HBO's Watchmen: Do You Need To Read The Comic Or Watch Zack Snyder's Movie?

watchmen comic cover team standing

hbo watchmen looking glass black knight

(Image credit: hbo press)

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It’s hard to believe that a TV show based on the Watchmen comic is happening, but HBO and series creator Damon Lindelof have pulled it off. Set in more current times, HBO’s Watchmen is a sequel of sorts that re-contextualizes Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal depiction of superheroes every bit as fractured as they were justice-minded. Because of this, potential viewers likely want to know how necessary it is to be familiar the source material, or with Zack Snyder’s 2009 blockbuster.

The Watchmen TV series is not a mirror-image adaptation of the comics, which Zack Snyder already took care of, and Damon Lindelof doesn’t aim to hold anyone’s hand when jumping into the cable drama’s narrative. Below, is a mostly spoiler-free look at what you’ll need to know before making the Watchmen TV show a weekly obsession.

watchmen comic cover team standing

Do I Need To Read (Or Reread) The Watchmen Comics Before The TV Show?

Plainly stated, anyone entering the world of HBO’s Watchmen would be aided immensely by partaking in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original 12-issue series. To say nothing of how relevant and unique the story, art and narrative tricks remain, the ‘80s Watchmen introduced multiple generations of heroic vigilantes and a conspiracy that rocks the world, all within an entire alternate universe. (2012’s Before Watchmen prequels, as well as the Doomsday Clock series from Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, add their own subtext as well.)

Because Watchmen superfan Damon Lindelof is setting his tension-fueled storyline at such a distance from the source material, the TV show doesn’t strictly require audiences to know every page and panel by heart. It does reward the deeper readers with plenty of nods, though, and the TV show also features a ton of details that may come off as bizarrely random if one goes into it completely blind. (More on those details below.)

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Do I Need To Watch (Or Rewatch) Zack Snyder’s Watchmen Before The TV Show?

The answer here is somewhat similar to the one above, though on a much smaller scale. Watchmen inspires a unique take on the “book vs. movie” adaptation argument, given how faithful to the text Zack Snyder was with his 2009 feature. HBO’s Watchmen even seemingly pays homage to Snyder’s visual flairs in certain moments.

So, for anyone who isn’t interested, or isn't able, to plunge into the Watchmen comic in its entirety, popping the film version on could provide a solid enough tutorial. Solid performances from stars like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino and Jackie Earle Haley are always fun. Finding the Watchmen: Motion Comic DVD would also be a good option, even with the limited narration scope, given how wonderfully large Dave Gibbons’ art can get on a TV.

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So What Do I Really Need To Know Before Watching HBO’s Watchmen?

This section could likely take up a few thousand words on its own, but I’ll keep things limited to the most essential knowledge. Note that there are various Watchmen comic book spoilers here, for anyone who hasn’t yet enjoyed its fruits.

Watchmen’s Comic Characters: Many of the major characters in HBO’s Watchmen TV show have been originated by Damon Lindelof and his creative team, but there are certain characters who are still seemingly around.

Legion vet Jean Smart was cast as FBI agent Laurie Blake, who went by the name Laurie Jupiter, or Juspeczyk – and even the name Sandra Hollis at the comic’s end – and was the second woman to take up the Silk Spectre mantle. The daughter of the first Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter, Laurie was a strong feminist, though she was only 16 when she entered her doomed with Doctor Manhattan, at least 15 years her senior. When Watchmen concluded, Laurie was off to start a new life with her former vigilante teammate Dan “Nite Owl” Dreiberg.

Justice League’s Jeremy Irons returns to a DC Comics adaptation to play Watchmen’s Adrian Veidt, although there’s much secrecy surrounding his role. In the source material, Adrian Veidt is the self-proclaimed “smartest man in the world,” and went by the vigilante name Ozymandias. Veidt was essentially Watchmen’s biggest villain, though the depths of his villainy are up for debate depending on how scrupulous one is. Jeremy Irons isn’t being played up as the current big bad in promotions, but it’s likely he’ll be full of antagonistic motivations.

Though it’s not clear how the Watchmen TV show will handle the comic’s only superpowered character, it’s known that the Superman-esque Doctor Manhattan (formerly Jon Osterman) will be part of the story in some way. A scientific accident turned Osterman, a physicist, into Doctor Manhattan, a mostly omnipotent being who rocks an all-blue and mostly nude body. The character was a huge boon for the military and science, but after it was revealed that multiple people close to him were diagnosed with cancer (though not of his own causing), he made a jaunt to Mars for long-term solitude.

Though his death occurs in the final pages of the Watchmen comic, the take-no-bullshit vigilante Rorschach plays a huge role in the events of the TV show. With his signature style of speaking, Rorschach noted many of the comic’s events within a journal, and that journal will influence the villainous white supremacy group the Seventh Cavalry. Members of that group can be identified by their makeshift Rorschach masks, though none but the original matched owners’ emotional states.

HBO’s Watchmen also references the earliest crimefighting squad from the 1930s and 1940s, known as the Minutemen. The group was comprised of do-gooder Captain Metropolis, the hyper-violent Hooded Justice, the outed lesbian Silhouette, the first Nite Owl, the marketing stunt hero Dollar Bill, the substance-abusing Mothman, Sally’s Silk Spectre and the amoral wise guy The Comedian.

Watchmen’s Comic Plot: In its simplest form, Watchmen works as an alt-Earth murder-mystery, with Rorschach and Nite Owl looking into the untimely death of The Comedian, Edward Blake, and whether or not a conspiracy existed to take out New York City’s superhero elite. A conspiracy did exist, although Blake’s death only happened because he found out about Adrian Veidt’s extremely destructive plans.

In one of the most baffling comic book plot twists put to paper, Veidt had a team of brainy creatives craft a gigantic squid-like creature that was teleported into the middle of the city and destroyed, covering buildings and streets with disgusting viscera. Nightmarish psychic energy emanated from the wreckage, so even nearby people who weren’t killed still suffered mental problems. (Naturally, Veidt made sure everyone who worked on the project also died.)

Veidt’s scheme, which was partially successful, was to create an outsider alien threat that would convince the warring nations of the world to come together against a common enemy, rather than remaining in intra-planetary conflicts. It might have been an amazing plan had over a million people not died because of Veidt’s actions. (Note that Zack Snyder’s movie alters that conclusion in pretty huge ways.)

Watchmen’s Themes and References: The events of Watchmen take place in a world that split away from our own at one point assumedly in the 20th century, so there are tons of quirky differences sprinkled throughout the comic. Cars had been fully electric for years, and dirigibles served as a widely used source of transportation. Doctor Manhattan helped the U.S. win the Vietnam War, and Vietnam later became the 51st state. Food chains were affected due to various global conflicts, and pop culture veered from superhero comics to pirate stories once actual superheroes became a normal part of life.

Both Watchmen’s art style and storytelling rely on repetitive visuals and themes throughout each of the issues, with much symmetry to be found. Sometimes pages and panels echo previous ones, and one entire issue essentially works as a palindrome. The most iconic Watchmen visuals are The Comedian’s smiley face button, with its signature blood spatter, and clocks that are always set near 12:00, both a.m. and p.m., in reference to the Doomsday Clock. The series similarly uses other circular shapes throughout, carrying on the clock and button’s imagery.

A comic book through and through, Watchmen’s narrative approach also incorporates other forms of media. The most overarching is the pirate comic story Tales of the Black Freighter, whose story of a man who feeds into his monstrous fears runs parallel to some of the main character’s stories. Each issue also contained various forms of supplemental material, such as autobiography excerpts, magazine interviews, photographs and more. As well, Watchmen played heavily with advertisements and forms of marketing. Expect the TV show to play around with its approach as well.

Beyond all of these heavily detailed ideas is the central idea behind the text, which shows up as unfinished graffiti throughout: “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Fans can expect the TV show to carry on the idea that the most powerful and authoritative among us sometimes have the biggest skeletons in their closets. As Ozymandias’ deadly plan proved, the road of good intentions can sometimes be filled with squid guts and corpses.

Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Watchmen TV show introduces the concept of an entire police force that wears masks in order to protect their identity, which creates interesting legal system questions, among others. Expect Damon Lindelof to port much of Alan Moore’s mindset through a 2019 filter to deliver lots of other complex ideas.

To reiterate, any future Watchmen viewers out there would be doing themselves a big favor by sitting down for a few hours to get indulgent with the comics, since this world is such a large one to spend time with. (And since that’s as close anyone will get to Alan Moore being involved with the HBO series.) Watching Zack Snyder’s take on Watchmen is the secondary option, but even reading this article is a lot better than going into the TV show completely unaware of anything.

WATCH - Watchmen: What We Know So Far

While it’s unclear at this point whether or not Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen will get more than one season on HBO, the chances of that happening will be a lot greater if audiences turn up in droves when it premieres on Sunday, October 20, at 9 p.m. ET.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.