Black, White, Blue: To Understand Where HBO’s Watchmen Succeeded, We Need to Understand How Moore’s Watchmen Failed

Posted on December 29, 2019

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Like many, I’m still struggling with the disappointments of the HBO Watchmen series, mostly because of how good it was at the start. Recasting the African American struggle against white supremacy as a superhero origin story was a show-stopper, but Damon Lindelof’s production had very obvious failures elsewhere that are by now well-noted. The show dropped the ball on Vietnam, horribly. It wallowed in copaganda. The replacement of the Klan with Cyclops; the sudden onset of villainy in Lady Trieu; the disappearance of Will’s gayness; and too many other disappointments to list in a short piece.

All of these are worthwhile criticisms and deserving of their own essay, but not what I’d like to focus on here. I think instead of focusing solely on what HBO’s Watchmen got wrong, an examination of the source material may put the success and failure of the show in better context. A common critical refrain about the show, for example, has been that its a poor cousin of a more radical and subversive source-text, Alan Moore’s original 12-issue serial comic book. It’s been an unfortunate take that I’ve seen in several critiques, with this one in Truth-Dig by Leslie Lee being the most popular.

Lee characterizes the print Watchmen as a brilliant, subversive anti-racist and anti-fascist text that Lindelof’s TV show fails to live up to. I loved Moore’s Watchmen and have re-read it half a dozen times over the years, and that’s why I’m confident that the original text is a really unfortunate platform to launch these critiques from.

Moore built an ugly super-hero landscape, mired in imperialist politics, narcissism, cultural chauvinism and white supremacist zeitgeists, true. The birthplace of superheroing is the “Minutemen” a WW2 era group of morally-confused and easily-corrupted narcissists working under a white supremacist, capitalist definition of right and wrong who donned capes for uninspiring reasons. Moore’s work has always been about taking apart superhero tropes and putting them back together in situations atypical of the genre (1). But Moore went a few steps further here because he was able to sully the intellectual property and express his own politics about the concept. And he did it beautifully—Watchmen transcended the form with its intricate plot and a reverberating flow of prose and art. All indisputable.

Regardless of his intentions, however, Moore built a thematic framework that bolsters many awful superhero tropes—and these have outlived the subversive qualities of the text (2). Moore, to his credit, created dynamic three-dimensional characters, and that’s the problem. After all is said and done, Dr. Manhattan is a mass murderer indifferent to human suffering. Rorschach a proto-incel, is an Alex Jonesian conspiracy-fabulist. And yet fans—like me—loved them both for decades. Moore had us spend so long in the heads of Manhattan and Rorschach that eventually their world-views became compelling.

Some comic industry context about why this is a critical point to make is necessary. Around the time that Watchmen was released, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns also debuted– a seminal work that had a similarly profound impact on comic books and popular perceptions of them. But unlike Moore, Miller subsequently revealed himself to be a right-wing reactionary. Though I loved DK when I read it in 1986 at 17, subsequent readings make it clear Miller wasn’t actually hiding his ideology then—I was just too naive and unsophisticated to see the messaging behind the gratifying chiaroscuro and spectacular violence. DK Batman is a disturbing figure intent on social cleansing who recalls Jair Bolsonaro far more than Bruce Wayne. Miller’s Batman doesn’t just live in a bleak American future dystopia, he is the bleak American future dystopia.

Though Miller set out to make Batman a two-dimensional superhero, and Moore set out to make Rorschach a nuanced anti-superhero, the effect of climbing into the head of either is uncomfortably similar. Both decide that the unregulated darkness of humanity’s soul is the problem, with crime being its superficial presentation. They both believe it is only they who can perceive and fight the darkness. Bruce Wayne’s thought balloons in DK often resemble Rorschach’s reactionary journal entries—but of the two, it’s Rorschach’s lyrical prose-poetry that’s become a target of memes and call-backs.

Moore is much better at the form than Miller. And that’s the problem. Rorschach is every bit the reactionary Miller’s Batman is, but Moore’s superb narrative tells us why in a compelling and heart-breaking flashback. Ironically, Rorschach’s lengthy existential thought balloons [and those of Dr. Manhattan] feed into conservative ideas about a dark nature of humanity with a far greater lasting effect than DK. Moore compounded this by taking Rorschach’s side in philosophical debates. When a “liberal” African American prison psychiatrist must treat Rorschach, it’s Rorschach’s perspective that infects him, not the other way around. Rorschach is shown to have the more compelling, self-aware view, while the psychiatrist is a liberal fop, as weak as Rorschach implies when he reads him. Moore—unlike Miller who actually got worse (3)—moved on from treatments of superheros in the decades after Watchmen, I suspect because he recognized the perils of even engaging the tropes (4).

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Of course, HBO’s Watchmen had problems, but it succeeded in breaking free of the devices that hobbled Moore’s narrative. Though the show failed in later episodes, Lindelof’s team successfully introduced an anti-superhero narrative for fans who have grown comfortable and lazy about accepting racism-stained “metaphors” as a substitute for resonant stories of heroism. It’s obvious Moore set out with the intention of revealing the superhero as motivated by ugly ideologies. But in 12 issues of the Watchmen, he failed to do that with the elegance that Lindelof’s team did in one subtle pan of a Dollar Bill poster.

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The Dollar Bill poster suggests everything there is to know about what Moore’s Watchmen would have been up to in the space between Moore’s panels. But Moore hesitated to illustrate such truths.

Though Moore fleshed out the right-wing support superheros enjoyed effectively in the mixed-media snapshots of the interstitial pages—and searingly in his New Frontiersman excerpts—he failed to animate his superheros with the bigoted acts that would have earned that right-wing enthusiasm. The law and order violence of Moore’s all-white superheros is sanitized and de-racialized. As a result, his attempts at wider social commentary mostly fall flat and feel phony. A Moore panel citing “black unrest” as one of the problems the Watchmen form to tackle is often cited to demonstrate Moore’s concern with superhero racism. But the only unrest we see in the comic are white people protesting to protect police unions. Moore’s ‘anti-mask’ riots are the actual Watchmen universe’s version of the anti-racism riots that consumed urban centers in the US through the 60s and early 70s—but they’re bereft of Black people, and bizarrely somehow pro-police.

Moore’s “underworld” has few Black or Brown members for Rorschach to beat information out of. New York’s biggest street gang are the all-white ‘top-knots’. Charitably, these are Moore’s earnest attempts to avoid the discomforting reality of what his protagonists would actually be doing in the IRL New York City “underworld” and how they would have been “keeping order” as the Keene Act was passed. In fact, Moore’s NYC has few Black or Brown people period—there are two Black minor characters for the entire story, and they are little but cardboard cutouts.

I think its even arguable that some of the failings of the HBO show may actually be the legacy of the original narrative. Moore handles the US invasion of Vietnam horribly. We never see Vietnam from the Vietnamese perspective in Moore’s book. Instead, we’re informed that the North is so awe-struck about Dr. Manhattan, soldiers want to surrender to Manhattan personally. Vietnam exists in the framework of the book to show how much Dr. Manhattan changed the US, not as a critique of US imperialism. That’s why Dr. Manhattan, a war-criminal, can still be a compelling emotional figure in Moore’s book. Sure, Lindelof’s team must own the failure of adding so much needlessly problematic material, but the text the writers were tasked to re-boot was not much better.

Moore’s work has a built-in respect for police. In fact, most of Moore’s writing does, he’s historically not had a broader social critique of law enforcement, surprisingly and one of his most popular titles, Top Ten, is about a super-hero police force in a futuristic city full of superhumans. They really are cops, they act like cops, as you can see in the panel below, and they call each other “good police” as a compliment.

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a super-copaganda scene from Moore’s extremely unserious series Top Ten

Police as a respectable profession is baked into the Watchmen narrative—in fact, the only morally tolerable member of the Minutemen was NYPD cop, Hollis Mason the original Owl. The lack of a critique of the police itself is Lindelof’s failure, sure (5). But Moore actually fared worse on the topic. Few mention these aspects of Moore’s book when describing its genius because that would reveal how limited his palette was and how averse to subversion the subject matter really is. What other story could one really tell with deconstructed white superheros without leaving them horribly disfigured villains?

There’s another set of scenes in the HBO Watchmen that blew by me the first time, and that I only realized later were effortlessly performing the same ideological feat as the Dollar Bill poster. The popular American Hero Story of the HBO Watchmen universe portrays the first adventure of Hooded Justice—still believed by most to have been a white man under the mask—crashing into the store through a storefront window to foil a robbery and save the owner.

But Black Hooded Justice’s reality, we learn later, is the mirror opposite. Will Reeve’s enters the store through the back and fights his way against the Klansmen he finds there  on his way to the front. He must crash through the storefront window and out into the street to escape the gun-toting owner, who far from the victim in need of saving, is the actual white supremacist super-villain.

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The real Hooded Justice in an extended metaphor for segregation that most superhero comics could never hope to duplicate.

Moore couldn’t tell stories like these, because after all is said and done, you have to like  Dr. Manhattan, the Owl, Rorschach and the Silk Spectre to read the book. Despite everything they’ve done, they are the heroes of Watchmen. The Lindelof and Moore versions of the superhero story are irreconcilable and the differences aren’t something to be taken lightly. As a fan of the comic like myself, for example, seeing Rorschach re-cast as the inspiration for a white supremacist movement in the HBO series caused me to rethink much of what I loved about his story. That Rorschach’s repellant politics, not his existential queries, are what leave the bigger political impression makes perfect sense in the real world—but not in Moore’s text.

HBO’s treatment of the Watchmen does fail miserably at many things. But despite those failings, Lindelof’s team got one or two things right—and they may have been enough. The show’s use of African American history as the engine of true superhero vigilantism destroys the superhero constuct completely. Moore, who still had use for the normative version to tell his story, only sought to tarnish it. The Black experience of escape and migritude is the origin story. The destruction of the home “planet” itself produces the rage that is the source of Will Reeve’s powers when he dons the prisoner’s hood and noose of Hooded Justice. These call into question all the motivations of comic book superheroing, and leave them looking like the silly reasons Hooded Justice’s teammates have for taking up the role.  That’s where Lindelof’s Watchmen, despite pretty unsightly failings, is the version actually truer to Moore’s aims than the comic. It’s the update that corrects the original.

 

 

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Notes:

  • I’ve used “Lindelof’s team” to take at face value his statements that he relied on and gave primacy to Black writers on his writing team
  1. See Moore’s Marvelman, Swampthing and Supreme.
  2. In this AV interview, from 2001, Moore reflects on the negative effect Watchmen actually had on comics. The critique faded, and only the echoe of the stylish violence, and ‘realism” are what endured. Moore regretted the emergence of “grim, pessimistic, nasty, violent stories which kind of use Watchmen to validate what are, in effect, often just some very nasty stories that don’t have a lot to recommend them”. Though Dark Knight was released a month or two before Watchmen, its arguable that Watchmen lent the work its glamour for fans.
  3. See Miller’s horrifying Holy Terror, 300, his current Superman limited series and his disgusting public comments over decades.
  4. Lee makes a point of using a recent statement from Moore about the Birth of a Nation being the original superhero story. Moore’s views were somewhat less acute in the years between the Watchmen and its emergence into a popular non-comic following. In this comic industry 2001 interview he talks about why he gave up on superheros as a political device [though at the time still claims to be highly entertained by them].
  5. I think you can argue that the fact that Abar was meant to be murdered during the White Night, and that the whole thing is a false flag designed to re-create the police as the Klan suggests the opposite of what many are suggesting. Abar was never meant to be a masked cop vigilante. But it’s weak, yes.
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