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SDCC ’20: The role of masks in society, as seen through HBO’s WATCHMEN series

The "GeekEd: Watchmen and the Cruelty of Masks" was one of many academic panels held during today's first day of SDCC@Home events.

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Over the last couple of months, the term ‘mask’ has shifted its narrative in a great many ways, becoming more metaphorical than ever. It’s stirred conversation between social media users and university students, each with their own agenda. HBO’s Watchmen, based loosely on the graphic novel of the same name, follows a somewhat similar story set in the 21st Century. GeekEd, a coalition of educators, discussed the intersection of such popular culture and higher education during the “GeekEd: Watchmen and the Cruelty of Masks” panel on the first day of the first ever virtual San Diego Comic Con 2020. 

Alfred Day, associate dean of students at University of California, Berkeley, was surprised how relevant Watchmen is today. The original Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons  and John Higgins was published in 1986, and the TV series was released only last year. But the intensity of dialogue the series initiated was far more. Robert Hypes, community manager at Phoenix Creative Collective, credits this shift in narrative to young people who are not afraid to lead movements on their own. “Part of me feels like the younger generation has had it,” he said. Day constantly faces this at Berkeley where he feels the students exhibit bravery that can be confused with borderline respectability politics.

GeekEd on Watchmen and the Cruelty of Masks, Comic-Con@Home; From L-R: (top) Dr. David Surratt (University of Oklahoma), Dr. Kalenda Eaton (University of Oklahoma), (bottom) Hailey Lopez (UC Berkeley) and Robert Hypes (Phoenix Creative Collective)

Everything changes over a decade. When the internet first started picking up momentum, most millennials were only grasping things as it grew. But Gen Z grew up in an already established environment. Day said people spend their entire lives developing metaphorical masks to get ahead in a career or other things, but students today have the power of “calling out” wrong on the internet. “I see these young people calling out those in higher positions in coordinated attacks,” he said. For Dr. Kalenda Eaton, professor at the University of Oklahoma, masks are filters not just in the physical sense. On Watchmen, when Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) was asked to pull his face down by Police Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), he essentially used his face as a mask itself. Eaton contested how this would play out with students, who rise above their peers as an authority figure and draw lines. She said a lot of people have been hiding behind various kinds of masks, be it masks of ignorance or masks of protection.

HBO’s Watchmen is known for its historical references, mainly the Tulsa massacre and racial biases towards masked vigilantes of color. Dr. David Surratt, vice president of student affairs at University of Oklahoma, called masks a symbol of hierarchy and class difference during history’s turning points. “Hooded Justice (Louis Gossett Jr.) as a character in the series and graphic novels is obviously wearing the mask because the public wasn’t ready for a black hero,” he added. “Watchmen is taking historical events and pivoting them for the sake of connection, lessons, and understanding heroes and villains.”

Whether it’s a metaphorical or physical mask, the idea of a mask as a layer to protect one’s vulnerability goes deeper than the internet’s longest thread. In the physical realm, masks have been used to terrorize people [read: KKK] and shield from deadly viruses [read: COVID-19]. In the virtual realm, masks have been synonymous with identity protection and coordinated global movements [read: Black Lives Matter]. While HBO’s Watchmen digs deeper into the latter, it often hints at the former. Hailey Lopez, case manager of student affairs at UC Berkeley, sees the Watchmen storyline as kickers of truth about our so-called modern society, and unpeeling the layers of masks it casts upon us.

“Sometimes, fiction tells us the truth,” Lopez said. “Watchmen did that.”

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