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Review of After Midnight: Watchmen after Watchmen ed. Drew Morton

By Jesse Matlock, Indiana University

Morton, Drew, editor. After Midnight: Watchmen after Watchmen. University Press of Mississippi, 2022.

For nearly four decades, Watchmen has calibrated the narrative environment of mainstream comics. Like Detective Comics #31’s misty mural cover image, Alan Moore looms over the landscape of Watchmen—and by extension comics at-large—glowering at what he sees as the injustice of DC’s continuing profit from a story and characters created by him and artist Dave Gibbons. A “perennial presence in mainstream bookstores,” Watchmen was unique among mainstream superhero properties because publisher DC Comics did not capitalize on its success with subsequent comics or adaptations (Gibbons et al. 237). But when Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen film was released, the haze of authority over the property was, if not lifted, finally breached. Where one ventures, others may follow. In the wake of Snyder’s adaptation of the original comic’s narrative, other creators began working within Moore and Gibbons’s storyworld to further elaborate its history and to tell contemporary stories. After all, given the amount of critical and academic attention that has been bestowed on—or heaped upon—the original Watchmen comic, its reputation as a formal masterpiece in readers’ minds is an extraordinarily daunting narrative and compositional standard against which prospective creators must measure themselves. But are these stories too steeped in their own lore to allow for new audiences not similarly immersed in Moore and Gibbons’s storyworld? After Midnight: Watchmen after Watchmen argues that new Watchmen stories are worthy of the same type of critical and scholarly consideration that the original comic has enjoyed. Collectively, the essays assembled in this volume argue that new narratives from other creative voices are, in fact, vital to the original comic’s continuing cultural relevance, and they transpose a narrative born in the Cold War to the increasingly heated culture wars of contemporary America. 

In After Midnight: Watchmen after Watchmen, editor Drew Morton, an Associate Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M, has gathered seventeen essays by authors whose fields range from comics, English, and media to music, religion, culture, and philosophy. The essays presented are arranged into three categories: “Adaptation, Remediation, and Transmedia,” “Race and American History,” and “Nostalgia and Trauma.” According to Henry Jenkins’s forward, the work featured here “suggests that newer extensions”—by which he means HBO’s Watchmen television series and DC’s series of Before Watchmen titles as well as Doomsday Clock and Rorschach limited series— “treat Watchmen itself as the raw material assumed by subsequent readers and producers” (xvi). This assessment echoes Jackson Ayres’s notion in his recent Critical Guide to Alan Moore that Watchmen has, over the years, morphed from a singular narrative to a “brand,” a change that “may inadvertently refresh the series by putting its critical reflections on such [extensions of the Watchmen storyworld and continuity beyond the original narrative] into relief” (86). And indeed, the overarching critical concern that unites After Midnight is that these adaptations and new narratives—especially the HBO series—have not only breached the fog of esteem that has accumulated around the comic over time but have, in fact, begun to lift it. 

The essays in Part One, “Adaptation, Remediation, and Transmedia,” address the ways in which the newer Watchmen stories use common techniques of the comics medium, especially particular practices of their namesake narrative, to legitimize themselves in the face of Moore’s vocal criticism of practically all adaptations of his work.((The only adaptation of an Alan Moore comic that continues to feature Moore’s name in the credits is the Justice League Unlimited episode “For the Man Who Has Everything,” adapted from story of the same title featured in Superman Annual no. 11 (1985).)) Jayson Quearry’s discussion of the practices of “webbed connectivity” common to the medium of comics, such as “explicit footnoting of other titles” and “retconning,” serves as the entry point to the larger discussion of Watchmen as a transmedial brand (6). Comics audiences understand that they are rewarded for this investigative, connective engagement in the larger narrative continuity and that they will gain a deeper, more critically authoritative knowledge of not only the narrative but also the ecology, the storyworld, in which the narrative exists and operates. 

In fact, the ability to recognize—and even create—intertextual connections grants readers an authoritative, almost authorial status, as Zachary J. A. Rondinelli states in “‘Fucking Oklahoma.’” Rondinelli refers to this type of explicative-creative activity as “forensic fandom,” a term that positions readerly detective work as an activity that transforms the relationship between texts into an “experience” that “exists between the texts and the reader/viewer” (63). Rondinelli makes the case that forensic fandom promotes status of the reader/viewer to that of “a primary agent within both the meaning making process and the aesthetic experience of transmedia storytelling,” making them a central participant in the narrative (64). This component of participation in the narrative provides audiences with a sense of authority over the Watchmen storyworld. 

In “An Expensive Bit of Fan Fiction,” however, Laura E. Felshow problematizes the position of the authoritative reader and reminds us that the ultimate narrative authority lies in ownership of intellectual property. Felshow describes the comic community’s conceit of continuity as “a loaded concept often weaponized at the corporate level to demonstrate to fans where the true power over intellectual property lies,” pointing out how “at its core, canon predominantly centers whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity—among many other aspects of identity—and reinforces existing societal power structures” (49). Indeed, “continuity” is a term that, for comics publishers and readers, becomes synonymous with “history” and “canon” through an assignment of value to published narratives. In other words, the question of whether a story is in continuity, and therefore historical, is indicative of the value of that story to the owners of an intellectual property, which consequently determines that story’s worth for readers’ time, attention, and, ultimately, their money. In order to establish, change, or restore continuity, one must have authority over the text. Authority over text becomes authority over history. And this is precisely what is behind DC’s “stalemate situation” (Quearry’s term) with the Watchmen storyworld and with Alan Moore as DC “looks to incorporate it into the industrial strategies that maintain and market such a universe to readers” (3). Here readers may begin to sense a disturbance, an ethereal grumble from the mountaintop, as Alan Moore bemoans the impotence of the auteur in the struggle for textual agency, torn between his audience and DC, the owner of Watchmen.

The collection’s second section, “Race and American History” further clears the Moore-induced fog over Watchmen’s narrative landscape. This section of essays, providing the book’s most substantial critical contribution, makes clear the significance of the subtitle “Watchmen after Watchmen.” The essays in Part Two focus specifically on the 2019 HBO Watchmen series. Executive producer Damon Lindelof approached the series not as an adaptation or sequel but as a “remix” of the original narrative now centered around a Black, female protagonist, Angela Abar/Sister Night (Regina King) and as a visual comment on America’s current state of race relations. The HBO series’ designation as a “remix”—a term used throughout the book originating from Lindelof’s initial announcement of the series’ development—is telling: as a term associated with music production, it is typically used as a practice of modifying or even repurposing an existing work in order to tailor it for other audiences than the one originally intended. 

Lindelof’s intent as showrunner, as Rusty Hatchell explains, is to “remix the original material—an assertive strategy in which Lindelof would not [quoting Lindelof] ‘directly translate’ the 1986-1987 series penned, drawn, and colored by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins, respectively,” but would instead “‘disrupt’” it by telling “a fresh story within the established boundaries of the graphic novel’s storyworld” (“‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’” 116). The HBO series foists its own particular revelations on the Watchmen storyworld, such as the eight-term presidency of Robert Redford—whose potential candidacy in 1985 is alluded in the comic’s final issue—and his institution of reparations for the Tulsa massacre of 1921, referred to pejoratively in the show as “Redfordations.” Most notably, however, is the revelation that Hooded Justice, the first costumed hero—who Moore implies in the comic to be homosexual—is also a Black police officer and a survivor of the Tulsa massacre named William Reeves. Lindelof’s revelation of William Reeves as Hooded Justice further complicates Moore’s deconstruction of the sentimentality and idealistic simplicity of Golden Age superheroes.

In “Nostalgia Is a Hard Pill to Swallow,” Apryl Alexander points to the roots of American policing as a regulatory force over and a preventative measure against Blacks seeking to escape their enslavement. She examines the current state of police action in Black communities and the calls for reform of policy, procedure, and structure in law enforcement. This leads Alexander to beg the question: “If these killings of unarmed Black Americans are the result of historical and institutional racism, is there room for reform?” (157). Alexander classifies HBO’s Watchmen as a “speculative narrative” that “suggests that dismantling racism from within organizations became impossible for William, forcing him to find another way to pursue justice” (158). HBO’s Watchmen remixes Moore’s deconstructive treatment of superheroes toward an Afrofuturistic anticipation, if not optimism. If Alan Moore and Chris Gavaler are correct in their perceptions about superhero imagery bearing an explicit relation to KKK imagery—statements referenced repeatedly in the book—then HBO’s Watchmen signifies an Afrofuturist turn that repositions superheroes from nationalist and/or populist alignment to one that works toward accountability for those in power (Sassaki; Gavaler 202; Jeffries 17; Moore 95; Marez 150; Hallam 230).

David Stanley and Sarah Pawlak Stanley similarly focus on the HBO series’ concern with accountability of power related to vigilante/superhero justice. They point to the manner in which the series “remediates” the comic’s deconstruction of the typical superhero narrative, from a clearly Manichaean semiotics to one of the moral ambiguity of authority. The Stanleys argue that as a result, the series “pushes the implications of the graphic novel’s moral ambiguities further while using televisual techniques to riff on its ‘semiological complexity’” (129). As they see it, Lindelof’s HBO series intensifies Moore’s work by showing how race figures into the representation of costumed heroes and superpowered characters and how “ostensibly democratic American institutions perpetuate” oppression by rendering Blackness invisible (130). 

The gravity that HBO’s Watchmen brings to the Black presence in superhero narratives is most powerfully demonstrated in Brandy Monk-Payton’s essay, “‘This Extraordinary Being.’” Monk-Payton argues that the HBO series uncovers “an alternative archive of Black life within and beyond the status of the human” (167). Monk-Payton highlights the show’s self-reflexive use of narrative, specifically the use of the drug Nostalgia as a means of examining trauma, which recalls the role of the Pensieve in the Harry Potter novels and films. Focusing on the show’s creative environment, Monk-Payton describes Watchmen as a reparative effort manifested by its unveiling of Hooded Justice as the first costumed hero, the “real” Superman of the Watchmen storyworld (170). The series thus successfully “inserts into the American superhero archive and US imaginary a black-masked crusader as a form of reparation for past discrimination and oppression” (172). As a “collective re-vision” of the original comic, the HBO series is a very different type of comic book superhero production from Zack Snyder’s 2009 “love-letter” (Child 169). Reparation is not relief, however, and its real-world impact is limited. Whereas Alan Moore has donated his contractual earnings from the show to Black Lives Matter, the inclusive environment of a big-budget HBO production does not bring with it the material benefits the Black characters of the show receive (Kerridge).

The essays in Parts One and Two of After Midnight are for comics scholarship what the HBO series is for the Watchmen narrative: an effort to achieve a Watchmen shed of Moore’s specter. Here we find new voices making use of the Watchmen storyworld toward current concerns, rather than tired meditations on the maturity of the comics medium and superhero stories. The shade of Alan Moore still looms over the work done here, though, as the majority of the book’s essays explicitly refer at some point in their discussion to Moore’s position as Watchmen’s auteur. Monk-Payton, for example, acknowledges the HBO series’ gamble with questions of legitimacy, noting that “the series is a risk due to its very existence as a remix that goes against the wishes of creator Alan Moore” (179). And so, just as the status of aesthetic gesture toward reparation that the scholarship in this book awards to the HBO series is insufficient as a remedy for the tragedy it invokes, so the scholars themselves continue laboring to free Watchmen from its authorial eidolon.  

While Part One examines the intermediality intrinsic to Watchmen’s storyworld, and Part Two uses those intermedial and transmedial relationships to substantiate HBO’s Watchmen as worthy companion to the original comic, Part Three: “Nostalgia and Trauma,” seems, by contrast, curiously aimless. The smallest section of After Midnight, with only four essays, zeroes in on the motif of nostalgia, but the result is that these essays feel either disconnected from the rest of the book or can be read as summarizations of analyses that have already been performed. Jeffrey S.J. Kirchoff’s “The Epideictic Use of Restorative Nostalgia in Doomsday Clock” is perhaps notable as the only one of the book’s seventeen essays to devote itself solely to DC’s Doomsday Clock (2017-2019). Kirchoff cites William Kurlinkus and novelist Michael Chabon to point to the ways in which “nostalgia can be employed in powerful, rhetorical ways” that evokes “‘who we were so that we can maintain [or re-establish] that identity into the future’” (185, 188).  The essay thus identifies Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock as a campaign to Make DC Comics Great Again. The other three essays in this portion of the book— “The Adaptation of Narrative and Musical Source Material in HBO’s Watchmen,” “Diverse Family Structures in Watchmen,” and “‘So, You’ve Taken Someone Else’s Nostalgia’”— are among the shortest in the book and repeat concerns raised earlier, notably the “nostalgia motif.” As a group, the essays in Part Three read more like a collection of miscellanea than a set of connected analyses centered on a common theme. 

Despite the questionable makeup of Part Three, After Midnight: Watchmen after Watchmen features a generous array of scholarship suited to studies of comics, film, culture, and perhaps even comparative literature. The collection’s leitmotif of authorship and authority is especially important, given the comic’s enduring status and the contentious relationship between Alan Moore and DC over the rights to Watchmen—an antagonism indicative of larger concerns of creators’ rights that have long been entrenched in the comics medium at large. As the mist dissipates over the landscape of Watchmen, audiences and scholars likewise find the critical specter of Moore beginning to fade. The urgent question that now arises is if this landscape remains suitable for the continued cultivation of stories by new voices. For scholars concerned with race and American culture, the answer is, for better or worse, a resounding “Yes.”

Works Cited

Ayres, Jackson. Alan Moore: A Critical Guide, Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Child, Ben. “Zack Snyder: ‘Watchmen punishes the audience. It says: oh, you like the Comedian? He’s a rapist, by the way.’” The Guardian, 20 July 2009, www.theguardian.com/film/2009/jul/20/watchmen-zack-snyder-clip.

Gavaler, Chris. “The Ku Klux Klan and the Birth of the Superhero.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, vol. 4, no. 2, Dec. 2013, pp. 191–208. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1080/21504857.2012.747976.

Gibbons, Dave, Chip Kidd, and Mike Essl. Watching the Watchmen, Titan Books, 2008.

Kerridge, Jake. “Alan Moore interview: ‘I’m giving all my screen royalties to Black Lives Matter.’” The Telegraph, 13 September 2023, www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/alan-moore-comic-books-black-lives-matter-watchmen/.

Miller, M.H. “The Grand Return of Comics Legend Alan Moore.” GQ, 18 October 2022, www.gq.com/story/alan-moore-interview.

Sassaki, Raphael. “Moore on Jerusalem, Eternalism, Anarchy and Herbie!” ALAN MOORE WORLD, 18 November 2019, alanmooreworld.blogspot.com/2019/11/moore-on-jerusalem-eternalism-anarchy.html

Footnotes

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