The original Watchmen graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is to comics what Catcher in the Rye was to literature. Yet another story that challenged a medium and eventually drove a writer to a life of seclusion. The graphic novel has spawned a prequel series, a 2009 Zack Snyder movie and most recently, the Geoff Johns penned tie-in Doomsday Clock (DC Comics ), which Moore famously denounced. But don’t worry about reading all of that, the new Watchmen HBO series starring Oscar-winning actress Regina King is altogether something entirely different.
The collected graphic novel was published in 1987 and featured brand-new superheroes like the Comedian, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias and the only hero with actual Dr. Manhattan. (All were characters acquired from now-defunct Charlton Comics). None of whom make any significant appearances or really affect the plotline (yet) in the show. According to Damon Lindelof, the show’s creator, that was by design.
The HBO premiere takes place 30 some odd years after the end of the original graphic novel and except for a few scenes, ignores the Snyder movie altogether. The only original characters in this series appear to be an aged Adrian Veidt (a.k.a. Ozymandias) played by Jeremy Irons (whom everyone thinks is dead) and Dr. Manhattan, who is currently amusing himself by making sandcastles out of Martian soil. Although all of the original characters, the Comedian, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan and more show up in a show within the show in the premiere entitled American Hero Story . A sort of sensationalized documentary about The Minutemen. and Hooded Justice. (The heroes from the 1940s that The Watchmen replaced in the comics). The show pops up throughout the episode for context, to remind us that we are, at least tangentially in the world of the graphic novel.
The rogue agent of the Watchmen comics was always Rorschach, who defied both society and superhero “codes’ by following his own rules. Whose meticulous and violent exploits were documented in a series of journals that were sprinkled throughout the 450-page volume for emphasis and context. (His unpredictability and violence also scared the crap out of some of the other Watchmen.)
The original story was a massive hit because not only did it pull superheroes down off of the pedestals that the genre had often placed them on, but it also did it in a very gritty, realistic way. Published during the Reagan-era in a world that never acknowledged him as President, this alternate history featured a Richard Nixon who not only was never impeached but stayed in office for three terms. We also won the Vietnam War, which turned into a protected State after 1975. This bit of information does appear in the show when Regina King’s character Angela Abar (a.k.a. – Sister Night) reveals that she was born in Vietnam, right before it became a free state.
The setting of the show is an alternate reality of 2019 in Tulsa, OK, which is one of the few states which has enacted a law requiring that all police officers wear masks to protect themselves against criminals who target them. A result of the “White Night.” A massacre perpetrated by the “7th Kalvary”, a pro-Nazi group of militia wearing Rorschach masks who before the show, but sometime after the comics, targeted, killed or injured almost the entire Tulsa police force in one night. They, like most extremist groups, swear by a specific set of teachings. In this case, Rorschach’s journals, often taking things out of context. But Rorschach has been dead for over 30 years and isn’t there to argue with them. (We’re not really sure if he could if he was). Simultaneously, the police must follow an extensive and often prohibitive set of rules of conduct. Including having someone unlock their firearms remotely to use them. The only cop on the force who does not wear a mask is Don Johnson’s character Police Chief Judd Crawford, a character created specifically for this show. Because even in a world where everyone wears a mask, someone must be the face of the Fraternal Order of Police.
The other important (yet almost hidden) plotline that is introduced in the premiere episode is something called “Red-fordations.” Which was a law enacted by the current leader of the United States in the show, President Redford, who passed a law which paid reparations to a large number of Black citizens of Tulsa. The reasons for this will be sussed out in future episodes, but it’s pretty clear that the Black community who received funding are connected in some way to the real-life 1921 Black Wall Street massacre chronicled at the start of the show.
If you take a community with underlying racial tensions as a result of African-Americans’ newfound wealth, as compared to many poor whites in the area, add to that a justifiably reactionary police force now running around in masks acting like vigilantes, working just inside the law and you end up with Regina King’s character Angela Abar, a.k.a. “Sister Night.” A cop with a mask, a badass coat, Krav Maga training and a lethal set of rosary beads. Hell-bent on rooting out the perpetrators of White Night along with other perceived threats to society, she leads a double life. She’s married, and is raising two adopted children, (whose true parentage will be revealed in future episodes) and has a fantastic relationship with her husband. Yet through King’s phenomenal performance, it’s clear that there is a pain in her eyes, and a slight anxiousness just beneath her smile.
That anxiousness is not unfounded as the show reveals everything you see isn’t black and white (pun intended). A Black police offer making a routine traffic stop notices a Rorschach mask in a glove compartment. He perceives a threat. But technically there really isn’t one before he begins to investigate, and the spooked vehicle owner shoots him. Lou Gossett’s character appears as a frail old man in a wheelchair but claims he’s murdered someone twice his size in a way that only someone younger and able-bodied could have executed. The fact that everyone wears a mask also makes it very easy for someone to serve both on the police force as well as be a member or leader of the 7th Kalvary. In a world where everyone wears a mask, it’s hard to tell who’s good and who’s evil.
If you’re asking, “Well, what does this have to do with the Watchmen?” The short answer is not much. All links to Moore’s original work happen tangentially: Brief historical accounts of past heroes on TVs, a radio program, icky baby squids that fall from the sky and the Rorschach-mask-wearing Kalvary, are all that’s really left of Moore’s original commentary on the lack of policing among the superhero set. Except for Jeremy Irons, (he hasn’t called himself Ozymandias yet, but he’s been reported as playing the character in the show), many true fans of the novels which showed up to see a reboot of their favorite 80’s characters are going to be disappointed. They are also not paying attention. Lindelof has been publicly announcing what he was going to do with the show for over a year now.
True fans of the comics aside, what is most fascinating about this world that Lindelof has created is that he has been able to do something that we haven’t seen from a DC property since Christopher Nolan adapted the Dark Knight to the big screen. Lindelof has effectively placed fictional characters in a parallel universe and made them riveting, poignant and relevant. For the first time ever, we’re seeing acknowledgments of real-life history and ideas mainstream American society never acknowledges. The race riots that erased so much of African-American history in the early 1900s, children of Black soldiers born outside of this country, white children adopted by Black families. The effects of which I have seen even in my own family tree, that mainstream society doesn’t seem to acknowledge.
Also the parallels of the Tulsa riots and the world of successful Black residents following reparations isn’t lost on me. But that’s for another post. I really look forward to seeing the rest of the season to see where this story goes.
This is an HBO sponsored post and I have been provided with several episodes in advance. (But I can assure you I would be watching and writing about this anyway).