“The lurid publications depend for their appeal upon mayhem, murder, torture, abduction, superman heroics, voluptuous females, blazing machine guns, and hooded justice.”
-Sterling North, Chicago Daily News, May 8th, 1940
“The Superman formula is essentially lynching.”
– Gershon Legman, “The Psychopathology of Comic Books,” American Journal of Psychology, Vol. II, No. 3, 1948
“I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.”
-Alan Moore, 2016
There are a lot of horrifically bleak jokes embedded in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, some of them more subtle than others. Consider the decision to give the very first 1930s superhero the name Hooded Justice, to deck him out in a hood that looked exactly like an obsidian-dyed Ku Klux Klan mask, and then, for good measure, have him walk around with a noose-like strand of rope on his neck. (Roll on snare drums. Curtains.)
In case Moore wasn’t being clear enough, he included in the series’ supplemental materials an editorial from the in-universe right-wing newspaper the New Frontiersman, called “Honor is Like the Hawk: Sometimes It Must Go Hooded,” in which a blatantly racist editor favorably compares later superheroes to the Klan. The New Frontiersman is also Rorshach’s favorite publication, and in Watchmen‘s penultimate chapter, the character sends the newspaper his potentially world-shaking journal with a note that includes the words “appreciate the recent support” — a clear reference to the editorial.
Add all of that up, and showrunner Damon Lindelof’s decision to place racial injustice (and the politics of masks) at the core of HBO’s Watchmen starts to seem deeply rooted in the original text. It also makes Episode Six’s audacious retcon of Hooded Justice all the more intriguing. As revealed in the episode (co-written by Lindelof and Cord Jefferson), Hooded Justice — always assumed to be white given a bit of flesh visible beneath his eyes — was a black man, with a costume inspired by his own experience as a near-victim of a lynching, rather than a simply a sinister echo of those crimes.
If Moore hadn’t emotionally divorced himself from his early comic-book creations (on the understandable grounds that he feels cheated out of ownership of them), he might have a particular appreciation for the way Episode Six uses one of his own oldest tricks. In Moore’s early-Eighties revamp of the British kids comic Marvelman, he established that all of the character’s lighthearted, previously printed adventures were placating illusions fed to him in a sensory deprivation tank, and established an entirely new and far bleaker origin for the hero and his cohorts (it involved twisted government agents and, eventually, aliens). In 1984, at the beginning of his legendary run on DC’s Swamp Thing, Moore had the title creature learn that he was not, in fact, Alec Holland, a man who ran aflame into a swamp and arose a swamp creature; he was, instead, an immortal walking plant elemental who simply thought he had been human.
As a scholar of the medium, Moore was almost certainly aware of the Sterling North quote about superheroes and “hooded justice,” which comes from an infamous editorial that marked the start of a decade-and-a-half-long crusade against comic books. Moore’s own 2016 quote, meanwhile, confirms that he had long seen a disturbing potential link between Klansmen and supermen. There are, of course, strong arguments against that connection, too, including the fact that in a well-known 16-episode 1940s arc of Superman’s radio show, the hero fought the Klan. (This year’s DC series Superman Smashes the Klan updates that narrative.) And for all his protests, Moore himself couldn’t help loving superheroes as much as anyone; during the development of Watchmen, he wrote the oft-adapted 1985 tale “For the Man Who Has Everything,” with deeply affectionate takes on Superman, Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman — and Dave Gibbons drew it.
In any case, Episode Six’s twist turns Moore’s embedded criticism of masks and superheroics on its head. For all the moral ambiguity of the original Watchmen, it’s pretty hard to read the comic books as pro-vigilantism; the show’s position is, at this point, harder to parse. Placing a black man at the birth of superheroics presents at least the potential for redemption of masks and vigilantism, offering the possibility of breaking the law to pursue otherwise unavailable justice for the oppressed. It as yet unclear, though, whether Lindelof’s Watchmen is making coherent arguments or just wildly entertaining and provocative gestures towards them: Bits like the black policeman doomed because of over-restrictive gun laws in Episode One suggest the latter possibility. There are three episodes left, and we may find out in the end — assuming, of course, that Dr. Manhattan was wrong about the existence of endings.