HBO’s Watchmen TV series, a sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel of the same name recently released to critical acclaim. While you don’t need to read the comic in order to enjoy the series, it’s worth brushing up on the mythology as the book acts as a thematic blueprint. While the graphic novel is set in 1985, the series is set in modern times. Yet both share certain broad preoccupations. Viewers unfamiliar with the book might need background information on some of the characters. Knowledge of the source material will also help make sense of the Easter eggs with which the series is stuffed. Here’s what you need to know before you watch the show, which is streaming on Hotstar.
‘Watchmen’ is one of the early graphic novels
Dripping with paranoia and foreboding, Watchmen first hit the shelves in 1986 as a 12-issue “maxiseries”. After the series run was completed, DC Comics combined the series into a single volume, releasing the whole collection as a “graphic novel” in order to disassociate it from traditional, serialised comics.
While Watchmen wasn’t the first comic series released in graphic novel form, it did make a visually and thematically striking argument for comics as a serious art form.
What it’s about
Watchmen takes place in a dystopian alternate United States in the year 1985, in which President Richard Nixon continues to be in office. Costumed vigilantes and government-approved crime-fighters exist frequently take to the streets.
To cover all the plotlines contained in Moore’s notoriously dense novel would be a difficult task, but here’s a very brief summary of the main narrative.
When a former comrade is killed, an unhinged masked vigilante, Rorschach, investigates the murder. As he meets with other former heroes, only one of whom has actual superpowers, he uncovers a conspiracy with catastrophic consequences for the world’s future. Another former associate has a plan to unite the world, preventing nuclear war by fabricating an alien threat and destroying New York City.
The novel reflected paranoid times
Moore wrote the novel in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam war, at a time when the American public distrusted the government and there was growing fear of nuclear war. His novel’s themes include: distrust of technology, the corruption of those in power, the manipulation information by the media. Most of all, it asks the question, “Who watches the Watchmen?”. Who is in charge of keeping those with authority in check, whether it’s the government, the media or heroes themselves?
The chief players
Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias (played by Jeremy Irons in the HBO series). In the events of the graphic novel, he united humanity and brought the world back from the brink of nuclear war by teleporting a city-sized alien into New York City, killing millions in the process.
Dr Manhattan was the only superhero with real superpowers. Originally an atomic scientist, he accidentally locked himself in an experimental chamber, which atomised him completely. When he regenerated, he was essentially omnipotent, capable of manipulating matter at the atomic level. At the end of the novel, he leaves Earth to create life on Mars.
Rorschach, a vigilante whose black and white view on morality is reflected in his distinctive ink-blot mask. Rorschach did not survive the events of Watchmen because he threatened to expose Adrian Veidt’s secret. In order to preserve the illusion that the New York monster was an alien threat, Dr Manhattan killed Rorschach. However, Rorschach had already sent his journal with the whole story (along with his twisted views) to the offices of his favourite newspaper. In the series, the Kavalry, a group of white supremacists, wears Rorschach masks, with the possible implication that the public did get their hands on the journal.