Michael Boyce Gillespie
There are people who believe the world is fair and good, that it’s all lollipops and rainbows …. We don’t do lollipops and rainbows. We know those are pretty colors that just hide what the world really is: black and white.
—Angela Abar (Regina King), Watchmen
This roundtable with Kristen Warner, Rebecca A. Wanzo, and Jonathan W. Gray was organized to talk with scholars about Watchmen (HBO, 2019) and the issues of medium, genre, fandom, and African American history that shaped this rich series. Created by Damon Lindelof, the HBO series elaborates extensively on the famed twelve-issue comic-book series of the same name, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons (1986–87).
The comic is set in the 1985 of an alternate timeline, one where the heroes/vigilantes of the past have been outlawed and only government-affiliated heroes remain legal. With the suspension of the Twenty-Second Amendment, Nixon is president for life and the escalation of the Cold War has put the world on the brink of World War III, a nuclear holocaust. When one of the retired heroes is murdered, the subsequent mystery sets in motion a critique of the social order and its mythologies of superheroes. Instead of virtuous resonances, the comic series brutally proposes that superheroes are not immune to the systemic flaws of the social order but that rather, they manifest these failings particularly as they relate to issues of power. Brilliantly dense, the comic is a metatextual exercise that exquisitely refuses to perpetuate the fantasy of clear divisions between good and evil. Its unsentimental rendering and critique of a world painfully familiar defies the simple explanation of a “dystopic” genre.
The HBO series Watchmen presents itself as a disobedient adaptation that modifies, extends, and redirects the worldmaking of the source. Located in the continuity of the comic but not determined by it, the series is set thirty-four years after the events of the comic. It elaborates on its source not as a sequel, reboot, or even translation, but rather as an adaptation that substitutes speculation and deviation in place of fidelity. Importantly, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 acts as the historical and ideological trigger that sets the series in motion.
Across nine episodes, the series generates a story line of a world yet again on the brink, but with an inflection of restitution that augments the original comic’s despairing social critique. As a result of redevising the consequences of the original comic, the Watchmen series offers some of the most consequential television of the century, particularly with regard to its concentration on history, culture, and race. I hope this conversation might be of use for the many Watchmen conversations to come.
Michael Boyce Gillespie: What do you find significant about the ways that Watchmen remediates American history?
Rebecca A. Wanzo: Various moments in history have had a profound influence on the development of U.S. superhero comics: World War II, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, 9/11. But in the case of the emplotment of the civil rights movement in comics, the inclusion of black heroes elided the issue of white supremacy as a villain, often choosing tokenism or allegory. Watchmen, by opening with the Tulsa Race Massacre, makes black trauma central to its origin stories and those of its superheroes, thus rewriting the inspiration for the desire for superheroes.
In a well-known Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic from the 1970s, an African American man asked the Green Lantern why he wasn’t helping the black man, speaking to the excessive brutality black people had experienced in the U.S. history of white supremacy and antiblackness.1 Superheroes occasionally have dealt with racists and with other instances of discrimination (the Black Panther, for example, once fought the Klan), but failures of the nation are treated as missteps and not as a foundational villainy masked by the flag and myths of American exceptionalism. Watchmen imagines a redemptive narrative for superhero origins, both by writing a black man into the origin story and by making state-ignored (and state-generated) white supremacy the enemy.
Gillespie: I’ve been thinking about the “Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film” series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music back in 2018. It included an extraordinary range of work that concluded with the release of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018).2 Each film in the series enacted a fantastical conceit of race and (super)heroism but crucially also posed distinct tensions between exceptionalism and ambivalence.
These tensions were historically and generically grounded throughout. Furthermore, the films in the series offered varying and potent definitional logics of heroism and villainy. The BAM series has informed some of the ways that I identified with elements of Watchmen. In Watchmen, there is a great deal of nuanced historiographic conjuring around these issues. It avoids the prescriptive “It’s time for this week’s history lesson” schtick of Blackish. It also avoids the shenanigans of American Gods [Starz, 2017–], where the black and brown characters and story lines of Mr. Nancy [Orlando Jones], Bilquis [Yetide Badaki], Jinn [Mousa Kraish], and Mr. Ibis [Delmore Barnes] often offer the most compelling moments of the show, yet only complement the show’s primary (and weaker) focalization.
Watchmen’s opening sequence in the very first episode [“It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”] sets the historiographic tone for the entire series. Its seamless pivot from cultural mythology (in terms of Bass Reeves, U.S. marshal and suspected model for the Lone Ranger) to early cinema and black cinema spectatorship to the historical erasures of American/white-supremacist violence was flawless and startling. The show’s expanded writing of a history across temporalities and locations (galactic or otherwise) underscored how speculative fiction as “a genre of inventing other possibilities” often concentrates on measuring the conditions of the present through an excavation of the remains of yesterday and tomorrow.3 This is evident throughout the series. For example, the way the show’s “Victims of Racial Violence Act” (“Redfordations”) draws on historical debates of reparations and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “A Case for Reparations” gave me a great deal of speculative joy.4 I know the series has been spoken of as a remix, but “reprioritizing” feels closer to how I’m thinking.
Wanzo: I think “speculative joy” is a wonderful articulation of what many of us felt watching it. The dystopian quotidian that is so common in the black fantastic does not foreclose the possibilities for joy—the heroic reimaginings emerge from it. There has been a lot of discussion recently about black trauma being overrepresented in popular culture. Yet as Watchmen shows, we have not even begun to scratch the surface of this history. Here, the speculative becomes the grounds for a pleasurable affective trajectory that also avoids the traps of uplift narratives that too often cheapen black history.
Gillespie: Were there any elements of Watchmen that you found compelling with regards to speculative fiction, film history, allegory, culture, and/or conceptions of the nation?
Kristen Warner: The opening scene inside the movie theater with the focus on the black boy and his mother at the piano. They watch, wait, and worry as the screen centers Bass Reeves saving white people. “Trust in the law” was an unforgettable moment for me as a black audience member and also as a scholar. I think that scene was compelling because that specific imagery is so rarely seen in the collective mediated history. It centered and set the course of this story around not just blackness but a historical moment of blackness that is not celebrated enough.5
Jonathan W. Gray: I recently wrote on how successfully Watchmen places the horrors of white supremacy at the center of its story by making it as dangerous to the polity as the Cold War was in the 1970s and 1980s for the original comic. It is a delicious irony that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons largely ignored race, because it’s now clear that the politics of the Cold War unintentionally submerged an embrace of what can now be understood as ethnic nationalism across the globe.6 Today, the extent to which white supremacy’s toxicity has corroded the nation’s possibilities ever since the Civil War ostensibly ended de jure discrimination is clear. The series masterfully toggles back and forth from the end of World War I to 2019. Its comic form allows for the manipulation of time through retroactive continuity, flashbacks, and flash-forwards, but I’ve never seen a television series or film manipulate these elements of time and scope to such great effect.
Warner: Watching that cold open, complete with the continuing action of the Tulsa Race Riot and with the central character of Angela Abar/Sister Night [Regina King] placed in the middle as the origin tale, it felt like a very potent attempt at televisual remediation. And then it just kept on happening—like microdosing racialized remediation across nine episodes of storytelling. For me, the dosing is absolutely an advance because achieving that kind of specificity in an urtext that has to carefully maintain its structural integrity while also attending to and arguing its established thesis is goddamn hard. We don’t have enough examples of such splendid success on this scale.
Gillespie: What do you find consequential about a series so centralized around race and the myth of the superhero? How might this relate to the way some comics have remediated genre and history with an emphasis on race and culture—for example, Genius; Truth: Red, White, & Black; Destroyer; Infidel; Black; American Carnage; Kindred; Bitter Root; Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer; The Silence of Our Friends; the March series; Bayou; and King: A Comics Biography.
Wanzo: As you note with this list, creators have been reimagining the myths of the superhero through the black experience for some time. People have objected to racebending and to racism becoming the subject of comic-book story lines. Some fans are much more comfortable with the allegorical representations common in comics that don’t require confrontation with the realities of discrimination.
But I think this is a profoundly “playing in the dark” iteration of the black superhero, not by recasting superheroes through black experience but by saying that a racialized nationalism is important to the foundations of vigilantism, heroism, and alienated citizenship at the core of this myth. That’s why the Hooded Justice origin reveal is so brilliant. The absence of such origin stories in the Golden Age of Comics makes visible the problem of the impossibility of such heroes.7 Of course, a superhero with a hacked-off noose around his neck could be a black man who, having escaped white-supremacist violence, is carrying the markers of his origin story.
Warner: To Wanzo’s point, audiences who are entirely loyal to the superhero-franchise genre seem to feel most comfortable with the “happened to be” racialized bodies who subsume those parts, but only within reason.
And I’ll never forget that even that “racially transcendent $4 billion man” (at the time because of his box office success) Will Smith couldn’t be even remotely considered for Captain America. So, it can be OK (within reason) to have a black or brown and/or woman as … hero/heroine/superhero as long as that difference is primarily signified by the body. Yes, we can have a couple of quips that test well with notions of “girl power and empowerment”—hey, colonizer!—and memeable dialogue and visual signifiers that illustrate an attention to “the culture,” but the centrality of blackness/otherness is never explicit. It’s not just that Hooded Justice, the body of the diegetic television show [American Hero Story], has been whitewashed. It’s that the rationale for that choice, even as it connects to the real story of Will Reeves [Louis Gossett Jr.], becomes laid out and then further exploited as a site of racial disruption.
It’s not just that Reeves is hooded with a rope around his neck as a consequence of a lynching attempt by his white-supremacist police colleagues. No, the story stretches into an inverse minstrelsy with him wearing white makeup and believing that he’s finally been seen. The visibility of his black invisibility put on display in such a tragic manner is the apex of the series that pivots the story toward its finale. Blackness is truly centered here in a way I’d never seen accomplished before.
Gray: To build on Kristen’s point, superheroes must “happen to be” black because comic-book heroism is so often connected to—as the Superman radio serial from the 1940s would have it—truth, justice, and the American way. But American ideology has often constructed blackness in general, and African American demands for full citizenship in particular, as a threat. Until now, a vigilante dedicated not to reforming a broken system (Captain America, Batman) or avenging its depredations (Punisher, Daredevil) but to a wholesale redefinition of what it means to be a citizen has always been a step too far. Superhero comics can confront this reality only through metaphor, as the X-Men comics demonstrate.8 It’s unsurprising that black bodies, which carry a history that calls American exceptionalism into question and which the series so expertly unpacks, can occupy space at the center of the narrative only when they uphold the ideology.
Warner: The fetish/disavowal of Reeves’s black body by others as well as by himself throws into sharp relief the rational and irrational reasons for why we can’t have black superheroes, or more to the point, why black superheroes must happen to be black. There’s a historical lens placed on that story in episode 6 [“This Extraordinary Being”] that, unlike a more recent black superhero film that was immensely successful, enables the tale to become more than simply signifiers and a fictional locale.9 Instead the story becomes about the stakes of the bodily difference as a trauma and a haunting. The complex dystopia of the images and the narrative that serve to produce Reeves’s (and Angela’s) superheroism proves far more pessimistic and discomforting than audiences have been socialized to navigate within this genre.
Gillespie: I adored the “pessimistic and discomforting” nature of Reeves, his personification of the acute engagement of the series with the mythology of the comic and its inattention to race. I think it’s extraordinary how the series treats the comic itself as a show bible and builds from there. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) and Destroyer (2017) serve as essential precedents for my thinking about the HBO series. The former offers an engagement with H. P. Lovecraft’s antiblack legacy, and the latter stages a fantastic blending of classic and quotidian horror.
Watchmen does a comparable thing in not treating the source material, its inspiration, as sacred. Complete fidelity to the source work is never the most engaging or satisfying approach to adaptation. As a result, the series opens the comic up for consequential refabulations of culture and politics.
Wanzo: I also think LaValle’s work invites thinking about two ways that black revision is at play in the series. Just as I can never read Jane Eyre again without thinking of Wide Sargasso Sea, so does Black Tom transform Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” for me forever. Similarly, viewers will always look at Hooded Justice differently. It changes the audience’s relationship to the original text—whereas Destroyer is less about changing the original text than claiming Frankenstein as a Western cultural mythology to which black people can have equal access.
Gillespie: I’ve been waiting forever for a screen adaptation of Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons’s Give Me Liberty: An American Dream , because the character of Martha Washington has been my favorite black comic hero. Then there was Regina King as Sister Night. With King’s significant run of great roles in mind [The Boondocks (Cartoon Network/HBO Max, 2005-14), Southland (TNT, 2009–13), American Crime (ABC, 2015–17), The Leftovers (HBO, 2014–17), Seven Seconds (Netflix, 2018), If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018)], how does she challenge the classical models of star/celebrity studies?
Gray: King charts a new model for stardom, but that’s largely due to the fact that Hollywood has no model for black women. You could say that Michael B. Jordan is following/updating a path laid for him by Will Smith and Denzel by moving from a critically acclaimed TV show to eventually becoming a box-office champion, but there seems to be no consistent or guaranteed formula for black women in Hollywood.
Wanzo: She has demonstrated how television has been a site for some of the best and most complex work for women in Hollywood over the last fifteen years or so, particularly women over forty. Older Hollywood stars have long found an afterlife on television; as Mary Desjardins argues, they negotiate the differences between film and television models of stardom, glamour, and approachability.10 King might be read as part of a genealogy of African American stars like Hazel Scott, who saw possibilities for representation in television that were not available to her in Hollywood film.11
While King has been working since she was a teenager, she has done her best work in the last decade. It’s not a coincidence that shows like Southland, Seven Seconds, American Crime, and Watchmen have had diverse writing rooms. That television has been a site for King to become a star in her forties, in ways long denied her as a black woman given the conventional preferences for white ingénues, is a tribute to the medium as a place where some of the most interesting and inclusive storytelling is happening in U.S. corporate media. Mia Mask has discussed the models of charisma for black women’s stardom—the sexual charisma of Pam Grier, the comedic charisma of Whoopi Goldberg, the multicultural-beauty charisma of Halle Berry.12 King’s case is interesting for the fact that she does not function in relation to any single model.
Warner: I would add that her directing television while also acting may have enabled her to be more selective about the kinds of projects she wanted to build toward in her career. If she’s earning consistent money directing television, then that allows her to decline parts she might otherwise have to take to pay the bills. Also, it certainly puts her in a place where she spends consistent time with white male showrunners and thus can establish a rapport absolutely necessary for the kinds of work she wants to do.
It takes time to go from being Brenda Jenkins in 227 and a voice actor for The Boondocks to transitioning to a more dramatic actor in Southland to being able to carry a large part in the American Crime ensemble. And then, to be able to move to The Leftovers to play a character who wasn’t written as race blind (though I don’t necessarily buy that story) but became a heavy character—well, that required time, and training, and money quite frankly. By the time King gets to If Beale Street Could Talk and Watchmen, all the stuff she worked for came together. I attribute her success as much to her directing as a longevity plan for surviving—in an industry that expires black women actors as part of its franchise—as I do to her skill set as an actress.
Gillespie: Post-Lost, Damon Lindelof’s television work has thrived in the cable-television format, with his cocreation and showrunner role with The Leftovers along with his creator and showrunner role with Watchmen. Are there any distinctive narrative and structural tropes about the series that interest you? What about the writers?
Wanzo: Indeed, he has thrived post-Lost! It was Kristen who convinced me to give The Leftovers a try after my disappointment with the infamous (for some) ending of that show. Sean O’Sullivan pushes against the idea of “satisfaction” in serial narrative, arguing that dissatisfaction is inherent to serial narrative—not only in the constant, pleasurable anticipation of resolution but in the end.13 However, Lost invited the audience to read various threads as essential to understanding character and world building and to believe that the resolution to these threads was important to closure—that’s what mythology shows do.
Gray: I think Lindelof deserves credit for self-awareness and possessing the flexibility to listen to detractors, both in the academy and in the industry. Lindelof has mocked the all-white Lost writing room on several podcasts, noting that although Lost told some good stories featuring people of color, he’d never attempt to do such a thing today.14
Warner: You’re welcome, Wanzo! I did not watch Lost, but I understand the weight of getting it right that seems to burden Lindelof since that show’s end. I believe that burden absolutely informs how he has made television post-Lost. The move to cable/premium television serves a couple purposes for him—he can make shorter seasons that seem to allow him to concentrate more fully on the goals and breaks and revelations and closures he wants to deliver in eight to ten episodes a year. And the “freedom” away from broadcast certainly grants him the ability to keep focused on what he has tasked himself to complete. But even with that, he focuses on similar themes of origins, family, religion, and the law.
Seasons 2 and 3 of The Leftovers are such a wonder because the questions he asks around those themes result in an absurd and affecting kind of pathos and melos. It is just compelling television. Then he uses that formula in Watchmen again, and even within the scope of a different genre (for the most part), the results are stunning.
Wanzo: The Leftovers established at the outset, as [Tom] Perrotta’s novel did, that the hole in our knowledge was something the characters and audience must live with, and the core emotional arcs of the characters were about the trauma of this mystery and loss in itself. Similarly, Watchmen establishes a discordant world at the outset that requires you to accept certain truths about the world even as they will never explain all the details that led to it.
To a certain extent, speculative fictions often do this with world-building, but just as The Leftovers used the mystery of a rapture-like event to get at fundamental questions about dealing with loss, Watchmen uses narrative gaps to get at fundamental questions about what it means to place black people at the center of normative stories about heroism and moral binaries that have governed nationalist fantasies in the United States.
Gillespie: There has been a lot of commentary about Watchmen being definitively pro-cop or too political/not political enough and its perceived failure to address certain aspects of history. There’s a certain irony about criticism of a series devoted to an alternate timeline of American history by people who seem to live in an alternate timeline where Stuart Hall never existed, and questions of representation never progressed beyond the 1970s. Any thoughts about the criticism?
Gray: I think that many critics treat black characters—and indeed, black people—as ciphers with no real interiority. There are hundreds of black people that willingly engage with the criminal justice system as officers and prosecutors out of a sincere desire to improve it from within. They may wildly overestimate their capacity to transform an entrenched bureaucracy, but that desire is real. There is in fact nothing incongruous about African Americans attempting to reform the United States through demonstrations of patriotism. While it may be appropriate to dismiss these people politically by calling them cops, a failure to grapple with their motives impoverishes art. If every mainstream text were to be evaluated based on how it advances notions of, for example, posthuman Afropolitan existence, then most artistic output will be found wanting.
Wanzo: We never seem to get beyond positive and negative binaries, do we? But that is also indicative of how rarely people read media criticism from scholars. Scholars such as Hall and Herman Gray and Racquel Gates, and some of the work by the scholars in this conversation, address this. Yet there is a permanent disconnect between the complexity and genealogies of that scholarship and the belief that some representations are perpetually bad and others perpetually good. That’s a longer conversation about what it takes for work to cross over to be influential in the public sphere.
The “too political” claim is so ridiculous that if anyone has read even a single page of Alan Moore then it’s not worth discussing, but the “pro-cop” critique should be debated: Moore’s Watchmen was not only about the questionable pleasure in romantic narratives of superhero violence but about state violence in general. However, I think in the end it is an alternative history that can’t easily be mapped onto seeing the black cops as functioning the way black cops have been utilized in realist fictions. At the same time, the show does fail to interrogate imperialism and the Vietnam War. Criticisms of the show’s failure to address imperialism and treatment of Lady Trieu are right on.15
Warner: “But that is also indicative of how rarely people read media criticism from scholars.” Amen, Wanzo! Part of what I found so compelling about the series was noting how difficult and time-consuming it was to complicate the characterizations of Reeves, [Angela] Abar, and Jon/Cal/Dr. Manhattan [Yahya Abdul-Mateen II].16 There came a point when positive/negative would no longer be sufficient to answer the questions about their representation.
There were times when I wrongly assumed that the show was taking the easy way out with Angela’s representation because there are moments I read her early on as an instance of blind casting—the practice of casting actors for parts where race isn’t specifically mentioned in the description of the characters. Then there were moments where the toil of her development paid off when she tells Jon to wake up. Cal/Jon’s character is written smartly and transgressively, especially with regard to how it plays with the color-blind impetus of a white man [Jon] taking on the body of a black man [Cal] because that’s what Angela wants to look at. I knew Cal felt odd at the beginning of the series; that was a correct read. But it must have been a much more fun performance for Yahya once you consider just how he had to imagine this character (a black man playing a white man who doesn’t realize he’s a white man until a literal block is removed from his memory). If someone with only baseline or lay knowledge of positive/negative stereotyping watched the show, the analysis would be thin.
Gillespie: I can’t engage with the pro-cop criticism for the simple fact that it disallows for ambiguity and ambivalence with its tacit and strict binaries of positive (heroism) and negative (villainy). Overall, the show thrives on muddling that binary, and, thankfully, no character in the show meets the sociological/ethical demands placed on these categories by some critics. The cop critique suggests that Angela Abar essentially remains the same throughout. Is she really just a cop by the close of the series? How can a show that suggests that cops are historically in collusion with white supremacists be read as pro-cop?
For me, critiques that have been made of the series in terms of its treatment of Vietnam and imperialism do not acknowledge that Vietnam has a very particular function in its narrative arc: as an element of the show’s intertext and to develop Angela, Cal, and, to a lesser but still vital extent, Lady Trieu [Hong Chau]. I understand those critics who wanted the show to engage more deeply with the history of Vietnam, but I question whether the show must, or even could, do so in any way equivalent to the show’s radical regard for American/African American history.
Lindelof’s own regrets about Lady Trieu and the decision to keep the series at nine episodes should be kept in mind with regards to some of the criticism devoted to the character’s development.17 I say that not as a casual dismissal of concerns about marginalization, white supremacy, and media. Admittedly, I am trying to reconcile my own skepticism concerning the representation/image debates, the mythic efficacies of representation, and their implied political ends.18 Of course, the bigger issue for me is the weak conceptualization of representation in some criticism of the show and of media more generally.
Warner: I honestly think that Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School [of cultural criticism] would have had something to say about this pro-cop/anti-cop question.19 While I’ve read really persuasive analysis arguing that the show reinforces the power of the state, I would counter: it may, but I think the series finds itself much more comfortable in the space of ambivalence. It refuses to be simply about good and evil. What’s more, I believe that it’s truly the reading strategy and framework that you as a viewer enter into with Watchmen that defines how you translate that. I am weary of overdetermined yet perfectly argued assessments of televisual representation that do not take the medium and its commercial nature into account.
Gillespie: What are your thoughts about Damon Lindelof’s contention that Watchmen is “an expensive bit of fanfiction”? How does the series pose new ideas about adaptation and comic-book/graphic-novel adaptation more precisely?
Warner: The thing I like about Lindelof is that, at least as far as I can determine from his work on The Leftovers, he’s good about adhering to the source material—but when he’s completed that task and is allowed to play in the world built by that material, that’s when he shines. Seasons 2 and 3 of Leftovers are more interesting and perplexing and frustrating by far than season 1. Similarly, I think the way Lindelof approached Watchmen, with such reverence but also with an eye for what’s missing, allowed him to make a really successful piece of fan fiction. For me, fan fiction can be about correcting authorial errors but also be about picking up where a show left off or taking note of an unaddressed part of the story or character.
Wanzo: Watchmen does two things that are very standard in fan fiction: it continues a story beyond the existing material, and it thematically reimagines the conceptual center to address a different set of politics. Comics writers do this with long-standing characters all the time: a well-known example is Mark Millar’s Red Son, which imagines that Kal-El landed in the USSR instead of Smallville. So, I’m hesitant to make a claim that Watchmen poses new ideas about comic adaptation.20 I think it’s important to be careful about making claims about the radical newness of something when most cultural productions are shaped by one or more long genealogies.
Warner: When Lindelof describes reevaluating Watchmen and looking for some holes he could dig into, that’s the quintessential notion of fan fiction at work. Fan fiction often gets treated with disdain, so his description is self-deprecating when it need not be. Fan fiction is generative writing and often illustrates how closely audiences do watch texts—so closely at times that they can spot the inconsistencies and the undeveloped material. So, in his mind, it may represent a deficit, but it’s really good generative material informed by a great source.
Gillespie: Watchmen was an elaborate reading process. Over the course of the series, parallel narratives intersected, crossed, and integrated. Does the seriality of the series distinguish it from classical television narration? Might the series demonstrate a transtextual or multitextual model of comic-book narrativity? Formally speaking, what were some of your favorite things?
Wanzo: I’ve been noticing an increased play with time on television series to varied success. For decades, there have been shows with the occasional Rashomon-inspired episode, or other episodes that move back and forth in time in some way. But now a number of series have made temporal play a standard way of serial storytelling.
Manipulations of time have been done very successfully on Lindelof’s shows before. One of the best episodes of Lost was “The Constant” [season 4, episode 5], and similarly, Watchmen’s “A God Walks into Abar” [episode 8] turns on romantic love. There’s something about its tweaking of that theme (in relation to Dr. Manhattan simultaneously experiencing past, present, and future) that becomes an elegant meditation on race and genre. Both the pleasure and the disappointment of genre are, often, in its very predictability. And blackness, not just as theme but as narrative trajectory in drama, presupposes tragedy or uplift or other black narrative conventions.
Through the love plot, there’s also a hint of an indictment of narrative expectations of blackness: Dr. Manhattan says he falls in love with her at this moment after years together through her heroism, because for him that was always going to happen, she was always going to be that. And even without seeing what it is that Angela does as a god on earth, she was presented as exceptionally heroic and self-sacrificing.
I know a number of people were looking for a second season. But I felt that the story of Angela becoming what she already embodied was the important arc. When she begins to step on the water (with that clear Christ reference), it’s easy to imagine what she will be; it works because her character already represents an ideal for so many viewers. Unfortunately, people often ignore the present of black subjectivity by focusing on its utopian futurity.
Gillespie: You’re right, it’s a rare pleasure to see blackness narrativized as a formal and temporal principle in this way. “This Extraordinary Being” [episode 6], which features Angela’s overdose on Nostalgia pills, was remarkable in this sense, with its blend of embodied memory and epigenetic memory. And for me, too, “A God Walks into Abar,” with its multiple and simultaneous temporalities, was a highlight. There’s a lot of mise-en-scène labor in orchestrating Angela and Cal’s growing intimacy without showing his face. I was thrilled with how the blocked and canted framings of the camera accented the cycling of their romance, from beginning to end. The scene beautifully illustrates the nonlinearity of the series narrative in general.
Warner: I hadn’t read the graphic novel previously, only seen the film [Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009)], and remembered just a few moments. But I know Lindelof’s style, and that was what helped keep me grounded while watching. It’s a difficult show in those first couple of episodes. It’s not just that action is happening from the start, or that the characters aren’t clearly laid out, but that there’s a whole lot happening and overarching connections between the past and the present that you must attend to as a viewer.
Even as the opening seems to want to appear to be a procedural whodunnit, Watchmen lends you that crutch only long enough to get your bearings; then, it’s jetting past you and constantly laying the groundwork for wherever it is headed. This makes it different from a classical television show as it’s neither “least objectionable programming” nor unambiguous in its storytelling.21 I would also add that, unlike other series that purport to be edgy and want to claim prestige by making their audiences feel smart about really obvious stuff, Watchmen doesn’t seem to offer that generosity. And, yet, when you catch what it’s up to, it’s so enjoyable to watch as it reveals itself.
1. Denny O’ Neil (writer) and Neal Adams (artist), “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!,” Green Lantern, no. 76 (April 1970).
2. Programmed by Ashley Clark, the series ran February 2–18, 2018, and included Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971), The Harder They Come (Perry Henzell, 1972), The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973), Yeleen (Souleymane Cissé, 1987), Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974), Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984), Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992), Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995), Spawn (Mark A. Z. Dippé, 1997), Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998), and Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011). For the complete listing, see http://www.bam.org/film/2018/fight-the-power-black-superheroes-on-film.
3. Aimee Bahng, Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 8. Bahng importantly notes: “Speculation is not exclusively interested in predicting the future but is equally compelled to explore different accounts of history. It calls for a disruption of teleological ordering of the past, present, and future and foregrounds the processes of narrating the past (history) and the future (science)” (8).
4. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.
5. My thinking on this scene and its implications are drawn from Clyde Taylor, “Black Silence and the Politics of Representation,” in Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era, ed. Charles Musser, Jane M. Gaines, and Pearl Bowser (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016), 3–10. Taylor’s article explores race films around the time of the Tulsa Race Riot and examines how those films were undermined by Hollywood ultimately reducing blackness to a peripheral shadow economy that could be exploited. In Watchmen, by contrast, the opening sequence centers the black subject as the dominant viewer gathered around a black cinematic text.
6. See Jonathan W. Gray, “Watchmen after the End of History: Race, Redemption, and the End of the World,” ASAP/J, February 3, 2020, http://www.asapjournal.com/watchmen-after-the-end-of-history-race-redemption-and-the-end-of-the-world-jonathan-w-gray/.
7. The Golden Age of Comics is commonly understood as spanning a period from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. This period roughly corresponds to the time from the release of the first issue of the Superman comic (1938) up to the self-regulation of comic content with the formation of the Comics Code Authority (1954).
8. The current X-Men reboot takes this to its logical conclusion by having the mutants become citizens of a new nation where they use their powers to make that nation the most prosperous on earth. The mutants have essentially been given their own Wakanda.
9. See the previous discussion of Black Panther in Film Quarterly’s online Quorum: Racquel Gates and Kristen Warner, “Wakanda Forever: The Pleasures, the Politics, and the Problems,” Quorum, March 9, 2018, https://filmquarterly.org/2018/03/09/wakanda-forever-the-pleasures-the-politics-and-the-problems/.
10. Mary Desjardins, Recycled Stars: Female Film Stardom in the Age of Television and Video (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2015).
11. Desjardins, Recycled Stars, 38.
12. Mia Mask, Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
13. Sean O’Sullivan. “Serials and Satisfaction,” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, no. 63 (April 2013), https://doi.org/10.7202/1025614ar.
14. See DJ BenHaMeen and Tatiana King Jones, “Who Watches the Watchmayne Feat: Damon Lindelof,” For All Nerds Show, October 23, 2019, https://podbay.fm/podcast/632843709/e/1571850110; and Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, “Damon Lindelof on the World-Building of ‘Watchmen,’” The Watch, December 9, 2019, https://podbay.fm/podcast/1111739567/e/1575930268.
15. Viet Thanh Nguyen, “How ‘Watchmen’s’ Misunderstanding of Vietnam Undercuts Its Vision of Racism” Washington Post, December 18, 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/12/18/how-watchmens-misunderstanding-vietnam-undercuts-its-vision-racism/.
16. In Watchmen, the first version of Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan is a white man. But once Angela Abar chooses a different body for him so they can be together, Jon is subsumed into the body of Cal [Abdul-Mateen II], a black man. This is how the second Dr. Manhattan becomes “black” within the text: it is Cal’s body on the floor that Abar tells to wake up.
17. Damon Lindelof has said: “The original plan was to do 10 [episodes]. And, then, I think around the time that we had written the scripts for four and five, and understanding what episode six [“This Extraordinary Being”] was going to be …, that we were closer to the ending than we were to the beginning. Six didn’t feel like a midpoint. It felt like, we now know everything that we need to know to move into the endgame …. If there are any regrets, it’s that we didn’t get to dimensionalize Lady Trieu as much as we did in the writer’s room …. Especially given … the magnitude of [Hong Chau’s] performance …. It was one of those things where we got into the endgame of the season, and it felt like we were moving back too much, between episode seven and eight. We talked about Lady Trieu’s childhood, how she became who she was. But, a lot of her backstory got shorthanded between what Bian is saying to Angela[,] and [what] Lady Trieu is saying to Angela in episode seven.” Adam Chitwood, “Damon Lindelof Explains Why ‘Watchmen’ Was Shortened to 9 Episodes Instead of the Original 10,” Collider, December 17, 2019, https://collider.com/why-watchmen-was-9-episodes-instead-of-10/.
18. Shawn Shimpach is insightful on the importance of Watchmen: “Here’s a show deeply and at length imagining, pondering, and delving into a complex history of nation and race and justice, among the very few that have done so like this. So, maybe let’s get into that instead of immediately looking for ‘what else’ or ‘what about.’ Let’s bring at least one margin to the center for a minute and look at that before claiming this is a failure because it didn’t bring more or all to the center, by itself, all at once.” Shawn Shimpach, personal communication with author, March 14, 2020.
19. See Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (London: Macmillan International Higher Education, 2013 ).
20. Superman: Red Son was recently adapted as an animated film (Sam Liu, 2020).
21. “Least objectionable programming” was a television network policy established in the 1960s that prioritized providing content that would be found objectionable by the least number of its potential audience as a means of maintaining viewership and courting advertisers.
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