Who watches the Watchmen? Maybe public historians should.

Sometimes public historians can find instructive lessons in unlikely places.  Take Hollywood, for example—an industry not known for either intellectual sagacity or scrupulous adherence to historical fact, but one that’s got the art of transferring messages pretty well covered.

When you’re dealing with the past, you’re dealing with different worlds.  All your assumptions have to go out the window—assumptions about the way people think, relate to each other, make a living, etc.  You’re entering a world with its own parameters and its own logic.  In that respect, it’s a little like playing Dungeons & Dragons.  You’ve got to know how the board is set up, what the rules are, and what the forces are that govern the action.

This, I think, is one of the biggest challenges to doing effective public history.  In exhibits and documentaries, you generally have little space and time to convey information.  How do you establish the parameters of the world you’re taking your audience into, given these limitations?  How do you familiarize your audience with the contours of a particular time and place in a way that seems effortless?

The makers of Watchmen, the movie based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, were faced with this same problem.  They, too, had to find a way to orient the audience to a world that’s similar to, but also quite distinct from, our own, and I think there’s a thing or two we can learn here.

In case you’re into neither comics nor movies, Watchmen is set in an alternate 1980’s America in which comic book-style superheroes not only exist, but have influenced the course of U.S. history since before WWII.  This America, like our own, has fought wars in Europe and Vietnam, landed on the moon, and become a protagonist in the Cold War.  But the existence of heroes has altered this America’s history at critical points.  Superhero intervention, for example, secured U.S. victory in Vietnam (and thereby ensured Nixon’s continual re-election).  But it also exacerbated tension with the Soviets, so that by the mid-1980’s the world of Watchmen stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Since the movie’s world has its own logic and its own historical background, establishing its context becomes something of a problem.  The conventional approach would be to use scrolling text or a voice-over, recounting all the necessary background with traditional narrative and exposition. 

The filmmakers have taken a more deft and creative approach.  In the opening title sequence, a series of brief little vignettes recount the history of this alternate America and the main characters’ backgrounds by depicting instantly-recognizable moments from American history as they would have played out in Watchmen‘s hero-inhabited universe. 

The plane that drops an atom bomb on Hiroshima flies by, only it’s named after a scantily-clad female crimefighter whose image is painted on the fuselage.  An atomic-powered superhuman shakes hands with President Kennedy.  Another is the subject of an Andy Warhol painting, while a third poses for photographers outside Studio 54.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you can occasionally find this sequence online.  I say “occasionally” because Warner Bros. keeps asking sites that post the video to remove it, which is why a link here is just as likely to take you to a dead end as it is to the sequence itself.  Just go see the movie.*

This five-minute sequence tells you everything you need to know about Watchmen‘s America and its past, with no text or narrative of any kind.  It’s just a series of these historical clips set to the tune of “The Times They Are a-Changin'” by Bob Dylan.  It’s a creative and very effective solution to the problem of context.

Let me suggest that Watchmen offers this lesson for anyone engaged in public history: Figure out the contours of the world in which you’re trying to place your audience, and then find a creative way to establish them. 

The people who tell myths and fables succeed or fail based on their mastery of communication.  Historians engaged in telling the truth should try to be at least as savvy as they are.

*On a related note, you may be wondering why I haven’t added a little pizzazz to this post with a still or poster image from Watchmen.  Well, Virginia, here at Past in the Present, I try to do whatever I can to keep from getting my keister sued off.


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3 responses to “Who watches the Watchmen? Maybe public historians should.

  1. d_ustin

    I think there may be a small flaw in your idea here. While the opening to Watchmen as a film is remarkably well done and sets the “universe” up for the viewer it also does a whole lot of playing directly to the core base that went into the theater with a great attachment to the original comic. Watchmen or any other historical or fictional setting has an implied understanding of the source material when it’s translated into another media. Even if say from a historical perspective your viewer likely knows Taft existed once upon a time and may in fact have been President, the way it is presented will have cues to those who are familiar with the actual Taft that the casual viewer may never pick up on. And those who come into the presentation with at least some historical knowledge are going to pick up on far more of the details and nuances. Going back to Watchmen, for my second viewing of the movie I went with someone with no previous knowledge and I found myself pointing out all the little details that he had no clue about. The positioning of Hooded Justice and Silk Specter in the team photo, the Last Supper analogue from Specter’s retirement dinner, poor Dollar Bill and the silliness of a cape in a real world situation, all of these spoke to me and my knowledge of the source material but meant nothing to the average viewer.
    I agree with what you’re saying for setting the world up for the viewer but I think it requires a delicate balance between preaching to the choir and bringing in the new viewer/fan/casual consumer. So I guess my question is how much of the environment to you present to establish an understanding of the specific period? When do the bells and whistles of presentation begin to overshadow the message of the piece or exhibit? Going back to Watchmen, how many stories mentioned The Great Big Dangly Blue Thing instead of the intricacies of the story itself? I know as a reader that it reflects Dr. Manhattan’s detachment from humanity but that darn casual viewer most likely is not going to get past, “Crap that guy’s totally nekkid.” A key to understanding the story evolves into a deterrent to the effectiveness of the whole piece.
    Fancy presentation that frightens off mainstream appeal or dumbing it down for the masses? That’s the riddle to solve.
    Extra Credit: combine Dr. Manhattan and William Howard Taft. Show your work.

  2. mlynchhistory

    I agree that the opening titles have a lot of hidden cues for people familiar with the source material: Dollar Bill’s death, the snow globe on the TV in Sally Jupiter’s House, etc. But I don’t think these cues detract from Snyder’s intention to establish the film’s universe as a place where twentieth-century American society and comics intersect. You’ll get more out of that sequence if you’re familiar with the comic, but even if you’re not, you’ll still be thinking, “Oh, I get it. An America populated by superheroes. Nifty.”

    But I do agree that these hidden cues are where the difference between Snyder’s aims and the aims of the public historian become visible. Snyder can wink at the fans in the auidence while still telling a coherent story to viewers coming into it cold. He can be encouraged to wink at the initiated fans as many times as he can get away with it. In public history, however, you’re trying to educate, so assuming that your audience already knows something might defeat the purpose. In other words, the public historian can’t wink at the audience, because his audience isn’t in on the joke yet.

    That’s not to say that you can’t provide different levels of information in an exhibit, with some material geared toward novices and some toward people more familiar with the subject matter. But this isn’t a matter of hidden cues, it’s a matter of carefully orchestrating the material so that it builds on itself.

    I guess what I was trying to say in the post is that Snyder succeeded in finding a way to establish conext in a way that was very smooth and original, and I admire that. It should encourage people making exhibits and documentaries to find creative ways to communicate.

    Extra credit: Dr. Manhattan became world’s most powerful man and can grow over 300 ft. tall. Taft elected to world’s most powerful office and grew to over 300 lbs.


  3. d_ustin

    I have nothing really of value to add. I think what struck me was the pop culture aspect of it, there the wink to the audience is almost expected in a lot of cases if not required to meet some sort of geek street credibility. The history aspect of it starts with the key element of putting some knowledge in someone’s head and then aspects of style and presentation start to weigh in on the final product. Although that may hit on more of the documentary History Channel side of things.

    And there is no limit to the length I will go to make a Taft was a fattie joke.

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