Watching Watchmen—HBO’s heavily-lauded 2019 limited series—is a taxing affair. The series is challenging on structural, thematic, and adaptative levels, and it places unusual affective, apprehensive, and interpretive demands on viewers—even those familiar with its source material: DC’s twelve-issue comic book maxiseries, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons in 1986-87. Requiring its viewers to attend to its narrative complexities, political ambitions, and processes of remediation, its ambitiousness largely explains the series’ attainment of over two dozen major industry awards. While Watchmen’s storytelling and ideological exigencies warrant their own thoroughgoing analysis, I wish to discuss the unique cognitive tasks set for the viewer who attends to the series as a transmedia adaptation. Watchmen is an important case study for those who wish to consider the aesthetics and reception of TV series that are fundamentally contingent on the remembering and reconstitution of a significant amount of preceding material within and across media texts.
By their very nature, serialized televisual narratives require us to recall earlier story instalments whilst attending to present story circumstances. And transmedia adaptations or franchises also require this reminiscence across both time and distinct platforms. But Watchmen goes further. Understanding its cognitive solicitations is essential in appreciating how televisual transmedia works ask their viewers to draw upon their memories in ways unique to the apprehension of this form. Drawing on cognitive theories of the role memory plays in (1) narrative comprehension, (2) music apprehension, and (3) performance assessment, what follows is a characterization of Watchmen as a mnemonic device, geared toward viewers attuned to and interested in its intertwining transmedia relations. Watching Watchmen, then, requires a challenging engagement with its so-called “remixed” adaptative tactics and actorly performance strategies. We shall note how viewers versed in the TV series’ complex transmedia history are asked to recollect and mentally rework Watchmen’s hypotext, for this mental activity encapsulates what—and how—TV demands that we remember in general.1
Watchmen as Remix: Taking Lindelof Seriously
Watchmen is unusually tough viewing, even as an exemplar of “complex TV”—a televisual work that “redefin[es] the boundary between episodic and serial forms, with a heightened degree of self-consciousness in storytelling mechanics, and demanding intensified viewer engagement focused on both diegetic pleasures and formal awareness” (Mittell 53). Watchmen’s “operational aesthetics” deliberately prompt a pleasurable hyper-awareness of its own tricksy narratological workings (ibid., 42). With its dense story details and complicated serial plotting, the show solicits the pleasures of sifting through its structural intricacy. In addition, the series adopts an explicitly anti-racist, thematic intricacy. Watchmen offers an emotionally and ideologically demanding representation of politically motivated racial violence. It provides a critical interrogation of institutionalized racism—specifically, the legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre—and an extended thought-experiment that supports the case for reparations for survivors of this historical trauma and their descendants.
If this narrative and thematic complexity weren’t enough, Watchmen also manifests substantial adaptative intricacy. It is a remarkably sophisticated televisual adaptation of its hypotext—itself a masterpiece of graphic fiction, with a daunting reputation of being “unadaptable,” Zack Snyder’s divisive 2009 feature-film adaptation (also called Watchmen) notwithstanding.2 Interestingly, Snyder released a particularly fan-centric “Ultimate Cut” DVD package that included a 23-minute expansion of the theatrical cut, integrated bonus shorts, plus an animated version of the inter-diegetic pirate comic featured heavily in the maxiseries. This “polymedial” strategy ambitiously tried to adopt the comic’s inclusion of supplementary (or “paratextual”) materials at the end of every issue that expanded the narrative proper (Jeffries 191-92).3 Given the comic hypotext’s daunting complexity, showrunner Damon Lindelof adopted an altogether different adaptive strategy. Despite sharing its title with the maxiseries, the TV series is technically a sequel to the comic but not a straightforward one; in an open letter to fans published to Instagram, Lindelof oddly branded his series a “remix” of its source material.
Certainly, Watchmen is not the first transmedia series to resuscitate its narrative trajectory decades after the last installment aired. An equally feted example, Twin Peaks (CBS 1990-91), resumed in 2017 a story that had been paused since 1991—with the noteworthy exceptions of two transmedia prequel extensions in 1992 and 2016. Watchmen is also out of keeping with most televisual treatments of superhero properties in that it is not exactly a brand extension of DC’s intellectual property, as is the case with the various “Arrowverse” series airing on The CW from 2012 to the present. Rather, Watchmen functions as a nominal sequel to the comic book maxiseries, but not in a reciprocal fashion. The HBO series does not feed back into DC’s use of Watchmen properties in its regular output—e.g., the Doomsday Clock limited series (2017-19) functions more like an “official” sequel to the original maxiseries in regular comics continuity.
Still, Watchmen’s unusual continuation of story material originating in a different medium over thirty years ago is not its most striking feature, adaptatively speaking. Rather, its additional label as a “remix” is what bears considering. Yes, the remix label is a canny act of pre-emptive fan management, whereby devotees of the Gibbons and Moore comic are placated because the HBO series skirts the thorny problem of fidelity and, consequently, the mythic “unadaptability” of a beloved ur-text is maintained.4 With this strategy, Lindelof also explicitly avoids a perceived betrayal of Alan Moore. An outspoken critic of DC’s contractual handling of his authorial rights to Watchmen, Moore has sworn off all involvement with the franchise.5
And yet, this is not mere fan-pandering, nor a marketing gimmick, nor even a glib appropriation of pop music terminology. We should be prepared to take Lindelof’s descriptive label at its word. A remixed, televisual Watchmen trains us how to re-view the original comic book anew, with the maxiseries’ narrative, graphic, and thematic elements not simply resurrected but reconstituted. Indeed, sampled and remixed music has extraordinary sonic impact on our apperception of an original composition. As Kyle Adams has demonstrated, “hip-hop producers can manipulate our hearing by reconfiguring aspects of the beat” (“Playing” 1). Thus, as in music, the remix teaches us how to recognize formerly unperceived qualities of an original composition, and to appreciate their surprising applicability to a different context. Indeed, such recontextualization is vital for Watchmen’s anti-racist agenda. Lindelof’s series enables latent and overlooked qualities of Gibbons and Moore’s series to engage first and foremost with race—a subject to which the original work was indifferent. By drawing on viewers’ long-term memories of the comic, the HBO series plays with interpenetrating layers of remembered (and misremembered) material. It is this cognitive activity—enabled by the series’ remixing tactics, especially in relation to its performance elements—that will be analyzed in the next sections.
Remix and Memory
What, precisely, is meant by describing a work as a remix? Crucially for our purposes, remix ontology contains an implicit reference to memory. It is generally understood that a remixed work will be comprised of samples of pre-existing cultural artefacts (Gallagher 40; Navas 12). As a distinctive media form, it should be distinguished from other intertextual allusions to generative works. Unlike covers, translations, parodies, sequels, adaptations, copies, or remakes, “remix samples directly from the source material, while all of the others merely refer to it through a newly produced, original [work]” (Gallagher 38). Importantly, the intention is for audiences to recognize these sampled elements and recall their situation within the earlier work.
Immediately, alarm bells might be ringing. By this strict, formalist definition, HBO’s Watchmen is technically not a remix at all. Certainly, Lindelof plunders quotations wholesale, not unlike one of the ravening buccaneers featured prevalently in the maxiseries’ intradiegetic comic, “Tales of the Black Freighter.” Dialogue is repeated verbatim, story elements are recreated, graphic elements are reconstituted. And yet, the show contains no literal inserts from its comic hypotext.6 However, Lindelof’s labelling of his series a “remix” can be justified by construing remix more expansively via its discursive aspects.
Eduardo Navas reminds us that a remix reinterprets an original music composition but still always retains the “spectacular aura” of its source material. Navas applies this Benjaminian conceit in his helpful description of reflexive remixes, which ‘allegorize and extend the aesthetic of sampling, where the remixed version challenges the ‘spectacular aura’ of the original and claims autonomy even when it carries the name of the original; material is added or deleted, but the original tracks are largely left intact to be recognizable” (66). Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album (2004) is a celebrated example, with its wholesale importation of Jay-Z’s a cappella raps from The Black Album (2002) into extensively sampled reworkings of musical elements from the Beatles’ White Album (1968). This allegorizing of sampling’s aesthetics becomes even more transparently discursive in the case of regenerative remixes, whereby a new and/or potentially completely different composition fundamentally “relies on the authority of the original composition’s spectacular aura” (Navas 67). How exactly? Either by using substantially reworked or nearly unrecognizable samples or, more interestingly, just referring to the original recording’s title. While the title, The Grey Album, is an obvious discursive joke that extends the LP’s mashup aesthetic to its own name, a more radically regenerative composition is Underworld’s 1996 “.NUXX” remix of their own 1995 instrumental, “Born Slippy.” Aside from its title, the .NUXX remix bears almost no structural or sonic relation whatsoever to the original track and, interestingly, has completely eclipsed its source material in the public consciousness.7
Referring again to mashups, another way to consider remixes discursively is to note that “it’s the relationship and recontextualization between the constituent elements that identifies a work and makes it memorable—in other words, the juxtaposition itself functions as the foreground” (Sinnreich 163). Kyle Adams has put this deliberate positioning of juxtaposed constituent elements even more plainly: “A + B mashup artists do not speak through the borrowed material; they speak about the borrowed material” (“Danger Mouse” 11). If HBO’s Watchmen is a remix discursively, then, it is because Lindelof and his collaborators fold together two thoroughgoing intertextual strategies. First, they capitalize on the cultural prominence of Moore & Gibbons’ pre-existing work, sharing a title with it in a derivative sense even though the TV series is technically a sequel—i.e., it could well have been titled “Watchmen: The HBO Remix.” Second, not unlike the musical collagists working in the plunderphonics genre, Lindelof and Co. “lift” (i.e., allude to or cite) a tremendous amount of pre-existing content, but also restructure this material, producing a transformative work (again, even if the content they pillage isn’t sampled in a literal sense). So, a hybridized definition of remix, incorporating both formal and discursive elements, permits us to consider constructively Lindelof’s appropriation of the term.
Crucially, remix entails three distinct cognitive activities involving conscious recollective labor. It requires (1) our recognition of sampled material, but also (2) our recall of the original apprehended context due to (3) the necessary interpretive work in re-cognizing this material’s new form and meaning (Gallagher 53). First, a work that includes a significant ratio of sampled elements—or discursively positions itself ontologically in relation to an original work’s spectacular aura—obviously asks us to acknowledge striking facets of a hypotext. For example, in listening to a remixed song, we become aware that a particular sonic element is familiar. Second, we recall this element’s source material, which requires mentally evoking more-or-less complete properties of the sample’s originating context—i.e., we virtually “re-hear” traces of other (absent) musical elements in which the sample was originally embedded. Importantly, “this second cognition [i.e., recall] has the secondary effect of altering our memory of the original [work], as our stored meaning for it is updated in relation to the remix” (ibid). Third, this apperception subsequently necessitates a new cognition of the sampled qualities, whose form and/or significance are now differently apprehended. That is, the new, embedded context of sampled music elements overrides their old, embedded context and can, as a result, even allow us to “mishear” musical properties of the sampled material.
To concretize this third cognitive activity in colloquial terms, we can consider an example by hip-hop duo Kids See Ghosts. The hook of their 2018 song, “4th Dimension,” loops a nine-second sample of Louis Prima’s 1936 Christmas tune, “What Will Santa Claus Say?” Kid Cudi and Kanye West begin their track with a longer, unaltered sample of Prima, then bring in a new rhythmic context with the beat drop. Such sampled looping is typical for a hip-hop production. Kyle Adams notes that “a producer can use a new beat to highlight rhythmic or motivic aspects of the lyrics that may not have been manifested in the original beat” (“Playing” 3). What is crucial to note is that this new beat doesn’t alter the rhythmic properties of the sampled vocal melody, but we partly interpret a change in these properties nonetheless. The rhythm of Prima’s vocal track in the original song employs agogic accenting, whereby a lyrical phrase’s accent is defined by a phoneme’s duration, rather than its intensity or normally accented syllable. Specifically, the longest part of the sung phrase, “What is Santa bringing?” is the syllable “San” (i.e., technically a dotted quarter note).8 But when resituated in “4th Dimension,” we feel as if Prima is “accenting” his lyrical phrase (on beat three of the measure) to correspond with the snare drum’s beat three accent. We seem to hear Prima attacking certain syllables: “What is Sannn-ta bringing?”—even though Prima isn’t accenting anything. In Joseph Schloss’ terms, “while looping may not change the sound of the music—its rhythm, melody, harmony, or timbre—it changes the entire sensibility within which this sound is interpreted” (138).9
As a consequence of its use as a sampled loop in a transformative work, this appropriation can also impact our memory of the original work. The original composition may be apprehended differently due to its use as an impactful hook, making it hard to hear it again without superimposing elements of the new embedded context. With regards to closely corresponding screen adaptations of comic book material, Joseph Magliano notes that the order in which we experience a hypotext vs. a hypertext can impact what we notice when we “co-activate” content between the two works while reading or viewing (298-301). When it comes to a remix, though, the order in which we experience it vis-à-vis an original work doesn’t matter; the “overall effect and experience is very similar and focuses the viewer’s attention on the ingenuity of the transferred meaning that occurs in the remix” (Gallagher 53, italics mine). Such ingenuity of transferred meaning is aligned with complex TV’s operational aesthetics, which have us preoccupied with the pleasures of formal presentation as much as with a show’s engaging content.
Remixing and Remembering Complex TV
We have noted that both formal and discursive definitions of remix imply a distinctive form of apprehension, which fundamentally involves audiences’ powers of recall. What implications does this cognitive activity have for the televisual remixing at work in Watchmen? To begin with, all art forms with a temporal dimension obviously have recollective entailments. For its part, television—which predominantly broadcasts serial or episodic narratives—requires that we recall story material retrieved from long-term memory from episode to episode for its stories to be comprehensible. Robert Allen notes that seriality—particularly long running soaps or telenovelas—demands that viewers memorize and process a vast amount of narrative information to keep up with the story (86). Transmedia TV, meanwhile, poses an even greater cognitive challenge. It requires that we also recall both story content and the formal presentation of this content retrieved from our long-term memory of another medial property to which the program is connected. Watchmen, then, taxes our recall both in terms of its seriality and transmediality.
Let us address seriality first. In a basic sense, our comprehension of complex TV involves responding to interesting demands placed on our retention powers. While watching such a series, we respond to cues that prompt our working memory processes to retrieve salient info from long-term memory. Jason Mittell has itemized several narrative techniques that filter copious story information for our working memory, thus allowing non-relevant information to recede into our long-term memory (180-88). For example, an episode will deliberately repeat key story elements (e.g., names, establishing shots, visual elements) to help trigger later recall. Other strategies include the diegetic retelling of events, self-conscious voiceover narration, first-person flashbacks, replays, and recaps. Significantly, these tactics do more than just get us to retrieve relevant story information; they can also serve as plot summaries, re-establish story arcs, refresh previous cliff-hangers, and highlight character relationships (Mittell 188-91).
Watchmen’s mnemonic tactics are similarly multimodal but also tend to operate more strangely, actively obstructing and taxing our powers of recall. For example, in Episode 4, an object falls from the sky and lands in a field, just in time for Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) to assert ownership over the unknown thing seconds after she purchases the farmstead from a rural couple. The object is never mentioned again, and its significance is only understood retroactively via implication in the final episode (Episode 9) when Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) escapes from Jupiter’s moon, Europa, via a probe sent by his daughter, Trieu. At that point, we might remember the falling object from Episode 4 and subsequently understand what it was and why Trieu was so eager to purchase the farmstead: it is the projected crash site for the probe containing Adrian. Then again, we might not remember the object’s brief crashing at all. This example is one of many instances of the series retroactively cueing our long-term memories by casual implication rather than explicit prompting. Such disregard for TV’s more typical mnemonic cues has interesting implications for Watchmen’s equally idiosyncratic use of performance in relation to memory.
What role does acting play in TV’s engagement with viewer’s memory? Simply put, actors’ deliberate performance choices are properties of serial narration. John Adams neatly characterizes such expressive activity as enactment: actors’ deliberate and unconscious decisions that we note by attending to gesture, movement, expression, voice, as well as actors’ proxemic relationships to other expressive bodies and the fictional space in which they appear (141-57). By dint of repetition, these choices become memorable and thus help us understand characters and, by extension, the narrative context constituted by their actions. Compounding across serialized time, recurring performance choices enable comprehension: “the familiarity with characters that is furnished by prior episodes is sustained and built upon through the incorporation of gestures, moments, and events that are imbued with emotional weight based on information parceled out previously” (Nannicelli 70). TV programs, then, exploit actors’ specific idiolects: “individual performers become associated with a repertoire of performance signs” (Drake 9). Think of these as “recognizable and repeated habits that enable viewers to ‘get the hang’ of a character and which offer the pleasure of the familiar, once the character has become established” (Lacey 54). Idiolects are by no means specific to sequential TV narratives. An aspect of complex TV’s intricacy involves its strategic blending of successive and self-enclosed stories. Thus, we can note how an actor’s idiolect contributes to serial characterization (which “value[s] change, development, or… uncovering of character”) as well as episodic characterization (which emphasizes “constancy, repetition, [and] circularity” (Cardwell 26).
Certainly, memorable idiolects are crucial to the establishment of characterization, and are also a source of pleasure in their own right. But, more notably for our purposes, idiolects also help us recall important story information. Instances of meaningfully compounding enactment entail their own processes of recognition and recall. We recognize a familiar expressive action and connect it to its previous, recollected instantiations. Actors themselves play a preeminent authorial role in preserving and managing our retentive and responsive engagement with their work. They often provide vital continuity across the longevity of a series, particularly multi-season programs. Since executive collaborators and directors are not always consistent personnel throughout the life of a serial, the actors’ memories about their own characters are invaluable. Actors can “come to own their characters and resist inconsistent input” from fledging writers, directors, and even producers (Pearson 175).
Although actors can serve as defenders of character consistency, their recurring performance choices do not signify in and of themselves. Individual performer-idiolects are always made salient by broader context-idiolects. An actor might “play to type,” but will also cultivate an individual actor-idiolect based on her distinctive appearance and strategic employment of expression, posture, movement, and voice. A series’ genre affords an actor with such distinctiveness: it will come with its own range of gestural possibilities and performative tropes that functions like a contained lexicon from which performers can draw. Think of mockumentary sitcoms, which feature the prominent context-idiolect of characters’ glancing at an observational camera. Individual actors adopt this context-idiolect, but in so doing they also cultivate their own distinctive actor-idiolect based on how and when they glance at the camera. Compare the intense, covert, subtle, sidelong glances used by Aubrey Plaza in Parks and Recreation (2009-15) vs. Chris Pratt’s glances, which are bright-eyed, overt, obvious, seeking, and coupled with a nervous smile. The former connote Plaza’s sardonic dismay, while the latter convey Pratt’s cloddish need for constant approval. Distinctive mobilizations of context-idiolects signify not uniquely, then, but through accretion.
Watchmen applies its remixing strategies to its use of both performer and context idiolects. As a superhero series, it adheres to a familiar trope of speculative fiction more broadly: the presence of a godlike character who exhibits emotional aloofness. Think of the voice of the all-knowing HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the remote iciness of the ancient Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03), or the dour dispassion of the genocidal baddies encountered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Malekith, Ronan, Ultron, Thanos, etc.). The Watchmen comic and television series both feature a superhuman character, Doctor Manhattan, who can manipulate subatomic particles. In the HBO series, he is first seen only in fleeting glimpses (e.g., news images, graffiti, a puppet show, etc.) and is only referred to diegetically in passing. In keeping with the aforementioned strategies of casual implication, the series initially doesn’t even bother explaining to new viewers who this glowing, blue figure is. Such disregard for expected context cues is very much in keeping with the maxiseries’ greater-than-average presumption of readers’ familiarity with both genre and real-world history (White-Swoch and Rapp 8). Having more than a passing awareness of 1960s Charlton Comics characters and of 1980s Cold War politics is helpful to one’s comprehension of the comic. The indifference with which the TV series treats viewers unfamiliar with the maxiseries (or the 2009 film adaptation) is actually beneficial to the performance of Yahya Abdul-Mateen, who plays the near-omniscient and omnipotent Manhattan with quiet reserve. Salient features of his idiolect include concise explanatory hand gestures, unvaryingly soft tones, and an upright stiffness. The recurrence of his idiolect helps us comprehend something significant about Manhattan’s attitude (i.e., he is utterly impassive) and motivations (i.e., his amoral detachment prompted him to abandon Earth permanently prior to the events of the show).
Abdul-Mateen’s idiolect also enables affect. We are acutely moved when this powerful but aloof being overcomes his global detachment by falling in love with main protagonist, Angela Abar (Regina King). This development and its corresponding affects are particularly significant. For Abdul-Mateen’s idiolect (precision, quietude, stiffness, calm) as Doctor Manhattan is also cleverly modified slightly when he plays Angela’s husband, Cal Abar. In Episode 7’s shocking story development we learn that Cal is Manhattan, but we still don’t meet this superhuman being directly until Episode 8. This sequencing is neatly aligned with the series’ qualities of remixing. By withholding our direct contact with Manhattan until after we meet Cal, we both reperceive the latter in our minds and mentally reconcile him with the former when he finally enters the story. Director Nicole Kassell also withholds the face of Manhattan in Episode 8 (only his midsection is framed in close-up) until after he has dropped his old physiognomy and assumes his new one—Cal’s—thus formally providing an embedding context for this reconstituted character (Figure 1). The clever structuring of the plot therefore prompts us to recall and retroactively reinterpret Cal’s quiet gentleness as disguised traces of Manhattan’s quiet aloofness.
Remixing and Remembering Transmedia TV
So, a complex TV series is made narratively sensible by prompting our recall of story material retrieved from long-term memory from episode to episode, and an actor’s idiolect will contribute to this apperception. Transmedia TV has a further cognitive requirement. It asks us to retrieve story content and the formal presentation of this content from our long-term memories of another (comic) hypotext to which the (televisual) hypertext is directly connected. Such productions not only require the recollective activity of individual viewers’ memories; they also draw from and work upon the expansive collective intelligence of fan communities. Easily the most familiar touchpoint to consider transmedia relations between comics, television, and film is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Here, the superhero range brands that originated in titles produced by Marvel Comics reciprocally interconnect in varying degrees with the filmic and televisual sub-brand manifestations produced “in-house” by Marvel Studios.
The various appearances of the antiheroic god of mischief, Loki, neatly exemplify the transtextual relations that the MCU reminds us to monitor. Originally appearing in Journey into Mystery #85 (1962), Thor’s archenemy gained broader appeal via Tom Hiddleston’s slinky incarnation of the character in Thor (2011), eventually attaining his own related televisual extension in Loki (2021). While the comics character shares a different narrative continuity from the MCU, Hiddleston’s interpretation of Loki prompted Marvel to develop a greater alignment between range brands. In Young Avengers Vol. 2 #11 (2013) the character is redesigned to physically resemble and adopt traits exhibited by Hiddleston. The fact that Hiddleston can make a prominent, lasting contribution to the complex array of transtextual relations between Marvel’s sub-brands gives lie to the claim that it is the “celeactor”—the range brand itself—that is “the primary attraction for the present and future audiences of these franchises” (Koh 485). Arguably, the colossal success of the MCU itself was enabled by Robert Downey Jr.’s charming snark as Iron Man—arguably a lesser range brand in 2008—in Marvel’s very first in-house production.10
As a remixed work, HBO’s Watchmen asks us to remember DC’s Watchmen in ways that differ from Marvel’s more familiar intertextual workings. Its remixing of comics elements makes noteworthy demands on our reminiscence of the source material. That is, its “sampling” asks us to remember differently both the form and meaning of its recontextualized elements. As an example of complex transmedia TV, its operational aesthetics involve using performance to draw attention to its processes of remediation. The “narration of the[se] acting bodies” serve as conduits for “narrative meta-awareness” by both channeling and reworking well-known figures from the comic (Pérez 25). In so doing, Watchmen doesn’t capitulate to the wanton nostalgia of a faithful “cover” of an original composition but deconstructs it for progressive political purposes. To this end, its primary tactics of remixing include (1) hypotextual irreverence and (2) reflexively racebent casting, which will be discussed in turn.
To begin with, Watchmen oddly requires us to remember important characters from the comic weirdly, via uncontextualized, disguised, misleading, or “provisional” references. As mentioned with Doctor Manhattan, old characters are first only seen in glimpses, referred to in passing, or are deliberately underexplained to viewers unfamiliar with the comic. More radically, other characters from the maxiseries are reintroduced in unfamiliar contexts, have their identities withheld, or are even deliberately misidentified. In Episode 3, for example, we only gradually realize that FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) is the former vigilante Silk Spectre. This incremental recognition is achieved through a series of brief, implied references to her relation to other characters and clever visual clues—e.g., in one sequence, Smart’s head obscures the lower quadrant of a four-panel silkscreen hanging on her wall (Figure 2). The Warholian artwork depicts her old team, “The Crimebusters,” but Laurie’s younger, costumed, graphic visage in the portrait is concealed by Smart’s older, jaded, photographed countenance. Earlier in the same episode, we might initially assume the costumed vigilante Laurie arrests is Nite Owl—one of the maxiseries’ protagonists and her former lover. But we quickly realize that we’ve misidentified the similarly attired “Mr. Shadow,” who is just a new, minor character and is summarily carted off to jail. More complexly, the reintroduction of mastermind Adrian Veidt involves both misidentification and incremental revelation. From Episodes 1 to 3 we witness a seemingly tangential subplot involving an unnamed “Lord of the Manor” apparently imprisoned in his own mansion. The Lord’s identity as Veidt is suggested slowly and indirectly—finally revealed explicitly when Irons changes into a familiar gold and purple costume and signs a letter: “Ozymandias,” the name of Veidt’s alter-egomaniac. Such strategies create a world of odd events and enigmatic figures—utterly inexplicable upon first introduction and only understood gradually.
The most dramatically “remixed” character is Rorschach—a violent, uncompromisingly militant vigilante who we last saw in the maxiseries being disintegrated by Doctor Manhattan. In an early scene in Episode 1, a cop pulls over a nervous truck driver, and we catch a quick glimpse of what looks like Rorschach’s mask in his glove compartment. The cop confirms our suspicion about the mask over his radio, tensely requesting backup just before he is machine gunned to death. A few scenes later, a close-up of the masked figure delivers slightly modified but familiar lines taken from Rorschach’s journal in the comics. Before we have time to wonder if a new individual has taken up the vigilante’s mantle, the camera zooms out and we are shocked to see many men are wearing the same mask: a white supremacist militia (the Seventh Kalvary) has appropriated Rorschach’s guise.
Focusing on Rorschach is necessary to account for the political dimensions of the TV series’ remixing. Lindelof and Co. have sampled and recontextualized crucial comic book imagery, giving it a new, revelatory dimension in the service of anti-racism. Their (mis)use of Rorschach is crucial to this project. The character is a fan favorite, fondly remembered for his blackly humorous one-liners and unwavering commitment to punishing criminals. But such fannish remembering is selective. It chooses to “forget” Rorschach’s explicit misogyny, homophobia, and sociopathic behavior ambivalently featured in the comic. By resurrecting Rorschach as the face of white supremacy, the HBO series does not just ideologically update the character for 2019; it requires us to actively acknowledge the racist undertones of a beloved character. In sampling Rorschach’s image and appropriating his dialogue almost verbatim, then placing it in this new context, these old properties aren’t altered, but we can’t ever “hear” them the same way ever again. Such is the force of the series’ hypotextual irreverence.
Even more radically, by revealing how much fans deliberately misremember about a comic character, the series demonstrates that our recollection of serial narrative elements can involve convenient forgetting. This is unlike the innocuousness of a long-running series’ hope that viewers will eventually disregard outdated or contradictory story elements (say, from a shaky pilot episode). Rather, because Watchmen is an explicitly anti-racist series, it won’t let viewers forget. It serves as a timely reminder of the orchestrated violence and systemic racism against black folks—most viscerally recollected in the series’ representation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.11 By extension, the series also won’t let fans forget the superhero genre’s not-infrequent complicity in racist discourse, no matter how beloved a character might be.
To that end, the series’ other primary tactic of performative remixing is its reflexively racebent casting. This strategy—of self-consciously rewriting certain maxiseries characters as African American—is a deliberate act of provocation towards the hegemonic whiteness of comics subculture and certain quarters of toxic fandom. Contemporary examples include the reactionary racism towards Marvel’s programmatic efforts to diversify its audience, and the ongoing hysterical opposition to racebending when casting people of color in perceived “white” roles.12 The complexities of Watchmen’s approach to racebending deserve some unpacking.
Thus far, we have been implying that performances in Watchmen recall but also radically overwrite the comic’s familiar (drawn) faces. In a literal sense, comics characters are a series of static images, and while apprehending them in their native medium we can imagine how they might move, sound, and appear corporealized. Performances of adapted characters are therefore approximations, but actors can willfully retain encoded gestures that give a nod to original graphic iterations. This helps explain Zack Snyder’s avoidance of casting well-known stars for his film version of Watchmen as a vote of confidence in the primacy of his source material (Burke 124). By contrast, HBO’s Watchmen exhibits a considerable degree of hypotextual irreverence by allowing certain star performers to bend preconceptions of characters to their personae, particularly Jean Smart as Laurie Blake and Jeremy Irons as Adrian Veidt.
Smart plays Laurie with her trademark snappishness and sardonic demeanour—in full force in Fargo (2015), Legion (2017-19), Mare of Easttown (2021) and Hacks (2021). The salience of Smart’s familiar idiolect is also partly why it takes time to realize she is Laurie, who has clearly become steely and soured since we last saw her thirty-four years ago (as the more sanguine Laurel Jane Juspeczyk). For his part, Irons plays Veidt with his unctuous, native British accent, thus ignoring the comic character’s German-American heritage. More impiously, he also bestows an unexpectedly goofy whimsy upon Veidt, who we remember as a self-serious megalomaniac. Usually a stranger to comedy, Irons is, himself, a self-serious star, but his imperiousness has been wielded to self-satirizing ends before. As the voice of the villainous Scar in The Lion King (1994), he allows moments of campiness to intrude—as when he forcibly conducts Zazu to sing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” whilst miming along mincingly with his captive minstrel. Thus, for some, Iron’s temporary zaniness as Scar is ghosted upon his jollified Veidt in Episode 2: he similarly mouths along with his actor-servants the words of a play he’s written about the origins of Doctor Manhattan and compels them to perform to (literal) death (Figure 3).
The ostensiveness of these stars’ idiolects is therefore in alignment with Watchmen’s other remixed approach to casting. The series engages in reflexively racebent casting by notably racializing two characters from the comics: Doctor Manhattan and Hooded Justice (Jovan Adepo / Lou Gossett Jr.). This strategy is not a typical example of simple color-blind casting, as we’ve seen in other superhero adaptations—e.g., Michael Clarke Duncan as crime boss Kingpin in Daredevil (2003), Laurence Fishburne as editor Perry White in Man of Steel (2013), or Mehcad Brooks as “cub reporter” James Olsen in Supergirl (2015-21).13 Rather, by providing diegetic explanations for the recontextualization of Hooded Justice and Doctor Manhattan as African American men, the series racebent casting attains deliberately strategic reflexivity. Hooded Justice—the first costumed adventurer in the Watchmen universe—only appears in a handful of comics panels and his true identity is only speculated about. The TV series calls out viewers’ default presumptions that the character is Caucasian by casting Cheyenne Jackson to enact Hooded Justice in “American Hero Story:” an intradiegetic TV show that hyperbolically “fictionalizes” the “historical” lives of the Minutemen, the maxiseries’ first-generation costumed heroes.14 However, in Episode 6, Angela Abar (a costumed hero herself) discovers that Hooded Justice is actually her grandfather, Will Reeves: a black man. With this racializing of a comics character originally presumed to be white, the signifiers of Reeves’ costume attain new signifieds: his hangman’s noose alludes to racial trauma rather than the garb of a menacing executioner, and his hooded mask inverts the terrorism of Klansman uniforms. This expansive reimagining of Hooded Justice exemplifies Watchmen’s tendency to draw from and deliberately work against internet fandom’s hive mind, with its hypothetical character biographies disseminated via fan theories, reddit posts, wikis, etc.
Just as notably, Doctor Manhattan is literally transmogrified from Jon Osterman—a white nuclear physicist—into the new form of Cal Abar, an African American man and Angela’s husband. On a story level, Manhattan’s new, human incarnation permits him to literally forget his exhausting omniscience and omnipotence and live a fuller life with Angela. But Manhattan’s purposeful relinquishing of his superpowers—to say nothing of his original racial identity—has a more profound function. This Extraordinary Being deliberately foregoes a superhuman identity in order to connect to the Abar family and empathetically connect to a lived, black heritage of overcoming historical trauma. The maxiseries’ preoccupations with “the value of human life” under the existential threat of nuclear annihilation were grandiose, but of the liberal humanist variety. In Chapter IX, Manhattan realizes people are “thermodynamic miracles” and agrees to intercede on humanity’s behalf. But HBO’s Watchmen jettisons such clichéd sentiments about intrinsic, universal human worth. The metaphysical recasting of Manhattan localizes and politicizes human attachment in a realer world that most decidedly does not bestow such intrinsic worth universally to all people. A black Doctor Manhattan has radical implications. The character foregoes “saving mankind” for the much more worthy cause of further uplifting the already formidable lives of a black community. Through reflexive racebent casting, then, Watchmen challenges the racist segment of comics’ fan culture that bemoans a historically closed industry’s efforts to open up space for black engagement with canonical superhero texts.
Actors always need to adjust to various factors that serve as the determinants of their creative agency. In our consideration of actorly contributions to Watchmen’s workings, we have been considering two mediums, TV and comics, as comingled determinants. Through their adjustments to these media forms, actors are the tangible figures within whom Watchmen’s tactics of metatextual remixing are embodied: they stimulate and subject themselves to the memories of viewers in complex ways. Largely through the work of its actors, then, HBO’s Watchmen returns us to the comic’s past pleasures not to resuscitate a sacred, mummified object, but to unravel and rewrap it. In so doing, the series helps us to appreciate how watching complex, transmedia television always entails palimpsestic memorialization.
1 The term “hypotext” originates from Gérard Genette, whose relevant conception of adaptation involves a “relationship uniting a text B [hypertext] to an earlier text A [hypotext]” via “a process of … transformation” (5).
2 Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo provide statistics on the high citation counts of peer-reviewed scholarly publications about Watchmen—thus giving some empirical accreditation to its “masterpiece” status (54-55).
3 Jeffries describes this tactic as “polymedial” in that the various intersecting works within Snyder’s Watchmen package remediate not just comics aesthetics but other media forms as well.
4 I have written on the comic’s “unadaptable” reputation in relation to Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen film (Taylor 125-31). In essence, such hyperbolic rhetoric refers to (1) the perennial myth that cinema is not equipped to decently represent the more “sophisticated” aesthetic working of other media, and (2) the staking out of Moore’s work as too masterful for a “compromised” Hollywood cinema to do justice. Moore himself actively perpetuates this self-aggrandizement in interviews about Watchmen and its relation to cinema.
5 See Shaun Manning for an overview of DC and Moore’s ongoing legal disagreements.
6 See the 2008 Watchmen: Motion Comic for an earlier adaptation that does extensively incorporate actual “sampled” graphic and textual elements from the maxiseries.
7 Indeed, the .NUXX remix is one of the seminal examples of electronic dance music and was featured prominently in the international hit film Trainspotting (1996).
8 I am indebted to my son, Dylan Taylor, for bringing this form of accenting to my attention.
9 For more extensive examples, see Kyle Adams’ excellent 2016 discussion of the Meow the Jewels remix (2015) of Run the Jewels 2 (2014).
10For a forensic examination of Downey’s contribution to the film and the MCU as a whole, see Smith-Rowsey 87-99.
11In various interviews, Lindelof notes that the series is an imaginative response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ polemical 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” and the emboldening of white supremacy during the regime of the 45th American President.
12For a good analysis of such regressive reception in relation to the Spider-Man franchise, see Fu 269-83.
13 I am indebted to Oriana Carciente for these relevant examples.
14Layering reference upon reference, the ultraviolent “American Hero Story” spoofs the stylization of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story and American Crime Story series.
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