At the outset of his groundbreaking 1988 study of 19th century English novels, D. A. Miller cites two questions that will guide him: “How do the police systematically function as a topic in the ‘world’ of the novel? And how does the novel—as a set of representational techniques—systematically participate in a general economy of policing power?” (2) As readers of Miller know, he is far more interested in the second question—in the police as a metaphor for the disciplinary strategies enacted by and within realist fiction. In this essay, my emphasis is nearly exactly reversed. What interests me are specific representations of the police in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986-1987 comic book series Watchmen, published as a graphic novel in 1987, and Damon Lindelof’s 2019 television sequel for HBO. Both serials spend a fair amount of time with the police, even as their main foci are the costumed characters (in the television series, sometimes indistinguishable from the police) required by their participation in the superhero genre. But that genre, as it happens, has been constitutively invested in questions of police power since its origins. After a brief period in which characters like Superman and Batman found themselves at odds with both police and criminals, superhero comics made their protagonists into extra-powerful amateur policemen working hand in hand with their official comrades. Moore and Gibbons’ series is generally cited as one of the first of a wave of revisionist comic book stories that turned a realist, skeptical lens on the idea of adults dressing in costumes and fighting crime. Although it’s important not to overstate Moore and Gibbons role in this shift—Marvel famously devoted many series to antiheroes, and the company’s street level heroes continued to experience friction with the New York police throughout the 1970s; Gerry Conway introduced the vengeance-seeking Punisher, a character modeled in part on Charles Bronson protagonists, in The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974; and Marvel expats Marv Wolfman and George Perez introduced a character called Vigilante in DC’s New Teen Titans in 1982—works like Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) were responsible for introducing the general idea that all superheroes might primarily be understood as vigilantes working outside the law.
As Joshua Clover, thinking about the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol Building, reminds us, however, this may be a distinction without a difference. “The insurrectionists’ desire—to be at once the police and beyond the police—to be order freed from law—is,” Clover writes,
at the heart of 10,000 comic books. The antiheroes who front these stories are tasked with fulfilling the police mission but without the constraints a cop might encounter on means, on violence, on sociopathy. They exist beyond order because that is necessary to impose the proper ordering of society.
Remember, Clover reminds us, the popularity of the Punisher’s skull symbol among police officers. The truth of Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel might thus be not that superheroes, understood as vigilantes, are no longer honorary police officers, but rather that they more accurately capture. A key question in considering the mainstreaming of this revisionist understanding of superheroes in such works as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films (2005-2012) and the Amazon Prime series The Boys (2019-present) is whether they retain this critical edge or instead ratify a distinction between policing and vigilantism. Lindelof’s show is clearly interested in blurring, on some level, the distinctions between vigilantes (costumed and otherwise) and the police (costumed and otherwise). As I’ll argue, however, the show ultimately leaves room for understanding policing as a legitimate form of authority, despite its infiltration by white supremacist elements, in part because it buys into the superhero genre’s obvious commitment to exceptional individuals. While this commitment is not wholly absent from Moore and Gibbons’ work, their meta-critique of the superhero genre both makes it visible and goes some way towards complicating it.
Watchmen the Graphic Novel: “We Want Reg’lar Cops”
In a series of flashbacks, Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel shows the events that led to the 1977 Keene Act which banned costumed superheroes in the series’ alternate reality. Dr. Manhattan’s narration describes the events with characteristic concision: “In 1977, a city is shouting. Claiming that costumed adventurers are making their job impossible, the police are on strike. Everyone is frightened, scenting anarchy” (Moore and Gibbons IV:22).
The police strike makes sense enough, historically speaking: such strikes were common in the United States from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, protesting things like low pay, merit systems that threatened existing hierarchies, and (as in the Milwaukee strike of 1981) lethal attacks on policemen. It’s possible to imagine the widespread practice of costumed vigilantism motivating a nationwide strike. But while it’s clear what the police would want in protesting vigilantes—a restoration and re-legitimization of the state’s monopoly on violence—it’s less clear why mass protests would spring up in support of the police strike. The actual police strikes of the period garnered no such public outcry, in part because, as Associated Press accounts of the 1971 New York and 1975 San Francisco strikes point out, these outbreaks of blue flu did not lead to increased crime (“Effort Intensified to Settle Police Strike”; “Frisco Mayor Offers Proposition in Attempt to Settle Police Strike”). In a post-George Floyd retrospective on the New York City strike, Nicholas Loud notes that “the most important thing about the 1971 Police Strike might be just how unimportant it felt,” and quotes a woman from Queens who claimed, “I’m more concerned about Con Edison breaking down” (Loud).
Yet Moore and Gibbons depict their 1977 strike as garnering surprisingly widespread support. Watchmen’s second chapter is organized around a series of flashbacks depicted as memories of those attending the funeral of the Comedian / Eddie Blake. In one, Nite Owl II / Dan Dreiberg (henceforth, “Nite Owl”) recalls his experience working with the Comedian to attempt to disperse one of the pre-Keene Act protests. A single panel taking up two-thirds of a page features an image of Nite Owl and the Comedian hovering above a crowd of rioters (Figure 1). In the bottom of the panel we see, among others, a workman in a cap with an “M” on it, a pipe-wielding man with long hair and a double piercing in his right ear, a woman with glasses and a polka-dot blouse, and a Black man wearing a bandana and a torn-sleeved vest (these last regular elements in the visual iconography of gang membership familiar from such then-recent films as Walter Hill’s 1979 The Warriors). That at least some members of the crowd support the police is made clear on the next page, in a panel in which, looking up at the costumed adventurers’ airship, they shout such things as “We don’ want vigilantes! We want reg’lar cops!” and “My son is a police officer, you faggots!” (see Figure 2). What sort of protest is this that brings out such a diverse crowd in support of “reg’lar cops”?
Perhaps, however, we should consider these scenes less as a representation of actual responses to police strikes in the 1970s than as a reflection of circumstances surrounding the novel’s composition in the mid-1980s. In the foreword he wrote for Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Moore cites the vigilante Bernhard Goetz, who in 1984 shot four black teenagers he claimed were trying to rob him. This was an influence on Miller’s story, suggesting the centrality of “our current perception of vigilantes as a social force” to Moore and Miller’s shared revisionist project (Moore). But while questions about vigilantism were clearly present in the mid-1980s mediascape, so too were notorious incidents of police violence—perhaps most notably, the police killing of Eleanor Bumpurs in New York in 1984 and the Philadelphia MOVE bombings the following year—and, to a lesser extent, the protests against them. In playing up one site of violence and effacing the other in their depiction of Watchmen’s unlikely pro-police protests, we might say, Moore and Gibbons sunder superheroes from their historical connections with the police (residually present in Nite Owl I / Hollis Mason’s career as a police officer) and, not incidentally, adopt an individualistic, psychologized framework with which to consider questions of violence.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen stakes much of its claim for aesthetic seriousness on the introduction of psychological depth to a genre and medium known for the flatness of their characters (Hoberek 39-67). But in retrospect, with the question of the police in mind, we can see how this aesthetic choice shapes the revisionist comics subgenre’s relationship to social problems in ways that transcend the explicit politics of individual works’ creators. It’s generally understood that since the mid-1980s (and especially since 9/11), Frank Miller has gravitated further and further to the right, while Moore has remained steadfastly on the anarchist left. Yet both inaugurate a revisionist sub-genre of superhero comics that treats acts of violence as the work of individuals and the site of psychological investigation.1 The vigilante Rorschach gets a chapter of his own and a backstory designed to lend him psychological depth (Hoberek 49-53), while the police officers who investigate the Comedian’s murder and subsequently come into contact with Rorschach and the series’ other masked adventurers are distinctly minor characters, who exist to offer exposition and move the plot along (by participating in Rorschach’s arrest, for instance). More than this, though, Watchmen’s focus on individual psychology limits its ability to think through social and political issues in other terms—institutional or structural ones, for instance. While Watchmen transcends the limitations of the superhero comics of its time in many ways, it continues to depict a world in which historical events, good or bad, are the product of exceptional individuals—where Richard Nixon becomes President because the super-powered Dr. Manhattan is there to win the Vietnam War, where the Cold War ends because of an elaborate scheme concocted by the super-intelligent Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias. In this regard superhero comics remain—alongside the industry of popular histories by writers like Ron Chernow, Robert Caro, and Doris Kearns Goodwin—a bastion of Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man theory of history.
That said, it’s not quite fair to say that Watchmen completely brackets structural accounts of history—just that it can only address them indirectly. Take, again, the 1977 riots that are central to Moore and Gibbons’ alternate timeline. The panel in which protesters shout their support of “reg’lar cops,” for instance, also features a woman wearing long hair and a t-shirt with a modified peace sign, who shouts at the Comedian, “You pig! You call yourself a Comedian! You’re a pig anna rapist!” (Moore and Gibbons II: 17; Figure 2). This woman is clearly employing the derogatory term for police officers popularized in the US in the late 1960s, and thus links the protest to protests of the police in this period. Moreover, it makes sense for her to refer to the Comedian in this way. Calling the protesters “punks” in a manner probably meant to recall Clint Eastwood’s character in Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Blake tells them “I got riot gas, I got rubber bullets …” And he subsequently says to a more reluctant Nite Owl, “My government contacts tell me some new act is being herded through. Until then, we’re society’s only protection” (Moore and Gibbons II: 16-17). As the Comedian recognizes, he and Nite Owl are here serving in the role of policemen, in a way that anticipates the increasing militarization of police officers, especially riot police, since the mid-eighties.2 In this regard, we might understand rioters like the woman who calls the Comedian a pig and the Black man sporting gang regalia not as representing a broad spectrum of political support for the police, but rather as signaling the internal fragmentation of the protest, with some people there to protest the police in the form of their costumed proxies.
One final note that will help us transition to the ways in which Lindelof’s HBO series takes up these issues: both of the graphic novel’s flashbacks to the 1977 riots are closely preceded by Dr. Manhattan’s flashbacks to his time with the Comedian in Vietnam (Moore and Gibbons II: 12-15, IV: 19-20). Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel is prescient not only in the way it invokes the militarization of the police, but also the way in which it imagines this development as not simply a transfer of technology but also the process whereby the state’s use of violence comes home. In the second flashback, Dr. Manhattan expresses his interest in the Comedian’s “deliberate[ ] amoral[ity],” a quality that accords with Manhattan’s own increasingly distant perspective on humanity, noting that the Comedian “suits the climate here: the madness, the pointless butchery …” The latter description appears in a panel in which the Comedian operates a flame thrower while, in the background, rifle-bearing US troops round up the former residents of a burning hamlet (Moore and Gibbons IV:19). This sentiment, deployed as a justification for harsh military tactics since the Indian Wars, and with particular force in Vietnam (Slotkin 489-623), seems to distance Vietnam as an overseas “police action” from the United States, which is precisely why it is striking that Moore and Gibbons return, within the space of two pages, to the riots (Moore and Gibbons IV:22). The reader who remembers the earlier scene of Nite Owl and the Comedian seeking to quell the protests—and Watchmen is about nothing if not about training the reader to draw such connections—will get the implication that policing is not “protection,” as the Comedian says, but simply the domestic form of the amoral application of power that the Comedian exercised overseas. As Nite Owl tellingly replies to his more aggressive colleague, “Protection? Who are we protecting them from?” (Moore and Gibbons II: 17).
Watchmen the Television Series: Superhero Story as Copaganda
The police, vigilantism, and Vietnam are likewise coordinates of Lindelof’s 2019 reimagination of Watchmen for HBO, although as anyone who has viewed the television series knows, its salient difference from the graphic novel is its explicit foregrounding of the history of US racism mostly absent from the original. The series begins with the 1921 massacre of Tulsa’s Black residents, focusing on a child whose parents arrange his escape. It then flashes forward to present-day Tulsa, where a member of the white supremacist militia, the Seventh Kavalry, who model themselves on Moore and Gibbons’ Rorschach, kills a Tulsa police officer. It is in the juxtaposition and eventual coming together of these two plotlines that Lindelof’s series acts out its deeply ambivalent relationship to the police. In present-day Tulsa, the police officer Angela Abar (Regina King) investigates the killing of her fellow officer in her masked identity as Sister Night—in the series, Tulsa police officers wear masks because of an incident years earlier when the Seventh Kavalry had staged a coordinated attack on their homes and families. At the end of the first episode, Abar receives a phone call that leads her to a tree where she finds the dead body of her friend and police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) hanging above an old man in a wheelchair (Louis Gossett, Jr.). As Abar eventually discovers, the old man is her grandfather, the child who survived the Tulsa Massacre and grew up to take the name Will Reeves. Using a drug that allows her to experience her grandfather’s memories, she learns that as a young man (played by Jovan Adepo) he joined the New York City Police force, only to discover that the force had been infiltrated by a white supremacist group. He then, in Lindelof’s signal revision of Moore and Gibbons, dons the identity of the masked adventurer Hooded Justice.3 Unable to convince his superiors to investigate the white supremacist group, whose members use a hypnosis machine to induce riots in Black neighborhoods, Reeves goes on a rampage and kills his fellow officers connected to the group. Decades later, Reeves kills Crawford because he discovers the latter’s own secret involvement in the Seventh Kavalry. On one hand, then, the series suggests the intimate intertwining of the police and white supremacist groups, and presents Will’s violent slayings of his fellow officers in a sympathetic light. But on the other, in its guise as a blend of superhero narrative and police procedural, it offers a more or less uncritical representation of Abar and her own frequently violent methods.
The genre of the police procedural has, of course, been central to the rise of prestige television, from Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)4 through Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999) to The Wire (2002-2008), often cited as the epitome of prestige television’s novelistic ambitions. And Moore, in his post-Watchmen effort to write less self-consciously revisionist comics, partnered with artists Gene Ha and Zander Cannon on the series Top Ten (1999-2001), a police procedural with the twist that it took place in a city where everyone had super powers. But this genre, like other forms of popular entertainment that foreground the experiences of police officers, functions as what numerous observers in recent years have dubbed “copaganda.” Copaganda, in Mark Anthony Neal’s succinct formulation, “actively counters attempts to hold police malfeasance accountable by reinforcing the ideas that the police are generally fair and hard-working and that Black criminals deserve the brutal treatment that they receive” (Neal). Lindelof’s incorporation of the police procedural into his revised superhero story is then, we might say, both overdetermined by its ability to confer prestige on his questionably serious source material, and doomed on some level to blunt the show’s critical anti-racism. Aaron Bady notes in his aptly titled essay “Dr. Manhattan Is a Cop” that what makes Lindelof’s series “disappointing . . . is that it came so close” (Bady). Watchmen’s sixth episode, about Reeves’ experience on the New York City police force, for instance, might be read as endorsing something like the need for revolution in the face of terminally corrupt institutions. But the series’ remaining three episodes fritter this potential away, undercutting the very idea of revolution and reinforcing the notion of the police as an institution necessary—however imperfectly it executes this charge—to keep people safe.
The series’ conclusion makes this point extremely clear. Following Abar’s discovery of her grandfather’s past, the show reveals that her husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is in fact Dr. Manhattan, who met Abar in Vietnam and decided to take on human form, eschewing his powers and memories. The Seventh Kavalry has been plotting throughout the series to capture Manhattan and transfer his powers to the group’s current leader (James Wolk), the son of the author of the 1977 Keene Act. They almost succeed in doing so, but are thwarted by Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), the half-Vietnamese daughter and successor of the graphic novel’s villain Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), who has recently rescued her father from imprisonment by Manhattan on the moon Europa. Just before he dies, Manhattan teleports Veidt, the former superhero turned FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), and Abar’s police partner Wade Tillman / Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) to Veidt’s former Antarctic headquarters Karnak. From there the trio launches an attack from space that kills Trieu and destroys downtown Tulsa, while Abar seeks shelter in a theater with her grandfather and children.
In the show’s last ten minutes, Veidt escorts Blake and Tillman to the hangar where he keeps the original Nite Owl’s airship, telling them that since “the police use Dreiberg’s design for their own airships,” he assumes they can fly it back to “civilization.” Tillman replies affirmatively, but then Blake informs Veidt that he is under arrest for the crime of murdering three million people that he committed in Moore and Gibbons’ original story. Tillman produces, as evidence, a recording of Veidt telling Robert Redford—who became President following the events of the graphic novel—about his plot. Veidt scoffs, “So, I suppose the FBI is gonna arrest the president, too?” and Blake replies, “Sure. Why not?” Music swells on the soundtrack, and Veidt begins to deliver a supervillain soliloquy, but then Tillman unceremoniously knocks him out with a wrench. The music—the song “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1943 musical Oklahoma, a recurring reference point in the series5—continues to play as the scene shifts to Abar and her family emerging from the theater where they have taken refuge. They walk through Tulsa’s devastated downtown en route to Abar’s home, where she tucks her adopted children into bed and begins to clean up the mess she had made the night before during an argument with Cal / Dr. Manhattan about his preordained death. Reeves appears, and turns in after commenting that Manhattan “was a good man” but “he could’ve done more.” The series then concludes with Abar consuming an egg that, according to Manhattan, contained his powers, and walking outside to test if this is true. The screen goes black before we learn if it has.
What are we to make of these two scenes that, in tandem, bring the series to a close? The one in Karnak represents a changing of the guard, metaphorized in Veidt’s comment about the Owlship, from superheroes (and Presidents) to representatives of the law: from the one to the many. Meanwhile, Abar’s story concludes with a return to domesticity, and the reduction of Reeves’s narrative to the complaints of a crochety old man—one who has tried the exceptionalist route, first as a superhero and then as Lady Trieu’s ally, only to see it come to nought both times. All of this might seem good, given what we’ve already said about the superhero genre’s commitment to exceptionalism, if Lindelof’s series didn’t marry its faith in institutions to a resigned sense of their corruptness and permanence—the same sense that dominates, I would argue, prestige shows like The Wire.
Both Viet Thanh Nguyen and Bady convincingly argue that Lindelof’s Watchmen most undermines its antiracist politics in its depiction of Vietnam, which in the series becomes the 51st state following US victory there, and where Abar is born and learns her trade as a military police officer. Both note, in particular, that the series transforms Lady Trieu, whose namesake was a freedom fighter against Chinese colonialism, into a supervillain like her father—albeit one who now embodies an anti-Asian stereotype. Here, and in depicting a Vietnamese suicide bomber not as a revolutionary figure but as the murderer of Abar’s parents and thus the impetus for her becoming a police officer, Lindelof whitewashes America’s imperial violence, depicting the war not as an amoral exercise of power but as a necessary evil which ultimately leads to Vietnam’s successful absorption into the United States. It is no longer the place from which US violence returns home, but the place where law and order originates, directly in the figure of Abar, indirectly in the figure of Blake—who uses her mother’s last name in the graphic novel but in the series has come to terms with, and adopts the last name of, her father, the Comedian.
Bady laments the fact that Watchmen nearly draws a parallel between the 1921 aerial bombing of Tulsa and the subsequent US bombardment of Vietnam, only to intercut “Angela’s memory of her parents’ death . . . with scenes from the Tulsa massacre” (Bady). In Bady’s account this reframes Americans as the victims of the Vietnam War and of history in general. But the logic is even slyer than that, as we can see if we return to Lindelof’s decision to make Reeves the original Hooded Justice. While it might seem that Moore and Gibbons’ character offers the perfect blank canvas from which to retrofit Watchmen into a vehicle for considering the history of US racism, Bady suggests an important point when he quotes a 2017 interview in which Moore told Brazilian writer Raphael Sassaki, “I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks” (Bady; “Moore on Jerusalem, Eternalism, Anarchy and Herbie!”). In making their world’s first superhero a hooded adventurer with a noose around his neck, Moore and Gibbons assert a direct link between the Ku Klux Klan, who are the heroes of Griffith’s film, and superheroes. Lindelof makes this iconography clear (Figure 3) but seems to offer a radical detournement of it when he frames it as Reeves’ appropriation. But less obvious, yet arguably more important, is Lindelof’s other spin on the idea of Hooded Justice as the world’s first superhero. In making Reeves into a child whose parents place him into a vehicle in order to save him from a disaster that takes their own lives, Lindelof obviously alludes to the origin story of the first fictional superhero, Superman. With this in mind, we can see how Reeves’ character in fact functions as a continual rebuke to the idealism associated with Superman as a character: whether he tries to fight crime as a police officer, or to change the world by single-handedly taking down a white supremacist conspiracy within the police force, or to help Lady Trieu achieve her goals, Reeves continuously fails.
If Reeves is Superman, Abar—who takes up her vocation fighting crime after witnessing the murder of her parents—is Batman. The series suggests that while Abar’s model is less noble than Reeves’, it is also more realistic, a figure not for what might be done but what can be done. As Clover suggests, of course, “the essence of Batman” is the idea of standing outside of social order in order the better to enforce it (Clover)—the idea, not to put too fine a point on it, behind the founding of the Klan as an extra-legal militia. Lindelof’s series arguably grasps this logic, but having identified Reeves’ opposition to this idea as false idealism, its only recourse is to push even further into resigned cynicism. As Scott Tobias cannily notes in his New York Times recap of the episode featuring Abar / Sister Night’s origin story, in its late episodes the series seems to make Laurie Blake “the moral center of the show,” someone who disapproves of Sister Night and others in costume because of what she saw during her own time as Silk Spectre, but “whose brusque been-there-done-that cynicism obscures a genuine desire to restore order and protocol” (Tobias).
This blend of cynicism and resigned commitment is in fact the ideological core of Lindelof’s series. If, as Bady argues, “Fanon worked to distinguish the violence that replicates trauma from the violence that liberates from it” (Bady), Lindelof’s Watchmen merely works—at times with tremendous effort, and not always fully successfully—to distinguish official violence from its unofficial counterpart. White supremacist militias are bad, as are suicide bombers, as is, ultimately, Reeve’s extra-legal resolution of the conspiracy within the New York police department—which the show initially presents as cathartic, only to later recant this move by showing Reeves caught up in Lady Trieu’s machinations. But by the same token, it is okay for Abar to violently coerce suspects, or for Blake and Tillman to cooperate with Veidt in the violent dispatching of Lady Trieu—as long as they arrest him afterwards.
Here we see how Lindelof’s series, in seeming to reject the generic individualism and exceptionalism of the superhero genre, in fact embraces a reading of history grounded in the actions of individuals. The series ends (or almost so) where it began—with Reeves taking shelter in a theater while someone bombards Tulsa from above. That, in the second iteration, the person responsible for this violence is subsequently arrested suggests that history has been freed from its cycle of repetition and that Abar, a Black woman, can go on to live her (private) life. Bady hints that the series has a very explicit and contemporary political referent: “with a cop being deified (after utopians of all stripes are repudiated) and the FBI arrest of a murderous narcissist,” Lindelof, a major donor to Kamala Harris, seems to be fantasizing about “a prosecutor in chief winning the primary and then defeating and hauling Trump off to jail” (Bady). Here we might recall that the leader of the white supremacist group that takes over the New York police in Reeves’ story is a supermarket owner named Fred, two characteristics among others that link him to Donald Trump’s father. Insofar as Reeves also kills Fred, the apparent fantasy here is that Donald Trump never existed to take over the official reins of US power, in the process making it increasingly difficult to continue to see that power as a neutral or even noble force. In the world of the television series, white supremacists remain, if not wholly outside the space of official power (they have infiltrated police departments and the Congress), still safely distinguishable from it. This is, needless to say, the fantasy of those, who before the 2020 election hoped and in some cases still continue to hope, that the defeat of Trump would somehow fix US politics. It’s the fantasy that one exceptional man, and not the system, is at fault.
In Conclusion: “Trust in the Law!”
We should note, finally, that Reeves takes his last name from Bass Reeves, the fictional star of the fictional Oscar Micheaux film, Trust in the Law!, that Reeves’ parents show him to distract him during the Tulsa Massacre. This film is, indeed, the ur-fantasy of the entire series, a site (through its invocation of pioneering filmmaker Micheaux) of Black representation that also anticipates the series’ story in miniature. In the film, Reeves lassoes a man and then tells a crowd of onlookers, “Your Sheriff is the SCOUNDREL who has stolen your cattle. He doesn’t deserve the badge.” One onlooker, a boy, says excitedly, “Dontcha know who this is? Bass Reeves! The Black Marshal of Oklahoma!” Trust In the Law!, the origin of Will Reeves’ ambition to become a police officer, exemplifies the idea that the solution to police malfeasance is to enlist Black police officers. It is ironic that Reeves is the only character in this series who comes to disbelieve this assertion, while the series itself devotes significant energy to discrediting his disbelief. Certainly, it is an assertion that the contemporary U.S. record of police violence makes difficult to credit, even as the media and liberal political figures like Kamala Harris and Lori Lightfoot continue to champion it.
In his account of the 1971 New York City police strike, Loud notes that the strike was in part motivated by police efforts to counter criticism by the media and protesters, even as it ultimately provided evidence that “the city was able to function as normal with a much smaller number of police officers” (Loud). In light of this, we might see the graphic novel and television versions of Watchmen as works produced at different points within a long history of police campaigns designed to assert the necessity of policing. Both series get something right about this campaign, which is that the police’s best argument on their behalf has consistently been not their withdrawal—a point driven home by the strikes—but by the continuation of violence, even if it is violence provoked by the police themselves. In Lindelof’s series, the white supremacist cabal in New York City seeks to do exactly what the Comedian does in the graphic novel: provoke riots, in this case specifically in Black neighborhoods.
We have ourselves seen evidence of this dynamic in recent years. As a 2015 Justice Department report noted, disproportionate police responses to the 2014 Ferguson protests following the killing of Michael Brown did more to enflame tensions than to quell them (Williams), and this pattern has repeated itself elsewhere in the years since 2014 (see, for instance, Carter). This is not to criticize the riots themselves, but rather the political and media machinery that immediately reconfigures them—as it also reconfigured the January 6 insurrection—into prima facie arguments for more policing. In suggesting that the police might be redeemed by a police force that is at once more representative (Blacker, more female) and more cynical, the television series Watchmen offers the most superficial progressive gloss on this idea. It’s one that remains powerful in the mainstream Democratic Party, but is fraying both within the party and in other non-electoral political spaces. If we can read the original version of Watchmen as a work that anticipates this ideological formation, maybe the best—and most politically interesting—way to read Lindelof’s television series is as a document of its increasingly visible breakdown.
1 The fact that this subgenre’s most recent incarnation comes with the huge box-office and viral success of Todd Phillips’ 2019 The Joker—about a villain, rather than a hero—suggests the ways in which it is preoccupied with psychological concerns (What makes an individual violate the law or take it into their own hands?) rather than political ones (What makes institutional violence exercised by agents of the state immune to the criticisms that accrue to extra-legal violence?).
2 Moore would become familiar with this development, if he wasn’t already, by 1988, when heavily armored riot police were deployed against protests of the infamous Section 28 of the 1998 Local Government Act, a clause which broadly criminalized publishing or teaching about homosexuality. Both Moore and Gibbonswould contribute to the 1988 comics anthology AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), which Moore’s company Mad Love published in protest of Section 28 and which includes among other pieces a one-pager by Miller that draws a visual line between contemporary riot gear and Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop.
3 In the graphic novel, Hooded Justice is a minor character, the first superhero and the member of the group the Minutemen who saves another character from being raped by the then-16-year-old Comedian. Moore and Gibbons imply that he is a gay white man. The series incorporates this as the standard account of the character (retold in lurid fashion on the reality television show American Hero Story), but reveals that he is actually the (also gay) Reeves.
4 On Hill Street Blues as a precursor of what would come, in the early twenty-first-century, to be called prestige television, see Ullrich.
5 Rice helpfully compiles all the references to Oklahoma in Lindelof’s series. In general, Watchmen’s references to Oklahoma! function as what Betty Kaklamanidou calls “musical micro-adaptations” in her superb essay “The Man That Got Away: Musical Numbers as Micro-adaptations in Contemporary Television.” These include an early scene in which Crawford and his wife watch a production of the play with an all-Black cast. This scene, coming on the heels of the show’s opening depiction of the Tulsa Massacre, suggests the deep irony with which it continually evokes the musical’s World War II era celebration of white settler nostalgia, even as the all-Black cast calls into question the possibility of resolving historical violence through the politics of representation. In this respect, it may be the series’ most politically self-aware moment.
AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia). Northampton, England: Mad Love, 1988.
Bady, Aaron.“Dr. Manhattan Is a Cop: Watchmen and Frantz Fanon.” Los Angeles Review of Books. 31 December 2019. https://www.lareviewofbooks.org/article/dr-manhattan-cop-watchmen-frantz-fanon/. Accessed 28 June 2021.
Carter, Mike. “Seattle Police Response to Protests Last Summer Made Things Worse, Report Says.” The Seattle Times. 22 July 2021. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/seattle-police-response-to-protests-last-summer-made-things-worse-report-says/. Accessed 30 July 2021.
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