Before Watchmen – Rorschach 1

Before WatchmenToday, Drew and Patrick are discussing Rorschach 1, originally released August 15th, 2012. Rorschach is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).

Drew: Before Watchmen has a uphill battle to climb as far as justifying its existence. We’ve already gone over our reactions the the idea, but I feel compelled to reiterate my main objection: Watchmen is a singular and self-contained book, and treating it like a universe where cool stories happen or one of a series of adventures this particular group of characters had is missing the point. That said, I do like these characters, and their universe, but it’s incredibly difficult for me to tell if that means I want to spend more time with them, or if I’m simply drawn to them because of their allegorical significance. The successes of Before Watchmen have side-stepped this issue by delivering stories so outside or even contrary to — our expectations, they really stand on their own (allowing me to ignore any potential desecrations). I was particularly impressed with Brian Azzarello’s work on Comedian 2, where he managed to find enough unclaimed space within the strictures of the character’s history to tell (or at least set-up) a compelling story, which gave me high hopes for his work here. Unfortunately, Rorschach 1 finds less room to breathe, yielding decidedly mixed results.

The issue opens, much like Watchmen, with a slow zoom-out from a drip of blood. This could be just a mindless reference (the kind that certain Before Watchmen titles are a little too keen on), but since that opening in Watchmen is narrated by Rorschach’s journal, I’m intrigued by the idea that this is somehow Rorschach’s perspective. It makes sense that he would focus on the blood, the death, in any case he was working (especially after the Blaire Roche case, which took place two years prior to the events in this issue), so I think that’s actually a compelling read of the opening of Watchmen. I’ve been frustrated at some of the ways the Before Watchmen books have attempted to recontextualize events of the Watchmen, but recontextualizing the presumed objectivity of the narrative is a far more interesting — and rewarding — endeavor.

In fact, I like that idea so much, I’m willing to forgive whatever else might happen in the issue…a charity it unfortunately needs. That blood drip is caused by “the Bard,” a mysterious serial killer who carves poetic messages into the skin of his victims. Meanwhile, Rorschach burst into a private porn theater to interrogate a drug dealer, who gives up that his supplier keeps his stock somewhere in the sewer. After several days of aimlessly searching the sewers, Rorschach finds what he’s looking for…or does he? Turns out, the sewer story was just a ruse used by some kind of disfigured criminal kingpin who calls himself “Crime.” His thugs beat Rorschach and leave him for dead, but Rorschach recovers, vowing revenge.

It’s pretty basic action movie/police procedural stuff, and it’s hard for me to see a character as perfectly conceived as Rorschach being wasted here. Azzarello has a descent handle on Rorschach’s quippy, hard-boiled voice, but he makes a few glaring missteps that drew me out of the story — enough to send me back to my copy of Watchmen to confirm I’m not crazy.

For instance, I knew that Rorschach didn’t hold his mother in very high esteem, but I also knew that he did have some pity for his landlady (who reminded him of his mother), and that he held his father — whom he’d presumably never met — in unreasonably high esteem. I’ve never know how Rorschach reconciled the polar-opposite opinions he had of his parents, but I always thought they had to temper each other. Even if the talk of his father was a put-on for his journal, he still had to somehow explain how a “good man” came to sire a child with a child-beating prostitute. It seems to me, then, that Rorschach isn’t capable of acknowledging openly hostile feelings towards his mother — at least not in his journal (which he never does in Watchmen) — but that’s exactly what he does here, parenthetically adding “may she rot in hell” at the mere mention of her name.

I was also under the impression that Rorschach’s journal was hand-written, based on this and other images of him writing in it.


So why, then, are his journal entries typeset here? And not just typeset; noticeably typeset, replete with a typewriter font and strikethroughs (which clearly only exist to draw attention to the fact that this was written on a typewriter). I understand the sentiment that Rorschach is a bit of a crank — the kind who would have a manual typewriter and write crazy things on it — but this completely ignores the utility of the journal. Immediately after he finishes the entry from the panel above, he places the journal in his pocket, and heads out on patrol. He couldn’t get that kind of flexibility from a typewriter. This may seem like a petty detail, but the choice to make the journal typeset here was clearly deliberate, which only makes me scratch my head. Maybe this will be the story of why he switched to a pen and notebook?

That actually brings me to another change between the Rorschach we see here and the one in Watchmen, but one I think makes a whole lot more sense. We know Rorschach to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but also an astute one. He knew from the instant Blake died that someone was out to kill masks. That didn’t turn out to be the whole story exactly, but his profound distrust and diligence paid off in revealing the truth. Here, he takes a criminal at his word, and ends up falling into a pretty simple trap. The Rorschach of Watchmen wouldn’t have let that happen, but I love the thought that that’s because this one did. This is a Rorschach still making mistakes, and still learning from them. That’s clever seed-planting, one that respects the complexity of the character we know from Watchmen.

I was pretty hot and cold on this issue. There were some brilliant moments, and there were some that directly conflicted with my own reading of Watchmen. I suppose there are worse crimes than making me think and re-read my favorite comic book, but that’s such a weird goal for a work of art to strive towards. I’m curious to hear what you thought about this issue, Patrick — did this annoy you at all, or am I just being picky?

Patrick: The typed vs. handwritten journal issue is interesting for precisely the reason you mention: it is overtly in conflict with what we know about the character. If the splattery courier font weren’t enough, Rorschach makes frequent typographical errors. Now, the effect of seeing an intentional error in a book does take the reader out of the work, if only for a second. You have to process “did I just see Rorschach’s mistake or did I see Azzarello’s mistake?” I know it doesn’t take long to understand what you’re reading and re-immerse yourself in the story, but there is a split second there where your brain has to confront the reality of what you’re reading. So, why is that like that? I think it’s a signal that what we’re reading isn’t what we think it is. I suspect we have a criticism of Before Watchmen in our hands.

Hang with me y’all, I’m taking this Alternating Current into murky-ass territory.

Rorschach’s meeting with the deformed crime boss in the sewer is strange. The man is introduced upside down (which is pretty cool) but it’s what really strikes me is his reaction to meeting Rorschach. He says:

Rorschach. Huh. For some reason I thought… Dude, you do not measure up to your myth. I mean, what the hell? I cooked up this elaborate scheme just to take you down? What was I thinking? Big bad Rorschach. Well, bad, anyway. Frankly, I’m disappointed in myself. That I stooped to your level. […] You know what’s under that mask? Nothing that matters. In this case it’s the mask that makes the corpse. And the front page.

For me, it was the “Dude, you do not measure up to your myth” that got me thinking. The Watchmen myth is an impossible thing to measure up to – so much so, that I’ve never had a conversation about any of these issues without referring back to the original series. Check any of our previous Before Watchmen write-ups: invariably, the source material comes up in the discussion. And even when we like what we read, there’s always that “but why did it have to be Watchmen?” question attached. Our scarred-up mob boss is a lot like you, Drew – he’s finally got more Rorschach, but he can’t believe how much he’s let down by it. He doesn’t even want to reveal Rorschach’s identity, because it’s not the content that’s going to sell Before Watchmen, it’s the bankable facade. He even goes so far as to say he’s disappointed in himself for stooping down to his level. That sounds like it could be the voice of a reluctant author who can’t believe he tried to tap this particular creative well.

Now, before anyone starts to tell me that I’m seeing something that’s not there, I wanna make two points. First, I think that’s a pretty compelling argument. Second, it doesn’t matter if it’s there or not: that’s what I see – like the fucking ink blots. Do you notice the slight character inconsistencies Drew pointed out above? Did you recognize the detectives here from the main series? Did you see more Watchmen? Did you see a perversion of a thing you love? Are you just reading a fun grizzled-detective story? Or are you reading a take-down of the very institution of which this series is a part?

And regardless of what you make of the story content, the art here is incredible. Putting Rorschach front and center means the series absolutely has a slavish devotion to a kind of lopsided symmetry with lots of black, inky spaces. Artist Lee Barmejo and colorist Barbara Ciardo manage this feat so gracefully, it’s easy to forget they’re doing it. Look at this giant sprawling view of New York City:

You see how the black space of the buildings plays off the clouds and LOOKS LIKE RORSCHACH’S FACE? There’s a lot of that sort of thing in these pages. Also, the lighting and texturing are exceptionally dynamic in this series. I assume we should be crediting Ciardo, but whoever the magician is that’s responsible for this kind of lighting deserves a metal.

I hold Brian Azzarello in pretty high regard, and I genuinely can’t wait to see what all he ends up exploring with this character.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

10 comments on “Before Watchmen – Rorschach 1

  1. That’s a solid, compelling read, Patrick — one that is not only more pleasant to think about, but is also more fitting with what we know of Azzarello’s work. That pretty much knocks down all of my criticisms about the story being too boring and straightforward. This may seem illogical given that I didn’t make this connection, but in light of this reading, I still dislike the typeset journal, but now because it makes the commentary too obvious. We still need to believe that this is Rorschach’s journal, or this has the potential to become an essay on the idea of Before Watchmen accompanied by neat pictures. I’d still probably want to read that essay (especially if Azz is writing it), but it’s not nearly as clever as a story that makes that commentary. Calling the authenticity of Rorschach’s journal into question (even on a meta-narrative level) is perhaps too close to allowing the story to lose its coherence.

    • I don’t take it as an overly obvious cue. You joke about it in your lead portion, but maybe Rorschach does switch over to the type-writer during / the course of this story. Not only does he seem a little less thorough in his detective work, he might just be a little less impoverished and crazy. I mean, he seems to be hanging out in a diner, and those employees could almost be considered friends. Maybe this is when he still had the means own and operate a typewriter.

  2. Also, kinda cool that the name “Walter Kovacs” doesn’t appear in this issue at all. More than any of the rest of the heroes in this universe, Rorschach IS Rorschach – that’s where the story is.

  3. The idea that he used to use a typewriter isn’t all the weird to me. I bet that it’s an older style typewriter that could use 1 continuous ribbon. If Rorschach started here, and continued into a downward style of paranoia, he could have abandoned the typewriter because using a discarded ribbon, one could decipher what Rorschach was writing. All they would have to do is look in his trash.

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