Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen—the 1986 DC comic book series of twelve issues, later reissued as a single volume—is arguably considered to be among the most important and influential graphic novels ever written. Critics across the cultural spectrum have endorsed it a masterpiece. On the 2013 Deluxe Edition backcover (Moore and Gibbons), one of the most emphatic endorsements comes from none other than Damon Lindelof, who, after having been asked two times before to work on Watchmen projects, on a third request eventually decided to take on the HBO Watchmen limited series that was released in 2019 (Lindelof; Mazin Episode 1). Lindelof had declined previous opportunities due to his respect for the graphic novel. After all, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons are considered among the very best storytellers of the comic book world, who in turn have influenced a legion of contemporary storytellers, including Lindelof, who turned to film and television as an outlet for his own Watchmen version. On May 22, 2018, Lindelof posted on Instagram an open letter addressed to Watchmen fans explaining his motivations and reasoning in adapting the hallowed comic book series. In this statement, he explicitly contextualized his project in terms of remix:
We have no desire to ‘adapt’ the twelve issues Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons created thirty years ago. Those issues are sacred ground and they will not be retread nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted. They will, however, be remixed. (Lindelof)
Based on Lindelof’s claim, this essay offers a critical analysis of how remix as a creative form of storytelling challenges preconceptions of film adaptation in the case of Damon Lindelof’s HBO series. It considers how Lindelof’s own understanding of remix enables him to expand the possibilities of creative expression while questioning originality. Lindelof added in his statement that he specifically opted for a remix approach to Watchmen “because the bass lines in those familiar tracks are just too good and we’d be fools not to sample them” (Lindelof). By sampling, he appears to imply that he is taking specific narrative points from the comic book series to create a world that relies on Moore’s and Gibbons’ work, but gains autonomy as a creative work of its own. In effect, Lindelof references the original comics as his “old testament” and the limited series for HBO as his own body of work (the new) defined by Watchmen. With this statement, it is evident that Lindelof considers remix in terms of allegory, which in this case it means that a previous work provides legitimacy and pedigree for a new work. However, even though Lindelof appears quite aware of how remix principles work, once one views the HBO limited series as a whole, an instability emerges when considering his narrative as a remix. His storyline does not completely fit any pre-defined criteria of adaption, reboot, version. There appears to be a slippage in how “remix” applies here, which is why I argue that the limited series is a new work using “samples” (i.e. cultural citations) by way of appropriation strategies similar to those practiced in hip hop (Navas “Sampling Creativity”). In other words, Lindelof cites iconic, yet at times subtle, references from the original Watchmen graphic novel that would be recognizable to fans as a sample would be recognizable in hip hop music. Understanding this intertextual strategy is important in order to lay bare the significance of allegory in Lindelof’s work and its effects. Vacillating between appropriation and recontextualization, two key elements of remix, Lindelof’s allegorical approach to Watchmen enables him to explore, with unexpected agency, contemporary issues of racism and white nationalist ideology intimately linked to the politics of the day in the United States. In turn, this opens the way for discussions of human struggle as a universal subject, something that the original Watchmen comic book series also explores in-depth.
In order to examine how allegory and remix may be at play in Lindelof’s work through the implementation of appropriation and recontextualization, it is necessary to take a closer look at the respective plots of the Watchmen graphic novel followed by Lindelof’s reinterpretation of the original narrative.
Moore and Gibbons set their story in an alternate universe in which masked superheroes, who were often considered vigilantes, and were hailed for their public effort to keep the streets safe between WWII and Vietnam, eventually retired in the 1960s. In this reality, Nixon remains President, Watergate never occurred, and there is eminent danger of nuclear war between the United States and The Soviet Union.
Against this backdrop of great uncertainty, five superheroes, former members of the Watchmen: Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Rorschach, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan try to make sense of the mysterious murders of a superhero (The Comedian) and a villain (Moloch). The story, in fact, opens with the killing of The Comedian, once a member of The Minutemen, a preceding group of vigilantes active before and during WWII and after, who later joined the Watchmen. Displaced nostalgia emerges in the first pages of the graphic novel for a luring dystopia, in which the United States won the Vietnam War, eventually turning the country into the 51st state of the nation (this is important in Lindelof’s version of Watchmen). Dr. Manhattan along with The Comedian helped win the Vietnam War, and after this period, the Watchmen retired.
Moore’s and Gibbons’s story picks up on the five retired heroes in the 1980s, offering film-noir elements with a narrative that poses existential questions, most notably, about the worthiness of human existence. This is posed directly when Dr. Manhattan decides to leave earth for Mars after he is accused of giving Cancer to people who were close to him. Shortly thereafter, he briefly returns to Earth to take Laurie Blake / Silk Spectre II back to Mars with him. (Blake, his current lover in 1985, is a former member of the Watchmen, and the daughter of Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre member of the Minutemen.) They have a philosophical conversation while on Mars about the uniqueness of life, and whether human life is important enough to save—which Dr. Manhattan apparently has the power to do (Figure 1). Eventually Laurie convinces Dr. Manhattan that humans are worth saving, but by the time they return to Earth, a giant squid has been dropped on New York City, killing hundreds of people. It turns out that Ozymandias / Adrian Veidt, considered the world’s smartest human, concocted the squid plot to ease down global tension, and (in his view) save humanity: nations had to come together in order to defend themselves against a potential alien invasion.
Building on key moments from this basic plot, Damon Lindelof updates the world of Watchmen by fast forwarding to an alternate reality in 2019 where Robert Redford is President of the United States. He appears to have been in power for multiple terms. The story itself opens with a graphic reenactment of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, when the Greenwood District of Tulsa, known as Black Wall Street, a prosperous community of African Americans was looted, burned to the ground, and members of the community were murdered and lynched by White Supremacists (Figure 2). This opening gives HBO Watchmen a radically different bent from the original, especially because it deals with a painful act of racism that until recently was not widely discussed outside of African American communities in the history of The United States.1 Little by little, however, details emerge that are foundational to understand how Lindelof’s work is, in essence, a type of “remixed,” work as he called it, of Moore’s and Gibbons’s original narrative.
The story is centered on Angela Abar, a retired police officer of the City of Tulsa, who remains active as the vigilante Sister Night (who wears a black mask and hood) (Figure 3). She continues to work undercover with the Tulsa Police to fight against the Seventh Kavalry, a White Supremacist group, whose members conceal their identities by wearing masks similar to Rorschach’s, whose journal also influenced their vision (Figure 4). A turning point preceding the story is The White Night, an event which took place on Christmas Eve in 2016, when forty police officers, including Officer Abar were attacked at their homes. After the massacre police officers wore yellow masks (in the iconic Watchmen yellow from the comic book), in order to protect their identities. The result is that both the “bad guys” and “good guys,” hide their identities behind masks (which becomes an important motif in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic—more on this below).
The broader plot is that the leader of the Seventh Kavalry, Senator Joe Keene Jr. (Bob Benson), who is also running for President in 2020, is planning to capture Dr. Manhattan to take his power as Keene becomes the President of The United States. But a new character created by Lindeloff and his team, Lady Trieu, who turns out to be the daughter of Adrian Veidt, and a genius entrepreneur in her own right, has her own plan to take Dr. Manhattan’s powers to rule the world (or “save” it as she claims).
As in the original Watchmen, it should be clear at this point that, based on the plot summaries described above, there are broad existential questions at play in the 2019 update that, similarly to the Watchmen graphic novel, revolve around the purpose of life. What has shifted, however, is the historical filter through which these existential questions are experienced: in the graphic novel that filter is the possibility of a nuclear war; while in the HBO series, it is racial tension in the United States—which in the last episodes, similarly to the graphic novel, is ultimately connected to human existence across the world.
Closer scrutiny of the HBO series makes clear that its status as an adapted “remixed” work is not straightforward. For one thing, the series might at times appear to be a typical sequel that elaborates on the story strands of selected characters three decades later. But to consider Lindelof’s Watchmen as a mere continuation of the narrative world of the graphic novel does not do justice to the complexity of the work. Also, as previously noted Lindelof did not say that the result would be an actual remix, but rather that the original Watchmen would be remixed—a statement that he followed by discussing Moore’s story being implicitly an allegorical inspiration equivalent to a music composition of which, as noted earlier, some “bass lines” in those “tracks” were “too good” not to be sampled (Lindelof). This invites an analysis of Lindelof’s process of picking up small and obscure details from the graphic novel to develop a story of his own, a process that sampling strategies in actual remixes implemented through appropriation and recontextualization can help us better appreciate.
To begin, Lindelof does not mention the word “remix” when he discusses the creative process behind his limited series in a podcast series produced by HBO. But what he does repeat from the Instagram post in the podcast is that the graphic novel is his “Old Testament” (Mazin Episode 3). In the post, Lindelof writes:
Those original twelve issues are our Old Testament. When the New Testament came along, it did not erase what came before it. Creation. The Garden of Eden. Abraham and Isaac. The Flood. It all happened. And so it will be with Watchmen. (Lindelof)
Lindelof, although he does not use the term, considers the relation of the Old and New Testament in terms of allegory, and in this sense his own Watchmen is a work that gains autonomy by relying on the authority of a pre-existing work, which it uses not only as inspiration, but more importantly as its source of authority and legitimacy. It cannot go unnoticed that Lindelof explicitly presents the Bible as an example to frame his creative process. His way of evaluating the relation of the New and Old Testament is uncannily similar to art and cultural critic Craig Owens’s own theory of allegory, who also uses the Bible as an example.2 And it also resonates with Fredric Jameson’s recent historical assessment of allegory and its complex relation to ideology after postmodernism.3 Consequently, the following section extrapolates allegory in postmodern terms according to Owens and Jameson in order to argue that Lindelof’s Watchmen is not a remix, but rather an allegorical work that relies on contemporary remix strategies to gain autonomy with a transparency that clearly builds on culture’s growing awareness of appropriation and recontextualization, key elements that continue to inform remix, as a form of discourse across media and culture.
Remix and Allegory
Allegory is generally understood as meaning that is hidden in a creative work. However, the term in postmodern discourse, as will be discussed in what follows, is recognized to expose how creative works in all forms cite, rely upon, and are constructed from pre-existing works. Ideas, concepts, and even direct recognizable forms taken from pre-existing works and recontextualized (remixed) in new works ultimately legitimate and give authority to the new works. Allegory from this stance gives both legitimacy to the work and, in the case of commercial works, assures the possibility of revenue. Remix is inherently allegorical. It became recognized in popular culture as music remixes during the early 1980s, which was preceded by early forms of appropriating and remixing pre-existing music for the dancehall in Jamaica in the early to mid-seventies, and the dancefloor in disco and hip hop during the late seventies, eventually becoming hip hop’s foundational creative form with the emergence of the music sampler in the 1980s.4 Remix is part of postmodern discourse which emerged as an important paradigm in the 1980s, during which time a sense of unoriginality and the waning of affect were cultural symptoms constantly debated in relation to creative production in art and media. Much of the artistic works produced in that period were viewed through a lens of appropriation (taking a recognizable pre-existing form to repurpose/recontextualize, a type of sampling), which was considered to be allegorical by critics such as Craig Owens.5
Owens wrote “The Allegorical Impulse,” one of his most important essays, in the 1980s in which he argues that postmodern art is inherently allegorical, functioning paradoxically on a method of borrowing from the past, which, in modernism, was suppressed by making works appear original, but which, in postmodernism, became transparent and evident not only to practitioners but also their communities and audiences.6 This transparency exposed how artists and everyone who contributes cultural content perform allegorical acts, meaning that they borrow from the past in order to develop something new.
Owens specifically refers to the Bible as an example of how allegory functions. He writes, “Let us say for the moment that allegory occurs whenever one text is doubled by another; the Old Testament, for example, becomes allegorical when it is read as a prefiguration of the New” (Owens 204). Given that Lindelof is invested in the same biblical analogy, it is not unreasonable to infer that Lindelof understands remix in terms of allegory, and consequently, the creative process as postmodernist. Lindelof seems well-aware that he produced a work that is as much his own as it is also fully dependent on and legitimated by the pre-existing Watchmen. Just like the New Testament cannot have any legitimacy without the Old Testament, HBO’s Watchmen can have no creative authority without at least a general knowledge that it borrows from the Watchmen graphic novel. This also means that even when the HBO series may take an unexpected and arguably radical turn from the previous Watchmen, when it borrows the general narrative of an alternate reality, key characters, minor details found in the corner of panels, and backstories at the end of each comic issue, it can only do so by living up to what is prescribed in the original. This dependency is explained by Owens, enlisting the insights of Northrop Frye: “[T]he allegorical work tends to prescribe the direction of its own commentary. It is in this metatextual aspect that is invoked whenever allegory is attacked as interpretation merely appended post facto to a work” (Ibid.). This was a stigma allegory experienced in modernism, Owens argues, because modernism rendered the dependency inherent to its creative work unoriginal. But in postmodernism such dependency is not only evident but is operationalized as critical commentary on the creative process as such:
Allegory can no longer be condemned as something merely appended to the work of art, for it is revealed as a structural possibility inherent in every work. In modernism, however, the allegory remains in potentia and is actualized only in the activity of reading, which suggests that the allegorical impulse that characterizes postmodernism is a direct consequence of its preoccupation with reading. (Ibid. 222–223)
Here Owens is pointing to the need in postmodernism to acknowledge openly, as part of the aesthetic experience, the sources that construct a new work of art. In postmodernism it is no longer acceptable to pretend that a work does not borrow and/or is inspired by a pre-existing work, because engagement with the new work demands a recognition and reaction to the pre-existing work in order to be recognized and accepted and in turn to legitimize the new.
Lindelof makes the most of this well-established postmodern strategy, which is foundational in remix, commonly perceived in terms of material sampling as widely practiced in hip hop. However, what he is performing is not so much material sampling, but cultural citation, meaning that he is referencing ideas to develop work that is not technically and formally taken from the original work as it was produced, but appropriated as a recognizable element that will gain autonomy through a transparent process of recontextualization by making reference to the pre-existing work. In short: he is taking concepts, not recorded samples.7 The legitimation of the television series can therefore only be possible via recognition of its source: the history leading from the Watchmen graphic novel. Allegory is also ideological, which makes it a paradoxical variable in human communication that is also bound with elements of culture, politics, and economics which are at the forefront of Lindelof’s Watchmen.
Fredric Jameson shares similarities with Owens in his own take on allegory, which may appear extreme when he claims that “allegory is allegorical” (Jameson 1). He nevertheless makes this statement at the outset of his close analysis in order to prove how allegory plays a pivotal role in all aspects of communication.8 He explains that allegory becomes difficult to recognize because we often think of it in direct form: “The term allegory is most often applied to what may be called a one-to-one narrative in which features of a primary narrative are selected (in the process rhetoric calls amplification) and correlated with features of a second one that then becomes the ‘meaning’ of the first” (Jameson 4–5). Jameson considers this type of allegory simplistic, and argues that there are good and bad allegories; a one-to-one allegory is not good for him because it does not complete the transformation of meaning in a way that moves beyond a reference. Good allegory needs to transform meaning of both the work referenced and the new work (Ibid. 10). However, he admits that there is a paradox not so different from the one noticed by Owens in that allegory also demands the preservation of the original:
So even a reading of Christian allegory will seek to preserve the substance of the original or literal text, at the same time that it suggests reservations about the latter's conventional historiography, its system of representation, which omits the prophetic dimension and sinks back into mere chronicle. This very possibility, however, alerts us to the importance of the historical situations in which the practice of allegory is revived out of need, or on the other hand, discredited as a purely scholastic exercise. (Ibid. 22)
Here Jameson is also evaluating allegory in a Christian theological context, which means that he shares with, both, Owens and Lindeloff the Bible as a clear example of the meaning of a new work emerging from the meaning of a pre-existing work. He explicitly claims that the New Testament completes the meaning of the Old. (Ibid. 21).
Lindelof’s Watchmen falls within the last statement—it completes the work of Moore and Gibbons. This is a possibility if we remind ourselves that Jameson also argues that a good allegorical work will change the meaning of the allegorized source, which gives it authority, legitimation, and meaning. However, the new work somehow is expected to preserve the meaning of the previous work (which again paradoxically is completed in the new work). This is a contradiction that remains unresolved (a paradox of a paradox—like the allegory of an allegory). It makes the new work appear contentious once we acknowledge its reliance on a pre-existing work. In turn, we realize what Jameson means when he argues that allegory is allegorical: the new work itself will be “completed” by another work that is to come which in turn will continue the allegorical process. In other words, a constant remixing of meaning (byway of cultural citation), which begins to turn on itself to become invisible.
This is the preoccupation with reading that Owens points out in his essay, which was suppressed in modernism in order to preserve “originality,” and which became transparent in postmodernism. The price of transparency of understanding and being honest about how we build on pre-existing material is the questioning of originality. And at this moment we realize that originality is a lie that supports an entire economical infrastructure under the paradigm of intellectual property.9 We have not overcome this conundrum, and currently creative works that are compelling make the most of this unresolved tension. Remixed works are defined by this permanent stigma, they are often paradoxically dismissed as unoriginal, as derivative, as uncreative because they bring forth the uniqueness of unoriginality as their validation, by questioning what appears to be original—the very source being built upon, appropriated, recontextualized, and remixed. This is a deconstructive process in which the meaning of the old work and the new, when they come together to form new meaning, remains unresolved. This process inherent to allegory resembles mashups, which provide the possibility to appreciate how things are combined to function as one, while also being recognizable as separate: as types of modules, which we experience as distinguishable, discrete pieces (Harrison and Navas). We simultaneously experience the originating source, or sources and the new form. This is what Lindelof pulls off in his own take on Watchmen (if the viewer knows the originating source, of course). We must now delve further into his work if we are to fully appreciate why he would contextualize his project in terms of remix at all.
There are two basic ways that appropriation takes place in remix: by way of material sampling and cultural citation.10 Material sampling means that you take an actual source, a recording (image, sound, or text) exactly as it appeared and recontextualize it in order to create something new, in which the original is easily recognizable. Material sampling for the most part leads to a one-to-one allegory as described by Jameson, one which also demands that appropriation, as Owens explains, is recognized as an extension of Postmodernism. Cultural citation is the taking of concepts and ideas, which can be presented through forms that are so different that the reference to the original source is not evident unless one is aware of discernable historical tropes that travel from one text to another. It takes a lot more effort to notice cultural citation than material sampling, which is why most lawsuits are against sampled recordings.
Lindelof allegorizes by way of cultural citation, yet he implements it in a way that makes his intertextual “samples” just as recognizable as the samples used in hip hop. For his HBO Watchmen he appropriated key ideas, and narrative lines (the “bass lines”) to recontextualize them in a story of his own. He achieves this by taking details from the Watchmen graphic novel to expand them as pivotal moments of his plot. One of those details appears in the first episode’s opening scene. A film of a hooded man on horseback chasing another man plays in an old movie theater. After capturing the man who is white, the hooded man exposes his face to show that he is black. White witnesses applaud his actions and demand severe punishment, but the black man states that there will be no such act. A young boy sits alone repeating the dialogue while eagerly watching the film, and his mother plays the music score on the piano.
All of this is happening during the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Minutes later, his parents will hide him inside a box and place him on a wagon that will take him out of town. He and a baby girl, who will become his wife, also in the wagon, survive. The boy is Will Reeves, who will grow up to become a police officer in Tulsa, and after a near lynching by white members of his own police force, his anger drives him to become Hooded Justice; the first masked vigilante, who in turn inspired the Minutemen, the first superhero group that preceded the Watchmen. The sequence described actually unfolds non-linearly, between Episode 1 and Episode 6. The latter is the origin story of Hooded Justice told through memories relived by Angela Abar (Willis’s granddaughter), having ingested his memory pills (which allow people to relive the past) called Nostalgia.
Hooded Justice appeared briefly in the Watchmen graphic novel, looming large, almost mythically, as the forefather of vigilantism. In the HBO series, he is a key supporting figure. Lindelof noted during the official HBO Watchmen podcast that in the graphic novel all the heroes were white (Mazin Episode 2). The only black characters are the psychiatrist who evaluates Rorschach when he was imprisoned, his wife, and the young man who reads a comic at a newsstand throughout the story. And these three characters are underdeveloped, when compared to the rest of the heroes in the graphic novel. By making the founder of masked vigilantism Black, Lindelof allegorically comments on the history of cultural appropriation that has defined White privilege and racism in the United States. In this regard Lindelof’s HBO podcast co-host, Craig Mazin, explains how Lindelof’s narrative twist relates to Rock & Roll taking from the Blues (Mazin Episode 3). Black culture has consistently been appropriated by White culture, and Lindelof thought making a critical comment on this ongoing tendency that is still pervasive today was important for a story he meant to be reflective of contemporary times (Ibid.).
Lindelof, also took a small comment from a fictional “reprint” of an interview with Silk Spectre I / Sally Jupiter at the end of Issue 9, where she is asked about Ursulla Sandt’s / The Silhouette’s sexuality, she explains that she was not the only gay member of the Minutemen. She states, “I mean, she wasn’t the only gay person in the Minutemen. Some professions, I don’t know, they attract a certain type” (Moore and Gibbons 312). Building on this allusion, HBO’s Watchmen depicts Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis (the founder of the Minutemen) as lovers, which subverts the near unquestioned assumption that superheroes are heterosexual. Queerness is part of the complex tapestry of Hooded Justice’s origin story, which makes his character more empathetic and complex, and not a stereotype of a black man for easy consumption. Hooded Justice is a real character that needs to be engaged with the same attention as any other superhero assumed to be White behind the mask.
Lindelof sampled even smaller details from the graphic novel to provide allegorical legitimacy to his own work. Some of these samplings are winks at the serious fans. For instance, in Episode 2 we can recognize a shot at a newsstand of the publication Nova Express, which was sold by a recurring newsstand vendor in the original graphic novel, whose commentary serves as a contextual backdrop of the political and cultural tensions of the time; Nova Express is also the subject of a fictitious New Frontiersman critique at the end of Watchmen Issue 8. Another sampled detail is found at the end of Issue 11 of the graphic novel, where Ozymandias mentions The Seventh Cavalry11 in opposition to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Ibid. 380), and Lindelof took this minute premise to develop the white supremacist group by the same name (spelled with a K) in his own series which is the major force that must be confronted by Angela Abar / Sister Night and eventually Dr. Manhattan. The term “Redfordations” is briefly mentioned during a discussion by two journalists at the end of Issue 12. Redfordations is a recurring theme throughout the HBO series. What it means is not fully clear, but Lindelof explains in the podcast that Redfordations approximates the possibility of reparations for African Americans for the injustices their ancestors experienced. In the story, the fictional President Robert Redford made reparations specifically for survivors of the Tulsa Massacre, and Angela Abar is one of the benefactors (Mazin Episode 1; Episode 2).
Obviously, selected characters from the graphic novel are also brought back with a deliberate allegorical approach to play key parts in the new plot. Laurie Blake returns as an FBI agent, rehabilitated from her superhero past, as she now specializes in capturing vigilantes. She visits Tulsa to investigate the death of Judd Crawford, the Chief of Police who was killed apparently by Will Reeves. Ozymandias / Adrian Veidt reappears being trapped most of the time in one of Jupiter’s moons, but eventually makes it to earth in the last episode to be part of the climax; and Dr. Manhattan eventually returns, albeit covertly, as Angela Abar’s husband. He chose the form of a black man as requested by Angela when they met in Vietnam. Angela’s request for Dr. Manhattan to take on a new physical form happens in Episode 8, which opens with Dr. Manhattan introducing himself to Angela over a couple of beers. The United States won The Vietnam War, and the country was turned into the 51st State in the HBO series. Angela was born in Vietnam, and her parents were killed during a street bombing. She became a police officer, and when she met Dr. Manhattan they decided to move to Tulsa, which brings the story full circle in Episode 8 and 9, when we learn that Dr. Manhattan’s powers are coveted by both Lady Trieu, and Senator Keene Jr.—created after the original’s Senator Keene, mentioned in Issue 4, when a newscaster announces that Senator Keene’s bill which made vigilantism illegal passed (Moore and Gibbons 133). There are many more details that Lindelof took from Watchmen. But the ones mentioned above should suffice to demonstrate the tapestry of citations at play in his allegorical work.
HBO Watchmen provides more context to the characters imported from the original comics by adding more detail to their histories and lives—a move that goes back to the allegorized fictional history that Moore and Gibbons themselves created to legitimate Watchmen through the Minutemen. Lindelof writes Hooded Justice’s origin story to connect back to an originating allegory—also an allegory about origins—which he created to precede the television series, and in turn legitimize his own work, but ultimately also the graphic novel. This history of history by Lindelof was created on the back of backstories included at the end of each comic issue by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that provided diaristic, memoir-like information about the characters. These snippets helped them create a world that the reader felt already existed and they were beginning to enter, but were never able to completely immerse in. Lindelof contributed to this by completing the circle: by changing the meaning of the allegorized work, thus completing, while pointing to something new, as Jameson argues a complex allegory that supersedes a one-to-one formula should do.
Based on the “bass lines” Lindelof took from the original Watchmen, it should be evident that he did not perform a one-to-one allegory. He does take from the Old Testament to create his own New testament, but in doing so, he produced a complex allegory, one that not only creates new meaning but also completes the meaning of the allegorized work. The reason why Lindelof is able to pull this off so well is because he critically reflects on the politics of our time that in turn offers a reflection on the history of the work he took from. Lindelof thus comments on not only the graphic novel, but on the foundations of the United States, very much along the lines suggested by Jameson in relation to history of governments: “So we have here a first example of how allegory itself can be allegorical, when it is symbolic of an ancient regime and its class hierarchies” (Jameson 3). Lindelof is commenting on unresolved contentions with slavery, which, if we are to consider allegory functioning on ideological terms, moved from a direct form of physical slavery, as in one-to-one allegory, which is evident through simple observation, to a systemic form of slavery: a complex allegory that is difficult to decipher, and even can be denied by those who are uncomfortable with this reality.
Conclusion: Watchmen is not a Remix
HBO’s Watchmen is not a remix at least according to how the term is commonly understood when thinking of remixes of works for which parts are added, deleted, extended and so forth, while still dealing with basically the same content. Certainly, the term “remix” had its use for Lindelof on Instagram as a means to characterize his creative approach. Perhaps, Lindelof merely used the concept of remix in his Instagram post due to the popularity of the term at the time he announced he would be producing the limited series. It is revealing that he appears not to mention the term again, notably so during the HBO Watchmen Podcast, which goes into great detail about the way his story borrows from the graphic novel. The closest he comes to discussing principles of remix in that podcast is when he states:
This thing is in conversation with the original Watchmen. You can call it a sequel, you can call it an homage, but it’s not a cover band. It tapped into the same type of energy of the original. It’s its own thing. (Mazin Episode 3)
A cover band it certainly isn’t. The series is the result of an appropriation of various bits thoroughly recontextualized to establish a “thing” with its own agency. Lindelof sampled “bass lines” through cultural citation; yet, he complicated the remix equation since he implemented one-one-strategies (material sampling / one-to-one allegory) within the realm of cultural citation. He references tropes from the original that reinforce the message of his work: like hip hop music takes samples from preexisting songs to create new compositions that have agency but clearly rely on the authority of the sampled work. Ultimately, Damon Lindelof appropriates and recontextualizes, updates, adapts, and reversions Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s storyline into a clinically crafted synecdoche that mirrors recurring anxieties of life itself—one that functions at a micro and macro level to ask questions that are both personal and universal.
This sense of a “remix” might still be dismissed as a superficial label. In effect, one could conclude, his nine episodes are intertextual narratives that thrive on cultural citation—a principle key to remix as discourse, but not remix as a material form. However, be that as it may, we cannot deny that underneath the public mask of “the series as remix” is a work still fully engaged in the allegorizing functions of remix—particularly with regard to the politics of the day. Lindelof exhibits an honest interest in creating a space for critical reflection. Also, he did not create “his” Watchmen on his own; he had help from a diversely representative team of writers who joined in for two years to work on the project.12 As a result he was able to use an iconic graphic novel as his platform to reflect on racial injustice. Many white people who loved the graphic novel may be unwilling to deal with racism, or even realize that they may be implicitly racist. But when they encounter a story whose foundation is a narrative they love—which is inherently white but is flipped for critique in the new version, the possibility that they may reconsider uncomfortable issues emerge, and this is promising for real cultural change for a fairer world.
And this is where masks become an important metaphor at the time in which the limited series was produced. In 2020, a year after Lindelof’s project was released, masks became part of daily reality, not only in the United States, but also the entire world. Lindelof was thinking of masks for his story in terms of Charlottesville, and the KKK (Mazin Episode 3), but as it always happens with art, objects once placed in the public sphere, in terms of discourse, no longer belong to their makers, but the world (ripe for appropriation and recontextualization); and people have a different relationship with masks after 2020 because everyone, unless they believed that COVID-19 was a hoax, wore one at some point in the year. In turn, the pandemic exposed how we are all connected, how we are all affected by things that may not appear linked on simplistic terms (as in a one-to-one allegory), but rather, like a virus, ideas seep through all things, and like a complex allegory permeate every aspect of life, to the point that it becomes invisible. Alas, Allegory is allegorical—like Orobouros, it eats itself to the point that it appears to vanish—fully becoming ideological, and ripe to be politicized by all camps involved. Critical practice is the only means through which we can notice how this complex process takes place. And in this regard, Lindelof provides a work that bluntly asks the United States to deal with its allegorical addiction to racism.
1 Since the death of George Floyd, an awareness of systemic racism is openly discussed across media as recordings of police brutality have emerged. Recordings of bias and unfairness by police officers towards African Americans and people of color precede Floyd and goes back to the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. The Tulsa Massacre has been the attention of many television specials in 2021.
2 Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1992), 52 – 87.
3 Fredric Jameson, Allegory and Ideology (New York: Verso, 2020).
4 For a full account of this historical development see Navas (Remix Theory 33–62).
5 I previously discussed Owens’s theory of Allegory in Chapter 2 and 3 of Remix Theory.
6 This is taught at schools as part of contemporary art history. For a book that encapsulates postmodernism along the lines of Owens see Dave Hopkins.
7 See Navas (Remix Theory 63–127).
8 This is done throughout the book, but it culminates in Jameson’s last chapter, Jameson, “Literary: Allegoresis in Postmodernity,” 309 – 348.
9 See Lessig and Sinnreich (Mashed Up; The Essential Guide).
10 For a detailed explanation of these terms see Navas (Remix Theory), Chapter 2 and 3.
11 The name of the white supremacist group is spelled with a C in the graphic novel, and with a K in the HBO limited series.
12 Lindelof repeats this throughout the HBO podcast episodes. His co-writers are also found in the credits page: https://www.hbo.com/watchmen/cast-and-crew
Harrison, Nate, and Eduardo Navas, “Mashup.” Keywords in Remix Studies, edited by Eduardo Navas, et al., Routledge, 2018, pp. 188–201.
Hopkins, Dave. After Modern Art, 1945–2000. Oxford UP, 2000.
Jameson, Fredric. Allegory and Ideology. Verso, 2020.
Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Penguin Books, 2009.
Lindelof, Damon. “Dear Fans of Watchmen.” Instagram, 22 May 2018. https://www.instagram.com/p/BjFsj6JHEdq/?utm_source=ig_embed&ig_rid=015c2583-0188-4751-81bb-081cf121fafd. Accessed 28 January 2021.
Mazin, Craig. “The Official Watchmen Podcast.” HBO Podcasts, Episodes 1–3, HBO, https://www.hbo.com/watchmen/watchmen-listen-to-official-podcast . Accessed 15 March 2021.
Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons, The Deluxe Edition: Watchmen.DC Comics, 2013
Navas, Eduardo. Remix Theory. Springer, 2012.
Navas, Eduardo. “Sampling Creativity: Material Sampling and Cultural Citation.” Art, Media Design, and Postproduction: Guidelines on Appropriation and Remix. Routledge, 2018, pp. 31–40.
Owens, Craig. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. U of California P, 1992, pp. 52–87.
Sinnreich, Aram. Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture. U of Massachusetts P, 2010.
Sinnreich, Aram. The Essential Guide to Intellectual Property. Yale UP, 2019.