Here’s a question: what do you do if you’re a self-professed fan of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1986-1987), the iconic comic series that as a creative you’ve idolized all your life, which you in fact had offers to adapt before but respectfully declined, and you then finally succumb to the temptation of turning it into a television show? What do you do if you know that, even after fifteen years, the jury is still out on Zack Snyder’s troubled 2009 adaptation of Watchmen—a movie that is as much derided by critics for its slavish fidelity as it is decried by fans for futilely trying to film an ‘unadaptable’ comic? What, indeed, do you do if you know that the legendary Alan Moore himself will downright hate the fruit of your labor, no matter how earnest it is, since he despises as a matter of principle any moving image rendition of his work? Well, if you’re Damon Lindelof, showrunner of what in 2019 became HBO’s Watchmen, the answer is this: you do a remix.
As something of a legendary storyteller in his own right, Lindelof was only too aware of the sanctified superhero-comic turf that his new project was going to tread on. So, from the day that he signed on, the famed producer of Lost (2004-2010) and The Leftovers (2014-2017) had gone out of his way to position his limited series version of Watchmen to not be a direct adaptation. An early and especially notable gesture in this regard came in May 2018, when he took to Instagram to share an impassioned five-page open letter to the “true fans” of Watchmen. This was the occasion on which he wanted to assure people that his take on the comics—much as it might be seen as an adaptation or reboot or sequel—will in fact be something of an altogether different order. After covering his reverent personal history with the Watchmen comics, Lindelof’s letter gets to the marrow:
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. Because the bass lines in those familiar tracks are just too good and we’d be fools not to sample them. Those original twelve issues are our Old Testament. When the New Testament came along, it did not erase what came before it. […] But we are not making a ‘sequel’ either. This story will be set in the world its creators painstakingly built… but in the tradition of the work that inspired it, this new story must be original. It has to vibrate with the seismic unpredictability of its own tectonic plates. It must ask new questions and explore the world through a fresh lens. Most importantly, it must be contemporary. (Lindelof)
Of course, to be reading this with the benefit of hindsight is itself a sort of remix: today, we know of all the critical acclaim and accolades that HBO’s Watchmen eventually garnered, and that Lindelof’s gamble (and Instagram PR) paid off. Who would argue? Following at least the most basic sense of “remix,” Lindelof’s television show leveraged the references and meanings attached to original Watchmen “to build something new” (Lessig 76), a configuration that is original and contemporary no doubt, and one that has spoken resonantly to the current political climate in the U.S. and beyond. But still, questions can stick around like superheroes—and most of the intriguing ones initially prompted by Lindelof are (like Dr. Manhattan, as it turned out) very much still with us. How far can we push the notion of Lindelof’s version (or any adaptation for that matter) as a “remix?” What does his invocation of remix suggest about the broader transmedial ecology of Watchmen? How might Moore and Gibbons’ comics have reflexively anticipated, or even actively summoned, the idea of them being remixed? What are the experiential affordances of such a moving image remix for its audience? And, importantly, what are the political stakes of Lindelof’s Watchmen remix and its reception?
This special issue of Literature/Film Quarterly addresses these and many further questions raised by Lindelof’s audacious televisual remix—the latest chapter in the moving image afterlives of Watchmen.1 Many might be quick to dismiss the thought of such a “remix” as fan-appeasing rhetoric, a disingenuous euphemism, or a straight-up misnomer.2 Yet with five incisive essays from Joshua Wille, Eduardo Navas, Aaron Taylor, Andrew Hoberek, and Sheila Nayar, this issue wants to drive home that there is a lot more to be said, in addition to Lindelof’s particular remix, for remixing as an evocative image for the kind of adaptive work that we find in his television series, and beyond. This has been one of the pleasures that came from putting the issue together: to discover the impressive explanatory reach that the concept of remix—as what Mieke Bal would call a “traveling concept”—can exert within an expanding moving image ecology rooted in the medium of comics. So, in order to sketch just how far the concept does travel, and hence continue my dialogue with the five contributions that follow, allow me to spin a quick remix of my own.
First off, some fine-tuning of the traveling concept itself: how can we best construe the notion of “remix” with reference to a work like HBO’s Watchmen? The essay of Eduardo Navas provides a set of coordinates for us to not lose our way. Lindelof’s remix-analogy naturally has its limits, and Navas helps us to be clear on what those limits are. But Navas also lays bare the basic definitional boxes that the show does succeed in ticking. Like a remix, it exhibits definite sampling strategies, no matter that its samples are cultural citations and not material ones. And, like a remix, the show exhibits the combination of two key elements, appropriation and recontextualization. This is evident in how the existent fictional world of Watchmen gets transplanted to Tulsa, Oklahoma; and in how familiar faces (and masks) like Laurie Blake, Adrian Veidt, and Doctor Manhattan are thrown together with the new ones of Angela Abar, Will Reeves, and Looking Glass. Yet, with a nod to postmodern aesthetic theory, Navas adds that there is a more significant feature of remix also at play. By re-establishing the story within the context of American racial injustice, HBO’s Watchmen as a “New Testament” to the “Old” patently allegorizes its appropriated source text. In fact, I would add, the allegorization performed by Lindelof’s remix extends to the level of genre, too. Lindelof has spoken openly in interviews about how his writing team used the superhero trope of the “origin story” to reflexively interrogate the roots of racial inequalities in the United States. The decisive origin story of Will Reeves/Hooded Justice in Episode 6 notably has its origin in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and subsequent encounters that the character had with white supremacy. Through appropriation and recontextualization, therefore, even the very notion of superheroes—why they are born and why we need them—undergoes its own, critical, allegorization.
Certainly, by the time Lindelof’s remix rocked the scene, adaptations and the transmedial expansion of Watchmen had already been well underway. Yet this terrain is equally receptive to the concept of remix, which extends far beyond Lindelof’s work and ideas alone (and thus offers just as many insights into the broader Watchmen ecology that precede the HBO show). Despite the many memes likening him to Doctor Manhattan, Lindelof did not pluck the thought of a remix from thin air. So what might be some likely sources that Lindelof’s (idea of a) Watchmen remix draws from? For one thing, Lindelof is a fan. And there’s little doubt that his show, which he reportedly also thinks of as “an expensive bit of fan fiction” (qtd. in Gillespie), took considerable inspiration from fan cultures and their privileging of remix practices. After all, “[r]emixes happen within a community of remixers” (Lessig 77).
As Joshua Wille brings us to appreciate, remixes of Watchmen—in the literal, material sense of the word—had been going on for a long time before Lindelof joined this particular fan parade. Written with the joint insights of a scholar and avid practitioner, Wille’s essay lifts the curtain on the fascinating subculture of Watchmen fan edits, for which Zack Snyder’s film adaptation provides the bulk of raw material that fan editors have been remixing and refining since 2009, with no apparent end in sight. Not that Snyder has been all that content with his own work, though. This is in fact a striking irony that emerges from Wille’s account: that Snyder—who released no less than three official cuts of his own film, as if a restless fan editor himself—should probably be seen as the original big-league “remixer” on the Watchmen scene.
Apart from the context of fan culture, it’s likely that Lindelof’s idea of remixing Watchmen also found a source of inspiration in the original comics as such. And, with this shift of focus, it turns out that our traveling concept retroactively unlocks many insights into the Moore and Gibbons ur-text. There are various layers to how remix proves itself pertinent to the Watchmen comics. The notions of mixing and remixing firstly speak to the nature of a deeply hybridized medium that Art Spiegelman proposed to call “co-mix,” given the formal “coordination, cooptation, coincidence, collision, cooperation, [and] comingling of words and images” that comics typically thrive on (Mitchell 260). As you’d expect from a work known for its relentless formal reflexivity and self-consciousness, Watchmen puts the “co-mixed” character of its medium on the fullest of displays (not to mention the collaborative mix of Watchmen’s co-authorship.) Yet, unsurprisingly, with all this mixing going on, Moore and Gibbons’ co-mix exhibits definite traces and cases of re-mixing too. People sometimes forget that apart from its critical reworking of tropes like “the vigilante,” “the mad genius,” and “corrupt power,” Moore’s earliest vision for the comics involved the recycling of established Charlton Comics characters that DC Comics had acquired the rights for (Davis); and that those characters are still lurking underneath the—ahem—“remixed” Watchmen protagonists that Moore was later pressured to create in their place. Moreover, Moore’s Watchmen remixes history. Proffering a world in which Nixon’s Watergate scandal never broke and American superheroes won the Vietnam war, the original Watchmen’s alternative history allowed for a backhanded critique of the world of Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev—in the same manner that Lindelof’s subsequent historical inventions take critical stock of the world of Trump, May, and Putin (Lindelof). Arguably, Lindelof has simply done a re-remix, riding on the back of the remixing done in the Watchmen comics themselves.3
But there are also more concrete motifs suggestive of remix in the original Watchmen. Sheila Nayar spotlights a vivid case in point: Moore and Gibbons’ trademark juggling of events, which as a visual motif often renders the comic’s standard nine-panel grid like a scrambled Rubik’s cube. Such scrambling usually comes at the hand of Doctor Manhattan’s quantum leaps between the past and future—his remixing of linear time, if you will. The narrative complexities of Manhattan’s time-hopping comprise the central analysis of Nayar’s essay, in which she evaluates the rules of engagement with the comics and television show by setting side by side their respective articulations of this “chronotopic remixing,” as she puts it. Intriguingly, by adding her expertise on narrative epistemes to the mix, Nayar finds that the Lindelof remix ultimately downtones the restless temporal remixing of the original, but that it does so in order to prioritize its more urgent political ends.
And still the legs of remix in the Watchmen comics are far from run out. At the outset of Issue #11, the crazed superhero-genius Ozymandias makes explicit reference to an undoubted precursor to contemporary remix practices: the cut-up method of William Burroughs, who, as the character notes, “suggested re-arranging words and images to evade rational analysis, allowing subliminal hints of the future to leak through…” (Moore and Gibbons XI: 1) But it’s the context in which this reference is made that is so revealing. Ozymandias cites Burroughs’ cut-ups in explaining a more overtly esoteric method of his own. Using a wall covered by TV screens, each programmed to a random channel change every hundred seconds, Ozymandias scours the riot of clashing images set before him as a means to discern “an emergent worldview … amidst the media’s white noise” (XI: 1). When it comes to the potential cues that Lindelof takes from the comics, look no further than the profound picture that Ozy’s multi-screening provides—a remix of global proportions! Ever the fan, Lindelof probably thought of HBO’s Watchmen as his own Ozymandian remix: a mosaic that unleashes fragments and juxtapositions and subtexts and undercurrents, to tap into our zeitgeist, to “ask new questions and explore the world through a fresh lens” (Lindelof). To be sure, Ozymandias sees his remix method as rooted in the shamanistic tradition of divining randomly scattered objects; for him, its ultimate purpose is to yield glimpses of the future (Moore and Gibbons XI: 2). This prompts the question, which I leave hanging for a moment: does Lindelof’s remix show us the future in any way?
Aaron Taylor reminds us that Lindelof’s television series certainly shows us a great deal about the past—and not only in the sense of the troubling histories and backstories that it exposes. Having tracked the concept of remix and its various guises in the original comics, it is worth considering what remix as a traveling concept can also unveil about our experiences as viewers, and in particular the memories and past experiences that we bring to a viewing of HBO’s Watchmen. With his essay, Taylor puts a productive spin on the palimpsestic presence of the comics in viewers’ memories by recasting the act of recollection itself as a “remix.” Lindelof’s television remix requires from viewers a constant mental reworking of remembered Watchmen material—like the ever-shifting inkblot patterns on the original Rorschach mask, a process of ongoing re-vision and, with that, re-interpretation. And speaking of masks: Taylor’s account gives special attention to the role that actors and their performances have in this memorial remixing. Lindelof’s open letter did mention that “new masks” and “new faces” would feature in the series. Taylor shows how this statement unintendedly registers as a fact about our remixed recollections: when actors overwrite comic book characters, we remember the old faces but see them as wearing new “masks.”
Finally, Andrew Hoberek brings us to the broader socio-political resonances and effects of Lindelof’s remix. Although the politics of HBO’s Watchmen comes up throughout the issue, Hoberek weaves these strands together with a timely reflection on the theme of Watchmen and the police. In addition to crisscrossing hotspots and hot buttons like Ferguson, Tulsa, Vietnam, and Capitol Hill, Hoberek’s essay offers a sober reminder: a remix is bound to carry the baggage of those sources that it samples from. Like its source material, even if not straightforwardly so, HBO’s Watchmen ultimately perpetuates the “great man” conception of history: that it is not systems, institutions, or social movements, but exceptional individuals who change the world—a notion cherished, rather problematically, by superhero-policemen, vigilantes, and corrupt presidents alike.
But it is specifically Hoberek’s invocation of the U.S. Capitol Hill insurrection—the suggestion that superhero culture offers a pretext for the kind of rogue individualist “vigilantism” witnessed on January 6, 2021—that I’d like to sample in bringing my own remix to a close. Among other things, this brings us back to Instagram. As the world was processing those surreal scenes on Capitol Hill, Lindelof shared on Instagram a screenshot of a tweet by the critic Soraya McDonald: “So ugh, I guess we’re just *watching* S2 of Watchmen on CNN” (Flook). And this in turn brings us back to whether Lindelof’s remix has perhaps been revealing Ozymandian glimpses of the future all along. The fact is that the Watchmen-esque déjà vu of the emboldened display on that day has been one of many events that felt like they were somehow foretold by the television show. Remix as a traveling concept thus reaches its final frontier: here Lindelof’s Watchmen remix, owing to its often-remarked “prescience” and “resonance” (VanDerWerff), undergoes its own remix via the unfolding events of the day. How strange, for starters, that a story dealing with the protection of masks predates a global pandemic in the wake of which the show’s masked figures now seem so strangely normal. How strange that in July 2020 police in Seattle adopted as a tactical measure the exact yellow face coverings that the fictional Tulsa police force wear in the show (Johnson). How strange that, of all the places in the world, Trump’s first presidential campaign rally since the start of the pandemic occurred nowhere other than in Tulsa, Oklahoma (Lee). How strange, indeed, that those costumed “avengers” on Capitol Hill were so reminiscent of a hyperbolic white supremacist group from an HBO superhero show. Regardless of whether these coincidences reflect mere appropriation or actual divination, they do at least make one thing clear: the real remix of Watchmen has only just begun.
1 Alongside what is now a hit HBO show, Watchmen’s varied cinematic afterlives include multiple releases of Zack Snyder’s feature film adaptation; supplementary short films such as the fictional documentary Under the Hood (2009), and the animated Tales of the Black Freighter (2009); the official Watchmen motion comic (2008-2009); and a host of fan edits of all of the aforementioned. In Aaron Taylor’s apt summation (given Watchmen’s often overly revered reputation), one could think of these as the “continuing adventures of the ‘inherently unfilmable’ book” (Taylor).
2 In a recent review for Adaptation, for example, Thomas Johnson insists that HBO’s Watchmen is much better described in technical terms as an “update” than a remix (Johnson 398). On top of that, for Michael Boyce Gillespie it is more adequate to specify this remix as doing the work of “reprioritizing” (Gillespie).
3 No wonder that in response to reports that Alan Moore was “not thrilled” about HBO’s meddling with Watchmen, Lindelof pointed out that it was the mold-breaking Moore who had actually shown him how to go about the reimagining of a franchise. In Lindelof’s choice words: “I’m channeling the spirit of Alan Moore to tell Alan Moore, ‘F— you, I’m doing it anyway.’” (qtd. in Bucksbaum)
Bal, Mieke. Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide. University of Toronto Press, 2002.
Bucksbaum, Sydney. “Damon Lindelof to Watchmen creator Alan Moore: ‘F--- you, I’m Doing It Anyway.’” Entertainment Weekly, 24 July 2019. https://ew.com/tv/2019/07/24/damon-lindelof-watchmen-hbo-series-alan-moore-tca-2019/. Accessed 31 July 2021.
Davis, Blair. “Watchmen: Rebirth, Reboot, Recycle.” In Media Res, 11 February 2017. http://mediacommons.org/imr/2017/02/10/watchmen-rebirth-reboot-reycle. Accessed 31 July 2021.
Flook, Ray. “Watchmen: Trump Makes Life Feel More Like Deleted Scenes Than Season 2.” Bleeding Cool, 7 January 2021. https://bleedingcool.com/tv/watchmen-trump-makes-life-feel-more-like-deleted-scenes-than-season-2/. Accessed 2 August 2021.
Gillespie, Michael Boyce. “Thinking about Watchmen: A Roundtable.” Film Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 4, 2020. https://filmquarterly.org/2020/06/26/thinking-about-watchmen-with-jonathan-w-gray-rebecca-a-wanzo-and-kristen-j-warner/. Accessed 30 July 2021.
Johnson, Jim. “Seattle Police Forces Are Now Wearing Yellow, Watchmen-esque Masks.” CBR.com, 1 July 2020. https://www.cbr.com/seattle-police-yellow-watchmen-masks/. Accessed 2 August 2021.
Johnson, Thomas. “Appropriation Anxiety: Watchmen (2019).” Adaptation, vol. 13, no. 3, 2020, pp. 397-402.
Lee, Ashley. “‘A Crime Upon a Crime’: Trump’s Tulsa Rally Gives ‘Watchmen’ Episode New Resonance.” Los Angeles Times, 19 June 2020. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2020-06-19/watchmen-tulsa-1921-massacre-trump-juneteenth-rally. Accessed 2 August 2021.
Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
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 23 November 2020.
Mitchell, W.J.T. “Comics as Media: Afterword.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 255-265.
Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1987.
Taylor, Aaron. “The Continuing Adventures of the ‘Inherently Unfilmable’ Book: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.” Cinema Journal, vol. 56, no. 2, 2017, pp. 125-31.
VanDerWerff, Emily. “The Eerie Prescience of HBO’s Watchmen.” Vox, 31 August 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/8/31/21403294/watchmen-hbo-masks-police-violence-stephen-williams-interview. Accessed 2 August 2021.