A pretty butterfly

rorschach1The vigil continues with this post from Steven S. Long, regarding that comics paragon of sanity and restraint – not that we want to go diving headfirst into anything, as many would agree. For previous crimes, see Eat hot lead, comics reader, What was the question again?, The Big Bang, Wicked good, Vigilantes R Us, In Darkest Knight, and The not so secret cabal.

STEVE LEAVES THE HUMAN COCKROACHES TO THEIR HEROIN AND CHILD PORNOGRAPHY

What’s there to say about Rorschach that hasn’t already been said? Probably not a lot, really. As one of the, if not the, key figures in a comic book that’s been phenomenally influential since its release, Rorschach and his cohorts have been the subject of a lot of books, blogs, articles, online posts, fan discussions, and heaven knows what else. Still I’d like to take a crack at it, because the character has fascinated me from the moment I encountered him. Watchmen #6 is definitely in the running for my single favorite issue of any comic ever. A potent mix of the Punisher, Rorschach, and the Scourge of the Underworld is what led me to create the character who would in turn inspire me to write Dark Champions — and thus in effect my entire writing career. So I owe Old Squiggle-Face a creative debt.

But in the context of Rorschach-as-vigilante, I think some contradictions and difficulties arise. While he may seem black and white (pun absolutely intended), I believe there’s more to him than most people see.

Included in the discussion should he so choose.

First, though, I have to acknowledge that there’s one initial hurdle (at least for me) in analyzing Rorschach, and that’s this: too much of him is a caricature. Based on what I know of Alan Moore’s personality and politics, I think that a significant part of what he’s doing is to deliberately show something he dislikes — Rorschach specifically, and perhaps vigilantism in general — in a bad light. That means we’re getting a skewed view of a character, not the more “true” view that a writer without an axe to grind would, in theory, give us. (I think the same can be said for the government in V For Vendetta.)

The way I see it, to Moore the idea that anyone would put on a mask and go out to fight crime, particularly in violent and brutal ways, is a mark of insanity. More broadly, I suspect that strong devotion to a cause — Justice, say, or one’s country (patriotism) — also falls within his definitions of insanity, to some degree.

At least for vigilante crimefighting, I’m not saying Moore might not have a strong argument (I’ve written about that myself in the past). But I think he’s bought into that viewpoint so strongly that he can’t even begin to portray a vigilante character “fairly.” Instead he exaggerates their unlikeable tendencies to emphasize his point with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull. So besides being a vigilante (and thus de facto insane), Rorschach is also “indiscriminately” (see below) violent. He has no social skills. He has no personal hygiene. Everything about him is dysfunctional. Similarly, the Comedian isn’t just a patriot and wetwork operative, he’s overly macho, a misogynist, a rapist, implies he shot JFK, and so on. (Intriguingly, both of the most “dislikeable” Watchmen also have the only unattractive faces in the group; Moore can’t even allow them to be physically pleasing.)

Thus, in Rorschach I think we have, to some extent, a character who’s every bit as much a strawman as Ditko’s Mr. A, who inspired him — just a strawman in the opposite direction. (Someone supposedly asked Ditko what he thought of Rorschach, and Ditko said Rorschach was “like Mr. A, but insane.”) So I have to analyze him with that in mind.

And what I find, as I peel back the surface layers of a driven man with deep mental problems, is a vigilante who’s not presented consistently. And I’m not entirely sure Moore’s capable of presenting him consistently because he’s so intent on making Rorschach, and what he sociopolitically stands for, look bad that he hasn’t given enough thought to what truly makes Rorschach “tick” (pun not intended that time).

One of the first things we hear from Rorschach is this:

Nobody cares but me. Are they right? Is it futile? … Why does one death matter against so many? Because there is good and evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this.

Well and good. That sounds like the typical sort of vigilante motivation we all know and love. And Rorschach certainly lives up to that philosophy at the very end of the tale.

But then we jump forward to issue #6, where Rorschach eventually explains himself in full to his psychiatrist (and thereby to us). Here he says:

Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphisical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. … Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world.

Similarly, a few pages earlier, he utters the most profound statement in the entire book:

Understood man’s capacity for horrors and never quit. Saw the world’s black underbelly and never surrendered. Once a man has seen, he can never turn his back on it. Never pretend it doesn’t exist. No matter who orders him to look the other way. We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we are compelled.

rorschach2So who exactly is Rorschach? Is he a crimefighter dedicated to Justice at any cost? Or is he just one actor in a nihilstic universe doing whatever he sees fit, “scrawling his own design”? And if the world is “morally blank,” how is it that he thinks he is acting according to Justice, and not simply doing whatever he feels like? What is it that “compels” him? Moore never answers these questions, at least not to my satisfaction.

Perhaps the real issue here is that we can’t be entirely sure what Rorschach means by “there is good and evil, and evil must be punished.” How does Rorschach define “evil” that’s worthy of punishment? If in Moore’s mind there’s some sort of specific “code”  that Rorschach follows (beyond Rorschach’s personal preferences), Moore never clearly explains it.

However, in fairness to Moore, I think it’s possible he is showing us Rorschach’s code (to some degree) — just very, very subtly. Consider the following:

  • Everyone Rorschach hurts has done something contrary to the “social order”: committed a violent crime, been rude to him, vandalized a building, and so on. (Whether being rude justifies having two fingers broken is certainly worth discussing, but my point is — Rorschach didn’t pick out some guy at random and torture him, he had a reason for selecting that guy.)
  • Rorschach is not without mercy. He doesn’t hurt the hooker in #1, even though she’s breaking the law and insults him; he lets Moloch keep his laetrile; he takes pity on his landlady’s children; he regrets “put[ting] fourteen in hospital needlessly.” (Note the adverb: not “unjustifiably,” but “needlessly,” without useful purpose. Or maybe that’s Rorschach’s way of saying “without useful results.”)

On the other other hand, though, it’s worth noting how casually Rorschach dismisses accusations of rape against the Comedian. He admires the Comedian, so he isn’t concerned about his “moral lapses” (and assumes he died serving his country). If Rorschach is so all-fired concerned about seeing evil punished, why let this go? I think the answer is that Moore’s trying to make Rorschach (and what he stands for) look bad, and this is just one more nail in the coffin. Otherwise Rorschach would at least feel compelled to investigate the matter.

Or maybe I’m as nuts as Squiggle-Face. Let’s see what Ron has to say.

RON KNOWS WHAT CATS KNOW WHEN THEY SCREAM LIKE BABIES IN THE NIGHT

I said mostly what I had in A hero shall appear, so here it’s all response. Which is sadly, full agreement. Rorschach delivers a lot of hard-sounding hole-punching rhetoric, but it only makes sense if the first digit in your age is less than 2 and the number of philosophy courses (or relevant thereto) you’ve taken numbers more than zero and less than three. Whether the character is simply crazy-quilt nuts and might as well be quoting things at random, or is himself so sophomoric as to defy a reader’s interest in him, or it’s lazy writing, who can tell … you can’t call him right-wing, existential, right-libertarian, Puritan, fascist, individualist, Nietzschean, Objectivist, nihilist, idealist, or anything, because it’s not hanging together.

Two things to mess with maybe. The first is to abandon all talk of author intent and give a fully sympathetic if possibly generous reading, that he is bonkers and revolting, but that we are talking about emotional trauma and not philosophy at all, and that he undergoes significant healing and character development. That’s what I talked about in the above-linked post, which I might call fandom less toward Rorschach and more toward Kovacs.

The second is to consider that all the vigilante comics are riddled with bogus and sadistic investigation scenes, certainly from 1970 on and possibly before that. You want to know “what’s going down,” you visit a bar and beat someone up – and they tell you. It’s the Mapquest of following the plot. Late 80s Batman does this so often it’s like brushing his teeth in the morning. My favorite is late in Miller’s run on Daredevil, when the hero is trying to find Stick, the guy out of a Shaw Bros movie who mysteriously mentored him as a youngster, just after he was blinded – and he goes into the same bar he always goes into and beats someone up, and the poor bastard tells him. I mean – isn’t Murdock at least as street-savvy as these punks? Wouldn’t he know where Stick is anyway, given that no skullduggery is afoot and the ol’ duffer is just hanging around some pool hall anyway?

My original reading of the depicted scene (see image) is that Rorschach thinks the world works this way and is more or less baffled that it doesn’t work, and thus spins his conspiracy theory, shifting from Delusional 101 to Delusional 102. One also wonders why he comes to this conclusion only because no one knows the answer in this one bar, which reinforces the “do this to follow the plot” convention, in his head or otherwise.

My point, though, is that one cannot tag this particular behavior as evidence that Rorschach is especially nuts, because, well, hey, it works in all the other comics, and there’s nothing to indicate that it doesn’t usually work for Rorschach. Watchmen walks a weird line between real-ifying comics tropes to show that they’re stupid, and celebrating them in a slightly different idiom, and more than once, as here, I can’t tell the difference.

STEVE SCRAWLS HIS DESIGN ON RON’S MORALLY BLANK BLOG

I used to jokingly call one of my Champions campaigns “the Abandoned Warehouse Exploration Club,” because what’s the best place for a city villain to lair? That’s right, an abandoned warehouse! So the heroes spent a lot of time sneaking around and fighting in them.

Maybe in some future campaign I’ll have to run “the Barroom Investigation Club” — since you’re right, an awful lot of heroes spend a lot of time beating up lowlifes in bars for information. Moore at least nods toward the idea that the heroes don’t always find what they want on the first try (“Visited two bars before this. You may have heard ambulances.”), but it’s amazing just how much the average bar patron seems to know. Maybe the thugs should start hanging out in martini bars or discos so they don’t get beaten up so much.

The other great send-up of the interrogation scene that springs to mind is from Punisher War Zone #1, where the Punisher uses a popsicle, a hunk of beef, and a blowtorch to convince Mickey Fondozzi he’s going to burn him to death. It’s both funny and an effective part of the story because it shows that even the Punisher’s not willing to engage in brutal torture “just because.”

Next: Vroom!

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Posted on March 6, 2016, in Guest posts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Steve, in response to this:

    “I think that a significant part of what he’s doing is to deliberately show something he dislikes — Rorschach specifically, and perhaps vigilantism in general — in a bad light. That means we’re getting a skewed view of a character, not the more “true” view that a writer without an axe to grind would, in theory, give us. (I think the same can be said for the government in V For Vendetta.)”

    To begin with the very broadest outlook: I don’t see how someone tells a story with political themes (overt in “V for Vendetta,” only very lightly masked in “Watchmen”) without having an ax to grind. Without passion, no one would be motivated to tell the story in the first place.

    So you’re left with a piece of political fiction told to make a point. The important questions to me are: How fair is the storyteller to dissenting viewpoints, and does the skill of telling make up for its didacticism. Ayn Rand’s fiction is pretty horrible on the first aspect, and I was never impressed with her pure writing skill; obviously plenty of other people feel differently. (What I find so lovable in Ditko’s Question stories is that, though they’re still very unfair, they’re a hoot to read.)

    “Watchmen” is still highly entertaining to read; it may be intellectually lazy as Ron says (and I disagree), but there’s nothing lazy whatsoever about how that thing was executed, especially in the context of 1985.

    Moving to Moore’s ax, his straw men, and his treatment of Rorschach in particular:

    I think your complaints about Walter are undercut quite a bit in that (a) he’s one of the most compelling, and in my view sympathetic, characters in the bunch, (b) he’s the only one who gives a shit to investigate the Comedian’s death, (c) after a lot of plot gyrations he discovers Adrian’s responsible, (d) although he can’t prevent Adrian’s mass murder, the last few panels strongly imply that Walter’s story will get out and Adrian’s new world will unravel – he gets his man. And, of course, at the time, every teenager I knew thought Rorschach was FUCKING AWESOME. (So awesome that Denny O’Neill makes a joke out of the fanboys.)

    It’s also worth noting that Adrian’s a vigilante too, just on a higher level: his mask & costume is corporate board minutes, and his super power is marketing and reading the zeitgeist. His arch-enemy is human greed, apathy, and tribalism, which he predicts will destroy the earth. So – instead of beating up a mugger, he beats up a city.

    Question for Ron – isn’t a super villain just a vigilante on a higher scale? and if so, wouldn’t Adrian basically your ideal super villain? A bit passionless, maybe, but pretty damn cool all the same.

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  2. Ron: “The second is to consider that all the vigilante comics are riddled with bogus and sadistic investigation scenes, certainly from 1970 on and possibly before that.”

    Me: A while ago I was reading a lot “True Crime” books and related stuff for characterization ideas. One thing I noted was a tendency for the most successful detectives to be corrupt, or at least violent thugs. Apparently, contacts ”on the street” are essential to detective work, but such contacts involve violence, intimidation and sometimes ethically dubious mutual backscratching.

    So the vigilante comics may not be too far wrong.

    Steve: “Maybe the thugs should start hanging out in martini bars or discos so they don’t get beaten up so much.”

    Me: It doesn’t work. Batman is quite happy to beat people up in discos. The 60s TV show proved that.

    I must admit that I would love to play in a game like that.

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  3. Sorry, when I wrote “So the vigilante comics may not be too far wrong.”, I meant as a reflection of Reality(tm), not as an ethical statement.

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  4. And… I should have written “One thing I noted was a tendency for SOME OF the most successful detectives to be corrupt, or at least violent thugs.”

    My apologies to any law enforcement professionals who might have been offended by the original formulation.

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  5. I’m intrigued by the idea that Allan Moore dislikes him and so is an “unreliable narrator.” I hadn’t thought about it that way. I will note that Moore did a good enough job that a lot of people, including our present presidential candidate Ted Cruz find Rorschach to be a full-on hero.

    Not even an anti-hero: Cruz listed Rorschach as one of his favorites.

    Of course this says something about Ted Cruz that I think a lot of people would find unlikable — and this extends to Rorschach.

    I didn’t find him insane or overly brutal for beating people up in a bar–it was a dive-bar peopled with criminals including guys in the hit-man chain of work. Coming in “heavy” seemed like a reasonable thing to do in a universe where there really is a criminal-heavy dive-bar.

    I also didn’t have a problem with him supporting the Comedian. Again: very, very realistic. Trump declared a few days ago he’d order the military to commit war crimes (torture) and he’s the GOP front-runner. The military might refuse such an order but we know that spec-ops wouldn’t (at least not up to the waterboarding level).

    So I’m not sure Moore is necessarily shining a *bad* light on the Rorschach-like mind set. . . .

    Just a light.

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    • If there’s a caricature, I think it’s the result that Moore isn’t willing to stack the deck in the same way that Ditko did for the Question.

      In the Question stories, Vic Sage was (a) objectively (ahem) right, and (b) the people who disagreed with him were venal, greedy, jealous pathetic assholes. I happen to find these stories fun to read, but the characterization is so ridiculously Manichean that it borders on camp.

      Moore does take a character’s point of view seriously: I think his greatest strength as a writer is being able to present very unusual viewpoints in a way that feels perfectly natural. And in particular, you’ve got people who have different views of what Walter is doing, and the text doesn’t really say, “Hey, Walter’s really right here,” or “Hey, you know, Walter’s a completely fucked up crazy person.”

      What you’ve got, instead of the Question’s single voice in a jeremiad against society, is a polyphony. And you basically cannot do a Randian essay if there are multiple, equally compelling points of view. Given that structure, the Question / Rorschach looks a lot stranger and more disturbing.

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      • Yeah–Watchmen as a book is VERY ambivalent about right vs. wrong as a whole. The entire “Ozymandias – Hero or Villain” debate is proof of that alone. I do think that Moore has an opinion and it isn’t so hidden as to be inscrutable–but you’re right that Moore isn’t stacking the deck for or against R.

        It’s more like he thinks Rorschach (and Ozymandias) are right about some things and wrong about others and lets the story play out without making a concise / concrete judgment.

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      • I’ll ad to that that Ozy and Ror get the best lines in the story (“35 minutes ago” and “you’re locked up in here with *me*”) while the other protagonist heroes are shown as indecisive and, to a degree, weak (albeit still heroes and moral characters).

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  6. From the go-to-the-bar page Ron posted, I make note of the fact that Rorschach does not go out into the “awful city” looking for who killed the Comedian, but looking for someone who knows why. Someone he is CERTAIN exists. I submit that we’re invited to conclude that Rorschach (or maybe Kovacs) is the someone – at least one of the someones – who knows why. He knows, and just can’t/won’t accept it.

    (My take is that the Why is because someone – Adrian, it turns out – judged the Greater Good would be served by the Comedian’s death, and Rorschach/Kovacs is unwilling to face that much of what he does is out of the very same judgement. And I’d say the comic goes to great lengths to show that any such judgement by humans (even super-humans; even more-than-humans) is inherently problematic, always contingent and frequently flawed. Also, ultimately, perhaps unavoidably necessary.)

    A number of Why’s are reasonable – my point here is more that self-deception and avoidance are fundamental to Rorschach (like so many characters in Watchmen), and that any particular Why need not be singularly true in order to be relevant.

    (I love that Watchmen can inspire this kind of examination, from a focus on “why” rather than “who”, but I’m frustrated by how often – in my judgement – the follow-through is poorly executed.)

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    • Consistent with Ron’s earlier examination of Rorschach/Kovacs, I’d tack a “Yet.” onto “can’t/won’t accept it.”

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  7. This series of posts began with relating the vigilante figure to Vietnam. I was tempted to chime in with this analogy: what the hard-bitten PI in a TRENCHcoat was to WWI, the vigilante was to ‘Nam. I don’t know the primary texts well enough to go beyond that coarse analogy-making.

    But is there any reach back to the history of vigilante-ism? “Vigilance committees” may have been law and order in frontier towns, but they were also slave-catchers, cattle baron shock troops, strike breakers, etc.

    Do any of these writers/artists evoke the institutional structures that the ‘merc or hard man/person of action works along with or against?

    In my Deadlands fanboy days I read up on Charlie Siringo, a cowboy and gunslinger who made a reputation with a memoir of his frontier days, who then took up with the Pinkertons, revealed their malfeasance, but still went on to be a strike-busting agent. (He’s like the WWI veteran in Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” but that guy neither publicly disowned his employer or went enthusiastically into doing the work of The Man).

    This guy was a participant in real-life settling and vigilantism, but contributed to the media culture and myth-making about the West, and rode his reputation back into private policing and intelligence gathering.

    Anything in these comics that touches on the vigilante as a cog in different power machines or the public-relations and public myths that surround such figures?

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  8. I’ve been enjoying your series.

    Two points I wanted to mention:

    1) Really Rorschach and Moloch are the two ugly characters. Blake gets scarred, but I don’t think this all relates to their mental state as vigilantes. Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl really only do it for a thrill(despite Nite Owl’s protestations to the contrary).

    In all honesty, the only characters who seem to act as vigilantes for the sake of being vigilantes throughout the series are Rorschach and Ozymandius, though Ozymandius takes crime fighting to the nth degree in effect, but blinds himself to reality(“nothing ever changes, Adrian”), while Rorschach works it at the pustule level and actually does see exactly what happens, Rorschach actually makes himself “see every death” while Ozymandius is far too aloof to really connect to that.

    Of the Minutemen, one could make the case for Silhouette and Nite Owl(before it got ugly) as true vigilantes. In many ways, Silhouette is the purist in intent and goal. But, in fairness, these characters are more backstory than story.

    Comedian, by the time of the story, is, as far as we can tell, a mercenary. It is very difficult to paint him as a vigilante post Minutemen.

    I think what gets missed by many about Rorschach is the bit about his father. The one literally admired man who he does not have to make lies about or ignore weaknesses of because his mother lied for him. If I recall right, his father worked for Truman was what he believed. A patriot. It is this reason that he so easily glosses over Comedian’s flaws(since Comedian fought in at least two wars, most importantly, WWII, the noble war, the war that his father would have been alive for). Comedian is a patriot, like Rorschach’s imagined father.

    Rorschach’s value system is, as he admits, imposed. It is the against what he sees as the betrayals of a society that does not respect what his father represents. Ironically, he owes the very source of these ideals to the sort of person he despises, his mother.

    Rorschach is likewise an honest and completely successful attempt to not waver in holding to his idea of this ideal, of seeking truth and justice, and the American Way. I really think he is often misread as a character Moore hated, which I definitely think he’s based off of a character that Moore hated, but I think this reading misses the mark, or else Moore wrote a very different character than he intended.

    Building on what I mentioned before:

    Ozymandius and Rorschach are the only real vigilantes by the time the story starts.

    Both identify more as their moniker than by their birth name in everything they do(as in, what drives their actions).

    Ozymandius is acting secretly and killing everyone else involved,
    Rorschach injures for information.

    Ozymandius’ relates the death of his parents, and we have no real reason to believe that his feelings for them aren’t as intellectualized and rationalized and devoid of emotion as all his other dealings.
    Rorschach models himself after his imaginary father and seethes internally about his experiences being the son of an abusive prostitute.

    Both were highly intelligent youths.

    Ozymandius attended the best schools.
    Rorschach, not so much.

    Ozymandius experienced the world, trained, and led a disciplined life.
    Rorschach worked as a menial labor, and led a disciplined life.

    Ozymandius had two epiphany’s, one, the vision in the desert, the second, Comedian burning the Crimebuster’s map. The first gave a goal, the second showed the failures of the means of pursuit.

    Rorschach had two epiphany’s, one, the article about Kitty Genovese’s rape, the second, the death by fire of the man who fed the girl to the dogs. One gave the first goal, the second showed the failures of the means to pursuit.

    It is important that, in both cases, the second epiphany is interpreted by both as demonstrating that the means they had been using were insufficient to the task they had set before themselves.

    It is also important to note one other difference. Rorschach’s actions arise from real human level emotional concern for another human being. It is not being Rorschach that matters most, it is Kitty Genovese, it is the girl fed to the dogs, it is even for the Comedian and the risk he thinks the other Watchmen face.

    Ozymandius’ concern for people is as emotional as his summary of watching thirty news channels at once.

    Ozymandius has all the resources he could need, is surrounded by people, and has absolutely no one and has no real affinity for anyone, viewing them as less than him.

    Rorschach fights with his fists, lives a life not too far off from a hobo, and has absolutely no one, yet is fiercely loyal to Dan and others, even while thinking them decadent.

    In every metric, their parallels show two characters, intelligent, who started out on very different lives with very different opportunities.

    Yet the series ends, and we don’t know which of the two wins, or more, whether Ozymandias gets away with it. Because it is without question that Rorschach drives the entire investigation, pursues it to its end, discovers his privileged opposite, and puts it all, very clearly, in a notebook that Ozymandias does not even know exists.

    While Rorschach dies without changing, Ozymandias ends the story in utter doubt and ignorance.

    Rorschach, a man naturally twisted by a wretched life, beats Ozymandius, a man who fashioned himself a savior who does not really seem to care about people as much as his vision of what he is.

    Rorschach makes a truth of his lie, of his fight, no matter that it destroys him, he even chooses that at the end. He is brutal, he is fascist and nationalistic, but he is unquestionably an honest man who honestly believes in his fascism, in his nationalism, and no leader, no one is honest enough for him to follow. He is not the brownshirt reactionary sent by corrupt fascist leaders, as they could never be honest enough for him to follow.

    He is fascist Jesus, for the vigilantes’ most heinous final sin. A tragic character, who every moment fights from the muck trying to reach his alternate who occupies the clouds. He is in every way more sympathetic than Ozymandias, lacks Dan’s selfish motivations, or Comedian’s ‘moral lapses’. He is bad at conveying his humanity to his friends, while his chief adversary, who certainly comes off as a bright angel, conveys a pretend humanity flawlessly. Yes, Rorschach is crazy. But his crazy is sad and understandable and, despite it, he probably wins.

    At the end, the resolution of the story is not found in all of Ozymandias’ careful planning, but in a notebook and whether it will be picked up by a chubby guy with greasy hands in a part of the real world that is Rorschach’s world, not Ozymandias’.

    As such, I would suggest that Moore does not hate Rorschach. Perhaps he hates what is made of him by life, but, if he hated Rorschach, it seems strange that he very likely made him the winner over a rich genius who had every advantage over him.

    Or so I think. 😉

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    • Oh dear. I would edit that, if I knew how. It doesn’t help to announce my two points, number one, and possibly introduce a slew of others. I apologize for my madness.

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