Flatter than a Comic Strip
Damon Lindelof’s HBO conversion of the world of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ anarchic graphic novel Watchmen into a combination of self-congratulatory white liberal polemic with black revenge fantasy is the most fascinatingly repellent TV show I have seen in quite some time. It’s also a sobering illustration of why not to give matches to children.
The enterprise was conceived by showrunner Damon Lindelof, the (white) man who gave us the heavy-handed and self-important The Leftovers. Lindelof is also the writer of Cowboys and Aliens, Prometheus, and Star Trek into Darkness, as well as the Lost TV show, including the series finale, widely (and accurately) viewed as the worst television finale in history. For his new show, he has worked with a number of co-writers and directors: Nicole Kassell (white, female) Stephen Williams (black, male), Nick Cuse (white, male), Cord Jefferson (black, male), Lila Byock (white, female), Christal Henry (black, female), Andrij Parekh (Asian, male), Claire Kiechel (white, female), Carly Wray (white, female), Steph Green (white, female), Stacy Osei-Kuffour (black, female), David Semel (white, male), Jeff Jensen (white, male) and Frederick E.O. Toye (white, male). Together this cross-racial plurality, armed with enthusiasm, an impressive skillset, and (I presume) the very best of intentions, have set about to make the shallow deep. In the process, they have succeeded in creating something far more superficial than a comic strip: a (mostly) white fantasy of progressive agitprop.
The original Watchmen graphic novel subjected the superhero tradition to a searching, searing intelligence. By expanding a two-dimensional medium into a third dimension, Moore and Gibbons discovered previously untapped depths trapped inside the old conventions. What they discovered, and articulated, was how, on its way to the next dimension, the 2D material did a “flip-over,” and subverted itself. In Moore’s and Gibbon’s work, the “right is might” superhero ethos was revealed, starkly, as the “might is right” pathology of the State-sanctioned fascist and the deranged vigilante. At the same time, the more overtly superhuman characters, the godlike Ozymandias and the godly Dr. Manhattan, were revealed as disinterested post-humans mostly indistinguishable from sociopaths. Yet, as in a Phillip K. Dick novel, the extremes of the superhuman opened up new possibilities for humanness to be (re-)discovered, and what made Watchmen so delightful and disturbing to readers was the experience of watching its creators making their own discoveries about the material they were reinterpreting.
The TV Watchmen reverses this process. It sets out to reinterpret (or “remix”) the graphic novel, not by using it as a means of discovery but by forcing it to conform to the new medium and to a (pre-prepared) new message. It’s a self-consciously “topical” and “progressive” TV show, similar in purpose and method to The Handmaid’s Tale, though it’s aesthetically closer to HBO’s last overwritten dud, Westworld. Like these shows, it aspires not merely to entertain but to address race and gender relations in a post-Trump, post-reality world. In the process, rather than engaging Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ material in an open dialogue, or even offering a loving homage to it (both of which the graphic novel did with superhero comics), it converts it into a vehicle for its own idealist agenda. In the process of imposing its somewhat more sophisticated or “nuanced” version of politically correct, build-a-better-world social justice warrior new-liberalism onto the source material, HBO’s Watchmen flattens it out and creates something hollow, lifeless, and grotesque.
That at least was my experience, and I highly doubt if many of the original admirers of Watchmen found much to enjoy or admire in this “2020 vision” of it. The graphic novel emerged from the personal vision of two artists (white men, and both Brits), grooving to the possibilities of both reinventing and subverting what was basically a kids’ medium. But the anarchic qualities that made Watchmen so refreshing and innovative back in 1986-87 are almost entirely absent from the TV show. By setting out to replicate characters and scenarios from an ideological position that strives above all for social relevance and political correctness, the HBO show effectively neutralizes everything that gave the comic book its unique buzz. There is a world of difference between a personal vision that’s essentially playful, and experimental, and an ideological agenda that is all work and no play and that dulls all of our senses. The way it combines the facile with the sophisticated makes Watchmen never less than fascinating, however, and because of that I stuck with it, all the way to the bitter end.
To give an idea about the sort of progressive ideology which the Watchmen show is platforming, the following is from “White Silence Is Violence,” at LA Progressive, the online site for The Left Coast Forum, a “covening of progressive activists, scholars, organizers, documentarians, media organizations and others who work to understand and restructure systems of oppression”:
Invisibility gives white supremacy power. Call it out. Use white privilege to interrupt white supremacy; to dismantle white supremacy; to take a back seat and support others who have been oppressed by white supremacy—to give those who have been oppressed by white supremacy opportunities they have been denied, and to learn from those who have been oppressed by white supremacy. And use your privilege to listen. America has a system that has been built around making space for, centering, and hearing white voices above others and it is time for us to be quiet and really listen. It is also time for white people to understand that all lives can’t matter until Black lives matter too.
In the interests of decentering whiteness, Watchmen makes its black characters central to the story and then it makes their blackness central to their identity. Yet besides the revenge fantasy elements, the show doesn’t seem to me like it would particularly appeal to black people. In contrast to Atlanta (a show I very much enjoyed), Watchmen is a show about black people that seems mainly to have been made for white people. Yet not for white (or black) fans of the graphic novel. If memory serves, mainly because it was faithful to the genre conventions, the only black characters in the comic book are the newsvendor and Rorschach’s psychiatrist. That would be unthinkable for a 2019 American mainstream TV show, however, and would even make it ineligible for funding. But then I would guess that any big budget multiracial drama produced in the US today would have to make racial injustice central to its premise in order to get made.
White decentricists all, Lindelof & co. are dutifully conscientious in placing non-white characters front and center in their narrative. They have invented a lead character who is both black and female (Angela Abar) and, in case that’s not enough, they have transformed two of the original characters from white to black, via the deus ex machina of the presiding liberal (super-)conscience. Yet, token black writers and directors notwithstanding, these characters are invented, and reinvented, by white “liberals” who (I presume) sincerely believe in their social justice mission to restore racial balance and equality. Central to this mission is the affirmation of black grievance and the manufacturing of black revenge fantasies. For what better way to move the black man and woman to the center than to emphasize their victim status? Ironically, this may be a predominantly white perspective of what being black “means.” Kids with matches.
In episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being,” Hooded Justice is revealed to be a black (bisexual) man as a way to more firmly establish the show’s whole-cloth reinvention of the source material as primarily about racial inequality and violence. (The original Watchmen wasn’t concerned with what it meant to be black or white, but what it meant to be human.) Watching the orgiastic scenes of black justice, in which the beaten-down cop kills the evil white supremacists bent on turning blacks into rioting savages via mind control technology, I said to my wife: “Are they trying to start a race war?” In case the reader is wondering, I wasn’t referring to the evil white supremacists in the show but to the creators of it. What better way to foment racial violence than to play upon—pump up and cynically exploit—black people’s feelings of injustice and then offer a fetishized fantasy-template for violent revenge? Is this how a culture commits hara-kiri? Suicide by oppressed minority?
In my experience, what happens when black characters are conceived and represented by mostly white, privileged progressives with good intentions is that an aura of righteous indignation and progressive satisfaction transfers from the writers to the characters. One consequence of this is that it makes those characters seem overly strident and slightly repellent. HBO’s Watchmen seems designed to play on both white guilt and black outrage. Watching it as a white man, I found myself wondering if my reaction to these characters, my finding them slightly repellent, made me a racist, too? (Unconscious racism has to be rooted out; the show is even savvy enough to have a couple of jokes about it.) But what repelled me about them wasn’t their blackness; it was because they are avatars for a Molotov cocktail of liberal white guilt and cynical corporate opportunism.
The new black heroes conceived by (mostly) white progressives are a bit like reverse Uncle Toms: their main function is to affirm white guilt. But pride and shame are two sides of the same coin, and by turning shame into virtue, progressives have started taking pride in their shame—maybe so they never have to feel ashamed again. By placing the (oppressed) black person in the center of their white guilt fantasies, they recruit him, once again, into an age-old agenda of narcissistic self-regard. Worse, they turn the black man into a mirror image of themselves. (I would like to hear Spike Lee’s take on Lindelof’s Watchmen.)
This is most fully—and shamelessly—revealed in the episodes in which Dr. Manhattan, the superhero we have been waiting five episodes to see, regains his humanity. These shark-jumping episodes depict how, out of love for the noble black woman, Dr. Manhattan chooses to forget himself and become fully human. Why does he do this? Mainly because his godliness has started annoying his woman. How does he accomplish it? By the (ironically quite Christian) feat of resurrecting the body of a black man and entering into it.
So it is that Dr. Manhattan regains his humanity: a) by becoming a romantic hero; and b) by transforming into a black man with a very large schlong (talk about runaway white progressive fantasies!). In passing, there’s a weird, slightly creepy aspect to this. In Whitley Strieber’s Transformation, he recounts this exchange with the small blue beings he is abducted by:
I blurted out the first thought that popped into my mind: “You’re blue!” One of them looked back over his shoulder when I spoke. He had a broad, flat face that almost seemed to grimace at me, so wide was the mouth. He fluttered the heavy lids on his deep, shining eyes and said, “We used to be like your blacks but we decided this was better.”
The reanimated corpse belongs to Cal, one of the supporting black characters we have already come to know and love (or else!), since he is married to Angela at the start of the show. Angela and Cal have several adopted kids (brown ones). As an example of their enlightened parenting, Cal tells his daughter, “Sweetheart, heaven is pretend. Before Uncle Judd was born, he was nowhere, didn’t exist. Now he’s nowhere again.” In response to a look from his wife, Cal says defensively, “It’s the truth.” The show wants us to see Cal as a noble progressive black man who cannot lie. Technically, he did exactly that when his daughter asked him about Heaven, but that’s OK: being a liberal-progressive means never having to say “I don’t know” (a well-known perk of liberal-progressives is having all the answers). For me, this moment adequately summed up the mix of arrogance, ignorance, and covert nihilism which the show is peddling.
In Watchmen the graphic novel, we saw Dr. Manhattan drifting further and further from his human origins until he literally went to Mars. Via his relationship to Laurie Blake, we saw his diminishing capacity for ordinary romantic feelings or responses. The TV show ignores all of this. It has Dr. Manhattan inexplicably falling in love with Angela Abar, single black female, presumably because she is so noble and good that she not only reawakens the techno-god’s heart, she brings out the black man within. Among other things, the HBO Watchmen would seem to confirm Alex Pappademas’s recent observation that “the allure of Marvel’s paper universe had less to do with its echoes of Perseus or Gilgamesh and more to do with what it took from soap opera.” Simply put, Dr. Manhattan can’t be the hero of an HBO TV show about how to improve race relations by decentering whiteness until he is made romantically eligible—interracially so—and then painted black.
After ten years of humanness and marital harmony, circumstances dictate that the noble black man Cal must die and transform (back) into Dr. Manhattan. Angela lovingly smashes his skull in with a hammer (no time for crucifixions) and removes the brain implant that caused his amnesia. When the blue god man returns, however, for reasons never explained, he retains the features of the Cal-corpse he animated. Presumably the show-makers are too confident by now that they have us by the ideological short and curlies to bother with an explanation. Dr. Manhattan wills it, that is enough. We may have also wondered previously why they conspicuously refrained from showing us Dr. Manhattan’s face while it was still the face of a white man; presumably it was to reduce our resistance at this point.
Who dares to ask by now why God has to assume the face of the black man? Haven’t we been paying attention? It’s essential to the show’s schemata that God is black and blue and a nihilist too: but it’s OK, he has learned to simulate the miracle of romantic love, and he is united with his woman in mutual murderous hatred of white supremacists. To be fair, it’s really love at last sight, not first, because Dr. Manhattan doesn’t fully grok why he loves Angela Abar until the moment he sees her heading out to slaughter the faceless racists who have come to kill God (though not because he’s gone black, that’s something they never even notice—some racists!!).
Watchmen is the ultimate intersectionality morality play, in which the superior white man (east coast blue blood patriarch) chooses to become a black stay-at-home dad; still insufficiently humbled, however (he is still a man, face it), he then hands over his power to the woman (in the form of the magic egg he leaves for his wife) and willingly opts for self-abnegation, dissolution. It’s the superhero genre equivalent of Noam Baumbach’s superior soap opera Marriage Story, in which the husband and father played by Adam Driver has to be literally brought to his knees, and then become prostrate on the kitchen floor, before his submission to the woman’s desire is complete. Only then can he be redeemed, and relocate to Los Angeles to support her TV career.
Watchmen is a motley collection of self-castigating, self-glorifying fantasies of (mostly) white, privileged progressives (of both sexes), and so naturally this same class of people are now praising the show to the heavens—with or without directly referring to its intersectional transubstantiation miracles. Online audience ratings are roughly half the critic ratings, however (around 50% in favor), and naturally, critics are trying to blame the discrepancy on “review bombing” by disgruntled fans (or white supremacists). Even if this is partially true, doesn’t it still indicate the level of displeasure the show has caused people? I feel like review bombing this show myself, not least because of the crazy amount of praise it’s been receiving. The attribution of viewer displeasure to ideological differences is yet more evidence of ideological possession at work, as if the only reason to object to being propagandized by a TV show is disagreement with the ideology being pushed. This is common to those who believe they are on the winning side of history: they don’t see their viewpoint as ideological, only as true. So if you find the Watchmen show ideologically top-heavy, the problem’s in you, dear viewer, not the stars: you are probably a right-wing troll.
Yet outside of the US mind-field of critical theory leftist-progressive newthink, I think it’s highly doubtful the show was ever going to appeal to other cultures in quite the same way, even if many of the reviews want to argue otherwise (the show is so strident in its moralism that some viewers may be cowed to go along). That the show follows an ideological template rather than a dramatic one is evident throughout, and it’s this that audience dissenters are objecting to, as much as or more than any specific ideological elements. Complaining that Watchmen is all about decentering whiteness and racial injustice is not the same as taking a political position against these things. It is first and foremost an aesthetic objection, rather than an ideological one. Simply put, art is no place for ideology.
The show’s latent, but also blatant, dishonesty is probably nowhere more evident than when the new, reborn Dr. Manhattan appears before the white supremacists, who have abducted Laurie Blake as a witness to his death. Neither the racists nor his former lover seem to notice that Dr. Manhattan now has the face of a black man (with blue skin). Or maybe they do notice but are sensitive to the political climate and decide not to mention it? The show has done its level best by this point to neutralize our disbelief, but the main power it wields is that of its ideological convictions: we are not supposed to be responding to the show on the level of narrative coherence anymore (if we ever were), but only that of intersectional justice. And if you aren’t for it, you’re agin it.
When Social Justice Narcissists Seize the Ship of State
Another significant distinction from the comic book is especially ironic considering the show’s seemingly “leftist” slant. While superficially critical of the masked vigilante, the Watchmen show seems to implicitly signal us to trust in authority. This contradiction may be at the heart of the new leftist-progressive mindset, which is becoming more and more compatible with—even indistinguishable from—authoritarianism. The white male patriarchy is the source of all the world’s problems, sure, but the institutions it has built, the edifices of power, are basically sound and just need to be populated and managed by the right minorities. The center remains the same, it is only who gets placed there that needs to change. Now the white male is out of power, the black female empowered, the ship of state can be steered steadily towards justice, unhooded.
The new leftist position (as it comes closer and closer to narrative-dominance) is that there is nothing wrong with state power or police action, as long as the right people are behind it. The original Watchmen questioned the use of force to solve problems and suggested that the will to power—becoming superhuman—was sourced in trauma and neurosis and the root of greater evils to come. It was never suggested as a cure for it. The TV version manages somehow to have it both ways. It eschews the need for masks—vigilantism—and it soft-questions the use of force. But at the same time, it presents force, authority, power, as necessary to restore balance, equality, and justice to the world. The ethos has come full circle, from right is might to might is right, all over again. There is nothing wrong with shooting, just so long as the right people get shot. Poor Alan Moore may have no clue as to what his playing in the superhero sandpit has wrought. Dave Gibbons has his name on the show, however; he should know better.
HBO’s Watchmen is a counterfeit. Like all counterfeits, it superficially resembles what it counterfeits, which is what makes it fundamentally cynical and exploitative. Contrary to what we may think, idealism and cynicism are not mutually exclusive. Actually, they seem to be becoming more and more complementary, just as nihilism seems to be more and more visibly at the root of the liberal-progressive mindset. It makes sense, though: social progress and justice have replaced “patriarchal” religion and now they must answer the same needs, fill the same void within us. Yet social progress is a very poor substitute for eternal life (heaven). That the Watchmen show cavalierly plunders—dare I say rapes?—the source material and forces it to submit to its own liberal-supremacist designs is perhaps a non-issue to the social justice pirates, however, just as heaven is a non-issue for Cal. It’s only the creativity—the life force—of a privileged white male that’s being exploited, after all. Turnaround is fair play.
Admittedly, the show does have some clever moments, which may partially explain some of the extravagant praise it is receiving. With its visual flourishes, occasionally cutting observations and the odd twist, and a compelling character or two (the updating of Laurie Blake as a world-weary FBI agent is well-handled, at least in her first few scenes), it kept my attention for nine hours, albeit morbidly. It even offers moments of dialogue that emulate Alan Moore’s unique ability to create pulp with depth. But there is nothing here that even dimly approaches the kind of mellow “genius” Moore displayed in this work, and nothing that resembles a unique personal vision, combined with the necessary talent, or the devotion, to give it form. It’s closer in spirit and mood to a book-burning.
Like Westworld, the Watchmen shows feel like it was designed in a laboratory, assembled in a factory, and coldly disseminated via a political campaign aimed only at getting votes. If it speaks to our time, it’s not by giving voice to the bubbling undercurrents of a collective id, the way Watchmen once echoed the yearning and dissatisfaction of several generations of comic book lovers. It simulates the zeitgeist, painstakingly, deliberately, opportunistically, cynically, via a committee-driven process of assembling its ideological transportation device. The end result is a shiny Trojan Horse, one that has passed for some viewers as edgy and innovative social commentary, and that has functioned for the many as a one-pointed projection device of covert cultural mind control.
In his “Open Letter to Watchmen Fans,” written in May of 2018, Lindelof describes himself as “the unscrupulous bastard currently defiling something you love.” Which brings to mind Jimmy Savile “joking” about how much he hated children. To generate reader sympathy, Lindelof recounts being at his father’s death bed and praying to Cthulu and Dr. Manhattan. He then confesses his own crassness in writing about his father’s death as a bid for sympathy, calls himself “needy and pathetic” and the letter “an exercise in oversharing.” Lindelof sets out to preempt every possible negative response from us before we have even had a chance to have it.
At no point did I feel that Lindelof was being honest in his show of “vulnerability,” however (more like strategically self-indulgent). The letter is a performance of honesty, written in an imitation of Dr. Manhattan’s “quantum observance” time-hopping, and it is self-serving through and through. The same is true of Lindelof’s version of Watchmen, which is Lindelof’s homage to himself, not to the comic book. Lindelof admits that Alan Moore has made it “abundantly clear that he doesn’t want anyone to adapt his work [so] to do so is . . . unethical.” For spiritual insurance, he wrote a letter to Moore “humbly asking him not to place a curse on me.” And then he wrote this letter to the fans asking basically the same thing.
What sort of artist tries to preempt his (imaginary) audience’s negative reaction with a long and tedious series of rationalizations? The narcissistic sort, clearly, whose attention is not on the work at hand but on the world he is hoping will applaud it (and dreading will reject it). That’s the difference between Lindelof and Moore, apparently, and it’s the difference between Lindelof and a real artist. Not that I want to glorify art and artists, but if anything could make me nostalgic for those values, it’s a show like Watchmen.
But maybe I shouldn’t be too down on it: for one thing, it has helped me to see something more clearly. There seems to be a correlation between a culture that becomes increasingly secular, and hence nihilistic, and the narcissism of its “makers.” What happens, apparently, is that the culture-makers, formerly artists, lose focus on their interior life where inspiration happens, and their gaze moves progressively over to the world, to society, where all values are now sourced. As a result art, so-called, is no longer about articulating the still, silent voice within us, or giving voice to the soul; it is about addressing social injustices in the world in order to be relevant and “radical.” Yet I doubt there is any way to be radical if your only frame of reference is social justice, because at that point the creative process becomes all about reacting to what’s already there, in the world, instead of discovering what’s latent within you. And being radical suggests introducing something that is new into the mix, surely, rather than merely reacting to the old?
LIndelof’s Watchmen wants to be art that is making the world a better place by addressing the injustices in the world. What it is, what Lindelof is, is one more reactionary sock puppet for the dominant ideology of critical theory identity politics-grievance studies. By relating primarily to the past, by reacting to the manufactured shadow-realities of Empire, it has achieved the aims of propaganda, and propaganda, no matter its spin, is always in service of Empire. But deep down, I suspect Lindelof’s aim isn’t really to change the world, so much as it is to improve his position in the world, and that of his favored minorities. These days, this is largely achieved by asserting an identity, such as the “making the world a better place” identity. It is the new age of the social justice narcissist, and Watchmen (the TV show-as-loving-defilement) is perhaps the fullest and most depressing expression of the new “ethos” of virtue signalling.
In his openly narcissistic open letter, Lindelof makes it as clear as can be that he is a man with a mission. He is the man who created a Writer’s Room in which “Hetero White Men like myself are in the minority” so he could understand the comic book’s “potential through the perspective of women, people of color and the LBGTQ community.” And his show, he reassures fans, is the New Testament to the Old Testament of the graphic novel: “it did not erase what came before it.” True enough; it only defiles it.
Placed so casually at the end of his preemptive apology letter, Lindelof’s statement echoes like a smart bomb through the wasteland of a “confession” that drips with feigned humility and fake transparency. Like the take-no-prisoners onslaught of a TV show that followed after, it’s a counterfeit that’s all spin and no sincerity: all signal, no virtue. To cap it off, it’s signed “with respectful Hubris”—a phrase that’s about as meaningful as “soothing dyspepsia,” or “loving defilement.”
Unless, I suppose, you are lost in a bardo realm for writers busy structuring and policing a better, kinder world for the narcisso-progressive artistes of newthink to disappear forever into.