Before Watchmen – Rorschach 2

Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Rorschach 2, originally released October 3rd, 2012. Rorschach is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).

Patrick: Rorschach’s a hypocrite. I don’t know how clear that is in the original series. When you consider the costumed hero type, there’s a little bit of hypocrisy built right into the concept of “the law doesn’t apply to me.” One of the first things we see Rorschach do under Alan Moore’s pen is break a man’s fingers for essentially no reason. But Rorschach also distrusts humanity because he sees people as inherently self-interested and unwilling to help their fellow man. Moore makes this point explicit in issue #6, as Rorschach relays the story of Kitty Genovese to Dr. Long:

Kitty Genovese. Raped. Tortured. Killed. Here. In New York. Outside her own apartment building. Almost forty neighbors heard screams. Nobody did anything. Nobody called cops. Some of them even watched. Do you understand? Some of them even watched. I knew what people were then, behind all the evasions, all the self-deception. Ashamed for humanity, I went home.

But Brian Azzarello adds another layer of self-deception, this time to Rorschach himself.

Last time we saw Rorschach, he just had the shit kicked out of him. It is in this state that he walks into his favorite greasy spoon diner. The waitress recognizes Walter Kovacs’ face, and offers him a free upgrade to a hearty (and balanced!) breakfast. The only thing she asks in return (even as she’s horrified by the blood streaming out of his face) is his name. No dice: he storms out and exacts little revenge on some thugs employed by Rawhead — that crime boss from the first issue. He stumbles back to his apartment to type some of this up for the ol’ journal, but realizes there’s no food in the house. So, Rorschach does something strange: he returns to the diner. Against the line-cook’s specific instructions, the waitress seats him at a booth in the back of the restaurant.  Rorschach promptly vomits blood and passes out.

Three days later, our hero wakes up in the hospital. He steals some medical supplies and sneaks out before the waitress (who’s come to check on him) can talk to him. Rorschach shakes down a pimp in Rawhead’s criminal syndicate. Incidentally, he rescues a prostitute that was being hassled by the aforementioned pimp. And while Rorschach’s shattered-glass-in-the-mouth-interrogation-tactics are grizzly and awesome, I wanna rewind this a bit.

For me, this issue isn’t about all the ways Rorschach kicks ass, but all the ways he’s deficient. The waitress at the diner genuinely cares about him and — unlike the criminal psychologist that teases an origin story out of Walter Kovacs — has nothing to gain from her kindness. But Rorschach actively avoids her. Perhaps this is because he’s long since let his non-crime fighting identity slip away, and the thought of letting “Walter Kovacs” build relationships is unacceptable. But the fact remains, he is rejecting the very phenomenon he claims doesn’t exist.

Last time, we talked (a lot) about Rorschach’s typed journal, and I think our close reading is rewarded here. Rorschach makes a lot of typos in this issue — and their frequency goes up considerably when he’s feeling ill. In fact, you can also see the blood that dripped off his face staining the pages of his journal. The physicality of his journal is DEFINITELY something we’re supposed to notice. The journal itself — in all of its messy, typo-laden glory — is our only window into the mind of this character. And that window shows us a lot of the same prejudices expressed by Moore’s version of the character. This page, where he returns to his apartment, is kind of the crux of the character in this issue:

The first panel is literally a window into the character’s life — HINT. His journal pages spout the usual “everyone is terrible” and the newspaper clippings posted on his wall are hilariously grim (including the genius “Dead Cat Found in Gunshot Victim!!!”). But this outlook on humanity is unhealthy and unsustainable, and while he can’t bring himself to ask for help, he does go back to the place where he knows he’ll be helped.

Rorschach’s a stubborn motherfucker, so to maintain this attitude, he has to actively shut out the woman who seems to be showing an interest in him. Azzarello and artist Lee Barmejo are shockingly unsentimental about this tacit rejection. The writing (again, only in Rorschach’s journal) is brief, never letting on that there’s something heart-breakingly sad at play here. And when the waitress is unable to find Rorschach, she finds herself alone in the hospital surrounded by distant, uninterested people.

And this all sits against the background of two discrete crime stories (or at least, they seem separate to me at this juncture). One is Rawhead’s vendetta against Rorschach and the other is the on-going killing spree at the hands of the mysterious Bard. I don’t know what to make of either of them, but there’s definitely some thematic unity here. Rawhead’s face is horribly disfigured, and Rorschach mentions that “Name doesn’t matter. Only face does.” Also, we know that Rorschach considers his mask to be his true face. There’s something there, but I don’t know what it is.

If there’s a loose connection between Rorschach and the Bard, I’ll leave it to you, Drew. Rorschach starts to talk about the Bard’s reputation, but his comments are slight, saying only that the mythic name gives the mystery of the Bard some weight. Maybe we can draw that back to our conversation last month about the perils of evoking such a powerful name, but I don’t think the idea is clearly developed herein — Azzarello may just be planting the seeds here. What’d you read into this thing?
Drew: It had never really occurred to me before reading this mini that Watchmen does a really brilliant job towing the line of Rorschach’s sanity. Yes, he’s a paranoid, sadistic, frighteningly driven individual with an essentially post-apocalyptic outlook, but he’s also right. Nobody believes his conspiracy theories until its arguably too late, but he was the only one astute enough to see the patterns and collect the evidence. That vindication paired with Moore’s incremental explanation of what lead Rorschach to become Rorschach begs the question: is Rorschach crazy, or is he the only sane response to the world that spawned him?

As I sat down to write this, I was convinced Azzarello was coming down on the “crazy” side, but there may be more ambiguity here than I thought. Sure, he has to rebuff the waitress for fear of having some of his faith in humanity restored, but he doesn’t have to look very hard to find more of the kind of violence that drove him to that extreme in the first place. This actually recasts Rorschach’s madness as a knowing sacrifice of his humanity, rather than the hopeless spiral towards insanity. Even if that’s just how Rorschach chooses to see it — we stay too close to his perspective to get any real sense of objectivity — it’s a vital part of his character.

Compare Rorschach’s characterization here to the one we’ve hated so much in Nite Owl. In that story, Rorschach’s picketing alter-ego isn’t a clever way of staying unnoticed by the masses; it’s a manifestation of his true beliefs. You’ll note that I referred to it as Rorschach’s alter-ego and NOT “Walter Kovacs,” which I think is another huge mistake J. Michael Straczynski has made in that title. Walter Kovacs doesn’t exist. Rorschach doesn’t turn into Kovacs when he takes off his “face” — he simply disappears. He doesn’t have a personal life, he doesn’t have friends, and he doesn’t go to church. Azzarello understands this, which is why we haven’t seen the name “Walter Kovacs” even once in this series.

Part of Rorschach’s fear of the waitress getting too close may simply be that he’s been noticed at all. This is probably the first time he’s ever been asked his name in a very long time. And she doesn’t just ask him his name — first she point out that she waits on him almost every day. Asking his name is only a prelude to asking for his story, and I’m not sure Rorschach has ever needed one.

I mentioned how close this series stays to Rorschach’s perspective, which I think is the true key to getting us to empathize with him. It’s hard to understand Rorschach’s pessimistic worldview when the world is bright and clean, but this issue gives us essentially nothing to be optimistic about — that is, aside from the kindness of the waitress, which Rorschach ignores completely. Lee Bermejo really sells this dour outlook, giving us a sense of how Rorschach views the world.

If this were Silk Spectre, the rat and the dog would probably be buddiesEvery panel is dripping with violence and grime — even those set in the hospital (in fact, the first thing Rorschach sees when he comes to at the hospital is the creeping mold on the ceiling tiles). Barbara Ciardo’s splashy colors only enhance that crushing pessimism. If the world is that bad, Rorschach does kind of make sense, which leaves only the question of “is the world actually that bad?” which Azzarello brilliantly pushes to the margin of the story — that’s not a question Rorschach would consider, so we won’t, either.

Patrick, I love your reading of Rorschach’s return to the diner as his only way of asking for help. Relying on the kindness of others is NOT something he would be comfortable with, and it’s kind of surprising to see him do it. At the same time, he mentions that he comes to Bellevue often to remind him he’s “at war.” Is that meant to suggest that he might have checked himself in in the past? If so, did he not realize how far gone he was? Was his reliance on the waitress an accident?

Azzarello is taking this story in all the right directions. His Rorschach is as alluring and horrifying as Moore’s, with the same kind of internal logic that just might not hold up to outside scrutiny. This is the kind of detail-oriented love-letter that manages to convey respect for the source material — it essentially acts as a reader’s guide to Rorschach. Azzarello has done well to spend two issues winning me over — now I’m ready for the story to begin.

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?

22 comments on “Before Watchmen – Rorschach 2

  1. Rorschach isn’t mad. He’s ill, no doubt, but he’s not mad. I don’t think he actively rejects the waitress’s attempts at kindness in order to maintain his personal truth. There’s comes a point in any mental disorder (depression, paranoia, whatever) where you just can’t recognize people on the outside are trying to offer help; you’re just too far deep.

    It could also be as simple as Rorschach doesn’t recognize kindness. He’s basically spent his entire life without it. It could be that he returned to the diner because he knew he needed [……], and that waitress gave him the […….] he needed.

    • I think that’s the ambiguity Drew is referring to. “Madness” may be too crude a term to describe what Rorschach’s going through, but I almost feel like “ill” is lacking too. Rorschach’s perspective is hyper-rational and — again per issue #6 of the original — compelling enough to drag mentally healthy people to a similar world-view. I think we’re meant to ask the question of what it would take to turn this character’s life around – knowing full well that he never will.

      • Yes. I’m not totally sold on any one reading, but I think there is some intentional element of blocking kindness from his consciousness. If he saw it as completely benign, he probably wouldn’t mind telling this woman his name. I think the fact that his rebuffs aren’t simply passive suggests that he’s choosing to behave this way. I’m not sure if that’s a conscious choice, but it reminds me of the kind of negative-feedback loops that can isolate people with depression.

        • I don’t know, man, I feel like we’re getting dangerously close to the idea that people suffering from depression and other mental disorders choose to be the way they are. I guess it all hinges on what you (the individual reader, not YOU specifically, Drew) believe to be the source of Rorschach’s lack of faith.

        • I think part of the problem here is that we’re talking about “intention.” If Rorschach’s condition (however we want to define it) informs the decisions he’s making, he’s still making those decisions – even if he hates those decisions, they’re still his decisions. No one’s trying to “blame” Rorschach – it’s just showing how hard it is for him to get the help me needs.

        • I can see how this is getting icky, but I mostly meant that Rorschach isn’t isolated out of passivity, like I think he likes to pretend. He’s taking action to remain isolated — which I think does require some level of intent — in order to maintain his belief that people are inherently selfish, inherently amoral beings.

          This brings up an interesting question: why does Rorschach fight crime in the first place? Who does he think he’s saving? Does he believe that he’s the only moral, selfless person ON EARTH?

  2. Not only do we not get the name “Walter Kovacs” in here, I don’t think we get any real names. “Rawhead,’ “The Bard,” and we’ve been saying “The waitress” (like on Always Sunny!)

  3. I often like to let myself believe Rorschach’s character, no matter how much his presence moves forward the plot in Watchman and how iconic to the series he is, that he is little more than Moore’s gallows humor interperetation of Steve Ditko’s extreme personal philosophies as delivered via his Charleton works Mr. A and The Question. There is the story that shortly before Ditko quit Marvel he took a piece of paper, drew a rectangle which was divided by a line in the center, and shaded one half of the rectangle in completely black; he showed it to a co-worker and explained to that person that there is only right and wrong – nothing in between. Moore once laughed in an interview with Jonathan Ross about an anticdote where Ditko had been asked if he knew of Rorschach and Ditko responded “Oh, yes, he’s like Mr. A – only crazy.” Moore, of course, thought this was hilarious since the overt Randian objectivism in the Mr. A stories had long painted Ditko as being something of an outsider nutjob and his characters Mr. A and The Question doubly so. But sometimes I think placing Moore’s character in the context of his definite influence does a disservice to how compelling and strange a character Rorschach is in his own right – I love Drew’s points about the waitress’ request for Rorschach’s name being the tip to an iceberg of information he has no desire to provide her and the implied reasons he has forsaken a civilian identity. There are a lot of mysteries as to Rorschach’s particular brand of mental illness. We were given depictions of the source of his childhood trauma several times in the original story, most brillianty in one-panel flashes while he is giving false answers during a literal Rorschach test. What is less obvious is the end result – the exact nature of his logic; he seems to behave somewhat sociopathically as far as having no emotional reaction to his own violent methods and yet not only does he have a very good idea of the difference between right and wrong – he’s obsessed with it. I’m drunk

    • A lot of good thoughts here (not the least of which being “I’m drunk”). I don’t know much about Mr. A and the Question other than that they served as inspiration for Rorschach, but it had really never occurred to me how the decisions made by the creators of those Carleton characters affected the final product of Watchmen. We talk a lot about how the characters are very basic archetypes, but the decision of which archetypes wasn’t something Moore made in a vacuum.

      It had also never occurred to me how profoundly dumb it is to attempt to use a Rorschach test on a guy who calls himself “Rorschach.” At best, he understands the purpose of the exercise and can game the system; at worst, it feeds into his psychosis. That doctor really was a quack.

      • There’s one other thing I’ve always felt Moore was trying to put into his portrayal of the Rorschach character which ties back to Ditko: to hear steven talk about social issues or read some of his more extreme comics work most would paint him as an obsessive outsider with very curious personal beliefs. BUT, if you look at the decisions he’s made over the years based on these philosophies you can’t help but get the idea that this guy is absolutely full of integrity – when Marvel told him that he could not make the secret identity of The Green Goblin in Spider-Man (a book he had been plotting without Stan Lee since the earliest issues) to be a complete stranger and that they would prefer someone who has already been shown as a supporting character so that it would be a more shocking reveal then Steve politely left the company to pursue more creative freedom (and he did so without any confrontation.) When Spider-Man exploded into becoming a multi-billion dollar property and Stan Lee went around for decades declaring himself the sole creator of the character, what did Ditko do? Well, he never once asked for a single dollar for co-creating the character. He understood perfectly well that he had been working under a ‘work for hire’ contract and that to ask for more compensation than what he was offered at the time of the work would be unethical of him. He simply wanted Stan to write him a letter stating that Steve was himself a co-creator of the character and this would put things right as far as he was concerned. Rorschach, despite his ridiculous worldview, is arguably the character (besides Nite Owl, perhaps) that we end up respecting most by the end of the book. Sober this time


          No, that’s all good information about Ditko. I don’t really know ANYTHING about his take on what are essentially those same characters. It’s that same sportsmanlike attitude toward serialized stories and characters that I wish the fan community embraced. Especially when – as you point out – Moore’s Rorschach might have been motivated by playing into / against archetypes, Azz’ Rorschach wants to explore how hard that psychology would be for a human being. That’s different, but also valuable and all goes toward making the character (as he exists in our minds and memories) richer

          Granted, they’re not all homeruns (NITEOWLNITEOWLNITEOWL), but I’m mostly happy that DC let some new butchers have their way with this sacred cow.

        • Yeah Azz and Cook redeem the writing side of the whole project for me and totally justified the existence of their minis

  4. So, I just saw the cover for tomorrow’s Dr. Manhattan #2 on the Diamond website… how many more issues before the ‘conveniently blocking his [insert your favorite word for the male reproductive organ here] with Silk Spectre’s head’ trick stops being feasible?

  5. I think (and im just bullshitting here) the bard is gonna carve miss blond waitress and rorschach will kill the man who just cut up the body of the ONLY WOMAN to show him any sort of kindness….rorschach is a character who is in constant battle with himself (also mentioned in nite owl #2) he so desperately wants to believe that the world is horrible and he has every right to believe that but sometimes he is proven wrong….he refuses to accept it.He knows it but just cant accept it….it is quite sad…that is one of the ways we sympathize,it isnt just the childhood but also the way he lives.
    The depth to the sadness is only realized when you understand (or so i think) that the journal isnt really diary entries yknow,its not what happens to him daily.The journal is actually rorschach trying to convince himself that the world is messed up and he is the only moral authority…he is really insecure.

    Women play a huge role in walter’s life
    His mom – walter loses his childhood….didnt have much to begin with in the first place
    Kitty Genovese-walter puts on the mask
    Blair Roche (i think that’s what her name was)-pretty MADE walter into rorschach
    and now blond waitress…i really think azzarello is aware of this and thats why i started off by saying that something is going to happen to her

  6. Say what you like about Rorschach, but I could of used a real life Rorschach when my step father was torturing me and the police were too corrupt and incompetent to do anything.

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