The concept of a secret identity is one that has defined superheroes since their conception. Be it via Clark Kent’s glasses or Spidey’s iconic suit, the mask allows for these characters to take on multiple identities—that which is human and that which is super. Traditionally, this allows for writers and artists to explore the exciting life of a hero while still maintaining a level of humanity in the character, but in 1986, creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons took a different approach. During its original run, DC’s Watchmen famously proposed the idea that, while the mask did allow for a certain duality, the people behind it were far from heroes.
True to its text, HBO’s Watchmen masterfully explores that very same theme. The series excels at replicating the graphic novel while simultaneously modernizing it, honing in on the feeling of the text and translating it into a relevant conversation. Among a number of other elements, masks are put into the forefront of the show’s plot as a way to draw attention. To make the audience ask the right questions. And it does so right from the very beginning.
In the first modern day scene of the show, audiences are introduced to two masks, right off the bat: the golden yellow masks worn by the Tusla police force and the Rorschachs. Fans of the graphic novel are already familiar with one, but have never seen the other. What’s more is that the familiar mask is utilized in an unfamiliar way.
Both sparked media attention as the show started to find its footing in the larger world of television, especially the police masks. Some people didn’t quite know what to make of them and others were confused by their presence entirely. With the entire season now released, it’s clear that the golden masks were setting the stage for all that was yet to come.
In the aforementioned scene, audiences are introduced to a present day setting through a routine traffic stop—a sight that is sure to strike a nerve with those who live with and grow up alongside the #blacklivesmatter movement. However, instead of the usual narrative of a white officer stopping a nonwhite civilian, Watchmen places a black officer in the position of power and a white man behind the wheel. The officer wears his mask, which we later learn is because of an attack recently made against the force, and the driver makes a joke about it. The joke is not well received. Only after he returns to the safety of his squad car does the officer remove his mask in an attempt to gain access to his defensive weapon. Soon after he does, he is shot multiple times in the chest by the white driver.
Even in a position of power and under the protection of the law, a black man is shot at the conclusion of a traffic stop.
This theme of using masks for protection rings true with the origin stories of superheroes. Again and again, the justification for a secret identity is to keep one’s friends, family, and self safe in the face of ever present villainy. The Watchmen graphic novel played with the idea that, in fact, secret identities do not provide the desired protection and may oftentimes do more harm than good. With this sequence and others like it, the series adopts this same idea.
After all, when do masks stop acting as a means of protection and start acting as a tool to embolden abuse of power? Watchmen wasn’t even through its second episode before its anonymous police force were not only neglecting due process, but also brutalizing members of the Tusla citizenry.
Furthermore, Tusla’s mask legislation was heavily supported and put into place by Senator Keene, a character who is later revealed not only to be a member of the white supremacist group, the Seventh Kavalry, but also their primary leader. Masks undoubtedly create a duality in men, but what happens if (when) people choose not to use their split identity to carry out Good deeds and instead use it to foster hatred?
It’s a question that has a long history in America. We are no strangers to a malevolent mask.
Just as the graphic novel was not shy about its relationship with the Cold War, the show is blatant about its take on white supremacy and its various iconography. Stemming from a notoriously unstable and radical character, the Rorschach masks allow for an important parallel to be drawn without having to idolize or romanticize any real-life white supremacist groups. It also emphasizes an important point: those who wear the masks walk among us.
In the graphic novel, Rorschach is the identity first known by readers. They follow this seemingly superhuman being throughout the story, reading his narration, hearing his thoughts. All the while, the human identity of Walter Kovacs marches on in the background, weaving his way through the panels, largely undetected. Not until chapter five—nearly halfway through the story—do readers learn that Rorschach the adventurer and Walter Kovacs the civilian have been the same man all along. Duality can only last so long as one’s mask does the same.
This idea is also explored through the show’s character known as Looking Glass. It’s no coincidence that he shares so many similarities with Rorschach. Both of these characters highlight the consequences of paranoia, the desire for control, and the blurred line between a man and his mask. Both depend so heavily on their split identities that their reliance becomes a fundamental part of both selves, further lessening the distinction between the two. Rorschach is a direct representation of what happens when a man is lost to his own divided state and Looking Glass is his echo.
The same is seen in Angela, although admittedly it is to a lesser extent. Despite her best efforts, she is unable to fully separate herself from her detective identity known as Sister Knight. While not quite as blurred as Looking Glass, who dons his mask for comfort even when off duty, Angela frequently uses the skills, knowledge, and influence that she obtained as Sister Knight even when not in uniform. Even when she is in uniform, she doesn’t wear a traditional mask. A single layer of black paint is all that divides her two selves.
Standing in direct opposition to this is Will Reeves.
The nuances of this character deserve a well-defended dissertation all their own. The use of a mask in respect to Will Reeves is the closest this series gets to a traditional superhero identity, which makes it all the more sweeter when the device is flipped on its head.
Comics have an established precedent for utilizing the duality of superheroes in order to express the uniquely split worldview of minority cultures. In the same way that Superman is at once Clark Kent, people living as a minority are at once the selves that they present to society and the selves that society perceives them as. Superhero narratives provide a way to empathize with those who have to reconcile separate identities, and this is a concept that is beautifully transferred into HBO’s Watchmen through the adaptation of Hooded Justice.
Because it makes sense. It makes sense that a hero who wears ropes around his wrists, a bag over his head, and a noose around his neck—it makes absolute narrative sense that this character is a black man having survived a horrifying threat. Constantly throughout the series, audiences are told that trauma shapes the heroes. Rorschach wears his worst thoughts on his mask. The Comedian wears his war torn uniform. Trauma doesn’t just inform these characters; it defines them. When Will Reeves puts on his hood, he reclaims that trauma and allows his divided self to be filled with the anger that drives him. Or, as he would later learn, fear. Not anger.
Fear is what drives this character, reliving his trauma over, and over, and over every single time he hangs the noose around his own neck. It’s a dissociative response. Will uses his duality to cope, and he does so by creating as wide of a divide as he possibly can between his two selves. The most drastic measure: disguising himself as a white man. It is supposed to allow him control. It is supposed to grant him social power. Instead, it alienates him from his own identity as a black man—an identity that his granddaughter would so ardently embrace in the future—and causes him to lose sight of himself to the point that he loses everything.
Sacrificing one’s identity is a common theme for superheroes. Watchmen reminds us that it is even more common for people of color.
Such ascriptions are varied and widespread in society as a whole. To have identity is to be human and to have multiple identities is to be whole. This is the message that HBO’s Watchmen so thoroughly depicts. There is a need for cooperative selves within every single person. The absence of complexity makes one inhuman.
How else to best illustrate this point than with a God? Doctor Manhattan is introduced to audiences at the conclusion of a festival held in his honor. The only mask available to him is that of his own face. He wears it, but it does not change his appearance. He is, at his core, one single identity. And because of that he lacks any ability to live.
HBO’s Watchmen does so many things so very right, but its discussion surrounding identity might just be its greatest strength. Not only that, but it is done in a way that respects the original text and aligns with the comments of the original creators. It’s rare for a piece to be so beautifully translated into a new medium, and rarer still for it to hold such impact. Much like its predecessor, HBO’s Watchmen elevates the standard and redefines the genre.