Rich Handley Author and Editor

ReWatchmen #1: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

A complete reread and rewatch of the entire Watchmen saga, including the comics, the theatrical film, the HBO miniseries, and more.

Rewatchmen #1

Alan Moore’s seminal twelve-issue miniseries Watchmen, published by DC Comics from 1986 to 1987, featured stunning artwork by Dave Gibbons and a vibrant, atypical color scheme from colorist John Higgins. It’s considered one of the most important works in comic book history, and rightly so. If you’ve read it, you know why. But even if you haven’t, chances are good you’ve heard and read enough about it that you have a pretty good idea, thanks to all the media coverage surrounding Zack Snyder’s 2009 theatrical film adaptation, as well as HBO’s 2019 television series from Lost‘s Damon Lindelof.

Set in a dystopian 1985, Watchmen revolves around dysfunctional, depressed ex-vigilantes living in a fascistic, Nixon-governed United States on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, in a society heavily influenced by a super-wealthy industrialist. That political landscape has become disturbingly relevant of late, thanks to the rise of fascism and white supremacy, Donald Trump’s MAGA cult, and Vladimir Putin’s genocidal invasion of Ukraine, all of which have made the spectre of war a very real threat. Elon Musk’s Ozymandias-like manipulation of media and industry has only made the series even more relevant.

Watchmen‘s publication transformed the comic-book industry pretty much overnight, but it also spawned some hotly debated (and decidedly less transformational) film, TV, and comic spinoffs. It only takes a single issue to understand why Watchmen transfixed readers. The series offered a beautiful, unique, and wholly unexpected story. Wiped away were the long-held notions that crime-fighters always did the morally right things for the intellectually right reasons, that heroes and villains were rigidly defined constants, that good always prevailed over evil, and that happy endings were a foregone conclusion where the tights-and-mask crowd were concerned. In their place was a dystopian dissection of fascism, conservatism, liberalism, dogmatism, naïve idealism, hypocrisy, and the slow, painful, deteriorating death of the American dream.

Bradford W. Wright, in his book Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Johns Hopkins, 2001), characterized Watchmen as “Moore’s obituary for the concept of heroes in general and superheroes in particular.” His description couldn’t be more spot-on. Watchmen is a wholesale deconstruction of the superhero genre and a harsh condemnation of mankind’s violent nature. In 2009, director Zack Snyder brought Watchmen to the big screen, following the failures of several prior attempts to put Moore’s most famous work in theaters. Your mileage may vary regarding how successfully Snyder encapsulated Moore’s masterpiece.

The film proved to be incredibly divisive. Though many enjoyed its vibrant visuals and strong performances, some felt the movie failed to capture the comic’s subtle nuances and deeper themes, while others still maintain Watchmen should never be filmed in the first place. Still, despite changes made to Moore’s work—particularly regarding the ending—the Watchmen movie is one of the most ambitious adaptations of any story to the medium of film. Yes, some things were altered, but it was beautifully shot and well-acted, and it stayed close to the source material.

Especially noteworthy were the portrayals by Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl), and Billy Crudup (Doctor Manhattan), but the major casting coup here was Jackie Earle Haley, whose Rorschach leapt off the page and onto the silver screen with incredible fidelity. These four actors adeptly captured their characters’ comic book nuances, making it difficult to imagine anyone else in those roles. This, combined with beautiful set pieces, a stunning credits montage showcasing the Minutemen, and the effective soundtrack, enabled Snyder to create a largely reverential depiction of what Moore and Gibbons established. The movie has received a good deal of derision, but it’s a far better adaptation than some give it credit for—and it’s certainly more faithful to Moore than HBO’s at times ill-conceived TV show.

Much has been written about Snyder’s decision to alter Moore’s conclusion so that, instead of genetically engineering an extradimensional squid creature to attack New York City, as happens in the comic, Ozymandias now makes the mechanism of destruction a manifestation of Dr. Manhattan’s powers. Thus, instead of uniting out of a mutual fear of future otherdimensional attacks, the world comes together out of a fear of Jon Osterman’s omnipotence. It’s a major change, and it didn’t sit well with a lot of viewers, but a good argument can be made that it makes sense.

While purists may balk at the notion of anyone having the gall to edit Alan Moore, the truth is that while a giant squid might work fine in the context of a 1980s comic book, on film it might have come off as laughable. The squid-to-Manhattan change was thus a smart decision for the medium. Snyder avoided what could have been a disaster, by sidestepping the issue of having a giant squid materialize over New York. Even Moore fans tend to admit this is one of the comic’s weaker plot elements, which was essentially borrowed from “The Architects of Fear,” an episode of The Outer Limits.

In 2012, DC Comics announced Watchmen prequel comics spread out over multiple miniseries, under the umbrella title Before Watchmen, which spanned 37 of a planned 38 issues (the final issue, Before Watchmen: Epilogue, was canceled). As divisive as the film was, the prequels were more so, as the idea of new stories not written by Moore offended some fans, who deemed the project disrespectful to Watchmen‘s creator. Despite such reservations, parts of Before Watchmen are quite enjoyable, particularly the Minutemen, Silk Spectre, Rorschach, and Moloch miniseries, each of which packs an emotional punch and more than a few laughs.

Minutemen tells the story of the titular 1940s crime-fighters, offering insight into the thoughts and motivations of every character. The friendship between Hollis Mason and Byron Lewis is touching, as Hollis sadly watches his best friend descend into a self-destructive vortex of substance abuse and madness. Silk Spectre is a trippy, drug-laden tale of the hippie movement that effectively walks the line of being edgy without becoming over-the-top, with amusing cameos by Frank Sinatra (as the main villain, believe it or not) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey (as Laurie Jupiter’s personal Obi-Wan Kenobi).

Rorschach, meanwhile, is exquisitely drawn and exactly the sort of ass-kicking yarn one would expect the vigilante’s story to entail, with Rorschach taking down a sewer-dwelling kingpin and later a serial killer who has attacked and mutilated a friend. It’s Moloch, though, that is the big surprise of the bunch. That tragic two-part tale let the audience see the super-villain in a new light—not as a hero (after all, Jacobi does some terrible things throughout his life), but rather as a redemptive, distorted Christ figure determined to seek salvation through self-sacrifice. I know, it sounds far-fetched, but trust me, it works a lot better than you’d expect.

Some of the Before Watchmen titles (Nite Owl and Comedian, for example) don’t jibe well with what Moore laid down, and some of the character backgrounds ignore those established for Mayfair Games’ three Watchmen role-playing game books, and have in turn been ignored by the HBO show. But for all the slings and arrows Before Watchmen has suffered, it features gorgeous artwork, most notably on Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan, and the aforementioned Rorschach, and it adds wonderful details to the character’s stories. Now that time has passed, perhaps fans will give Before Watchmen another chance, just as James Bond fans have come to realize the masterpiece that is George Lazenby’s once-lambasted On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

In 2017, Geoff Johns, DC’s former president and CEO, wrote a Watchmen sequel titled Doomsday Clock, which controversially brought the characters of Moore’s Watchmen into the publisher’s mainstream comics continuity. Doomsday Clock was spawned from the Rebirth event that encompassed all of DC’s titles. In October 2016, readers skipped a collective heartbeat when Batman discovered the Comedian’s blood-stained smiley-face pin, a seeming impossibility considering how Watchmen had ended, not to mention that it was set in a separate reality.

Combining the worlds of Doctor Manhattan and Superman sounds like a guaranteed recipe for disaster, and I was admittedly among those who dismissed the notion outright, but the resultant comics were unexpectedly entertaining. As Johns would reveal in Doomsday Clock, Doctor Manhattan had discovered the mainstream DC universe after leaving his own world, and he’d begun altering it, rewriting the histories of DC’s crimefighters and villains, resulting in a company-wide reboot known as The New 52.

That was followed by Tom King’s Rorschach 12-parter, which introduced a third and even a fourth vigilante to carry the Rorschach mantle—new character Wil Myerson, along with a fictionalized version of writer Frank Miller—following those featured in Watchmen (Walter Kovacs) and Doomsday Clock (Reggie Long). Meanwhile, Dark Nights: Death Metal saw a version of Batman receive Doctor Manhattan’s powers, earning him the nickname “Batmanhattan.” (No, seriously.)

With rumors of more Watchmen-related comics in the works, it’s a good time to reread both the spinoff comics and the original miniseries, as well as the Mayfair RPG books if you can find them, since Alan Moore himself contributed to them. While you’re at it, you might want to also read Watching Time: The Unauthorized Watchmen Chronology, written by a certain individual who pens geeky articles for this blog.

What DC has in store remains unknown, but the fact that new Watchmen lore is being told is the type of thermodynamic miracle that would amaze even Jon Osterman. Once DC reveals its plans, those willing to read stories not crafted by Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins might be pleasantly surprised. I remain hopeful. In the meantime, I’ll be revisiting everything—the comics, the movie, the TV show, the RPG books, even the video games—and discussing them here, in a new ongoing column I’m calling “Rewatchmen.”

I hope you’ll stick around, because there’s a lot to discuss. Just be warned: I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me. Hurm.

Watching Time

3 thoughts on “ReWatchmen #1: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

  1. I don’t know if I like Before Watchmen, but I like your analysis so far. Looking forward to reading more. I always wondered about the RPG. I only saw an ad for it once and thought I’d imagined it.

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