It is often said that Watchmen is the most influential comic ever to be released. That comics wouldn’t be where they are without it, for good and for ill. But how did we get here, exactly? More to the point, just what influence did Watchmen provide to the larger world of comics? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Watchmen? Who watched the Watchmen?
“I’ve got a nose for white supremacy and he smells like bleach.” ~ Angela Abar
Watchmen, the 1986 twelve issue DC miniseries, as written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and colored by John Higgins, is a comic self-consciously about comic books. The comic explores and challenges the implications and consequences that accompany the existence of superheroes – stars of the most dominant genre of comics in the Anglosphere then and now – and uses them to explore contemporary concerns about the cold war, Reaganism, and nuclear annihilation. Its grid based layouts, mirrored chapters, and non-linear character perspectives calls attention not just to the comic book’s constructed nature, but the ways in which it was constructed and how we engage with and read them.
Likewise, Watchmen – the 2019 nine episode HBO miniseries created by Damon Lindelof as a stand-alone sequel to the comic – is preoccupied with the ways in which television functions and uses superheroes to tell a story about more contemporary concerns; structural racism, generational trauma, political polarization, and extremism. The concerns of either Watchmen are not too specific as to only resonate with a contemporary audience, but the comic is very much a product of the eighties. Lindelof took the spirit of the comic and remixed it – to borrow his own phrasing – creating something that reflected the issues that would strongly resonate with a 2019 audience, as well as addressing some of the comic’s shortcomings regarding race and gender.
But the comic is hardly the only text Lindelof’s show is responding to. Throughout interviews preceding the series’ debut, Lindelof repeatedly cited Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal essay ‘The Case for Reparations.’ In the essay, Coates (an acclaimed author, journalist, and comic book writer) posits that Black Americans are entitled to reparations not just as a restitution for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery, but because of historical redlining, housing discrimination and America’s horrific legacy of racial violence. As example, Coates twice briefly mentions the oft-forgotten 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, where white Americans, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, destroyed the affluent Black neighborhood of Greenwood and slaughtered an unknown, but significant number of its citizens and displaced approximately ten thousand Black residents. Lindelof, who admits to having first learned about the massacre from the essay, made these events central to this interpretation of Watchmen and recruited a diverse creative team, including Black creatives, such as writers Chord Jefferson and Stacy Osei-Kuffour and director Stephen Williams, to realize this racialized adaptation.
The 2019 miniseries imagines a version of Tulsa, Oklahoma where the ancestors of the massacre are afforded reparations in the form of a permanent tax exemption, and a strong white supremacist contingent have emerged out of the racist backlash. The Seventh Cavalry – named for the regiment led by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer in the expansionist/genocidal Indian Wars, including the Battle of Little Big Horn – wear inkblot masks as a homage to the fascistic Rorschach of the original comic, and share his explicitly racist point of view. Following a series of home invasion-murders by the Seventh Cavalry targeting Tulsa’s police force, the city’s cops don masks similar to the superhero vigilantes that the comic’s 1977 Keene Act outlawed, allowing them to maintain a secret identity.
Ostensibly, this is to protect them and their loved ones from being targeted – the same justification for the secret identities usually maintained by characters such as Superman and Spider-Man – but it also means they face little-to-no public accountability for their actions. It also creates an interesting thematic conflation between capes and cops, both roles that are often characterized by a fascistic protection of the status quo. However, the scenario Lindelof and his writer’s room have concocted is one where the police terrorize white neighborhoods, allegedly in the name of preventing further terror attacks. On the surface, the show seems to have created a reverse-racism scenario where the police are the authoritarian soldiers in the crusade against white supremacy, rather than the perpetrators of it. If the show lost anybody here, I can’t blame them.
But I had faith in Damon Lindelof as he had accumulated a life-time of personal good-will from his previous television work. Prior to creating Watchmen, Lindelof co-created Lost with J. J. Abrams and Jeffery Lieber, showrunning it alongside Carlton Cuse, before adapting The Leftovers with the novel’s author Tom Perrotta. Both shows are personal favorites of mine. Lost, with its pulpy propulsive narrative and comic book characters, builds every episode around a single conceit: everyone has a trauma and a history that helps make you who you are. These histories manifested themselves in flashbacks that would spotlight a different member of the show’s expansive cast each episode. Adapted by Lindelof in a period of depression following the end of Lost, The Leftovers became one of the most poignant explorations of grief and collective trauma to air on television. One which has only taken on even more levels of resonance in the years since its ending. Personally, Lindelof’s television credentials are absolutely unimpeachable (although the less said about his movie career and the unfortunate echoes of Into Darkness in Watchmen’s delayed Ozymandias reveal, the better).
Television’s greatest strength lies in the episode and works best when each episode is a distinct unit, regardless of whether that story is serialized or not. This is what makes the medium distinct from film. In an age filled with insecure showrunners pitching ‘ten hour movies’ and dumping formless blobs of content onto streaming services, Lindelof remains a stalwart of the episode. What makes Lindelof’s episodic approach unique however, is how frequently it is tied to a character’s point of view. Lost was structured around the aforementioned flashbacks, but The Leftovers similarly would dedicate its hours to following a specific character or grouping. The biggest influence to this approach? Watchmen.
When asked in an interview how much the comic influenced his work, Lindelof responded:
“A lot? That’s the short answer. The idea that it’s psychological realism. It’s really interested in asking why people behave the way that they behave. Obviously, the idea that every issue switched point of view for characters. Traditionally, we can identify who the hero of the story is. […] [In Watchmen], whose story is it? I’m inclined to say Rorschach, because his journal is what kicks it off. But I can make impassioned arguments for all the characters. Watchmen is the first one to go, “This one’s the Nite Owl one. This one’s the Adrian Veidt one.” Clearly, a model that very much was used in Lost. And most significantly, nonlinear storytelling. Not just in terms of the usage of extended flashback, but when you look at the Dr. Manhattan issue, the idea of telling a story out of time is something that I’ve been trying to replicate in my own way ever since Watchmen.”
Comics are often compared to literature, however they really have more in common with television. They’re both serialized mass-market visual mediums that lack the cultural prestige of their respective sister mediums. When a work in one medium tries to imitate another, it often neglects what makes that form so exciting. Watchmen is often called literary on account of its density, however, it is anything but. It tells a story that can only function in a comic. Not only does its immaculately constructed nine-panel grid dictate an unreplicable pace and tone, but it is also intimately interested in how comics are engaged with. So much so that the omniscient Dr. Manhattan – Jon Osterman, a Jewish refugee and nuclear physicist who gains godlike powers in an unfortunate lab accident – perceives time in a way that resembles how a reader reads a comic. Dr. Manhattan perceives all of his life simultaneously, similar to how a reader sees the whole layout of a comic page and then arranges the panels in their head, before reading them individually and piecing them together to tell a story via juxtaposition.
To adapt Watchmen to another medium successfully, you can’t take the language and images of the comic and expect it to still resonate. You have to construct a story and a style that suits the medium you’re working in. One of the best decisions made in Lindelof’s adaptation was to tell an original story. One that uses its episodic structure to bounce from the points of view of different characters. One that utilizes the specific strengths of television and engages with television history, in the way the comic used the eternally prevalent superheroes of the American comic industry to comment on comics themselves. And if there’s one genre with an outsized television presence, it’s the cop show.
Procedurals & Heroes
In the 2019/20 television season in which Watchmen aired, almost a fifth of scripted shows that aired on U.S. network television starred law enforcement. The juggernaut successes of police procedurals like those of the Law and Order and NCIS franchises helped dominate a media landscape that is as preoccupied with badges and guns as comic books are with capes and cowls. If the question is ‘who watches the watchmen?’ the answer is us. At primetime. Any given night of the week.
And yet, all these eyes on your Chris Melonis and Mark Harmons has not resulted in an increase in real-life accountability for the police. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Ever since the LAPD’s involvement in the propagandistic Dragnet, the cop show has been designed to normalize, explain and excuse the personal, professional and institutional wrongdoings of the police. For Rolling Stone, Alan Sepinwall wrote “these fictional stories have rewired many of us to assume cops are always acting in good faith, and to ignore or wave away those moments when they’re clearly not.”
Despite the apparent societal role-reversal of Black and white Americans, most of the early episodes of Watchmen function more closely to a typical – if outlandish – police procedural than a superhero show. There are thrilling interrogations, police raids, vehicular chases, criminal organizations and nighttime shoot outs. Everyone speaks as if they’re imitating characters in noir films that couldn’t possibly have passed the Hays Code. The conflation of superheroes and cops in Watchmen is an implicit comment on the similar worldview at the heart of these narratives. “At their most conventional, cop shows and superhero stories both run off the assumption that crime is a persistent threat to society, and an equally persistent force is needed to punish criminals and maintain order,” wrote JM Mutore. They also characterize the narrative formulas used by police procedurals and cape movies as similar: “A subversive element threatens a peaceful, ordered society. A trustworthy force arrives to eliminate the subversive element, through carceral or lethal means. Finally, order is re-asserted without the status quo needing to be changed.” Thus the asserted function of the police and superheroes is “to punish people, often without any oversight or accountability, in the name of order.”
When Alan Moore incites controversy by referring to the prevalence of superhero movies as a “precursor to fascism,” he’s being deliberately provocative, but it’s hard to deny that the genre often presents an extremely conservative perspective that is as preoccupied with the maintenance of status quo via force as police shows. Watchmen wants us to engage with the implicit fascism of both genres. The impotent, thuggish, racist cops of the show invite us to be critical of the police on our television screens as the impotent, thuggish, racist superheroes of the comic do for our four colour heroes.
Lindelof’s show is interested in the way in which media shapes our understanding of the world. This is most plainly visible in the show’s film and television parodies, such as the propagandistic Ken Burns riff that opens the episode ‘An Almost Religious Awe’ that recounts how the United States conquered and colonized Vietnam with the help of the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan. Or the recurring Ryan Murphy-referencing ‘American Hero Story,’ that violently sensationalizes the story of the anonymous, but allegedly queer and presumably white, Hooded Justice; the noose-wearing first masked vigilante in the world of the comic. In this world, Steven Spielberg made a three-hour black and white historical drama about 11/2 – the apparent interdimensional cephalopod invasion that decimated Manhattan and closes the comic – instead of Schindler’s List (although given the comic’s prescient 9/11 parallels, I would suggest Munich or War of the Worlds might have been more appropriate examples).
These embedded narratives echo the ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’ comic-within-the-comic and both function as critique and suggest a self-reflexivity when it comes to the show’s own role in the media landscape. The show even winks at the way in which media can affect the public discourse in the episode ‘This Extraordinary Being,’ wherein a precursor the Seventh Cavalry (and an independent faction of the Ku Klux Klan) are revealed to have spent the 30s and 40s brainwashing members of the Black community into rioting and civil unrest via hypnotic messages hidden in films played in Black neighborhoods. It also functions as a metaphor for how interracial violence is contrived by external, systemic forces. In the previous episode ‘Little Fear of Lightning’, the present-day Seventh Cavalry film their manifesto videos in a church set, both a symbol of the type of performative Christianity often used to justify white supremacy and a metafictional nod to the role of the media in proliferating racist thought.
Sexuality in Watchmen
The show makes race, racism and white supremacy core themes, even though they’re largely incidental in the comic. And though that may seem baffling to Moore, it makes a lot of sense to series star Tim Blake Nelson: “if nuclear holocaust was what was most impacting our daily lives in the 1980’s […] what’s that now in America? [Lindelof] decided it was race. And really, culturally it was either going to be race, or gender, or economic disparity. Those are the real three choices.” Lindelof and company chose race as a topic because it spoke to our current anxieties in the way Moore and Gibbons and company settled on the Cold War and mutually assured destruction.
However, speaking frankly, one of the biggest shortcomings of the comic is it’s handling of race, along with it’s clumsy depiction of sexual violence. Both are unfortunately common shortcomings amongst works by British Invasion creators, which is baffling as Britain is not a county bereft of either sexual violence or people of color. Moore is content filling Rorschach’s journal with far-right dog whistles or the New Frontiersman newspaper with racist stereotypes, but he never meaningfully addresses how racist bigotry affects people of color. Rorschach’s Black psychiatrist is shaken hearing Rorschach recount his brutal original story, but is seemingly unaffected by his casual racism. At best, the ethnicity of the comic’s people of color is incidental. At worst, it reduces characters into merely symbolic props, such as the Vietnamese refugees who genius supervillain Ozymandias (a.k.a Adrian Veidt, played in the show by Jeremy Irons) employs. Their presence may nod to the inherent Orientalism present in the origins of figures such as Doctor Strange or Peter Cannon and their mononymous manservants, Wong and Tabu, but they’re not fully realized characters or afforded any of the psychological depth Watchmen is renowned for.
The television adaptation isn’t addressing race just because it’s a prescient issue, it’s also rectifying the book’s failings. The comic’s shortcomings are the result of it being the work of two creators and their limited point of view resulting from their cultural background. Stories are always richer for considering a wider range of perspectives, but television is a medium that requires them to function. Most Western stories are driven by dialectical arguments, rooting them in character and synthesizing them via narrative. To fill up the real estate of a television season, there needs to be a sufficient number of realized character viewpoints to facilitate enough conflict. This is how 200 episodes of a sitcom can ostensibly be about nothing more than friends hanging out. If their point of views are fairly considered, there are an infinite number of permutations of roommates arguing that can still be engaging.
When a show doesn’t adequately consider the worldview of its supporting characters, there’s a limit to the stories that can be told with them and the show’s world will always end up feeling small. Even the most empathetic individual’s point of view is limited and this is why, in my opinion, it is exceedingly rare that a great television show will be written by a lone writer as their shortsightedness will almost-always betray them. Lindelof’s usual style is dependent on perspective, bouncing from differing points of view episode-to-episode. Watchmen ensures its wide perspective with its diverse creative team, who, presumably, were able to allow their lived experiences to inform the show. This is no guarantee of quality however, and likewise, the comic is still great in spite of its inability to address race.
The original work is also limited by its androcentric focus, a pitfall the show avoids not just by casting Regina King as the series’ lead Angela Abar/Sister Night, a Black masked police officer, but also casting more women in significant roles such Hong Chau’s nefarious businesswoman Lady Trieu, or Jean Smart as an older version of the comic’s Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II, who now uses her father’s surname, Blake. Most of the female cast consists of women older than forty, which is notable when ageism is still a prevalent issue when casting women in television. More unusual still is their sexual agency and desirability. Laurie, a woman in her late sixties, is allowed to have one-night stands with her much younger co-workers and carry around ginormous blue dildos (although it’s a ginormous blue dildo that is symbolically connected to a relationship she had in her youth). When Angela and her husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) have sex in the first episode, their bodies are attentively eroticised in a way uncommon for Black bodies on screen.
Sister Night’s police uniform/superhero costume is based on a nun’s habit. In universe, she borrows the name and iconography from a fictitious Blaxploitation movie she saw as a child in mostly South East Asian Vietnam. Another sly commentary on the way in which the media can shape our identities. The outfit is kinky and subject to multiple suit-up sequences filled with extreme close ups of her arming herself and zipping up her knee-high boots as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s industrial dance-inspired score thumps along. It’s every bit as knowingly camp and erotic as the much maligned suit-up sequence that opens Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin.
Sequences such as this reveal a completely different attitude to sex and the inherently fetishistic aspects of superheroes to the comic. In the comic, when Laurie and her superhero partner first try to have sex, he’s impotent. They put their masks on, go out, beat on some crooks and when they return he has no issue performing. The comic makes the pleasures of sex in the genre, explicitly tied to the sadistic pleasures of violence. It condemns superhero sexuality, whereas the show takes a much more positive attitude. The show never truly addresses the connection to violence that comes with superhero sex, but it has fun with it and revels in the (some-what minor) subversiveness of seeing different types of bodies in fetish gear.
But it would be dishonest for the show to exclusively depict positive sexual experiences. Enter the focal character of ‘Little Fear of Lightning,’ Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson). Wade, a former Jehovah’s Witness turned masked police officer Looking Glass. Wade was visiting a funfair in Hoboken, New Jersey as the alien squid monster materialized in Manhattan and was caught in the radius of the accompanying fatal psychic blast. More specifically, he was naked in a hall of mirrors, having been led and seduced there by a local girl, only for her to run off with his clothes (all to a backdrop of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper”). He’s knocked out by the blast and when he emerges, he sees a funfair wrecked by death and destruction. The ground, littered with bodies and the naked Wade discovers himself to be one of the few survivors. Wade, the virginal final girl survivor of an interdimensional terror attack.
Present day Wade experiences symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Most notably, he’s constantly in a state of hyperarousal. People suffering with hyperarousal may find themselves “very anxious and find it difficult to relax” and “may be constantly aware of threats and easily startled.” Hyperarousal often leads to survivors feeling irritable, a proneness to angry outbursts, insomnia and difficulty concentrating. Wade is paranoid; anxious about the potential of another squid attack. He has an extensive security system supposedly warning him of ‘interdimensional activity’ that he tests every day, against the recommended advice of the manufacturer. “People who wear masks are driven by trauma… it hides the pain,” Laurie proclaims in the third episode ‘She Was Killed by Space Junk.’ His police uniform includes a silver reflective mask made out of ‘reflectatine,’ a material resembling tin foil that supposedly prevents psychic attacks like the one that accompanied 11/2. His mask makes this earlier proclamation literal, protecting Wade from any further pain from psychic attacks, the cause of his initial trauma. When out of his uniform, he hides reflectatine in the lining of the baseball cap he refuses to take off. He’s irritable: when someone mentions to him that people in the radius of 11/2’s psychic attack “wake up screaming,” he curtly says “I sleep great.” This is untrue; we see him put on his reflectatine mask before trying and failing to fall asleep, suggesting he suffers from insomnia. Wade’s reflectatine mask and hat evokes the tin foil hats real life conspiracy theorists wear that have become a cultural shorthand for paranoia. These elements of his life all suggest he’s living with post-traumatic stress disorder and hyperarousal in the aftermath of surviving 11/2.
Being a traumatic attack that destroyed part of Manhattan, 11/2 is analogous to 9/11. Therefore Wade’s suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder can be seen as analogous to those 9/11 survivors who similarly suffered with the disorder. His career in law enforcement even parallels the ethical conversations surrounding 9/11’s subsequent War on Terror, working as an interrogator (read: torturer). The song that soundtracks a police raid on a shanty town, allegedly harboring members of the Seventh Calvary, is even titled ‘GHRAIB ME A TERRORIST.’ In imaging a world following 11/2, the show has explored an aftermath to an incomprehensible amount of death. Something that might have felt impossible had the United States not spent the last twenty years doing so. As a cover for his police work, Wade works in advertising. He consults on an advert trying to convince tourists its safe to visit New York after 11/2, which, in keeping with the show’s media critique, reflects the ways our perception of the world after a tragedy is constructed. However, any assumptions that Wade’s fictional experiences are the same as the survivors of the real-life tragedy are flawed, as 11/2 diverges from 9/11 in one significant way: it was a hoax.
In the climax of the comic, 11/2 is orchestrated by Veidt in order to end the escalating Cold War by uniting the world’s superpowers against a common threat: squid monsters from another dimension. He admits as much in a video given to newly-elected President Robert Redford – yes, that one – on the day of his inauguration: “The end is nigh. Nuclear holocaust between the United States and Russia is imminent. Fortunately, I’ve planned for this too and the only way to stave off man-kind’s extinction is with a weapon more powerful than any atomic bomb. That weapon is fear and I, Mr. President, am its architect.” He even arranges minor ‘incursions’ in the form of random small squids raining from the sky that disintegrate on impact. In Wade’s words, they’re “alive for thirty seconds and they spend all of it dying.” Simply put, 11/2 was the result of a conspiracy. There is no evidence to support 9/11 conspiracies involving the U.S. government, however these theories are still widely disseminated.
What makes Wade’s trauma relatively unique compared to other 11/2 survivors, is how tied it is to Wade’s sexual humiliation. As Lindelof explains: “He’s literally saying to her, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ but he’s powerless to stop her. Then she runs off with his clothes and he’s there literally naked and exposed, and you know, aroused. And in the midst of this, he’s calling himself a sinner because he’s got all this sort of Jehovah’s Witness religious mania swirling around it, too. And then the squid drops.” In a departure from the comic, Lindelof and co. mostly avoid female sexual trauma, and only focuses on Wade’s. “I think shame is a part of a lot of the origin stories in the ur-Text, and I felt like shame is not a part of Angela [Abar]’s backstory, but it should be a part of Looking Glass’s.” The women of the show are sexually liberated and nothing punitive arises from their sexual pleasure. Meanwhile, Wade’s story of shame and social isolation is a much more meaningful exploration of sexual trauma than the events the women of the comic – or any of its cheap imitators – endured.
Mirrors and reflections, often a literary motif in stories about identity, recur throughout the show. Both, most obviously, on Wade’s mask and in the hall of mirrors in which Wade suffers his initial trauma. The sheer quantity of reflections must have been a logistical nightmare whilst filming this show, so it’s clear how much the production valued these symbols. (It also leads to perhaps my favourite shot in the show in ‘Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,’ when Sister Night notices she’s being attacked from behind as she’s talking to a masked Looking Glass.) For Wade, his trauma has come to define him. Reflectatine, a symbol of the prolonged anxiety he deals with, covers his face and obscures his identity. Perhaps more than anyone else on the show, Wade’s story is about the struggle to define his identities with his persona. A familiar story in the superhero genre, but Wade’s storyline is the extreme. His persona is the manifestation of trauma. For him to find a self outside of his persona, he must resolve his trauma, something he is unable to do.
So he remains alienated and lonely. And like so many alienated men today, he flirts with white supremacy. Literally, in the form of Renee (Paula Malcolmson), a member of the Seventh Cavalry. After meeting him in a support group for survivors of 11/2, Renee seduces him and leads him to the Seventh Calvarly’s base. There, Wade discovers the truth about 11/2 and it shatters his worldview. All the protective measures he’s been taking – the reflectatine, the security system – are useless. At the episode’s end, he throws out his new alarm, but immediately goes back to retrieve it. He can’t take the reflectatine mask off because his identity has become impossible to divorce from his trauma. He can’t expose the pain.
Wade is not the only person hiding their face; Dr. Manhattan has a new one in the show. The seventh episode ‘An Almost Religious Awe’ reveals that he had disguised himself as the amnesiac Cal, unbeknownst to anybody but Angela, including himself. The first forty minutes of the following episode ‘A God Walks into Abar,’ tracks their courtship non-linearly. Fitting for an episode about Dr. Manhattan. Unable to recreate the temporally diffuse page layouts of the comic, director Nicole Kassel and editor Henk Van Eeghen cut from different conversations as Manhattan describes them to Angela in a bar during their initial meeting. This creates a Russian doll nesting structure where each scene is contained within the parent conversation, cutting back and forth as the Angela of the past learns about future events from her future husband.
It’s not as effective as the comic’s nonlinear chapter ‘Watchmaker,’ as it is functionally transplanting a metaphor about comic books to a different medium. However, this structure still allows the show to juxtapose scenes and shots similarly to the way the comic can juxtapose panels. For example, when Dr. Manhattan says he has no knowledge of his upcoming time disguised as Cal, Angela compares the experience to a tunnel, only to cut back to the parent conversation as the Doris Day song ‘Tunnel of Love’ plays on the jukebox. The Russian doll structure may not be as immediately impactful as the comic’s, but I’d argue it is more suited to television. ‘A God Walks into Abar’ may predominantly be about Dr. Manhattan, but it’s from Angela’s perspective. The events that she isn’t present for, including Dr. Manhattan’s past and future, are all recounted to her. This is perhaps more befitting for a television viewer who receives a story passively, as opposed to a comic reader who has to actively construct the story by reading panel-to-panel.
Regarding his atemporal perspective, Watchmen has created a compelling adaptation of Dr. Manhattan, but what is to be made of the show’s decision to disguise a white Jewish man in a Black body? His former colleague, Ozymandias, notes that racial appropriation is often considered ‘problematic’ and it can’t help but feel like a provocative commentary on Blackface. One might also take it as a metatextual swing; a Jewish creator embodying a Black narrative could refer to both Manhattan and Damon Lindelof. Maybe it’s a (reductive) conflation of the struggles of African and Jewish Americans. Or perhaps it was just an attempt to obfuscate the twist that Cal and Manhattan are one and the same. The textual reason Manhattan takes a Black form is because Angela selects a body she finds attractive for him. Whatever the reason, Manhattan’s appropriative Blackness feels like the show missed an opportunity to say something specific. When it’s revealed the Seventh Cavalry, in conspiracy with members of the Tulsa Police Department and the GOP, were plotting to kidnap Dr. Manhattan and steal his powers, that the target of their envy is (technically) a Black man goes completely unremarked upon.
The comic’s Dr. Manhattan is often seen as analogous to Superman (despite his origin’s similarities to the Hulk’s and officially being based on Captain Atom). The show revisits this analogy repeatedly, not just with Manhattan – whose human identity Cal Abar is named after Kal-El and the blaxploitation film Abar, the First Black Superman – but with several other characters as well. His arrival on Earth is paid homage in the opening of the fourth episode ‘If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,’ as a rocket crashes on a farm belonging to a childless couple. However, the, ahem, Kents don’t find a baby in that rocket, instead Lady Trieu swoops in beforehand and offers to buy their land in exchange for giving them a child that she would otherwise incinerate. The rocket’s passenger is later revealed to be Ozymandias, Lady Trieu’s father, who has been living in exile on Europa, exerting a godlike status ruling over a race of clones Dr. Manhattan created. Both his return and his exile echo Superman’s origin. As does Lady Trieu, who is the daughter of a Vietnamese refugee who worked for Ozymandias.
Superman is often characterized as an immigrant or a refugee, even if the amount of Superman stories that truly reflect that are limited to the works of a handful of Asian-American writers like Greg Pak and Gene Luen Yang. The horrors of American imperialism destroyed Vietnam in Watchmen, not unlike how Kryptonian greed destroyed Krypton. Lady Trieu preserves the memory of her late mother’s Vietnam literally. Using a drug called Nostalgia – an aptly-named pill designed for people suffering with Dementia, which enables them to remember experiences they may have forgotten – Trieu doses a young clone of her mother with her old memories. Trieu is dedicated to preserving pre-war Vietnam with these memories, akin to how Kal-El protects the Bottle City of Kandor, one of the last symbols of the dead Krypton.
Like Trieu, Jon also grew up in forced exile from his home as Nazis forced his family to flee Germany. Moore and Gibbons conceived this origin to parallel Superman’s creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, whose families fled Eastern Europe to escape anti-Semitism. One of the ironies of the superhero is the genre’s distinctly marginalized Jewish roots and the implicit fascism Moore observed that developed as the genre progressed (and the politically radical ideas contained in the early issues of Superman and Action Comics disappeared with the arrival of McCarthyism and the implementation of the Comics Code).
In many ways, the show feels like it’s trying to reconcile this contradiction by addressing the genre’s authoritarian undertones connection to white supremacy, head on. The show takes the comic’s Krypton analogy and extends it to include other forms of white supremacy, like the Vietnam War. Repurposing Superman’s origin for its characters, purporting their actions as a response to bigotry, even as their behavior becomes more authoritarian, completely leaning into this contradiction. Nowhere is this clearer than when the show is following Will Reeves, a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the first in-universe superhero and Angela Abar’s grandfather.
Will & The Minute Men
The series’s opening episode ‘It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,’ opens on Will as a child, sitting in the cinema, watching ‘Trust in the Law,’ a fictitious movie about the real-life Black Oklahoma Marshal Bass Reeves as the massacre occurs outside. He’s eventually sent away in a neighbor’s car by his parents as Tulsa burns all around him. As he’s being driven away, a biplane drops dynamite on the building Will’s parents are sheltered in as he watches. He later awakens in a field outside Tulsa and finds a baby in the grass. The burnt Tulsa is his Krypton.
In the sixth episode, ‘This Extraordinary Being,’ circumstances have led to Angela overdosing on Nostalgia pills containing Will’s memories. The consequence of her overdose means her consciousness is trapped, reliving Will’s memories as a form of psychosis, which we then witness as she relives them. The episode is functionally a flashback episode, however it is given an immediacy as Angela discovers revelations about her grandfather (played by Jovan Adepo in the 30s). The biggest of these revelations is that Will was the real Hooded Justice. The hood and noose wearing original superhero was a queer Black man and a survivor of Klan-violence. For such a marginalized individual to be the impetus for the wave of superheroes in the world of Watchmen seems to be an acknowledgement of the influence of minority groups on popular media. To paraphrase an actual Ryan Murphy show, ‘he’s black; he’s gay; he makes culture.’
The episode is a stylistic departure for the show: it’s shot in black and white and is mostly comprised of long takes that float around the scene. Match cuts transition from different memories and a propulsive jazz score distinguishes itself from Ross and Reznor’s established, industrial style. There’s a dream-logic to the construction of the episode, from the way the scenes seem to bleed into one another across space and time, to Adepo and King regularly swapping places whilst out of shot, giving the impression that both characters are simultaneously experiencing the same events. Whilst the visual trickery does mean that the actor’s faces are often obscured, hindering the emotional effectiveness of some of the performances, the effect is empathetic, trapping the audience, if not entirely in Angela’s perspective/Will’s memory, at least always adjacent to it.
Nostalgia gives Lindelof a diegetic excuse for his beloved flashbacks – the logical conclusion of his affinity for them – but it also functions as a symbol for the lingering effects of generational trauma. The show alludes to this in ‘Little Fear of Lightning,’ when a young Black man discusses his mother surviving 11/2: “when something really bad happens to your parents it gets locked in your DNA […] It’s like I inherited her pain.” Angela’s experience literalizes generational trauma. It’s fitting that the episode is a flashback too, as involuntary flashbacks are associated with sufferers of PTSD.
Nostalgia also allows the show to revisit (and effectively retcon) the continuity of the original Watchmen. That Nostalgia was considered a market failure feels like one of the few winking, implicit criticisms of revisiting Watchmen built into the show. Along with a couple choice lines that feel like they’re more closely directed at DC than any actual characters (“It’s a rerun. You had a genius idea 20 years ago, but you’re still doing the same thing, just smaller.”).
By the 1930s, Will was living in New York City and was inspired to become a cop by ‘Trust in the Law’ and borrowed Bass Reeves’s last name. Again, it’s a comment on the ways in which media can shape our worldview and ideology, but also in conversation with the real life legacy of Reeves. In an interview, Louis Gosset Jr. (who portrays the older Will Reeves in the present) described the influence of the real Bass Reeves: “A lot of the cowboys were based on Bass Reeves’ adventures, including all kinds of the marshals. […] Events from his life were taken and used to create other Western heroes.” Reeves is an alleged inspiration for a number of pulp heroes such as the Lone Ranger, but in an act of cultural erasure most of the characters he inspired were white. The show’s acknowledgement of Reeves’ influence is an act of racial reclamation.
However, as Hooded Justice, Will disguises himself as white at the recommendation of his wife, June (played by Danielle Deadwyler). He paints the skin around his eyes pale, so no one can see that he’s Black through his mask. His African heritage is hidden, as it is in the legacy of characters inspired by Bass Reeves. Whereas Dr. Manhattan assumes Blackness, Will assumes whiteness and uses it as a cover to combat crime. His white makeup mirrors Sister Night’s black face paint, symbolically connecting the two and their respective fights against racist organizations. Passing may grant Will more mobility, however there are still accompanying burdens. His war on crime leaves him estranged from his wife and son. Their relationship reaches its breaking point when Will catches his son painting his face white, imitating his father. A shrewd image representing the way in which parents pass on their pains.
When he joins the superhero team, the Minutemen, the team’s leader (and Will’s lover), Captain Metropolis, discourages him from disclosing his identity to them as they wouldn’t be as ‘accepting’ as he is. Metropolis fetishizes his Blackness and only uses him for sex and image, dismissing his concerns about white supremacist activity in New York. At a press event for the Minutemen, Hooded Justice is interrupted by Metropolis as he tries to inform the public of such. Metropolis instead redirects the press’s attention towards an advertisement for a bank that the Minutemen have endorsed. It’s a telling comment on the superhero genre’s priorities; they are supposedly crusaders of social justice, but they prioritize commerce over meaningful action and change (especially for Black people). Even more telling is the content of the ad itself: a racist caricature of a bank robber being stopped by a member of the Minutemen.
Working as a police officer, it is Will who uncovers the Klan’s plan to use mesmerism to incite violence in the Black community, but in doing so, he alienates the rest of the police force – some members of whom are in league with the Klan. In an early attempt to deter him, they kidnap Will and lynch him, cutting him down before he is completely asphyxiated. The scene is portrayed from a first person point of view, watching Will’s limbs flail as he chokes. When he’s cut down, the
racist cop looks right down the lens and calls him the N-word. Because of the Nostalgia, Angela experiences what Will experienced at that moment – as emphasized by a cut to Regina King in Will’s place, on the ground with the noose around her neck. This is the origin of Hooded Justice. Will dons the symbol of his oppression, the noose, and uses it to fight back. And via Nostalgia, Angela does too.
But as Angela can appropriate Will’s experiences, so too can the audience. Lynchings on film often can be little more than an exploitative use of Black pain, and the first person creates such a strong degree of empathy, it is almost as if the audience is experiencing it too. As a Black man who was once choked and almost killed, this scene definitely played very differently for me than it ever could for a white person who could never experience that in reality. Depending on the spectator, it’s arguably appropriative of Black suffering.
In an article on Black trauma in Chinonye Chukwu’s Till, Robert Daniels writes about the trend of “narratives [that] thrust the viciousness rendered upon Black folks as their primary reason for existing; [that] take cover behind the importance of enacting destruction and witnessing its aftermath as a teaching tool without considering the toll taken upon the witnesser.” Watching the lynching in Watchmen is tolling, but it doesn’t feel as exploitative as the depictions of racist violence in other works. He later describes “the problem in film arises when the camera only asks for an audience to witness. In that scenario, the entire purpose of the image is catered to white audiences who want to relieve their guilt by witnessing Black trauma rather than through Black viewers who want humanizing stories.”
Episode writer Cord Jefferson understands that to have to use Black pain to assert Black humanity to a white audience is demeaning. Describing his time working as a freelance journalist covering racist incidents: “I used to […] let my anger serve as an engine. But I’ve since discovered that my anger over each new racist incident is now rivaled and augmented by the anger I feel when asked to explain, once more, why black people shouldn’t be brutalized, insulted, and killed.” Watchmen lets that be self-evident. No racist white person learns the error of their ways and didactically monologues about how they’re outgrown racism. Watchmen refuses to relieve white audiences of their guilt. The experience of the show’s lynching is too damning and too real and Will’s story is too detailed and humanizing to merely work as a teaching tool. And unlike a lot of media about racism set in the past, ‘This Extraordinary Being’ takes care to connect its story to racism in the present. White supremacist organizations are still alive in 2019 and even in an apparently liberal utopia, they’re still connected to the police. Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) may wear a white hat, but the robe in his closet is also white. Chickens come home to roost, when an elderly Will brainwashes Crawford into hanging himself. This is Hooded Justice’s justice. Will Reeves, one hundred years old, is still alone fighting racist cops today. Nothing ends, reader. Nothing ever ends.
“One” Bad Apple
Often, institutional racism is blamed on individuals. The ‘bad apple’ analogy. Watchmen understands and demonstrates that systemic racism isn’t the professional failings of a few bad actors, but rather by design. It might be a touch literal for the police, the Klan and politicians to all be in league, but I appreciate the bluntness of it all. The show is unambiguous in its linking of the state to white supremacy. Senator Joe Keene Jr (James Wolk) can say he’s not racist, but it’s telling what he says afterwards sounds a lot like replacement theory (“We’re about restoring balance in those times in which our country forgets the principles upon which it was founded. Because the scales have tipped way too far and it is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now.”) Racism isn’t just enacted by individuals, but by the state itself. This is why Will’s fight is still ongoing eighty years after he started it: he may have killed every Klansman in New York, but the police and other racist institutions persisted. In the finale, ‘See How They Fly,’ Lady Trieu kills the entirety of the Seventh Cavalry along with members of the police force and US senate. She’s symbolically doing to white supremacy what Will didn’t: eradicating it wholly.
On the surface, Watchmen seems to be a story about a town where Black/white racial dynamics are reversed, but by showing racism to still be a persistent danger for Black people, it underlines the ways in which systemic racism is enacted and inextricable from the systems of power. President Redford can enact reparations for the ancestors of the victims of Tulsa, but without tearing down the institutions that initiated, excused, or obfuscated the massacre, the circumstances that enabled it will continue to recur. It doesn’t matter if there are Black cops like Sister Night, if the system of policing is functionally identical (it’s notable how much of Angela’s work as a police officer in the early episodes involves terrorizing a white working class community).
This is also why the show kills Dr. Manhattan. In ‘Look How They Fly,’ after preventing the Seventh Cavalry from doing the same thing, Lady Trieu uses a device to kill Dr. Manhattan and try to steal his powers. There’s a fitting poetic justice in a Vietnamese woman killing the conqueror of Vietnam. It’s the arc of the universe bending towards justice. In fact, the show’s ending is a lot more moralistic than the comic, which lets its main evil-doer, Ozymandias, get away with his greatest crime, 11/2. His final scene in the show is Laurie arresting him in his lair, the setting of the climax of the comic. Lady Trieu herself is killed by her father before achieving her apotheosis (again with a squid incursion – he really was just playing reruns).
Ozymandias justifies his filicide by saying “anyone who seeks to obtain the power of a god must be prevented at all costs from obtaining it.” Veidt is likely motivated by his inferiority complex not allowing someone else to gain that power, but his argument seems compelling on the surface. Although, the show doesn’t get a chance to explore the idea as it kills Trieu before we can see what the world with her as a god looks like. And whilst Trieu comes across as quite nefarious – and has admittedly killed a lot of people at this point – the show never convincingly argues that the world would be just as bad whoever took the Blue. Whether you choose to believe her intentions are altruistic, wouldn’t the daughter of a Vietnamese refugee have a much different approach to divinity than a white supremacist like Keene?
The show ends on the implication that Dr. Manhattan has passed his powers onto Angela. Which is frustrating for many reasons, not least because she’s a cop. Her character arc throughout the show is coming to understand the forms white supremacy takes and reckoning with her complicity in it. But she isn’t necessarily a ‘good’ person, any more than Trieu is. The suggestion that she’s more worthy of it than Trieu flattens the show into a simple moral binary, creating a much more black and white ending than the comic’s (although, perhaps that’s fitting for a show about a woman dressed as a nun).
As mentioned, the show seem to suggest a great understanding of how the media shapes our perception of the police (amongst other things). It is in conversation with the police procedural and critical of the ways the genre encourage unregulated power for the police. And yet, the show ends with a police officer potentially achieving absolute power. To not explore the consequences of that, and to not condemn the very idea (let alone present it as preferable), implicitly advocates for it. To me, that seems at odds with the messaging of the rest of the show.
The ending feels like the show is swinging for one last twist, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of undermining the show’s actual climax: Angela reuniting with Will and her children. ‘An Almost Religious Awe’ shows us that Angela became a cop after seeing Vietnamese police officers execute a terrorist who murdered her parents. She sees police work as a vehicle for vengeance, a desire for which was born out of trauma. Perhaps this desire would have been curbed by June, had she not passed away before she could take custody of Angela. It’s fitting that Will, who separated from June because he was unable to relinquish his desire for vengeance, tells her “masks, hide the pain. […] You can’t heal under a mask Angela. Wounds need air.” For a show that so effectively explored the consequences of trauma, it makes sense it would conclude with a suggestion of how to move past it. Not coincidentally, an impactful reunion that allows the main characters to move forward also describes the endings of Damon Lindelof’s two prior shows.
So the unfortunately simplistic ending means that perhaps the show doesn’t fully live up the legacy of the comic, but it improves on it in many other ways. Not least, by being one of the most thoughtful explorations of race and trauma ever put to television. Despite its shortcomings, Lindelof and company truly succeeded at remixing Watchmen and telling a story that was as pertinent to our issues today as the comic was to those of the eighties. And perhaps more surprisingly, they were able to translate a comic that functioned as implicit criticism of the comic book industry into a television show that critiques and (mostly) condemns our badge-and-gun obsessed media landscape.