'Watchmen' Creator Damon Lindelof: Not Talking About Race Felt 'Irresponsible'

Oct 22, 2019
Originally published on October 22, 2019 4:29 am

Even in a pop cultural landscape dominated by costumed superheroes and masked vigilantes, HBO's new series Watchmen stands out. Watchmen was originally a comic that first came out in 1986, and it was seen as groundbreaking for its realistic and complex handling of what it might mean for someone to put on a mask and fight crime.

TV producer Damon Lindelof was 13 years old when his father first handed him a couple of issues of Watchmen. "I'll never forget it," he says. "It was a Saturday afternoon ... and he just gave them to me and said, 'You're not ready for this.' And he sort of ominously walked out of the room and I — you know obviously this was not happening, but it felt like they were crackling, like there was a static charge to these two things, and it was very different than any comic I've ever read. It was violent. It was gritty. It was scary. It was weird; it took place in New York, not in Gotham City or Metropolis. Nobody had any superpowers. It was political."

And, Lindelof says, it asked an important question: "What happens if these people existed in the real world? Shouldn't we be a little worried about people who put on masks?"

Lindelof is the creator of the new Watchmen series on HBO. It's set in Tulsa, Okla., 30 years after the events of the original comic. The threat of white supremacy is rising, but in this world, superheroes are outlawed and the cops are the ones wearing masks.


Interview Highlights

On why he chose to focus on racism, rather than the original series' fear of nuclear holocaust

... 'Watchmen' has always been about the history that has been kind of hidden and camouflaged, and also it's about the pain and trauma that is sort of buried in the American consciousness. And I started to feel like it was incredibly important to tell a story about race. - Damon Lindelof

At the time that I was sort of approached to consider rethinking Watchmen, I had to answer the question, "What is the pervasive sort of anxiety in America right now?" And it was impossible, as all these things were happening — not just Charlottesville but everything was happening through the lens of race and it felt like there was a great reckoning happening in our country, overdue and necessary. This idea that Watchmen has always been about the history that has been kind of hidden and camouflaged, and also it's about the pain and trauma that is sort of buried in the American consciousness. And I started to feel like it was incredibly important to tell a story about race. To not tell a story about race in the context of a political text in 2019 almost felt borderline irresponsible.

On opening the show with a reconstruction of the 1921 Tulsa massacre

Essentially, about four or five years back it became very popular to have read Ta-Nehisi Coates ... especially if you were a white liberal. And when I finished "The Case for Reparations," I just didn't see the world in the same way anymore. Mr. Coates mentioned Black Wall Street, which I had never heard of. So I bought this book called The Burning, that was all about the Tulsa massacre, and I read it cover to cover and a couple of days. And right at that same time I was being approached about Watchmen, and I was trying to think about one of the things that made Watchmen sort of electric was this sort of blending of "is that real history or is that not real history?" And I started to feel that the Tulsa massacre, even though it was built on this incredible, horrible taking of treasure and destruction of an African American utopia in 1921 Oklahoma, I sort of felt like that was an incredibly compelling story we're telling, and it felt like a superhero origin story in some weird way. It felt like Krypton, you know? It felt like the destruction of of a world.

On whether he had reservations about portraying police as victims of violence

We want some degree of escapism — but I think that there is a responsibility, even if you're doing comic book storytelling to mirror the world that we're living in now. - Damon Lindelof

Yeah absolutely. And I think that a lot of our creative process was based on, "we have real reservations about this." And I think that there's certainly a concern coming into the first episode, that the show is essentially saying you're supposed to feel for the cops, or you're supposed to buy that cops and white supremacists are two separate entities, and that there's no overlap in between, when we all know that the real world is much messier than that. That said, I feel like that the show doesn't take a position of being pro-cop or anti-cop. I think that because it's taking place in an alternate history, the question that it's really asking is, what makes someone want to be a cop, and what is the idea of the law, and what's the line between the administration of the law and vigilantism.

On the timing of the show and how it fits into the current superhero scene

I don't know about the timing. I do know that now is a really interesting time to look at where we are with superheroes. There's something to the fact that we idolize and look up to these figures, and spend billions and billions of dollars to watch their stories. And so I think that you see movies like Joker using these pre-existing myths to sort of subvert or reflect the times that we're living in now. That's the way that we like to hear stories. Sometimes it's too hard to get the docudrama, to get the real taste of what's happening out there. We want some degree of escapism — but I think that there is a responsibility, even if you're doing comic book storytelling to mirror the world that we're living in now and reflect it back at the audience.

This story was produced for radio by Marc Rivers and Mohamad ElBardicy, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

There are a lot of superheroes and a lot of vigilantes crowding the pop culture landscape. But HBO's new series "Watchmen," which was inspired by a DC comic, kind of stands out.

DAMON LINDELOF: I think that Alan Moore, who is the brilliant writer behind "Watchmen," and Dave Gibbons, who illustrated it, were sort of asking - what happens if these people existed in the real world? Shouldn't we be a little worried about people who put on masks?

KING: That is Damon Lindelof, the executive producer. He set the series in Tulsa, Okla., in a world where white supremacy is a rising threat and where police officers conceal their identities.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WATCHMEN")

JEAN SMART: (As Laurie Blake) You know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante?

REGINA KING: (As Angela Abar) No.

SMART: (As Laurie Blake) Me neither.

KING: "Watchmen" the comic came out in 1986. It was groundbreaking. It was realistic. It was emotionally complicated. And when Lindelof was 13 years old, his dad handed him a copy.

LINDELOF: I'll never forget it. It was a Saturday afternoon, and he handed me the first two issues of "Watchmen." And he just gave them to me and said, you're not ready for this.

KING: (Laughter).

LINDELOF: And he sort of ominously walked out of the room. Obviously, this was not happening, but it felt like there was a static charge to these two things. And it was very different than any comic I'd ever read. It was violent. It was gritty. It was scary. It was weird. It took place in New York, not in Gotham City or Metropolis. Nobody had any superpowers. It was political.

KING: In 1986, the man who wrote "Watchmen," Alan Moore, he was writing about the fear of a nuclear holocaust, about a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Your show - your "Watchmen" deals really directly with the threat of white supremacy, specifically with this group that calls itself the Seventh Kalvary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WATCHMEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Soon, the accumulated black filth will be hosed away, and the streets of Tulsa will turn into extended gutters overflowing with liberal tears. Soon, all the whores and race traitors will shout, save us. And we will whisper, no.

KING: I was about five minutes in when I realized - oh, this is a show about race; this is a show that is explicitly about race and racism. Why did you make that your dynamic?

LINDELOF: Yeah. I - you know, that's a great question. And I think that at the time that I was sort of approach to consider rethinking "Watchmen," I had to answer the question, what is the pervasive sort of anxiety in America right now? And it was impossible, as all these things were happening - not just Charlottesville but everything was happening through the lens of race. And it felt like there was a great reckoning happening in our country, overdue and necessary. This idea that "Watchmen" has always been about the history that has been kind of hidden and camouflaged, and also it's about the pain and trauma that is sort of buried in the American consciousness. And I started to feel like it was incredibly important to tell a story about race. To not tell a story about race in the context of a political text in 2019 almost felt borderline irresponsible.

KING: The first episode opens immediately with the Tulsa massacre, which is this terrible true crime committed in 1921 where white residents of Tulsa destroyed a prosperous black neighborhood and killed many, many people. It is an incident in history that I think many black Americans know of; many white Americans don't. Why did you choose to open the show with a scene of that?

LINDELOF: Essentially, about four or five years back, it became very popular to have read Ta-Nehisi Coates.

KING: "The Case For Reparations."

LINDELOF: Yes, especially if you were a white liberal - and when I finished "Case For Reparations," I just didn't see the world in the same way anymore. Mr. Coates mentioned Black Wall Street, which I had never heard of. So I bought this book called "The Burning" that was all about the Tulsa massacre, and I read it cover to cover in a couple of days. And right at that same time, I was being approached about "Watchmen." And I was trying to think about one of the things that made "Watchmen" sort of electric was this sort of blending of - is that real history, or is that not real history? And I started to feel that the Tulsa massacre, even though it was built on this incredible, horrible taking of treasure and destruction of an African American utopia in 1921 Oklahoma, I sort of felt like that was an incredibly compelling story worth telling. And it felt like a superhero origin story in some weird way. It felt like Krypton, you know? It felt like the destruction of a world.

KING: In the show, the protagonists are mainly cops - at least in the first couple of episodes. And they wear masks. They cover their faces to protect themselves from people who want to hurt them. I've been wondering - in this climate of where we have these high-profile police shootings and a lot of scrutiny now of police conduct, did you have any reservations about making cops the victims of violence, the ones who have to fear, when, in our world, it's often the civilians who have to fear?

LINDELOF: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that a lot of our creative process was based on, we have real reservations about this. And I think that there's certainly a concern, coming into the first episode, that the show is essentially saying you're supposed to feel for the cops or you're supposed to by that cops and white supremacists are two separate entities and that there's no overlap in between, when we all know that the real world is much messier than that. That said, that I feel like that the show doesn't take a position of being pro-cop or anti-cop. I think that because it's taking place in an alternate history, the question that it's really asking is - what makes someone want to be a cop? And what is the idea of the law. What's the line between the administration of the law and vigilantism?

KING: When "Watchmen" came out in the mid-'80s, as I understand it, no one really took comic books that seriously. They were popular, but it wasn't like - oh, this reflects the culture of our time; this is making a serious statement about society. But that's not true anymore. And I'm thinking of "Joker," which just came out...

LINDELOF: Sure.

KING: ...You know, obviously, a commentary on toxic masculinity, among other things. How does your show fit into that context? Is now, like, the right time to make it? Are you in an ultra-competitive world now?

LINDELOF: I don't know about the timing. I do know that now is a really interesting time to look at where we are with superheroes. There's something to the fact that we idolize and look up to these figures and spend billions and billions of dollars to watch their stories. And so I think that you see movies like "Joker" using these preexisting myths to sort of subvert or reflect the times that we're living in now. That's the way that we like to hear stories. Sometimes it's too hard to get the docudrama, to get the real taste of what's happening out there. We want some degree of escapism. But I think that there is a responsibility, even if you're doing comic book storytelling, to mirror the world that we're living in now and reflect it back at the audience.

KING: Damon Lindelof, thank you so much for joining us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDELOF: Thank you so much for having me.

KING: Damon Lindelof is the executive producer and the writer of the new HBO series "Watchmen." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.