“That Actually Happened” or Blackness, Comics, & Edutainment: Another Look At HBO’s Watchmen

Curator's Note

“ . . . the answer to life’s histories are life’s histories” (Watchmen, HBO, Episode 4)

Edutainment occurs when a source of entertainment makes space for learning, advocacy, and health promotions. The goal is often to inform the audience while entertaining them; this can often be done by using historical or current events, information, and research to drive the narrative. Watchmen not only uses the 1921 Tulsa Massacre at Black Wall Street as a backdrop by which to build the story, but also paints accurate depictions of race relations at the time thus placing the need for a superhero at the forefront of our minds. The regional history of Tulsa, Oklahoma as the location for the alternative comic world places the audience near our own authentic racial truths for some powerful counter-storytelling in popular culture.  I use HBO’s Watchmen as a media text to discuss how the historical and racial contexts within the series have the power to educate while it entertains mass audiences when it exposes the audience to critical moments in American history. 

Black popular culture has historically been a response to centuries of dangerous, stereotypical and linear characterizations by the dominant culture. More specifically, Black popular culture found within comics allows the audience to pull from our historical context to build an imagined reality for the future. For Black audiences, justice, agency, voice, freedom, equity and equality are things that have often been an imagined and pursued future. Comics, particularly those appearing in television and film, make space for the audience to see Black bodies as superheros instead of villains; to obtain justice for the violence against Black persons; and for reparations to be extended to the victims of such violence -- all of which appear in the series. 

Additionally, the series uses Black family and city history throughout the story to build authenticity with some portions of the audience, while teaching others about Tulsa's existence and impacts following the massacre. Typically, I argue that mainstream media's teaching style adopts a paletable presentation of history lessons to not offend its viewers sensitivities, but HBO's Watchmen graphic exposure of the destruction of the Greenwood District and the violence against Black people was honest and purposeful. From memory pills called Nostalgia to an interactive cultural center named after the actual Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage, Watchmen places history and family at the center of its storytelling thus cementing the need and desire of American's racial truth inside of comics, speculative fiction and futuristic stories. Black stories inside of the comic world create a unique opportunity where imagination meet reality and for Watchmen, that is where learning occurs. 

Utilizing this very real history of place and space along with the racial treatment enacted upon Black bodies, this media text helps us to complicate our understanding of edutainment and Black popular culture inside of the comic and science fiction genres. Scholars can now ask the question - what role does Black history play in mainstream and even premiere networks entertainment? And how useful and effective is Black history inside of popular culture for producing real life change from the information weaved through the storyline? I imagine we will be having similar conversations about HBO's Lovecraft County as the producers have been very intentional on their use of Black history into the overall story making the series feel very real for portions of its audience. 


Asha, thank you for sharing your insights and for inviting us to reflect on edutainment and popular culture. You ask, “[H]ow useful and effective is Black history inside of popular culture for producing real life change from the information weaved through the storyline?” (Winfield). HBO’s Watchmen suggests to me that the answer may be “quite useful and effective,” as the scene you showcase—including public responses to it—demonstrates. Unfortunately, many audience members had not known about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre until they saw this scene—including the episode’s director—because their historical education omitted it. This scene has inspired many audience members to pursue long-overdue conversations and education about the Tulsa Race Massacre and about Black history, which suggests that popular-culture texts like HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft Country can facilitate important cultural and educational work, including for racial justice. Nevertheless, it is a shame that other types of texts have not been doing more of this educational work. Will popular-culture texts like HBO’s Watchmen “produc[e] real life change” in the texts that are expected to provide public historical education (e.g., history textbooks and curricula), including improvements in how these texts account for and teach Black history? I truly hope so.

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