The Geeksplainer: Watchmen –

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A key tenet of geek culture is knowledge – we judge and are judged based on our encyclopedic knowledge of games, sci-fi, comics, anime, collectibles and more. But it’s impossible for one human being to know everything, no matter how many chips you get put in your brain. That’s where we come in. With this series of “Geeksplainers,” we’ll give you everything you need to know to get up to speed on some of the most complicated, intense subjects in the pop culture universe. No longer will you have to fake it in conversations until you have time to run to the bathroom and engage in a 45 minute Wikipedia session. Let us be your guide, now and forever.

This installment: DC released a preview of Doomsday Clock so it’s time to bring you up to speed on one of the most important comics of the 1980s – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen.

Watchmen Pin

What Is Watchmen?

Originally published by DC Comics monthly as a 12 issue limited series in 1986 and 1987, Watchmen is an alternate universe story where costumed crimefighters began to appear in the 1940s. The book examines the realistic repercussions of that concept. Set in 1985, the story starts with the death of one of those heroes, the Comedian. Spoilers ahead – his death was part of a conspiracy by another hero, Ozymandias, the self-proclaimed smartest man on Earth. His end goal was to ensure world peace by simulating a massive catastrophe made to look like an alien invasion. Standing in his way are a few other retired crimefighters who ferret out his intentions too late to do anything about them.

Dr. Manhattan

Why Was It A Big Deal?

Moore wanted to create “a superhero Moby Dick; something that had that sort of weight, that sort of density.” Most superhero comics of the 80s were light, disposable, designed to be purchased by children from spinner racks at convenience stores and just as quickly disposed of. DC started experimenting in the 80s with comics designed for the “direct market” – basically stores that just sold comic books – with nicer paper, better printing and more mature themes. Watchmen, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, were the first huge direct market hits. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every superhero comic since has been inspired by it in one way or another.


Who Are The Main Characters?

Alan Moore was originally intending to cast the book with heroes and villains from Charlton Comics, which DC acquired in 1985. However, the editorial team had plans for some of them, forcing the writer to come up with stand-ins. Masked vigilante the Question became Rorschach. Gadget-toting do-gooder Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, and radioactive superhuman Captain Atom turned into Dr. Manhattan. The primary antagonist, Ozymandias, is a millionaire industrialist who hung up his costume and went public when the other heroes retired, believing that the world needed more help than punching crooks on the street.

Blue Beetle

You Can Buy Comic Book Characters?

One difference between the DC universe and the Marvel one is that DC has a history of purchasing other publishers and absorbing their intellectual property. They bought Fawcett in 1973 and got Shazam and the Marvel Family, and did the same with Charlton, Wildstorm and others. But instead of keeping these heroes and villains in their own fictional universes, DC chooses to fold them into their fictional history, which can be pretty confusing. The Charlton heroes mostly got their own titles in the mid-80s, with Blue Beetle becoming a cornerstone of Giffen and DeMatteis’s defining JLA run, so it’s not surprising that DC would deny Moore.


Who Owns Watchmen?

Here’s where things get weird. Because the characters Moore and Gibbons created were technically new, they didn’t want to sign a contract that gave rights to DC. The parties eventually settled on a “revision clause,” that stipulated the creators would own the book after it was out of print for 365 days. Needless to say, DC has never let the book lapse (and it’s sold millions of copies, so they never will). For several decades, they were content to keep milking that cash cow as long as they could, but with the industry’s downturn in the 21st century that changed.

Watchmen Movie

How Was The Movie?

Well, it was directed by Zack Snyder, so that should answer that question for most of you. Nerds have talked about a movie adaptation of Watchmen since the original series wrapped up. 20th Century Fox bought the rights in 1986, and for quite some time Terry Gilliam was attached to the project. In 2001, David “Solid Snake” Hayter was brought in to write and direct, and in 2004 terrifyingly the film was given to Michael Bay! Snyder ended up with it after his work on 300 impressed Warner Brothers execs. The film released in March of 2009 and saw a big opening weekend and a huge dropoff in the second week -one of the highest ever for a major comic book film. In hindsight, it misses most of what makes the comic special, instead transforming it into another gritty, wet “mature” superhero movie.

Before Watchmen

What Happened Next?

DC was happy to just keep publishing trade paperbacks of Watchmen, but eventually they decided that more money could be made. The Snyder movie was a big way to do that – and sales of the book boomed that year – but profit must be obeyed. In 2012, DC released Before Watchmen, a series of 37 (!) prequel comics by top talents like Darwyn Cooke, Brian Azzarello, and Adam Hughes. This didn’t come without precedent – Moore and Gibbons had talked with DC about the possibility back in 1985 – but they decided against it. The company offered Moore the rights back if he would agree to the prequels, but he refused and they did them anyways. Nice! Moore publicly dissed the books, rightfully claiming that what makes Watchmen special is that it stands on its own, and adding prequels to it just dilutes its power.

Doomsday Clock

What Is The Doomsday Clock?

Before Watchmen was mostly unnecessary, despite having some top-tier talent attached. The books sold decently but didn’t really set the world on fire. However, DC didn’t learn a lesson and, in the wake of the Flashpoint and Rebirth events that tried to clean up the company’s 80+ years of continuity, they dropped a page with Batman finding the blood-stained smiley face button that is one of Watchmen‘s most recognizable symbols. Instead of existing in a separate fictional reality, Moore and Gibbons’ 12 issues are now part of the mainline DC universe. Doomsday Clock is a 12 issue miniseries that starts in November and brings us to the world of Watchmen right after the original ended.

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