July 23, 2009
Watching White-only Watchmen
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?”
“Who watches the watchmen?”
-- Juvenal, Satires, VI, 347
Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, Watchmen, was released on DVD and Blu-Ray on July 21. The original was a lot better, but I still couldn’t wait to get my hands on the movie. As is the case with some of the other nerdy pieces of fiction I enjoy, I ponder a recurring question about comic masterpieces like this. Why are all of these superheroes white? (You know, except for the naked blue guy.)
Upon its release, other journalists of color asked the same question about the movie. But over the years, I’ve come to understand the argument against there being any superheroes of color in the comic.
The racial component of the tale is more complicated than it seems at first glance. In the original there were actually a couple of well-developed minority characters, like Dr. Malcolm Long, the black psychiatrist who tries to treat Rorschach. Most of Long’s role in the comic was tragically cut from the movie, but in the graphic novel Long’s complexity intrigued readers and he was certainly no sidekick or token.
None of the minority characters were superheroes and most of the essential plot could get by without them. Something deeper than mere avoidance of minorities was happening in the comic, though. Understanding exactly what required an appreciation for some of the political insights of the comic.
Part of the genius of Watchmen was that its “heroes” actually represented a critique of the American concept of heroism. The novel deconstructed our disturbing tendency to associate “heroism” with violence, especially as expressed in comic book culture and in politics. Unlike Superman or Spider-man, these superheroes were not ideals to aspire to.
Each “hero” had a certain coolness and swagger that the audience instinctively wanted to admire. But the myth of who they were masked deep dysfunctions that lead some of them to abuse the unchecked power they were given. These "heroes" were criminals themselves. Sometimes even war criminals.
One must also remember that Watchmen takes place in 1985. Though it was done well enough to not feel dated, the book is thoroughly a product of its time. Of all of the fiction about dystopian futures the Cold War spawned in those days – from Mad Max to Max Headroom – Watchmen was among the few that that so directly confronted the personal and cultural impact of Mutually Assured Destruction.
In interviews the author of the comic, Alan Moore, also said that one of the major themes of the book was a critique of Reaganism in the U.S. His writing showed how America collectively mythologized many of the callous and violent policies of leaders like him because of their political “superhero” status.
So non-white heroes weren’t included in a 1985 critique of power players in politics and culture. At that time, how many people of color were among the powerful political class in real life, anyway? Watchmen’s era wasn’t just pre-Obama; it was pre-Colin Powell. Relatively mainstream politicians like Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, John McCain and the Reagan administration had even opposed a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. in 1983, just a short time earlier. America still collectively struggled with thinking of people of color as “heroes.”
So the "heroes" were white because the prevalent concept of “heroism” the comic confronted didn’t include people of color in terms of America’s collective consciousness. There was no need to demystify a Hispanic Rorschach, Cherokee Silk Specter or a black Dr. Manhattan because real heroes of color had yet to be mystified in the first place (except in the margins, within American minority communities).
It would have made just as much sense to make fun of a black president in a 1985 Doonesbury comic strip or Dr. Strangelove. The comic would have been unreasonable if it challenged fictional black “heroes” for our national messes when almost all of our “heroes” had been white.
But it isn’t 1985 anymore. We have more than a few “superheroes” of color in positions of real power, now. As exciting as it is to have a progressive African American in the White House, Watchmen’s themes are still relevant. Our new, black commander in chief still commands forces capable of terrible violence. And the “superhero” aura Americans often imagine around presidents like Obama could still easily conceal the potential brutality of his policies.
Have we really asked the hard questions we need to ask about the recent military escalation Obama’s ordered in Afghanistan? Or are we treating him like a new millennium version of Rorschach - or his more liberal counterpart, Ozymandias - and letting violence slide because of how “cool” our hero is? Or should we accept some violence as the lesser of two evils? In politics, as in Watchmen, genuine answers don’t always come easily.
But one thing is certain. Whether they’re white, black or blue we still have to watch our watchmen – for their sake as much as ours.