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Watchmen 101: Your guide to the comics behind HBO's new series

Wondering who Adrian Veidt is? Learn all about how the comics, movie and show tie together.

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Get a quick lesson on the Watchmen universe. 

DC Entertainment

HBO's new Watchmen series made its debut Sunday, Oct. 20, to positive reviews and many, many questions. It's understandable if you're a bit puzzled after the first two episodes, as the original 1986 comic still has some fans trying to figure everything out. It doesn't help that showrunner Damon Lindelof is known for shows such as Lost and The Leftovers, which skew toward the mysterious side. 

Those who read the Watchmen comic likely recognized references in the show that went over the heads of non-readers. This guide will help explain how the comic and show tie together and answer other questions that those new to the Watchmen universe may have. 

What is Watchmen? 

Watchmen was a 12-issue limited series comic released in 1986-1987 by DC Comics, and written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. It's considered one of the greatest comics ever, and in 2005, Time included it as part of its 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. It was the only comic to make the list. 

To be a bit cliche about it, Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of comics. 

There were numerous attempts to adapt the comic into both a TV show and film. All failed until 2009's Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder. It's considered a faithful adaptation, but fans of the book took issue with parts of the film. 

Alan Moore

The legend

Getty Images

Who is Alan Moore?

Alan Moore is widely considered the greatest comic book writer. His works such as V for Vendetta, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been adapted into movies, and he's been vocal about how much he hated those films. 

Before writing Watchmen, Moore made a name for himself when DC Comics brought him in to write The Saga of the Swamp Thing in 1983. His successful run led him to write two issues of Superman -- For the Man Who Has Everything and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? -- and to his own comic series. Not long after he finished Watchmen, Moore wrote another momentous comic in 1987, Batman: The Killing Joke. He officially retired from writing comics in mid-2019 after the release of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume IV: The Tempest.  

So what's the story of Watchmen?

First, let's look at the characters: 

Watchmen

From left to right: Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan (top), Rorschach (below), The Comedian, Ozymandias

DC Entertainment

Rorschach: The de facto "hero" of the book. He's a vigilante who dresses up like a detective in the '30s but wears a mask with black paint on it similar to a Rorschach test. His real name is Walter Kovacs, and he spends his day unmasked, carrying a sign saying "The End is Nigh." He has no superpowers but does have an unshakeable sense of justice that leads him to cripple, maim and kill any criminal. 

Like other characters in the comic, he's based on previously created comic book characters. Namely two made by comic book legend Steve Ditko: The Question and Mr. A. Both were detectives, with the former known for wearing a faceless mask.

Dr. Manhattan: In Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan is the only hero with actual powers. So much power that he's practically a god. He was born as Jonathan Ostermann, and an accident caused him to change into a being who could control matter. It's this god-like power that led Dr. Manhattan to become less human and uncaring about other people. Like Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan is based on another Ditko character known as Captain Atom, who could use and manipulate energy.

Nite Owl: Daniel Dreiberg is the second Nite Owl, the first being Hollis T. Mason, a cop in the '30s who caught criminals at night. Daniel wanted to carry on the name so he sought out Hollis, who allowed him to become Nite Owl II. The second iteration of the hero made more use of technology and even had his own owl-shaped flying vehicle called Archimedes. Once the Keene Act of 1977 made heroes illegal, Daniel lived life as a civilian until Rorschach paid him a visit to talk about the death of the Comedian. 

While Nite Owl has many similarities to Batman, especially in the 2009 film, Moore based the character on the Golden Age of Comics hero Blue Beetle.  

The Comedian: Edward Blake's murder starts the events of Watchmen. He's a cynical hero who's brash and abusive to both the good guys and bad guys. The Comedian worked extensively with the US government and supposedly is responsible for various black-ops assassinations including John F. Kennedy. In the film, it clearly shows he did. However, in the Before Watchmen comics, a series of comics released in 2012 acting as a Watchmen prequel, he's seen as being friends with the Kennedys and shocked when JFK is killed. 

Moore based The Comedian on The Peacemaker, a character for Charlton Comics, which was later acquired by DC. He also gave him a look similar to Marvel Comics' Nick Fury. 

Ozymandias: Adrian Veidt was born into a wealthy family but gave up his fortune at the age of 17 to discover himself. He went to Egypt and learned of Rameses II, who became his hero. He then came to the US and started to train himself physically while also building his own fortune. He became a vigilante known as Ozymandias and was called "The Smartest Man on Earth." He gave up his alter ego due to the Keene Act and lived his life as a wealthy humanitarian, although things change during the comic. 

Silk Spectre: Laurie Juspeczyk is the daughter of Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre. She was forced into the hero business by her mother and eventually met up with the previously mentioned characters. There she struck up a relationship with Dr. Manhattan and the two are living together. 

In the comics, a memory of Laurie meeting The Comedian and the ending to the book confirmed that her real father was The Comedian. Sally was almost raped by him when they first met, but at some point in the past, the two were together and she still loved him. 

Spoilers for a 33-year-old comic

An aging hero known as The Comedian is killed in his apartment in 1985. A former cohort of his known as Rorschach investigates the scene and figures someone is killing costumed heroes. He goes to find other heroes he worked with: Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre. 

They ultimately discover that another former teammate, Ozymandias, was behind an elaborate plot to save the world by his own terms. He had a team of scientists create a giant squid-like creature that was transported to New York City, killing millions. His plan was that the strange monster would convince the US and Soviet Union to announce a peace treaty to fight off what would be considered aliens, thus saving the world from possible nuclear Armageddon between the two superpowers. 

Ozymandias had to keep his plan a secret leading him to personally kill The Comedian, who had stumbled across an island where he saw parts of the ultimate plan being worked on. 

Rorschach, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre tried to stop Ozymandias and failed. Dr. Manhattan eventually appeared, but he saw the benefits of the plan so didn't see a reason to interfere. Rorschach, with his sense of justice, wanted to tell the world of the crime but was killed by Dr. Manhattan. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre were at a loss over the whole ordeal and fell in love. The two went on their own to be regular civilians with new names. Dr. Manhattan left Earth permanently for Mars. Rorschach sent a written account of the whole plan to a news outlet thus ending the comic on the question of whether the public would learn the truth. 

This plot summary, of course, doesn't portray the sheer amount of character development, themes and nuances Moore included in 12 issues. However, it does give a bite-size synopsis to better understand the show. 

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Watchmen the movie (2009) is either great or terrible to fans. 

Warner Bros.

The difference between the movie and comics

Watchmen was one of those properties that always seemed impossible to make, but Zack Snyder gave it a shot in 2009. Depending on your devotion to the comic, it was either incredibly faithful or a complete hack job. The film had much of the dialogue and scenes taken directly from the comic, but there was one big change made to the ending. 

Instead of a squid-like creature created and sent to New York, Ozymandias planned for several attacks across the globe to appear to have come from Dr. Manhattan. Snyder says the reach for this change was how long it would require to explain the plan. 

"The reason that the squid got taken out of the movie was so there'd be more Rorschach and a little bit more Manhattan," the director told MTV in 2009. "Because we did the math, and we figured it took about 15 minutes to explain [the squid's appearance] correctly; otherwise, it's pretty crazy."

Because of this change, however, the movie is not canon in regards to the Watchmen TV series. In the first episode, there was a sudden downpour of small squids that was considered more of an annoyance by the characters rather than something to be concerned about. This implies that since the squid attack of 1985, there has been some sort of ongoing operation to fool the people into thinking squid-like aliens are still attacking the planet. 

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Ozymandias is having a celebration.

HBO

Where the TV show picks up

HBO's Watchmen takes place in 2019, 34 years after the squid attack, now referred to as D.I.E. or the Dimensional Incursion Event. To help flesh out the Watchmen world in the comics, Moore added additional readings at the end of each comic in the form of memos, newspaper articles and book excerpts. Lindelof did something similar for the show with a page called Peteypedia named after FBI Agent Dale Petey of the Anti-Vigilante Task Force. After each episode, the site adds more links to additional content to read and some have spoilers for the previous episode.

Week 4

Interrogation: Juspeczyk, Laurel Janes -- There's a lot to ingest in this particular file as it answers questions from the show. Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Laurie Blake, is interrogated on April 24, 1995, by the FBI who apprehended her for the death of a "Mr. McVeigh." Since the Watchmen takes place in an alternate universe, these documents tend to make use of real people so it could be that Laurie killed Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Considering the date of the interrogation and the date of the actual bombing, April 19, 1995, it could be that McVeigh attempted the attack, but was stopped. 

The agents go on to ask about her relationship with Dan Dreiberg, aka the Nite Owl II. As mentioned previously, the two fell in love by the end of the Watchmen comic and were planning to live a non-hero life, but something caused that relationship to go sour. According to Laurie, they were finishing one last job together. She says they were going their separate ways because he wanted children but she wanted "guns," likely implying that she wanted to continue being a costumed vigilante. She also goes on to mention that Nite Owl owned a tech company called MerlinCorp. This was the company providing his trademark flying owlships to law enforcement agencies. 

One agent then brings in a silver attache case, and Laurie is a little shocked. After a back and forth about the combination and what's inside, she finally comes clean that it contained the blue sex toy seen in Watchmen episode 3. The Nite Owl invented the toy as both a sign of how she isn't over her ex-boyfriend Dr. Manhattan and a symbol that she should go screw herself. 

The interrogation ends when Laurie tells the agents to tell President Robert Redford -- she calls him Gatsby as he played the character in the 1974 film based on the book -- that she knows what happened on 11/2. People in the Watchmen universe refer to the squid attack on Nov. 2, 1985, as simply "11/2" similar to how the Sept. 11 attacks are referred to as "9/11." Her knowledge of the event could be how she went from costumed vigilante to FBI agent. 

"Excalibur," MerlinCorp. Raid -- The second file available for week 4 on the Peteypedia is a schematic for a device called the Electromagnetic Lithium Powered Excalibur. A quick look at the design confirms this was the big blue sex toy from episode 3. The schematic says it was drawn by "D," likely referring to Dan Dreiberg.  It's a prototype measuring 13 inches by 4 inches and has two batteries that hook onto both sides of the device, giving it the appearance of testicles for the sex toy. This schematic was part of a raid on MerlinCorp conducted on April 28, 1995. This could mean after Laurie revealed that Dreiberg owned MerlineCorp, the FBI raided the company three days later. 

Week 3

Memo: AHS: Based on UNFactual Events -- This memo from Special Agent Petey is both a review and fact check of the American Hero Story: Minutemen. He starts off with Hooded Justice, the first costumed hero in the Watchmen universe. His critique of the segment was more of a rundown of the character's bio from the comics. He suggests that the story found in the American Hero Story show is not the truth although he doesn't provide any counter evidence. However, this memo does suggest that Hooded Justice's disappearance as told in the comics may not be what really happened. 

Special Agent Petey moves onto the depiction of the Comedian who, according to Petey, is shown as an ultra-violent sadist. He goes on to mention that the show's writer, J.T. March III, is the son of James Trafford March, a science fiction writer who was on Richard Nixon's enemies list who went missing in 1985. It's hinted that the Comedian could be responsible. He finishes up the memo talking about Sally Jupiter saying, once again, how the TV show has it wrong. Like in the previous examples, what he does is give the background for one of the Minutemen heroes as it was first described in the Watchmen comics. 

Clipping: White Flight to Mars -- This article comes from the ultra-conservative New Frontiersman. Written by Hector Godfrey, the piece lays out the US political climate in the Watchmen universe. The writer talks about how President Robert Redford is appointing another liberal judge to the Supreme Court and makes note that Redford, who has been in office for 28 years, says he will not seek reelection. He then goes on to mock the reparations case argued by Johnnie Cochran (see week 2's legal brief). Godfrey goes on to pray to the "other" god, meaning Dr. Manhattan, and puts up the idea that like-minded individuals should move to Mars to rebuild America. 

The article has two important focuses related to the show. The first is that the reparations case really tore America apart creating a deep racial divide in the past 15 years. Another focal point is Sen. Keene. He made his first appearance in the show in episode three, and it theorized that he plays a bigger role in the actions of the Seventh Kavalry. 

Evidence: Four Letters -- The third entry is a letter from 1955 written by J. David Keene, the man behind the Keene Act of 1977 and Sen. Keene's father. The letter is made out to Sheriff Crawford, the father of Judd Crawford from the show. Keene writes to the sheriff about the history of a painting seen in the show called "Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship." The painting was given to a Klu Klux Klan leader, which confirms that Sheriff Crawford and Keene are both in the racist organization. This hints that Judd Crawford and Sen. Keene could also be in the Klan themselves. This will likely play out in later episodes of the show to declare if the two sons carried on their father's traditions or bucked against them making them targets of the Seventh Kavalry. 

Week 2

Clipping: Tulsa Police Chief Feared Slain -- At the end of the first episode, the big reveal was the death of Tulsa Police Chief Judd Crawford (played by Don Johnson). In this newspaper clipping written by Ben Woodward for WPI Content Network, the chief is considered to be missing, not dead, giving the impression that the police don't want to disclose his murder yet. 

The article goes on to describe a few more details about Crawford and his past. One event listed is White Night, a coordinated attack of the police by the Seventh Kavalry on Dec. 24, 2016, which was shown in episode 2. Crawford comes from a long line of lawmen who were sheriffs in Oklahoma all the way back before it was even a state. Also, like the previous week's news story, there are mentions of notable figures in the real world. In this case, Crawford served under Robert S. Mueller, from the Mueller Report, but instead of the Vietnam War, it's listed as the Liberation of Vietnam, which is likely the event that led the country to become part of the US. 

Memo: Masked Vigilantes in Pop Culture -- This past week's episode showed a clip from a TV show called American Hero Story: Minutemen, which is a re-created documentary of the first batch of heroes in the US. More specifically, it focuses on Hooded Justice, the first costumed hero, who appeared in 1938 and stopped in 1955. It was assumed that his inactivity was related to the death of Rolf Muller, a circus strongman and communist spy, who had the same build as Hooded Justice. However, there's a theory among those watching the series that the elderly Will Reeves (played by Louis Gossett Jr.) is the real hero. 

This memo from FBI Agent Dale Petey goes on to describe a rerelease of an album based on Rorschach's journal. A "space" rock band called Sons of the Pale Horse is rereleasing its album called The Book of Rorschach. Special Agent Petey is worried that the album will cause an interest in the journal once again. He also mentions in the rerelease that there's an essay included, written by Seymour David, who was the editorial assistant at the New Frontiersman who came across the journal, as shown at the end of the Watchmen comic. David became a bit of a celebrity afterward, and Special Agent Petey is not much of a fan, according to the memo. 

Legal: The Road to Reparations -- In the Watchmen universe, Robert Redford is president of the United States, and there were mentions of "Redfordations." This legal brief explains that in 2004, families of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre sued the state of Oklahoma over the events of that day. A group of 200 plaintiffs -- represented by Johnnie Cochran from the O.J. Simpson trial -- filed a suit and won. The brief goes into detail about the events leading up to the massacre and what followed.  

Week 1 

Memo: The Computer and You -- Viewers noticed in the first episode some old technology used for a show taking place in 2019. This memo explains a new computer FBI agents would have access to, an IBM NetVista X41, and how they'll be able to use El-Mail, a shortened version of electronic mail. More importantly, the memo mentions how after the squid attack in 1985, there was an immediate stoppage of tech use as it was deemed a possible cause for the attack. It wasn't until 1993 when the Tech Recall and Reintroduction Act was passed that the government began reincorporating technology. 

Research: "Trust the Law" --- Some viewers had questions about the black-and-white movie at the beginning of episode 1. In this article credited to a Marcus Long, lead art curator of the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage in Tulsa, the film, Trust the Law, was a retort to the notorious pro-KKK film Birth of a Nation. The hero of the film, Bass Reeves, was a former slave who escaped during the Civil War and became a farmer who interacted with Native American tribes. His knowledge of several languages led him to be deputized and become a famous marshal who caught more than 3,000 criminals. 

While Reeves was a real person and so was the director of the film, Oscar Micheaux, the movie wasn't real. However, this article does reference the irony that the film about a black hero of the 1800s was playing in Tulsa during the violent riot shown at the start of the episode. 

Clipping: "Veidt Declared Dead" -- A newspaper article written by a Ben Woodward for Washington Post-Intelligence (WPI) Content Network dated Sept. 9, 2019, says the FBI officially declared Adrian Veidt to be dead. The former hero turned villain went missing in 2012, which caused a huge phenomenon called "Where's Veidt" that had people searching for him. This piece gives a mini-bio of Veidt and explains how after he executed his master plan, he was still held in high regard across the globe. 

Memo: Rorschach's Journal -- At the end of the Watchmen comic, Rorschach sent a journal explaining Veidt's grand plan before leaving for Antarctica and eventually dying. The final page of the comic shows an editor berating an editorial assistant while also discussing how things have radically changed since the attack as the assistant's hand hovers above the journal, thus posing the question of whether the world would know about what happened. This memo explains that the journal was published in an extreme right-wing tabloid called the New Frontiersman. It was ultimately dismissed as non-factual and looked at as entertainment following the squid attack. Veidt is quoted as saying the journal was "fake news." 

Still, there were people who took the writing as truth, hence the formation of the Seventh Kavalry. This memo helps fill in the gap from the end of the comics to the show. It even mentions how Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, who changed her name to the Comedienne in honor of her father, were arrested. The memo also sets up how Veidt is declared dead, but that if he returned, it would put the bureau in a precarious situation. 

This post originally published on Oct. 27, and we'll update it regularly when new content from the show referencing the comic appears.