchmen franchise has turned into one of the more complex entertainment properties of the last few decades, full of reboots, spin-offs, and reimaginings.

Here’s your guide to them.

Watchmen Comics

Moore’s original series was a fully-contained story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But that doesn’t mean that others didn’t expand the corners of the mythology laid down by its creator. Over the years, there have been a multitude of Watchmen addendums, most of them pretty sub-par.

These addendums were collected under the ‘Before Watchmen‘ banner, and focus on 12 of Moore’s characters. Even the good ones are flawed — there’s just no need to know anything more about these heroes other than the information than Moore provided. Sure, it’s kinda cool to follow the superpowered Ozymandias as he fights crime in the ’40s, but is it actually necessary?

Even less necessary is Doomsday Clock, a sorta sequel to Watchmen. Despite being written by Geoff Johns, best-known for being the man who made Aquaman cool again, Doomsday Clock is a boring mess, exactly the kind of mockery of the original story that made Moore cantankerous about the idea of returning to his magnum opus ever again.

So, basically, when it comes to comics, read the original book, and then nothing else.

Zack Snyder’s Watchmen

After languishing in development hell for years, Zack Snyder was the director who eventually got control of the Watchmen cinematic adaptation.

Harder to imagine a worse marriage of creator and creation, to be honest — Snyder hasn’t made an artful film since his debut, the sturdy and emotive Dawn of the Dead remake, and favours a leaden realism that turned Moore’s creation into a joyless slog.

The film is perfectly cast, mind you — Billy Crudup is the ideal Dr. Manhattan, full of a strange mixture of chilling peace and existential dread. And Patrick Wilson nails Nite Owl, a buttoned-down sop. But the whole thing is a slow-motion saturated, dreary exercise in fastidiousness. Adaptations this slavish to their source text are good for one thing, and one thing only: getting you excited to re-read the original.

That said, the Watchmen film did spawn a surprisingly competent spin-off: Tales of the Black Freighter. An animated film based on a comic hidden within the pages of Moore’s original work, Tales of the Black Freighter is a beautifully illustrated, genuinely unsettling story of pirates and mortal peril. It’s short too, making it the perfect project to binge-watch before the new Watchmen series drops.

Speaking of which…

HBO’s Watchmen

Watchmen has been reanimated for a new HBO series, helmed by Damon Lindelof. If that’s a sentence that strikes your blood cold, then don’t worry — you are not alone. After all, Lindelof has a spotty track record with these things — who can forget what the self-confessed Alien fan did to that franchise, butchering the thing into piles of nonsensical mythologising with Prometheus.

But by all accounts, the writer has knocked it out of the park this time. His new take on Watchmen isn’t slavish and deadened, like Snyder’s. Instead, it aims to take the bare bones of Moore’s story and repurpose them in bold new ways.

As a result, an exact knowledge of Moore’s original isn’t necessary to enjoy this new take. Instead, viewers are being encouraged to re-experience what made Moore’s work so special in the first place; to re-encounter a work of pure, primal art.

Sounds good to me.

Watchmen streams today on Foxtel Now.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joe_O_Earp.