By Patricia Willenborg
I suppose my writing this was inevitable. When I first picked up the Watchmen graphic novel shortly before the film was released, people had been urging me to read it for over a decade. “
“You have to read it,” they said, independent of one another, always with the stress in the same place. That night, I told myself that I would read the first few pages and if it didn’t grab me, I would leave it at the bookstore; no harm, no foul. But the first pages felt like fate, and I saw my reflection in its bloody smiley face. I went on to share the book and film with my friends, and soon enough, they began to associate me with it. When I realized that I was able to teach Watchmen in one of my courses years later, I jumped at the chance. When the Watchmen series began on HBO, I knew people would be asking me about it.
So yes, I have been watching the Watchmen, and yes, people have been engaging with me about the show, the original graphic novel, and its legendary author, Alan Moore. Reactions to each episode explode onto my feed with a vengeance.
And perhaps it was also inevitable that I would be asked if “This Extraordinary Being,” the sixth episode of the series, was a huge retcon of the novel’s Hooded Justice. After consulting the novel again, I have to answer: Not exactly. So little was said about Hooded Justice or seen of him in the comic, and the information that is provided needs to be analyzed with care (which is generally the case with Moore’s work). From more than one character’s perspective, we see that he was a notably large man, a brutal combatant, and in a homosexual relationship with Captain Metropolis, but no one ever knew his name or pretended to.
So much of what is said about him is hearsay and rumor, like his first attacks, which were reported on the news and went on to inspire the creation of the first Nite Owl. But Hollis Mason’s theory that Rolf Muller—an East German wrestler whose body was found not long after Hooded Justice vanished—was actually the first vigilante is just a suspicion, and thoroughly drenched in paranoia about the Reds. (The show picks this up on American Hero Story, in the voiceover and the supposed origin story of the hooded vigilante.) Likewise, it has long been a fan theory that the two men seen in the foreground when Dan and Laurie are out at dinner are the retired Hooded Justice and Metropolis, but it’s just a theory; as far as I’m aware, Moore has never confirmed it.
The show takes advantage of this as much as it can. The matter is less about retconning and more about filling in the large gaps about the man who started the wave of costumed vigilantes fighting crime in the alternate U.S. of the novel. The work is not about tearing down what Alan Moore established but questioning what could have been underneath, and analyzing what the show’s architects wanted to place beneath the hood. There are a few weaknesses in the outcome, but a number of striking strengths, which the internet is currently responding to with spirit and awe.
First, let’s review the weaknesses: The original comic shows a letter from Captain Metropolis (Nelson Gardener) to Sally Jupiter, suggesting they band together with others in costume to form the Minutemen. (Before Watchmen expands on how the Minutemen came together as a whole, but I will stick with Moore’s novel here.) This doesn’t mean that Nelson couldn’t or wouldn’t have visited Hooded Justice first, as he does on the show, since he was the first publicized masked vigilante. It is a bit of a stretch that Nelson was able to find Will Reeves’ real location and that no one else ever did, particularly since all he did was triangulate using data the cops and others would have had. To be fair, Nelson only believes he has found Hooded Justice’s police informant, but he’s still able to get too close too easily. It does provide a quick route into an intense secret affair between Nelson and Will, however.
We know that Hooded Justice was paired up with Sally Jupiter in public to give him a beard; this is confirmed by Hollis and Sally. In fact, a letter from Sally’s agent Larry says Hooded Justice and Nelson fight like an old married couple in public toward the end, which makes it increasingly difficult to cover up the nature of their relationship. This seems unlikely to have gone over well with the wife Will Reeves has on the show, especially since June emits a solid sense of possessiveness over him.
The one flashback in which we see Hooded Justice in the novel (and in the Watchmen film by Snyder) has always had some troubling aspects, and not just because Eddie starts to rape Sally. Yes, it shows Hooded Justice’s incredible violence. It also shows that he doesn’t listen to Eddie’s excuses for an instant. But Eddie seems to have a revelation: that Hooded Justice enjoys violence and force in a sexual way. Readers take it for granted that this is one of Eddie’s special insights, which is why Hooded Justice stops beating him and orders him to leave. The American Hero Story series follows suit, showing him having rough intercourse with Captain Metropolis. In Will’s memories, we see that Nelson wants to have sex in masks, a nod to “kinky” roleplay. We don’t know how far this goes, however, and it could be an assumption that makes Hooded Justice out to be a stereotypical “depraved homosexual.” But the ties between sex, kink, and superheroes are too many to be covered here.
What we do see for certain is that as Eddie leaves, all Hooded Justice has to say to Sally—who is left bleeding on the floor—is “Get up…and for God’s sake, cover yourself.” The novel immediately follows this with a panel in which Laurie is looking at a porno comic of her mother and exclaims, “Mother, this is vile!,” which is how Hooded Justice’s callousness should strike the reader. Such an attitude stands in contrast to what we might expect from the show’s Will Reeves, however. He is a man who saved a baby girl while he was just a boy; he went on to support his wife and accept her assertive nature. Yet he does disregard June’s reaction against his becoming a vigilante, and we do not see him interact with many other women. It is not outside the realm of possibility that he would turn cold in such a heated situation, especially after becoming inured to violence as a costumed vigilante.
Another key concern is that Hooded Justice is known to have gone along with Larry Schexnayder’s suggestion that they expel Silhouette from the Minutemen after she was outed as a lesbian. Why would Will Reeves throw a fellow gay person under the bus like that, fans of the show might be asking? But this stunning hypocrisy comes directly from the novel, and is unsparing in its implications. Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis’ relationship had been going on for years by that point, but they had managed to keep it secret (or at least unverifiable). They were both persuaded to vote Ursula out, regardless of their own proclivities. And Sally lets us know in her own words that “it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t honest. I mean, she wasn’t the only gay person in the Minutemen…we all knew, and we knew she wasn’t the only one, and we slung her out just the same.” While we may come to like the show’s Will Reeves, we cannot take it for granted that he would make the right choices at all times, especially when defending his ability to remain Hooded Justice in public.
And what about his private image? The show reveals that Will dons white makeup around his eyes to appear Caucasian under his hood. His wife June explains the motives for this move without any doubt: The general public will not accept a black-masked crimefighter. This seems to account for the concern that what little we see of Hooded Justice in the comic is white. The first picture of Hooded Justice in Hollis Mason’s autobiography shows not only white around his eyes but a strip of white at the neck, but in later images (including the flashback in which he stops Eddie’s assault on Sally), he is covered from head to toe. In Snyder’s film, the actor for Hooded Justice uses an accent that hints at his being Rolf Muller. But a single image and a stylistic choice in the film are not precedent enough to negate the rich possibilities and commentary we gain from having a black man underneath the hood in the Watchmen show.
In fact, the greatest “retconning” of the novel happens in the press gathering with the Minutemen. Just before emerging, Hooded Justice carefully takes down news clippings of his work against white supremacy that he keeps taped to a mirror and places them in a folder with the cyclops logo, gathering evidence to present to the journalists. A voice asks Captain Metropolis to tell them about Hooded Justice, to which he sunnily replies: “The Minutemen would be nothing without the man who inspired us all!” Then Will dons his hood and takes his place before the cameras, able to answer questions for himself, and what is the first thing they ask? “How do you respond to rumors that your strength is supernatural, like the comic books?” To which he simply answers, “I’m just a man.” And he is just a man, as the audience has seen—and is about to see, at some cost.
It is no coincidence that the song playing in the background—The Ink Spots’ “We Three” from 1940 – sweetly sings:
“We three, we’re not a crowd
We’re not even company
My echo, my shadow and me”
The journalist quickly follows up with, “Now that you have a team behind you, what kind of crime are you going to target?” And Hooded Justice has an answer, a central mission to deliver to the Minutemen—and perhaps the nation—to take up the defence of all against the horrors of racial violence. He believes in his mission and believes he has a team behind him. He begins with the same words he uses decades later about a “vast and insidious conspiracy,” a painful echo of words that his own granddaughter failed to heed. But then Captain Metropolis steps in and takes over the narrative, turning it into a plan to defeat Moloch the Magnificent (this change to Moloch’s title will be explored shortly). Nelson swiftly turns everyone’s attention to an ugly racist ad for a bank, echoing Sally’s profit motive for crime-fighting. Will is left speechless and wanders off, shellshocked by this unexpected, quietly violent disruption, having been lynched for a second time, metaphorically.
But perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised. As he enters the scene, Captain Metropolis is talking about some kind of ray that threatens the men and women of New York. “Excuse me, but we have a city to save,” he smiles at the cameras. The team isn’t about fighting all crime anymore, if indeed it ever was; the Minutemen want to fight costumed villains that will get them into the headlines. (If you’re having flashbacks to season one of The Boys, good.) Will doesn’t have a team; he is still alone. They do not truly have Hooded Justice, either; this reveals that the Minutemen group was always built on nothing.
Will immediately heads back to his mirror, removes his hood, and begins wiping away the white around his eyes because he is not one of them, except in the headlines. He is not just about his costume, bank account, or fame, he is not white, and he will never be about any of those things. He is not simply concerned about crime in one city perpetuated by other costumed vigilantes who seek notoriety as much as profit; he wants to take up the fight against racial violence across the country perpetuated by everyday people. He needs support for this mission and it will not come from the Minutemen. When he finds horrible proof of the conspiracy amid dead bodies and rounded up black people from a smouldering theater (echoing his own past at Dreamland), his call for aid is fruitless.
“Have you been drinking?” Captain Metropolis asks him almost cheerfully. “No,” Will scoffs. “Maybe you should be,” Metropolis enjoins. And any fan of the novel should be flashing back to Eddie at Moloch’s bedside, weeping and soused to the gills – clinging to a bottle, in fact, as he clings to Moloch (a vestige of his past) and then the icon of Mary (a vestige of his humanity). Eddie says he doesn’t get the joke—but we should, especially by now.
The Minutemen is society writ small, full of selfishness, vice, and sometimes good intentions, ultimately doomed to fail at any higher aspirations its members might have so long as it will not work as a whole for the whole. And so long as it provides this broken model of heroism to future generations—and they eat it up without question—the past will repeat and the worst will continue. Will sees this in his own lifetime as racial hatred blooms with sporadic, scattered responses, and as the Seventh Kavalry picks up Rorschach’s mask and journal as their icons. Like Eddie, Will appears to be friendless and slowed by age when we meet him—but unlike Eddie, he has not given up in believing he can do something about the state of the world.
“We three, we’re all alone
Living in a memory
My echo, my shadow and me”
And now we come to another chamber in the heart of Watchmen. Hooded Justice’s earliest attacks, as reported by Hollis Mason, are translated directly and carefully into the show. First, we see what people commonly know on American Hero Story which gives us the ultraviolent heroic beatdowns we expect; this lines up with the comic. But even Hollis says “the witnesses’ recounting of the event was confused and contradictory.” We have never been able to trust that these accounts were the best, and factuality didn’t matter to Hollis as much as the inspiring story he craved: “it shared enough elements with those fictions that were closest to my heart to make me notice…there was something in the story that gave me a tingle of recognition.”
This is continued on the show. When we see Hooded Justice’s version of the attacks later, there are vital discrepancies which tear gaping holes in the American Hero Story saga. This is entirely on purpose, and it’s not just about unreliable witnesses this time, either. The American Hero Story show-within-the-show is the bastard Hollywoodized lovechild of all the old salacious rumors and hero-worshipping hearsay. Heroism, like nostalgia (and even, one could argue, the optimism behind Veidt’s Millennium campaign in the novel), is a drug manufactured in Watchmen due to our propensity to distill the past so we can get high on its brighter aspects, while ignoring or downgrading the darker ones.
What we see in American Hero Story is the mass market manufacturing of the past without regard for the truth; the truth is decidedly not the point. We also see the pedestalization of people who may have done some good, but who have also committed grave harm. The work of the media machine is to forge the Minutemen into Greek-style heroes—touched by divine madness, perhaps, but with epic flaws and strengths that make them ultimately worthy of reverence. They are set far above the norm because they do what normal people don’t or can’t, and they inspire and comfort the everyday Joe in his relatively humdrum life. And because they inspire the public, their sins are not just forgiven but forgotten—including the ones we don’t know about.
Hollis confirms all of this in the novel. He reports racist things he heard Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis say. He dances around the murder of Silhouette, saying “it would be tasteless to rehash the events surrounding her death in this current volume,” but by tying her lesbianism to the group’s “sexual hang-ups,” he hints at his distaste and leaves room to reveal more to the public in the future. Hollis confesses, “Yes, we were crazy, we were kinky, we were Nazis, all those things that people say” but then he hand-waves it all away because of their heroic justifications: “We were also doing something because we believed in it.” This is not just because Hollis is a kind soul who is willing to let bygones be bygones, but because he has been blinded by nostalgia as thoroughly as Sally.
We learn that Sally was a costumed vigilante for the thrill, the adoration, and the money; there were always serious concerns about Eddie’s motives; we don’t discover enough about the rest to say what their intentions truly were. Hollis also reports that the Minutemen are let off the hook with little difficulty: Sally retires, The House of UnAmerican Activities Committee gives Nelson a pass for his military record and Hollis for his police service, and Eddie works for the government without reprimand, even when he murders the Vietnamese civilian who was pregnant with his child. Hollis goes on to blame the later state of the world on the Minutemen staying together: “we’d been around long enough to somehow inspire younger people, God help them, to follow in our footsteps.” Not because of what they did, or that they were not punished, but because of the example they set for others.
You may have seen recent articles reporting Alan Moore’s 2017 criticism of the comic book genre and much of modern public entertainment. But his stance is not new; he has been making the same argument all along. He wrote Watchmen not so we would sympathize enough with his characters to ignore their faults, but so we would take them for all that they were—not heroes, not necessarily “good” people, but people who were allowed to get away with whatever they wanted. People who had flawed motives, who hid ugly secrets, who suffered greatly—but people who were ultimately saved from the worst because of the image they built for the public. And that image was due to our ancient need to feel inspired, and our habit of blindly forgiving those who inspire us.
There are many things about Watchmen that we take for granted; we’ve been reading it since the mid-80s, after all. The novel has always strived to show us that the past is never as glorious as we wish it had been and that people need to be held accountable for their crimes. It has revealed that time is a loop and that “nothing ever ends” because of what we allow. It has deconstructed superheroes from origin stories on up, not to replace them with new ones but to reject setting anyone above the rest. (This perhaps was Snyder’s greatest failure in the film version—that he shot it as a superhero story, complete with supercharged action scenes that made human characters seem to be more than mere mortals could achieve. His heroic vision and glorification of the characters was never presented as anything but the way it was supposed to be, which shows a terrible misunderstanding of a key reason the novel even exists.)
But the deeper criticism in Watchmen has always been about the stories we tell ourselves, our unexamined motives, and our desire to cling to ignorance (“Oh, how the ghost of you clings!” says the Nostalgia ad in the comic). It calls out our flimsy justifications for letting the powerful manipulate the masses and ravage society. Those at work on the show seem to understand these elements deeply, enough to open up the extended gutters of the current world, show the accumulated filth of racial injustice, and pour new blood onto the old smiley face badge.
Old fans and purists may not be pleased. Some fans may be puzzled or on the fence. Alan Moore may hate that yet another derivation has been produced from his seed without his consent. But from what I have seen thus far, the series creators understand what is really under the hood of the Watchmen universe, and as with the novel, the show is not being produced to make us comfortable. Will you take this as an opportunity to fully engage in the series and what it has to say about enduring problems of humanity? Will you reject it because it is not “what Alan would have wanted” or the world is too different from the 1980s? I leave it entirely in your hands.