The legacy of the original “Watchmen” graphic novel is of renewed interest today thanks to the arrival of a new HBO series of the same name, created by Damon Lindelof. Rather than attempt a straight adaptation — a feat that has proved treacherous if not impossible in the past — Lindelof has described his premise as a contemporary “remix” of the original, akin to the connection of the New Testament to the Old (his analogy, not mine). Having seen the first six episodes, I can report that Lindelof’s series has a complex and uneasy relationship to its source material, just as its source material has a complex and uneasy relationship to the superhero genre as a whole. Yet the “Watchmen” show has tasked itself with the same mission that the graphic novel undertook so successfully 30 years ago: to reinvent a pop mythology that, like it or not, has swallowed the culture whole.
Let’s rewind to 1986. If you, like me, spent that decade as a comic-loving teenager, you may recall that things were moving pretty quickly. Superhero comics, long considered a popular but critically disregarded juvenile indulgence, were undergoing a stunning artistic renaissance.
For most of the century, superhero stories had featured a costumed crusader or team of crusaders battling a villain in similarly fanciful garb, some bam-pow theatrics, and the triumph of good over evil. Superman’s greatest dilemma was keeping his secret identity secret and, on occasion, figuring out how to cut his invulnerable Kryptonian hair. (In one comic, he used a complicated setup of hand mirrors and his own heat vision.) Batman had been cast as more of a brooding loner, but he still existed in the larger popular imagination in the campy incarnation of TV’s Adam West. Storytelling at the two major comic publishers, Marvel and DC, had taken baby steps toward complexity, the pinnacle of which was likely the Dark Phoenix storyline from “Uncanny X-Men,” in which one of the heroes obtains unlimited power then sacrifices herself for the greater good.
As for other mediums, superheroes were floundering. No one had yet figured out how to put an actual grown adult in head-to-toe spandex and make it look anything but silly. Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman” movie had been a hit but largely because it captured the bulletproof purity of America’s flag-clad protector at a time of national insecurity, not because it explored his complexity. On TV, “The Greatest American Hero” premiered in 1981, featuring a hapless high school teacher who stumbles into superpowers via alien intervention. The show lasted for three seasons and won affection from comic-book fans, which speaks less to its quality than to the pent-up appetite for costumed representation on screen. Hard as it is to believe now, superheroes in pop culture were considered a niche subgenre, and the notion that someone might make a serious-minded TV show or movie about them was, in 1986, a far-fetched fantasy.
Then along came “Watchmen.”
Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and colored by John Higgins, “Watchmen” didn’t so much improve upon previous superhero comics as it turned them inside out and exposed their gears. In trying to think of a non-comic-book analogy that parallels the comic’s revolutionary effect, the most obvious example I can come up with is — don’t laugh — “Ulysses.” “Watchmen” not only surpassed previous comics books in quality, complexity and ambition, it reimagined what a story about superheroes could aspire to be about. It asked its readers to take superheroes seriously, which both made sense — who takes them more seriously than comic-book readers? — and felt entirely new, given it meant considering heroes as fallible and complex humans, prone to the array of ugly and shameful emotions recognizable from the real world. Previously, we’d been shown that a hero like Superman might feel sad. But we’d rarely been shown that he might feel vengeful, envious or vain.
“Watchmen” takes place in 1985 in an alternate American timeline in which the United States won the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon has been president for 17 years, and costumed vigilantes have been outlawed, save for a few special government agents. The action centers on a group of now-retired heroes, broken, overweight and full of regrets. When the story starts, one of these heroes, the Comedian, has been thrown from a high-rise window. His ex-colleague, a violent sociopath named Rorschach, investigates his death and in doing so uncovers a history of sordid secrets and betrayals, including rape, sadism and murder. Through it all, in an atmosphere of classic ’80s paranoia, the Cold War with Russia threatens to unleash Armageddon, the doomsday clock ticks ever closer to midnight, and a global catastrophe looms from which no hero in tights can hope to deliver the world.
“Watchmen” also arrived during what, in hindsight, was an annus mirabilis for comic books. The year 1986 saw the publication of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” an allegorical graphic novel about the Holocaust that was later awarded a special-citation Pulitzer Prize, as well as Frank Miller’s series “The Dark Knight Returns,” which imagined an aging Batman in a dystopian Gotham fighting a fascistically inclined Superman. Miller’s vision of Batman as a dark symbol of moral ambiguity birthed every big-screen depiction since, including Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and this year’s box-office-topping “Joker.” In fact, given how much superhero mythology has metastasized in the past 30 years, it’s no stretch to say that 1986 forever altered the course of pop culture writ large.
Yet “Watchmen,” for all its laurels, has always had a more muted, or at least less profitable, legacy. Previous efforts to export the comic onto screens have been famously troubled: For years, Terry Gilliam wrestled with a film version that never materialized, and Alan Moore once said of the comic, “I tend to think it’s unfilmable.” Director Zack Snyder cashed in the clout he’d earned from “300” to make a “Watchmen” film in 2009, which was criticized both for its excessive fealty to the source material and its inability to capture the ineffable brilliance that made that comic legendary.
Yet as we look back from our current, superhero-saturated moment, “Watchmen” stands out as the most influential comic of them all. Its tone and approach has become the de facto language of comic-book narratives. Every costumed-hero tale that takes the motivations and manias of its subjects seriously — and asks us to take them seriously — from “Kick-Ass” to “Avengers: Endgame” to “Joker” to “Arrow” to the Amazon series “The Boys,” owes its existence to “Watchmen.” That comic not only awakened a generation of fans (and future creators) to the grander possibilities of the genre, it provided a template for how to use superhero tropes to tell thorny human stories. “Watchmen” was not bam-pow theater. It radically undermined the foundational premise of superhero comics themselves. It dared to propose that donning a mask or wrapping yourself in the colors of the flag in order to dispense some version of justice is itself a morally problematic, even questionable, act. “Watchmen" dissected both the characters who did this and the readers — us — who loved them. It challenged, and changed, everything.
So it’s funny that we find ourselves 30 years later in a world that’s more besotted by caped crusaders than ever. All those serious-minded movies and shows that once seemed so improbable? They now dominate the culture so thoroughly that they threaten to asphyxiate it. For this we also have “Watchmen” to thank, or to blame. One oft-cited example of how indefatigable comics have become is the success of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” film franchise — a series built around a minor and frankly absurd assemblage of Marvel characters that includes a talking raccoon and a sentient tree. What’s less often noted is that James Gunn, who adapted “Guardians,” was hired by Marvel on the strength of his 2010 indie film, “Super,” a dark and violent comedy about a short-order cook who dons a homemade costume to save his wife from drug dealers. “Super” was not a hit, but it paved the way for “Guardians." And it’s exactly the kind of masks-as-metaphors interrogation of our love for superheroes that could only exist in a post-“Watchmen” world.
With HBO’s “Watchmen,” Lindelof, the TV auteur who piloted “Lost” and created “The Leftovers,” has updated the comic’s concerns. Gone are the ’80s-vintage anxieties about mushroom clouds and toxic jingoism, replaced by more contemporary issues like racial reconciliation and shifting identities. The show debuts Sunday, and it’s too early to tell if this “remix” approach will connect; the early episodes feel reminiscent of Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” TV series. They tonally echo the original while creating new story lines and characters from scratch. It’s a tricky recipe that’s likely to either please both “Watchmen” superfans and curious viewers or disappoint them equally for different reasons.
What Lindelof’s “Watchmen” does illustrate, though, is the enduring sway of the original. Lindelof is trying to grapple with our monolithic superhero mythology just as the comic book once did. For all its prescience, the “Watchmen” comic could never have envisioned a culture in which the top-grossing entertainment products are nearly all based on comic books, superheroes populate nearly every corner of every screen we watch, and pulp villains can plausibly be recast with the gravitas of vintage ’70s cinema. Nevertheless, “Watchmen” made all this possible. It’s not just the inspiration for this new HBO series, it’s the reason that a prestige-TV series that asks us to take people in costumes seriously can exist in the first place.
In an interview published not long after “Watchmen" appeared, Alan Moore was asked about the inherent fascist overtones of superheroes — the link, now much discussed, between Superman and Nietzsche’s Übermensch. He replied that examining fascist politics “wasn’t really our intention. Our intention was to show how superheroes could deform the world just by being there.” By treating superhumans as fully human, as susceptible to a spectrum of flaws and failings, and as the figures around whom, for better and worse, our collective mythology is now constructed, “Watchmen” brilliantly took a hammer to the clay feet of comics’ golden gods. But rather than topple those gods, “Watchmen” ushered in an era in which these golden idols stand taller than ever, astride the entire culture, casting inescapable shadows. We now live in a world deformed by superheroes. It’s both the world that “Watchmen” created and the one that it warned us about.
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