You can’t heal under a mask, Angela.Will Reeves
Costumed heroes are real. It is with this development that the 1986 comic Watchmen dives into an alternate timeline. America wins the Vietnam war, the Watergate scandal is never exposed, and in 1985 Richard Nixon is still in office thanks to the repealing of the law that established term limits for the presidency. On the brink of a third world war and the growing threat of nuclear annihilation, one of these now outlawed heroes investigates the murder of a former colleague.
But what’s this about an HBO series? Why is it important now?
You’ve likely come across countless lists of worthy recommendations for media that properly illuminates and informs on the Black experience in America. I myself have a growing list of shows, films, books and voices that I should be paying attention to. But through all of this (the pandemic, the current resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement), I’ve found myself reminded of lines and scenes from this television series. It’s resonated with me in so many unexpected ways that I feel the need to contribute to someone else’s list and perhaps lessen the burden of entry that some feel might exists for it.
HBO’s Watchmen show (2019) was created by Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) and a talented team of writers, the vast majority of whom are women and People of Color. The story continues the comic’s alternate timeline but with a refocus that finds itself deeply relevant to current events. Where the comic aimed to deconstruct the hero archetype against the setting of the Cold War, the television series explores Blackness and unresolved trauma in modern America. Although Alan Moore’s comic book series is highly regarded, more people might be familiar with the Zach Snyder film by the same name. You could watch the 215-minute (yes, that’s over 3.5 hours) 2009 adaptation to get a basic understanding of the original plot, but the film lacks much of the subtlety that made Moore’s story so incredible. Honestly, if you go that route, you may find yourself turned off from the HBO series before you even start it. On top of that, the show follows the events of the original comic, not the film, which ends things a little differently.
Alternatively, you could read the comic, which I wholeheartedly recommend. If that’s what you want to do, stop reading this blog post right now.
However, I understand that may take a bit more time than you’re ready to invest, especially right now when you’re potentially looking for something written by a Black author. You may be used to breezing through comics, but this is a dense 12 issues. And hey, I know that comics aren’t for everyone. You’re primarily trying to get to the television show here. I get that.
So, I offer another option for getting caught up. An option that should take you roughly five minutes to get through.
SPOILER WARNING: What follows are major spoilers for the 1986 Watchmen comic book series. Typically, I wouldn’t suggest anyone skip reading a book, especially one of this caliber, but if like myself, you feel the need to fill your time with powerful and informative stories focused on Black America and you feel drawn to this show, I want to make sure you have everything you need to fully experience it. To be fair to the HBO series, the following summary isn’t entirely necessary, but I understand the reluctance to go in blind. Hopefully this will help alleviate some early confusion, at least in areas where you’re not meant to be confused.
In 1939, history diverged from the way we know it. A group of masked vigilantes was formed under the name of The Minutemen, with the aim of fighting crime. Throughout the forties, the team of eight (Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Silhouette, Dollar Bill, Mothman, and The Comedian) did just that, but as the years dragged on, members began to leave for various circumstances until they were formally disbanded in 1949.
In 1959, a new generation of heroes grew prevalent. Laurie Juspeczyk put on the costume left by her mother, the original Silk Spectre. Adrian Veidt, a man considered to be the smartest on the planet, donned the moniker Ozymandias. Daniel Dreiberg followed in the footsteps of the original gadget-clad Nite Owl. Walter Joseph Kovacs became known as Rorschach for his constantly shifting ink-blot mask and probably also for his binary worldview. And Dr. Jon Osterman became Dr. Manhattan, the unintended victim of one of his own experiments, resulting in his transformation into a god-like superhuman – he’s the naked, blue dude you’ve probably heard about.
These individuals operated for a while (ex: Dr. Manhattan proves instrumental in winning the Vietnam War for the U.S.) until the passage of The Keene Act in 1977. By that time, the public and the police force began turning sour on the idea of superheroes, so the country outlawed masked vigilantes who were not specifically working in the service of the U.S. government, namely Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian, who’s apparently still hanging around.
All of this lays the groundwork for the events that take place in 1985. With the Doomsday Clock nearly at midnight (predicting the likelihood that the world will succumb to nuclear armageddon at the hands of the U.S. and Soviet Union), Rorschach discovers that The Comedian has been murdered and believes he has uncovered a plot to kill masked vigilantes. So, he sets off to warn each of his former colleagues of this apparent threat.
By this time, Adrian Veidt, the brilliant Ozymandias, has established a wildly successful business for himself, Dr. Manhattan and Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II) are romantically involved, and Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl II) isn’t really doing much. Each of them have mostly retired from crimefighting.
When Dr. Manhattan is publicly accused of being the cause of cancer in his former colleagues, he banishes himself to Mars, leaving Laurie behind. Feeling abandoned and neglected by the blue god’s apparently increasing disinterest in humanity, Laurie turns to Dan for comfort and the two begin an affair. They ultimately decide to once again don their costumes to join Rorschach in revealing the truth behind his conspiracy.
On Mars, Dr. Manhattan has been thinking hard about his continued involvement with humanity. He summons Laurie to the planet to make a case for the race, and it’s there where she comes to terms with her origins. She discovers that she is the product of the union between The Comedian and her mother, the original Silk Spectre. Once the victim of The Comedian’s attempted rape, Laurie’s mother later returned to him and consensually conceived Laurie. Her story demonstrates to Dr. Manhattan the complexity of human emotion and convinces him that humanity is still worth his interest.
In the meantime, Rorschach and Dan have been busy. They discover that Adrian Veidt was responsible for The Comedian’s murder, and before they go to confront Veidt, Rorschach sends his journal to a small, conservative newspaper, detailing his investigation and naming Ozymandias as the culprit. When the duo meets with Veidt in his Antarctic laboratory, he admits to being behind The Comedian’s death and ensuring some of Dr. Manhattan’s friends developed cancer (as a distraction to prevent the blue guy from foiling his plans), as well as other various crimes. He did all of this to hide the fact that he was fabricating an alien invasion that would psychically kill half of the population of New York City in an effort to unite the world’s superpowers against a common threat and prevent nuclear annihilation. Dan and Rorschach aren’t exactly comfortable with that trade-off.
Eventually, Dr. Manhattan and Laurie return to Earth to find New York City in ruins with a giant squid monster as the apparent destructor. Dr. Manhattan traces a stream of tachyons (particles that interfere with his ability to read the future) to the Antarctic and teleports himself and Laurie there to join in the confrontation. With everyone present, Veidt displays for them live news broadcasts about the attack and the world’s unity over it, establishing peace and an end to the nuclear standoff. Almost everyone agrees that at this point the truth would only do more damage, so they agree to keep Veidt’s secret. Everyone except for Rorschach.
Determined to reveal Veidt’s crimes to the world, Rorschach tries to leave the laboratory, but is stopped by Dr. Manhattan. When Rorschach declares that his own body would need to be added to the death toll to keep the truth concealed, Dr. Manhattan reluctantly obliges.
Back in the laboratory, Dr. Manhattan and Veidt share a brief exchange during which Veidt expresses doubt about the morality of his action. He says, “Jon, I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.” Manhattan replies, “In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” With that cryptic response, Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth, declaring that he feels the desire to find a galaxy less complicated where he might try to create some human life himself. Dan and Laurie also leave and we later find that they’ve have settled into a happy life with each other, plotting how they might continue adventuring and potentially taking on the costume life once again.
In the last few pages, we find what has become of Rorschach’s journal, left atop a stack of newspaper submissions, waiting for someone to discover the truth.
And that’s the story, more or less! Hopefully you now feel more prepared to venture into the HBO television series. But really, the comic is well worth the read if you have any interest in it. There’s so much that I skipped over (including plot arcs, characters, and an entire in-world comic that mirrors and supplements the themes of the main plot in many ways) in favor of brevity and providing the full story along with each detail that might help you through the series. Even if this world feels too bizarre or different for you to tackle, I still believe that the show’s themes are incredibly relevant and deserve anyone’s attention, whether it be last year, this year, or in the next decade. We all need to make sure that we’re constantly learning so that we can make our world, our timeline, a better one. Because, in the words of Dr. Jon Osterman, nothing ever ends.