Before Watchmen – Rorschach 3

rorschach 3 B4W

Today, Shelby and Patrick are discussing Rorschach 3, originally released November 12th, 2012. Rorschach is part of DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series. Click here for complete Before Watchmen coverage (including release dates).

Shelby: One of the many intriguing aspects of the Watchmen universe is the view of our actual history it offers. Alan Moore took the world we lived in and tweaked it just enough to allow for caped superheroes and one very real Super Man. It’s my favorite kind of science fiction; as much as I like far-flung fantasy, I’m most affected by books and stories set in times and places I believe in, that I can personally relate to. Looper is a great example; set about 40 years in the future, the people live basically the same lives we do now, the wealthy just have nicer phones and toys. Brian Azzarello has already shown us he’s very adept at blending history into the Watchmen universe with The Comedian, and with issue 3 of Rorschach, he shows us he’s actually been doing it the whole time here as well, we just didn’t notice.

The issue starts literally where it left off; Rawhead’s goons kick the door in to save their pimp brother-in-arms from any more of Rorschach’s “questions.” Rorschach fends them off, grabs a handful of money from the nightstand, and jumps/falls out the window. He hops in a cab and says “just drive,” which I’m sure we’ve all secretly wanted to do. I only mention it because the taxi driver is the Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle. More on that later. The next day a man and his kids find another one of the Bard’s victims, and Rorschach goes back to the diner. He actually introduces himself to the waitress, and tells her he wants to take her out to dinner to thank her for taking him to the hospital. She doesn’t get off until 11:00 that night, so Ror–Walter has some time to kill. Rawhead decides the best way to find Rorschach is by letting Rorschach find him, so he scoops up a couple of his gals off the street to party. It works, because Rorschach is watching them, but he knows it a trick, and plans to come back after his appointment to clean house. Unfortunately, that’s the point when the blackout of ’77 hits, and Rorschach knows now is the time to act. A fight ensues, and the waitress is left alone in the dark, waiting for Walter when she is approached by a very helpful man whom she recognizes who offers to give her a ride home.

After I first read through this issue, I had no idea what to say. To be honest, this title has never resonated with me very deeply. I’ve only really been able to appreciate it superficially, as a gritty, hard-boiled, 70s crime drama that happens to star Rorschach. I’ve never thought it’s bad, I’ve just never been able to drill down into it. It was the inclusion of Travis Bickle and the blackout that forced me to take a harder look at this issue, and I’m beginning to see more of what Azzarello has been building. I haven’t seen Taxi Driver in a long time; it’s not exactly the kind of flick you want to watch over and over. It’s not surprising, then, that I didn’t make the connection between Rorschach and Bickle as characters until now.

rorschach and travis bickle

These two men have remarkably similar viewpoints of the world. Both believe it to be a dark and twisted place, dirty and vile, where no one cares about anyone else. Both believe that violence is the only way to do the right thing, because violence is the only language the world understands. Whilst scouring the IMDB page for the movie, I came across the line from Bickle: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that was lifted straight out of the pages of Rorschach’s journal. Watchmen was written long after Taxi Driver, so it’s very possible Moore was inspired by the character of Travis Bickle when creating Rorschach. Azzarello has reversed it, set it up so that it is Bickle who is inspired by Rorschach, in this bizarre “life imitates art which imitates other art” sort of loop.

What really made this title snap to focus for me was the blackout. This was a real thing that happened in New York in the summer of 1977, and it lead to a couple days of looting and arson; basically it’s the perfect setting for a Rorschach story. At the time, NY was already living in fear anyway of the Son of Sam killer, played here by the Bard. It’s a time in the history of the city when everything was exactly as bad as Rorschach sees it.

NY blackout

The real question is how is Rorschach going to handle it when the waitress, the one person in the world he attempts to act like a human towards, is killed by the Bard? Right, we assume that’s the Bard who offered her a ride home? He let a personal vendetta get in the way of his one personal relationship; I’d say it will push him over the edge, but with Rorschach that’s practically meaningless. The point is, Azzarello has got the pieces falling into place, and I can’t wait to see how this wraps up.

Patrick: Part of the conversation when Before Watchmen was announced surrounded why the original series should be subjected to prequels. After all, you wouldn’t ever feel entitled to write prequels to Moby Dick or Citizen Cane or Tristan and Isolde. These are solitary works of art, and they exist in a rarified place in our cultural memory – worthy of imitation or parody, but never addition. So the logic extends that Watchmen is not up on the pedestal it deserves if suits like Dan DiDio can simply bark orders for more issues. Azzarello’s insertion of Travis Bickle effectively makes this issue an extension of the Taxi Driver narrative. Does that tread on the toes of Taxi Driver‘s legacy? Should we check in with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro to make sure this story is consistent with their vision of that character or late 1970s New York City?

Azzarello doesn’t seem to make a value-judgment about re-purposing source material either way. Travis is in the story for three pages – just long enough to let the reader know who he is (Lee Bermejo draws a pretty good young-De Niro, but the mole is a dead give-away). Travis doesn’t impact Rorschach in any way, but the implication is that Rorschach inspires Travis to beat the shit out of Harvey Keitel and rescue Jodi Foster. Even though, as Shelby points out, Rorschach’s psychology — as written by Moore — takes its cues from Taxi Driver. What’s more is that real-life black-out featured in this issue seems like a dead ringer for the black-out Moore uses in the original series. What’s reference? What’s homage? What’s a direct sequel, prequel or side-story? And does any of it devalue the source material?

Ultimately, that decision is going to lie with the reader. And the answer will be determined largely by the quality of the story. I’ve read an awful lot of people dismissing the revelations of Minutemen 5 on the grounds that it is inconsistent with what they know about the characters from the original Watchmen. But I believe Darwyn Cooke has made the case and earned the right to present that story. Just as this Rorschach miniseries earns the right to comment on Watchmen, Taxi Driver, actual historical events, and even its own existence, simply by being so good.

Brian Azzarello’s script is deceptively simple and surprisingly sparse. The minimal dialogue frees up Bermejo’s art to alternately depict brutal action sequences or some of the most effective atmospheric moodiness I’ve ever seen. Get a load of this panel:

Rawhead in the rain

Most comic book art is mysterious to me – but this is fucking magical.

I also love the covers of this issue. The primary cover is the image of one of Rawhead’s goons kicking in a door, but the sole of the shoe — in concert with the splintering wood — looks like Rorschach. But this is also sort of the first panel of the issue, as the next image we see is the same character having made slightly more progressing kicking the door in. This lends an immediacy to the cover that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Right? Most covers try to depict some kind of abstraction of the conflict, or simply a striking image inspired by the story. Bermejo’s cover manages both of those feats while also taking place at the exact moment of time before the issue itself starts. It’s remarkable.

Goon kicking in the door

The alternate cover, I need a little more help unpacking. I suspect this is a still from Taxi Driver under a splatter pattern, but I’ve only seen the flick once, and don’t recall this image.

Rorschac 3 alternate cover

Or perhaps this is another reference that I’m not getting. I’ll leave that for the comments.

It’s interesting how strongly this issue pushed away from the issue of Rorschach’s psychology. We barely even get all that much in the way of his journal. And though he is just going through the motions, Walter (whose name is uttered for the first time in the issue) is making an genuine effort to make a human connection here. Sadly, we know how that’s going to turn out, both because we know how he turns out and because we’ve read too many comics to think the waitress will survive this encounter with the Bard.


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?

9 comments on “Before Watchmen – Rorschach 3

  1. Where the other titles go out of their way to fit their events within Watchmen history, Azzarello seems much more interested in just riffing on these characters. How any of this might relate to specific events is entirely incidental — these are character studies. I might even suggest that the appearance of Travis Bickle indicates that Azz isn’t even treating this story as part of the Watchmen continuity — a kind of Legends of the Dark Knight for Rorschach. Taking a work of fiction so ubiquitous calls our attention to the fact that this is a work of fiction. That generally goes without saying, so I suspect that saying it is designed to make it even more fictional than other superhero stories, if that makes any sense. Unless that’s just DeNiro, and Azz is simply suggesting that, in the Watchmen universe, he’s actually a taxi driver.

    • I think that’s what I was dancing around – this is kind of an acknowledgement that all of this is fiction, and there’s no such thing as canon or non-canon material. Here’s Rorschach, here’s Bickles, this is story where their paths cross.

  2. Walter’s attempt to make a human connection is super sad and very telling of the character. He really does not have the skill set required to interact with the world as Walter. When the waitress says she can meet him for dessert and coffee instead of dinner, his only concern is if that will fulfill the societal obligation he has towards her. In his journal he refers to it as an appointment, like a haircut or a trip to the dentist. You can make the argument that this may have been a chance for rehabilitation for Walter, but I think that by this point he was too far gone.

    • Yeah, this is clearly pretty far into his evolution into Rorschach. It’s interesting that he gives his real name, which is something he so adamantly states ISN’T who he is in Watchmen proper. Poor guy.

  3. I’d loved this mini from the beginning, considering it my third favorite just behind Minutemen and Silk Spectre, and this issue finds my appreciation of it drastically increasing and chasing right at the heels of those other two books – what this mini is REALLY making me want is a crossover series by Azz/Bermejo with their Rorschach trying to take down The Joker from their old Joker mini-series; never mind that they are in separate fictional universes. In fact I consider not only the prequel Watchmen universe and Moore’s Watchmen universe to be separate universes, but I also consider each prequel mini-series to be its own pocket universe. Since there can be no real addition, in my mind, to the original Watchmen universe unless it is penned by Moore then this is, to me, all an exercise in re-interperetation and homage. I could easily read 30 issues of an on-going Rorschach, following his simple street adventures, as delivered by this creative team. I don’t find myself very concerned about how this might impace the legacy of Moore’s Watchmen. Moore’s Watchmen will likely continue to stand as the go-to example of a perfectly crafted comic book until someone improbably tops it. A series of sub-par JAWS and Psycho sequels do not alter my appreciate of those films (two of my 5 all-time favorite).

  4. Pingback: Wonder Woman 15 | Retcon Punch

    • I had that thought as well. It seems a little out of character for Bickle, but we’re talking about an author borrowing a fictional character to aid another fictional character in a historical fiction setting, so really anything is possible at this point.

  5. Pingback: Before Watchmen – Rorschach 4 | Retcon Punch

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