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Before you watch HBO’s Watchmen, here’s what you should know about the comic

In 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons released Watchmen, a groundbreaking comic book that changed superhero stories forever. HBO’s Watchmen TV series, which debuts Sunday, October 20, probably won’t have quite as big of an impact, but as the next project from Lost and The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof, it’s certainly worth your attention.

Lindelof and HBO have reportedly done a good job of making Watchmen accessible for newcomers — if you haven’t read the comic, you should be just fine — but the show still has strong ties to the original graphic novel. If you want to get everything you can out of Watchmen, you’ll need the full story. So here’s everything you need to know.

Is it a reboot, a remake, or a sequel?

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In the lead-up to Watchmen‘s premiere, creator Damon Lindelof has been coy about the show’s relationship to the comic. At one point, Lindelof called the show a “remix” of the original story. Later, he referred to it as “fan fiction.” While Watchmen‘s first trailer borrows lots of the comics’ imagery, its story is clearly very different.

Now that people have seen Watchmen‘s pilot, the truth is out: The Watchmen television show is a full-fledged sequel to Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel. HBO’s series is set about 30 years after the original Watchmen comics and directly builds off of the events of that story.

It’s worth noting that HBO’s Watchmen is a sequel to the comic, but not to Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation. The latter project deviated from its source material in a few key ways. It’s also not an adaptation of Doomsday Clock, the Watchmen sequel currently being published by DC Comics. In that story, the Watchmen characters cross over into the DC Universe and butt heads with Superman, Batman, and the rest. HBO’s Watchmen doesn’t have any Justice League characters. It’s entirely its own thing.

How does the Watchmen timeline differ from ours?

Watchmen takes place in a world that’s mostly like ours, with one key difference: In the Watchmen universe, there are superheroes. With one major exception (which we’ll get to in a minute), Watchmen‘s superheroes don’t have powers. They’re simply people who were inspired by old pulp stories to slip on a costume and dispense vigilante justice. Instead of super-speed or super-strength, they rely on technology, weapons, and their own innate skills to get the job done.

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The Watchmen timeline goes something like this: In 1939, the first superhero team, the Minutemen, is founded. Its roster includes the violence-prone vigilante The Comedian, a former policeman known as Nite Owl, model-turned-vigilante Silk Spectre, and several other colorful characters. From the start, the group is plagued by interpersonal drama, and over the years many members meet grisly ends. In the late ’40s, the Minutemen disband and the surviving heroes go their separate ways.

In 1959, nuclear physicist Jonathan Osterman is disintegrated in a laboratory accident and declared dead. While Osterman’s body was destroyed, his consciousness survived, and he later re-emerges as a bright blue being with extraordinary powers. He becomes, for all intents and purposes, a god.

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Seeing an opportunity to fundamentally shift the balance of power in the Cold War, the U.S. government starts calling Osterman “Dr. Manhattan” and rebrands him as a superhero. Other heroes begin to emerge, and in 1966, a group of superheroes tries to put together a new team called the Crimebusters.

In addition to Dr. Manhattan, the Crimebusters’ roster includes the original Comedian, the daughter of Silk Spectre (who uses the same name), a new Nite Owl, a billionaire genius calling himself Ozymandias, and the subtly unhinged Rorschach.

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The Crimebusters never really take off, although many of its members remain friends. Dr. Manhattan enters into a romantic relationship with the second Silk Spectre, while Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian use their respective abilities to bring the Vietnam War to a sudden end.

Meanwhile, Rorschach’s loss of faith in humanity prompts him to begin brutally murdering criminals. Public outrage sparks anti-vigilante riots across the U.S., and in 1977, Congress passes the Keene Act, making superheroes illegal. All of the former Crimebusters, with the exception of Rorschach, retire.

Thanks to Dr. Manhattan’s triumphs overseas, Richard Nixon convinces Congress to suspend the 22nd Amendment and is effectively crowned President for life. In 1985, when the Watchmen comic begins, he’s serving his fifth term.

So what happens in the Watchmen comic?

When The Comedian is murdered by a mystery assailant, Rorschach takes up the case. Convinced that someone is targeting former superheroes, Rorschach lures Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, and Ozymandias out of retirement to help him find the killer.

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The investigation doesn’t go well. Dr. Manhattan’s former colleagues accuse him of giving them cancer, forcing Dr. Manhattan to flee to Mars. Ozymandias, who now goes by his civilian name, Adrian Veidt, is almost assassinated. Rorschach is thrown into jail for murdering Moloch, an aging supervillain.

Ultimately, however, it’s all a ruse. Rorschach and Nite Owl discover that Veidt himself is orchestrating all of the trouble in order to hide his real plan: Saving humanity by way of a fake alien invasion. Veidt drops a massive, squid-like creature into the middle of Manhattan, wiping out half of the city but uniting the world’s superpowers against the extraterrestrial threat, and effectively ending the Cold War while preventing a nuclear apocalypse.

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When Rorschach threatens to expose the scheme and undo all of Veidt’s work, Dr. Manhattan kills him. The rest of the heroes decide to keep Veidt’s secret.

However, before confronting Veidt, Rorschach sends his journal, which contains the truth, to his favorite right-wing newspaper. Watchmen ends with two reporters reaching for the mail pile where the journal sits, ready to be exposed.

Which Watchmen characters should I know?

Laurie Blake/Silk Spectre II (Jean Smart)

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Laurie Juspeczyk had a rough time of it in Watchmen. Over the course of the comic, Laurie’s relationship with Dr. Manhattan fell apart, driving her into the arms of  the second Nite Owl, Dan Dreiberg. She discovered that her biological father was Edward Blake, aka The Comedian, who’d sexually assaulted Laurie’s mother back in their Minutemen days.

In the HBO series, Laurie has traded spandex for an FBI badge and seems to have taken her father’s name.

Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons)

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If the Watchmen saga has a villain, it’s Adrian Veidt, the smartest man on the planet. Not only did Veidt become a billionaire after his superhero career ended, but he killed The Comedian, gave people cancer, framed Rorschach for murder, and engineered a fake alien invasion that murdered millions of people in the name of peace.

In HBO’s Watchmen, Jeremy Irons plays an older version of Veidt. We don’t know what he’s up to, but we bet it’s not good.

Jonathan Osterman/Dr. Manhattan

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Despite helping to end the Vietnam war and upending the global economy with inventions like the electric car, Dr. Manhattan eventually lost touch with his humanity. In the Watchmen comics, he got it back, but Dr. Manhattan’s newfound sense of duty came a little too late: By the time the one-time physicist decided that mankind is worth his attention, Veidt’s plan is already in motion.

At the end of the comic, Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth in search of a “less complicated” galaxy, but HBO’s previews show the former superhero both on Mars and Earth, so presumably he didn’t get too far.

Walter Kovaks/Rorschach

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The paranoid, doggedly violent vigilante Rorschach is dead at the end of the Watchmen comic, but his legacy clearly lives on in HBO’s series. Whether that legacy is borne of someone receiving his journal, or an extension of the right-wing, conspiracy-fueled ideology he spouted in the original story, remains to be seen.

HBO’s Watchmen series premieres October 20.

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Chris Gates
Christopher Gates lives in Los Angeles, CA and writes about movies, TV, video games, and other pop culture curiosities. In…
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