A pretty butterfly
The 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.
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.
So 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.”