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.
Every 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.
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