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Contribution

Cette contribution est issue de l’ouvrage collectif : Sylvie Allouche & Théo Touret-Dengreville (éd.), Sécurité et politique dans les séries de superhéros

People that Wear Masks are Dangerous. Why did HBO Watchmen find a home for superheroes in Tulsa ?

Masks, identity and costume are the key to the narrative and story building that take place within the multiple histories that intertwine to make HBO Watchmen. Within the narrative masks are presented as being an essential but constantly contested and destabilising force in the cultural and social history of the populations of Tulsa.

The story of the mask, identity and costume begins in the opening scenes of HBO Watchmen when a little black boy stares up, transfixed in wonder, at a cinema screen watching a silent film in an empty theatre. Music is provided by a worried looking woman frantically playing piano. Glowing iridescent white on the screen, a hero on horseback performs a dramatic double reveal, first by informing the church going town folk that their Sheriff is a “scoundrel” and then by removing his mask, to reveal that he is Bass Reeves, the Black Marshal of Oklahoma. This opening sequence immediately challenges and destabilises the power that is held by the institutions of law and order, by placing the Black Marshal in the lead role while emphasising the centrality and the importance of the Black experience and gaze.

What do we find when we look at the historical context of the mask wearing vigilante/superhero and its treatment in HBO Watchmen ? Kristen Warner describes the modes of representation used here as a “very potent attempt at televisual remediation”, and when we look at this in combination with the visual and cultural impact of the introduction of the mom/cop/superhero Angela Abar/Sister Night, and her experiences in the many environments that she operates in HBO Watchmen, it becomes something more and as Warner describes, it is “like microdosing racialized remediation across nine episodes of storytelling”1. Looking at HBO Watchmen in this context leads to the question of what is revealed about the multiple motivations for masking and the many debates around masking, identity, costume and race, and how it is decided what should be concealed and what it is safe to reveal.

Although the underlying framework and many of the characters that feature in HBO Watchmen are not new, having previously been featured in a series of twelve DC comics that became a graphic novel and a feature film, the iteration of Watchmen that I will focus on in this chapter is neither a sequel to, nor a re-telling of the narratives that were explored previously. Long regarded as being impossible to adapt for screen, a movie version of Watchmen (directed by Zach Snyder, produced by Warner Bros, 2009) enjoyed little commercial and critical success, failing to resonate on a cultural level beyond its fans. The 2019 reimagining of Watchmen from HBO shifted the geographical locations of the narrative and introduced new protagonists, contexts, and timescales. This chapter will focus on the impact of the addition of the new Black female protagonist, Angela Abar/Sister Night, and will seek to demonstrate how the intricate sculpting of her fictional and real background and origins in the city of Tulsa informs the story world of the new reimagining of HBO Watchmen.

The most obvious shift in HBO Watchmen that stands in stark contrast with earlier comic and film versions is the shift from New York to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Until HBO Watchmen, Tulsa was known, among white audiences at least, primarily as a cultural reference in popular music and as the backdrop for the musical Oklahoma !. From its opening moments, HBO Watchmen gives graphic representation to the real-life events that took place in Tulsa in 1921. Known variously as the destruction of the Greenwood District, the Tulsa race riot or the destruction of Black Wall Street, the events of 1921 were finally represented for the first time on screen in 2019. This depiction of real-life events in HBO Watchmen places them within the story world of a contemporary superhero/cop show, while offering the space to visualise the violent expression of State sanctioned white supremacism in an innovative way. Kristen Warner describes this depiction as accommodating the “complex dystopia of the images and the narrative”2. This historical grounding in events that are on the one hand too horrific to believe, but on the other hand, painfully true portrayals of a horrifying mass event that has been largely hidden from history, makes possible the building of a story world that engages directly with both real history and the cultural origins of the comic book superhero.

When the protagonist, Angela Abar, is introduced for the first time, thirteen minutes into the first episode, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”, she is standing in front of a chalkboard wearing a blue silk, shortened and tailored version of traditional Vietnamese dress. The introduction of Angela Abar as the owner of a bakery and active school mom, sharing her professional knowledge and experience in front of a classroom full of children, provides an apparent background and believable identity and context, which is quickly revealed to be a complex plot device, a misdirection or sleight of hand, that encapsulates and articulates some of the tensions around truth, deception, origins, assumptions and history that are explored throughout the nine episodes. The accumulation of expectation, knowledge and doubt that drives the HBO Watchmen narrative plays with audience expectation and creates a storytelling environment in which any definite sense of the present is oddly absent.

In the HBO Watchmen story world there is no action or interaction that is free from the disruptive influence of the past. The past is articulated in a number of ways ; in the apparently maternal, it is personal ; in the sharing of knowledge and experience with the school children, it is social ; in the abandonment of the real history of the Vietnam war, it is cultural ; in Angela Abar’s position as a police officer, it is institutional ; but most importantly the past is omnipresent, inescapable and inhabiting the space where the present should be.

After the opening sequence that depicted the heroic Marshal Bass Reeves and the harrowing violence of the racist attacks on the Black community in Greenwood, Tulsa, in 1921, HBO Watchmen jumps forward to what looks like the present in a contemporary American classroom, where we see Angela Abar demonstrating how to separate eggs to a room full of apparently attentive children. She speaks of her childhood in Vietnam and the annual tradition of eating Moon Cakes. Here, in just one scene, the audience is introduced to some of the defining events and concepts that form the narrative framework of HBO Watchmen. The atmosphere in the classroom is tinged with tension ; Angela Abar is abruptly stopped from discussing the injuries she sustained in the recent the white night attack, when the 7th Kavalry mounted attacks on the Tulsa police that left only Angela Abar and Judd Crawford alive. The class ends in violence, when Angela Abar’s child Topher beats up her interlocutor after a question about ‘Redfordations’ paying for the bakery. On the drive home Angela Abar and Topher discuss racism and her interlocutor’s use of the apparently taboo term ‘Redfordations’, which is a colloquial term used to describe reparation payments made to the descendants of the victims of racist aggression. Their journey is interrupted by the sound of warning sirens and thousands of tiny squids falling from the sky. They arrive home, at a traditional American suburban home where we see a man accompanied by a little girl, hosing down the front yard after the squids fall. This beautiful nuclear family is not what it seems. The three children of the family were orphaned during the white night, the eldest child Topher protected his two younger sisters while their father (Angela Abar’s police partner) and their mother were murdered, and they were eventually adopted by Angela and Cal Abar. As they stand on the lawn, the man, Cal, hands Angela a pager with the message “LITTLE BIGHORN” to which she replies “I gotta to go to the bakery”. It is striking that this is not code, the bakery exists, but it is not what it appears to be. This is a theme that is echoed throughout the nine episodes. Cal Abar appears to be a docile and loving house husband but he is later revealed to be Dr Jonathan Osterman/Dr Manhattan, a white man that has taken over the body of a deceased Black man because that is what Angela Abar wants to look at. Cal is a superhero that relinquished his superpowers, memory and knowledge in order to have ten years of blissful love with Angela Abar. In HBO Watchmen, identity is fluid and rarely simple, almost every relationship is disrupted and shaped by violence or racism, but this is by no means a simple tale that is motivated by trauma.

In just a handful of scenes, the contemporary context of HBO Watchmen is sketched out and it is steeped in history. Some of this history is real and some of it fictional, but it is all there ; its presence is material and it surrounds the character of Angela Abar/Sister Night. The tension between the roles of wife/mother/former cop/baker that are contained within Angela Abar is intertwined with the secret identity that lies within her Milk and Hanoi bakery. The bakery is important in a number of levels. It is here that she meets and eventually detains the elderly man in the wheelchair who she will eventually learn is her Grandfather, Will Reeves aka Hooded Justice, the little boy from the movie theatre at the start of HBO Watchmen who became a cop, a masked vigilante and latterly a Minuteman. The Milk and Hanoi bakery is where Angela Abar stores the costume, weapons and car that she uses for her transformation into the anonymous police detective, and potential superhero Sister Night. In the chapter that discusses the comic Watchmen in The Superhero Costume : Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction, Brownie and Graydon assert that “many of the costumes that appear in Watchmen are first introduced as empty vessels, removed from the bodies of the heroes who once inhabited them”3. This is a theme that continues in HBO Watchmen when the Sister Night costume is introduced as part of the background or mise en scene, hanging in an illuminated closet when Angela Abar walks through the secure rooms of the Milk and Hanoi bakery. We see this again, when the costume that Will Reeves appropriates to become Hooded Justice is seen initially as a weapon that will be used against him by his fellow police officers as they seek to silence him and stop his investigation into the white supremacy organisation Cyclops.

The idea that the “costume is so rarely encountered apart from its wearer that the body is notable in its absence” is inverted in HBO Watchmen and is especially relevant in the case of Angela Abar/Sister Night and the Chief of Police Judd Crawford4. Although Crawford is not presented as a superhero, we see him in making costume changes and wearing variety of costumes : theatre goer, Chief of Police, trusted family friend and heroic rescuer but never once masked. It is only after his death, and after Angela Abar has a conversation with Will Reeves in Milk and Hanoi bakery that there is call to doubt the integrity of her recently deceased friend. Angela Abar, her curiosity piqued by the conversation with her grandfather, begins to question her judgement and belief in the sincerity of her friend, and after a feigned fainting attack at Crawford’s pre-funeral wake, furtively enters Crawford’s closet wearing X-ray goggles that reveal the white hood and gown of the Ku Klux Klan, concealed in a secret compartment. Whereas, according to Brownie and Graydon’s suggestion, the comic “Watchmen’s empty costumes are memorials to the Golden Age of superheroes”, in HBO Watchmen they are rather used to cast doubt over the assumptions that come with familiarity and convention, whether that refers to the conventions of the superhero, the vigilante or the Klansmen5.

HBO Watchmen follows Angela Abar/Sister Night over the course of nine episodes as she investigates the apparent suicide or lynching of her close friend and colleague Judd Crawford, while attempting to unearth the truth about her own troubled past. This contrasts with the original Watchmen comic that was narrated from the point of view of various protagonists, among which a male masked vigilante character with the pseudonym Rorschach, a bitter, alienated misogynist operating beyond the law with his own absolutist interpretation of right and wrong6. In HBO Watchmen, the image and motivating philosophy of Rorschach is brought to life as the highly organised, masked underground mob of white supremacists that have assumed the name ‘the 7th Kavalry’. As an example of the closely intertwined nature of the connections between the violent and colonial history of the United States of America, the original comic and HBO Watchmen, ‘the 7th Cavalry’, with its cultural and historic associations with the American military and the ill-fated 1876 battle of Little Big Horn, led by General Custer and his 7th Cavalry, calls back to Angela Abar’s pager call in the first episode. Little Big Horn appears in the first Watchmen when it is referenced by Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias as a metaphoric antithesis to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and becomes the embodiment of white supremacy and organised communal aggression in HBO Watchmen.

HBO Watchmen uses the potential offered by this new register of representation and storytelling, by abandoning the narrative of the earlier comic series and feature film to reinterpret, reshape and, perhaps crucially, expand the narrative potential of the alternate reality and story world that the previous versions had created7. In HBO Watchmen this is used to expose the limitations of traditional notions of the female superhero and to explore the limitations of the conventions of the wider superhero genre.

People that Wear Masks are Dangerous

Through the nine episodes, HBO Watchmen covers almost one hundred years of history, carefully sculpting a story world that is grounded in a historical and cultural reality but with the action expressed in an alternate, fantasy world that offers rhetorical space for the investigation of themes that might otherwise be overwhelming in a limited series run. The discussions around race and power that have dominated racial and social justice discourse around the world since 2019 are themes in HBO Watchmen that encourage reflection on the nature of institutionalised power and the potential for abuse and exploitation that is inherent to them. There are a number of moments in HBO Watchmen where the nature, character and motivation of the mask wearers are challenged. As when we see Angela Abar in the secure rooms of her bakery, airbrushing a black mask around her eyes as part of her transformation into the bad ass cop/superhero Sister Night. This, when coupled with her black leather trousers and adapted habit costume with metal, weaponised rosary beads and the black fabric mask that she pulls over the lower part of her face, implies an ambivalence and an active challenge to notions of anonymity, disguise and interchangeability that are afforded by the costume of the traditional superhero.

In episode six, ‘This Extraordinary Being’, Angela Abar experiences her grandfather, Will Reeves’ memories and the trauma of his lived experiences through the use of the synthetic drug Nostalgia. The misuse of a heavy dose of her grandfather’s personal Nostalgia reveals that the first superhero of the HBO Watchmen series Hooded Justice also disguised his appearance by using white powder around his eyes, hiding his Blackness and making it possible for him to actively pursue his vigilantism within the established order of white supremacism, without being murdered himself as punishment for transgressing racial divides or having his identity exposed. The way anonymity provides safety in HBO Watchmen challenges the traditional ideas of the superhero while centring on Black experience, that Warner describes as something of a paradox with “the visibility of his black invisibility put on display in such a tragic manner”8. The representation of the mortal fear of exposure, torture and death, and the articulation of the methods to avoid detection by the ever vigilant and omnipresent white anxiety on a Black body become the location of “racial disruption” instead of being the location of racial violence as has traditionally been the case9.

The Mask as Identity

The third episode of HBO Watchmen, ‘She Was Killed by Space Junk’, introduces a reimagined, expanded version of a character from the Watchmen comic, FBI Special Agent Laurie Blake aka Silk Spectre II. In HBO Watchmen the character of Blake is explored in a phase of life that was not covered in the Watchmen comic. In HBO Watchmen Laurie Blake has long abandoned her former role as a masked vigilante and is now a lead agent in the FBI’s Anti-Vigilante Task Force. Her background and world-weary attitude are introduced and confirmed in HBO Watchmen, with the addition of her travelling partner Special Agent Dale Petey, who is a fan of her previous work and holds a PhD in History. Agent Petey’s investigations are available in an expansive online extension to the 9 episodes published by HBO called ‘Petepedia’10.

Agent Laurie Blake’s first introduction to Angela Abar takes place at Judd Crawford’s heavily guarded funeral. We see Angela Abar and her husband Cal standing with their children in the cemetery when Laurie Blake introduces herself as “Laurie Blake. FBI” and shakes hands as she asks “Do you know how to tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante ? ”. Angela Abar shakes her head and replies “no”, to which Blake, shrugging and smiling, replies “me neither”. In this 20 second clip HBO Watchmen has revealed the ambivalence that underlies Angela Abar’s journey from being an impressionable, curious child that wanted to watch the age inappropriate, fictional VHS video of ‘Sister Night’ because she could see herself in the lead role, to being a multifaceted adult. This tension is articulated through her role as a masked and violent officer of law enforcement that is prone to adopting characteristics that are dangerously near to vigilantism, and her role as a mourner at a friend and colleague’s funeral, unmasked, maternal and spousal. This sequence and Blake’s rhetorical question articulate what Brownie described as the superhero being in danger of exposing “himself to possible misinterpretation. Costumes and masks so frequently indicate criminal or deceptive behavior that the superhero risks being associated with unsavory acts. Commonly, people who wear a mask to protect their identity are usually people who are undertaking villainous or morally questionable acts. For example, bank robbers wear masks, as do the Ku Klux Klan”11. It is interesting that Brownie places the masked bank robber before the membership of an organised, murderous organisation of white supremacists, which illustrates the need for the kind of cultural re-evaluation of race and the wearing of masks that is offered by HBO Watchmen.

Tulsa : Home

The creative decision to switch the focus of the narrative and the different demands that this placed upon the storytelling modes in HBO Watchmen produced an environment where the history and the cultural impact of white supremacism and racism could be explored in a new way. Relocating the narrative from its previous home in New York to the American city of Tulsa, in the state of Oklahoma, provided a recognisable, real world context that could act as a central point to anchor the, at times complicated, non-linear story world narratives. Naturally this is never without a cost, and in the case of HBO Watchmen, there is very little attention afforded to the stories and history of the people of the first nations that lived in Oklahoma and Tulsa for thousands of years before it became the location for one hundred years of racial violence and tensions. As I seek to interpret and understand the representational modes that are used in the worldbuilding and the re-engineering of the real and the fictional worlds that are revealed in HBO Watchmen, it is worthwhile examining the creative methods used to shift the focus of the narrative of the comic series away from the struggles of the white (male) population and the predominantly white (male) superheroes that were the protagonists in the first two versions to the HBO Watchmen story world and its stern focus on the shared history of Angela Abar and Will Reeves.

Critical Race Theory

HBO Watchmen confronts many of the questions of race, power and control from within the framework of a number of institutions : the family ; the police force ; government from within the overarching history of white supremacism. Part of the examination of these aspects of HBO Watchmen can be better articulated through the lens of critical race theory. In Racialism and the Media, Venise T. Berry explores how the representation of race through the use of stereotypes, bias and myth has traditionally framed “black cultural issues in adverse ways”12. This underpins my assertions regarding the shift of focus to the Black female protagonist and the repositioning of the HBO Watchmen story world in Tulsa both past and present. To achieve this we require a brief exploration of the treatment of the superhero in HBO Watchmen, with a focus on the inversion of the genre’s traditional focus on the white male superhero and the conventional notions around identity, costume and disguise, and their relation to the shared cultural history and the lived realities of the Black protagonists.

If I Knew Who I Was I Wouldn’t Have to Wear the Mask

American Hero Story is the hugely popular television show that is reaching its climax as the action unfolds in HBO Watchmen. This is a show within a show that is intimately connected to the history of the people and place in contemporary Tulsa. Although within the narrative it is not immediately revealed, American Hero Story is a fantasy retelling of Will Reeves’ life story and his time as Hooded Justice in the 1940s. We see short sequences of the show within the show, American Hero Story watched on a television, by a man wearing a mirrored hood, rolled up to reveal his mouth and chin, eating beans with a spoon from the tin, while sitting on a vintage sofa. This man is Wade Tillman aka Looking Glass, a detective in Tulsa police who specialises in finding the truth and identifying white supremacists through analysis of people’s speech and involuntary movements and actions. While watching American Hero Story, Tillman is given momentary pause for thought when the storekeeper asks the masked (super)hero who he is, and Hooded Justice replies that if he knew the answer to that he wouldn’t be wearing a mask.

The debates that occur around mask wearing and the pointed questions about the value and societal benefits of the mask in HBO Watchmen can be compared with the almost two years into the global COVID-19 pandemic that have seen masks both venerated and dismissed, being treated as a controversial and unnecessary intervention by some, and regarded by others as a simple courtesy. The wearing of masks is undoubtedly political, on one hand mandatory and commonplace, while simultaneously being the focus of mass protests and ceremonial burnings. The investigation of the politics of mask wearing in HBO Watchmen is prescient in its presentation as it illuminates the polarisation and disruption of opinions that the mask provokes even in its absence. In light of the pandemic, exploring notions of what is revealed and what is concealed, who we really are and what is known becomes more compelling and demanding of investigation. Brownie’s suggestion that mask wearing “may itself be considered morally questionable, as it is a deception of sorts” now seems like a curiously naive relic of a bygone age, and the arguments that are made by the Tulsa police that their masks protect everyone have assumed an uncanny and almost prophetic nature13.

In HBO Watchmen and its meta show American Hero Story great attention is paid to the mask ; the audience is presented with three masked men. One a definite, old fashioned, easy to recognise 1940s bad guy ; the second, a hyper modern reflective stretch hood worn apparently indoors, at home alone, and the third, the hood of hooded justice, the star of American Hero Story. This show within the show mirrors, tracks and adds emphasis to the present and the past of the characters throughout the series. When we are presented with a fantastic, contemporary, mediated version of the 1940s Jim Crow past in the grocery store robbery, we see a clear transgression of the racial segregation that Hooded Justice seeks to ignore and dominate, that is made more resonant by the imperative to retain disguise, being, quite literally, on pain of death.

Alternate Realities Demand a Different Kind of Attention

The story world that the HBO Watchmen characters exist in differs from ours in a number of ways. To give a little historical context to Dr Manhattan and his celebrated status on Earth, in the Watchmen comic series superheroes were outlawed and Dr Manhattan was one of the only superheroes that were permitted to operate as a superhero. At the request of President Nixon, Dr Manhattan was responsible for the American victory in the Vietnam War. In HBO Watchmen, in common with the comic, Dr Manhattan is believed to be living on Mars having tired of his existence on Earth. The removal of the American defeat in Vietnam from the narrative of history, and the expunging of the federally regulated maximum of two presidential terms, along with the counterfactual outcome of the Watergate scandal, re-position the narrative in an (in reality, at least) unexplored, temporal dimension, or what John Storey has called a “narrative paradigm”14. This new narrative space is unhindered by the catastrophic defeats and erosion of public trust that characterised the 1970s. Watchmen offers an alternative “regime of truth” in its creation of a world where “the spectre (of defeat in Vietnam) that had come to haunt America’s political and military self-image” quite simply does not exist15. The carefully selected society that is portrayed in HBO Watchmen is free of what Storey refers to as the specific “traumatic memory” of the lost moral authority and trust that was brought about through a combination of Watergate and Vietnam (178)16.

In HBO Watchmen alternative world, Robert Redford becomes president of the USA after the death of Nixon, and introduces a system of financial reparations (Redfordations) that are payed to the victims and descendants of those affected by racial violence and injustice. In this world, it is the fact that this policy is held as unfair by some that motivates the rise of ‘the 7th Kavalry’, the Rorschach mask wearing, murderous vigilante crew. HBO Watchmen plays on the dissonance that has operated within the Tulsa police force as they chose to mask themselves as an almost direct reflection of the anonymity of ‘the 7th Kavalry’. As Brownie suggests, “those characters in superhero narratives who plot to reveal the hero’s identity do so because they understand the true power of the mask”17. In HBO Watchmen the mask empowers and disempowers in equal measure, where there is vulnerability, the mask emphasises it, and where there is strength it is magnified by the mask.

Foucault suggests that “in a normalizing society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable. When you have a normalizing society, you have a power which is, at least superficially, in the first instance, or in the first line, a biopower, and racism is the indispensable precondition that allows someone to be killed, and that allows others to be killed. Once the State functions in the biopower mode, racism alone can justify the murderous function of the State”18. HBO Watchmen engages with these notions in the explosive bouts of violence that are so exaggerated and wild that it is difficult to guarantee the ‘correct’ outcome. This is demonstrated in the first confrontation with the 7th Kavalry when Sister Night and her colleagues are almost outgunned and are perilously close to defeat until Judd Crawford arrives with an almost science fiction airship that defeats the Rorschach mask wearing white supremacists.

Is Angela Abar/Sister Night a Superhero ?

HBO Watchmen suggests that the only real superhero in Watchmen is blue. But he is positioned as being remote and leading his existence on Mars, while within the narrative it appears that the active superhero in HBO Watchmen may be the star of American Hero Story, Hooded Justice. The promotional material hints that Angela Abar, in her role as Sister Night, may be a superhero when she is photographed standing in front of the bright yellow circle, tinged with blue. There is a distinctive blue halo of light in the Abar household, but it is not obvious on the first viewing. But when Angela Abar walks through the streetscape of Tulsa on her way to the bakery after receiving the Little Big Horn pager message, the scene is laden with American Hero Story promotions, which raises the question : is she the superhero ? Within this story world there is no reason why she should not be a superhero. In her role as the masked and (almost caped) Sister Night, she is undeniably capable of incredible feats of physicality and explosive violence that are not traditionally associated with female characters.

What has this analysis revealed so far ? The story world that HBO Watchmen moved without explanation from New York to Tulsa, Oklahoma, has vigorously asserted its right to take its place in the cultural space that was previously home to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma ! (1955)19. With the first screened dramatisation of the events in Greenwood in 1921, Tulsa has secured its place in history and finally memorialised the events where Black residents and businesses were destroyed in a three day campaign of violence and terror20. It is clear that the decision to place the drama in Tulsa is political. In Racialism and the Media Venise T. Berry suggests that “racialism” is the best way to “explain racial images and messages outside of the extreme notion of racism”21. For Berry, racism has “extreme historical ties” that push it “into a deep abyss of negativity, fear and hatred”22. I propose that as an example of a mediated text, HBO Watchmen offers the audience the positive opportunity to “feed our societal norms and ultimately influence how meaning is constructed and deconstructed around the world”23.

The representation of race in HBO Watchmen operates in a way that acknowledges the existence of traditional representations of race, while releasing them from being embedded in the old debates, and allowing them to move into a position where it is possible to “accumulate cultural capital” by “creating culturally resonant connections”24. The critical space that is created by the representations of the Black experiences in HBO Watchmen are free of the historic connections to what Berry calls the “negative discourses about race and ethnicity”25. Locating HBO Watchmen in Tulsa and centring the action around a Black female protagonist makes and most importantly fills the space for the creation of “black survivors, black women heroes, black male champions and black cultural power”26. The space for cultural expression of alternative representations and new ideals of Blackness in HBO Watchmen creates a progressive discursive space that presents complex historical arguments in a way that both educates and entertains.

HBO Watchmen takes place at a moment of distinct crisis and racial tension that presents reflections on the existing historical myths and stereotypes without magnifying them. By choosing to position the action in the alternative reality of the superhero, like the “folktales, myths and mysticism” of the past, HBO Watchmen enjoys the “opportunity to envision a future that does not look like the past when it comes to race and race relations”27. The narrative of HBO Watchmen, that centres around the “richly textured” life of the protagonist Angela Abar/Sister Night and her investigation into her own origins and their connection to the murder of an apparently dear friend, the Chief of Tulsa Police, Judd Crawford, to paraphrase Berry again, offers the audience the opportunity to observe the construction of a possible future “through a black lens”28. The inversion of the traditional deep/low South representation of the lynching of, in this case, a white (power) authority figure is a shift that repositions the Black experience away from that of the victim, towards that of the powerful protagonist. This position is emphasised again in the meta narrative of American Hero Story and the revelation that the 100 year old Will Reeves was, and importantly for the contemporary timeline in HBO Watchmen is, Hooded Justice, the star of American Hero Story, and a newly active protagonist in the life of Angela Abar/Sister Night.

Conclusion

In his paper “The Invisible Weight of Whiteness” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva makes a strong assertion that he thinks may be sufficient to change the normative position that whiteness holds in cultural products : “maybe it is time for people of colour to follow Tyrone Forman’s advice and stop watching white movies and white TV shows as they ultimately poison their soul and it may be a formidable way of raising the issue and forcing the hand of filmmakers and TV producers”29. In so many ways the hegemonic nature of the influence of whiteness can seem as impenetrable as Lady Trieu’s compound in HBO Watchmen, but when the decision to locate the action in Tulsa was made, it opened up the possibility of re-imagining a present where there is the possibility of an element of racial justice. The cultural presence of Angela Abar/Sister Night in her multiple and interchangeable roles, and the recognition of the shared cultural experience of the Black population of Tulsa and the US at large, offer a new cultural space for the representation of strong, Black, female identity. When HBO Watchmen was released at the end of 2019, while both the Black Lives Matter movement and the white supremacism of the Republicans movement led by Trump were gathering confidence and pace, it created a much needed alternative space for the meditation of our expectations, as an audience, regarding race, colonialism, gender and sexuality. This is not an in-between space to answer the societal polarisation that we saw at the end of 2019, it is a space for the exploration of counterfactual outcomes and obvious fantasy and imagination that are grounded in a specific place and time in history.

Although the utopian ideal that is offered by HBO Watchmen is compelling, and offers an innovative space for the production of new meanings and cultural understandings, it is not entirely unproblematic. There is a dissonance required in accepting the notion of an American victory in Vietnam, and that the subsequent events are anything other than a stiflingly traditional act of colonial aggression. The absence of recognition for the experiences of the peoples of the first nations that were arguably the earliest recipients of the unstoppable waves of white aggression is a striking dereliction of representation in a text as rich as that of HBO Watchmen, with its enormous geographical and historical scope. Carrying out this analysis has raised one hundred times more questions than I could answer, with every theme that I have explored being home to ever more subthemes that I hope to explore in more depth in future writing.

Works Cited

BERRY V. T., Racialism and the Media : Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President, New York, Peter Lang, 2020.

BONILLA-SILVA E., “The Invisible Weight of Whiteness : The Racial Grammar of Everyday Life in Contemporary America”, Ethnic and Racial Studies vol. 35, n°2.2., February 2012, p. 173-194.

BROWNIE B., GRAYDON D., The Superhero Costume : Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

CRENSHAW K. et al., Seeing Race Again : Countering Colorblindness Across the Disciplines, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2020.

DAVIS B., “Beyond Watchmen”, Cinema Journal vol. 56, n°2, Winter 2017, p. 114-119.

DELGADO R., STEFANCIC J., Critical Race Theory. An Introduction, 3rd edition, New York, New York University Press, 2017.

DI PAOLO M., War, Politics and Superheroes Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, Jefferson, McFarland & Co., 2011.

FOUCAULT M., Society Must Be Defended [Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76], London, Picador, 2003.

GILLESPIE M. B., “Thinking about Watchmen : with Jonathan W Gray, Rebecca A. Wanzo, and Kristen J. Warner”, Film Quarterly vol. 73, n°4, 2020, p. 50-60, doi : 10.1525/FQ. 2020.73.4. 50.

LINDELOF D., Watchmen, HBO, 2019.

LINDELOF D., The Official Watchmen Podcast, hosted by C. Mazin, HBO, www.hbo.com/watchmen/watchmen-listen-to-official-podcast, accessed 11 Oct. 2021.

LYNCH J., “Watchmen (HBO)”, Adweek vol. 61, n°23, 26 Oct. 2020, p. 24, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A641250990/AONE ? u=amst&sid=AONE&xid=0de7bb19, accessed 4 Dec. 2020.

MCKINNEY Ch. W., Greater Freedom. The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina, Lanham, University Press of America, 2010.

MIETTINEN M., “Men of Steel ? Rorschach, Theweleit, and Watchmen’s Deconstructed Masculinity”, PS : Political Science & Politics vol. 47, n°1, Jan. 2014, p. 104-107, doi : 10.1017/S1049096513001686.

MOORE A. et al., Watchmen, Burbank, DC Comics, 2008.

PRESTON J., Disaster Education : ‘Race’, Equity and Pedagogy, Rotterdam, Sense Publishers, 2012, doi : 10.1007/978-94-6091-873-5.

PRICE P., “At the Crossroads : Critical Race Theory and Critical Geographies of Race”, Progress in Human Geography vol. 34, n°2, Apr. 2010, p. 147-174, doi : 10.1177/0309132509339005.

PRINCE M., “Alan Moore’s America : The Liberal Individual and American Identities in Watchmen”, Journal of Popular Culture vol. 44, n° 4, 2011, p. 815-830, doi : 10.1111/j. 1540-5931.2011.00864.x.

STOREY, J., Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. An Introduction, 5th edition, Harlow, Pearson/Longman, 2009.

Notes

1. Warner (Thinking About Watchmen, 52. La référence manque.

2. Warner (Thinking About Watchmen, 53. La référence manque.

3. B. Brownie, D. Graydon, The Superhero Costume : Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, p. 141.

4. B. Brownie, D. Graydon, The Superhero Costume : Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, p. 143.

5. B. Brownie, D. Graydon, The Superhero Costume : Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, p. 141.

6. Brownie describes the original Rorschach in the Watchmen chapter of The Superhero Costume. Rorschach continues to refer to his mask as his “face” throughout Watchmen. Indeed, he seems to display such abject terror at losing his mask that it is as if the inkblot fabric really is his own skin, and he cannot comprehend the possibility of his own existence without it. Reflecting his feelings of shame about all things human, Rorschach’s “face” is absent of facial features. It presents itself as an inkblot test, used by psychiatrists to discern an individual’s subconscious desires and intentions, from which Rorschach also takes his name. The Rorschach inkblot has no meaning of its own. Its meaning is projected onto it by the viewer.

7. It is worth mentioning that I will not be referring to the Watchmen movie that was released in 2009 since it does not develop the ideas that appeared in the comic first in an interesting or innovative way.

8. Warner, 53. La référence manque.

9. Warner, 53. La référence manque.

10. HBO Watchmen is supported by an online dossier that elaborates and explains some of the background of and investigations into the events in Tulsa, https://www.hbo.com/peteypedia.

11. B. Brownie, D. Graydon, The Superhero Costume : Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, p. 37.

12. V. T. Berry, Racialism and the Media : Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President, New York, Peter Lang, 2020, p. 4.

13. B. Brownie, D. Graydon, The Superhero Costume : Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, p. 39.

14. J. Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. An Introduction, 5th edition, Harlow, Pearson/Longman, 2009, p. 173.

15. J. Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. An Introduction, 5th edition, Harlow, Pearson/Longman, 2009, p. 176.

16. It is worth mentioning that the alternative story world created in Watchmen, by nature of its many inventions, also removes the two terms as President that were served by Barack Obama.

17. B. Brownie, D. Graydon, The Superhero Costume : Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, p. 140.

18. M. Foucault, Society Must Be Defended [Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76], London, Picador, 2003, p. 256.

19. The stage play of an inclusive version of Oklahoma ! (1943) appears in the first episode of Watchmen but sadly I have not got the space to discuss that here.

20. A link to information about the events of 1921 : https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/.

21. V. T. Berry, Racialism and the Media : Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President, New York, Peter Lang, 2020, p. 3.

22. V. T. Berry, Racialism and the Media : Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President, New York, Peter Lang, 2020, p. 7.

23. V. T. Berry, Racialism and the Media : Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President, New York, Peter Lang, 2020, p. 7.

24. V. T. Berry, Racialism and the Media : Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President, New York, Peter Lang, 2020, p. 121.

25. V. T. Berry, Racialism and the Media : Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President, New York, Peter Lang, 2020, p. 133.

26. V. T. Berry, Racialism and the Media : Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President, New York, Peter Lang, 2020, p. 142.

27. V. T. Berry, Racialism and the Media : Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President, New York, Peter Lang, 2020, p. 142.

28. V. T. Berry, Racialism and the Media : Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President, New York, Peter Lang, 2020, p. 148.

29. E. Bonilla-Silva, “The Invisible Weight of Whiteness : The Racial Grammar of Everyday Life in Contemporary America”, Ethnic and Racial Studies vol. 35, n°2.2., February 2012, p. 181.

Citation

Clair Richards, « People that Wear Masks are Dangerous. Why did HBO Watchmen find a home for superheroes in Tulsa ? », dans Sylvie Allouche & Théo Touret-Dengreville (éd.), Sécurité et politique dans les séries de superhéros Archive ouverte J. Vrin, visité le 24 juillet 2024, https://archive-ouverte.vrin.fr/item/richards_people_that_wear_masks_are_dangerous_why_did_hbo_watchmen_find_a_home_for_superheroes_in_tulsa_2023

Auteure

Clair Richards is a copywriter, independent scholar and occasional producer of videographic criticism that explores themes around race, class, and the body in motion.

cryptic.clairgmail.com

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