My Favorite TV Show of 2019 and the Comic That Inspired It

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My Favorite TV Show of 2019 and the Comic That Inspired It

Andrew Eaton, Writer

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HBO’s new series Watchmen, based on the groundbreaking 1986 comic, is easily one of my favorite shows in recent memory. It is intelligent, brilliantly written, has excellent social commentary and is a masterful love letter to the graphic novel series that is often called the greatest comic book of all time. Before I get into the show, I must explain what the comic is about and why it is considered to not only be a masterpiece of comics but also just in literature in general.

Comics and graphic novels are often dismissed as an art form. Many call them literature only for children and only good for a few minutes of entertainment. As someone who has been reading comics for a good portion of his life, I think that this is a terrible way to look at this medium. Like normal books, comics can have complex themes, stories, characters and have far more genres than just superheroes. Part of what makes Watchmen so important is that it changed the perception of comics forever. In fact, it is so revered that in 2009 Time Magazine put it in their 100 greatest novels of all time list, making it the only comic to make the list. Watchmen changed this perception because of two reasons. The first one being that it is an incredibly dark and gritty book that is not meant for children at all. To me though, this is not what made the book important. What made Watchmen truly stand the test of time is it’s mature and deep themes about heroism and humanity. Enough blabbering though, let’s get into what the book is about.

Watchmen takes place in an alternate world where superheroes have been around since the 1930s (Although only one of them has actual powers.) Because of this, events in American history have changed. Two good examples are how in this world America won the Vietnam War due to the all powerful character called Dr. Manhattan and Richard Nixon hired a cruel and violent superhero named the Comedian to cover up his Watergate scandal. Soon after, he found a way to run for a third term. The story revolves around the Comedian being killed and a crazed outlaw vigilante called Rorschach discovering a conspiracy that targets retired superheroes. While this is happening, the atomic Cold War between Russia and America is reaching its height as nuclear annihilation appears to be imminent (I should mention that this takes place in the 1980s when the comic was written.) Now I know you’re probably thinking “Oh it’s a superhero story, don’t we have enough of those in the movies?” but Watchmen is definitely not a superhero story. It’s about superheroes but it is not in anyway you’re typical action packed romp. Watchmen is a deconstruction and critique of the idea of a superhero and a hero in general. It shows this by making the main characters heavily psychologically damaged.

For example, Rorschach is an impoverished and ruthless anti-hero who shows no mercy towards his criminals. His outlook on the world is incredibly twisted due to his traumatic past. He views anyone who doesn’t share his ideals as weak. In fact, the first thoughts we hear from his journal are this:

“This city is afraid of me. I have seen it’s true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the scum and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll look down and whisper “No.” They could have followed in the footsteps of good men like my father or President Truman. Decent men who believed in a day’s work for a day’s pay. Instead they followed the droppings of junkies and communists and didn’t realize that the trail led over a precipice until it was too late. Don’t tell me they didn’t have a choice. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody Hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers… and all of a sudden nobody can think of anything to say.”

Rorschach’s black and white mask is meant to represent how he sees things in only absolutes. In his mind, he thinks things are either good or evil and evil must be punished at all costs. However, even that ideology is twisted as he will often forgive a “wrongdoer” because of a personal reason. Ultimately, Rorschach is meant to mirror a character like Batman , however Watchmen takes a more realistic approach to the idea that a character with a traumatic past who wears a mask is more likely to be a broken, violent and hypocritical psychopath rather than a hero.

Another character who breaks down the idea of a superhero is Dr. Manhattan. He used to be a nuclear physicist named Jon Osterman until an accident in the lab caused him to become Dr. Manhattan: the first and only super powered man. He can teleport, change the atomic structure of something in the blink of an eye and can see the past, present and future all at once. However, because of his immense power, he no longer has human needs or human fears. He can no longer connect with people on an emotional level. Manhattan now sees humans as obsolete beings that are beneath him. He has become indifferent to good and evil because he is above everything. This is not helped by the fact that he can see the future makes him view free will as a lie. Manhattan is unable to change the future and it’s outcome. The point of this is to show that even the powerful man in existence is still powerless to fate. As he says to his former girlfriend in a famed scene in the novel:

“We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”

Dr. Manhattan is a tragic character who is destined to live alone. His purpose is to display that a super-powered man would probably be the worst protector imaginable due to his isolation from the rest of humanity.

The last character I should talk about is Ozymandias also known as Adrian Vedit. Veidt is a former superhero and the smartest man in the world . He revealed his identity to the world and became a millionaire by starting his own company. He seems to be a completely honest man until Rorshach discovers that he is behind the conspiracy. Although, Ozymandias is not trying to get rid of the vigilantes to take over the world, he instead wants to save it from the coming nuclear holocaust and his plan will only work if they don’t interfere. However, his plan comes at the cost of killing most of New York City. Using his vast wealth, Vedit has genetically engineered a giant squid that releases psychic brain waves that will kill most everything in a couple mile radius (Believe me, I know it sounds like a ridiculous plot point but trust me, it’s actually makes sense in the context of the story and it leads to the main idea of the whole book.) Vedit knows that if he unleashes this creature on a major city, the world will think that it’s the start of an alien invasion so America and Russia will have to cease their conflict to unite against this fake threat. Ozymandias succeeds and drops the squid in the middle of New York, causing world peace at the cost of three million peoples’ lives. Rorcasch tries to tell the world of Veidt’s deception as he doesn’t care that world peace will be halted so long as Ozymandias is punished. Dr. Manhattan is forced to kill him, so the secret is not revealed. However, Rorchash’s journal is given to a newspaper which details what Ozymandias did. It is left up to the readers to decide whether the paper publishes it.

What I am trying to say by talking about these three characters is that there is no “good guy” in Watchmen. It’s a story filled with moral ambiguity. Once you finish the last page, you are not meant to know which character you would side with. Do you agree that Rorschach is right and Vedit is an arrogant madman who must be exposed? Or do you think that Ozymandis’s new peaceful world will persevere despite it being built on millions of deaths? There are other characters that I didn’t mention whose views you could side with but my point is that each character represents an ideology the reader may or may not agree with. This comic has been called a rorschach test for it’s readers and I agree with this analogy. Watchmen is a comic that is heavily impacted by what you bring into it.

Anyway, I should probably start talking about the new show. The new HBO series helmed by the co-creator of the show Lost, Daimen Lindelof, is not a direct adaptation of Watchmen. Instead, it is a sequel that takes place 34 years after the events of the novel. The premise is that after Richard Nixon left office, Robert Redford became President and made America very liberal. In response to this, a white supremacist group inspired by Rorschach has risen in the town of Tulsa, Oklahoma. They found a way to target police officers in their homes and attack them. After this happened, a law was passed so that police officers must now wear masks and have secret identities. This show is centered on a police officer named Angela Abar (Regina King) as she discovers a conspiracy that involves the racist history of America and the Chinese trillionaire named Lady Trieu (Hong Chau.) Meanwhile, a much older Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) is living in a mysterious manor with strange servants.

As you can tell from this synopsis, the commentary about nuclear arsenals from the 1980s has been replaced with commentary on the racial tensions we face in our country today. I must mention that this show is not trying to appeal to one political demographic and insult another. While the liberal America in this show has given African-Americans a slightly better place in society by paying reparations, it also has plenty of problems and still cannot eradicate the vile prejudice in American culture. This is not meant to say that liberals are bad or conservatives are bad but instead to say that a single political party cannot rid America of the racism that it is rooted in. I never felt that this show had a biased political agenda that it tried to enforce but instead it left the viewer to ponder their own thoughts on the racial issues. Watchmen also does a brilliant job of displaying the pain that African- Americans have felt throughout our country’s history. In fact, Watchmen even brings up the rarely mentioned Tulsa massacre of 1921 in which 300 or more black people were brutally murdered by white supremacists. I will admit that I had not heard of this horrific act of violence before I saw this series. I am very glad that a mainstream show on television is bringing up history that America wants to forget. However, the analysis of racial violence and prejudice do not replace the themes of the flaws of a “superhero” . A constant theme of the series is that every character in the show who wears a mask uses it to hide an inner pain they feel. Like the source material, each character is somewhat psychologically damaged mostly due to their dark pasts. It makes for extremely engaging episodes when these pasts are explored. HBO’s Watchmen is fantastic at blending the themes of the graphic novel with commentary on the tense racial climate of today.

Another praise the show must be given is how interesting and thought out this alternate world is. A person who has not read the original book might not pick up on this but every small detail in this world is a logical continuation of what would happen after the end of Watchmen. A good example of this is how America won the Vietnam War in the comic, so 34 years later in the show, Vietnam is now an American state. Another great detail is how since Dr. Manhattan left Earth for Mars at the end of the novel, phone booths that send messages to Mars were placed in every town in America, so civilians can talk to him (He never answers.) In fact, the writing in general must be lauded. Every mystery and plot point that appears in the beginning of the series is resolved in a way that makes complete sense. It’s so rare that at the end of a show every single plot point is wrapped up in a satisfying way.

Watchmen combines intelligent writing, great acting and world building to create what I think is the best TV show of 2019 (Nice try, Mandalorian).

My Grade: A+