So you’ve been seeing a lot of commercials for this 'Watchmen' movie lately, but you don’t know what it’s all about. Entertainment Weekly put it at number 13 on their list of the 50 best novels of the past 25 years. It was the only graphic novel to appear on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present. To help the uninitiated, Mania presents to you this Watchmen primer:
The world in which the Watchmen live is pretty much the same world we live in with one exception: sometime in the 1940’s, people started dressing up in funny costumes and fighting crime. None of these costumed adventurers had any powers until the arrival of Dr. Manhattan in the early 1960’s. We’ll get more in-depth with his story later.
Thanks to Manhattan, the world has been dramatically altered: the United States won the Vietnam War, we’ve got electric cars and radically advanced technology. With a guy like Manhattan on our side, the US isn’t just a super power, it’s the super power. I guess there isn’t a whole lot you can threaten us with when we’ve got the superman on our side. Even though the presence of Dr. Manhattan has given the US the strategic advantage, it’s still 1986 and the specter of nuclear holocaust looms in the world of the Watchmen just as it did in the real world.
At some point in the 1970’s, the Keene Act was passed, outlawing costumed vigilantes. All but three have disappeared: The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, who act as government operatives, and Rorschach, who still prowls the streets enacting his deadly brand of justice on the criminal fraternity.
Real Name: Edward Blake
Charlton Analogue: Peacemaker
Quote: "Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense."
Picture G. Gordon Liddy in a riot suit and a gimp mask you’ve pretty much got the Comedian. He’s violent, cynical and nihilistic, but despite being generally unlikable and as Dr. Manhattan says, “deliberately amoral”, The Comedian has actually got some pretty deep insights into the world around him. As his quote suggests, he is a man who sees the big picture, and as Jim Morrison (supposedly) said, he’s “ gonna get my kicks before the whole s**t house blows up!” But Edward Blake is about as far from Jim Morrison as you can get and his “kicks” generally involve hurting people. He looks a lot like Burt Reynolds, only he’s way more of a jerk and trained in army fighting tactics.
Being a younger man when he began adventuring, Edward Blake is the guy who bridges the gap between the Minutemen of the 1940’s and the more modern heroes of the 1970’s. After the Keene Act was passed, he became a government sanctioned “superhero”. It is his brutal murder at the hands of an unidentified assailant which opens the book and sets into motion the events that unfold throughout the rest of the story.
Real Name: Jonathan Osterman
Charlton Analogue: Captain Atom
Quote: "A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernable difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?"
Scientist Jon Osterman was the son of a watchmaker who pushed him into studying physics. After being caught in an “intrinsic field subtractor” in 1959, he subsequently restructured his body from the ground up. Possessing a quantum consciousness, Dr. Manhattan doesn’t view time in a linear fashion and he is the only character in the series with any sort of superpowers. And it isn’t just that he can fly or see through walls; Manhattan can see time, space and matter on a subatomic level. For him, all time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on seeing one edge at a time, when in reality, the whole design is visible in every facet. Or to boil it down to layman’s terms: he can pretty much do anything. He’s kind of like a god, or like a cross between Mr. Spock and Neo from the Matrix, only he’s blue and he walks around naked all the time.
Along with the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan is a government operative and a major player in the game of human chess that is the Cold War. Obviously, he is the deciding factor that gives the United States its edge over the Soviets. Dr. Manhattan is also involved romantically with Laurie Juspeczyk, aka, the second Silk Spectre.
Real Name: Laurie Juspeczyk
Charlton Analogue: Nightshade is cited in various places as the basis for Silk Spectre, but Alan Moore points to non-Charlton characters Black Canary and Phantom Lady as greater influences.
Quote: "You know, when I think back… why did we do it? Why did we dress up like that? The Keene Act was the best thing to ever happened to us."
Laurie Juspeczyk’s mother was the original Silk Spectre back in the ‘40s and she pushed her daughter into following in her footsteps, though Laurie’s heart was never fully into it. Sally Jupiter (Laurie’s mom) was the only costumed adventurer with the good sense to hire an agent and largely used her career as a promotional tool. It was during her ten-year tenure as a hero that Laurie met and fell in love with Dr. Manhattan.
Following the passing of the Keene Act, Laurie is begrudgingly kept on retainer by the United States government, presumably as a means of keeping their ultimate weapon calm, cool and collected. Dr. Manhattan, unlike the traditional nuclear bomb, has to get laid once in a while. As the story opens, Jon’s increasing detachment with humanity is taking a toll on Laurie and she begins to become closer to Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl.
Real Name: Daniel Dreiberg
Charlton Analogue: Blue Beetle
Quote: (regarding the arsenal and costumes in his basement) "I don’t know why I hang onto this stuff. I mean, I know the romance is over… I guess I just don’t have the heart to throw out all the engagement presents."
Inspired by Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl of the 1940’s, Dan Dreiberg turned his love of ornithology and his technical savvy into a costumed identity and fights crime using a variety of owl-themed gadgets including a hoverbike and night vision goggles. While he is ostensibly based on the Blue Beetle, Nite Owl also bears a fair resemblance to Batman in terms of his modus operandi. All three are high-tech heroes with underground lairs. Nite Owl is the only one with a beer gut (not counting the Giffen/Dematteis Bwa-ha-ha era of the JLA which featured a rather robust Blue Beetle – perhaps inspired by Nite Owl?)
Nite Owl and Rorschach teamed together successfully in the 1970’s, until the Keene Act forced Dan into retirement. Having been out of the hero business for some time, Dan has become soft, chubby and directionless. He remains close friends with his mentor, Hollis Mason and the two quite often get together to toss back a few beers and reminisce about old times. It isn’t until he begins to take stock in Rorschach’s “mask killer theory” that Dan finds purpose once again and resumes the mantle of Nite Owl.
Real Name: Adrian Veidt
Charlton Analogue: Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt
Quote: "I guess I’ve just reached a point where I’ve started to wonder whether all the grandstanding and fighting individual evils does much good for the world as a whole. Those evils are just symptoms of an overall sickness of the human spirit and I don’t believe you can cure a disease by suppressing its symptoms."
Ozymandias is allegedly the smartest man in the world. He draws his inspiration from Alexander the Great and, seeing the writing on the wall, retired from active superheroing several years before the passage of the Keene Act outlawed costumed vigilantism. Veidt then started his own company, aggressively marketing his image as a hero for a line of toys and a Saturday morning cartoon. As a result, Veidt possesses enormous wealth which he uses towards the betterment of mankind. He’s got an Antarctic retreat and a genetically altered lynx and is one of the most famous men in the world. Adrian Veidt is looked upon with respect, admiration and awe by most, though some, such as Rorschach, view him as little more than a prostitute and a sell-out for his shameless self-promotion.
Real Name: ?
Charlton Analogue: The Question
Quote: "I wish all the scum of the earth had one throat and I had my hands about it."
A moral absolutist and staunch nationalist, Rorschach is the only active vigilante in the series and the murder of Edward Blake sets the wheels of his paranoid mind into motion. He’s convinced that someone is killing masked heroes and takes it upon himself to solve the crime before it goes too far.
The long way around is to say that he’s a real world exploration of an archetypal character such as Batman: someone who is driven beyond driven by a sense of moral objectivity – a superhero for the Randian set. A vengeance filled vigilante who sees the world with a very black and white sense of morality and enforces a particularly brutal style of crime fighting. What would that type of superhero really be like if they existed in the real world?
Nite Owl describes him as “tactically brilliant and unpredictable.” I’d call him batshit crazy. Either way, Rorschach is one of the most popular characters in the story: incredibly complex and totally badass. He reminds you a lot of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, only with a sweet mask and a grappling hook.
Watchmen also features a story-within-a-story in the form of “Tales of the Black Freighter”. It’s a fictional pirate comic book that is quite popular among readers within the world of 'Watchmen'. In a world populated with costumed adventurers, superhero comics probably wouldn’t be very popular. In this world, EC Comics thrived rather than being stomped out due to the restrictive Comics Code.
The featured story, titled “Marooned” is rich with subtext and allegory and in many ways mirrors the events taking place in the main story while serving as a perfect counterpoint to others. I’d go into more detail, but I don’t really want to spoil anything here. Let’s just leave it at this: there’s a kid in Watchmen who’s reading a pirate comic and sometimes you’re reading the pirate comic with him. As you read the story, you find yourself thinking “Holy crap! That’s sort of what’s going on in the main story!” Watchmen is a book that’s meant to be read more than once. If at first it seems a little odd; trust me, it’ll make more sense the second time around.
Zack Snyder will not include the "Black Freighter" story in the theatrical release of Watchmen. However, not wanting to discard this important element of the book, Snyder filmed an animated movie based on it, which will be released on DVD simultaneous to the film. The "Black Freighter" animation will also be integrated with the film (the same way the story is woven into the graphic novel) for the director's cut due out late in the year.
Another fictional story-within-a-story is “Under the Hood”, the autobiography of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl and first costumed vigilante in the world of the Watchmen. Several chapters of the book are “re-printed” as supplemental material in the back of the first three issues.
Under the Hood is a controversial tell-all and serves as both an origin story for Nite Owl and the Minutemen of the 1940’s and as a deeper look at the world Alan Moore had created. Lots of key story elements are introduced in these excerpts and they really enrich the overall story. Reading them makes one feel that Alan Moore probably could’ve had a future writing prose. However, anyone who has read (or tried to read) his novel “Voice of the Fire” would probably say otherwise. Sorry Alan; I love ya, but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em.
As with the "Black Freighter", there wasn't really a way to include "Under the Hood" in the theatrical movie. However, Snyder commissioned a documentary-style short film that captures the material in celluloid form. The "Under the Hood" movie will be released on the same DVD as "Tales of the Black Freighter" this March.
These days he is known as a vegetarian, an anarchist, a practicing magician and occultist, Moore began writing scripts for Marvel UK books and had made his name in 2000 A.D. and Warrior writing stories such as the groundbreaking Marvelman (later re-titled Miracleman) and V for Vendetta when his work caught the attention of DC editor Len Wein, who hired him to write Swamp Thing. Moore reinvigorated the stale title and continued to cement his reputation with stories such as The Killing Joke before beginning work on Watchmen with artist Dave Gibbons. In recent years, Alan Moore has been sick and tired of seeing his work mutilated on the big screen with screen adaptations of From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Moore fought to have his name removed from subsequent films like Constantine, V for Vendetta and now Watchmen. As a result, when the credits roll, Moore’s name is nowhere to be found.
Like Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons cut his teeth working on 2000 A.D. over in the UK before coming to the States to work for DC Comics. Gibbons teamed up with Moore on the Superman story “For the Man Who Has Everything”. This, of course, eventually led to being the full partner and collaborator for Watchmen. His work on Watchmen is particularly notable for its simplicity, giving a level of control over storytelling previously un-accustomed in comics.
And that, for the most part, is an overview of the major characters of Watchmen. There are a fairly sizable number of ancillary characters who play pretty large roles throughout the story, but you don’t want us to give everything away, do you?