Reckoning with America’s Masks: HBO’s Watchmen and White Nationalisn

Regina King as Sister Knigh in HBO's Watchmen - HBO

In a 2017 interview with a Brazilian media outlet, acclaimed comics writer Alan Moore gave a blunt and revealing assessment of America's obsession with superheroes. Moore, an enigmatic and storied writer, is best
known for his collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons in 1986-1987's
Watchmen, a philosophical inquiry into the abuse of power and critique of the superhero genre.

Rather than seeing American cultural fascination with superheroes as benign, Moore claimed it was mythology rooted in and emerging from the country's white supremacist legacy. "I would also remark that, save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators), these books and their iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race," he stated. "In fact, I think 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."

In an article for Polygon last year, writer Karen Han reflected on this quote, suggesting that Moore saw superheroes and our cultural obsession with them to be rooted in a nostalgia for a flawed past filtered through yearnings for confirmation of superiority and assured by powerful, mythic (and white) heroes. If this sounds familiar in the context of recent American politics, it should. Nostalgia for the fifties. Make America Great Again. A longing among white Americans to reassert their imagined superiority and dominance. A resistance to changing demographics and the negotiation of communal norms and shared power that acknowledging those demographic shifts would entail.

Superheroes embody religious and cultural longings. They are (to steal from Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel title) "American Gods." This longing for a return to lost superiority finds itself made manifest in much of American Christianity, most notably in white evangelical Protestantism. White evangelicalism has historically fixated on the notion of the persecuted believer. As it has felt both its real and perceived cultural influence waning, it has wed this religious notion to its projected insecurity. The changing culture is read as an attack on the religion which has fueled the culture warrior mentality, a mythic hero narrative where a righteous remnant staves off the “god-hating” forces of secularism.

I have often regaled friends with my mostly serious "Tebow to Trump" theory of white evangelicalism's insecurity and need for a champion. Tim Tebow was a star quarterback and two time Heisman trophy winner for the University of Florida in the 2007-2008 seasons. On the field, Tebow was a force to be reckoned with, an almost unstoppable offensive juggernaut. Off the field, Tebow was known for his passionate and sincere evangelical faith and his unabashed commitment to sharing his faith. He quickly became a darling of white evangelicalism who rightly admired his integrity but also co-opted him as an avatar of their semi-conscious insecurity.

As anointed evangelical champion, Tebow’s prowess on the field was read as a sign of God’s favor and might and thus seen as reinforcing white evangelical superiority. Tebow was their champion, a literal warrior on the battlefield, clad in the armor of God. 

The rub came at the NFL level, where Tebow struggled to replicate his college prowess. His passionate defenders refused to read this struggle as perhaps the natural limits of his impressive abilities to dominate at the next level. Instead, his failures were re-inscribed through the narrative of persecution. Tebow was not being given a chance. He was being held back because of his faith. 

Rather than seeing American cultural fascination with superheroes as benign, Alan Moore claimed it was mythology rooted in and emerging from the country's white supremacist legacy.

I grew up in the 70s in the evangelical subculture of the American South. In the Southern Baptist elementary school I attended we sang Onward Christian Soldiers and learned about desiring the spiritual “armor of God” in Ephesians 6 which was always graphically presented to us in the image of a figurative and literal (caucasian with piercing blue eyes) white knight from medieval times. Our lessons’ resistance to the deleterious reach of the theory of evolution and secular culture created a bunker mentality that eventually made its way into politics. 

We were taught the Bible as a series of hero stories and I remember actually having an abbreviated version of the Bible as a comic book. God was presented to us as one who proved “His” (God was, of course, male in this subculture) worthiness in acts of power and contests like the contest with the prophets of Baal during Elijah’s role as Israel’s prophet. It seemed a natural move then to assume the certainty of one’s theological outlook and the power of one’s God evidenced through the exploits of a human champion, a chosen warrior. His failure would then mean the failure of the God he represented. 

Failure, however, was too hard of a pill to swallow so it was retconned to be read as persecution. Thus, rather than the failure of the champion and his God, it is instead further proof of God’s hand upon his champion. If he wasn’t the real deal, they wouldn't be trying to stop him.

I don’t think Tim Tebow ever sought out or actively contributed to this role in which he was cast. He was drafted into this ongoing narrative of the evangelical God’s champion (see also the imagery of Carman videos from the 90s and the fascination with the imagery of Revelation) which, I think, speaks to an unacknowledged insecurity of this unique form of Christian faith in the American context. 

Eventually Tebow faded from the spotlight but the desire for a heroic champion to quell growing insecurities did not. Enter Donald J. Trump, a crude, vainglorious reality TV star, exuding raw lust for power and a proud lack of scruples in regards to obtaining such power. He quickly exploited the white evangelical desire for a champion, and they wholeheartedly adopted him. It would seem a perplexing arrangement.

Yet, as Kristen Kobes du Mez illustrates in her essential book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicalism Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, it was a strangely logical outcome, exposing the deep roots of white supremacist patriarchy and toxic masculinity that are unchecked within so much of the white evangelical subculture.

From the beginning, the Trump ascension was awash in white supremacist ideology and racism. Trump had sowed doubts about President Obama’s birth certificate, doubts that had no bearing in reality but found fertile soil in the white supremacist belief that non-white citizens aren’t “true” Americans. His candidacy announcement is infamous for its cynical use of immigration issues to spread racist aspersions on an entire people, framing them as a threat to white women’s bodies in a way straight out of D.W. Griffith’s screenplay.

The Trump presidency and its iconography have interesting parallels to Moore’s connection of superheroes and white supremacy. There was a whole mythological pageantry that accompanied the Trump mythos, and he fed it by situating himself as the lone hero (“I, alone, can fix it.”), the dispenser of vigilante justice in a nation out of control. 

Trump has taken on the cultural form of a superhero with many of the attendant cultural markers. On flags and t-shirts and memes, his visage has been photo-shopped onto Rocky Balboa, John Rambo, Captain America, and proudly astride a flag- adorned tank, holding an assault weapon.

The Trump presidency and its iconography have interesting parallels to Alan Moore's connection of superheroes and white supremacy. Trump has taken on the cultural form of a superhero with many of the attendant cultural markers.

"Supertrump" poster by Tri-Seven Entertainment

In what would seem an odd choice, there was a campaign video that transposed Trump's face onto Thanos, the big bad from the last two Avengers' films. But even there, it made sense to the faithful. Mythically connecting him with a fictional character who had obtained ultimate power over life and death revealed the authoritarian leanings and lust for power that Trump's white nationalist base desires.

He was embraced more vigorously within white evangelicalism because he wasn’t Tebow. He was unhindered by any of Tebow’s real and sincere Christian virtues like humility and gentleness. No, white evangelicals were more in line with Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, Texas who said he wanted the “meanest SOB” in the White House fighting the culture wars at home and military wars abroad. It isn’t a coincidence that Jeffress currently occupies the pulpit made famous by W. A. Criswell, a powerful Southern Baptist leader and vocal opponent of integration in America.

Even now, in the wake of Trump’s evident loss in both the popular vote and electoral college for the 2020 general election, the flailing attempts to negate and cast doubt on the election come from the primal need to cling to Trump as an avatar of white supremacy and a defensive reaction rooted in insecurity and fear. It is both an authoritarian power play to equate might with right, while at the same time laying the foundations for a back-up “lost cause” mythology which will preserve Trump as the righteous standard bearer temporarily upended by evil forces. (Editor's Note: Since the writing of this article and its publication in print, the 45th president continues to insist, contra evidence, that he won the 2020 election and is a victim of a conspiracy. He also oversaw a "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, 2021 where a mob of his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol following his exhortation for them to go to the capitol, noting that "'ll never take back our country with weakness.")

The playbook has already been written during the reclamation of the Confederacy with the emergence in the early 20th century of “heroic” statues and the development of a lost cause mythology. It culminates in a visual spectacle in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson at its release as “writing history with lightning,” the movie resurrected the Klan as a white supremacist terrorist force and implanted in American discourse racist tropes of black Americans as both lazy recipients of the government dole and existential threats to white purity and innocence. This brings us back to Moore’s blunt assessment of it as America’s first superhero movie.

Moore’s Watchmen seeks to trouble the cultural identification with superheroes and to expose within this genre America’s fascination with fascism and the notion that brutal force is a good thing, especially if it is in service of “the Good.” Moore himself was disappointed but not surprised by fans’ gravitation to Rorschach, the brutal right wing character whose trauma is channeled into an unmerciful vigilante justice. We reveal ourselves in our choice of heroes.

Cover art of HBO Watchmen Limited Edition Blu-Ray featuring outline of Rorschach mask worn by 7th Calvary terrorists in the series.

It is fitting then that the franchise Moore launched (despite his vehement dissociation from its continued life and purchase in the cultural marketplace) would reappear in 2019 in the midst of the Trump administration. Damon Lindelof and his team of writers brilliantly continued and, dare I say, sharpened the deconstructive troubling of our white supremacist myths.

Set twenty years after the original story, the narrative is set squarely within the context of white supremacy, terrorism, and an American nation reluctantly dealing with its past. The show’s run opens with a visceral, visual immersion into the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, an opening that went viral on social media as a large swath of its white viewership confessed ignorance of this historical horror prior to their watching the show.

The lead character is Angela Abar (played brilliantly by Regina King), a former cop who continues her crime fighting activities as a masked vigilante, Sister Knight. Angela is an orphan (utilizing, as well as expanding, a familiar comic trope) who grew up in Vietnam, which in the Watchmen universe is now the 51st state following Dr. Manhattan’s role in the war, using his god-like powers to overwhelmingly destroy any Vietnamese resistance. Angela lives in contemporary Tulsa in an America finally free of Richard Nixon’s multiple terms and governed by Robert Redford, whose administration has instituted reparations for direct descendents of the Tulsa massacre.

Angela Abar is then a uniquely American narrative figure, doubly marked by the legacy of American colonialism from chattel slavery to 20th century wars in Indochina. She is also a figure for justice whose masked alter ego derived her name from a fictional blaxpoitation movie Angela used to beg her parents to rent for her as a child, Sister Knight - “the nun with the motherfucking gun.” Within the series, this small detail speaks volumes about the subversive power of finding oneself represented in the icons of popular culture.

The Tulsa reparations in the Watchmen series have given rise in that universe to the "7th Cavalry," a white supremacist terror group who have adopted the Rorschach mask as a substitute for the Klan hood. This move parallels the way in which the Trump administration seemed to encourage more open, vocal white supremacy in a backlash to the symbolic progress of the Obama presidency and the representational importance it held.

There are a number of themes, plot twists, easter eggs, and philosophical and theological questions explored in this outstanding series. A complete accounting of them is beyond the scope of this modest piece. It is, I contend, essential viewing for our times, a way of engaging the systemic racism of our country and thinking deeply about its legacy of trauma. Within the show, Angela discovers that her grandfather Will had been the first masked superhero, Hooded Justice, a black character with a cut noose around his neck.

Hooded Justice was assumed to be a white man within the Watchmen universe and the HBO show reveals that Angela's grandfather had maintained that belief in the common culture by putting white flesh toned greasepaint around his eyes.

FBI agent Laurie Blake, a holdover character from Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel who appears in the series, tells her subordinate that “People who wear masks are driven by trauma.”  In Will’s case, it is the trauma of being orphaned by the Tulsa race massacre, and in adulthood, surviving an attempted lynching as a young police officer by fellow cops who were members of a white supremacist terror cell. Even in becoming Hooded Justice, Will hides his racial identity, pursuing the cause of racial justice under a mask of white “respectability.” In a profound disruption, the emergence of superheroes in the Watchmen HBO universe comes out of the trauma of white supremacy, a powerful subversion of D.W. Griffith’s white supremacist terrorist as superhero.

In the final episode of the series, Will warns Angela of the limitations of masks. “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.” 

We needn’t look far for contemporary parallels. The virulent, obstinate refusal to even consider systemic racism (and the executive orders calling for a cessation to diversity training and critical race theory) reveal the attachment of American white supremacy to masking itself. 

The masks are legion: American exceptionalism, divine favor, valorization of authority and its innocence, the virtue of coercive power. It is narrative irony that the current avatar for much of this, Donald J. Trump. is a uniquely American character, a work of almost complete artifice and bluster, masking a deep insecurity and rage against imagined wrongs. He is our mirror and our mask. 

Our healing can only come from peeling back the masks and dealing honestly with the trauma inflicted and perpetuated by centuries of white supremacy. We have to give up the hero’s journey and instead choose collective confession, repentance, and reparation. The narrative has still to be definitively written. There in the unwritten, and perhaps exclusively there, is a locus of hope amid the perdurance of our original sin.