Jacob Wasserman ’23 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Watchmen by Alan Moore is the only graphic novel to appear on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels since 1923, a list that also includes To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. While some may consider this to be inclusion based purely out of pity, as comics or graphic novels are not regularly given their due as a legitimate art medium, those who have read the novel understand well why it is included.
Beyond the eye-popping artwork courtesy of Dave Gibbons, Watchmen tells an incredibly complex story, weaving subplots and character arcs together seamlessly while effectively presenting themes of identity and living past one’s prime. Moore’s characters are absolutely fascinating, even if their inspirations are clearly shown through their appearances and basic character traits. Beyond its central qualities, the graphic novel also provides powerful political commentary as the central conflict centers around the oncoming threat of nuclear warfare. Characters can also provide commentary, with Rorschach serving as a metaphor for the rise and normalization of fascism and The Comedian displaying nihilistic feelings towards patriotism, as he is able to commit horrific acts of violence without much consequence.
The novel has been adapted and expanded upon over the years. Zack Snyder directed a film adaptation of the graphic novel, which was released in 2009. Although the visual aesthetic was praised for perfectly adapting a comic’s aesthetic to the big screen, the film itself received its fare share of criticism. Some criticized the film for being faithful to its source material, such as Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post, who stated in his review that the film’s dullness stems from it “[sinking] under the weight of its reverence for the original.” There were also prequel graphic novels released under the label Before Watchmen, which detailed the lives of Alan Moore’s characters prior to the events of the original, as well as an inexplicable crossover with the Justice League. Now finally, after the franchise has been active for more than thirty years, we finally have the closest thing to a proper sequel thanks to Damon Lindelof’s new series for HBO.
I call it “the closest thing to a proper sequel” because it is a little difficult to describe how the TV series fits into the Watchmen canon. Certain characters from the original graphic novel are either present, mentioned, or at least alluded to, but the story thus far has focused mainly on a slate of new characters and carries different themes from those present in Moore’s work. So, not necessarily a sequel, but not a reboot either.
The series takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma about thirty years after the events of the novel, which ended with Ozymandias destroying half of New York City (thereby cooling Cold War tensions and possibly preventing global annihilation), the death of Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan returning to his self-exile on Mars, and Rorschach’s journal entries detailing Ozymandius’ plan being revealed to the public. Rorschach’s journal now serves as the constitution for a white supremacist organization known as the Seventh Kavalry, whose members don Rorschach masks and coordinate violent attacks against minorities and the police. The police force also wear masks to protect their identities from the public, and partners with several other masked vigilantes. One such vigilante is Detective Angela Abar (Regina King), who discovers that her simplistic interpretation of the conflict between the Seventh Kavalry and the Tulsa Police Force might not be entirely accurate.
The first episode cleverly introduces the basis for the central conflict as a clear story of good vs. evil. It opens with a reenactment of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which Klan members ravaged the town (which was before considered to be essentially “black Wall Street”) and murdered hundreds of townsfolk including men, women and children. From there it presents a future which appears to perfectly contrast the first scene, showing a diverse police force (although the majority of protagonists are purposefully black) united around preventing the spread of white supremacy. Although the episode itself is well-made, the message could be perceived as preachy by some. The ideas presented in the first two-thirds of the first episode are flipped on their heads by the ending and are further expanded upon in the second episode, as a tragic loss in Angela’s life provokes investigation into the life of someone Angela had trusted and loved, potentially revealing a problematic ancestry.
Whereas the original novel examines how humanity faces the unceasing nature of time, the new series appears to focus on the past and how people carry the scars and sins of their forefathers, whether they realize it or not. Even if the story heads in an entirely different direction (which is entirely possible given what has happened thus far), that is all the more credit to be given to Damon Lindelof and his team of writers for creating such a compelling narrative.
As for the characters, most remain shrouded in mystery. Viewers are given the most insight into Angela’s life, whose scenes so far have made her an incredibly likable lead. Regina King has done a great job thus far, imbuing the character with a powerful physical presence while maintaining her humanity, even in scenes where she is beating people to a bloody pulp. Supporting characters include fellow vigilantes Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) and Red Scare (Andrew Howard), who both display entertaining personalities, and police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), an empathetic father-like figure to Angela.
Overall, those worried can rest easy. Watchmen avoids the trappings of other recent reboots and sequels by introducing new and interesting themes to the franchise’s overarching story, having a roster of entertaining and memorable characters (both old and new) and featuring mesmerizing visuals.
As for whether or not you need to read the original graphic novel or watch Snyder’s adaptation before viewing the new series, I would recommend it although it is not entirely necessary. There are definitely plot elements that might confuse viewers at first if they are not familiar with the original story, but there is nothing major enough to detract from the viewing experience. There are a plethora of Easter Eggs and references, however, which are sure to please fans of the source material.
Episode 1 Grade: A-
Episode 2 Grade: A
Episode 3 aired November 3rd at 9 p.m. EST on HBO