Sure, you could go into HBO’s Watchmen cold. Though inspired by the landmark graphic novel written by Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons and colors by John Higgins, the new “remix” series is very much its own thing, running with the book’s characters and ideas in whatever directions appeal to creator Damon Lindelof. But if you’ve never read the book — you should, it’s great — or haven’t read it in a while or, gasp, have only seen Zack Snyder’s film version, it’s not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with some of its key players and events.
The Watchmen series is set in a version of 2019 that’s still feeling the impact of what happens in the book’s version of 1985. And though it’s filled with new characters played by Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson, and others, that doesn’t mean some familiar faces don’t make appearances as well (sometimes in unexpected places, but we’re not going to spoil who or where). Below you’ll find a guide to some of the key players in the Watchmen universe, and the impact they’ve had on the familiar-but-different universe in which they live.
One note: In 2012, DC Comics published a batch of miniseries collectively known as Before Watchmen that delved into the lives of key characters prior to the events of the novel. More recently, writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank teamed up for the still-in-progress Doomsday Clock, a crossover between the Watchmen universe and the main DC Comics universe. Since nothing in Lindelof’s series suggests it regards these as canonical, this article ignores them (though some of them are worth your time).
The Watchmen universe doesn’t start to peel off from our own until 1938. In both universes, that year saw the publication of the first issue of Action Comics, which introduced Superman and ushered in the age of superheroes, an age confined to the realm of fiction in our world. In the world of Watchmen, however, 1938 saw the debut of real-world masked avengers who took to the streets to fight crime, Nazis, and other threats to New York.
Whether or not Hooded Justice took inspiration from Superman remains an open question. In fact, Moore and Gibbons leave much about Hooded Justice an open question. Little is known about why he began brawling with would-be robbers in the fall of 1938. Little is known of his final fate, either. He disappeared after refusing to reveal his identity to the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the interim he became a member of the Minutemen, an affiliation of masked heroes. During this time, he interrupted the Comedian’s sexual assault of Sally Jupiter, the first hero to take the name Silk Spectre. And though Hooded Justice was linked to Jupiter romantically, this was a cover for his relationship with Minutemen founder Captain Metropolis. (More on all of this below.) In his memoir, Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, speculates that Hooded Justice might have been Rolf Müller, a weightlifter murdered not long after Hooded Justice’s disappearance.
Inspired by Hooded Justice, wealthy military hero Nelson Gardner adopted the identity of Captain Metropolis and eventually founded the Minutemen, a team of likeminded masked adventurers. The team disbanded under political pressure from HUAC in the late ’40s. When a second generation of masked adventurers emerged, he tried to organize them as another team he dubbed “Crimebusters,”with little luck.
Silk Spectre (Sally Jupiter)
A masked adventurer with a keen interest in becoming a celebrity, Sally Jupiter (born Sally Juspeczyk) joined the Minutemen with the help of her manager, and later husband, Laurence Schexnayder. The Comedian’s sexual assault of Jupiter helped sour the chemistry of the Minutemen. Years later, shortly after her marriage, Jupiter began a consensual affair with the Comedian that resulted in a pregnancy. Born Laurie Juspeczyk, their child would later become the second Silk Spectre.
Watchmen is, among other things, a murder mystery about the death of Eddie Blake, the masked adventurer turned government enforcer known as the Comedian. Known for his violent tendencies and right-wing politics, the Comedian stayed in the adventuring world after the dissolution of the Minutemen, serving in Vietnam and helping to quell the anti-superhero protests of the ’70s. The Comedian continued his career after the Keene Act compelled masked adventurers to reveal their identities and work for the government. His death, following his discovery of Ozymandias’s plan (see below), sets the events of the graphic novel in motion.
Nite Owl (Hollis Mason)
The first masked adventurer to take on the Nite Owl identity, Hollis Mason retired with the dissolution of the Minutemen and began a seemingly long and happy career as a mechanic and mentor to Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl.
Much of what we know about The Minutemen’s history comes from his memoir, Under the Hood, which can be read in the back pages of the first three Watchmen issues.
The only member of the Watchmen universe to possess superpowers, Doctor Manhattan came into being after nuclear physicist Jon Osterman became trapped inside a sealed chamber used to test nuclear energy. Disassembled at the atomic level, Osterman returns (sort of) as the nearly godlike Doctor Manhattan.
Where the appearance of vigilantes in the ’30s and ’40s slightly diverted the course of the Watchmen universe from our own, Doctor Manhattan’s arrival violently disrupts it. Though he becomes a celebrity and a superhero, Doctor Manhattan’s presence creates a kind of global existential crisis. How is humanity supposed to define itself in the presence of such a being? Doctor Manhattan also interferes with history itself, at least as we know it: The United States wins the war in Vietnam, eventually absorbing the country as the 51st state.
Though Doctor Manhattan begins a high-profile relationship with Laurie Juspeczyk, he becomes increasingly alienated from humanity. Hounded by the press as the events of Watchmen intensify, he retreats to Mars where he builds castles with his mind and reveals Laurie’s true parentage to her. As the book ends, he suggests he plans to leave our galaxy for “one less complicated.”
Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk)
The child of Sally Jupiter and Eddie Blake, Laurie adopts the Silk Spectre mantle and takes the crimefighting side of the job more seriously than her mother. Her romance with Doctor Manhattan blossoms into an ongoing partnership, but that relationship has already hit the skids as Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen opens. Eventually, Laurie embarks on a new romance with Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl, after they bond during a night of illicit crimefighting in defiance of the Keene Act.
A vigilante with an unflinching sense of right and wrong, Rorschach opens the book with narration from his journal, which serves as running commentary throughout Watchmen — and later as a key plot device. The product of a troubled childhood, Rorschach served as a frequent partner to the second Nite Owl in the pre–Keene Act days. Apart from Nite Owl, however, he largely kept to himself, and continued his crimefighting activities even after they were outlawed. Rorschach’s investigation into the murder of the Comedian opens Watchmen, and though he eventually solves it, he doesn’t make it to the end of the book alive.
The 37th president in the world of Watchmen, as in ours, Richard Nixon is entering his fifth term as the book opens, his power bolstered by his success in Vietnam. (The Comedian also makes an allusion to ridding Nixon of some troublesome journalists.) Despite his success in Southeast Asia, Nixon and advisors like Henry Kissinger have done little to calm the Cold War in their universe. Tensions mount throughout the novel, and the world appears to be on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe after the Soviets invade Afghanistan.
The Knot Tops
The New York of Watchmen is filled with teens and young adults wearing a distinctive knotted hairstyle that seems to have some links to a musical subculture whose most successful members include the band Pale Horse, who have an ill-timed Madison Square Garden engagement near the climax of the book. Some members of the Knot Tops have violent criminal tendencies, including the group that murders Hollis Mason. Others seem happy just to paint graffiti of lovers in silhouette, an image inspired by the shadows of those killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nite Owl (Dan Dreiberg)
A brilliant inventor inspired by Hollis Mason’s Nite Owl career, Dan Dreiberg adopted the Nite Owl name and became part of a second wave of masked adventurers that included the second Silk Spectre, Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan, and Ozymandias. Running with the owl theme, Dreiberg creates a costume more birdlike than Mason’s and an Owlship capable of hovering in place, which he uses to patrol the city by air. As the book opens, he’s left all that behind him after the passage of the Keene Act and appears to be in the midst of a terminal funk that is shaken only by his unexpected return to crimefighting, a return inspired by the reappearance of Rorschach and Silk Spectre.
Another hero capable of committing to a theme, Adrian Veidt goes full Egyptian for his adventuring exploits, borrowing his name from the Greek name for Ramesses II, as immortalized in Percy Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias.” But Veidt owes his true inspiration to Alexander the Great and his world-conquering ambitions. Using his vast wealth, Veidt has amassed a globe-spanning business empire as Watchmen opens. When Watchmen closes, we’ve come to learn the true purpose of that empire. Veidt has trained all his resources on saving the world, a feat he accomplishes through an act of unfathomable mass murder. (And for those who’ve only seen the Watchmen movie, here’s where it diverges from the book.)
As Cold War tensions mount, Veidt teleports what appears to be a squid from another universe into Manhattan, killing millions but compelling the nations of Earth to put aside their differences and unite against what they perceive to be a common threat. It’s an unspeakable act but it works, ushering in a new era of peace on Earth, and witnesses like Doctor Manhattan, Silk Spectre, and Nite Owl agree not to expose the truth of it in the interest of the greater good. Only Rorschach, determined to live and die by his unshakable sense of good and evil, remains committed to revealing the truth at all costs, prompting Doctor Manhattan to kill him. Unbeknownst to the others, however, Rorschach has mailed his journal to the right-wing fringe publication, The New Frontiersman, and the novel ends with the unresolved possibility that its publication will undo Veidt’s monstrous-but-effective achievement. (But perhaps Veidt also had some plans to occasionally reinforce the possibility of a squid invasion, lest people forget the threat? That might undermine the journal’s legitimacy.)
In the final pages of Watchmen, a newspaper headline and a line of dialogue reference Robert Redford potentially running for president in 1988. “Who wants a cowboy actor in the White House?” one character scoffs, in a winking reference to the actor with the same initials who became president. It’s a funny joke, and one worth remembering before watching the HBO series.