Alan Moore’s Watchmen And Rorschach: Does The Character Set A Bad Example?

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A confused mixture of sighs and laughter ensued as I read Brian Doherty’s column on Reason Online entitled “Rorschach Doesn’t Shrug: The Watchmen’s hero as Objectivist saint.” The entire premise of Doherty’s essay was an effort to paint Rorschach as the “moral center” of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. Doherty, a published author and senior editor at Reason magazine, presented several examples of the bone-breaking and murder-friendly vigilante that framed him as someone to be admired instead of feared and pitied.

Doherty reflected on Rorschach as a misunderstood but morally outstanding figure, smeared and misconstrued by whiny and weak liberals. On more than one occasion, Doherty pointed out that Rorschach operates on a pure code of objective right and wrong, a code that he will not compromise for anyone, making him a romantic individualist hero of which “[Ayn] Rand would have been proud.” But Rorschach is not a heroic purist because he delivers his judgments on an individual basis instead of operating within a collectivist structure—he is, at his core, a pained psychopath looking for an end.

The most important element of the entire Watchmen story is that all of the superheroes within its pages are caricatures designed to demonstrate how silly, ridiculous, and sad superheroes would actually be if they existed. Rorschach is no exception. He’s not in the comic to exhibit an irony that the one person labeled as “crazy” is actually the sole figure operating logically and rationally in the world around him. While Doherty praised Rorschach as a character worthy of Randian values, he missed the entire point of Moore’s story: “Who watches the watchmen?” Moore used Rorschach as the most extreme example of pavement-pounding vigilantism to demonstrate to his readers that no one in their right mind would want someone like that wandering around exacting his or her own uncompromising (and brutally violent) sense of justice.

It’s apparent that Rorschach hunts down the worst of society’s ills, criminals that few would defend: rapists, pimps, murderers, gang leaders, and thieves. Most would turn an eye to someone like Rorschach taking such hardened criminals down. But where does Rorschach’s brutal brand of justice end? This is where Doherty’s argument in favor of the character’s objective values weakens, as Rorschach is filled with a lot of silly and weird quirks and prejudices that are all subjective aspects of his own personality. For example, Rorschach is an obvious misogynist who refers to the Comedian’s attempted rape of Sally Jupiter as a “moral lapse.” When informed that his own mother (a child-beating prostitute) was killed by her pimp, Rorschach only answered with one word: “Good.” He also harasses the villain Moloch (who’s dying of cancer) over non-prescribed painkillers he’s popping as well as an unlicensed handgun he owns. Homosexuality is something else that Rorschach finds unsettling, as he obsesses over Adrian Veidt’s sexuality and deems it worthy to thoroughly investigate.

All of the discriminatory beliefs listed above not only demonstrate that Rorschach is not a hero working from an objective set of values, but that he’s also silly in just how apolitical he really is. America’s farce of a drug war, for example, is something liberals revel in as much as conservatives, despite Rorschach’s continuous snide comments about left-wingers. His menacing concern over Moloch’s unlicensed handgun is also an amusingly obsessive aspect of Rorschach’s character—something I think Doherty would agree with me on, considering the fact that he authored a book entitled Gun Control on Trial. All of these attributes add up to Moore’s entire premise of the book, that no one person—especially not Rorschach—has the right to decide the enactment of justice. If he did not die at the end of the story, the day could have very well occurred when Rorschach decided that all women and homosexuals deserved to be punished and that he was the only one capable of doing so. And like the Ouroboros, the story returns to its basic premise: “Who watches the watchmen?”

Doherty’s column turned comical when he pitched the idea that Ayn Rand, based upon her ideals and political beliefs, should have been the one who invented the superhero model. Thankfully, Rand spent a generous amount of time cheating on her husband and hammering out painfully boring novels, so that she was left with no time to take a stab at polluting the superhero pool. To even suggest that the concept of the superhero should have been spawned from Rand’s droning imagination simplifies the symbolism of superheroes to an absurd degree. Masked warriors by their very nature fight for people who cannot defend themselves and act on behalf of a larger cause, which evokes a word that is pure profanity within the Randian lexicon—altruism. Ayn Rand was a woman who penned a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness, vehemently apposed any and all forms of charity, and promoted pure and unfettered laissez-faire capitalism. But don’t take my word for it. In a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, Ayn Rand explained, in part, what she felt was wrong humankind’s morality: “I am challenging the moral cult of altruism, the precept that man’s moral duty is to live for others, that man must sacrifice himself to others, which is the present-day morality.” Meanwhile, superheroes by their very nature fight, suffer wounds, endure physical and emotional pain, and even die—all in the ultimate pursuit of a future greater than any one person.

Randian devotees and libertarians can take comfort that the medium of comic books has not totally forgotten their values, however. If one was to draw up a list of characters that rejoice in sheer selfishness and celebrate total personal gain, it would look something like this: Lex Luthor, the Kingpin, the Hood, Dr. Doom, the Penguin, the Green Goblin, etc. While I may sound facetious and even a bit crass in suggesting these characters, most of them are self-made industrialists and entrepreneurs, as well as sharing in the core Randian principal of complete self-interest and personal reward.

Concerning the inspiration responsible for Rorschach’s particular creation, it’s true that the character is designed somewhat after Steve Ditko’s conception of the Question, but it doesn’t reach far past that. All of the characters in Watchmen are used as tools to demonstrate the silliness, absurdity, torment, and sorrow that actual living superheroes would ultimately embody. In the case of Rorschach, he’s a parallel of Batman. But I won’t try to explain something that Moore has already articulated himself. In an interview he gave to LeJorne Pindling of Street Law Productions in 2008, Moore said the following:

You could put a superhero in the real world for a dramatic effect, because they are kind of stupid. They got these tight costumes, stupid names; they’re kind of unbelievable, so if you actually put them in the real world and have people reacting to them the way that people would, you’d laugh at them, you’d be scared of them. It would be a different way of looking at them, so that’s what went mostly into Watchmen.

“[Gibbons and I] thought about superhero types like Batman, so I thought, ‘What would he be like in the real world.’ And he’d be very much like Rorschach—if you’re a revenge-driven vigilante, you’re not quite right in the head. Yeah, alright, your parents got killed when you were a kid, whatever, that’s upsetting. But for most of us, if our parents were killed when we were little, would not become a bat-themed costumed vigilante—that’s a bit mental.

So, I thought, ‘Alright, if there was a Batman in the real world, he probably would be a bit mental.’ He wouldn’t have time for a girlfriend, friends, a social life, because he’d just be driven by getting revenge against criminals… dressed up as a bat for some reason. He probably wouldn’t be very careful about his personal hygiene. He’d probably smell. He’d probably eat baked beans out of a tin. He probably wouldn’t talk to many people. His voice probably would have become weird with misuse, his phraseology would be strange.

“I wanted to kind of make this like, ‘Yeah, this is what Batman would be in the real world.’ But I had forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans that smelling, not having a girlfriend—these are actually kind of heroic. So actually, sort of, Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I meant him to be a bad example, but I have people come up to me in the street saying, ‘I am Rorschach! That is my story!’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘Yeah, great, can you just keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again for as long as I live?’”

The most important aspect of Doherty’s column concerns Rorschach’s unwillingness to compromise his values and his ultimate death at the hands of Dr. Manhattan for not relenting what he believes in. While it was removed from Snyder’s film adaptation, Rorschach does compromise his principles by the end of the Watchmen comic book. In the source material, he’s forced to retrieve a spare costume from his apartment, at which time he’s confronted by his landlady (a woman who lied to the press by saying that Rorschach sexually pursued her out of costume) and her brood of wailing brats. Though he was more than ready to punish the woman through violence, Rorschach relented when he saw one of the landlady’s frightened sons. In the child’s tear-streaked face, he saw himself—someone on the road to psychological ruin because of the irresponsible actions of his parent. Instead of condemning the kid to a future as damned as his own, Rorschach compromised his values to help another person.

Rorschach’s finale in the frozen landscape of Antarctica does demonstrate his unwillingness to concede, but he’s also using his own persona to end his life. Within the plot of the story, Rorschach knew he didn’t have to return to civilization to reveal the truth of Ozymandias’s plot; he already handed his journal over to the press, which was being read at the conclusion of the book. He was confidant that the truth behind the world’s newly founded peace as well as his memory was preserved. None the less, he still faced off against Dr. Manhattan outside of Ozymandias’s stronghold; consistently shouting at the blue god to “do it,” while ripping away his morphing mask only to reveal tears streaming down his face. He was ready for it all to be over.

Moore gave an interview to the BBC documentary Comics Britannia, in which he concluded the ultimate meaning behind Rorschach better than I ever could; he’s not an uncompromising figure of Randian virtue, but a tormented soul searching for an end: “It wasn’t until halfway through that we [Gibbons and Moore] realized Rorschach wouldn’t survive the book. It just became obvious; we realized that this was a character if ever there was a character that had a king-sized death wish. He was in pain, psychological pain, every moment of his life, and he wanted out of it, but with honor—in whatever his own twisted standards of honor might have been.”

This essay originally appeared on Comic News on 26 March 2009.

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About Author

Steven Surman has been writing for over 10 years. His essays and articles have appeared in a variety of print and digital publications, including the Humanist, the Gay & Lesbian Review, and A&U magazine. His website and blog, Steven Surman Writes, collects his past and current nonfiction work. Steven’s a graduate of Bloomsburg University and the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and he currently works as the Content Marketing Manager for a New York City-based media company. His first book, Bigmart Confidential: Dispatches from America's Retail Empire, is a memoir detailing his time working at a big-box retailer. Please contact him at steven@stevensurman.com.

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