‘Watchmen’ Pulls the Hood on Hooded Justice


This article contains spoilers for Season 1, Episode 6 of HBO’s “Watchmen.”

Who was that masked man?

In this week’s episode of “Watchmen,” the show pulls back the hood on one of the story’s most elusive figures, the brutal vigilante called Hooded Justice. A peripheral but pivotal figure in the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Hooded Justice was the very first masked vigilante hero in the “Watchmen” universe, responsible for launching the phenomenon that inspired all the others to don masks of their own.

The big surprise? Underneath that hood and noose, so evocative of the Ku Klux Klan, was a black cop and survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Will Reeves. Employing a mask and a rope that his racist fellow police officers had used to terrify and intimidate him, he turned the terror back onto criminals — including those crooked cops.

The revelation elevates a background player from the graphic novel to the status of protagonist, and in the process it raises as many questions as it answers. Does this surprising secret identity jibe with what we know from Moore and Gibbons’s original book? The showrunner Damon Lindelof — despite having made what he has called a “remix” of the book — claims to treat it as gospel. Could the racist iconography of Hooded Justice have been a ruse all along? We dug back into the source material to see if the case for a placing black man beneath that menacing hood holds up.

[Read our recap of Episode 6.]

(Note: DC Comics has published a series of prequel stories under the “Before Watchmen” umbrella and is currently serializing a sequel. Lindelof does not treat those projects as canon, so they’re impossible to reconcile with the TV series. We’ll be ignoring them here as well.)

Hooded Justice was the first “costumed adventurer” or “masked hero” — the terms employed by people within the world of “Watchmen” to describe what we would call superheroes. (In the book, “Super-hero” was reserved for Dr. Manhattan, the only one with actual superpowers.)

Hooded Justice’s career as a crime fighter began in 1938, with brutal assaults on a gang of muggers and a stick-up crew that left the criminal victims terrified, hospitalized and in one case, crippled for life. He wore a distinctive costume during these exploits: a black executioner-style hood over his head, a hangman’s noose around his neck. His actions — along with the adventures of the fictional pulp heroes Doc Savage and the Shadow and the first comic-book superhero, Superman — inspired other would-be do-gooders in the “Watchmen” world to follow in his footsteps by masking up and fighting crime.

Eventually, several of these figures, including Hooded Justice, formed a team called the Minutemen. The team was led by a former Marine named Nelson Gardner, who went by the alias Captain Metropolis.

In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s original graphic novel, Hooded Justice was a figure of mystery. His primary role in the book’s narrative was to violently thwart a sexual assault in progress within the Minutemen’s ranks, the attempted rape of the original Silk Spectre by a smirking sociopath called the Comedian. In the aftermath of the fight that ensued, the Comedian suggested that Hooded Justice found violence sexually arousing.

Much of what little else we know about the man can be found in the book-within-the-book “Under the Hood,” written by the retired former Minuteman Hollis Mason, who went by Nite Owl. In this memoir, Mason describes Hooded Justice as one of the biggest men he’d ever seen, comparing his build to that of a wrestler.

Other information on the vigilante stems from the correspondence between the first Silk Specter, known by the civilian name Sally Jupiter, and her future husband, Laurence Schexnayder, the Minutemen’s publicist. Schexnayder talks about a secret romantic relationship Hooded Justice had with his fellow hero Captain Metropolis, which was said to hit the skids because of Hooded Justice’s infidelity, involving rough sex with younger men.

Schexnayder had staged a phony romance between Sally and Hooded Justice to allay rumors that Hooded Justice was gay, but with “H.J.” and “Nelly” acting like “an old married couple in public,” he was doubtful the ruse would hold up much longer.

In “Under the Hood,” Mason writes that the House Un-American Activities Committee had begun investigating masked vigilantes for potential Communist sympathies. Hooded Justice refused to reveal his secret identity and testify, choosing to retire instead.

Mason goes on to note that a right-wing tabloid, The New Frontiersman, suggested that Hooded Justice was secretly a circus strongman of East German origin named Rolf Müller, who retired and was soon found shot to death around the time of the investigations. The paper speculated that Müller was “executed by his own Red superiors.”

Earlier in his memoir, however, Mason claims to have heard Hooded Justice voicing support for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime before America’s entry into World War II. While Mason seems open to the idea that Hooded Justice and Müller were one and the same, he appears skeptical of the Communist-agent story.

Obviously, the show seems to think so. The origin story it presents for the character relies heavily on the fact that Hooded Justice never revealed his identity to his fellow superheroes — except to Captain Metropolis, who had his own reasons for keeping the man’s secret (their romantic relationship). Throw in a little strategic makeup around the eyes, and it’s at least feasible.

But several discrepancies arise. For one thing, Will Reeves, while athletically built, is not the hulking figure described by Hollis Mason. For another, if Mason’s account is true, it is hard to imagine a black victim of organized racist terrorism as being a fan of Hitler. And given that reactionary right-wing politics and sexual fetishism are repeatedly cited as motivators for many of the book’s “heroes,” there is reason to read the facts Moore and Gibbons present by way of Mason about Hooded Justice as straightforward.

It’s possible, however that the narrator was unreliable. Perhaps Mason was so impressed by Hooded Justice that he loomed larger in his mind’s eye. And perhaps Reeves actually did make the occasional white-supremacist statement to throw his fellow heroes off the scent of his true identity.

In other words, you can reverse-engineer the peek behind the mask provided by the show, if you’re determined to do so. It all depends on what you’re willing to believe.



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