10 Fascinating Facts About Watchmen

Amazon
Amazon

Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen—which was released by DC Comics as a 12-issue limited series in 1986 and 1987 and eventually collected into paperback—was a radical deconstruction of the comic book medium. Instead of flawless heroics, its protagonists—including the psychotic vigilante Rorschach, the near-omniscient Doctor Manhattan, the ineffectual Nite Owl—struggle with self-doubt and personality conflicts after one of their own is murdered.

Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Zack Snyder's 2009 movie adaptation, plus the pending arrival of an HBO series, we’re taking a look at a few things you might not know about Moore and Gibbons’s seminal work.

1. Watchmen was originally supposed to feature familiar faces.

When English writer Alan Moore (Swamp Thing) came up with the idea for a murder mystery set in the realm of costumed heroes, he drafted a proposal for DC Comics editors that used characters from Charlton Comics, a lesser-known line of titles featuring more obscure characters like Blue Beetle and the Atom that DC had recently acquired. In his pitch, Moore described the suspicious death of a Charlton hero dubbed the Peacemaker, with the Question—a blank-faced inquisitor seemingly devoid of emotion—on the case.

Fearing Moore’s story would be too damaging to established characters, DC editor Dick Giordano suggested the writer instead come up with a new cast. Though there are obvious parallels—the Question transformed into calculating detective Rorschach, with a morphing ink blot over his mask—Moore and artist Dave Gibbons soon devised a lineup that served the needs of his story while arguably becoming more famous than the heroes Moore had initially planned on using.

2. Watchmen took some design cues from Mad magazine.

Both Moore and Gibbons were interested in subverting the superhero genre in much the same way they had seen it turned upside-down in the pages of Harvey Kurtzman’s satirical MAD magazine and its "Superduperman" parody: The difference was that Moore was aiming for drama rather than comedy. For Gibbons, some of the visual tricks seen in MAD were perfect for the story they were trying to tell.

“I’d … like to say that when it comes to the kind of storytelling we did in Watchmen, we used many of the tricks Harvey Kurtzman perfected in MAD,” Gibbons told Entertainment Weekly in 2018. “The thing for instance where you have a background that remains constant and have characters walk around in front of it. Or the inverse of that, where you have characters in the same place and move the background around. We quite mercilessly stole the wonderful techniques Harvey Kurtzman perfected in MAD.”

3. The smiley face logo was a happy accident.

Watchmen smiley face graffiti
Watchmen Second Narrows graffiti

Most promotional material for Watchmen is adorned with a smiley face button with a trickle of blood to reference the death of the Comedian, the crime that sets the story in motion. The button was an addition by Gibbons after he and Moore had designed the brooding character and realized there wasn’t anything about his costume that indicated a sense of humor. Gibbons sketched in the smiley face button, which came to represent the contrast of Watchmen itself: a world of colorful heroes that masked a sinister undercurrent. The button also echoes the Doomsday Clock that appears in the comic: The blood spatter that appears on its face is in roughly the same spot as the hand of the clock that marks five minutes to midnight.

4. Alan Moore made richard nixon a character so that he didn't turn off readers.

Part of the Watchmen narrative involves a creeping and corruptive political influence. In the story, Richard Nixon is serving a fourth term as president. Moore chose Nixon because he was concerned using then-current president Ronald Reagan might turn off readers who supported the politician. “You’re not going to get much argument Nixon was scum,” Moore told Entertainment Weekly in 2005.

5. artist Dave Gibbons made sure the book had “understated genitals.”

Full-frontal nudity was not a common occurrence in comic books in the mid-1980s, but Moore and Gibbons didn’t receive any negative feedback when they decided to show genius scientist Doctor Manhattan unburdened by pants in several issues. Gibbons credited the lack of controversy to Manhattan’s “understated genitals.” By having them resemble the type of nudity seen on Greek statues, Gibbons believed people might not even notice they were staring at a blue penis—for a page or two, anyway.

6. Neil Gaiman provided some assistance.

Neil Gaiman of the television show ‘Good Omens’ speaks during the Amazon Prime Video Session of the 2019 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on February 13, 2019 in Pasadena, California
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

While writing scripts for Watchmen, Moore would sometimes phone author Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Good Omens) and ask for random bits of information. “I was his occasional research assistant,” Gaiman said in 2005. Moore asked for sources of quotes he planned to use in the book. Some came from the Bible; Gaiman eventually loaned him a book about birds from which Moore obtained a quote about owls for Watchmen #7.

7. Moore and Gibbons communicated by taxi.

Without fax machines at their disposal, Gibbons was often forced to wait for Moore to mail him script pages so he could work on illustrations. When Gibbons ran out of pages, Moore would sometimes hire a taxi driver to shuttle more of the script the 50 miles to the artist's house house.

8. Time magazine dubbed Watchmen one of the 100 best novels of the past 100 years.

When Watchmen was originally published in the mid-1980s, only faint praise was afforded to comic books, which were still perceived as fodder for juveniles. (Or juvenile delinquents.) Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen shot a flare into popular culture signaling that comics were becoming more ambitious. In 2010, TIME Magazine agreed, citing Watchmen as one of the 100 greatest novels published since the magazine’s inception in 1923 and a “watershed” moment in the comic medium.

9. Moore felt “swindled” by DC COMICS.

In the contract for Watchmen, DC promised Moore and Gibbons that rights to the characters would revert to them a year after the book went out of print. Moore found this satisfactory at the time but soon realized the publisher had no intention of ever allowing the title to go out of circulation. He has long refused to participate in any anniversary celebrations, sequels, or other ancillary projects, even though he claimed in 2010 that DC offered him the rights to the title back if he participated in a continuation. "They offered me the rights to Watchmen back, if I would agree to some dopey prequels and sequels," Moore told WIRED in 2010. He declined.

10. The Watchmen movie could have been much different.

When Zack Snyder released Watchmen in 2009, it was met with a mixed reception—though it was likely as close to a faithful adaptation of the comic in a single feature film as anyone was likely to get. Snyder was admittedly reverential of the source material, an approach that may have escaped earlier attempts. At one point, Arnold Schwarzenegger was being considered for the role of Doctor Manhattan, and Terry Gilliam (Brazil) was set to direct.

No matter how much Snyder’s film or any future adaptations exercise fidelity, Moore has said he has no plans to see any adaptation. “My book is a comic book,” he said in 2006. “Not a movie, not a novel. A comic book.”

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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