Every 'Watchmen' Comic Book Reference You Should Know Before the HBO Premiere


HBO's Watchmen is already big, thanks to a decades-old fanbase and a mystery-shrouded production anxiously watched over by said fanbase. Famously salty creator/probable wizard Alan Moore is pointedly not involved with this version, or any filmed version of the comic book he wrote, after stating many years ago that the Watchmen series published in 1986 and 1987 ought only to exist in its paper-and-ink form, and that putting it to film would ruin it -- which, uhh, pretty much happened exactly the way he said it would with Zack Snyder's adaptation in 2009.

But Damon Lindelof's Watchmen is different. It's not a panel-for-panel remake of the comic, for one thing -- it barely has anything to do with Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, and the Comedian at all, although the comic book characters do exist in the world of the show. Because the events of the Watchmen comic are baked into the Watchmen series, you could watch it without having read the source material.

But there's some stuff that does come up in the premiere and subsequent episodes -- like name reveals, Easter eggs, allusions, etc. -- that may hang you out to dry if you don't have a teensy bit of background on the subject. I'll be addressing the various things you need to know in this article and updating it after each episode as the season goes on.

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Why is it called Watchmen?

The title, which comes from a translated line from Satire VI by Juvenal ("who watches the watchmen"), refers to costumed heroes -- not technically superheroes, which we'll explain later -- who fought crime alongside and independent of the U.S. government in the comic books in two separate periods of the 20th century. The story picks up in 1985, eight years after masked vigilantes have been outlawed in the United States; it's the height of the Cold War, and America and her allies are engaged in a standoff with the Soviet Union, each side dreading -- but prepared for -- the prospect of worldwide nuclear war. Over the course of the comic series, learn that costumed heroes banded together in two separate eras, once from 1939 to 1949 as a collective called the Minutemen, and then from 1966 to 1977, another group assembled as the Crimebusters. Most of these so-called "watchmen" (they are never explicitly called the Watchmen in the comic) retired or died before the ban on masked vigilantes, but after a shocking death and a strange trail of clues, some of them work together to solve the mystery.

Is it set in an alternate universe?

Yes! The Watchmen comic imagines a slightly altered American history with the main point of divergence from our own timeline occurring circa 1938, around the same time American publishers started putting out superhero comics, leading to a rise in vigilantism. What would have happened to the world then? The first band of costumed heroes, called the Minutemen (in existence from 1939 to 1949), and, a new iteration, called the Crimebusters (active from 1966 to 1977), changed the course of a few enormous historical moments, most importantly the Vietnam War -- which was handily won thanks to the presence of the godlike Dr. Manhattan -- and the Watergate scandal, which never came to light, thanks to a couple well-timed assassinations that led to Richard Nixon not only finishing his second term but becoming so popular that the Constitution was amended to allow for unlimited terms, and Nixon was continuously re-elected well into the 1980s.

You'll need to know who Dr. Manhattan is

Dr. Manhattan, previously known as physicist Dr. Jon Osterman, is the only being in Watchmen with actual superpowers. Having accidentally performed a matter-altering experiment on himself, Osterman's subatomic particles were rearranged and he managed to bring himself back to life as a glowing blue naked dude who can move things with his mind and teleport anywhere he wants. He was romantically involved with Laurie Juspeczyk, also known as Silk Spectre II (inheriting the title from her mother, who was one of the original Minutemen), but they broke up when it became clear that Dr. Manhattan's superhuman abilities emotionally detached him from humanity. In the middle of the comic, he exiled himself to Mars after people claimed his mere presence caused cancer, and, apart from a return at the very end of the comic book, that's where he's been living ever since. 

You'll also need to know about Rorschach

Rorschach, a.k.a. Walter Kovacs, was a Crimebuster who refused to retire after the passage of the Keene Act, and he continued to fight crime as a vigilante as the comic book series begins. In the comic book, he dresses like an old-timey detective, and wears a constantly-morphing inkblot mask fashioned after the Rorschach psychiatric tests. He's obsessed with moral relativism, believing that there is only good and evil and that it's his job to fight one from the shadows to uphold the other, and is in some ways the main protagonist of the comic, which is otherwise technically considered an ensemble. He narrates the whole thing from his journal, which he mailed to the editor of his favorite tabloid and published after his untimely death at the hands of Dr. Manhattan. The HBO series seems to suggest that his posthumous journal has inspired a cult of masked malcontents.

The show is a sequel of sorts

In a lengthy letter to the fans of the comic and normies who are just excited for a new superhero show, Lindelof described his Watchmen as a "remix" of the comic. But that's a little misleading. Some characters from the comic series do turn up in the show -- we won't spoil who or how yet, but watch this space. The HBO series takes place decades after the most recent events depicted in the comic, which happened in 1985. As such, the show focuses on brand-new characters who exist in the modern world -- but a modern world dictated by the events of the comic. Basically, given what happened in Watchmen's 1985, here's what the world would look like in Watchmen's 2019.

The Tulsa race riot actually happened

Part of the fun of Watchmen is seeing how the comic diverges from the history we know, but the story also uses historical events to its advantage, incorporating them into the larger narrative. That's what the show does with the Tulsa race riot, a.k.a. The Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921, in which mobs of white residents attacked and murdered black residents of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as "Black Wall Street" because it was the wealthiest black community in the country at the time. It's been described as the worst incident of racial violence in American history, and greatly informs the plot of the HBO series. Whereas most of the comic takes place in New York City, the show gives us a look at how another part of the country was changed by the presence of superheroes. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.