Warning: there will be heavy spoilers for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen graphic novel (and, by extension, for the movie) here. Also, I urge you guys to first read this article (again, beware of spoilers), which compares and contrasts the portrayal of the Comedian and sexual minorities in the original comic and in the Before Watchmen prequel (written and drawn by a different team). Not that its contents are directly related to what I’ll be talking about; I just think it’s awful that not only Darwyn Cooke (the writer) is portraying a rapist and murderer as some sort of rugged anti-hero, lesbians as sexual fantasies for straight men and homosexuals as morally-bankrupt deviants, but that others (including famous comic writers like Grant Morrison) are praising his writing!
Anyway, on to THIS article.
Watchmen was a 12-issue comic book series, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, that ran from 1986 to 1987. It’s hailed by many as one of the greatest super-hero stories ever told exactly because it thoroughly deconstructs the whole concept (to the point that many think that it, alongside Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, is what led to the rise of the Dark Age of Comic Books). The series’ premise is that masked vigilantes exist in what would otherwise be the real world, and thanks to the existence of a specific hero – Dr. Manhattan, who has basically God-like powers -, History changed in dramatic ways, until the very act of being a “super-hero” was outlawed. (Originally, it was going to feature Charlton Comics characters that had been bought by DC, such as Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and the Question, but then it was changed to original characters who were “just” heavily based off the older ones.)
I won’t actually talk much about the series itself, since the subject of this article requires the reader to already be familiar with it, but I will say this: Alan Moore’s works tend to be overhyped. Not necessarily overrated, mind you; he really is a great storyteller (although I have to say that his writing tends to feature and focus on extreme violence against female characters, especially empowered ones. I think that in trying to point out the mysoginy in super-hero comic books, his writing tends to be itself quite mysoginistic). But he wasn’t the first writer to try and deconstruct the super-hero genre (for instance, only a year earlier, we had Marvel Comics’ own 12-issue series Squadron Supreme, by Mark Gruenwald, and Steve Gerber had been doing that at least since the late seventies). He was, however, the most successful of them, at least at that time.
Moore is apparently not happy with that, actually, not being fond (to put it mildly) of the “grimdark and gritty” wave of super-hero comics that followed soon after (these days, he believes the super-hero genre, period, has nothing more to offer, artistically). He’s especially not happy with how much so many Watchmen fans love who is probably the comic’s most famous character, Rorschach. Rorschach is the only one of the masked vigilantes who kept active even after they were outlawed, enacting his own brand of violent justice on criminals such as drug dealers and mobsters. He is also morally and personally repulsive on many levels: he’s homophobic, mysoginistic, associates sex in general with evil, is intolerant of different ideologies (he explicitly compares communism and liberalness to moral decay), wholeheartedly defends the Comedian (to the point of calling attempted rape a “moral lapse”) despite the latter’s many, many despicable acts, is excessively violent even for a vigilante… And has bad personal hygiene. He’s not meant to be seen as an admirable figure – he isn’t even effective in investigating what kickstarts the plot, the murder of the Comedian! -, and yet, he’s so popular that when the Bruce Timm-helmed Justice League Unlimited animated series added the Question, that version was directly based on Rorschach, instead of any depiction of the actual Question in the comics.
So, why is that? Why do the readers like Rorschach so much? The obvious answer is that he’s a grim, badass vigilante, and comic book fans have loved that character type long before the Dark Age of comics. But I think there’s a bit more to it than just that.
For starters, most readers simply seem to just disregard Rorschach’s violence and prejudices when evaluating the character. To be depressingly honest, I believe many actually agree with his actions and views (even as he’s basically torturing someone just because they made a crack at his smell), especially considering how often super-hero comics were (and are) used for little more than wish-fulfillment fantasies for “perfect” justice; and for those who don’t, well, it’s very easy to take a work of art only at face value and not go any deeper, especially if it relies on pre-existing tropes and imagery (for instance, the bar Rorschach describes as if it were a seedy hive of scum and villainy doesn’t actually seem all that bad, and his violent acts look even more unnecessary as a result; but it’s very easy for a reader used to, say, Frank Miller’s Daredevil stories to not pick up on that).
Not only that: Rorschach is also a well-rounded character, not a one-dimensional archetype meant only to criticise vigilantism. In issue #6, we’re shown various scenes – from the abuse he suffered as a kid to the case that finally made him snap and adopt the Rorschach persona as his real self – that let us understand why someone could become like him. In addition, he’s legitimately done some good as a costumed crimefighter and even used to be a much more balanced individual before the aforementioned snap, so we sympathise more with him (this, in turn, helps us overlook his flaws, as I said before).
But the real kicker, I think, is his death scene at the hands of Dr. Manhattan. “Do it.” “Rorschach…” “Do it!”
Let me go on two tangents that will prove relevant later. Aristotle said (somewhat paraphrased) that, in tragedy, the protagonist is an admirable man whose downfall is his sole responsibility. We must pity him and feel horror at his fate, because he was great and his fate is horrific (well, for the most part; some tragedies can end on a happy note), but it must not be unjust. Now, in Romantic times a new tragedy took form, one in which the tragic hero’s end (usually death) isn’t caused by his hubris or a similar tragic flaw, but rather, by something entirely beyond his control. The Classical tragic hero is a virtuous person who makes a tragic mistake which ruins him; the Romantic tragic hero is someone who stands against impossible odds and loses, but is still considered admirable just for the attempt.
The other tangent: throughout the comic, we are shown regular people in the city of New York living their lives, being the protagonists of their own stories even while the “main” plot keeps going. And we come to care for them: Bernard, the newspaper seller who tries to be helpful towards everyone and keeps complaining about “the state of the world”, and Bernie, the kid who’s always at Bernard’s stand reading the Tales of the Black Freighter comic without paying; Joey, the cab driver, and Aline, her (ex-)girlfriend, who are having relationship issues; Dr. Long, Rorschach’s court-appointed psychiatrist who temporarily succumbs to despair when trying to help the vigilante, and his wife, Gloria, who wants him to stop involving himself so much with his patients both for his sake and for their marriage; and many others, too. We’re shown that they’re just as real as the main characters, even if they may not be as important to the plot. Ozymandias’ plan may have averted nuclear war (at least temporarily), but to do so, all those people had to be killed. In making us care for those characters, the creators made sure we realized just how monstrous Ozymandias’ actions were, well-intentioned though they might have been.
Which leads me back to Rorschach. Now, how often don’t we see “uncompromising” used as a positive descriptor in real life? Rorschach isn’t a tragic hero any means, but his stance of “No compromises. Not even in the face of Armageddon.” appeals to us much like the Romantic heroes’ defiant nobility in the face of an inexorable doom. And his cause is noble and even more meaningful to us, since he’s fighting for Bernard and Bernie, Joey and Aline, Malcolm and Gloria and all the three million New Yorkers killed by Ozymandias.
Now, like I said before, for all of his issues, Moore is actually a great storyteller; this positive portrayal of Rorschach can’t have been unintentional. And that’s fine: one of the work’s themes is that even “super”-“heroes” are actually people, with all the good and the bad that entails. I’m also not sure how those scenes could have been rewritten (other than maybe toning down some of Rorschach’s “badassness”, such as the “I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me!” line, or the scenes of him fighting the criminals in prison);* cutting out the scenes with the “civilian” characters, for example, might ensure the reader wouldn’t be as sympathetic to Rorschach, but it would also severely diminish the work as a whole. I do think the comic does portray him well as a deeply flawed and unhealthy individual who is still capable of some heroism. No, I think his undue popularity (as in, not the kind of popularity received by an interesting character, but the one where the fans overlook the character’s flaws and only focus on his qualities) falls squarely on the reader’s shoulders.
What that says about the super-hero genre and its fans is a subject for another day.
* Interesting that the movie actually plays up those scenes and others for both Rorschach and Nite Owl without a hint of irony.