Who watches the watchmen, indeed? The title of Watchmen, the iconic late ’80s comic series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, has long posed a puzzle, since the story’s group of superheroes do not go by that name (though they did in director Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation). Instead, that word usually only appears in the comic in the form of a question posed by New York City graffiti: “Who watches the watchmen?” Now, that same question adorns the caption for the first look at HBO’s upcoming Watchmen show, an Instagram post featuring a mysterious character wearing a police uniform and yellow face-mask.
Watchmen is a story about the failure of superheroes. So this central question poses a sharp challenge to heroic myths: If superheroes are supposed to be observing and protecting us, then who’s up there to observe and protect them? They sure could use some protection of their own; after all, the original story of Watchmen begins with an investigation into why so many superheroes are being mysteriously murdered. The person doing that investigation is a superhero named Rorschach, whose calling card is his face-mask filled with moving inkblots. In his open letter to fans explaining that this version of Watchmen would be different than previous stories, showrunner Damon Lindelof wrote, “Some of the characters will be unknown. New faces. New masks to cover them.” So though this yellow face-mask might be an homage to Rorschach, it almost certainly belongs to a new character.
The color yellow, though, has its own rich symbolic lineage in Watchmen. The series’ most recognizable symbol is a yellow smiley-face button smeared by a drop of blood (meant to evoke both the hands of the doomsday clock and the idea of childhood innocence being lost, among other things).
As for the police uniform…when the Roman satirist Juvenal first asked “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“who watches the watchmen?”) hundreds of years ago, he certainly wasn’t referring exclusively to superheroes, but rather all special classes of people charged with protecting the public. And the police play an important role in the original Watchmen story. In the comic, the reason superheroes have gone out of style is that police, infuriated by superheroes stealing their jobs, went on mass strike in the ’70s, forcing the government to pass an anti-vigilante bill.
Watchmen is set to hit HBO in 2019. Check out the first-look Instagram post below.