Rich Handley Author and Editor

ReWatchmen #2: I Watch the Watchmen

A complete reread and rewatch of the entire Watchmen saga, including the comics, the theatrical film, the HBO miniseries, and more. (Also published at Ed Gross’s Voices from Krypton website.)

As I delve into my dissection of all things Watchmen (which began last week), I thought it would be a good idea to start the same way I started Watching Time: The Unauthorized Watchmen Chronology. That book provided a detailed chronology of the Watchmen comics, film, video games, and RPG books—at least, those released before 2016—and it began just as this blog did: with the decision to reread everything from the beginning.

Watching Time was a project I put together with my much-missed friend, the late Paul C. Giachetti, for Hasslein Books. You can read more about it in this 2021 blog entry. My introduction explained how I’d come to be an avid Watchmen fan, and it seems appropriate to reprint it here in its slightly edited entirety. It’s admittedly a bit outdated now, since the book came out before we had Doomsday Clock, Tom King’s Rorschach, and the HBO Watchmen TV show, but it’s nonetheless a good starting point.

= = =

Introduction to Watching Time: “I Watch the Watchmen

“The country’s disintegrating. What’s happened to America? What’s happened to the American dream?”
—Daniel “Nite Owl” Dreiberg

Rich’s Journal, July 10, 2016: I feel that I should admit something right off the bat, and I don’t want you to think any less of me when I do. Perhaps it would be best if I just ripped off that Band-Aid and worked through the pain. If I get this out in the open now, maybe we can move past it and you can enjoy this book unfettered by the spectre of an uncomfortable, unspoken truth. OK, here goes:

I’ve never been much into superhero stories.

Flashbook Thursday--Watching Time

That admission may seem surprising coming from a guy who has written a lengthy book about masked crime-fighters, but the truth is, while growing up I could never relate to characters who dressed up in Spandex costumes resembling humanized animals, adopted nicknames based on those animals, and then ran around the streets beating the tar out of similarly clad villains. It all struck me as a bit too much like what I’d expect Halloween to be if that holiday were combined with Grand Theft Auto… if Grand Theft Auto had existed when I was growing up, that is… which it didn’t. I’m sure you still get my point.

Sure, I enjoyed Christopher Reeve’s Superman films, just like everyone else and I watched the Super Friends cartoons, as well as Adam West’s Batman, Bill Bixby’s The Incredible Hulk, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, and William Katt’s The Greatest American Hero. And, yeah, I’ve adored Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy, and several of the X-Men movies—and Deadpool had me laughing to the point of abdominal pain. But beyond those and a few others (The Incredibles and Unbreakable chief among them), the genre had historically not held much appeal for me.

[Footnote in Watching Time: Amusingly, my mother dropped me and my cousin off at a movie theater in 1977 so we could watch what she thought was a film called Superman, which she’d seen listed in a newspaper. (This was a year before Christopher Reeve’s Superman hit theaters.) When we purchased our tickets, we discovered that the film was not quite what we’d (or she’d) expected. It was actually SuperVan, the latest in that peculiar genre of 1970s movies now known as “vansploitation,” which tended to focus on hormonally driven college students who lived to show off their customized vans, often culminating in road competitions and a lot of sex and drugs. The titular vehicle was a solar-powered, laser-armed van with a mattress in the back for a different kind of riding, and the plot involved a wet T-shirt contest. We were nine years old at the time. The staff let us in to see it anyway. Come to think of it, that might explain a lot about me.]

I should point out that in the 1970s, we had only thirteen television channels from which to choose, a few of which showed static. So when I did watch superhero TV shows, it was often more the result of my not wanting to watch what was on the other channels, and less that I was truly into them. Lou Ferrigno smashing things and Lynda Carter doing… well, anything, really… were preferable to The Love Boat, Hee Haw, or Leave It to Beaver reruns any day of the week. With nothing else to choose, superheroes sufficed.

As I became a moody, withdrawn teenager, I delved deeply into science fiction franchises like Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and Planet of the Apes, which greatly appealed to the part of my psyche that had a habit of watching news broadcasts and becoming embittered and depressed about the changes taking place in the United States in the 1980s. With crime rates skyrocketing, government corruption and civil-liberty incursions increasing, and the impending threat of nuclear destruction ever-present at the height of the Cold War, I found myself even less inclined to watch the superhero shows I saw as a child, which now seemed hopelessly naïve. Trek, Apes, and the Zone, on the other hand, offered powerful messages to which I could far more easily relate. I (mistakenly) assumed that comics could not offer me that same relatability.

In college, my friend Tom pushed me to embrace superheroes. Tim Burton’s first Batman film had just come out, and we’d gone to see it a few times because we’d both enjoyed it immensely (which surprised me, given how I generally felt about such characters). He was an avid collector of Batman comics and kept urging me to borrow them, claiming that they would alter my perception of masked crime-fighters.

I snobbily resisted, and continued to do so until a few years later, when I finally gave in and read the Knightfall saga, written by Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench, Alan Grant, and others. That intricately plotted, multi-title storyline is, of course, famous for introducing the steroid-enhanced, hyperintelligent Bane, who did what no other member of Batman’s rogues gallery had ever succeeded in doing: breaking the Caped Crusader’s back and his spirit (in the process setting the stage for Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises). Bane deconstructed Batman, both on a figurative and literal level, exposing his vulnerabilities, and I found myself intrigued almost immediately.

I admit it: Tom was right. Knightfall was damn good storytelling, and after I finished reading it, I had to keep going. My eyes had been opened to the fact that not all superhero comics were corny slapstick, as I’d assumed them to be based on the TV shows from my childhood.

The Knightfall saga became my gateway drug to superheroes, and I kept reading Tom’s other Batman titles. By the mid-1990s, he’d introduced me to Denny O’Neil’s Birth of the Demon, Brian Augustyn’s Gotham By Gaslight, Jim Starlin’s heartbreaking “A Death in the Family” storyline, and Frank Miller’s mesmerizing Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. (If you’re noticing a pattern here—emphasizing the “dark” in “Dark Knight”—then you’re keeping up just fine.) I needed more… but I didn’t yet know that what I really needed was “more” with a second “o” in it.

Then Tom handed me Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke.

I read that graphic novel twice in one sitting, each time having to catch my breath when I was done. Moore’s chilling exploration of how a rational, ordinary individual could evolve into the twisted, psychotic, homicidal, maniacally laughing, and downright scary lunatic known as the Joker was like nothing I’d read before, not in all the dark, brooding Batman comics I’d just spent the previous few years devouring. His writing was beautiful, haunting, poetic, powerful and, above all else, literary. This wasn’t a comic book I was looking at. It was literature.

If Knightfall had been my gateway drug to superhero comics, then The Killing Joke was my religious epiphany. There was a writing god out there of whom I’d been unaware, and he wrote stories like no other. His name was Alan Moore and, like Bane, he did the impossible: He made me really enjoy superheroes. Tom next gave me Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, easily the best Superman tale I’d encountered in any medium, and it brought me to tears.

A few years later, another friend, Joe, handed me his Swamp Thing collection after I shared with him the above memories. I was reluctant to read it, as I’d watched the Swamp Thing films and TV series and had found the character to be slightly ridiculous. But Joe mentioned that Alan Moore was among the writers on the comic (which, he assured me, was nothing like the filmed Swamp Thing), promising that I’d be blown away by the author’s groundbreaking approach to Alec Holland’s saga as multi-tiered, millennia-spanning mythology—much more than merely a murky tale of a muck-encrusted mockery of a man. Sighing (possibly due to the gratuitous overuse of Len Wein-inspired alliteration in the previous sentence), I gave it a try.

Cue history: repeat. I admit it: Joe was right, too.

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing offered some of the most gripping storytelling I’d come across in the four-color medium, and the title character was no mere superhero—he was an elemental spirit tasked with protecting the entire planet, even from mankind. When I was done reading it, I didn’t just give it a second read, as I had Moore’s Joker story. No, I went out and tracked down every single Swamp Thing issue up to that point so that I could proudly feature the series in my own collection and re-read it as often as I liked—and I liked aplenty.

I didn’t need to be hit over the head repeatedly to realize that I’d found a new favorite writer. The Killing Joke had dealt with mature subjects maturely, illustrating how comic books could truly terrify, while Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? had provided an emotional conclusion to the DC Comics pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths era, with Superman leaving crime-fighting behind to live an ordinary life as an automobile mechanic (something that should sound familiar to Watchmen fans). Swamp Thing upped the ante, regularly delving into examinations of societal problems that took me back to what had so enthralled me about The Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, and Star Trek.

I soon began hunting down Moore’s other works as well, including V for Vendetta, From Hell, and even Marvel UK’s weekly Star Wars magazine. (Yes, Moore wrote Star Wars, and it’s just as weird and wonderful as you’d imagine.) It was somewhere in the midst of all this that I first picked up a graphic-novel collection of Watchmen, Moore’s seminal twelve-issue miniseries, published from 1986 to 1987, that featured gorgeous artwork by Dave Gibbons and a vibrant, atypical color scheme from colorist John Higgins.

Set in an alternate version of 1985, Watchmen revolved around a group of dysfunctional, depressed ex-vigilantes living in a Nixon-controlled, borderline-fascist United States on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I’d heard about this series many times during the decade since its debut, of course—it’s almost impossible to run in geek circles and not hear about it—and knew that it was widely praised as having transformed the comic-book industry.

Within an issue, I understood why. Watchmen was a beautiful, unique, and wholly unexpected story, one that resonated with me personally since it examined the concept of costumed crime-fighters through a harshly critical lens, echoing the stance I’d held before reading Knightfall. 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 have been more spot-on.

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.

As if that weren’t enough already, Watchmen contained a Batman analog (Dan Dreiberg), an amoral multiple-murderer prone to seeing everything as a joke (Eddie Blake), a crimefighter who’d retired his costume to become an auto mechanic (Hollis Mason), and a powerful individual determined to save the planet from mankind (Adrian Veidt)—and it doesn’t take much analysis to recognize the similarities between Rorschach and the unnamed antihero of V for Vendetta. Watchmen mixed and matched elements of almost every Alan Moore story I’d already enjoyed, creating a whole that was greater than the sum of its impressive parts.

It was mind-bending—a wholesale deconstruction of the superhero genre and a harsh condemnation of mankind’s violent nature—and it was glorious. To date, Watchmen remains my favorite work from Alan Moore. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve re-read it throughout the past twenty years, and I’m sure I’ll do so again soon.

When rumblings arose in the mid-2000s of an impending Watchmen film (the latest in a string of such rumors, following the failures of several prior attempts to put Moore’s most famous work in theaters), I decided to revisit the graphic novel yet again. I wanted to have it all fresh in my head when I eventually sat down to watch what would, no doubt, be an altered version of the story’s events playing out on the big screen, so that I could compare and contrast from a position of knowledge, not one of hasty recollection.

While I was at it, I decided to look up whether anyone had used the Watchmen characters in other media. In so doing, I learned about a trio of books that Mayfair Games had released, two in 1987 (Who Watches the Watchmen? and Taking Out the Trash) and a third in 1990 (The Watchmen Sourcebook), each of which incorporated the concepts and characters of Watchmen into the DC Heroes Role Playing Game. Set before the main events of Moore’s saga, they served as DC’s first Watchmen prequels.

The books looked intriguing, so I ordered all three online even though I wasn’t an RPG player—and it turned out to be an excellent decision. Despite some continuity gaffes and contradictory dates (odd, given that Moore himself co-wrote one of them), each volume was a data dump of valuable new information regarding the heroes’ and villains’ backstories, expanding Watchmen‘s world into something even greater.

Players, assuming the roles of Rorschach, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, or the Comedian thwarted an assassination attempt on Richard Nixon in one book and helped Captain Metropolis solve a spate of kidnappings in another, unaware that (Spoiler alert!) Metropolis himself had orchestrated the abductions in a misguided second effort to convince the heroes to form the Crimebusters.

[Footnote in Watching Time: The RPG books’ editor astutely noted that Dr. Manhattan wouldn’t make for a particularly playable role-playing game character, since his omnipotence, invulnerability, and simultaneous perception of all points within his lifetime effectively eliminated any sense of tension or danger, due to Jon knowing, from the outset of any adventure, how it would end. I find it amusing to picture the scenario: “OK, let’s get started. Your mission begins with all of you in a room and—” “Captain Metropolis is the mastermind. Also, Moloch is secretly planning to start a riot.” “What the—? Hey, nice job ruining the game for everyone else, jerk.”]

Leafing through these books helped get me into the proper frame of mind to watch Zack Snyder’s film. As Nite Owl might say, they were a hoot—and so was the movie. Say what you will about Snyder’s rather divisive film, but I loved it and still do. Despite its changes to Moore’s original work, I consider it one of the best adaptations of any story to the medium of film. Yes, it changed some things big and small, but it was beautifully shot and very well acted, and it stayed close to the source material, proving wrong the oft-repeated claim that the graphic novel was entirely unfilmable.

To tie into the film’s release, Warner Bros. commissioned four video games utilizing the onscreen depictions of the characters and the world they inhabit: Watchmen: The Mobile Game, a Java-based side-scroller for mobile phones; Justice Is Coming, an online role-playing game; Minutemen Arcade, an 8-bit arcade-game emulator; and The End Is Nigh, a console and PC game for the Windows, PlayStation, and Xbox platforms. While each game added new content to the mythos, the first three were relatively unimportant—and two aren’t even available anymore. Only The End Is Nigh made substantial additions, by showcasing Underboss and the Twilight Lady, supervillains mentioned in passing in Moore’s story. If you haven’t played The End Is Nigh, I recommend finding a copy. If you can get past the repetitive walking and fighting, there’s a good story being told.

In 2012, DC Comics announced its next major Watchmen undertaking: prequel comics spread out over multiple miniseries, under the umbrella title Before Watchmen, which spanned thirty-seven of a planned thirty-eight issues before the final issue, Before Watchmen: Epilogue, was canceled without explanation. I’ve always considered that a shame, as Epilogue would have rounded out Watchmen at an even fifty issues, including Moore’s original miniseries. As it now stands, there are only forty-nine, which agitates my OCDish nature to no end. [Ed. note: Since this intro’s writing, the release of Doomsday Clock and other series have negated the above sentiment.]

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 felt such a project was disrespectful to Watchmen‘s creator. I wasn’t among them. Don’t hate me, but I found Before Watchmen enjoyable, particularly Minutemen, Silk Spectre, and Moloch, which packed an emotional punch and more than a few laughs, as well as Rorschach, which was exquisitely drawn and exactly the sort of ass-kicking yarn one would expect the vigilante’s story to entail. Some of the others (I’m looking at you, Nite Owl and Comedian) didn’t always jibe with what Moore had laid down, and some of the character backgrounds in these new comics ignored those already created for the RPG books. (Alas, the otherwise excellent Minutemen is guilty on both counts.)

Hence, the genesis of the book you now hold. In 2015, I sat down to reread Moore’s miniseries, the three Mayfair Games books, and Before Watchmen, and I began to notice interesting trends. There were numerous instances in which the RPG books and Before Watchmen were wholly incompatible, most notably in the case of Rolf Müller and Hooded Justice. (Yes, I just mentioned them as being two separate individuals. Therein lies the biggest continuity quagmire of them all, as you’ll discover while perusing the timeline. [Ed. note: the HBO miniseries has compounded this issue in the years since.]) But by and large, the two attempts at Watchmen prequels fit together surprisingly well, except when it came to characters’ birthdates, when all hell tended to break loose.

In watching playthrough videos of the video games, I discovered that their events mostly fit with both prequel lines as well. Contradictions inevitably arose—conflicting histories for Bill Brady, for instance, as well as differing accounts of the Woodward and Bernstein murders, the Police Riots, the passing of the Keene Act, Ursula Zandt’s death, Dan Dreiberg’s education, and Sally Jupiter’s retirement—but an intricately interconnected tapestry of Watchmen history nonetheless emerged.

I began making mental notes about how everything did or didn’t fit together, which quickly evolved into the makings of a book. Six months later, they’d grown into a manuscript of more than 350 pages, representing an exhaustive amount of research, reconciling, and contemplation. Watching Time presents a detailed timeline encapsulating every known event from all corners of the Watchmen franchise [Ed. note: …again, up to 2016.], including not only Moore’s comics, Before Watchmen, and the film, RPG books, and video games, but also viral videos and websites, trading cards, promotional newspapers, reference books, and other ancillary sources—even unproduced film scripts.

When I began writing this book, I had no idea DC would make the controversial decision to transition Watchmen‘s characters into mainstream continuity via Rebirth, or that a TV adaptation would be in the works. As this book goes to press, almost nothing is known about the impending TV show, but I hold out hope that it will involve the Minutemen. The best thing about Snyder’s movie was the superb credits sequence, which made me yearn to see more of that earlier crime-fighting team in action. It’s no surprise that Minutemen was my favorite aspect of Before Watchmen. I can only hope future scribes, whether on screen or in print, will continue to hold a mirror up to society, exposing the deterioration that still plagues the United States—and the entire world—now, some thirty years after Alan Moore offered up what many consider his most influential work.

For my purposes (and yours), the timing couldn’t be better for such developments, because with major sea changes coming to the Watchmen franchise, now is a perfect time for veteran fans and new converts alike to revisit or discover all that has come before. If I’ve done my job properly, Watching Time will make that possible. I’ll leave that to each of you to decide for yourself as you pull up a seat here at the Gunga Diner, order up some four-legged chicken, cold baked beans, and a cup of Nite Owl Dark Roast, and peruse the pages of this paperback primer.

Just understand one thing as we share this space: I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me. Hurm.

= = =

A lot has changed since I wrote the above in 2016. Not only has the Watchmen franchise greatly expanded, but I’ve since embraced superheroes—not only the Arrowverse and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also Doom Patrol, Umbrella Academy, Station Eleven, and other comic-centric stories. I’ve also contributed to three books about Batman in the interim, and I’m currently editing an anthology about the Joker. Go figure. One thing that sadly hasn’t changed: the fact that Watchmen‘s warnings about far-right fascism remain unheeded. Never before has this world needed Nite Owl and Silk Spectre as much as we do today. The Comedian has died, and there’s precious little to laugh about anymore.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© Copyright 2023 Rich Handley