HBO’s Watchmen TV show, an adaptation/extrapolation of the iconic graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, premieres this Sunday. Despite the fact that Watchmen is one of the most well-known comics ever made (it is famously the only comic book included on TIME’s list of 100 great novels, among other honors), it is fair to expect that many people watching the show will be unfamiliar with the source material. The show itself certainly expects that. Taking place 30 years after the events of the comic, and populated with almost entirely different characters, Watchmen can be viewed by any fan of showrunner Damon Lindelof’s previous TV work (Lost, The Leftovers) without having to do any homework.
But the Watchmen show does contain several references, both visual and thematic, to the original comic. In case you’re a newcomer to the franchise, EW put together a list of highlights that might help you understand some of the references.
What happened at the end of Watchmen?
Since the show opens 30 years after the events of Watchmen proper, it’s worth noting where we last left off in this world. Written and published in the mid-’80s, Watchmen was concerned with many of that zeitgeist’s issues — first and foremost the threat of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. Over the course of the book, the United States and Soviet Union inch closer and closer to making the Cold War very, very hot. Nuclear disaster is eventually prevented thanks to the mad plans of Ozymandias, a.k.a Adrian Veidt. Veidt creates a giant tentacled monster to destroy New York City in a way that looks like an alien invasion. That convinces the Cold War superpowers to stand down and work together rather than destroy each other. In other words, he saved the world! Though keep an eye out for strange aftereffects of the faux-alien squid in the show…
Who are the people to know?
We just mentioned Ozymandias, a.k.a Adrian Veidt. Even before he saved the world by destroying New York, Ozymandias was one of the richest and smartest people in the entire world.
Then there’s Rorschach, the vigilante detective whose stark black-and-white morality was reflected in his signature mask. Rorschach did not survive Watchmen because he refused to keep Veidt’s secret. In order to maintain the illusion that the New York-destroying monster was an alien threat, Dr. Manhattan killed Rorschach before he could spread the word about what it really was. Even so, Rorschach sent his diary (which contained the full story) to the offices of his favorite right-wing newspaper; the last panel of Watchmen finds the editors deciding whether to publish it, sight unseen. Whether they did or not, it’s quite possible that Rorschach’s legacy could provide a strange influence to denizens of that world in decades to come.
Dr. Manhattan was the only Watchmen superhero with actual superpowers. Originally the son of a watchmaker, he was pushed into a career in atomic science. One day, he accidentally got locked in an experimental chamber that atomized him completely. But when he reformed, he was capable of manipulating matter at an atomic level. He is nearly omnipotent, and likes to spend time on Mars. He was last seen departing Earth at the end of Watchmen, but he could always come back.
There are three other main superheroes from Watchmen: Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and The Comedian. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are both the second to use those code names; their predecessors fought crime alongside the Comedian in the World War II-era group known as the Minutemen. During that time, the Comedian tried to rape the first Silk Spectre. Years later, however, they made up and had a daughter named Laurie. Laurie took over as Silk Spectre, but knowledge of her real father was hidden and repressed from her until the events of Watchmen.
The first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, was a cop by day and a superhero by night. His successor in the role, Dan Dreiberg, was an actual mechanical whiz who built a flying and fully armed Owlship.
After his time in the Minutemen, the Comedian became a rare “government-sponsored superhero,” carrying out black ops missions and assassinations during the Cold War. His murder sets off the events of Watchmen.
What’s different in this timeline?
One of the most fun aspects of Watchmen is its depiction of an alternate history for the 20th century. Thanks to the work of the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, America actually won the Vietnam War in this timeline. That success greatly bolstered the political career of President Richard Nixon, who retained the presidency for years afterward. Despite the fact that Watchmen is a bit of a commentary on Reagan-era politics and culture, Nixon is the president during it. And hey, the Comedian covertly assassinating Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped a lot with that, too.
But nobody lives forever. As Watchmen draws to a close, there are visible headlines that a former actor with the initials R.R. is planning to run for president…but it’s Robert Redford, not Ronald Reagan.
Watchmen premieres this Sunday on HBO. If you want to know even more about the original comic, check out EW’s oral history from 2005 by Jeff Jensen, himself a writer on the new show.