Why Is Rorschach So Beloved By Fans?

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.

22 Comments

  1. Socordya says:

    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!

    I didn’t know it was this bad. The only part of the prequel I read were the Ozymandias chapters. They wanked him far beyond what was hinted at in Watchmen, and thought “dead girlfriend” was an acceptable motivation, so I didn’t read the rest.

    (then again, in hindsight, even Ozymandias’ part was weirdly sympathetic to the Comedian)

    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

    One thing I’d suggest toning down is the whole “the abyss stares also” thing he has going on with the psychiatrist. I am pretty sure the guy should have seen worse than Rorschach in his career.

    An additional factor in people liking Rorschach (one day I’ll be able to write his name without having it under my eyes) is that he has an “everyman” side that other characters don’t. Manhattan actually has superpowers, Ozymandias is a super smart guy, even the owl guy has neat gadgets, but Rorschach actually fulfill the premise of “otherwise normal guy who decided to fight crime”. That allows the reader to relate, and even think that yes, they too could become a superhero if they were motivated enough.

    I think that otherwise you’re spot on, Rorschach’s single-minded determination and refusal to let go of his convictions (awful as they often are) against all odds are appealing, especially when contrasted with the utter lack of conviction and half-assed nihilism of Doctor Manhattan, or Ozymandias’ megalomania.

    edit : Plus, his costume is pretty cool.

    1. SpoonyViking says:
      One thing I’d suggest toning down is the whole “the abyss stares also” thing he has going on with the psychiatrist. I am pretty sure the guy should have seen worse than Rorschach in his career.

      You know, this is a good point. At first, he’s portrayed as someone who’s more than a little self-serving in that he chose to “treat” Rorschach only for the fame, not because he really wanted to help him, and he doesn’t seem very effective at all (he’s too quick to believe Rorschach’s lies about the Rorschach test, and too quick to dismiss Rorschach’s story about Kitty Genovese even though the reader has every reason to believe it), and it’s not something that can be attributed solely to Rorschach misjudging him. However, his arguments with his wife imply he has a habit of getting too involved with trying to help his patients and “let[ting] their misery affects [his and his wife’s] lives”, even though his new attitude of “the only thing that matters is what good we try to do” seems to be a result of his interactions with Rorschach. It seems hard to reconcile both “versions” of the character. I can see the first one being deeply affected, even if only temporarily, by someone as disturbed and strong-willed as Rorschach; the second one, not so much.

      Indeed, toning down that chapter might have been for the best. Showing the doctor affected by Rorschach, but still trying to cling to his orderly notions instead of just surrendering to the abyss might have left things more open for the reader to arrive at their own conclusions.

  2. mechablue says:
    I’m guessing he also mirrors a certain anger most people have at the state of the world and the desire to just DO something about it instead of dealing with pesky things like “compromise” or “the value of human life” or “empathy”. He also appeals to the idea that they’re somehow enlightened to the truth of human nature when they realize that life tends to suck a lot. I see the same thing happen a lot with Tyler Durden from Fight Club.
    1. illhousen says:
      Fight Club suffers greatly from classic structure problem. It’s supposed to be a deconstruction of nihilistic maximalism common in young people dissatisfied with life but having no idea how to fix it. It’s supposed to lure you in with witty speeches and iconic moments designed to hide the shallowness of what Fight Club actually stands for (rebel against the system by pulling juvenile pranks that accomplish nothing but petty satisfaction! You think your individuality is not respected and you are turned into a cog in the machine? Join the organization where you literally don’t have a name!), and then expose it all in the final part (I mean, really, the final plan fails because Tyler couldn’t make an actually working bomb. He knows far less than he wants us to think he knows).

      Unfortunately, the book spends most of its pages glorifying Tyler’s ideology and just kinda fizzles at the end. The former leaves more of an impact on readers than the latter.

      And, really, the author should have seen it coming. “Let’s show two hours of glorious debauchery, and then everyone dies because morals” is a very, very old way for theaters to titillate their audience while paying lip service to public morals.

    2. Falconix says:
      I’ve seen that also happen with Andrew Ryan from BioShock. And while that game shows that Ryan’s vision of Rapture the Randian Utopia was flawed even before bringing the mind-altering bodymods into the mix (“Everyone wants to be captains of industry, but they forget someone needs to clean the toilets”, as a recording muses), the early scenes make a very strong case for Ryan’s vision.
  3. illhousen says:
    Well, part of the reason is that simplification of issues is a major force behind fiction.

    To some extent, it can be seen in a majority of stories in that their prime conflicts tend to be resolved neatly by the end. You don’t read many mysteries ending with “and so little Timmy became another kid who disappeared without a trace. His remnants were found in the woods a few months later. His killer was never found.” No, the culprit is always discovered – by readers if not the police – the battle is resolved one way or another, everything comes to an end.

    Taken further, it gives us a world of black and white, of honorable heroes and vicious villains, where the right thing to do is obvious for everyone.

    It appeals to us because real life is messy: issues are resolved slowly and painfully, requiring constant effort not to backslide, and who’s the hero or villain depends mostly on your perspective rather than on some objective factors like the color of your outfit.

    Moore attempted to demonstrate white such simplification, an uncompromising black and white worldview where knowledge of the situation naturally leads to obvious action is inapplicable in a halfway realistic world.

    Rorschach is the one who embodies this attitude, but the whole world has it as a theme: it’s the world of heroes doing what they think is right (well, most of them, anyway), but they are products of their time, so their morality is anything but objective, and they can’t foresee the consequences of their actions, so the world grows darker as a result. At the start of the story, it’s very close to destruction.

    Rorschach shows us both just what kind of person would try to deal in absolutes in this kind of world (not very good, that is) and the consequences of it (he dies alone, abandoned by all).

    Moore, being an overall good writer, leaves the ending ambiguous, but I think he underestimated just how powerful the temptation of simplification is, and just how many people would side with Rorschach as long as there is any opening for them to think of him as being in the right.

  4. Farla says:
    I’ve always thought the problem with Rorschach actually is more on the author’s shoulders than he admits. Because Rorschach’s biggest flaw is supposed to be that refusal to compromise and insistence on acting like there’s the good and evil of comic books, but he does.

    He’s supposed to be ultra Lawful slightly good, and he’s got all sorts of issues with women, minorities, communists, etc. But what does he spend his time doing? He’s beating up rapists and ignoring prostitutes. (And given he’s hanging out in prostitute filled areas, he’s very likely intervening in prostitutes getting raped or assaulted, when a point could easily have been made that he only saves the right sort.) We don’t see him taking part in immigrant lynchings or anything either. When he starts insulting his landlady and she asks not in front of her kids, he stops dead. Even at the end when he dies for not compromising, it reads an awful lot like suicide. His bad paladin attitude doesn’t seem to fuck things up for anybody but him.

    The worst thing we see from him is his willingness to torture people for information, and it’s one scene near the end rather than properly establishing that he always handles this stuff in such a stupid way. People seem to agree that the people he’s beating and leaving half-alive for police actually committed the crimes, and from what we see, he sticks to punishing major crimes and just whining creepily in his journal about the rest.

    For a dark and edgy mentally ill vigilante, he ends up looking to have a better success to collateral damage ratio than the cops – possibly the author overestimated regular cops. I would like good cops running things, but as it is, I would be okay with him running around in a given city. He’d break some completely innocent people’s fingers, but regular cops kill completely innocent people all the time.

    He’s a good attempt at unsexying the archetype, but not at making it seem like it doesn’t work. He should be leaving a trail of death behind him and he should be hitting innocent people by accident constantly. That’s the actual problem with vigilante justice. Instead we’re presented with someone who even after completely cracking up is still pretty good at what he does. The ultimate moral is much closer to that superheroics will destroy the superhero than that there’s negative consequences for everyone else.

    1. Nerem says:
      I have to admit that I like Rorscarch because of the simple fact that he was a bad person who wanted to do good. I mean, he has that long, sneering speech about how all the people he hate will die because he won’t save them when they come calling.

      And then in the end, they don’t die because he refuses to save them. They die, BUT Rorscrarch dies too unwilling to let them die for any reason.

      It’s that part of him that appeals to me, which is probably why I like Kotomine and why one of my story’s concepts is “What will make someone who despises the world save it”.

      1. actonthat says:
        [“What will make someone who despises the world save it”.]

        IDK if you played DAI, [spoilers] but this makes me think of Solas a lot, though in the end he was still pretty dead-set on destroying the world.

        Also, while I’m talking about it, DAI discussion post: worth it?

        1. Nerem says:
          Sadly I’ve never gotten the chance to play DAI. I do want to, though, but I just don’t got the money.

          (The character in question in my story is a deeply flawed child with immense power who hates nearly everyone and would pretty much be the villian in most other stories.)

          1. actonthat says:
            http://99gamers.com/search/games/?q=dragon%20age%20i

            This is legit how I get all the games you people rec.

            1. SpoonyViking says:
              Now if only they covered more countries for digital trading…
              Reply
    2. Socordya says:
      I’ve always thought the problem with Rorschach actually is more on the author’s shoulders than he admits.

      An author refusing to admit his work isn’t perfect? That’s crazy talk!

      1. actonthat says:
        ALAN MOORE IS GOD HOW DARE YOU

        -every damn person i’ve ever talked to about comics

        1. SpoonyViking says:
          Yeah, his fans can be really grating.
        2. illhousen says:
          Well, to be fair, Moore’s beard holds their loved ones hostage.
      2. SpoonyViking says:
        Well, Moore does tend to be more of an asshole than the usual comics writer… :-P
        1. illhousen says:
          That’s an impressive accomplishment. Any specific stories?
          1. SpoonyViking says:
            I tried to find one that’s my favourite, but I couldn’t, so in the interest of fairness, I won’t bring it up. I’ll just leave this here:

            http://technoccult.net/archives/2014/01/14/on-race-and-sexual-violence-in-the-works-of-alan-moore/ – Where he displays the usual level of entitlement of a comics writer. (To be fair, I do agree with his overall point – a good writer is capable of stepping outside his gender, race and social class -, but he demeans and disregards all the valid concerns raised over the issues.)

            So, since I failed to provide actual examples which put him above other comics writers in terms of asshole-ism, let me amend my previous statement to “Well, Moore does tend to be more aggressive than the usual comics writer…” :-)

    3. SpoonyViking says:
      The worst thing we see from him is his willingness to torture people for information, and it’s one scene near the end rather than properly establishing that he always handles this stuff in such a stupid way. People seem to agree that the people he’s beating and leaving half-alive
      for police actually committed the crimes, and from what we see, he sticks to punishing major crimes and just whining creepily in his journal about the rest.

      Not necessarily. He does break the guy’s fingers in the first issue just for insulting him (while mentally justifying it to himself in that the guy is a horrible criminal like everyone else in the bar), and there’s a panel in which we see he beat up (it’s unclear how severely) someone just for spray-painting “Who’s watching the watchmen?”. AND he’s ready to beat up his landlady because she made false claims to the papers, there’s also that.

      (Tangent: That whole scene really made me uncomfortable even when I read it as a teenager, much less as an adult. Especially the part where things are turned around and we’re supposed to find him oh-so-noble for sparing his landlady and not calling her a whore in front of her children.)

      We are shown an example of “mob justice” horribly backfiring when the thugs kill Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, thinking he’s the Nite Owl who just broke Rorschach from prison… Although that’s not a good example of vigilantism gone wrong, considered it’s done by criminals, instead of actual vigilantes.

      It doesn’t seem to be unintentional, though; we are told that both generations of crimefighters did have some success against crime syndicates, for example. I think the theme is less “vigilantism is bad” and more “vigilantes can be effective for short-term issues, but not for long-term ones, and they often bring their own sets of issues”.

      Still, your overall point was excellent: if the intention was for the reader to not sympathise that much with the character, Moore should have portrayed more of Rorschach’s actions in a negative light. Your idea of showing him saving only the kind of people he likes would be perfect, and would remain in-character without detracting from the work as a whole.

  5. actonthat says:
    TBH I also think you have to consider the dominant culture in the comic book fandom/Alan Moore cult.

    I think Rorschach plays into a lot of comic-nerd fantasies about being the antihero, and I think his traits that are objectively terrible — especially misogyny and homophobia — are part of that. I think his violence plays into the socialized male violence that’s so popular in that demo, and comic fanboys legit see him not as a badass antihero, but a self-insert.

    I personally liked his character as a fucked-up antihero whose legacy is made very complex by the book’s ending (Watchmen being one fo the few American comics I’ve read), but I also think a lot of the idealization of him that goes above and beyond that says not-nice things about the subculture.

  6. actonthat says:
    That article you linked is expertly-written and terrifying. A quote from Moore in the footnotes seems to back up my feeling that the fandom empathizes with Rorscach’s negative qualities:

    “Moore’s interview with Pindling: “I wanted to … make [Rorschach] as like, ‘this is what Batman would be in the real world’. But I have forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans, ‘smelling’, ‘not having a girlfriend’, these are actually kind of heroic! So Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I made him to be a bad example. But I have people come up to me in the street and saying: ‘I AM Rorschach. That is MY story’. And I’d be thinking: ‘Yeah, great. Could you just, like, keep away from me, never come anywhere near me again as long as I live?’””

Leave a Reply to Farla Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar