Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen chooses to speak directly to Black America
Watchmen is widely regarded to be one of the greatest graphic novels of all time—especially when it comes to superhero stories. In my view, Watchmen was a true achievement for its time—handling the concept and tropes of superhero stories with an adult sensibility and looking closely at the implications that real-world vigilantism and the influence even one superhuman would have. Still, there were some areas where, if one looked closely enough, the seams showed. During the climax of the series, the only major lesbian character has an emotional breakdown, wailing that she wishes she were straight. The only black character is portrayed as a liberal idiot whose entire worldview and mind are easily broken by his prison psychotherapy patient. These are just a few of the wrong notes that pop up in the work—and in listing these I’m not arguing that the story doesn’t deserve the praise it gets—I’m just trying to put that praise in perspective.
In 2009, Zack Snyder released his own film adaptation of Watchmen, which, while it had its moments—one of those being the portrayal of Dr. Manhattan’s tragic origin—betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material. In the original graphic novel, it is only the Comedian and Ozymandias who are world-class fighters, which makes the scene in which several of the heroes try to take Ozymandias in hand-to-hand combat and are tossed around like ragdolls deeply effective. In the film version, though, all the characters are capable of Hong Kong-style wire-fu. Fans of the film argue that in transferring the comic to cinema, the director chose to comment on superhero movies the same way the original work commented on superhero comics—that idea doesn’t make the adaptation sit any better with me, but I don’t reject it, either.
Some fans would argue that Damon Lindelof’s new HBO adaptation similarly misses the mark, but that’s a much harder point to argue, this time around—after all, instead of adapting the plot and characters of the comic for television, this new adaptation picks up decades after the comic left off—with mostly new characters, a new setting, and a new status quo. All of that was discussed nearly to death before the first episode aired. What the series held as its biggest surprise was just how black it is. Part of what kept the original Watchmen from being “the greatest comic of all time” is that it seeks to tell an American story from the outside. Alan Moore has never been to the United States, and can’t fully understand our country’s relationship with itself—or how race and attitudes toward race exist at or close to the core of the American spirit.
In comics, once a series has three or more black characters, it’s considered a black series. The series’ main character, Sister Night, is a black woman, her husband, Cal—whose character is of much greater importance than the audience realizes in the first half of the series, and her Grandfather, are all black—and yet, that’s not what makes this a black series.
As the series opens, it goes from a movie serial depicting the adventures of Bass Reeves—the black inspiration for The Lone Ranger to portraying the massacre of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street—a historical event that, previous to its appearance in Watchmen, was unknown to the vast majority of Americans. Those bold choices make a major statement, and when I first saw them, I found their promise electrifying. Then the series doubles down, suggesting an understanding of blackness, black bodies, and their relationship to American social mores, their erasure from American entertainment, and the jealousy and malice that often bubbles up when black bodies are observed by the white gaze. If some of that sounds vague, it’s because these ideas are so essential to the plot that to discuss them more clearly would require major spoilers. One important detail is the inclusion of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, who plays a version of himself as head of a government agency in charge of identifying descendants of the Tulsa race riots’ victims and connecting them with monetary compensation for their families’ suffering. After everything the series had already shown us, it was seeing Dr. Gates’ face and hearing his voice, especially in that context that showed me that this series was serious about representation in a way I’ve rarely seen from a piece of genre fiction created by white artists for a mostly-white audience.
This version of Watchmen deals with reparations for racial violence and discrimination, the trauma of racism passed down from generation to generation, the tension of trying to navigate and participate in a system consisting of institutions and individuals that are, at best, indifferent to black struggle—and with Episode 6, Watchmen doubles down on its blackness. In a major departure from the source material, the series boldly states that in the world of Watchmen, the very first vigilante hero was a black man—masquerading as a white hero in order to keep the public on his side. This idea appears more than once, in multiple forms, to create an echoing effect that demands viewers go back and watch the series again with a new understanding once they’ve seen the season to its end.
The series is full of difficult images—lynchings, racially motivated beatings, the peaked hoods and white robes of “crusading” Klansmen—but these world also places black heroism in a context we don’t often see. Not only is the first vigilante secretly a black man, inspired by Superman comics and Bass Reeves serials, but one of the central figures of the original series chooses to inhabit a black body—not just as a disguise, either. Even when the character stands revealed, he refuses to cast off his blackness. One character’s assessment of Doctor Manhattan toward the end of the series even echoes the feelings much of black America has toward President Obama: “With everything he could do, he should have done more.”
In a 2017 interview, original Watchmen series creator Alan More argued that Birth of a Nation could be seen as the first-ever American superhero movie. He argues that superhero stories with their capes and masks are still very much White Supremacist fairytales, full of white characters crusading to preserve a status quo that exists to serve white males of a certain class. This is a provocative statement to be sure—Moore has been very vocal about his distaste for superhero comics, especially those from DC and Marvel—but his statement is no more provocative than President Woodrow Wilson’s comment that Birth of a Nation was “history written in lightning.”
The thing that I find so compelling about this new Watchmen series is that it confronts the ideas and legacy of Birth of a Nation and the passions and world-view that gave rise to it, and pushes the narrative in a direction that’s not just more inclusive, but more exciting, more alive, more immediate than even the original Watchmen. I wouldn’t say that this new series is better than the original work. After all, without the graphic novel, this new Watchmen series couldn’t exist. For the first time, though, it brings something new to the conversation. As Dr. Gates would say, it signifys with confidence and style, making its intentions clear from the opening frames.
It’s funny: popular culture is replete with comic book adaptations these days, and every time I feel myself moving toward superhero fatigue—even Marvel’s movies don’t move me like they used to—Every time I think they’ve nothing left to say to me, something happens to make me re-invest. This time, it’s Watchmen that has made me sit up and take notice.