More than three decades since it first exploded onto the comic book scene, the mere mention of "Watchmen" still sparks excitement from diehard fans -- and plenty of others enthralled by its revolutionary approach to conventional superhero storytelling. Employing pointed commentary, brutal violence and dark subject matter, including vigilantism and the specter of nuclear war, the series of stories about a ragged group of costumed crime-fighters has since been adapted into a feature film (directed by Zack Snyder) and now a highly anticipated HBO drama series.
But within the sprawling alternate America of "Watchmen," one element was noticeably absent: diversity. In the original comics and the 2009 movie, all the heroes are white, and the only person of color -- Doctor Manhattan, a genetically transformed nuclear physicist -- is blue.
The new "Watchmen," which premiered Sunday, reverses that dynamic in startling fashion, centering an African American woman, known as Sister Night, as its caped crusader protagonist, while injecting hot-button political issues -- race and racism, white supremacy and police brutality against African Americans -- into its main plot lines.
Even more striking, the fantastic world of "Watchmen," with science-fiction flavored elements like flying ships and raining squid, has been merged with a story arc based on historical events, one that includes horrific images of black men and women being tortured and killed.
The opening scenes of the first episode, for instance, re-create the Tulsa, Okla., race riot of 1921, in which a prosperous African American community was savaged by angry whites, including the Ku Klux Klan. Black men are shown being dragged by cars. In a scene from a later episode, a black man is strung up, and the scene is shown from his point of view as he looks down in horror at his attackers, gasping desperately for air.
While hopeful that this fresh, progressive spin on the material will attract and engage an audience beyond the franchise's existing fanbase, those responsible for HBO's version are acutely aware that the series is a leap of faith, one that risks turning off both "Watchmen" devotees and potential newcomers who might feel the show is trivializing racism's painful legacy.
Damon Lindelof, who created the nine-episode series, was determined to explore the long history of -- and current furor over -- racial tensions in America in "Watchmen," a direction he admits was a scary choice.
"That scared the 1/8expletive3/8 out of me," he said. "But everybody I talked to thought it was a potentially exciting idea. It would need to be handed delicately and 1/8responsibly3/8. Simultaneously, the show is about to drop and I'm still thinking, 'Should we have done it?' " He smiled while adding, "Even though I'm well-intentioned, I'm probably going to step in it a bunch of times."
Lindelof, who co-created the series "Lost" and HBO's "The Leftovers," was sitting on a restaurant patio at a West Los Angeles hotel the morning after "Watchmen" received a rapturous response at its premiere in the Cinerama Dome. He was moved by the reception, not least because, he said, reading "Watchmen" when he was a 12-year-old in the 1980s had an "immense impact" on him. Sitting with him were Emmy- and Oscar-winning actress Regina King -- who plays Sister Night and her alter-ego, Angela Abar, a Tulsa Police detective who protects her identity by posing as a baker -- and fellow executive producer Nicole Kassell, who directed the first two episodes.
Though King said she understood Lindelof's concern, she feels that viewers will ultimately be receptive to his approach of mashing the imaginary universe of "Watchmen" with thorny race-related observations. She referenced her work on shows such as "Southland" and "American Crime," which dealt bluntly with race and class. While those series were critically acclaimed, they did not attract large audiences.