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SDCC 2020: GeekEd: HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ and the Cruelty of Masks – Panel Coverage

One of the most fascinating and impactful panels included in the content for Comic-Con@Home focused on the critically acclaimed 2019 Watchmen TV series and the exploration of the use and meaning of masks in that fictional world and our own troubled reality.

As the description for this panel notes, HBO’s Watchmen put forth the idea that “masks make one cruel,” yet on today’s college campuses, both students and non-students have taken up virtual masks to make statements and take actions that might not be acceptable if done in public. While certain “virtual masks” have helped confront and address complex social issues, harmful tactics like like Zoom bombing, doxing, and anonymous threats have caused much dismay, particularly as campuses move to remote learning due to COVID-19. Led by Alfred Day of UC Berkeley, this “GeekEd” panel set out to discuss these concepts, the power of masks, and how Watchmen and other comics show us a path towards heroism or villainy. Day was joined by an incredible group of panelists, including Dr. Kalenda Eaton of the University of Oklahoma, Dr. David Surratt of the University of Oklahoma, Hailey Lopez of UC Berkeley, and Robert Hypes of the Phoenix Creative Collective.

The panel was pre-recorded the same weekend that President Trump held a controversial campaign rally in Tusla, Oklahoma (site of the infamous Tulsa race massacre – also known as the Tulsa race riot, the Greenwood Massacre, or the Black Wall Street Massacre – which is depicted in the opening scene of the HBO series), a fact that prompted UC Berkeley’s Alfred Day to start off the conversation by confessing his noticing of how more and more “prescient” and “relevant” HBO’s Watchmen TV series has become since its initial release in the fall of 2019.

Dr. Kalenda Eaton of the University of Oklahoma responded to Day by speaking to the dual nature of masks, given that they are worn by both heroes and villains, as well as pointing out metaphorical “masks” of ignorance and protection being taken off in our society through actions like the recent protests against police violence and the push for accountability from our government and figures of authority.

Dr. David Surratt of the University of Oklahoma addressed Day’s opening thoughts by acknowledging how much the premiere episode of Watchmen opened up and expanded public knowledge of both the Tulsa race massacre and Juneteenth. It’s a perfect example of the power and influence stories have within our modern society, a topic that Fanbase Press has been exploring this year through our 2020 #StoriesMatter initiative, which looks at how storytelling, even pop culture stories, can be used to understand, grow and/or heal, to pass on important knowledge, to connect with one another through empathy and compassion, and more.

Robert Hypes of the Phoenix Creative Collective added to the conversation by explaining how some of this duality can be seen in the history of the theatre, given that masks used in performance would communicate to the audience which archetypical character was been depicted, but also often protected the identities of performers in theatre given how actors were looked down upon and deemed untrustworthy and immoral.

At one point, Day brought up his idolization of the fictional DC Comics character of Batman and the complexity of loving a character who, essentially, is a man who puts on a mask to seek out justice. Day stated that, by contrast, the concept of “a man who puts on a mask to seek out justice” in our own world would more than likely be represented not by a superhero, but by a member of the KKK. This led to some discussion of the character of Hooded Justice in HBO’s Watchmen, with Surratt stating that Hooded Justice wears his mask to protect himself and his family from a world not ready for a Black superhero, but also wears the noose to process his trauma by echoing it for those he stands against.

Hypes (and a few other panelists) also brought up the idea of the political mask “worn” by politicians in the public eye and what happens when “the mask comes off.” As we’ve seen recently with many individuals of political authority, current events are “unmasking” people of power. The panelists discussed how this is represented by the character of Chief Judd Crawford (played by Don Johnson) and the “cracks” seen in his public persona when we witness him doing drugs in the kitchen during the pilot episode. Ultimately, that persona is smashed completely to pieces after Crawford’s death with the reveal of a Klansman uniform hidden in his closet.

Hailey Lopez of UC Berkeley compared the concept of the political mask to the electronic masks she says many younger individuals are “wearing” these days. These electronic masks can be seen in the differences between individuals’ online personalities versus who they are in person or what accountability individuals believe they have for their online actions.

Surratt also related to Lopez’s thoughts in regards to his work with his own students. Citing the character of Looking Glass (a.k.a. Wade Tillman – played by Tim Blake Nelson) who is not only seen processing his own trauma, but ends up feeling that he was deceived.  Surratt discussed helping students process trauma by mirroring their problematic online behavior back to them and helping them realize that it doesn’t represent their own personal core values. He mentioned that, even as a mentor, it can be difficult to control your own bias and maintain one’s own core values in certain difficult situations, but he expressed that “we’re trying to get them to have a line in between what they hope their core values are going to be and what their actions are.”

Eaton brought up some interesting points regarding online or electronic masks and the concept of “unmasking” those doing wrong. Eaton asked who gets to “unmask” others and who deserves that power. Furthermore, she asked if that power should be considered a form of vigilantism. Hypes responded by stating that he, personally, did see the calling out of anti-science and racism as a form of vigilantism. Day offered that he viewed it as complicated dilemma and stated that he has always seen a very clear difference between superhero tropes and vigilantism tropes, going on to explain that the majority of the individuals calling others out are not wearing masks and that is different than anonymous vengeance given accountability factor.

Surratt acknowledged that sometimes supporters of social justice and/or vigilantism issues do take pride or adopt a sense of heroism in stamping out a problem or problematic individual, but that they don’t bear the responsibility regarding the outcomes, fallout, follow up, or work that often follows, causing that labor to fall on other structures. Because of this, he saw a complexity when it comes to “calling out” others. Lopez also acknowledged sensing a tinge of vigilantism on campus in her experiences. When students reported an issue or “called out” someone they consider problematic, there sometimes seemed to be an organized or coordinated effort behind it and a feeling from the students that punishment needed to happen and it was on the institution to act in this manner. Lopez says that, in these situations, often the conversation becomes what exactly is that punishment that is expected.

From there, the panel shifted the discussion to how social media callouts can operate as a mask, as well. The question was raised regarding what we each might be willing to do (or “call out”) online compared to what we would be willing to do in person. In a comparison to Senator Joe Keene Jr.’s (played by James Wolk) duplicitous nature, it was commented on how online trends can also serve as masks. If there’s a social media post trend that everyone embraces (such as a solid black square), what’s going on behind those social media post? How many racists are hiding as allies?

The conversation led to Hypes wondering how much of this push of accountability is youth led. He purposed that those who grew up within the virtual world and were used to living in an online environment with no mask – where everything is broadcast –  are coming into conflict with older generations who still wear those societal masks where it’s not acceptable or encouraged to call out those in positions of power. He went on to say that, in his opinion, the younger generation has completely had it with those they once looked up to. Eaton agreed with this point, reiterating that the way we filter ourselves can be a form of a mask, but that the younger generation doesn’t seem to have this filter or patience for respectability politics. They refuse to wear a societal mask that keeps them from speaking the truth. Day also jumped in, expressing how the younger generations are not just holding each other to account, “They’re holding us to account,” going on to joke that “I like it better when they didn’t hold me to account.” Adopting a more serious tone, he stated that the younger generations are paying attention and, “Ff you say these are your values, they are going to expect you to live up to those values and they’re going to remind you when you don’t.”

Towards the end, Lopez mentioned how we hear different messages regarding masks throughout the Watchmen TV series; people who wear masks have trauma. People who wear mask have something to hide. People who wear mask are cruel. And, finally, that wounds need air and we have to take of the “mask” to move forward. Lopez then related these messages to the idea that “unmasking” institutional errors/harm is part of positive change. She went on to acknowledge that here’s pain in that process, but we can’t keep putting layer upon layer over the problem. Surratt agreed with this and shared a brief story about the University of Oklahoma tweeting “Black Lives Matter” and getting “dinged” on social media for being performative. Many online said that if Black lives mattered to the university, they would have seen such. Surratt remarked that these statements weren’t necessarily incorrect, but went on to offer that part of the process of unmasking some of these wounds is realizing “there’s no better day than today.” Even if something like “Black Lives Matter” is not yet the reality, the present moment is an opportunity to establish and embrace that goal. Doing so in a public format gives others “permission to take off something, even if it’s just a small bit that let’s them say, yes, Black live matter.”

If you’ve enjoyed this panel coverage for Comic-Con @ Home, you can check out the panel for yourself at this link.

Bryant Dillon, Fanbase Press President


Favorite Comic BookPreacher by Garth Ennis and Steve DillonFavorite TV ShowBuffy the Vampire Slayer Favorite BookThe Beach by Alex Garland


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