Natasha Ochshorn, CUNY Graduate Center
It is the summer of 2019. I am allowing myself to become excited for Watchmen; Damon Lindelof’s upcoming television sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons 1986 limited series superhero comic. I have been trying to remember why I loved superheroes. I read. It’s 1985 and Dan Dreiberg is dreaming of nuclear annihilation. It’s 2019 and Dan Dreiberg is dreaming of nuclear annihilation.
It’s 2009 and I’m borrowing my mom’s newspaper so I can read the review of Watchmen, a new movie that has just come out. It feels adult to have concerns that need checking up on. A.O. Scott pans the movie, referencing the “shallow nihilism that has always lurked beneath the intellectual pretentions of ‘Watchmen’”. I lose confidence. Ten years later Lindelof is at press tour for HBO’s Watchmen. “‘What in 2019 is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Americans and the Russians?’ the sometimes-punchy Leftovers co-creator postulated during the Watchmen panel at TCA on Wednesday. ‘It is race and the police’” (Patten). I remember Dan Dreiberg’s nightmares, and I know. It is a looming anxiety, an unresolved trauma, and an existential threat. I am allowing myself to become excited.
Watchmen is a dense text. Using a staggering variety of writing forms it tells a superhero story in twelve issues that feels like it has been running as long as Superman. Along with its formal inventiveness, Watchmen’s challenge of the ethics of superheroes, and of the psychological function they perform for their audience, is what has made it resonate with readers since its initial publication. The most compelling question Watchmen asks is not, ‘are superheroes good?’, but ‘can superhero stories mediate our trauma’? Watchmen whispers, no. HBO’s Watchmen focuses on this question, and its existence offers both confirmation and a challenge of that assertion. To be a Watchmen story means continuing the critical work of the comic, but continuing the story is a statement that there is value in continuing to use superheroes to explore trauma and anxiety.
There is a great deal of violence in superhero comics, but very little trauma. This is partially a function of the way that they are published: monthly, and continuously. Without endings, and with a changing roster of creators, it becomes unwieldy to plot an arc that lasts longer than a few issues. This contributes to the proliferation of several tropes that make it difficult to significantly explore trauma in the genre: the deaths of characters rarely stick, events and villains at very different scales of crime and destruction are treated with the same amount of gravity, and the sting is taken out of traumatic events when mitigating explanations are added later on1. Adnan Mahmutović, working off Umberto Eco’s work on Superman and Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope, discusses how superhero time functions: “Superheroes do not avoid death because they are immortal but because they do not exist in narratives that operate according to the principles of historical time” (257). Another way of thinking about this is that traditional superhero comics are not avoiding consequentiality, they are operating within a kind of time that cannot accommodate it. The result being that events which stick, and continue to reverberate as the comic goes on, are rare enough to be anomalous. At the same time, the need for comics to produce novelty in their long runs means that a staggering amount of traumatic events accumulate over time (Thurtle and Mitchell 270). The punches stack up, the reader may feel exhilarated, or exhausted.
In 2007 I’m in high school. I have a friend whose yearbook quote is “I am Batman.” Teens are cruel they whisper that he actually believes it, he really thinks he is Batman. We chat online about superheroes and crushes and he introduces me to LOST, a show created by Damon Lindelof. It’s 2017 and he’s in the local paper. I’m worried about him. I don’t reach out. It’s 2012 and I’m seeing him for the last time, although I don’t know it yet. We try to see The Dark Knight Rises but it’s sold out for the day. We go to Strand Bookstore instead, to look at comic books. Soon after I stop reading superhero comics.
Because Watchmen is a limited series it is not subject to superhero comic time. There is an end to the story. Watchmen replicates the feeling of picking up a comic series five decades into its run by opening with the death of a major character, and frequently jumping back in time using a variety of structures including memories, excerpts from autobiographies, and the character Doctor Manhattan—who experiences all moments in his life simultaneously. These flashbacks (or flash-arounds from Doctor Manhattan’s perspective) allow the weight of past traumas to accumulate and grow heavy with meaning. When superhero stories become subject to consequential time, trauma cannot be buried: it becomes unearthed, or it mutates.
In 1939 Sally Jupiter aka The Silk Spectre is sexually assaulted by a colleague known as The Comedian (Eddie Blake) after a meeting of their superhero team: The Minutemen. Hooded Justice (alter-ego unknown), the first superhero, fights The Comedian off only to tell Sally, “for god’s sake, cover yourself” as her mouth drips blood onto the floor (Moore 2:8). About a decade after the assault, she has a consensual affair with The Comedian that results in her becoming pregnant with her daughter Laurie. Sally raises Laurie to be the next Silk Spectre, trains her in a way that Sally would never have had access to. But this physical protection compromises her attempts to protect Laurie emotionally. Laurie is kept in the dark, for a while, but the shame of having her identity folded into that of her mother’s festers and mutates her self-worth as a woman and an individual.
She explores this ambivalence through a new relationship with an old friend: Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl, another former superhero with an identity borrowed from a former member of The Minutemen. Their intimacy is always filtered through the excitement and anxiety of costumed crimefighting. He is too anxious to maintain an erection when he’s out of costume. She is aroused by the thrill of adventuring, and even as she remains disgusted by the sexualized nature of her own costume, she wears it for Dan without him needing to ask (Moore 8.5). Laurie has enough distance and intellect to be critical of her superhero days, but even though it was an identity that was forced on her and can never be fully hers, it also gave her power, a certain kind of physical agency, and the means through which to connect to someone at a time when she is isolated from everyone but her mother. This creates a deep ambivalence in both her and Dan. In a sense, they are only able to work out their own anxieties through the identities that were passed down to them from a previous generation. Time folds, and instead of obeying the propulsive linearity of superhero comic time, the past reverberates through the present in Watchmen. It cannot be moved onwards from. It is still happening.
In HBO’S Watchmen, which takes place three decades after the events of the comic, the masked crimefighters are the police force of Tulsa Oklahoma. The protagonist of the series is a masked detective, Angela Abar aka Sister Night, a Black woman who thinks that she has no living family until her grandfather Will Reeves shows up at the murder scene of the hanged police chief, claiming to be responsible. In the show’s sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being” the past and the present merge seamlessly in an exploration of genetic and historical trauma that bleeds into the future. Angela has taken a bottle of pills containing her grandfather’s memories. The drug—called nostalgia—puts her into a coma in which she inhabits Will’s body during key points in his life. Like her he was a police officer. Like her he wore a mask. Unlike her, he wore his mask as a vigilante: the first superhero, Hooded Justice.
His superhero costume is a re-dressing of his trauma: the hood, and rope around his neck and wrists were used to lynch him. When Will becomes Hooded Justice, he paints the skin around his eyes with light makeup so that he looks like a white man under his mask. He knows that the fear of Black men in America is so prevalent that no one will accept even his help unless they think he is a white man. This seems pragmatic, until one night he comes home after killing a group of violent white supremacists, and finds his young son painting his face with the same makeup that he uses, a noose around his own neck. Panicking as his trauma replicates itself in his child, he drags the confused boy into the other room and roughly wipes the makeup off. His wife stops him and Will struggles to explain, “I was just trying to take it off.” “You can’t take it off.” She responds. “You should never have done this. I thought it would help you get rid of this thing you have but, …it didn’t get rid of it. It just fed.”
That thing that Will has is created by trauma, not just his but the pain of generations of mistreated and abused people who came before him. In his body Angela feels as well as sees the anger, the fear, and the pain of being a closeted Black queer man in the 1930’s. She experiences visions his mother—murdered during the Black Wall St. Massacre—who appears playing piano through his memories. Replicated traumas laid flat. In another elegant device, the camera rotates around Will at certain moments where he is replaced by Angela. When he is lynched by his colleagues in the police force it is Angela that we see shaking and traumatized with a noose around her neck. It is Angela as Will who murders her police chief; a white supremacist terrorist she thought was a friend. The trauma of generations becomes Will’s trauma, becomes her trauma.
It’s the summer of 2002 and I am making my way through the stack of comic books my cousin has collected over the past year. There is an issue of Spider-Man with a black cover. Inside Spidey is watching the Twin Towers burn. He’s trying to help. All the heroes are trying to help (Straczynski and Romita). It’s September 2001 and I am sitting in my middle-school cafeteria in lower Manhattan really realizing for the first time that I live on an island, and that I am on a different island away from home. It’s 2010 and I re-read “Amazing Spider-Man #36” for a paper that I’m working on and am surprised when I begin to weep. In 2019 I read, and I weep. It’s 2002 and my cousin is telling me the comic makes no sense, because why would these heroes be so particularly horrified by this violence above all that they witness daily? But that was real, I think. I lose confidence. In 2019 Spider-Man tells me to “stand tall,” and for the first time I wonder what that means (Straczynski and Romita).
In 2010 I read an article by Phillip Thurtle and Robert Mitchell which reminded me that “comic books, especially those written in the superhero genre, and fundamentally oriented toward disasters of the type we witnessed on 9/11. … Occasionally, the world obliges by producing a disaster on the scale of our collective fears” (268). Watchmen’s anxieties are somewhere in between our real-world troubles and the larger (or at least legibly larger) scale concerns of superhero comics. The Watchmen texts imagine heightened situations that focus the reader/viewer’s attention on a contemporary anxiety, arguing that the traumas, disasters, and anxieties of the “real world” have as much scale and heft to them as a comic book plot. How can any Lex Luthor scheme compare to the centuries of institutionalized abuse against Black people in America? In some ways this is a narrative strategy common to superhero stories, which “explore the anomalies that emerge from the very real differences in the scales of an industrialized society on the one hand, and the scales of embodied experience on the other” (Thurtle and Mitchell 270). The reader/viewer embodies the superhero, the superhero embodies the thing that scares us (weaponry, science, nature), and that thing is transformed into a source of wonder and pleasure for us-in-their-bodies. When I read “Amazing Spider-Man #36” it doesn’t only recall my experience of the September 11th attacks, it allows me to feel and understand the weight and tragedy of that day in a way that—as a confused young girl—I was not capable of at the time.
In the majority of superhero stories (especially in the pre-Watchmen era) this mediation is seen as good and productive. The X-Men alone have been used as an intervention for a swath of civil rights issues, fears about globalization and privacy, and the lingering trauma of the Holocaust. The superhero can never stop fighting. It is better that they are there to fight the bad guys. In fact, the other blockbuster comic of 1986, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, is premised on the goodness of an aging Batman coming out of retirement. This notion services the reading/viewing audience. If the fictional world is better for having superheroes in it, then we are entertaining good and productive fantasies by reading those stories. The Watchmens challenge this assumption, asking if their altered timeline is better off for having superheroes in it, and by extension, if our enjoyment of them is healthy.
I am in high school reading Watchmen for the first time. I begin to feel ashamed of the emotions that the simplistic metaphors and ethical conundrums of Spider-Man, Captain America, X-Men, and Batman pull out of me. I lose confidence.
The supervillain of Watchmen has a plan which depends on human’s inability to comprehend the large scale of disasters. A former masked crimefighter—Ozymandias aka Adrian Veidt (the “smartest man on earth”)—successfully thwarts impending nuclear war between America and the USSR by uniting them against a common threat: a teleported alien hoax that will kill half the population of New York City and traumatize the other half by releasing psychic shockwaves of horror and disgust onto the population. He kills The Comedian when he stumbles across his plan. “He knew my plan would succeed, though its scale terrified him. That’s why he told nobody. It was too big to discuss” (Moore 11:25). The only one capable of comprehending a disaster at that scale is Doctor Manhattan, whose god-like powers make him capable of physically scaling his body to any size, experiencing all events in his life simultaneously, and interacting with the world on a molecular level. He is also gradually losing his connection to humanity. “I understand,” he says, “without condoning or condemning” (Moore 12:27). Even he cannot say whether the world has been better off for having superheroes in it, only that since it does, this is the best course of action to take.
The other heroes waffle over what to do in the aftermath. “How…how can humans make decisions like this?” asks Dan Dreiberg. “We’re damned if we stay quiet, earth’s damned if we don’t. We… okay. Okay count me in. We say nothing” (Moore 12:20). Up until the point wherein it became clear that Ozymandias had already carried out his plan, Dan was trying to stop him, but once Doctor Manhattan speaks he is pacified. He allows Dr. Manhattan to mediate the scale of the disaster for him because he feels the limits of his comprehension. Dan becomes the comic book reader, deferring moral judgement onto characters who project knowledgeability because they interact with the world on a larger scale.
HBO’s Watchmen shows the aftermath of Ozymandias’s alien hoax. The fifth episode of the series, “Little Fear of Lightening” focuses on another one of the Tulsa detectives, also traumatized by the alien hoax. Wade Tillman aka Looking Glass was across the river in New Jersey when the psychic blast went off. He joined the Tulsa police force once they were allowed to wear masks, so that he had an excuse to wrap his head in the reflective fabric that gives him his code name; a fabric designed to ward off psychic blasts. The episode is a close study of how the trauma Wayne suffered caused a presiding anxiety that governs his life. We watch him lead a support group, an activity that is supposed to help mediate traumas, but he is too invested in being the hero to tell them the truth about how scared he still is. To be the hero, he believes, he has to be “out of the tunnel.” At home when no one is watching he wears his mask all the time. When he is not wearing it, he wears a baseball cap lined with the same reflective fabric. He obsessively runs test drills for another alien attack. His shiny mask—and by extension the alter-ego that allows him to wear it routinely— does nothing to mediate his trauma. It only obscures and routinizes it.
It’s 2019 and I am trying to remember why I love superheroes. If superhero stories can only amass traumatic events, with no recourse to process them, and offer no answers other than the accumulation of more violence, and more trauma, then are we harming ourselves by loving them? Is HBO’s Watchmen a hypocritical creation for exploring trauma through the text that said superheroes were the worst way to do that? The ending of Watchmen lends itself to a pessimistic reading. Ozymandias asks Doctor Manhattan if the attack was worth it, if it all worked out in the end. “Nothing ends, Adrian.” Doctor Manhattan replies. “Nothing ever ends” (Moore 12:27). Trauma is inescapable, and pain is continuous. But if nothing ever ends it also means that we get another chance to do better, or even just to do differently. Watchmen is a superhero story, and while it is cautionary it also models possibilities. It is critical of the superhero genre, but it’s not criticism. It’s fiction, superhero fiction, and that creates new “horizons of possibilities” (Thurtle and Mitchell 275). HBO’s Watchmen shows that superhero stories can be accountable for time, and for trauma by using the long arc of comic book time as an opportunity to revisit, rethink, and rewrite, instead of continuously returning to a status quo.
It’s 2019 and I’m watching Doctor Manhattan contradict himself. He walks into a bar and starts a conversation with his future/current wife, Angela. “I cannot get serious with someone if I know it’s going to end in tragedy” she says. “By definition,” he responds, “don’t all relationships end in tragedy?” (“A God Walks into Abar”). The act of continuing, of not ending, of saying yes to a date, or telling another story, or telling the same story in a different way, creates a “horizon of possibility” that cannot exist otherwise. It is too soon to tell how HBO’s Watchmen is re/producing harm for its viewers. In its short run, HBO’s Watchmen was able to address certain things that Watchmen did or could not; perhaps because one person—no matter how perceptive they are—is ever going to have the scope or insight of multiple people from different backgrounds writing through their own perspectives.
In the finale of the show, Doctor Manhattan is dead. All things end in tragedy. Angela, reminded of the theoretical possibility that he might transmit his power to someone else, puts out a foot over her pool to see if she can walk on water. The show ends before we know. If she has Doctor Manhattan’s powers, is that the greatest gift he could have given her, or the greatest curse? Does it mean that the new God of America will be a Black woman? Or does it mean that this Black woman will have to experience all of the moments of trauma in her life and in her grandfather’s over and over again until someone figures out how to kill her? Everything ends in tragedy. Nothing ever ends. Instead of giving us resolution, HBO’s Watchmen gives us a new horizon of possibility. It just remains to be seen what will be done with it
It’s 2019, and I am remembering that I love superheroes.
Lindelof, Damon, creator. Watchmen, Paramount Television, DC Entertainment, and Warner Bros. Television, 2019.
“A God Walks into Abar.” Season 1, episode 8, HBO, 8, Dec. 2019. HBOGo, play.hbogo.com/episode/urn:hbo:episode:GXaoFiAVq9FOfqwEAAAmr
“Little Fear of Lightening.” Season 1, episode 5, HB0, 17 Nov. 2019. HBOGo, play.hbogo.com/episode/urn:hbo:episode:GXYVDOgqiNcPCwgEAAAlu
“This Extraordinary Being.” Season 1, episode 6, HBO, 24 Nov. 2018. HBOGo, play.hbogo.com/episode/urn:hbo:episode:GXYVDOg2ViKnCVgEAAAoE
Mahmutović, Adnan. “Chronotope in Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen.” Studies in the Novel, Vol. 50, No. 2, 2008, pp. 255-276.
Moore, Alan, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. Watchmen. Warner Books, 1987 Contains Issues 1-12 of Watchmen, originally published by DC Comics 1986-1987.
Patten, Dominic. “‘Watchmen’ Confronts White Supremacy Without “Grandiose Solutions,” Says Damon Lindelof – TCA” Deadline, 24 Jul. 2019, accessed online 9, Dec. 2019. deadline.com/2019/07/watchmen-white-supremacy-theme-damon-lindelof-regina-king-tv-series-alan-moore-hbo-tca-1202652928/
Scott, A.O. “For a Cold War, a Blue Superhero (and Friends).” The New York Times, 5 Mar. 2009, p. c1. Accessed online 9 Dec. 2019, nyti.ms/2CZcJOL
Straczynski, J. Michael, John Romita Jr., and Scott Hanna. “Amazing Spiderman #36” The Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 2: Revelations. Marvel, 2002
Thurtle, Phillip and Robert Mitchell. “The Acme Novelty Library: Comic Books, Repetition, and the Return of the New.” Configurations, Vol. 15, No. 3, 2007, pp. 267-297