Watchmen creator Damon Lindelof addressed the use of the 1921 Tulsa race riot to launch into HBO's remix of writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons' revered graphic novel as well as how he feels about Moore's active disinterest in people adapting his work.
During HBO's portion of the Television Critics Association summer press tour on Wednesday, NPR television critic Eric Deggans asked Lindelof about the show's pilot, which starts with the race riots — where white people destroyed the Greenwood district of Tulsa, aka Black Wall Street, and killed upward of 300 residents — and then pivots to an alternate history where police officers are being hunted by white supremacists. Given the numerous instances of police violence against people of color, what is Lindelof hoping to say with the show?
Lindelof answered that a few years ago he read Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations," which was the first time he heard of Black Wall Street and what happened there. "That was the beginning of my education," he said.
When he started thinking about what his Watchmen was going to be, he thought about the political content in the original book, which was about what was happening in American culture in 1986 as seen through the eyes of two Englishmen. "What in 2019 is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States?" Lindelof said. "And it just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America. And so that idea started to graft itself into the Watchmen universe."
Lindelof said that one of the amazing things about the original Watchmen is that you might not know what is actual history and what is a false, alternate version of history, and then you see both sides got blended and muddied in the middle. He wanted to explore race and law enforcement through this lens.
"What is it we're trying to say? Why did we do this? Unfortunately, you've only seen the first episode," Lindelof said. "But my hope is that over the course of the entire season, the nine episodes that we've completed, you'll have a much better sense of that. But I think those contradictions that you've just presented were things that we were very aware of in the storytelling, and try to square to the best of our abilities." In other words, what you see in the pilot is not the whole story, and it's a lot more complicated than police are good guys being preyed upon by bad guys.
"If you're asking if the police will be presented in a heroic light, are they supposed to be the heroes of this story having just seen the first episode, I think the answer is most certainly no," he said. "One of the things that I believe makes Watchmen is that it's not interested in talking about who the heroes are and who the villains are, it's an examination of institutions and culture and politics and things that inform our society. That's the rich mix that makes the show the show."
On the other side of the conflict are the white supremacists who have claimed iconography of Rorschach, who did not make white supremacy a stated part of his libertarian ideology. "I think that when it comes to Rorschach, there is a meta idea that is embedded in the show that we're writing about appropriation," Lindelof said. "We understand that we're appropriating the original Watchmen, and that characters in the show are appropriating iconic ideas like the Rorschach mask from the original Watchmen. The idea that the Seventh Cavalry [who claim to be followers of Rorschach], who seem to be presenting a white supremacist ideology in the pilot, have appropriated Rorschach based on his writings, as a white supremacist — Rorschach is dead. He's not around to say you got it all wrong. I think that that idea of appropriation is really interesting thematically in today's media culture, and it's something that the show deals with."
As for Lindelof's stated meta appropriation: Moore wants nothing to with this new adaptation, to the extent that he does not even get an executive producer credit on the series, as is customary. It's been a tough line for Lindelof to walk, respecting Moore while also doing something contrary to his wishes.
"Alan Moore is a genius, in my opinion the greatest writer in the comic book medium, and maybe one of the greatest writers of all time," Lindelof said. "He's made it very clear he doesn't want any association or affiliation with Watchmen ongoing and that we not use his name to get people to watch it, which I want to respect. I've made personal overtures to connect with him and explain to him a little bit of what we're doing, and he made it clear that he didn't want that to happen, and I respect that as well. As someone whose entire identity is based around a very complicated relationship with my dad, who I constantly need to prove myself to and never will, Alan Moore is now that surrogate, so the wrestling match will continue."
He added, "I do feel like the spirit of Alan Moore is a punk rock spirit, a rebellious spirit, and if you told Alan Moore in 1984 or 1985 or 1986, 'You're not allowed to do this because Superman's creator or Swamp Thing's creator doesn't want you to do it,' he would say, 'F--- you, I'm doing it anyway.' So I'm channeling the spirit of Alan Moore to tell Alan Moore, 'F--- you, I'm doing it anyway.'"
Understanding that the profanity would generate headlines, Lindelof quickly joked: "Clickbait, guys, clickbait!"
Watchmen premieres this October on HBO.