“Who Am I?”: Unmasking the Past and Moving Forward with the Present in HBO’s Watchmen Series (2019)

A transmedial discussion

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to continue a story, particularly when you are not the person who started it. What sort of authority do you have? What gives you the right? These are deeply complex and often problematic questions, ones which may not even have an answer. That said, I do believe that our concept of authorship needs to transform. In the age of fan culture and fanfiction, stories expand beyond their authors. Once a story is published, it opens itself and multiplies in the eyes of the reader.

This goes beyond fanfiction, as even classic novels have sequels which were written long after the original author published. Take Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. This prequel/sequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre focuses on who Bertha was, and how she became the madwoman in the attic. Rhys’ text re-examines the racial and colonial issues in Jane Eyre while also complicating the black other motif which texts like Jane Eyre utilize, in addition to the way this trope is traditionally read in academia. The novel gives Bertha a voice and a story of her own, and in doing so, critiques figures like Rochester, the colonial enterprise, passive readership, and Bronte’s use of colonial rhetoric.

What I find particularly interesting in cases like this is that the novel’s mere existence as a sequel to a classic novel is a political statement. It takes an established and recognizable work and continues to expand its world by adding new perspectives, often those which were previously suppressed. It makes it more than what it was before.

There are lots of examples of this in contemporary media, as works like Pride Prejudice and Zombies revisit Jane Austen’s world to examine patriarchal systems using exaggerated horror. Dracula the Undead, an official ‘sequel’ written by one of Bram Stokers’ family members, does something similar as a continuation. Both of these works create a comparison between their content and the ‘so-called’ classic novel. By suggesting that your project is a continuation of an established text, you imply that this new project is of equal merit to the original, and that these texts work together rather than separately.

This brings me to one of the most compelling examples of continuation and transmedia in recent memory: the Watchmen franchise. As a refresher, transmediality ultimately depends on your opinion about what qualifies as a completed story. Transmedia is where one story is told across various media. This means that each piece of media in a transmedial project can be studied independently or comparatively. Simply put, each media acts like a chapter in a novel, which you can close read in detail or close read by comparing it with the rest of the novel. Watchmen is a good example of this because you can read each of its media singularly or as a group. Technically, you could just read the Watchmen graphic novel and get a full story. But, if you decide to read the sequel/prequel graphic novel, or watch the film and television show, this one story continues to grow beyond the graphic novel medium.

I want to focus on the Watchmen HBO television series because it does something incredibly unique. Rather than adapting the graphic novel, the show creates an entirely new narrative and characters, those who exist in the same universe as Alan Moore’s work. This does several really interesting things. First, by creating a new story, the show has the freedom to innovate this environment and revisit the original world from a modern perspective. It is not just the same story and outdated characters, but rather, a continuation and commentary on this story, one which is not afraid to challenge avid fans.

Second, in addition to creating new antagonists and protagonists, the show also returns to older characters and troubles who they were in the original text. We learn more about their personalities and choices, a decision which implies that the information we learned in the graphic novel was just a fragment or piece of what was going on.

The show implies that the graphic novel showed us events from only one perspective, and that these events had far reaching consequences for other people. For instance, the show returns to the graphic novel’s alternate version of the Vietnam War, but shows how Doctor Manhattan’s actions ultimately destroyed countless lives and communities.

However, the most profound example of this re-examination in the show is its portrayal of the Hooded Justice. For those who have not read the graphic novel or its prequel series, the Hooded Justice was one of the founding members of the Minutemen, a superhero club which formed before the Watchmen. He is known for wearing a hood and long noose, but his identity is never revealed. That is until the show, which spends Episode 6 unpacking who the Hooded Justice was, and why he wore the hood and noose.

The show reveals that the Hooded Justice is a black man named Will Reeves, and that he became a superhero immediately after he survived a lynching. His backstory in Episode 6 focuses on the racism he endured throughout his life and career. It also expands one of the shows prominent questions: why do we put on masks? The episode suggests that mask shield your identity and allow you to operate outside of racist institutions, but they are also the way these institutions mask themselves to change history and suppress our past.

Episode 6 begins with the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, a massacre which was only recently added to the Oklahoma school curriculum in 2020. I remember the comments I saw when this episode aired, as many people (largely white), including myself, had never heard of the massacre. Although I am Canadian, the massacre is just one of many events which continue to be glossed over or actively suppressed in history lessons across the globe. Starting the episode this way not only introduced the event to many via a major platform, but it also challenged our expectations of superhero origin stories and their proximity to real events. It also highlighted the fact that this horrific event has been discussed and continues to be but those discussion where ignored, suppressed, and ultimately never reached the show’s white audience, those who potentially went into the show assuming it would avoid this direct criticism of their privilege and ego.

Unlike Superman, who escaped a collapsing world on another planet, the Hooded Justice came from a collapsing world, this time in America. This move suggests that unlike a Superman figure, the Hooded Justice never truly escaped from this violence as it exists and continues to exist across America and beyond. By showing us who the Hooded Justice is, and focusing on events like the Tulsa Race Massacre, this episode unmasks multiple figures, both historical and literary.

From a transmedial perspective, the Hooded Justice symbolizes a commentary on representation and performance. The episode changes our perception of the original text without changing any of its content. It enables a new reading of the Hooded Justice and the organization he was involved with, in addition to his identity and background. What was just a strong superhero with a mysterious past becomes a far more complex gay black superhero who underwent racism both inside and out of the Watchman organization.

Watchmen is one example of how transmedial work can transform our understanding of character, text, and author. By continuing stories, perhaps we can continue to close read older ‘classic’ texts in new ways while also moving these stories to impact modern audiences and address ongoing issues like racism and suppression. It is also a way to hold texts, particularly those which are treated like sacred works, accountable for the issues they mistreated, misrepresented, or just ignored. This additionally moves the conversation away from authenticity and fidelity to the original text, and allows stories to outlive their creators and continue to impact our cultural consciousness.