Watchmen #6: The Abyss Gazes Also
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins
Rorschach has a superpower.
In the sense that Batman has one, or the Punisher, or any of those guys who can take infinite lickings and keep on infinitely ticking.
Frank Castle never kills the innocent and knows exactly how much to punish the guilty. Batman has super-indomitability; no matter how much evil forces mess with his psyche, no matter how grievous his injuries, he’ll be back on his feet in no time.
Rorschach’s power is more insidious, as revealed in this issue of Watchmen. Forget Batman’s super-motivation or Frank’s super-murder-accuracy. Rorschach has the power to infect the mind, until everyone around him becomes a little bit Rorschach too. Witness the case of one Dr. Malcolm Long, the psychoanalyst who visits Rorschach while the latter is in prison. Dr. Long is a respectable man, moving in respectable circles, content with his respectable life – until he meets Rorschach, whose testimony alerts him to the fact that all is not right in the world.
The everyday depravity that surrounds Dr. Long is revealed when he and his wife hold a dinner party with another couple, a (white) man and woman in his general age bracket. The male half of the couple is the freaking worst, but in an unfortunately very recognizable way: he’s the “that’s just how he is” guy, a fixture at the parties you attend in your 20s who somehow never grew out of being that guy. Is he a murderer? A psychopath? A danger to society and himself? No to all three, at least as far as we can tell in the comic. Maybe a few years hence, in the post-Doomsday C(l)ock era, he’ll get his own dark and gritty reimagining, but for now he’s just your garden-variety asshole.
By which I mean: who but an asshole would ask a supposed friend whether his work with a violent vigilante has turned up anything “kinky”, especially when said friend starts telling a story about an abducted girl.
“Oh boy! Was she tied up and gagged and helpless?” the asshole asks, unaware of the finer points of the story but knowing full well that this girl was the victim of a violent crime.
Look, even if you think your friend – who, again, works with people who’ve committed some real atrocities – was talking about an adult woman, there’s really no excuse for trying to claw your way towards a boner in this situation. To quote the great John Mulaney, “Dude, people have died!”
Dr. Long, infected by Rorschach’s revelations, tells the asshole the salient details: this girl was six. She was murdered and eaten by dogs. After that, the guests leave in a hurry and his wife yells at him, as though it’s entirely his fault that he shut down the grossest person in the room.
We’re supposed to see his burst of candor as slippage, a transgression against normalcy brought on by prolonged exposure to Rorschach, and to a degree that’s true. The shock on his guests’ faces when Dr. Long draws back the curtain on his work suggests that he isn’t usually too open about what he does, so for him, speaking like this is a step away from normal. But as a mental health professional who works with violent criminals, he spends his career immersed in secondhand gore. It isn’t abnormal, at least for him, to know these things happen. It’s abnormal to try and get others to acknowledge that they do.
Which places me in a strange critical position, because I’ve been on Dr. Long’s end of things – ideologically, not literally; I doubt I could handle literally – more often than I expected to be. I’ve been at my share of gatherings where some asshole was sounding off on some sociopolitical issue as though the suffering of the marginalized were just another joke. But my God, Dr. Long’s wider world, the world of Watchmen, is so preoccupied with pathologizing women and vindicating its pathologization that I feel myself backing away from this issue’s storyline the way you might with a scarred dog foaming at the mouth. On one hand, there’s suffering on display, and I do feel for that; on the other hand, I don’t want to be killed.
The truth is, Rorschach frightens me. It’s not just his quite frankly terrifying attitude towards women; it’s how much the comic works to acquit him. I use the word “acquit” because while Watchmen doesn’t seek to justify his views exactly, it expends a lot of effort to mitigate them and to insinuate of course it’s bad that he thinks this way, but you can see how a mind might get there, right?
Sure, I can see it. Stick even the most stable person in a world where women only get to be whores, prey, and distractions from men’s Ultimate Purpose™ – a purpose we whorish corpses can never truly understand – and it’ll mess them up good. Look at Laurie/Silk Spectre, for example: having sex with Dr. Manhattan while he’s trying to concentrate on his research. Malcolm’s wife is similarly reduced to the dual functions of Work Interrupter and Sex Wanter. When she isn’t steering him away from the life of the mind in order to engage in social niceties, she’s persuading him to have sex rather than spend time on his work, or hurling “crude sexual insults” at him when he doesn’t supply the D on command. When adult women cross adult men’s paths in Watchmen, this is what we do.
In Rorschach’s case, the chief female figure in his early life is his abusive mother, who happens to be a sex worker – as a child, he doesn’t have work to be distracted from yet, so his mother’s functions are much more primal. He finds out about her job after entering her room when she’s with a client because he thinks someone is hurting her: a reasonable assumption, since interspersed with her sex noises are phrases like “Hurt me, baby”. Is his mother letting out her natural S&M impulses or just stroking her client’s ego? We may never know. What we do know is that the client, outraged at the presence of a child in the house, underpays and leaves in a huff, after which Rorschach’s mother begins physically abusing her son to punish him for interrupting them.
One wonders why she didn’t just impress upon her child never to interrupt her when she’s with someone, even if it sounds like someone’s hurting her, unless she actively calls for help or something. Seems like it would have forestalled a lot of problems. Then again, I’m not a parent.
Anyway, Young Rorschach soon learns that his mother’s sexual behavior is a metric by which his masculinity is judged, in a supremely creepy but not altogether outlandish encounter with two older boys. Where do you think “yo mama” jokes come from, and why do you think they’re a) so often bandied about by boys and men, and b) so obsessed with yo mama’s erotic pursuits? The boys mock him by suggesting that he carries “all kinda diseases” from his “hoo-er” mother (which I imagine you’re supposed to read in the voice of Frank Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) before threatening to “get his pants down” and “give him an examination”.
This scene is frequently read as Rorschach being the target of at least one instance of attempted sexual abuse – the desire to forcibly “examine” someone’s genitalia as a show of power is difficult to frame as anything else – which perhaps further explains, if not justifies, his revulsion toward human sexuality.
At this point I should emphasize that the last thing I want to do is discount the effects of sexual abuse on survivors. These are highly complex issues upon which I am not remotely qualified to comment, except to say that cycles of abuse, sexual and otherwise, are very real problems, and such traumas should never be overlooked.
If anything, Rorschach’s encounter with the older boys is his moment of greatest humanity. Although the extent and precision of his violence suggests some preexisting pathology already lurking in that developing brain, the fact that he takes action against them looks less like cold vengeance and more like aggressive self-preservation.
The first time I saw the young Rorschach rear up and blind his assailant with his own lit cigarette, it wasn’t horrifying. It was thrilling. Granted, I was 16 years old, so my moral compass was even more wavering than it is now, but still. What sparked in me wasn’t really my conscious brain, but a feeling: specifically, the sick feeling of being emphatically hit on, at the age of 12, by a grown adult man wearing nothing below the waist who very much wanted me to get into his car. If only I’d had Rorschach’s presence of mind back then, I thought. I could have done something besides just running. I could have been strong like him.
But then I got older.
I got older, and I learned what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal, male-gaze-dictated world when you can’t rely on the grownups to help you out, because you are the grownups. I learned how to perk up my ears for strange footfalls when I walked around at night; that sometimes the best defense against some guy grabbing you in the dark to try and steal your shit is to scream very, very loudly; and that the stealing thing would have been the best-case scenario if he hadn’t run off after I screamed. I learned about men on the internet who believed that women owed them sex, and that any of us who didn’t give them what they wanted should be assaulted or killed. I learned that visual media has a giant boner for depicting female corpses or victims of extreme violence as objects of sexual desire, because while not having sex on command means we deserve to die, our bodies being robbed of agency means anyone can project their sexual demands onto us at any time.
All of which casts Rorschach’s attitudes towards sexuality, and towards women and sexuality in particular, in a very different light. I’m not lumping his childhood traumas in with these per se; being abused by a parent who exposes you to inappropriate sexual behavior and being threatened with sexual assault on the street are wildly fucking terrible, and you can’t fault a kid (or an adult) for being treated like that. However, I mention these to show that these experiences didn’t make him a pathologically violent misogynist, even though the comic seems to want us to believe that they played a part.
It would be one thing if he shied away from women’s sexuality. No girlfriend? No porn? A weird complex about being approached by female sex workers? Sure, why not. I firmly believe at least one out of these three is true for even the most well-adjusted male superheroes. For instance, I can’t imagine Superman ever voluntarily consuming pornography, not even written erotica. As we’ve seen, though, Rorschach is not the type to run from a conflict. Instead, he does his best to hate and destroy the thing that represents the conflict. In fact, that’s how he gets his mask.
At the age of 16 – the same age I was when I first read Watchmen – he gets a job as a low-level garment worker, which he finds “unpleasant” due to having to handle “female clothing”. (Not “women’s clothing”. “Female” clothing.) One of the dresses he’s meant to assemble is never picked up; we find out, a few panels later, that the client was Kitty Genovese. The dress is slated to be made of special fabric, with shifting black-and-white designs, but Rorschach takes it home after it continues to go unclaimed. He cuts up the fabric, turns it into his first-ever superhero mask, and thus the Rorschach look is born.
Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered in 1964, outside her apartment in New York. Supposedly there were 38 witnesses who heard or saw her being attacked, but none of them called the authorities. The horrific event led to the identification of the bystander effect in contemporary psychology.
For Rorschach, the Genovese murder is proof of “what people were, then, behind all the evasions, all the self-deception”, and leaves him “ashamed for humanity”. Thus the forever-unclaimed dress becomes his mask: “a face that I could bear to look at in the mirror”.
The way he describes the process of deconstructing the fabric from Kitty Genovese’s unclaimed dress to make his mask also invokes the language of misogynist violence. “When I had cut it enough,” he recalls, “it didn’t look like a woman anymore”. That’s the ideal, to dismember something distinctly feminine until it no longer bears any human qualities. His claim to have used that specific fabric as a memorial to a woman’s murder is, therefore, patently bullshit: how can he suborn it to his purposes while striving to take away its humanity? He can’t – but, for more than a moment, we believe he can.
We believe him.
Like I said, Rorschach has a superpower.
Aren’t comics great?
Kelly Kanayama is a writer and comics scholar who is literally writing the book on Garth Ennis. Don’t believe me? Have a look at her Patreon page here! You can also find Kelly on Twitter here, highly recommended.
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