Due to the ongoing pandemic, San Diego Comic-Con was compromised greatly. The annual showcase, where panels can interact directly with live fans, has been forced to adapt by way of pre-taped zoom conversations that cover and highlight an array of topics in geekdom. One of those topics, of course, is Watchmen (created by Alan Moore). Incredibly omnipresent for what was originally intended to be a one-off graphic novel, the 1986 landmark achievement has spawned comic spinoffs, knockoffs, a live-action film, and most recently the HBO television sequel series Watchmen (2019).

It’s in the TV series, where race and the complex nature of history are primarily subjects; where masks take center stage as a source of symbolism. In real life, the 1938 debut of Superman marked the start of the official age of superheroes. However, in the universe of the HBO show, the year 1938 marks the arrival of Hooded Justice, the first costumed hero. Unlike Superman, Hooded Justice is a real person in the reality of the show; he’s also a black homosexual man, but he’s believed by the general public to be white and straight. To the public, Hooded Justice is the Godfather of all masked vigilantes and an exalted crusader. But secretly, his status as a hero does not protect him from discrimination and systemic racism.

It is with the crystallization of this backstory where the TV series Watchmen, shepherded by acclaimed showrunner Damon Lindelof, stumbles upon it’s first realization regarding the reality of masks. Masks can help protect us (now more than ever), and can conceal our identity. But in the case of Hooded Justice, whose real name is Will Reeves, masks can rob us of true glory. Reeves lives a lie, and thus the reality of how race affects his life is not known. Moreover, he can not be celebrated as a black hero, with the show making it clear that the false assumption that Hooded Justice is white is far more palatable for America (in a show-within-a-show, Hooded Justice’s vigilante exploits are adapted into a fictional TV series during the present day).

The implications of this complex character helps open up the flood gates for the SDCC panel discussion regarding Watchmen and masks. Mediated by Alfred Day, the panel includes Dr. Kalenda Eaton, Dr. David Suratt, Hailey Lopez, and Robert Hypes. You can watch the full discussion below.

One of the major points the panel stresses is the multiple interpretations of masks. It’s brought up that heroism can be synonymous with, for example, the image of Batman. But in real life, masks can represent shame or criminal behavior. Naturally, the topic of the Ku Klux Klan comes up, including the fact, posited by Eaton, that what the Klan wears was motivated by the idea that black people are afraid and superstitious of ghosts.

Following up on that, Lopez later surmises that what we do while wearing masks reveals our true nature and intentions. What we do in public, when our identity is laid to bare, is largely a facade. This is paralleled with our behavior in online discourse. People can assume anonymity and express their most hateful thoughts with little consequence. However, there are exceptions to what Lopez is stating – there are those on social media who have no problem putting a face to their hateful rhetoric. Some get pushback, but most will not because the Internet is a vast ocean.

Eventually, the conversation shifts to millennials and Gen Z, many of whom are willing to speak up about a cause sans masks. The panel, especially Day, also agrees that these same youth groups have no problem calling out the old guard if they feel said guard isn’t consistent in fighting against social issues. The panel never states this explicitly, but perhaps it can be said that the removal of masks allows people to fight social issues in a more efficient manner. Once you tie an individual’s reputation into the equation, it is easier to hold them accountable.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel the conversation delved as deep as it could have. The younger generation is mentioned, but perhaps a young 20-something panelist could have been included to help expand the perspective. Thus, the panel could have answered, for instance, what the incentive is for Gen Z to be vocal and proactive against the many flaws of society.

But as demonstrated during the panel, we know that masks are a flexible fabric of symbolism that takes on many forms. But it’s primary use is that of protection – to shield wrongdoers from public shame, and to shield would-be vigilantes from retaliation and oppression. Both instances, regardless of the intentions of the masked, represent a twisted manifestation of how societal norms influences behavior. For the wrongdoer, it is important to expose who they are in order to confront their actions directly. For the vigilante, it is important to normalize their cause so they feel they are free to fight without anonymity.

In other words, the goal should be to eliminate the need for masks, or for the very least to make them less common. The mask itself is not cruel, it’s just a tool we use. The cruelty lies in those who use them, and a society that makes them necessary. For anyone that wears a mask, you should wonder what are the circumstances that have made this mask an imperative tool for the user. But you should also ask, what is the person doing that makes them unwilling to look themselves in the mirror?