Race in the Watchmen

For the first time, I am reading the Watchmen. It is everything that I was promised- mysterious, dark, morbidly fascinating. But I realized that the first character who isn’t Caucasian, is the African American who reads ‘The Black Freighter’ who first shows up in chapter 3. Is there significance in the fact that none of the superheroes have dark skin and that even the people on the street are primarily all Caucasian?

The comic ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’ serves the purpose of overlapping comics and real life. The text of the comic and the dialogue of the newsstand man connect, melding the worlds.

Watchmen black freighter2

But, focusing on the reader, why is he the first character who isn’t white? He doesn’t have many spoken lines. He doesn’t seem overly important; in fact his comic seems more important than he is. Are we supposed to be aware that he is the first character with dark skin? Are we supposed relate to him in spite, or because of, that? He could be us; he is a comic reader, absorbed in his other world. He is innocent but will have to face the consequences of the world and the impending war.

Watchmen black freighter

Or, he really is not important at all and the lack of people of color is due to the writer and illustrator’s own culture. Anecdotally, my sister met a Russian man at college and married him last year. During a discussion, he said that his friends at home would ask him if he “really saw black people” in the States? Like they’re a novelty. Because they are in other places. In Russia, there is a very small minority of people who are not Caucasian. The same is true with England. Even in 2011, just over 3% of English people considered themselves as “Black” on their census. So, rather than a covert theme of racism, Moore and Gibbons may have just not considered America’s more diverse demographics.

Still, by the fact that I noticed it, race in Watchmen is an aspect of the novel. The patch on the man’s jean, his unwillingness to pay, and his use of the word “ain’t” stereotype him. On the other hand, he isn’t violent like the pony-tailed gang that attack Laurie and Dan in the same chapter. Overall, he is bland. He would be totally uninteresting if not for the color of his skin.

 

Images from The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Copyright 1987 DC Comics

Demographic statistic

 

  6 comments for “Race in the Watchmen

  1. Mosty
    February 14, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    I actually noticed that as well, and it bothered me. Especially when the only things he says are very racially stereotyped. At some point in the novel, he actually says “Jive-ass turkey,” something I have never heard anybody say seriously (maybe people said it more frequently in the 80’s, but somehow I doubt it. Especially considering it was more of a 70’s-era insult.) I wish that Moore had taken the time to put a non-white superhero character into Watchmen, especially considering the incredibly diverse nature of New York City. Maybe it’s a case of the authors not having even thought about it, but that dismissive attitude in and of itself isn’t really much of an excuse either. What also bothered me was the lack of women characters. The few women that are in the book are strong, well-rounded characters, or at least as much as certain other characters in the book are, however it would’ve been nice to see more kick-ass females takin it to the streets. Again, this may be more of an issue of perspective- people tend to stick to what they know.

  2. Kevin
    February 14, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    I noticed this, too. Every character in the novel up until this point is white, so it making this character black must have been specific and purposeful. I would not be so quick to judge Moore and Gibbons, though, for this representation for the black kid. (As an aside, I think he’s also the only kid in the novel at this point. Perhaps he represents the city’s youth community? I’m not too sure.) As Prof. Whalen said while introducing The Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons are not Americans. They are both British. Therefore, they are creating a story set in America from an outsider’s perspective, as opposed to an insider’s. I think it is perfectly logical for him to place stereotypes on this character (and women characters, too, as commenter Mosty points out). According to the statistic Alliecat provided in her blog post, only three percent of English people identified with the black race in a 2011 census. Moore and Gibbons’ black, comic-book reading character is a mere reflection of how the race is depicted in American media (TV, films, etc.). It is representations like these that shed light on how American culture is often portrayed as stereotypical.

  3. kbusch
    February 14, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    This is also my first time reading Watchmen and I also noticed that there isn’t a lot of non-white characters. As others have commented Moore and Gibbons being non-Americans could account for the lack of color in the graphic novel. However, this character is also presented with a stereotype of African Americans being lazy. all this character does with his day is read a comic which he won’t even pay for. He complains after reading that it isn’t worth the money because their isn’t an ending, which is somewhat ironic cause clearly he was invested enough in the story to sit and read it all day. He also looks like he could be smoking a joint although it could be a cigarette which also could add to his character being a negative postural of African Americans. I’ve just finished reading chapter 4, and while reading chapter 4 I realized that I thought if Dr. Manhattan was any race he would be black. i didn’t know that his back story at all and was surprised when I see a normal white guy and was like wait a minute….he looks a lot like Dr. Manhattan.Of all the watchmen I thought maybe he was supposed to represent the non-white aspect but we have no non-white hero or any significant non-white characters as of yet. Our only character of color is a young guy who won’t buy a comic he’s already read the way through.

  4. tiredandvulgar
    February 15, 2013 at 1:20 am

    I’d like to suggest that this lies in some middle ground, somewhere between commenting on under-representation and stereotyping that occurs in the comics Watchmen imitates and criticizes, and, y’know, actually being racist. Mosty, you brought up Watchmen’s lack of and treatment of female characters. I think that’s a really excellent point to bring up and propose that this is a similar case, where the (assumed) intention of commentary/pastiche of sexism in comics (specifically the super hero comic) is often blurred with plain old sexism. The fact that there is difficulty in telling the difference makes me question if commentary was even the intent. If it was the intent, the dubiousness of its success is definitely one of the weaker points of Watchmen. That being said, the proposals here that these issues are related to cultural perspective and media perception are really worth thinking about!

  5. aallen13
    February 20, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Coming from a mixed background (Black, White, and Asian) I tend to notice the race of characters novels or comics. I too took note of the kid in the beginning of Chapter 1. It didn’t really bother me all that much as to why he’s the only non-white character, I figured it’s just what Moore and Gibson wanted. His language does come off to be a little racially stereotypical, however the reason for it might be because of the era like Mosty suggested. Even if it was a 70’s thing, he’s still a kid and kids are always trying to bring back, what they think, cool words. Kevin, I like the point you made about Prof. Whalen informing us that Moore and Gibson are British and they’re seeing this as an American perspective. It’s true, if you think about it during the 80’s this was how black people in the city were stereotyped. For example the way he’s dressed they could be hand-me-down clothes that needed to be patched up. I also don’t think Moore and Gibson were trying to depict black people as being lazy. I think they’re depicting a regular city kid reading a comic who doesn’t have a lot of money,and as for lazy maybe he doesn’t go to school. In the end, these “stereotypes” come from Americans stereotypes of each other by two British authors.

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