From Mav: When I was a kid a very special comic came out. Something that immediately seemed different from everything else before. Something that seemed to change the whole game. That comic was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen. Everyone felt it. Every comic fan knew that it was something special. It became a New York Times bestseller. TIME magazine called it one of most important 100 novels of all time (not graphic novels… just novels). As we pointed out on our comic book syllabus episode, its basically one of the default books taught in college courses whenever someone decides they want to teach “some comic.” It’s hard to definitely say what’s the “most important comic book ever written” but Watchmen clearly has a place in that conversation. It was so different from everything that came before it and it was obvious that it was going to influence everything that came after it. It felt special… and when it was over, it felt like there would never be anything else like it. We were wrong.
It was a weird time being a superhero fan back in 1986. When Watchmen first came out I was 12-13 and I couldn’t even imagine there being a film adaptation of it. Not realistically. I mean sure, I probably thought something like “this would be the coolest movie ever!” But we were still 3 years away from Batman (1989) happening. Superhero movies weren’t really a thing, back then. Well, Superman IV was released in 1987. Sidenote… how the hell are Batman and Superman IV only two years apart? That seems crazy! Anyway, given what “superhero movies” were at the time. The idea of adapting Watchmen was pretty unthinkable. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Hell, Moore and Gibbons themselves have said that one of the goals of Watchmen was to create a book that to take advantage of the comic book form and create something that was unique to the medium. Of course I would have loved to see a movie. Everyone wanted to. But it wasn’t going to happen. Watchmen was unfilmable. That was sort of the point! We were wrong.
So it turns out you can make something else “like Watchmen” and it turns out that you can also make an adaptation. in fact, it turns out that you can just keep making Watchmen over and over and over again.
In 2009, we got a Watchmen movie. That was… a thing that happened. I didn’t love it then. I don’t love it now. Honestly, I think in some ways people are too hard on Zack Snyder. He’s a talented visual filmmaker. Seriously… a lot of that movie is downright beautiful. It’s just not very good. I’m not trying to dog pile on top of Snyder. In fact, I will defend one of his movies, 300, as absolutely brilliant and in fact better than the source material. And I’ve even said on the show that I will defend the much maligned Sucker Punch as “the best movie you can possibly make without plot, character or redeeming social value.” And seriously, I mean that as a compliment. I really do. The problem with Snyder’s version of Watchmen is that I really don’t think he understands the story that he was telling. I’m not just saying that I think he has a different vision of what the story SHOULD BE than I do… I think he fundamentally misunderstood the story from character to theme to plot. He clearly loves it… you can tell from some of his attempts to homage literal shots from the comic… but he loves it in a very surface way that was mostly “hey, lets do cool shit!” and misunderstood a lot of the subtle (and not so subtle) nuance that he basically just didn’t notice. Things that he didn’t like or understand, he simply ripped out of the story. And he made up for this by doing… Zack Snyder stuff… bullet time, grim and grittiness, a snappy soundtrack, so much darkness, and BOOBS! Maybe we were right after all.
And then, in 2012, we got a comic book follow-up to the original Watchmen series. Well, not exactly; we got a prequel. Actually, that’s not right either. We got nine prequels. A set of books which DC Comics, in their infinite imagination, jointly called Before Watchmen. Thirty-seven chapters (the original book is only twelve) of stories about what the cast was doing in all of those days before the interesting part of their story. Because somewhere, someone decided that what people really wanted was more information about Dollar Bill… or well, dollar bills… because it was totally a cash grab. Did we need this? No. But you know… money! Most of it is pretty bad. Did it have to be? No. Like I said, I’d wanted more Watchmen since it came out. I own the DC Roleplaying Game sourcebook because I craved more information. I have Gibbon’s art book. I have multiple books of academic essays on it. I wrote a massive seminar paper on it when I was doing my Masters. But this stuff… no one needed this. Though I will point out that I personally actually happen to really like the Silk Spectre comic — probably because it didn’t TRY to be Watchmen like the other books in the series did. It tried to be Silk Spectre. Also, the Minutemen one is kind of fun — largely because Darwyn Cooke. The rest of it was AT BEST… forgettable. Maybe we were right after all.
And now, we’re finally getting a Watchmen sequel proper. Or really… we’re getting two of them (you know… money). Honestly, I was pretty hesitant on both series. I’ve been burned before. In 2017, DC Comics started a comic sequel called Doomsday Clock, written by Geoff Johns, which brings the characters into continuity with the main DC Universe after 30 years… for…. uh… some reason. However, after following the comic for the last two years (it’s only twelve issues, but it’s been delayed… A LOT), I will say it’s better than I thought it would be. I still don’t know if I like it. There’s a lot of “being weird” in order to make up for not being Alan Moore… and while some of it works really well, a lot of it… just doesn’t. Mostly, I think what’s happening is that I am really interested in everything that’s happened in the book that’s about the Watchmen characters. There’s issues focusing on Ozymandias, Doc Manhattan, Moth Man, a new Rorschach and two new characters named Marionette and the Mime that are GREAT. They feel like they could have been part of the original series. And then there’s a bunch of stuff about Batman and Superman and honestly… it’d be hard for me to give less of a shit. It feels like it’s trying to hard to smush things together the DC world with the Watchmen aesthetic… and what made Watchmen special in the first place was that it was… not that!
Then, last week, HBO started a television series, simply called Watchmen, produced by Damon Lindelof which picks up on the world of the original comic series 30 years later. Again, I was hesitant… I’ve been burned before… and half burned by reading Doomsday Clock these last two years. I don’t want to spoil things too much here (we’ll probably talk more in depth on the show), but I actually really kind of liked the first episode. What’s making it work for me is that I am interested in the main story (which is about new characters) and probably would want to watch the show even if it wasn’t connected to the old series. Regina King, the star, was amazing, her supporting cast was great and the story was compelling. And then the stuff in there that was connected was intriguing enough that I am willing to give the show a chance to see where they are going with it. It’s only been one episode as I write this, but I definitely want to see more.
So my question is… what makes “Watchmen” so special. I don’t mean the original graphic novel here… or any particular version. I mean, taking all of them together… putting them in conversation with each other… how do they work. Thinking about it, between the five different versions, this may be the most contemporary piece of “classic canonized literature” that we have. Why? There’s certainly other more recent media franchises that are “bigger” (Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, Twilight, 50 Shades of Gray, etc). But, Watchmen feels like like it has reached a sort ubiquitous of cultural relevance — both popularly and academically — between multiple different media types in a way that the most recent thing I can think of to match it is something like the Lord of the Rings. Why? How does that happen? What makes it so intriguing three decades later? What makes some versions work and others not?
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?