Rorschach: The True Victim
In the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the theme of morality comes into question through the actions of the various vigilante heroes. This is most clearly seen through the character Rorschach. From the very beginning of the story, it is clear that Rorschach has a very hostile way of solving issues. From his intrusive and physical interrogation techniques to committing murder as a form of retribution, Rorschach seems wicked rather than ethical. Although this rash style of crime fighting never fades during the events of the graphic novel, Rorschach’s intentions tell a different story about his character. Analyzing his motives reveal that he acts in the name of justice and does whatever necessary to ensure fairness, even if that requires hurting others. Therefore, he is often labeled an aggressor. When attempting to solve the murder of a fellow vigilante and reveal Veidt’s wrongdoings, however, Rorschach faces adversity and eventually death. Despite his immoral actions as a crime fighter, the consequences Rorschach faces due to his commitment to justice against Veidt make him the main victim of Watchmen.
Throughout the story of Watchmen, the shocking acts committed by Rorschach are revealed making it hard for anyone to consider him a victim. After learning about the murder of the Comedian, Rorschach begins to investigate by questioning people at a bar. Hoping to coerce a man into giving information, Rorschach breaks one of his fingers. He soon realizes that the man knows nothing about the murder and breaks a second finger before simply walking away (Ch. 1, p. 15-16). Likewise, Rorschach interrogates Moloch, a now retired super villain, by thrashing the elderly man around his kitchen. Once again, the examination is fruitless and Rorschach leaves with no second thoughts about his actions (Ch. 2, p. 20-24). However, the most appalling action committed by Rorschach by far is the way he deals with the kidnapper and murderer of a little girl. After finding the kidnapper’s residence, Rorschach handcuffs him to a chair in a room filled with kerosene and tosses him a hacksaw saying, “shouldn’t bother trying to saw through handcuffs, never make it in time” (Ch. 6, p. 25), before dropping a match insinuating that he should cut off his own hands if he wants to survive. These atrocious actions place Rorschach in very negative light and set the tone for his character. Rorschach seems to only fit the role of a perpetrator.
On the other hand, Rorschach begins to face consequences through his pursuit of justice which place him in the position of a victim. While still attempting to solve the murder of the Comedian, Rorschach pays another visit to Moloch after receiving a tip. It turns out the meeting is a setup and the police are waiting outside for him. Although he attempts to escape, Rorschach is unsuccessful. His true identity is revealed and he is incarcerated, blamed for the murder of Moloch and his previous crimes (Ch. 5, p. 23-28). Rorschach has no negative intentions and simply wants to figure out who has killed the Comedian. He wants the murderer to face justice. Although some of his actions are questionable while attempting to solve this case, his ultimate goal is to ensure equality. Unfortunately, he becomes a victim when he is hindered from achieving this justice and forced to go to prison for doing what is right. Rorschach becomes a victim for attempting to uphold the legal system.
Likewise, Rorschach is a victim when he is killed for trying to uphold the idea of justice after learning about Veidt’s plan. Adrian Veidt plans to stop a world war by unleashing an alien monster on New York City and hoping the world will work together to vanquish it. However through this plan’s execution, millions of civilians are killed. Dr. Manhattan realizes that this plot is successful in stopping a potential war and all of the heroes present at Veidt’s Arctic facility agree that this must be kept a secret or peace will collapse. Rorschach on the other hand cannot. He believes that “people must be told” and that “evil must be punished” (Ch. 12, p. 23). Rorschach cannot stand idle when justice is not upheld. To him, preventing a world war does not justify murdering three million people. As a result, he tries to leave the facility so he can tell the world the truth. Unfortunately, Dr. Manhattan will not let him jeopardize this plan and ends up killing him (Ch. 12, p. 24). Rorschach pays the ultimate price for fighting for his beliefs. Everyone else simply accepts the situation while Rorschach feels that Veidt needs to answer for his crimes. Rorschach is a victim for trying to expose wrongdoing.
Although Rorschach’s crime fighting techniques label him negatively, they do not make him any less of a victim. Watchmen reveals two main issues where Rorschach’s character comes into question as mentioned before: his interrogations and the kidnapping case. For both points, he commits acts which make him look like anything but a victim. However, Rorschach is not doing it simply for enjoyment. As seen through his attempt to reveal the truth about Veidt, Rorschach acts in the name of justice and does whatever necessary to achieve justice. As a result, he is somewhat justified in his actions. In order to gain answers from individuals who do not normally comply, Rorschach uses physical coercion techniques to hasten his pursuit of the truth. Likewise, to teach a man who brutally murdered a six year old girl the significance of life and pain, Rorschach places him in a situation where his life is at risk and pain can save him. His tactics are crude and somewhat immoral but his main goal is to be fair and create balance. Rorschach is not solely defined by his actions. Instead, his intentions reveal that he is deserving of sympathy.
Some may argue that the civilians killed from Veidt’s plan are the true victims of the graphic novel because they are murdered without reason. However, they are far from being the main victim. The civilians who are killed are not particularly hindered from achieving acts of goodness. They are normal people: some completely average and some succumb to war hysteria. As a result, they are victims of an unfortunate end, but they are not worthy of complete compassion because they lack the backstory. Rorschach is the main victim for losing his life fighting for justice. The civilians are simply victims for losing their lives. Likewise, it can be argued that the other heroes in the graphic novel could be the main victims. However, this claim is drastically inaccurate. Throughout the events of the graphic novel, the rest of the heroes, excluding Rorschach, lay idle for the most part. They do not attempt to search for answers and instead let the events play out. Only after Rorschach’s arrest do the Night Owl and the Silk Spectre begin to intervene. Likewise at the end of the graphic novel, no one besides Rorschach tries to punish Veidt for his actions. They all let the atrocious murder of three million people go unanswered just because Dr. Manhattan says it is fine. Because of their unconcerned reaction to the main events of the novel, the other heroes are far from victims. They simply watch others being afflicted from a distance.
Through the various characters presented in Watchmen, it is clear that Rorschach is the main victim of the story. Although characters such as the civilians murdered in New York City and the other heroes are somewhat deserving of sympathy, their lack of empathetic circumstances simply make them victims to a lesser extent. Rorschach, on the other hand, loses his life while fighting for justice, a very noble cause. Rorschach may not seem like the best hero due to his aggressive strategy, but his intention of justice serves to somewhat justify his actions. As a result, the negative aspects of his character do not outweigh the compassion he rightfully attains. As a character, Rorschach is hard for a reader to like. He is cold, reckless, and misunderstood. It is only at the end of the novel, seconds before death, do readers finally understand his true nature. Face covered in tears, Rorschach draws the reader’s sympathy as a symbol of goodness, rather facing death than living a lie.
A Further Look at Watchmen
In the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, a more realistic depiction of the superhero figure is achieved by allowing genres to be imbedded separately within the thoroughly developed identities of Rorschach, the Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan. Rather than being bound by the stale clichés of an existing “mythic character”, as its predecessors have been, Watchmen strives to implement a multitude of literature categories into unique characters, granting it a more robust, less limited representation of reality. While broadening the focus runs the risk of diluting said categories, this graphic novel proves to sacrifice nothing through its employment of rotating viewpoints.
Because Watchmen is an original piece, free from the demands or confines of previous literature or characters, it instantly gains strength in the sense that it can derive its own genre interpretation and sense of realism. Authors often feel a responsibility to uphold the trends followed by those who previously represented figures such as Batman or Superman in their own “original” versions of these heroes. However, like The Dark Knight by Frank Miller, Watchmen, by selectively drawing inspiration from previous graphic novels, is able to “converge weak readings into its own strong vision” (Klock 118). This comic does the same with each genre it seeks to employ. While Batman’s detective persona is certainly fascinating, it occasionally becomes overshadowed by the broad requirements of the already existing Batman series. Moore and Gibbons, by giving the detective genre its own name in Rorschach’s character, grant themselves the opportunity to elaborate upon the detective narrative to the fullest extent they see fit; they successfully avoid mottling the detective narrative with the novel’s other undertakings. Because most versions of the Batman series are unable to focus on Batman purely as a detective, much of the realism of sleuthing is forfeited. For instance, in The Return of Doctor Death, when looking for a hidden safe filled with diamonds, Batman is able to discover what he is looking for almost instantly, a task that, in reality, would have taken a much more detailed investigation (Kane 35). This can be contrasted to an investigation of Rorschach’s, where he is shown observing the scene of The Comedian’s death for multiple pages (Moore 13-16). Instead of getting a small, cliché taste of the detective narrative, we get to see it carried out in its realistic entirety.
Another example of realism in Watchmen comes from the shocking and rather bold nature of The Comedian’s character. Occasionally displaying similarities to the Captain America of an earlier time period, The Comedian proves himself to be a unique, realistic character that does not conform to the degree of representativeness essential to Captain America’s character. Because many portrayals of Captain America came about during the silver age of comics, his embodiment of the American dream is routinely overly optimistic, and is simply not applicable to the dark times of war and poverty in American history. Edward Blake opposes this idealistic depiction of the American dream when, while overlooking New York in the midst of a riot, he is asked “what happened to the American dream?” and he coldly responds “It came true. You’re lookin’ at it” (Moore 60). Though it would be pleasant to imagine America as the epitome of patriotism, this is not always the case, and The Comedian has no interest in hiding this gritty reality. Because he refuses to put on a face of hope and nationalism for society, he achieves a higher level of reality seldom seen in superhero figures.
Perhaps one property of science fiction comics that takes away from their movement towards reality is the sense of devotion that higher beings such as Superman are shown to feel towards ordinary humans. It is not frequent that the superior being questions why he or she should be concerned by the affairs of such a limited race. Rather, the superhuman is found to be maybe even too interested in the affairs of mankind. This claim draws inspiration from the graphic novel Must There Be a Superman?, in which Superman is informed that his excessive “presence on Earth directly contributes to the cultural lag [of humanity]” (Maggin 75). Though he descends from an advanced planet lightyears away, Superman somehow exists solely to protect the human race, and willingly impacts it in a way that prevents it from advancing on its own. This is not Kal-El’s fault, however, as he belongs to a breed of “mythic characters” who are bound by their extensive pasts. Try as he might to focus on his own aspirations outside the realm of humanity, “the mythic character embodies a law, or a universal demand, and, therefore, must be in part predictable and cannot hold surprises for us” (Eco 15). Generations of previous representations have sculpted Superman into a hero denoted by conformity; he is so imbedded in the life of ordinary man that he himself even experiences the mundane labors of humanity, as Clark Kent. On the other hand, Watchmen’s interpretation of a completely superior being, Dr. Manhattan, acts as one would expect an individual of such high aptitude would behave. While more unrealistic graphic novels allow humanity’s fascination with science fiction to be translated into a readily available connection between our world and the realm of the fantastic, Watchmen captures reality with Dr. Manhattan’s progressive indifference toward human affairs. Once Laurie, his “only link…only concern with the world” (Moore 288) is no longer part of his life, Dr. Manhattan literally alienates himself and teleports to Mars. Despite the fact that the world he once resided in is on the brink of nuclear war, his transition to a superior entity essentially eliminates his ties to those on Earth. Here, science fiction is able to exist and grow in its own realm, free from the expectations of a sense of entitlement from humanity, such as is imposed upon Superman and other figures.
In short, Watchmen emerges as one of the more proficient examples of realism within the realm of graphic novels by separating genres from their most prominent existing figures, and giving life and individual meaning to each of these divided aspects. Since this piece is also the first of its title, depending on no preexisting characters or events, it need not rely on or be hindered by the presence of a “mythic hero”, who carries along with him much baggage and expectations from past depictions. Drawing strength from multiple, well developed genres, Watchmen effectively “revive[s] old categor[ies]” and “abandons the territory of myth” (Eco 16), allowing the novel to define itself and leave nothing behind, contributing to its rounded and realistic feeling.
Morality and Competing Ideologies in Watchmen
Despite it being a superhero story, within the graphic novel Watchmen there is no clear assertion of who is to be considered a hero and who is to be considered a villain. Rather, there is a spectrum of morally grey characters, and what is deemed a right or wrong action is transformed greatly depending on each character’s perception. By looking at the conflicting beliefs and actions of three characters in Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, and Ozymandias, we can see that the novel creates a complex and often ambiguous world meant to subvert the pure, morally good superhero narratives that preceded it.
Dr. Manhattan does not see things as good or evil, just as meaningless events in an endless timeline, and as a result allows injustices to occur without concern. In Vietnam, when Dr. Manhattan sees the Comedian about to shoot a pregnant woman, he says, “Blake don’t . . .” (56) and “. . . do it.”(57) is carried over to the next panel. The placing of this dialogue makes it look as though Dr. Manhattan is telling Blake to do it in the second panel, the same panel where we see his gun firing. Seeing the duality of Dr. Manhattan telling Blake “dont” and then “do it” blurs the meaning of his words and allows us to consider that perhaps he really did not care to stop Blake. While he is not in support of Blake, he is also not horrified as a normal human would be. Blake points out that Dr. Manhattan was entirely capable of stopping him if he really wanted to, making him just as responsible for the pregnant woman’s death. Dr. Manhattan’s apathy and flimsy attempt at opposing Blake shows the truth about his disregard for human life. In the last chapter of Watchmen, Ozymandias asks Dr. Manhattan if he did the right thing in the end and Dr. Manhattan replies,“Nothing ever ends” (409). What is considered good and what is considered evil depends on the effects those things have. From Dr. Manhattan’s perspective, human suffering does not have any effect on the universe and therefore doesn’t matter. By saying, “Nothing ever ends.”(409), he is explaining that there is no final meaning or purpose to any human actions. He is not encouraging or condemning Ozymandias’s actions with this statement, but remaining neutral just like the universe itself. These two scenes are examples of how Dr. Manhattan’s superhuman perception of the world creates a disconnect from human morality, leading him to allow injustices to occur.
Rorschach has an extremely rigid moral stance which he enforces in his work as a vigilante. His mask itself is a symbol of this. “Black and white. Moving. Changing shape . . . but not mixing. No gray.”(188). The binary of black and white is the same as the binary of good and evil in Rorschach’s mind. His simplistic way of speaking also reflects his simplistic way of categorizing the world into good and evil. Interestingly, Rorschach’s calling to fight crime does not come from a belief that he is morally superior and therefore qualified to judge the world, but from hatred and guilt for the evils humans are capable of. “I took the remains of the unwanted dress . . . and I made a face that I could bear to look at in the mirror.” (188). Here, Rorschach talks about the creation of his mask, and we can see that becoming a vigilante was a sort of atonement for him. He cannot bear to look at himself in the mirror as a normal person who is complacent despite knowing all of the horrors that are taking place in the world. As Rorschach, he is able to do something about it. In this way, Rorschach is the opposite of Dr. Manhattan. He is deeply invested in human suffering rather than indifferent and his stance is harsh and uncompromising rather than vague.
While Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan represent two different extremes, Ozymandias epitomizes the moral grey area. There is not better example of this than his faked alien invasion, meant to unite earth and save humans from destroying each other. He describes what he will do to the world as “A dazzling transformation.” (373). The positive connotations of this statement reveal that he sees his plan as morally right despite the fact that he will kill millions of people. He is correct in assuming that his plan will better the political situation in the world, and he believes that this justifies the consequences. Rorschach frequently hurts and kills criminals, but defends the innocent. Ozymandias believes that any suffering, even innocent suffering can be condoned if it leads to a greater good. When asked about his plan by Nite Owl, Ozymandias says, “Hitler said people swallow lies easily, provided they’re big enough.”(374). His quoting of Hitler reminds us of how Ozymandias is similar to the dictator: both believed they were bettering the world through the use of genocide. The comparison to Hitler shows us just how blind to suffering and death that Ozymandias is when it serves his plan for the world.
The graphic novel Watchmen provides us no correct take on morality, with each character having vastly different views on what is right and wrong. The morally grey characters create a novel which subverts the typical morally pure superhero stories which preceded it in favor of a dark and complicated, more realistic world. Dr. Manhattan perceives time on a much more vast scale than humans, and it therefore indifferent to human suffering as nothing truly matters compared against the size of the universe. Rorschach is the opposite: he is deeply affected by human suffering. He has rigid ideas of good and evil and cannot bear to stand by while there is evil he is capable of stopping. Ozymandias wants to do good for humanity, but will employ very extreme and harmful tactics to achieve it, as we can see in his faked alien invasion plan. Watchmen is anything but a simple good vs. evil story, which is exactly why it is such a valuable commentary on the superhero genre.
A Balance of Characters
In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, character Nite Owl is surrounded by the intense personas of his fellow costumed vigilantes. He does not handle situations in either Rorschach’s or Manhattan’s opposing fashions, but has a simple ideology in his viewing of the world. In terms of how he brought himself to be a hero, Nite Owl did not share the same motives as Ozymandias, who strived to follow in the footsteps of Alexander of Macedonia, or Rorschach, who began fighting due to his disgust for the world. Finally, Nite Owl is the middle ground between Ozymandias’s ego and Manhattan’s nonchalant persona. Nite Owl can therefore be thought of as the balance between the extremes found in the other characters.
Too much violence can never be a good thing, but too little does have its negative effects as well. Conflicting ideologies are often at the root of many issues, whether big or small. Retributivism, the ideology that rationally punishes people because they deserve it, is Rorschach’s philosophy. The extent to which Rorschach exercises retributivism is, however, at the detriment of many of the tertiary characters of the graphic novel. Upon hearing the kidnapping of a young girl not being dealt with, Rorschach knows he has to step in and act as the justice of the situation. Seeing “two german shepherds… fighting over [a] knob of bone” that he thought to be the little girl’s, he slices one of the dogs’s head open (6, 18). Rorschach therefore punishes those who are not the direct culprits of the situation, punishing them because they took part in the aftermath. Manhattan, however, let fate take its toll on the world. Living in the past, present, and future all at once, he’s aware of all of the world’s phenomena, but does nothing to stop them from occurring due to his fatalist beliefs. Manhattan knows that no beings walking the Earth have the power to change upcoming phenomena. Everyone is just a puppet, playing out a predesignated role. Although Manhattan may seem like a god-like figure to some, he knows that he is a “puppet who can see the strings” (9, 5). His übermensch abilities have people think that he is capable of changing the world, when in fact he refuses to toy with preordained notions. Nite Owl is the mean between these two characters; he does not drastically interfere in events that do not concern him, but does not let what can potentially be changed slip through his fingers. For example, in the situation where the apartment building catches fire, Nite Owl is the first to set up his ship and jet off to save the people. He simply practices virtue ethics; to do what is the opposite of evil and to follow rules. A person’s choice of beliefs and ideologies are linked with who they are and what they think of themselves.
Everyone has an underlying motive when they begin a new chapter of their lives, and the same goes for heroes. Whether it be due the negative or positive side of the spectrum, everyone is pushed by a reason. Ozymandias’s motive lies at the positive end of the spectrum; “the only human… with whom [he] felt any kinship” (11, 8), Veidt is driven by Alexander of Madedonia to achieve greatness, to “measure [his own] success against [Alexander’s]” (11, 8). He strives to be such a big person, wanting to produce change. Unlike Ozymandias, Rorschach is triggered to become a hero due to his negative perception of the world. Wearing the “face [he] could bear to look at in the mirror” (6, 10), Kovacs decided to become masked adventurer Rorschach following Kitty Genovese’s rape and torture case, since he was “ashamed for humanity” (6, 10). He believes that “mankind is rotten” (6, 11) and people are destructive. He has no hope for anyone or anything anymore. Unlike Rorschach and Ozymandias, Nite Owl was not driven by anything so morally extreme. He was inspired by his hero, Hollis Mason, and wanted to “carry on his name” (7, 8). Dan had average intentions in wanting to be a hero, and admits it himself: he was “rich, bored, and there were enough other guys doing it so [he] didn’t feel ridiculous” (7, 8). He does not want to reverse the destructiveness of mankind or change the world. He knows he did not have the means or the expertise to be revolutionary. What he does know is that he holds a meagre, but substantial amount of importance in the world.
The world is in dire need of leaders, but these leaders present themselves in two different fashions; they are either overly egocentric or give themselves too little credit as to the power and importance they hold in the world. Ozymandias is overly consumed by his own sense of importance. He takes it upon himself to restructure its future, hence the destruction of New York City, recognizing its fragility in such a hazardous time. He automatically asks himself what he could do, in a manner that insinuates that all of this detriment had fallen onto his shoulders. Manhattan, placed on the other end of the spectrum, is pressed into service by the United States government. Every other character seems to recognize Manhattan’s importance. Manhattan knows that in the broad spectre of the universe, he is simply “a puppet who can see the strings” (9, 5). While Manhattan is a realist, Ozymandias is a distorted version of a optimist, and Dan lies somewhere in the middle. Nite Owl realizes that the concept of hero-ship is simply “crap dressed up with a lot of flash and thunder” (7, 8), suggesting that he is not such an important person due to the costumes that he wears. In the meantime, he also attends to the tenement building that had caught fire and saves the lives of dozens alongside Laurie. He shares traits belonging to both Ozymandias and Manhattan, making him an equilibrium between their extremes.
Meeting many of the other characters’s traits midway, Nite Owl acts as a balance between their extremes. Compared to Rorschach and Manhattan, he handles situations with a simplistic angle, and his motives for fighting crime are ordinary compared to Ozymandias and Rorschach. Finally, he gives himself a substantial amount of importance, in contrast to Ozymandias and Manhattan. Sometimes, the average, most simple standpoint can be successful as well.