In Considering Watchmen, Andrew Hoberek savvily addresses the rhetorical strategies of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s iconic graphic novel,1 drawing out its connection to literary modernism and works by authors like Virginia Woolf. Hoberek notes, for instance, Watchmen’s “pioneering use of free-indirect discourse and first-person narration” and its probing of character subjectivities that assist in deploying a “more precise psychological realism” (20). Dana Polan additionally comments on Watchmen’s connection to modernism—only “cinematic modernism” in Polan’s case, given the graphic novel’s resemblance to “the time-thought experiments of Alain Resnais” (146). Indeed, given the marked variances here in medium and historical period, it is worth our wondering: Could there be something more fundamental underpinning these texts beyond their stylistic affiliation with an early 20th-century movement?
The answer is yes. What I plan to argue, in fact, is that Watchmen—not to mention modernism, both literary and cinematic—deploys interpretive stragies that are significantly bound up with high literacy. Understandably, the hierarchal shadings of the word high may prove distasteful for some readers; nevertheless, the term is common to the field of the cognitive science of learning and instruction and is intended foremost to “distinguish literacy’s higher-order goals from the more elemental ability to read and write” (Nayar 74). What constitutes, and even permits, “more precise psychological realism,” immersions into subjectivities, and experimentation with time-thought, in other words, is a constellation of abilities that have been achieved through acquisition and practice of literacy’s higher-order goals. These include an ability to yield multiple solutions; to make nuanced judgments; to apply multiple criteria; to deal with uncertainty; as well as to self-regulate the thinking process and impose meaning (Resnick).
One might even contend that literary modernism marks our current epistemic limit when it comes to narrative content and form.2 And Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen functions in much the same way, inviting and even demanding of its readers a similarly complex and cognitively sophisticated textual engagement. Of course, for some, such sophistication is not exactly utopian. After all, literary complexity—as I shall term it from hereon in—is often achieved through an indirectness of meaning, through meaning’s capacity to lurk “almost pathologically between the lines” (Vermeule 90).3 This may be in the form of indeterminacy, intentional obscurity, open-endedness, or irony—all which force us into having to read the mind of authors no less than of their characters, as we shall soon see.
Assessing the comic book series on the basis of this literary complexity will also assist us in teasing out some of the salient, if less obvious and, sometimes even, counterintuitive ways in which Damon Lindelof’s HBO limited series remix of Watchmen (2019) has produced not a freer and more playfully ambiguous text, but one more semantically entrenched—that is, one where meaning does not lurk pathologically between the lines. This is by no means to disparage Lindelof’s television series, since it is, as I will likewise later address, doing a very different sort of work, one that the expectation of more tenuous “semiotic exchanges” between text and reader would undo or jeopardize. Ultimately, what this approach will bring to the fore is our need to think about this remixing not only as process of moving narrative from one medium to another, or of updating, or riffing on, or borrowing elements from an Ur-narrative for the purposes of producing an autonomous creative work, but additionally as a process that may intentionally (or unwittingly) shift that narrative from one epistemic register to another.
The Complex Literary Hermeneutics of the Graphic Novel
So, what are some of the more complex mind-reading capacities demanded by Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen? As earlier noted, Hoberek identifies the multiple subjectivities that are projected in the graphic novel, with “the disjunction between words and images do[ing] much of the work” to reveal the incongruities between them (49). Consider, he says, Rorschach’s flashback to his traumatic childhood, which undoes the veracity of his psychiatrist’s professional report about their session together (49). Or, rather, it should undo the veracity of the report, but only if we are able or attentive enough to connect the dots. For, what Hoberek’s example points to is the way in which Moore is challenging us to read dialectically—to seek out disjunctions and draw new meaning from them—in a manner reminiscent of Eisensteinian intellectual montage. Moore himself alludes to this challenge, when describing how, in the midst of the creative process, he realized the novelty of Watchmen:
I have a word balloon coming from off-panel, which is actually the balloon of the newsvendor, which is talking about war. The narrative of the pirate comic is talking about a different sort of war. As we pull back, we realize that we’re looking at a radiation symbol that’s being tacked to the wall…. And finally, … we realize that these pirate captions … are those in the comic that is being read by the small boy. This was exciting. There was something going on here. There was an interplay between the imagery, between the strands of narrative, the pirate narrative, the dialogue going on in the street. They were striking sparks off of each other, … doing something which I hadn’t actually seen a comic do before. (qtd. in Hoberek 11)
Of course, Moore as the designer of this interplay of imagery was teasing out those connections autonomously. Whatever strikes were sparking were in his mind, not explicitly on the page through, say, the aid of “verbal anchorage.”4 But what if readers cannot bridge the gaps or discern those connections? What if the sparks don’t strike? Meaning in Watchmen is thereby far more easily endangered than in the standard superhero comic. Something may mean A, but we can’t know for sure. But what if it means B, since we can’t know that for sure either? Could it even mean both? Such semantic instability and its related polysemic potentials require—nay, obsessively demand—that we probe Moore’s and Gibbons’ minds, and not those of the pirate or the small boy.
The same applies more comprehensively to the graphic novel’s chapters, given the assorted reports, news clippings, book excerpts, written statements, diary entries, and so forth appended to each. While some readers might dismiss these as extraneous artifacts (a supposition aided, perhaps, by their appearing in black-and-white and without page numbers), these paratextual materials prove essential, much as Hoberek intimates, if readers are mentally to glean all the incongruities and ironies that dialectically permeate each chapter. Many of the disjunctions emerge through a dialectical cross-reading of the text and paratexts, after all, such as the fact that Rorschach has interpreted his psychoanalyst’s motives correctly via the latter’s session note revealing that Rorschach’s case may lead “to future possible publication” (VI.n.p.).
According to Hayden White, the mode of irony corresponds to “a stage of consciousness in which the problematic nature of language itself has become recognized” (qtd. in Higgins 21). It is also a stage highly imbricated with the visual fixity that writing, and print even more, brought to the narrative medium (Nayar 107). Because language was now able to be preserved on the page—mitigating our fear of the ancient ephemerality of words and occasioning our ability now to sit back and inspect, probe, and even problematize language—greater affordances arose for the “free play” that irony induces. This is something Walter Ong points out when indicating that “writing is the seedbed of irony, and the longer the writing (and print) tradition endures, the heavier the ironic growth becomes” (103). In fact, for readers well trained in literary complexity, these sorts of devices may well eroticize the reading endeavor: Secrets and cyphers must be cognitively mined, multiple resonances exposed. The very act of reading becomes a form of game-playing, relying as it does on a semantic engagement nested in insubstantiality and unreliability, in ambiguity maximized. Consequently, the text becomes—must become—a thing of study (Nayar 109).
Nowhere is this study element more summoned as a reading practice than in Watchmen’s play with temporality. As many a critic has noted, Watchmen intentionally disorients the reader through associatively unanchored shifts in time. This occurs most prevalently in Chapter IV, “Watchmaker,” which serves as Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan’s origin story. The chapter opens with Jon, on Europa, examining a 1958 photograph of himself and Laurie. Soon, though, we experience the disruption he is experiencing while examining that image, since he is also experiencing being in that past—as well as in past pasts (associated with his watchmaker father) and future pasts (associated with the nuclear accident that transforms him into Dr. Manhattan) (see Figure 1). In this way, the “almost,” the “soon,” the “about to happen”—like the fact that we are about to see Jon irradiated and taken “to pieces” (IV.8)—are events that have always already transpired.
Note, too, in Figure 1, the panel of the hand of Jon’s watchmaker father. The image, which is given context earlier in the chapter, appears here—and later too—as an uncontextualized insert. In this way, it acts like a refrain, a silent motif whose recurrence, by virtue of its dislocation, is presumably intended to ignite philosophical “sparks” regarding time’s nature. Its repeated presence sets us hermeneutically wondering if the disembodied hand of Jon’s father attending to his watch pieces (which give us mechanical, linear time) is also meant to suggest the Watchmaker (who/which gives us eternal, simultaneous Time). Perhaps this is readerly misdirection on my part; but because the panels provided are not causally ordered, I, like all readers, must construct meaning, must independently make sense of the displacement, interruption, intrusion, and diffusion—stylistic features which, according to Scott McCloud, are key in creating a fragmented comic story whose pieces a reader must assemble. (Complex, indeed!)
If Watchmen is freighted with meaning that must be extracted, so too is it with moral ambivalence, with an exquisitely unsentimental refusal to “perpetuate the fantasy of a clear division between good an evil,” as Michael Boyce Gillespie remarks. We see it in Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias’s fascistic tendencies, which bring about the death of three million innocents on earth. (This he does for the putative sake of rescuing humanity from future nuclear armaggedon.) We see it, too, in the pointlessness that Dr. Manhattan perceives in revealing to humanity the truth about Ozymandias’ holocaust. (“We’re all puppets,” he tells Laurie. “I’m just a puppet who can see the strings” [Moore and Gibbons IX.5].) And then there is that “most demystified” of Watchmen’s vigilantes, Rorschach: “[M]entally deranged, amorally violent, sexually repressed, and alienated from humanity,” as Sean Carney describes, Rorschach is basically a vigilante “because he hates humanity” (18). Yet, as Carney aptly observes, Rorschach is the one vigilante who insists that the truth be told (and is ultimately executed for that reason). What especially trusses Watchmen’s moral ambivalence to a high-literate epistemic register, however, is the way it specifically ends—or doesn’t, we should say. For the truth is not told. We are left, instead, with a lingering ethical wound that demands that we “draw our own conclusions about the ultimate injustice of Ozymandias’s scheme”:
While Ozymandias imitates the perspective on totality practiced by Dr. Manhattan, the difference between them is found in Manhattan’s final words to Ozymandias, a warning that “nothing ever ends” [XII.27]. Ozymandias is convinced that he did the right thing and “that it all worked out in the end” [XII.27]. But it has not worked out in the end because history has not come to an end. (Ibid.)
Thus have Moore and Gibbons not only carried the moral ambivalence to the very last panel of Watchmen, but beyond it. This is antithetical, even anathema, to the way less complex literate narratives end—in fact, to the way most narratives end. While the latter may begin in medias res, they rarely conclude that way. Instead, moral justice is served, providing us return to the well-ordered society, which is what ontologically preserves us. When it comes to Watchmen, however, we are left struggling with yet another parlous gap—and one unsettlingly existential, at that.
True, in the final panels of Watchmen we see that Rorschach’s journals have reached the desk of the oafish Seymour, who works for a reactionary newspaper (XII.32), but there is no indication of what will come of them. Will they be noticed? Read? Published? Mistakenly lost? Intentionally destroyed? We leave the narrative with more questions than answers. According to Carney, the even bigger questions with which we are left stranded in the end are: “[H]ow can humanity afford to continue to embody meaning in such a world? How can we continue to think historically when the philosophical concept of history—as the meaning of life and of human effort—of some end of human struggle—seems defunct, irrelevant, and moreover a heinous metanarrative whose uses are primarily totalitarian?” (23). Note the entirely non-operational nature of the questions—not to mention, their assumption that we will (or can) readily navigate abstract notions of thinking historically, or of conceptualizing history. In this way, the text pushes into the realm of philosophy and out of the concrete realm that is far more typical of rudimentarily literate—and, indeed, most—storytelling.
The Muted Higher-Order Goals of the HBO Series
It would be wrong, and even foolish, to contend that Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series for HBO does not put any extra stresses on its viewers’ mind-reading strategies. Moreover, its very concern with historical contingencies (even if in a fantasy text) and its merciless deconstruction of the “white racial frame” (Levivarieur) speak to its cognizance of, and desire to critically revise, a foundational history-cum-myth that was for so long shored up by the superhero genre. History, in other words, is demythologized—as is, too, the ideological parameters of what comprises an American superhero. (As the show stingingly reminds us, the origins of the masked vigilante began not with costumed defenders of the citizenry but with the KKK.)
Some of this demythologizing Lindelof’s Watchmen does in line with the graphic novel, such as through planting ambiguous counterpoints or complications of relations between history and fiction, myth and reality, and even history-conventionalized and history-closeted or suppressed. Incorporations of the silent film about Bass Reeves, the all-black stage production of Oklahoma!, and the American Hero Story television series productively force into question, even in the context of fantasy, the past as given versus the past as real. These are directly presented within the diegesis, unlike Moore and Gibbons’ paratextual print-culture documents—those letters, excerpted assessment reports, news articles, etc.—whose diegetic status remains only implied. So, the expectation that we dialectically connect the dots, while still applicable to the HBO series, is also helpfully diluted by way of more concrete signposting: the camera zooming in in a manner that tells us “pay attention to this”; Agent Blake demanding of American Hero Story, “turn that shit off”; and, of course, that these texts are now relationally framed within the main diegesis, beneficially nudging us toward a more determined “setting off of sparks.” In this way, the HBO series holds back from the more complex semiotic exchanges set up by the graphic novel.
True, the series frequently holds back information from us. As Kristen Warner describes of its opening, even if it “seems to want to appear to be a procedural whodunnit, Watchmen lends you that crutch only long enough to get your bearings; then, it’s jetting past you and constantly laying the groundwork for wherever it is headed” (qtd. in Gillespie). Just a few examples from that first episode’s introduction to the unnamed Adrian Veidt should suffice: Why is this “master” being waited on in an isolated English manor by two very strange-seeming and obsequious servants? Why is he being served an anniversary cake—and why on earth does the male servant offer him a horseshoe for its cutting? Unlike in the context of modernist works, however, these semantic gaps will eventually be filled in by the text itself, not requisitely by us.
Here, we might benefit from taking into account the emergent genre of films that function as “cinematic brainteasers” (Kiss and Willemsen 16). Sometimes referred to as “puzzle films [Warren Buckland], mind-game films [Thomas Elsaesser] mindfuck movies [Jonathan Eig] or perhaps mind-tricking narratives [Cornelia Klecker ],” these sorts of films have gained critical traction for the manner in which they play intentional mind games with their viewers (16). Films often assigned to the genre include The Usual Suspects (1995), The Others (2001), The Sixth Sense (1999), Fight Club (1999), and Inception (2010). Yet, these films, very much like games—and HBO’s Watchmen—typically come to a decisive end: X finds what she’s been looking for; Y is revealed and, then, defeated; finally we understand why Z was acting the way he was. The disparate pieces that appear to share no immediate connection are finally fitted together for us. So, any bafflement we may have experienced during that first episode of Watchmen vis-à-vis the unnamed master/isolated English manor/submissive servants/unidentified anniversary celebration/horseshoe will be provided—even if we must wait hours into the series before their raisons-d’être surface. Here, the spectatorial satisfaction comes from the semantic gaps being (erotically) closed for us, not in their being left open in possibly inscrutable ways.
Typically, puzzle films don’t end ambivalently, in other words. Rather, the audience anticipates its engagement with a game that will come to a definitive close, and therein lies the enchantment: in how that game’s pieces eventually interlock—not in how they do not. For this reason, I concur with David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson when they suggest that puzzle films like Inception “might be complicated rather than complex” because they ultimately retain commitment to narrative coherency: resolving the gaps, providing solutions (qtd. in Kiss and Willemen 20). Even Lindelof seems to admit this, if rather coyly, when, in Episode 2, after crosscutting between the various groups watching the start of the televised American Hero Story (including the Abars, Glass, and members of the Seventh Kavalry), its episode’s dead narrator acknowledges that the corpse in Boston Harbor that viewers are seeing is not his, but that he wants the police surrounding it to think so. As for his true identity: “I’m not ready to tell you who I really am,” he admits sardonically. “If I did, you wouldn’t watch until the end.” Much in the same fashion, the coherence denied in the preliminary episodes of Lindelof’s Watchmen will gradually become disambiguated, resulting in a spectatorial savoring of “aha!” moments provided for us by the text itself.
But this doesn’t preclude the HBO series’ “thriving on muddling that binary of positive (heroism) and negative (villainy)” or of its “find[ing] itself much more comfortable in the space of ambivalence” (Gillespie; Warner qtd. in Gillespie). After all, even the noblest of law officers can’t fight off the occasional desire to pummel aggressors to a pulp. But at the series’ denouement, we are definitely meant to puzzle less over the indeterminacies of human morality. The moral ambivalence that extends to and beyond the last panels of Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel is, in Lindelof’s Watchmen, squarely checked and contained: Ozymandias will be returned by agent Blake and officer Glass to earth, where he will be tried and held accountable for his 1980s mass murder. As Blake explains, “You killed three million people, Adrian. You’re under arrest.” When he reminds her that no proof of his crime exists, Glass reveals a CD in his possession: of Adrian recorded confessing his crimes.
Lindelof’s viewers are thereby liberated from having to grapple with the moral ambiguity of the original Watchmen. Here, moral justice willbe meted out, so that we can narratively return to the well-ordered society, which, in the context of traditional narrative, is considered the “the highest good” that a hero can achieve and, so, the goal toward which the hero is “physically and intellectually bent” (Scholes and Kellogg 36). In this way, unlike Moore and Gibbons’ series, Lindelof’s ends without philosophy. True, its very last moments—of Angela about to step onto the surface of the water of the Abars’ pool—leaves us asking: Will Dr. Manhattan’s egg, which Angela just ate, bestow her with his powers? Will she be able, like him, to walk on water? We don’t find out, since the camera cuts to black before her step is complete. But this functions more as a safe and titillating cliff-hanger. Why? Because the series has “corrected” Ozymandias’ unsettling evasion of punishment for the three million he massacred, such that we aren’t left, as at the end of the graphical novel, with the kind of question that Carney asked: “[H]ow can humanity afford to continue to embody meaning in such a world?” (23)
The same need be said of the original’s “mentally deranged, amorally violent” character of Rorschach. His notorious mask, with its inkblot projection of a sinister human face, is here worn not by that vigilante-cum-“hate[r] of humanity,” but instead by the white supremacists of the Seventh Kavalry—as their KKK masks of sort. There is no actual Rorschach in this version of Watchmen. Instead, he is split in more ethically determined fashion between the white supremacists and police officer Looking Glass, with his full-facial mask reflecting like liquid mercury. Thus is the original complexity of Rorschach as a vigilante ironically doing good because he is a nihilist (not in spite of it) significantly attenuated. Yes, Glass endures adolescent humiliation and repeated cowing by females, as well as displays intense paranoia (he did personally experience Ozymandias’ attack on New York, after all). He is also altogether rabid in his desired exposure of racists. But these ethical grays are ultimately subsumed by his lawfully right action in wanting to return Ozymandias to earth for juridical proceedings—a signal, if there ever was one, that he is ultimately the “good” side of that inkblot split of personalities.
Finally, if Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen promotes those deep silences that enable deeper immersion in subjectivities and meaning-making, Lindelof’s comparatively forestalls them. Such silences, often in tandem with stillness, are not uncommon in modernist films, where they purportedly operate as a means of compelling a deeper cognitive immersion on the part of viewers. But that is not the case in Lindelof’s series. Perhaps the domestic medium of television has trained us to experience such silences in the same manner we do radio’s “dead sound.” Then again, as Torben Grodal suggests, “[w]atching films with extended scenes that cue saturated (mental, disembodied) emotions is a minority taste; most people prefer films that cue tense (embodied) emotions based on action tendencies’” (qtd. in Kiss and Willemsen 154-155). Moreover, if a majority of viewers prefer cued emotions based on action, very likely that is because such cues refrain from requiring the sort of mental gymnastics that literary complexity has ramified. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Lindelof’s adaptation of Chapter IV of Watchmen for the proverbial small screen.
Chronotopic Remixing: Chapter 4, Episode 8—and the 2009 Feature Film
According to Mark Bernard and James Bucky Carter, what is most interesting about Moore and Gibbons’ deployment of flashbacks and flashforwards is the way the authors use them “to create a text in which the present and the past merge together with enough fluidity to make even the best cubists and futurists envious.” That chronotopic fluidity is especially apparent in “Watchmaker,” which Bernard and Carter call a “tour-de-force in comics storytelling” because of the way it forces readers to experience the world “through Dr. Manhattan’s eyes,” resultantly creating “what [Gertrude] Stein longed for: a ‘continuous present’”—a “fourth dimension.” Adnan Mahmutović draws more specific attention to the way Dr. Manhattan’s storyline toggles between “timelessness and linear historical time,” while also complicating the typical superhero origin story by virtue of Dr. Manhattan repeatedly “returning to those ‘origin’ times. When he revisits his past, he seems stuck there. Temporality thus becomes highly anti-teleological” (259).
But these sorts of demands are not made on viewers of Chapter IV’s HBO analogue, Episode 8, “A God Walks into Abar.” Nor is this because the capacity to move through time is a function of serial art alone5 (as earlier noted, modernist films can demand a similar level of spectatorial intervention). Clearly, Lindelof and his team made a choice in electing for Episode 8 to work on the basis of flashbacks and flashforwards from a fixed “present” (though that present is also a past, temporally speaking, taking place as it does in 1990s Vietnam). The episode’s temporal mise-en-abyme—flashes to then, here, now, soon, and forever—are, in this way, more accommodatingly entrenched, even “spelled out.”
This is not to dismiss the complexity of the narrative plaiting that went into the episode’s scripting, nor to counter those critics who say Lindelof’s manipulation of time and scope has been televisually achieved to “great effect” (Jonathan W. Gray, qtd. in Gillespie). But there is a definite subduing of the fourth-dimensional intricacy of the “Watchmaker” chapter. Manipulations of time are not free-floating here, much as they are not elsewhere in the series. Instead, they are grounded in, say, Angela’s taking nostalgia pills in Episode 6, or in Dr. Manhattan narrating his origin story for Angela in Episode 8. There is certainly art and skill, again, in the dialogical dance between the two of them in the latter episode, which is interspersed with temporal flashes to pasts and futures. In fact, for Gillespie, these “multiple and simultaneous temporalities” are what make Episode 8 a highlight of the series, concomitant with the mise-en-scène labor that went into its “orchestrating Angela and Cal’s growing intimacy without showing his face,” such that “the blocked and canted framings of the camera accent the cycling of their romance, from beginning to end” (see Figure 2).
Yet, Dr. Manhattan also demystifies the temporal nonlinearity of events—and so, too, his nature of being—by serving as Angela’s time-traveler guide, aiding her in connecting the dots (and flashbacks and forwards). The episode pivots on his answering her onslaught of questions, after all, such that we can digest along with her the complexity of the discontinuities and simultaneities of time. Consider the following brief dialogue, which encapsulates the tenor of the entire episode:
ANGELA: Just wondering why you zapped a house across the galaxy when you can make one yourself.
DR. MANHATTAN: The manor is a special place, a place I’m connected to from my childhood. I feel safe there.
ANGELA: Because you’re a child… right now.
DR. MANHATTAN: Yes. Right…. now.
ANGELA: All at the same time you’re talking to me here, and you’re creating life on a moon of Jupiter, and you’re growing up in an English manor in the countryside?
Angela, in effect, substitutes for readers of the graphic novel, who would be asking themselves the very same questions—though without the confirmation she receives that her interpretations are correct. In fact, many of the unanswered questions from the previous episodes are revealed in this one, such that it becomes the puzzle’s linchpin episode. We learn who those curious waitstaff now serving Ozymandias really are; why they physically appear the way they do; why Dr. Manhattan teleported a manor house to Europa; how Dr. Manhattan came to look like Cal; as well as the what and why of that blue device that is lodged visibly in Dr. Manhattan’s forehead and buried in Cal’s. We learn, too, how Ozymandias, with his emphatic desire to be worshipped, ended up on Europa—and why, for the same reason, Dr. Manhattan left that moon. (As for the horseshoe: We’ll need to wait until the last episode for that piece to be locked in place.)
In this way, the “puzzling” aspects of Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel are logically, or at least relationally, explained and intelligibly elucidated. The episode becomes—or, rather, is crafted as—something more productively direct and delightfully coquettish than philosophically demanding (much as the title “A God Walks into Abar” might suggest). Rather than being enigmatically held hostage to the temporal ruptures, viewers are provided a means of cognitively conquering the fourth dimension through that dimension’s articulation in localized, linear time (i.e., through Dr. Manhattan and Angela’s sit-down at the bar). That’s not to say Lindelof doesn’t play with time in other ways; in fact, he does so profusely. But, when doing so at the conceptual level, time/Time becomes far less dialectically demanding than clever motif (more akin to those “Easter eggs” one collects while gaming). Images of clocks abound, after all: in the Abars’ home; in anticipation of a clock chiming at midnight; in the monolithic Millennium Clock that Lady Trieu is building and the portable one that Jon’s father is fixing; in dialogical references to mechanical time (“tick tock”) and pictorial allusions, such as the painting of Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory hanging on Tofer’s bedroom wall. But one does not need to extract meaning from these ourselves—to crack open their signification (to keep the equally pervasive Lindelofian egg motif going6).
Even more significant vis-à-vis time, perhaps, is Lindelof’s having shifted the original Watchmen’s “present” from an alternative 1980s to an alternative 2010s. The original’s pertinent themes of Reaganism, Cold War anxieties, and fear of nuclear annihilation are reassigned as themes more grittily germane to 21st-century USA: white supremacy; racism (including amidst law enforcement); and recognition of a national self-mythologizing that has erased its historical relationship to African Americans.7 Consequently, Lindelof’s play with the present does not appear inherently retrograde or lacking in cultural and historical immediacy, as it would have had he remained loyal to the graphic novel’s original setting. Instead, the HBO series is in lockstep with contemporary ideologies and anxieties as reflected, for instance, in Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement—not to mention, presciently, George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020. In this way, Lindelof preserves what, for Sean Carney, is the “most profound and abiding theme” for Alan Moore: that “to continue to be human … is to be historical” (15, emphasis added).
Here it is worth commenting on Zack Snyder's 2009 Watchmen feature film, for Snyder’s Watchmen retains wholesale allegiance to the “present” time central to the comic books: the 1980s. As a result, the film can always only be nostalgic: a period-piece facsimile, a faithful homage. This is not to undo its potential appeal as a graphic noir in comic-book style. But in his fidelity to the original, Snyder’s Watchmen cannot possibly function on the basis of contemporary anxieties and preoccupations, much as it cannot ideologically update itself or get out from under the white and highly masculinist impulses of the superheroism in the comic books.8 This, however, Lindelof’s Watchmen does, thereby ensuring a historical currency to the series. Snyder’s film, meanwhile, helplessly comes into existence already out of date. Alan Moore himself said in 2001 that he could not possibly go back to creating characters he wrote years before because “the whole world is different”: “Watchmen was 1986, that was almost 15 years ago, and today’s a completely different time” (“Toasting”). In this way, Snyder’s framing of the used car lot in which Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II lives—with its comic-book replication of a sign advertising “obsolete models a specialty”—becomes no less an intentional commentary on the superheroes in the film than one somewhat painfully of the film.
The Values of Epistemically Remixing “Down”—For the Sake of a Different Sort of Radicalism
If it sounds like I’ve been assessing the ways that the HBO series waters down the original Watchmen, that is the case only if one accepts that extra stresses on our mind-reading capacities epitomize narrative at its most sophisticated—and, so, should be what we aspire to as writers and readers. But as we have sufficiently seen, a disavowal of the commonplace, the easy reading, or the surface reading also shifts the hermeneutical burden more and more onto readers, sometimes even forcing them to plumb for what isn’t there. If such norms deepen the reading experience for many a reader, that comes at the expense of meaning’s clarity, which invariably widens the possibilities of that meaning getting lost. Had the HBO series attempted such expensive narrative moves, its heightened political intentions—interrogating race-based injustice and inequality; unmasking the mythologized, whitewashed nature of America’s national biography in order that “we see ourselves squarely” (Coates)—would almost certainly have been compromised. If Lindelof sidelines some of the higher-order skills demanded of the print version of Watchmen, relying instead on a more ideologically explicit message, this he does, I would say, precisely because of, and in order to buttress, the show’s reparative radicalism.
One of Lindelof’s focuses, much as Henry Louis Gates as the video representative of the Greenwood Community Cultural Center in the HBO series says about that center’s aim, is in “righting the wrongs of a dark past.” But indeterminacy, free-floating manipulations and other such rhetorical schemes would have undermined Lindelof’s pedagogical aims—however tacit and beautifully buried those pedagogical aims might appear (or not appear!). Perhaps, then, Gillespie’s suggestion that the HBO series is less a remixing than a “reprioritizing” is shrewd, since Lindelof’s Watchmen does not want us philosophically or existentially to puzzle too much—at least not in ways that might threaten, refract, or even subvert the series’ deconstruction of history and the historiographic. (Let that labor rather go to the newest vector in the circuitry of Watchmen remixes: scholarly commentary and analytical assessments, much like the ones in this very issue.) For Lindelof, the puzzle must arrive at answers and conclusions, for how else to remediate history, especially when it comes to issues of racial justice? Lindelof does not want to leave history epistemologically hanging for debate, not when the recuperation has to do with acknowledging horrors like lynchings, the Tulsa massacre, and systemic racism in the USA.
As for what we have gained by setting the graphic novel next to the HBO series: Not only do we witness two distinct epistemic registers at work but, more significantly perhaps, how motivations behind a work—whether political, intellectual, aesthetic, or otherwise—might govern which epistemic register an author might select or prefer. While modernism may well reflect how far we’ve historically come in terms of literary complexity, lack of that sort of complexity may sometimes better serve history—and, no doubt, in the context of HBO’s Watchmen, a viewer’s willingness to stay with that painful history’s representation through to the end. For Lindelof to have garnered that sort of sustained viewership is, in this sense, no less a complex feat, even if his Watchmen is more ethically grounded and teleologically committed than Moore and Gibbons’ ever was.
1 Note that I work with the 2014 International Edition, graphic novel version of Watchmen, which was earlier published in a twelve-part single magazine form (1986-1987).
2 The incorporation of such strategies doesn’t preclude that some readers, like A.O. Scott, might consider Watchmen not only intellectually pretentious, but “fundamentally immature, self-pitying and sentimental” (qtd. in Van Ness 174).
3 Vermeule goes so far as to term complex literary works that put “extra stress on our mind-reading capacities” “Machiavellian” (88), as this signals their possessing a kind of deviousness when it comes to the provision of meaning.
4 I borrow this choice phrase from Groensteen.
5 According to comic critic David Barnes, the act of reading comics is, unlike with film, “controlled by the viewer rather than the film editor” (qtd. in Mahmutovic´ 271).
6 Lindelof’s Watchmen is permeated with eggs being cracked, boiled, spilled; offered in the proverbial wisdom of “You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs” and that line in the Beatles’ song that closes out the series, “I am the egg man.” Their meaning comes to a head in Episode 8, when Dr. Manhattan proves to Angela that he can create life by producing an egg.
7 In doing so, the series also unfortunately erases America’s historical mythology with regard to Native Americans—both in relation to the history of Oklahoma, which was partly “Indian Territory” before it became a state, and in the erasure of Bass Reeves’ partner-in-fighting-crime, Creek freedman Grant Johnson.
8 As Moore himself conceded—and as one senses in the comic books—“The Silk Spectre was just a female character because I needed to have a heroine in there” (“Toasting”).
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