CAVEAT: there are many spoilers here, both for Watchmen (2019) as well as Joker (2019), and several other publications by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, so be warned.
‘Do you think there is a real point where then stops and now begins?’ Maggie had asked him. ‘Don’t you know that down deep the things that happen to you never really stop happening to you?…Everybody knows about it, Tina,’ she said. ‘Except a surprising number of middle-aged American men, who really do believe that people can start fresh all over again, that the past dies and the future is a new beginning, and that these beliefs are moral.’ (Peter Straub, KOKO)
You just a black man in this world
You just a barcode, ayy
You just a black man in this world
Drivin’ expensive foreigns, ayy
You just a big dawg, yeah
I kenneled him in the backyard
No, probably ain’t life to a dog
For a big dog (Childish Gambino, This is America)
I resisted watching the HBO series Watchmen for some time, despite – or frankly because of – how much I enjoyed and respected Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ original story that inspired it. Frankly, there are some books and graphic novels that are unadaptable to another medium. I’ve also always wondered why there is a ‘need’ to do so, as not only is that artwork intended for, and created, in that medium in ways that can’t be translated effectively to screen but that there are nuances and subtleties lost. Graphic novels are a unique medium, presenting words and images together, and thus able to present itself in a singular manner, but it also offers possibilities intrinsic and specific to the format.
Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen had its moments but – other than the fine opening sequence , employing Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ – was more a mimesis of Moore and Gibbon’s work. Let us also be honest and shame the devil, but too often filmic derivations are dumbed down, made simplistic and bluntly stupid. Watchmen (Moore and Gibbons) required an understanding of history and social context of America that many at the time found prohibitive, and I see it in conjunction with their earlier dystopic fable V for Vendetta. That comic was significantly more layered than the film (directed by James McTiegue and written by the Wachowskis, of Matrix fame). A simple example of this is how, in the graphic novel, no one is purely good, nor purely evil. V is (appropriately) vicious and a fine example of how bad men are needed to keep other bad men from the door. I suggest revisiting the manner in which he kills the rancid pedophile Bishop Anthony Lilliman, which has a black resonance. Even one of the character in the story acknowledges that ‘justice.’ Evey Hammond is silly and self indulgent often, and even Adam Susan, the Leader, is a fine example of Timothy Findley’s assertion that ‘not even monsters are monsters all the time.’ V’s nemesis – or counterpart – Eric Finch seems to be crushed by regrets for the compromise he has struck, to survive, and to attempt to do some good amidst evil….
Lindelof’s Watchmen builds upon what went before in both unexpected, but fitting, ways. I was initially surprised to find it set in Tulsa, but this is mindful of Moore and Gibbon’s using reality as a reservoir for their world building. Watchmen (M & G) finished with the indication that Robert Redford would be seeking the American Presidency. This seems hopeful at the end of Moore’s tale, but is one of the catalysts for the discord in Lindelof’s Tulsa. It’s decades later and we see that the utopia that Adrian Viedt tried to bloodily midwife has failed (unsurprising, as utopias are stagnant, and ‘nothing ever ends’, as Dr. Manhattan warned, so kindly, to Veidt as he left Earth). The Tulsa race massacre (also called the Tulsa race riot, the Greenwood Massacre, or the Black Wall Street Massacre) of 1921 – a dismissed event (in the American national imaginary) – that like any wound ignored will fester and spread and rot the body politic – is the basis of where ‘we’ are now, in Lindelof’s world. Redford has instituted reparations for that horror. That’s led to a potential microcosm of what America might be like if the ongoing debate regarding reparations for slavery and the unofficial proliferation of the same in all but name, post failed Reconstruction, were to happen on a national level in the United States.
Both Watchmen (M & G) and Lindelof’s iteration are firmly grounded in reality. This might sound funny, for a ‘superhero’ story, but consider that the violence and its legacy (or continuation) that is the conceptual and literal setting for Lindelof could be, with a few minor modifications, be America now. Consider Moore’s idea (in the original Watchmen) that Richard Nixon would employ a super being to win the Vietnam war and use it to congeal his power into a state suffused with fascism makes perfect sense, in light of Nixon’s real history. “God exists, and He’s American” (as Dr. Milton Glass avers in Moore’s Watchmen) is really just a culmination of much American foreign policy, of what they call ‘Amercian Exceptionalism‘, if it’s recognized at all. More often, it’s implici. There’s an insipid denkverbot (to steal from Slavoj Žižek), a prohibition to speak or recognize it out loud. It’s manifest in many of the reminiscences of the Americans in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War: A Film. Perhaps this is why I treasure Alan Moore’s take on America in Watchmen (the original), as it’s unvarnished as only an outsider (as he’s British) can see. In that series, when talking about Edward Black / The Comedian, in Vietnam, Dr. Manhattan archly observes that few humans will permit themselves an understanding of what they do, and who they are, in places like Vietnam. Blake ‘understands perfectly’, Manhattan notes, ‘and he doesn’t care.’
I’ll offer this basic descriptor of Lindelof’s Watchmen:
Lindelof likened the television series to a “remix” of the original comic series. While the series is technically a sequel, which takes place 34 years after the events of the comics within the same alternate reality, Lindelof wanted to introduce new characters and conflicts that create a new story within the Watchmen continuity, rather than creating a reboot. The series focuses on events surrounding racist violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2019. A white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry has taken up arms against the Tulsa Police Department because of perceived racial injustices, causing the police to conceal their identities with masks to prevent the Seventh Kavalry from targeting them in their homes following the “White Night”. Angela Abar, a detective known as Sister Night, investigates the murder of her friend and superior, Judd Crawford, and discovers secrets regarding the situations around vigilantism.
Now, after all that critical positioning earlier, I found Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen to be a fine ‘sequel’ to the original graphic novel. That the comic, not the Snyder adaptation, is the launching point is necessary to understanding Lindelof’s story, and a mark in his favour. There were a few silly moments, and the manner in which certain narratives resolved themselves was a bit too deus ex machina (an odd comment, I suppose, for a story where one of the characters is, in fact, god-like). But first, an observation of a formal aspect in Lindelof’s Watchmen. Lindelof has many references, throughout the series, that fans will catch (both of Watchmen (M&G) and the movie). Some of these are as simple as a choice of music that was used in the film, and it can be interpreted as either a wry commentery, quietly offered at a more subtle level for the knowing. Other times it almost samples – or repurposes, perhaps – dialogue spoken before, in this ‘world.’ Sometimes it works well. Other times it borders on what the amusing narrator of The Doom Patrol series (another cult comic recently translated to the small screen) describes as an ‘intended audience: “Grant Morrison [as the author of Doom Patrols, who has a devoted following] fans, Reddit trolls with DC subscriptions, and the three new fans who stuck around after the donkey fart.”
But this reconfiguring – or even recycling of words and motifs moves beyond simple facile ones, like how Empty Glass (a Tulsa Police detective who wears a reflective mask) often rolls his mask up in unconscious (to him, not us) imitation of Rorschach – goes deeper. In some ways, it contradicts Moore’s original narrative, and in other ways simply realizes it in an contemporary socio political space (which is more true, perhaps, to Moore’s ideas, than Synder’s too reverent simulacra tried, but failed, to do).
Hooded Justice, who was strongly indicated to be a horrid racist with a penchant for (perhaps non consensual) bondage with younger men is given a completely different history that explodes the former backstory from Moore. Further, Sister Night has a revelation, like Silk Spectre II does in Moore’s opus on the plains of Mars, regarding her heritage. Night’s is more positive, perhaps, than Silk Spectre II’s moment of realization. Again, this intersects into Lindelof’s Watchmen, as Laurie Juspeczyk is now Laurie Blake, having taken her once reviled father’s last name. More disturbingly – or inevitably, as what’s bred in the bone will out in the flesh – her actions and words through Lindelof’s Watchmen bear a sharp resemblance to Edward Blake’s crass – if apt – dismissal of his fellow vigilantes. The joke she shares with Dr. Manhattan, remotely through a communications station that seems like a stark ill kept confessional booth is Laurie Black as The Comedian. Her words, though sometimes ‘lifted’ from Rorschach’s narrative in Moore’s Watchmen directly, have less of his sentiment than her father, The Comedian, often embodied, with wry and bemused experience that edges upon apathy.
Tulsa is an ingenius setting for Lindelof, as it’s a clear site of contested narratives, and this plays itself out with the whole issue of ‘masks’ and vigilantism, too. In Moore’s original story, the Keene Act is what outlawed masked ‘outlaws’, except those operating under government oversight. In Tulsa, in response to the White Night, the police are required to be masked and reveal their identities to no one; this (perhaps) ingenius and surely dangerous, as regards ramifications in the social sphere, initiative is enacted by ‘Joe Keene Jr., a Republican Senator and leader of the Seventh Kavalry who aims to become President. His father is responsible for the Keene Act banning masked vigilantism.’ To return to the aforementioned book by Patsy Sims, many Reconstruction era Klans employed masks secure in their anonymity, while telling themselves they were the enforcement of a ‘moral order.’ A scene early in Lindelof’s Watchmen, when respected Chief of Police Judd Crawford is found to have a Klan robe hidden in his closet – discovered by Angela Akbar / Sister Night – is like Barthes’ ‘third meaning.’ This symbol has cast everything we’ve seen and been told, all of the narratives both implicit and implied around Crawford, into doubt, while having unsettling correlations that challenge more than affirm.
The retconning (retroactive continuity being the full term) of Hooded Justice is still something about which I have mixed feelings. On one hand, the noose around the character’s neck takes on a darker, more sinister meaning, and says something about vigilantism in America that is more Punisher than Superman. Lindelof seems aware of this, however, as within his story, another story is being told, as many of the characters are tuning in to watch a ‘documentary’ about costumed vigilantes in America. It’s focused on Hooded Justice, but seems more Fox News than Ken Burns, edging into alt right righteousness. Hooded Justice has become a symbol here, a repository for others to poor their ideas into and claim validation. The masks are the problem, you might say both literally and figuratively, as the Seventh Kavalry are like degraded clones of Rorschach. The Comedian (in Moore’s Watchmen) once sardonically observed that that mask had eaten Rorschach’s brains, a fitting way to describe Rorschach’s descent into extremism….
Moore’s Watchmen ended with a scene that threatened to shatter Veidt’s ‘brave new world’ (while visually alluding to the Comedian and his refusal to ignore horror, with the tainted smiley face). It seems that happened in Lindelof’s Tulsa, with the Kavalry canonizing Rorschach (which is again an intersection, as Moore has often indicated he wrote Rorschach as a parody, but that backfired, perhaps).
But the ending, the manner in which Lindelof attempts to tie up his various storylines, is weak. There are also too many moments of absurdity that fracture the heavy and subtlely layered narratives in Watchmen. This can be Laurie Blake’s big blue ‘Dr. Manhattan’ dildo, or that the horrors committed by Veidt in his prison become too silly to be appropriately serious, for the viewer. But perhaps I’m being too harsh: Veidt, as ‘the world’s smartest man’, often skirted insanity, in a reversal of Lessing’s assertion that nothing seems more ludicrous than an idea that we no longer believe in, when its time has gone.
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A digression, if you’ll allow. I also recently watched Joker, a movie that was talked about so often, and in so many ways, that ths chatter almost surpassed and abandoned the film itself. Despite all the talk of incels and ‘male rage’, it struck me more as an exploration of despair and hopelessness, and the dangers these paths lead to, for someone who chooses them, or has them chosen for them. But there’s a scene near the end, when the city is rioting, flames and carnage all around, and Arthur – the Joker of the title – is atop a crashed taxi cab, surrounded by worshipping, raging masses. I was suddenly taken back to a film I’d seen a long time ago, called Max. A brief descriptor: ‘A film studying the depiction of a friendship between an art dealer named Rothman and his student, Adolf Hitler.’ The not quite final scene of Joker brought to mind how, when Max Rothman misses his meeting with the young artist Hitler, dashing any hopes he had for his art career, Hitler fully embraces his hatred as his destiny. Max, however, has been beaten and left for dead in the street by some of the same fascist anti – Semites that are the only group whom Hitler feels accepted by, or any affinity with, in Weimar Germany. These delicate threads of destiny and happenstance are also present in Watchmen: Angela Akbar’s legacy from Hooded Justice, Laurie Blake’s ‘fate’ as a new version of The Comedian, all these masks allow for justice and evil, abusive or agreeable.
Lindelof’s continuation of Moore’s world is an interesting one, but definitely will be more appreciated by those already familiar with the alternate historical fiction that Moore and Gibbons created several decades ago. Like Moore, Lindeof blends reality and possibilities that have a resonace to the world we do live in, and negotiate with different faces and roles that we play.
Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen was on HBO in 2019. You can read more about the series here, and there’s a plethora of information (both direct and various fan sites) about the original, groundbreaking graphic novel / series online. This piece was written during my continuing writer’s residency at AIH Studios in Welland, in the Spring of 2020. Many thanks to AIH Studios for making the production of many critical articles about various cultural topics during this fruitful period. All images are taken from online sources, and I assert no copyright but acknowledge that of the original artists and those who shared them online.