Character Dive Part 1: Why You Shouldn't Identify with Rorschach (Watchmen)
Part 0: https://www.necessarybehavior.com/blogs/news/character-dive-intro-the-characters-you-werent-supposed-to-identify-with
The acclaimed graphic novel, Watchmen, has left a considerable mark on media and pop-culture. From spawning multiple spin-offs to movie adaptations and TV shows, Watchmen is a landmark piece of fiction. The two most notable aspects of the graphic novel are its political satire and dissection of the superhero archetype. These two aspects are so tightly intertwined that they are facets of the same theme: that putting the fate of the world in the hands of a few powerful people will lead to everyone dying.
Only a few characters in the cast of Watchmen are actively aware of this and interact with this fact in various and interesting ways. The character that we will be focusing on today is Rorschach, the Batman-esque vigilante whose mask is an ever-changing Rorschach inkblot design. Rorschach actively rejects the heroes of his time and is highly critical of society in general. He is acutely aware that American culture is under rising amounts of stress in the wake of the Vietnam War (which in this universe, America won with the help of the omniscient Dr. Manhattan). Rorschach is critical of pop culture, the government, his peers, the criminal justice system, and especially the corporate class.
As a result, Rorschach is one of the most popular characters in Watchmen, and to his fans’ credit, Rorschach is one of the best vehicles in the story to explore its many themes. There are many moments in which Rorschach is shown to have a “never-back-down” stance on his beliefs, and ever since the graphic novel first came out, a significant number of fans have strongly identified with Rorschach, and his critiques of modern society.
TW: Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Conspiracy Theories
The issue is that Rorschach is a raging bigot—specifically a homophobe, a sexist, and a racist. He is also a militant nihilist, believing to be on the losing side of a war against all of society. These are the mentalities that inform his critiques of society. He believes that the criminal justice and policing systems don’t go far enough with criminals; he believes that criminals should be killed with prejudice. He also thinks that men have become too effeminate with the adoption of progressive social policies. He suspects corporate leaders to be homosexual and concludes that they are predators. He imagines the media is conditioning the population to be more susceptible to manipulation. Long story short, Rorschach is QAnon before QAnon. Thus he fits squarely within our parameters of the “Wronged White Men who Refuse to Back Down or Shower” archetype.
It might seem surprising that Rorschach is rarely ever depicted as embodying these harsh terms, save for the 2019 TV show, Watchmen, which explores Rorschach’s racism but does little else to dissect his flawed worldview. Like other members of his archetype, Rorschach has become a mascot of sorts for his franchise, and his public perception is largely declawed. When someone who is a fleeting fan, or is only vaguely aware of Watchman, sees Rorschach, he elicits the “badass vigilante who knows no rules” archetype instead of the deeply flawed and monstrous one.
Rorschach is not meaningfully depicted as a bad person in marketing and surrounding media to the source text. This incentives a significant portion of his fans to believe that Rorschach is vindicated in his bigotry. These fans have become so prevalent that even the author of Watchmen feels uncomfortable. In 2008, Alan Moore had an interview with LeJorne Pindling from Street Law Productions in which he spoke about his feelings on how Rorshach was received. The interview has since been deleted from YouTube (frustratingly recently), but several sources, including Steven Surman in 2019, recorded Moore’s words,
“I wanted to kind of make this like, ‘Yeah, this is what Batman would be in the real world.’ But I had forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans that smelling, not having a girlfriend—these are actually kind of heroic. So actually, sort of, Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I meant him to be a bad example, but I have people come up to me in the street saying, ‘I am Rorschach! That is my story!’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘Yeah, great, can you just keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again for as long as I live?’” - Alan Moore. (Surman, 2019)
I feel that it is unhelpful to read this quote as an indictment to comic fans in general, but instead an understanding that for a particularly loud section of readers, Rorschach was inadvertently much more relatable than intended. Through Moore’s humor, we can also see that Rorschach was intended as a critique of what someone who seeks retribution through the lens of bigotry and spite would be if given the ability to enact their violent wishes.
There are several examples within Watchmen that help exemplify Rorschach’s toxic worldview as a medium for the themes of the story. Like I said, Rorschach as a character is very clearly wrong in the text and for the most part is depicted as pitiable at best and a monster at worst. It is these monstrous moments that also provide the most nuanced look into Rorschach’s world. It is nothing new for stories like Watchmen to be deeply interested in why characters like Rorshach do what they do, but at the same time these moments allow for the audience/reader to become sympathetic towards a character who was never supposed to be sympathized with. The best example of these double-sided moments, in my opinion, happen in Rorschach’s conversations with his prison ordered therapist.
Through Rorschach’s conversations, we finally see the moment that created Rorschach. A few years into his career as a vigilante, he encountered a very traumatic situation where a young girl was kidnapped and killed in a very brutal manner. This is one of the first truly horrific scenes in the novel and it is used to explore the depths of Rorschach’s nihilism. Rorschach’s broken speech almost reads like poetry as he describes how bleak his world truly is. On page 26 of chapter 5, Rorschach recalls the traumatic case and tells his therapist, “Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell bound as ourselves; go into oblivion. There is nothing else.” (Moore, 1987). While it is difficult to understand what he’s getting at, Rorschach essentially is commenting on how meaningless life is, and that any attempt to find meaning in life is arbitrary at best.
While bleak, Rorschach is used as a vehicle to talk about disillusionment under oppressive societies. He advocates for an even more oppressive society, building into a recurring theme in the story: an oppressive society blinds people to solutions, and can even inspire people to make worse societies. This is where the major snag of Rorschach’s reception occurs - some readers already agreed with what Rorschach was trying to say, and hearing it in the context of the story didn’t change their mind. Like I explained in the intro to this series, the major factor in how these types of characters continue to be misinterpreted is the importance we place on the aesthetics over the context of story elements. Aesthetically speaking, Rorschach is a badass vigilante and when put into context, he is a walking tragedy, refusing to look at the world as anything other than stark black and white.
Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: Warner Books, 1987. Print.
Surman, Steven. “Alan Moore's Watchmen And Rorschach: Does The Character Set A Bad Example?” Steven Surman Writes, 4 Nov. 2019, www.stevensurman.com/rorschach-from-alan-moores-watchmen-does-he-set-a-bad-example/.