Minutes to Midnight

I’ve had some friends and family asking what Watchmen is all about so I thought
I’d offer a primer. The post looks long, but you can pick and choose from among the chunks of information.

Yellow clock face without numbers, hands set to about 11:55, against black background with no text
cover to the slipcase of the Absolute Edition

Here’s a story overview from my review of the film:

Watchmen is set in a world where costumed crimefighters have been around since
the 1940s, but true superheroes — or any beings with actual superhuman powers — were just the province of comic books until a lab accident created Dr. Manhattan in 1959. It opens with the murder of The Comedian, source of that iconic bloodstained smiley-face pin, and plays out in late 1985 with glimpses of the earlier days of such characters as the gadget-laden Nite Owl, sexy Silk Spectre, and disturbed, trenchcoat-wearing Rorschach. Masked adventurers were outlawed in America in 1977 unless sanctioned by the government, which The Comedian was and Dr. Manhattan still is;
his nearly godlike abilities are the main deterrent to nuclear war between the Soviet Union and a United States led by Richard Nixon in his fifth term as President.

’Watchmen' book cover of city skyline with lit windows against purple sky with full pale moon seen through bloodied, jagged glass of broken window 'Watchmen' book cover of extreme close-up on smiley-face showing only one black oval 'eye' against yellow field with red splotch of blood
covers to DC Comics’ original trade paperback and to current US printings

Should you read the book first or see the movie now?

I was disappointed by the film on its own merits, not simply as an adaptation of the book. Many fans and film critics have had the opposite opinion. (At the moment, Watchmen has a middling 56% rating from the professionals on Metacritic, but gets
a 7.8 out of 10 from users.)

My experience is that it’s best to read a book well before or after the movie it’s based
on. If you want to read Watchmen but are resolved to see the film while it’s still in theaters, wait on it and go to the movie, because the graphic novel is pretty complex.
It’s different enough from and broader enough than the film that reading it should still be a rewarding experience even if you more-or-less know where the plot is heading.

There is no group of superheroes named “Watchmen” in the graphic novel, by the
way, only the Minutemen in the 1940s and the Crimebusters in the 1960s, but the film changes the Crimebusters to the Watchmen. Alan Moore took the title from the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”; in English it literally translates to “Who will guard the guards themselves?” and is often rendered as “Who watches the watchmen?”. It is taken from Juvenal’s Satires, although Moore only knew it as a familiar saying.

Main cast of film posing in front of wall, on which hang small framed photos of older crimefighters around U.S. flag
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Comedian, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl, and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach

You can visit Warner Bros. Entertainment’s official website for the film for clips and all sorts of other promotional stuff.

The Watchmen section of DC Comics’ website has pages dedicated to both the graphic novel and the movie. On the latter you can watch trailers, see DC’s line of action figures, and learn about the mobile game. On the former you can read the first chapter of the book free as a PDF file, check out product descriptions of the various collected editions, view some of Dave Gibbons’ concept art, download Watchmen desktops for your computer screen, and sample “motion comics” that manipulate the graphic novel’s artwork to present it in extremely limited animation, with the captions and dialogue balloons narrated. [Update: A redesign wiped out most of those options.]

'Watchmen' #1 cover of smiley-face pin with red stain against a river of blood on the street
cover to 1986’s first issue

Here’s some background on Watchmen’s creation and publishing history:

Watchmen was first published as a miniseries of 12 standard comic books in 1986-87. It’s written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, who worked closely with colorist John Higgins; all hail from the UK.

The Moore & Gibbons team was already beloved by fans for a story from the 1985 Superman annual called “For the Man Who Has Everything” when Watchmen was hatched. And Moore had been making waves in the US with decidedly adult material in Eclipse’s Miracleman — which reprinted and then continued publication of his revival of the British strip Marvelman — and DC’s own Swamp Thing. His original Watchmen proposal featured characters that DC had recently acquired from another publisher, Charlton; DC executives nixed their use after realizing that some of the heroes don’t survive the story and most of them are involved in sex or violence which in film terms is beyond PG. (You don’t really need to know this last part, but it’s comic-book legend.)

Moore’s meticulous script for the series was particularly noted for recurring visual motifs and the density of information that Gibbons packed into each panel, providing thematic echoes and foreshadowing to the observant reader. The cover of each issue actually served as the first panel of that chapter, an unusual practice, and at the end of each issue was supplementary text material — a historical article on Tales of the Black Freighter, the pirate comic book seen in the main story; Rorschach’s psychiatric evaluation; excerpts from the first Nite Owl’s memoir, Under the Hood — taken from Watchmen’s fictional world.

DC Comics collected Watchmen as a trade paperback in 1987, and sister company Warner Books released a nearly identical edition with a different cover to mass-market bookstores at the same time. Later that year, Graphitti Designs issued a limited-edition hardcover that came slipcased with a companion volume reprinting the original proposal and concept art. Watchmen garnered a Hugo Award, recognizing excellence in science fiction, in the one-time-only Other Forms category in 1988. It was the lone graphic novel on Time’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923, the year the magazine was founded.

'Watchmen' book cover showing Ozymandias, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, and Rorschach, with Comedian kneeling in front, clock face behind them all
cover to the current international trade paperback

The in-print editions of Watchmen at this writing include a US softcover, an international softcover, a hardcover with recolored pages and sketch section, and the Absolute Edition oversized hardcover with copious supplementary material. Apparently the international edition’s cover has a group shot because the smiley-face design is a registered trademark overseas. (The first DC collections had a different cover image than the extreme zoom into the smiley-face pin, looking out at the city skyline through
a broken, bloodied window with the pin suspended in midair as, presumably, The Comedian falls below it out of frame.)

Dr. Manhattan's blue face with symbolic Hydrogen atom on forehead, image cut off below the nose, and ‘Watching the Watchmen’ below
cover to dustjacket of Titan Books’ tome on the series

Here’s an extremely brief look at Watchmen’s aftermath:

Watchmen and Frank Miller’s 1986 miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight, now
known as The Dark Knight Returns, influenced superhero comic books to a considerable degree, bringing more nihilistic explorations of the genre and a turn towards darker, more violent stories in general without any purpose.

Moore and DC Comics have had periodic, substantial arguments over licensing and copyright ownership throughout the 20-plus years since Watchmen first saw print,
and subsequent partnerships between them have not ended happily. When the film of
V for Vendetta was released in 2005, Moore asked that his name be removed from it and all promotional material, so the credits simply read “based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd”. He did the same for this year’s Watchmen film and signed his share of any compensation over to co-creator/illustrator Gibbons. Some devotees of Moore have refused to see the film due to his disputes with DC and his general disdain for Hollywood. The movies From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were also adapted from his much superior work with artists Eddie Campbell and Kevin O’Neill, respectively.

Gibbons has continued to freelance for DC as both a writer and an artist, and its
Vertigo imprint published his graphic novel The Originals in 2004. He was a creative consultant on the Watchmen film and merchandising, and late last year Titan Books published Watching the Watchmen, in which Gibbons discusses Watchmen’s creation and provides sketches and other rare or unpublished material from his personal archives.

Cover of ’Tales of the Black Freighter' with silhouette of man rigging a sail on expanse of land or sea with skull design Nite Owl, Rorschach, Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan from the comics in different boxes around 'The Complete Motion Comic' title
covers to the new animated-short and motion-comics DVDs

There exists supplementary material to the film which you might not be aware
of, and which doesn’t really impact the viewing of the movie on its own. As mentioned earlier, the pirate comic book Tales of the Black Freighter exists in Watchmen’s reality; not only is it discussed within the story and in one of the interstitial text pieces, but captions, panels, or whole pages of it are shown periodically within the story itself. You may think I’m about to tell you that a tie-in comic book was produced to accompany the movie, but no. For some reason an animated film was made of it instead, and it’s being released straight to DVD later this month. On the same disc is Under the Hood, a pseudo-documentary for which the actors of the Watchmen movie were interviewed in character. The Watchmen motion comics are already available on DVD or as digital downloads.

And don’t forget about the coffee.

Watchmen logo and characters are trademarks of DC Comics. Photo copyright 2009
Warner Bros. Entertainment. Artwork copyright 1986, 1987, 2005, 2008 DC Comics.

Related: Ozy Ozy Ozy The Dr. Manhattan Transfer Clocking In

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