“And imperfect men, possessing superhuman material power, are not a reassuring prospect.”
— Marshall McLuhan,
The Mechanical Bride (1951)
No One Is Coming to Save Us From Ourselves
I keep thinking about that moment in
J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Hobbit when the Great Eagles soar down from the mountains to save the story’s heroes from certain demise. Images like this–of a higher power swooping to the rescue–are comforting in a time of pandemic, endangered democracy, eroding trust in institutions, and civil unrest. But in 2020, no one is coming to save us. No Great Eagles, no wizards, no superheroes, no deus ex machina.
This is the grimly appropriate message of anti-superhero comics like Alan Moore’s
Watchmen (DC Comics) and Garth Ennis’ The Boys (Dynamite Entertainment), both of which made the jump to television in late-2019: if people with the technological genius and Earth-shaking firepower of Iron Man, the indomitable will and skills of Batman, or the god-like powers of Superman really existed, how would they wield these powers? By killing millions in pursuit of a megalomaniacal scheme like Watchmen’s Ozymandias, or becoming blood thirsty reactionaries like Rorschach? Would they be too powerful to distinguish between humans and termites like Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan, or would they use their abilities to consolidate corporate, military, and religious power like Homelander and Stormfront from The Boys?
With Damon Lindelof’s
Watchmen (HBO) sweeping the Emmys and Eric Kripke’s The Boys (Prime Video) returning for a second season, 2020 feels like the year of the superhero dystopia–and for good reason: the relevance of each show’s themes to our current political climate can’t be overstated. Watchmen, a show about wearing masks, vigilantism vs. policing, and anti-black racism, feels oddly prophetic in a year dominated by debates in the US about police accountability, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, and an armed backlash from white militias and vigilantes. The series emphasizes a subtle point in the original comics, that the history of masked vigilantes in the US begins not with costumed crusaders like the Minutemen or Watchmen but with the KKK.
The Boys also challenges the white racial frame of American (super)heroism, but its superheroes aren’t vigilantes. Instead, “supes” are licensed employees of the megacorporation Vought International, which secretly creates superheroes (94% white) with a drug of Nazi origin called Compound V while pursuing lucrative defense contracts with the military. It’s as if Bayer and Disney merged with Halliburton and owned the Justice League. (The irony of Amazon producing such scathing anti-megacorp content is an entire topic unto itself.) Significantly, both series also illustrate how PR culture–particularly advertising, docudramas, and reality television–shapes and maintains perceptions of race and heroism.
Android Face by bluebudgie (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
Testing Rorschach’s Appeal
A 7th Kavalry member wearing a Rorschach mask. (Watchmen) (IMDB)
The Watchmen series opens with a real-world historical event that had been ignored and in some cases suppressed by white authorities for decades–the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Dubbed Black Wall Street to signify its overwhelming success, the Greenwood district of Tulsa was a thriving black community until white mobs massacred its black citizens and razed it to the ground. The fuse for this explosion of white violence against black Tulsans was lit by false reports that a black man raped a white woman in Greenwood. Racially charged hearsay spread quickly among the resentful and avaricious white population of Tulsa, who seemed eager to exact revenge on their successful black neighbors under the pretense of vigilante justice.
Google data shows a spike in searches for the Tulsa Massacre after the Watchmen premiere, as many viewers tried to determine if the shocking scenes they had just witnessed–murderous white mobs, torch-bearing Klansmen, airplanes bombing black-owned homes and businesses–were speculative fiction or historical fact. (This real-life horror also features heavily in Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country (2020), which shares many themes with Watchmen.)
The Watchmen series adds a speculative spin to what happens afterwards: President Robert Redford (yes, the actor) signs the Victims of Racial Violence Act in 2008, granting reparations in the form of tax exemptions for victims of white supremacist violence and their descendants. Detractors derisively call the VRVA “Redfordations”, and this backlash motivates domestic terrorism from the 7th Kavalry (7K), a neo-KKK whose members wear the mask of late-Watchmen member Rorschach.
In 2016, the 7K perpetrates the White Night massacre of police to escalate violence and rouse support for the Defense of Police Act, which requires officers to conceal their identities by wearing masks. This dystopian vision of police in masks puts the recent footage of masked and unidentifiable federal agents in Portland, Oregon, in an even eerier light. As Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), the ex-Watchmen member turned FBI agent puts it, “You know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante?… Me neither.”
The 7K’s mixture of anonymity, cryptic messaging, militarism, white nationalism, and politics of escalation is like a composite of QAnon, the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and the Boogaloo Bois (civil war accelerationists), movements that have been very active in 2020. Members of these groups have been regular fixtures at lockdown protests, anti-Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and the militia gatherings that provoke violence at flashpoints like Portland and Kenosha. QAnon is an FBI-designated terror threat. The Proud Boys is a “Western Chauvinist” hate group. Boogaloo Bois have used Black Lives Matter protests as a cover for killing police officers with the same intent of the 7K’s White Night: destabilization.
Recently, the FBI thwarted a militia plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Witmer and overthrow the state’s government. In their similarity to current extremist rhetoric, the 7K’s video threats are chilling to (re)watch in 2020: “‘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.’ We are the 7th Kavalry. We are everyone. We are no one. We are invisible. And we will never compromise.”
Becoming the icon of the 7K is a fitting end for Rorschach. In addition to wearing his mask, the 7K adapt their rhetoric from Rorschach’s signature saying, “No compromise, even in the face of Armageddon”, and lines from his journal: “The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’… and I’ll whisper ‘no.'” Rorschach and the 7K both invoke an image of American carnage to justify their extrajudicial violence and homicide, just like the white nationalist militias and vigilantes of today.
Watchmen creator Alan Moore intentionally made Rorschach repulsive: he smells, prefers his beans straight from the can, has no friends, lovers, or interests other than his crusade, and he rants like a misogynistic, homophobic paranoid. But to Moore’s dismay, Rorschach stole the show for many Watchmen fans due to the evocative force of his dialogue, the intriguing aesthetic of his morphing inkblot mask, and the hypermasculine appeal of his single-mindedness and brutality. As Moore explains in an interview with Comics Journal:
“If you’re a vigilante then this is what you’re going to be like: you’re not going to have any friends because you’re going to be crazy and obsessive and dangerous and frightening…. Undoubtedly, at the end of the day–whatever else Watchmen did–the most popular character in it was Rorschach. And I really don’t think that he was a popular character because of his ironic portrayal of the worthlessness of the vigilante ideal. I think people were getting off on him because he was a tough, scary, frightening character that they identified with.” (qtd. in Reynolds 1992)
While not overtly racist like the 7K, Rorschach represents a Randian übermensch ideal that Moore sees as latently racialized from the start. As Moore explains, “I have to say I found Ayn Rand’s philosophy laughable…. It was a ‘white supremacist dreams of the master race,’ burnt in an early-20th century form.” Fittingly, then, Rorschach stashes his journal at the office of his favorite racist tabloid, The New Frontiersman, preparing it for posthumous publication. And his language animalizes criminals as “vermin” and “roaches”, terms with history as racial codes that rationalize extermination, while ignoring the classism and racism that helped create the “gutters full of blood” in the first place.
With less imagistic phrasing, Wisconsin’s Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth expressed a similar mentality at a press conference in 2018. “I’m to the point that I think society has to come to a threshold where there’s some people that aren’t worth saving. We need to build warehouses, to put these people into it and lock them away for the rest of their lives…. Let’s put them in jail. Let’s stop them from, truly, at least some of these males, going out and getting 10 other women pregnant and having small children.” This blood-curdling depiction of prefab concentration camps was prompted by Sheriff Beth’s disdain for a group of mostly black shoplifters who led police on a car chase that ended in a collision.
It is supremely disturbing that law enforcement in racially fraught Kenosha (where an officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, where officers gave militias water and thanked them for open-carrying at a protest for Blake, where 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse joined the militias to “defend businesses” and shot two protestors dead and injured a third) is overseen by a man who suggested holding black men in storage containers until they die to prevent them from reproducing: a form of negative eugenics if not outright genocidal ideation.
Masking Racism Under the Hood
Hooded Justice (Cheyenne Jackson) (Watchmen) (IMDB)
As a foil to Rorschach and the 7K, Watchmen reveals that Hooded Justice (Cheyenne Jackson), the first superhero who inspired all the others, was a bisexual black man who had to hide his race and sexuality from the public and other superheroes. William Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) was one of New York City’s first black police officers and is the grandfather of series protagonist Angela Abar, a.k.a. Sister Night (Regina King). Angela discovers the truth about William after overdosing on his Nostalgia, a prescription drug that stores memories in capsules, allowing past experiences to be relived on demand. She learns of Hooded Justice’s true origin by living through her grandfather’s darkest moments, a pharmaceutical analogy for inherited trauma and genetic memory.
Angela, raised as a racially and geographically dislocated orphan in Vietnam, experiences a reconnection to her severed family heritage–as survivors of the Middle Passage, American slavery, and the Tulsa Massacre–when she relives her grandfather’s memories. As Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) explains when he meets William, Angela has always yearned for a connection to her lost family and culture. This is also why she chooses blaxploitation film icon Sister Night as her superhero persona and why she chooses a black identity for Dr.Manhattan to assume when they enter into a relationship and relocate from Saigon to Tulsa.
Experiencing her grandfather’s life as if it were her own, Angela sees her duality as an officer and Sister Night paralleled in William’s double life as Officer Reeves and Hooded Justice: in the 1930s, after arresting an arsonist who threw a molotov cocktail into a Jewish deli, Reeves is kidnapped by white officers who put a hood over his head and hang him from a tree. As a kind of warning lynching, they cut Reeves down before he dies and leave him stranded on the outskirts of town. The hood and noose become Hooded Justice’s iconic costume when he puts them back on to intervene in a violent mugging. He is lauded as a hero by the public, who assume he is white. When he joins the Minutemen, the first organized hero group, his lover Captain Metropolis (Chris Whitley) instructs him to never take off his hood around anyone else, because the other Minutemen are not as “tolerant” as he is.
The Minutemen were inspired to form by Hooded Justice, but the white racial frame of heroism forces his blackness to remain hidden even among teammates who owe their careers to him. As Laurie Blake sardonically puts it to a 7K leader to show she has discovered their plot, “White men in masks are heroes, but black men in masks are scary.” This false dichotomy between blackness and heroism is also depicted in a vintage National Bank poster from the 1940s that says “Crooks Don’t Stand a Chance!” above an illustration of Minutemen hero Dollar Bill apprehending a black boy. Dollar Bill’s heroism is defined not just by his whiteness but also his policing of blackness. When Angela sees this poster on the wall of a 7K trailer in 2019, it highlights the regressiveness and imaginative impoverishment of white nationalism, its yearning for a return to the days of Jim Crow.
This shatters the mythos built around Hooded Justice in American Hero Story, the sensationalist docudrama that airs in the Watchmen universe. (As Special Agent Dale Petey notes, “That show is garbage. It’s full of historical inaccuracies.”) American Hero Story mythologizes a pivotal moment in Hooded Justice’s life as defense of a business from robbers. The American Hero Story version of Hooded Justice is a white, hyperviolent, grimdark anti-hero who smashes a thief’s face into a counter then crushes his skull with a cash register.
A complete distortion of his origin, Hooded Justice is canonized as the original masked American vigilante whose brutality is justified as defense of property. White nationalist militias and vigilantes use the same defense of property ethos to rationalize their inflammatory presence at Black Lives Matter protests, where they ignore local militia regulations as well as the likelihood of instigating the very violence they claim to subdue.
When Watchmen shows what really happened to Hooded Justice, he’s not defending the store but escaping from it. He jumps through a plate glass window to dodge a shotgun blast from the owner of the store–the same arsonist from the Jewish deli. In the store’s attached warehouse, Hooded Justice just discovered and rampaged through a hideout for Cyclops, a KKK variant, where a Klansman was using mesmerism to record subliminal messages into films for black-only theaters. The goal of the mesmerism is to incite black violence so that it can be brutally put down by white “law and order”.
A similar tactic is shown in Lovecraft Country when new black residents in a white community are antagonized by their white neighbors, who burn a cross on their lawn and tie bricks to car horns to create a deafening wail for days on end. When black homeowner Leti (Jurnee Smollett) finally takes a baseball bat to the cars and knocks the bricks off their horns, she is quickly arrested and given a “rough ride” in the back of a police van, much like the one that killed Freddie Gray in 2015.
Super Profit Public Relations
Karl Urban as Billy Butcher (The Boys) (IMDB)
Rorschach’s zero sum logic dehumanizes the accused and convicted regardless of their guilt, their innocence, or the severity of their alleged crimes, and it is employed by superheroes in The Boys as well, specifically the most powerful characters: Homelander (Antony Starr), Stormfront (Aya Cash), and Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell). Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), leader of the titular anti-superhero group The Boys, also succumbs to a black-and-white vengeance mentality when he paints all supes with the same brush and wishes for their wholesale extermination–even after he learns that his wife Becca (Shantel VanSanten) has a superpowered son named Ryan (Cameron Crovetti), Homelander’s son by rape, that Butcher could have potentially raised as his own (though he appears to begin softening on this in the season 2 finalé).
Butcher’s darker impulses are tempered by the better angels of his team members. Hughie (Jack Quaid) and Frenchie (Tomer Capon) both have supes for love interests and pursue non-lethal tactics when possible, and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) is a family man and black community activist who ran a center for juvenile delinquents before Butcher recruited him back into The Boys. This ethos of black self-determination and self-defense is emblemized on Mother’s Milk’s clothing: Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, and People’s Free Food Program T-shirts.
An extension of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense’s police accountability movement, the People’s Free Food Program served breakfast to hungry children, so they could succeed in school–an ideal model of community outreach that filled a gap left by government negligence. Suffering a similar reaction to that of Hooded Justice, the Black Panthers were reviled by the same government agencies they inspired to start their own public food programs.
Also paralleling today’s concerns with police accountability, Vought’s superheroes are protected by a kind of qualified immunity. High on Compound V, A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) plows through Hughie’s girlfriend at the speed of sound, leaving nothing but her hands intact as Hughie holds them in shock. With Vought claiming he was chasing bank robbers, A-Train faces no repercussions beyond a photo op apology.
Indeed, superhero activity leads to widespread injuries and casualties in the world of The Boys, as Hughie learns when Butcher takes him to a collateral damage survivors group. But the public is trained to disbelieve criticism of Vought by a non-stop diet of superhero movies and merchandise. As Vought CEO Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito) notes while negotiating a defense contract, a 34% civilian casualty rate accompanies the use of superheroes for law enforcement, but the press kit rate says zero.
Most of The Boys’ superheroes don’t wear literal masks, and some of them don’t even bother with secret identities. But their true personalities and activities are masked by the heroic personas they maintain through social media, film, and reality television. Film crews routinely follow Vought’s heroes to turn crime fighting into reality TV spectacles. Reality TV is especially significant here: as June Deery explains in Consuming Reality: The Commercialization of Factual Entertainment (2012), reality television “often functions as PR and, more importantly, is emblematic of a larger PR culture that, in both public and private life, produces a hybrid discourse blurring fact and deception.” The Boys’ inclusion of reality TV as a major node in the Vought media empire highlights that the corporation’s heroes are, first and foremost, fabrications by and for PR culture.
Deery also identifies two main thrusts of this reality TV-driven PR culture: “One has been to boost corporate images, business opportunities, and capitalism. The other has been to manage public perception in the realm of politics, including creating support for war.” Vought demonstrates both, using PR media strategies to boost brand image and profits and to generate public support for allowing their superheroes in the military. The military and Congress push back on supes being in the military, and established defense contractors see Vought as outsourcing, unfair competition, escalation (like launching a nuke), and privatization of war. Defense contracting already does have a privatizing effect on war, but Vought is seen as a step too far because there’s no check on their power. But Vought’s media empire gives it an advantage in the court of public opinion.
Like the fictional docudrama American Hero Story in Watchmen, Vought’s mass media empire mythologizes its superheroes and obscures their real lives (or commodifies them as when Dominique McElligott’s Queen Maeve, a Wonder Women parody, gets outed as a lesbian and Vought uses this to rebrand her image and launch new product lines). A-Train, the world’s fastest man, is secretly a Compound V junkie who murders his girlfriend and hides the fact that his heart has been injured by drug use and overtraining.
Chace Crawford’s The Deep, an Aqua Man parody, is a serial rapist in the vein of Harvey Weinstein who has poor body image because of his gills. He exhibits more empathy for marine life than for women. Once he is outed as an abuser by his teammate, Erin Moriarty’s Starlight (who is marketed as a sex icon against her will and under the guise of feminist empowerment), he his relocated by Vought to Sandusky, Ohio, where he seeks redemption by joining a Scientology-like cult called the Church of the Connection.
Homelander, Vought’s most popular and powerful superhero, is the prime example of this contradiction between the public and private. His PR persona is one-part Superman, one-part Captain America. But behind the scenes, he is an attention-hungry sadist with Oedipal issues. He likes peeping on his boss Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue) by looking with X-Ray vision through his own portrait, a vivid demonstration of his emptiness. He is jealous of Madelyn’s newborn and wants her breast milk for himself. He wistfully drinks some of it from a leftover container in her office freezer, the last he’ll ever get since he killed her in the season 1 finalé. He is also so desperate for adulation, recognition, and expansion of his influence that he has been creating his own supervillains by smuggling Compound V to terrorists around the globe, ensuring a profitable forever war with him as the perpetual savior.
But Homelander’s most chilling moment in season 1 is a public display of how power, charisma, and command of media spectacles can poison democracy in broad daylight. At Believe Expo, a Christian revival and music festival, Homelander shows off his abilities like they are miracles while preaching xenophobia, retribution, religious nationalism, and militarism to the enraptured crowd. He focuses on a plane that crashed after being hijacked by terrorists. What the crowd doesn’t know is that Homelander was there and didn’t try to save any passengers as the plane went down, as this gave him better talking points for allowing superheroes into the military:
“A terrible tragedy befell our nation this week. And let’s not mince words about this. We were attacked. America was attacked… I believe that what God wants me to do is get on over there and find the filthy bastard that masterminded this–whatever cave they’re in–and introduce them to a little thing called God’s judgment… Sounds like the American thing to do. Sounds like the right thing to do. But no. Apparently I gotta wait for Congress to say it’s okay. I say I answer to a higher law. Wasn’t I chosen to save you. Is it not my God-given purpose to protect America? Psalms 58:10: The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance and he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.”
Toward the end of this speech, Homelander begins to levitate into the audience with his arms in a crucifix pose, the crowd chants his name louder and louder. The separation of church and state is crucial to American democracy, and it is imperiled when politicians and pundits push theocratic ideals that blur the lines between the Constitution and the Bible. Imagine how jeopardized the Constitution would be if those who push Christian authoritarianism could also levitate, fly, and shoot lasers from their eyes while attributing their powers to the will of God?
Social Media Endgame
Aya Cash as Stormfront, Cameron Crovetti as Ryan, and Shantel VanSanten as Becca (The Boys) (IMDB)
Season 2 makes the dangers of this superpowered demagoguery even clearer with the introduction of Stormfront. In the comics, Stormfront is a Nazi and resurrected Viking with Thor-like powers. He shares a name with a popular white supremacist website, his cape bears a giant swastika, and his chest features a Nazi War Eagle emblem. In Watchmen, Ozymandias’ (Jeremy Irons) daughter Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) warns about what will happen if the 7K succeed in their plot to steal Dr. Manhattan’s abilities: “Can you imagine that kind of power in the hands of white supremacists?” Stormfront actually embodies that horrifying proposition.
The TV adaptation switches Stormfront to a woman, making her both a threat and a love interest for Homelander, and makes her fascism subtler: instead of a swastika cape, she has a modified and easy-to-miss Nazi War Eagle insignia on her belt buckle. She is more like an alt-right social media influencer in pseudo-feminist packaging than an explicit Nazi, making her more ideologically digestible to her potential fans. As Stormfront puts it after her origins are leaked to the media, “People like what I have to say. They just don’t like the word ‘Nazi.'”
At a rally outside Vought Tower, she displays skills as a charismatic speaker that rival Homelander’s. She stokes fears about terrorism too, but blends them into an enemy within message to argue for the raising of a supervigilante army. Like Homelander, she was present at the terror event she describes, the decimation of an apartment complex that killed hundreds, but she conceals the fact that she intentionally caused the destruction herself. Displaying her racism on camera for the first time, Stormfront targets black tenants and calls the Asian supe she’s hunted down a “yellow bastard” while executing him. But Stormfront and Vought successfully use PR and social media to portray her as a hero and push Compound V-friendly legislation.
After droomscrolling through memes that mock him and praise Stormfront, Homelander confronts her for challenging his leadership. Stormfront responds with a searing critique of his outdated approach to PR, in terms that are indistinguishable from political campaigning:
“You spent $273 million on that ‘Saving America’ bullshit, and I am running circles around you with five guys on laptops churning out memes. I practically pay them with Arby’s gift cards. You can’t win the whole country anymore. No one can. So why are you even trying? You don’t need 50 million people to love you. You need five million people fucking pissed. Emotion sells. Anger sells. You have fans. I have soldiers.”
Homelander is stuck in the 20th century, while Stormfront has embraced the post-Cambridge Analytica/Brad Parscale approach of fostering divisiveness through micro-targeted political ads, memes, and social media controversies. Stormfront begins spreading her rhetoric and tactics through The Seven, Vought’s flagship superhero group, by teaching Homelander how to use memes to shift the conversation about a civilian he killed while hunting a superterrorist overseas.
Homelander’s unilateral action against an ill-defined enemy that he had a hand in creating harkens back to America’s post-9/11 War on Terror, a major backdrop to the original comics. Stormfront’s meme offensive embodies a perfectly hideous confluence of superpowered PR, politics, and personality cults that serves as a vessel for Homelander’s religious nationalism and Stormfront’s populist fascism. They bond as self-identified superior specimens, consummating their alliance in a parodic sadomasochistic sex scene.
The Boys explicitly relates Stormfront’s ideology to the online extremism that circulates on anonymous image boards like 4Chan and 8Chan when she invokes “white genocide” to indoctrinate Homelander’s son: “We’re under attack. Bad guys want to hurt us just ’cause of what we look like. They want to wipe us from the face of the Earth just because of the color of our skin. It’s called white genocide.” Even Homelander, who had accepted Stormfront’s Nazi past and agreed to be the übermensch of her planned superhero army, blinks in disbelief at the absurdity of the white genocide theory, and it is laughable, but it’s also no joking matter, as it has motivated hate crimes and mass shootings from Charlottesville, Virginia to Christchurch, New Zealand.
The show is not shy about connecting these fringe views and their murderous repercussions to their counterparts in mainstream right wing media. As Media Matters demonstrates, there’s no substantive difference between the white genocide/great replacement theory and Fox News’s habitual fearmongering about an “invasion” of immigrants coming to “replace many of you”.
The Boys uses a montage of similarly themed radio, cable, and web broadcasts to depict the radicalization of a young male Stormfront fan. He is immersed in xenophobic messaging not just from marginal websites but also from prime-time conservative news, namely the Fox News parody Vought News. In a paranoid rage, he shoots a store clerk of Punjabi descent after accusing him of looking like a supervillain, acting out the “us” versus “them” fantasy that informed his media diet of right-wing sensationalism and conspiracy theories.
When Billy Butcher confronts Stan Edgar for making “a racist piece of shite America’s sweetheart,” Edgar excuses employing and promoting Stormfront as simply a matter of profit. Edgar says, “Stormfront’s good at making people angry. Angry people want Compound V. Compound V raises our stock price… It’s not ruthless, it’s prices per share.” Edgar is a man of color, but his loyalty lies with the corporation, revealing a deep devotion to the profit motive. He greenlit Stormfront’s ascendance and does not use his position to condemn her until she is finally discredited by the media.
When Stormfront’s Nazism is fully exposed, it’s treated by Vought as merely a PR problem. She is quickly disavowed by the company and a duplicitous Homelander, but Vought’s complicity is never revealed and nothing changes structurally at the corporation. The leader of the Church of the Collective sums it up clearly: “Vought needs to take a firm anti-Nazi stance right now.” For Vought, Stormfront’s Nazism is an image problem more than anything else.
This superficial attitude toward white supremacy treats it as something that can be exploited to generate profit without tacitly embracing its ideals, such as when Youtube‘s recommendation algorithm, designed to monetize influence regardless of its character, pushes extremist content out to users–pursuit of engagement at any cost. Stan Edgar’s defense of Stormfront illustrates this perfectly: as long as Stormfront can grab large shares of the attention economy, the heinousness of her motivating ideology is a remote concern.
In Watchmen, Senator Keene (James Wolk) describes white supremacy as a means to an end, too, by using the 7K as his own death squad while distancing himself, unconvincingly, from their racist ethos. This is reminiscent of screenwriter Julia Jones’ hollow claim that right-wing provocateur Steve Bannon, a possible influence for Senator Keene, was only “using the alt-right–using them for power,’ not participating in their white supremacy himself. It is hard to decide whether to call this doublespeak, Machiavellianism, cynicism, or just plain daftness, as white supremacy cannot be mobilized and mainstreamed and then just cast off like its poison was never spread in the process.
Birth of a Superhero Nation
Image by Clarence Alford from Pixabay
In an interview from 2016, Moore connected these issues back to comics and film history: “I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.” This insight should sound familiar to any close reader of the Watchmen comics, in which the editor of The New Frontiersman (the same right-wing daily that publishes Rorschach’s journal) writes favorably of the KKK as archetypal American superheroes who defended the culture from becoming “mongrelized”.
The Watchmen comics and series both mercilessly deconstruct this white racial frame and the latent fascism of the superhero myth, and The Boys has picked up where they left off. With its excessive gore and raunchy comedy, The Boys can be more easily mistaken for that which it critiques than the more cerebral Watchmen. But The Boys plumbs the same historical depths as Watchmen, albeit from very different angles, such as when it depicts Liberty, Stormfront’s earlier identity during the Civil Rights era, as a hooded, KKKesque superhero–like a superpowered version of Watchmen‘s Cyclops. And like Dollar Bill in the Watchmen comics, Liberty appears on vintage advertisements as a product spokesperson.
When Liberty executes a man for driving while black and proclaims herself a hero for doing so, she acts on the same murderous intent masquerading as justice that the sundown town sheriff tried and failed to fulfill in Lovecraft Country. Knowing Liberty’s victim’s family has no police protection or legal recourse, Vought pays them to sign an NDA for a paltry $2k, protecting its image first just as it had with Stormfront.
Straight-ahead superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism too (Marvel’s Civil War, DC’s The Dark Knight Returns, much of the X-Men canon, to name just a few), but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys, both of which make superheroes the most frightening people on the planet. When fascism comes to America, as The Boys seems to warn, it will be playing superhero while memeing and livestreaming on social media, and when it’s profitable, the corporatized attention economy will be loath to stop it.
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