Universally recognized for its emphasis on character and deconstruction of popular comic book archetypes, the 1986 “Watchmen” series ushered in a new era of gritty, introspective graphic novels along with Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” The series focused on a team of superheroes who suffered from mental illness and trauma, struggled with the weight of complex moral issues and often abused their powers. This brutal and raw approach to the perspectives of each “Watchmen” character was met with critical acclaim at its release.
Is “Watchmen” Political?
What has been more fiercely debated about the comics — especially after explicit references to white supremacy, gun control and reparations for slavery in HBO’s 2019 follow-up show — is whether the original comics were intentionally political in nature. At the center of this debate is the character of Rorschach, the “world’s greatest detective,” a lone wolf who solved crimes on his own terms. A tough guy who had no sympathy for the criminals infesting his city.
Controversy struck the HBO series when it was discovered that Rorschach’s likeness was being used for the show’s “Seventh Cavalry,” a fictional white supremacist group. Fans of Rorschach took to social media and blogs, reinvigorating a long debate over the purpose of the character within the comics. Most argued that Rorschach was the hero of the piece. After all, the comic is largely framed through his narration, and his gruff demeanor invokes images of Batman, who is a universally recognized hero. Surely, Rorschach’s “tough on crime” attitude was a justifiable one. But beyond any of these specifics, the original “Watchmen” surely had never intended to become so political, right?
Self-proclaimed anarchist (and wizard) Alan Moore, author of “Watchmen,” had never been shy about these matters. Having expressed support for the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, Moore stated in a 2005 interview that “I … wanted to write about power politics. Ronald Reagan was president. But I worried readers might switch off if they thought I was attacking someone they admired.” The anti-authoritarian themes that appear in Moore’s other works are just as strong in “Watchmen” and continue to resonate with contemporary readers. In many ways, it appears that Rorschach was the amalgam of the political and social Reagan-era ideals that Moore hoped to characterize and promptly reject in his piece.
The Debate Continues
With comparisons to recent events, such as President Trump’s recent Tulsa rally, and the recent HBO “Watchmen” show that opens with the racially charged 1921 Tulsa Massacre, the debate over the political implications of Rorschach’s character has opened up once more. While there are many analyses that highlight the new show’s exploration of police corruption and prejudice, the original comic’s relevance to these topics, particularly through the example of Rorschach as a police-like figure, remains largely unexplored.
What follows is a dissection of the vigilante detective, Rorschach, from Alan Moore’s original “Watchmen.” Over 33 years later, the character continues to serve as a mirror and critique of conservative attitudes that surround such complex issues as police brutality or general authoritarianism.
A brief disclaimer: Reading on will reveal minor spoilers for the original 1986-87 “Watchmen” comic book series.
Rorschach Is Not Your Hero
Rorschach has often been misunderstood and idolized by “Watchmen” readers; his character was actually created by Moore to critique the idealization of comic book vigilante archetypes like The Question and Mr. A — both characters created by Steve Ditko who followed objectivism, a philosophy that rejects altruism and is deeply despised by Moore.
As a detective who prides himself on taking justice into his own hands and holding a supposedly rigid, uncompromising sense of right and wrong, Rorschach is quick to condemn others with his moral absolutism and often resorts to violence. The detective’s iconic black and white inkblot mask reflects a binary mentality of complete good and complete evil. A sense of moral purity, combined with Rorschach’s willingness to do anything necessary to achieve his version of justice, turns a would-be Batman clone into an unchecked authoritarian nightmare for Moore. He can be found in various panels of “Watchmen” interrogating citizens, breaking and entering private property and killing pets without hesitation. Violations of privacy become a staple of Rorschach’s methods throughout the “Watchmen” narrative.
Worse yet, Rorschach is still, obviously, human, and with that humanity comes internal biases that are easier to overlook with an attitude as self-righteous as his. He often makes exceptions to his enforcement practices when they involve his fellow superheroes, mirroring the many police officers — for instance, Tou Thao during the murder of George Floyd — who find it easier to excuse one of their own from crimes they are normally conditioned to condemn.
Rorschach’s ability to freely accuse, detain and assault suspects runs parallel to the real-life abuse of power that led to the recent calls for drastic police reform and abolition following the murder of George Floyd. The common legalist mentality of “force is permissible if you do not comply,” which is often used to justify instances of police violence against citizens, is taken to the extreme with Rorschach. For Rorschach, complying with the “rules” means following a set of arbitrary instructions from a single man. Because Rorschach works alone, and since there is no one to contest his moral decisions or question his use of force, those instructions could change at any time. When the “rules” are broken, bones are often broken too.
The “black and white” morality of Rorschach often causes him to dehumanize (as seen with his frequent usage of words like “filth” and “vermin”) or make drastic assumptions about the people he observes, triggered by even the slightest of questionable behaviors or actions. At one point in the story, Rorschach assumes that his landlady “cheats on welfare” because she has “five children from five different fathers.”
For Rorschach, any contact with what he deems “the dark side of society,” regardless of its severity, will “stain” a person’s morality permanently. From that point onward, the person in question is “bad.” Rorschach’s concept of “moral staining” feeds into a legalistic, uncompromising mindset that enforces a malleable and biased set of ethics. This is already a dangerous mentality for a comic book vigilante, but police violence in real life is sometimes rationalized by citing a victim’s previous criminal record — implying that the “stain” of the record in question not only excuses, but requires worse treatment than someone who is “stain-free.”
With this in mind, it isn’t difficult to understand why Senator Ted Cruz, who has maintained conservative views on police reform and abolition as recent events have unfolded, had previously mentioned Rorschach as one of his favorite superheroes. Where Moore had intended Rorschach to be a troubling caricature of a generally authoritarian and right-wing conception of justice, Cruz and others saw the character as a symbol of true commitment to righteousness. In a 2008 interview, Moore noted his frustration with the idealization of Rorschach. “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?’”