Watchmen (2019 and Hunters (2020) are both TV shows that engage with a deep sense of nostalgia and reparation: whether it is their counterfactual worldmaking with an ‘American god’ or a group of Jews who are on the ‘hunt’ to kill Nazis in post-war America, they both demonstrate how a longing for a different personal or historical past is inextricable from a desire to ‘repair’ the linear course of time. The insistent attempt to re-create personal and collective histories against the pervasive and overwhelming myth of American exceptionalism is symptomatic of a particular kind of cultural longing.
Svetlana Boym’s useful categorisation of nostalgia into two kinds, restorative and reflective, along with her understanding of nostalgia as a longing for a home that ‘may or may not have existed,’ is central to the re-construction of a lost past both TV shows attempt (in their counterfactual worldmaking).[i] They speak back to a tradition of heroism that is almost always ‘American’ and their reparation of history demonstrates a racial, communal, and cultural empowerment. In other words, the fictional worlds of Watchmen and Hunters detach themselves from the nationalistic fervor that characterizes American heroism, and offer a space to work through difficult histories.
Watchmen’s counterfactual world takes Alan Moore’s graphic novel one step forward; it breaks out of the narrative of American exceptionalism and introduces American racial history (something that is missing in Moore’s text) as central to certain kinds of heroism. The graphic novel introduces the idea that history can be ‘repaired’ – through its own counterfactual worldmaking and commodification of nostalgic nationalist ideals, Moore’s Watchmen justifies a backward glance at US history.
Nostalgia, in Watchmen, is something that can be orally consumed in the form of pills; Angela (or Sister Knight) takes Will’s ‘nostalgia pills’ that allow her access to his past and she realises that Will (or Hooded Justice) is not only her grandfather but is also a survivor of the Tulsa race riots. Apart from learning about her own family history, this realisation is important because it locates the birth of the first American vigilante (Hooded Justice) in the nation’s Black history. Whether it is Will’s experience of racial oppression that drives him to become Hooded Justice (whose costume with ropes around his neck sartorially allude to the lynching of Black people), or the fact that Dr. Manhattan adopts a Black identity as Cal, or the final scene of the show that implies that Angela might be the new Dr. Manhattan, the show centers Blackness in its construction of heroism. The decentering of American exceptionalism from this creation of superheroes critiques the innumerable origin stories and classically American superhero tropes – characterized by jingoism and cultural assimilation – whose ‘repaired’ worlds are a cover for the erasure of the nation’s history of violence. Revealing the racism and white supremacy in the depiction of the police force in the show, apart from being a commentary on the recent discourse on systemic violence in America, is a deliberate attempt to make America’s history of violence visible and, more importantly, the source of heroism and superpowers.
Watchmen and Hunters both bring forth the significant relationship between counterfactual fiction and nostalgia, especially the nostalgia for a version of the past that may not necessarily have transpired – the desire to restore one’s personal or collective past is inextricable from the attempt to create narratives that privilege certain versions of the past over another. The golden age of American comics that gave birth to archetypal superheroes such as Superman, Captain America and Spider-Man are all a result of the nation’s desire to restore guilt-free versions of its past. By portraying worlds, for instance, in which these American superheroes intervened in world wars to end fascism, these comics simply promote American ideals of its own innocence and exceptionalism. The relationship, then, between a nostalgic glance at one’s past and a subsequent desire to repair it is problematic in the narrative it tries to achieve: does the creation of the counter-worlds erase the nation’s history of oppression or does it offer empowerment to communities (and races) that have been oppressed thus far?
Watchmen makes this idea of a historical reparation literal through the election of left-wing president named Redford with the help of Adrian Veidt. He institutes tax breaks for victims of racial violence called ‘Redfordations’ echoing the idea of offering reparations for past horrors against Black Americans. Hunters makes reparations possible through a band of ‘Nazi hunters’ that avenge the trauma of the Holocaust against the remaining Nazi war criminals in postwar America. In both instances, the reparation is not intended to promote ideals of American superiority but rather acknowledge its historical shortcomings in a landscape (of heroism) that almost always tends to assert its exceptionalism. Returning briefly to the golden age of American comics, a space that exclusively privileges American supremacy and indulges in tropes of nationalism, it is interesting to see how Hunters locates the nucleus of heroism in Jewishness. Through its Tarantino-esque montages and references to the comics world (and the protagonist himself who works at a comic bookstore), the show reconfigures the definition of heroism that the audience is only too comfortable to attach with Americanness. Meyer Offerman, played by Al Pacino, tells the protagonist (Jonah Heidelbaum) at one point in the show that he ‘should read the Torah more. It’s the original comic book.’[ii] Apart from reflecting on the decades of scholarship on the Jewish roots of Superman,[iii] placing Jewishness at the centre of heroism achieves a sense of empowerment for a culture that has so far been perceived as the antithesis of western ideals of masculinity and heroism.
The show does not glorify the desire to avenge the Holocaust or even imply that such vengeance is possible, but it does offer a sense of agency to survivors of the Holocaust by resurrecting the Nazi-Jewish conflict to achieve a different outcome. The show also lays emphasis on remembering and recounting the trauma to be able to work through it: ‘it is because of memory that we know this is survival, nor murder,’ says one of the Jewish ‘hunters.’ This idea of survival is tied in with a sense of a collective Jewish nostalgia that longs to reverse the damage caused by the Holocaust. Remembering the trauma of the Holocaust highlights the generations of comic books that are built upon a partial erasure of Holocaust history rather than its recollection: instead of portraying a world in which the Holocaust did not happen, we confront one where it did; additionally, the show forces us to acknowledge the ways in which America was not blameless in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Thinking about both shows in conjunction with one another allows us to explore the consequences of a relationship between nostalgia and the desire to repair histories, especially in counterfactual fiction: does the longing for a different version of reality promote a kind of exceptionalism or does it attempt to acknowledge the damage caused against a culture? Does the nostalgia enable a remembering, or does it exacerbate a deliberate erasure of histories? The shows portray difficult racial and cultural histories within the landscape of heroism and allows reparation in different ways. Their most potent ‘power,’ perhaps, is their extrication of American myths of exceptionalism from different origins of heroism, and identification of Blackness and Jewishness as the sources of it.
Aanchal Vij is a PhD candidate at the University of Sussex where she researches American comics and graphic novels, nostalgia, and race and disability studies. She is currently working with Bloomsbury Academic as part of a CHASE placement, and is funded by SAGE Publishing to work as a ‘Hive Scholar’ with her university’s doctoral school.
[i] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic Books, 2001), http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/n/nostalgia/nostalgia-svetlana-boym.html