Sometimes, being late to the party is a good thing.
Those who know me know the last few months have been a struggle, and that struggle has created a longing for comfort; to return to familiar places and stories long forgotten. I recently picked up Richard Kadrey’s The Getaway God, a series I left off a few years ago, and found myself easily cruising through pages of James Stark’s witty dialogue, eager to meet more curious characters, and was surprisingly not unsettled by a cult of Angra Om Ya (the old Gods) worshippers committing simultaneous, ritualistic suicide inside a temple of butchered bodies constructed inside an industrial meat locker with a dozen saws-alls.
It wasn’t until I met Shonin that I became unsettled. Working for the Vigil, Shonin is a self-mummified budhist. That means he starved himself until there was no fat on his body, then buried himself alive with an air hole. Everyday he’d ring a bell for his fellow monks to know he was alive as he slipped deeper and deeper into meditation, then, eventually, when the ringing stopped, his brothers dug him up. Then, he waited until the time was right to awaken, and said, “Boo!” to a boy who was dusting him (he was instantly enlightened).
Forced to work with someone rough like Stark, the air of superiority Shonin has causes friction; he worked for his power, he chose it. Stark, a half-angel abomination strengthened by years of fighting in the arenas of hell, didn’t. In one conversation, Stark and Shonin delve into a pissing contest about who has suffered more. And the question is raised, what’s worse, choosing to suffer or suffering because someone else forced it upon you? Meanwhile, both of them have immense power because of their suffering.
What level of enlightenment is worth such suffering? Sitting in a box, slowly hallucinating to death from dehydration sounds awful, but so does repeatedly being tortured by hellions for their amusement.
I have only good things to say about the Sandman Slim franchise, but I couldn’t help but wonder, are both characters exhibiting some sort of backwards white privilege martyr syndrome? It takes place in L.A., and hell (basically the same thing as L.A.), and heaven, and God’s stand-in, Mr. Muninn, along with Samael, the Devil who cheated Stark into filling his shoes (and armor) as Lucifer, all sound pretty white.
Race, for some, is invisible.
That means standing around talking about who has suffered more, a half-angel with a gladius or a self-mummified monk able to drink poisons that reveal the secret of the universe don’t ever understand that for some people, just getting fair treatment at a bank, or by a police officer, is a struggle, and that none of that struggle results in power.
Even in one of my favorite fantasy worlds, I can’t switch to a different lens.
Maybe that’s why it’s so unsettling, then, to view the first episode of HBO’s Watchmen the night before Juneteenth. Like many white people, I first learned of the Tulsa Race Riot through an internet meme. It wasn’t in the history books and I doubt if even my teachers knew about it. Seeing it come alive, watching as two parents struggle to free their child from the madness in the opening scenes, is devastating. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is amazing as usual, and the acting is superb.
The writers though, they were some kind of prophets. Who could have known how unsettling it would be to see police wearing masks in 2020? Or how bizarre yet surprisingly plausible it would be to have a cop asking to have his weapon unlocked when he really needed it–because he’d accidentally pulled over a white supremacist? Or, that it would take invoking a special law to unlock weapons for every police officer?
Masks in the pandemic? Check.
Police brutality? Check.
Watchmen isn’t set in an alternate timeline. It’s set in ours.
Viewed prior to the events of June, 2020, it might be hard to imagine a police officer without a gun. Before the pandemic, the mask would only be a curiosity. Now, it’s a symbol of those who care more for their fellow man than themselves. What’s a little extra cloth, if it means I don’t accidentally get someone sick? Although there’s no pandemic in episode 1, and a completely different reason for the mask altogether, it’s unsettling to think what this pandemic might be justification for, and how quickly it could warp our world.
This, of course, is what I live for as a reader, and as a consumer of story: the license to take one detour from life and find a vastly different reality, only to arrive back at the one I left behind, wondering if we can ever find our way to a brighter future.
The show is also incredibly problematic to watch in 2020, as well. In our protest-filled world, police brutality is rampant, and many incidents appear racially driven. In Watchmen’s first episode, the police are persecuted. The masks prevent their identities from getting out because of what happened on White Night. Of course, the cops also aren’t allowed to carry weapons, something which I’m sure would satisfy some of those who wish to defund the police.
Watching this show makes my head, and my heart, hurt.
There are so many paths to darkness.
Want to see what else the future might hold? Check out The Way of the Laser.