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Black Skin, Yellow Masks: Why You Should Watch The Watchmen

Just running scared….

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.

A latin-phrase coined by Roman poet Juvenal, which roughly translates to “Who Watches The Watchmen?” In modern usage, this phrase asks how a society can keep those in power accountable. In light of recent events, I imagine this is a very topical question for many people reading this article. If it isn’t, then I imagine you must be reading this sometime in the far-future. In which case, “Hello from 2020. I’m glad to know that things got better in your time!”

“Who Watches The Watchmen” also happens to be the thesis question of the HBO TV Series, Watchmen, executively produced by Damon Lindeloff and written by a diverse team of writers. A series which serves as both a sequel and remix of the seminal 1986 graphic novel of the same name, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Gave Gibbons. Both works have been critically lauded, with the former winning 11 Emmy Awards at the 2020 ceremony and the latter making it onto the “Time’s Top 100 Best Novels Of All Time” List — the only graphic work to do so.

If you were to take a little more than a cursory glance at Watchmen as a franchise, you might be mistaken for thinking it as yet another Superhero narrative in the quickly-accumulating pile of such works; the posters and covers for both the novel and the series sport muscle-clad men and women in spandex, smouldering at the viewer. Watchmen, however, is something different. This is because Watchmen was created by a man who…well… really does not like superheroes. 

You see, politically, Alan Moore is an anarchist (as well as an occultist magician who worships a giant Roman Snake God, but that’s for another article…). And, as an anarchist, he finds the very concept of superheroes troubling to say the least.

“I hate superheroes. I think they’re abominations. […] They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience. […] These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly [largely] 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men…”

Alan Moore, 2013 for The Guardian

In Moore’s eyes, superheroes are an inherently childish concept and the idea that grown adults would project their hopes and beliefs onto images of what he describes as “franchised übermenschen” (Nietzche’s concept of the Superman), is kind of insane. And, as I’m writing this article next to my stack of Batman and Superman comic books, I must concede that he has, at least, somewhat of a point?

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Superheroes are a reassuring concept. They propagate the belief that there’s somebody out there looking out for us — a vigil defender. This isn’t exactly a new concept. Some would argue that the concept of the Superhero has its beginning in ancient mythology, where great heroes and champions would stand in defence of man from monsters and demons.

But Alan Moore didn’t grow up in such a time. He grew up during the Flower Power movement, the Watergate scandal, and eventually published Watchmen during the twilight of the Cold War. Times that, I imagine, really challenged how much the people in power were truly looking out for us — as current circumstances are today.

Resultantly, Moore and Gibbons provided a very different take on the Superhero. In Watchmen, the concept of The Superman isn’t embodied by Clark Kent: embodiment of Truth, Justice, and the American way. Instead, we get Dr. Manhattan — an emotionally-stunted space-time anomaly that struggles to relate to mankind very much at all. And, instead of Batman — the cool, brooding, billionaire — we get Rorschach, a psychologically damaged, cold bean chomping, far-right objectivist who refuses to “compromise, even in the face of Armageddon”. This is how these characters would be in the ‘real world’.

‘Yeah, this is what Batman would be in the real world.’ […] I meant him to be a bad example, but I have people come up to me in the street saying, ‘I am Rorschach! That is my story!’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘Yeah, great, can you just keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again for as long as I live?'”

Alan Moore, 2018 for Street Law Productions

In Watchmen, superheroes exist as an extension of the same jingoistic power complex that leads to events such as the Vietnam War (Did I mention Dr. Manhattan helped Nixon defeat the Vietcong?). And even those who don’t fit that description, suffer from a myriad of their own personal defects and traumas. As far as the graphic novel is concerned, putting on a mask and fighting crime just isn’t something an entirely sane person would do. 

As for the TV Show…

Is there life on mars?

“I [can] no longer deny that [the US] is completely and totally divided by race. This seemed to be the new Cold War and there is a reckoning that should be happening.”

  Damon Lindelof, Watchmen Showrunner 2019 for Gen Mag

While the original Watchmen comics serve as a deconstruction of the concept of superheroes and a lens through which to explore ideas surrounding the Cold and Vietnam Wars, HBO’s Watchmen sharply sets its eyes on modern-day race politics.

If you were to open a Golden-Age superhero comic, you’d probably be greeted by the sight of a cackling, one-dimensionally evil, mask-wearing supervillain with plans to take over the world. You’d also find the same thing if you opened any newspaper written in 2020.  They’re called White Supremacists, except they don’t necessarily wear masks anymore — not literally, anyways.  In HBO’s Watchmen, our supervillains come in the form of the Seventh Kavalry — a modern-day reworking of the Ku Klux Klan, who are inspired in-universe by Moore’s Rorshach, funnily enough.

But what of superheroes? Who are the series’ “Watchmen”? Like with Moore, it’s not rich billionaires or spider-bitten teenage do-gooders who don capes and cowls. In the world Damon Lindelof and Co have created, it’s cops. The freedoms and unilateral power that we commonly associate with superheroes has been given to the police force of Tulsa, Oklahoma. And, as one of the series’ central characters, Laurie Blake says…

“You know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante? […] Me neither.” (in Official Trailer [1:34])

So… Watchmen is a show about cops versus the KKK? 

Not quite. You see, while you can probably begin to guess what sort of direction Watchmen begins to take these ideas in, I guarantee that you are woefully unprepared for the amount of twists and turns the show will take you in. Especially considering the identity of our lead protagonist: a Black female police-officer named Angela Abar (otherwise known as Sister Knight) played by four-time Emmy-award-winner Regina King.

Sister Knight is…well…a badass. She’s strong-willed, determined, good in a fight, and probably the closest thing the franchise has to a righteous traditional superhero. But behind all that, is a character living with very real trauma — both personal and generational. Watchmen’s story takes Abar on a very real journey through her own family history — a history that highlights just how much change has and has not occurred in regards to the lives of Black people in the United States. A history which the show explores as far back as the Tulsa Race Riots in 1921 — a very real event that many people had no familiarity with until the show aired. A number that I’m sure includes many people reading this article right now.

Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’!

So…is Watchmen a perfect show? No, of course not. There’s no such thing. It’s certainly not without its issues.

However, it is a show that uses what is probably the world’s most popular genre of the moment, in order to explore one of the most important social issues of the moment, and that deserves a massive round of applause.

So…

Who Watches The Watchmen? 

You should. 

Eventually…

You see, in light of recent events and the fact that millions of people have been impacted by them, I certainly can’t recommend Watchmen as light entertainment. That’s not to say it isn’t fun. It certainly is — even hilarious at times! The cast all have a brilliant chemistry and the show is able to deal with extremely heavy subjects without ever feeling dour. But, that doesn’t make them any less heavy as subjects. So, if you’re looking for escapism, which, in 2020, is certainly understandable, you won’t find it here. But what you will find is a compelling drama with amazing writing, an amazing cast, and an almost precognisant exploration of modern-society. 

HBO’s Watchmen is 10/10.

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