Watchmen #8: Old Ghosts
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins
Hey, remember this from a few months ago?
I pray, daily, for the release of the grave.
Immediately after this tweet went live, the debate raged on: was this freshly sworn in Congresswoman, in fact, committing a faux pas by quoting Rorschach, because Rorschach isn’t a good dude? Or was it, in fact, awesome, that we could spend an entire day making jokes about the Keene Act and speculating which politician was likeliest to get atomized in a freak accident and reborn as a naked blue metaphor for Star Wars – the missile shield, not the film series?
(Obviously, it’d be Ron Paul.)
I found the debate illuminating, because the fact of the matter is: yes, Rorschach is a rotten dude, and yes: that is a great one-liner. And that led me to wonder, to what degree one obscures the other, and that leads us to Watchmen issue #8.
It’s one of the bridge issues, given the inglorious task of either serving as the payoff for relatively minor subplots (like the death of Hollis Mason) or setting up Sally’s relationship with nostalgia the concept and Nostalgia the perfume as it promises to come to a head in an issue. This is also primarily remembered for its centerpiece sequence, where Rorschach fights an entire prison and wins.
This sequence isn’t the only reason Rorschach is so beloved despite him being, you know, a piece of shit, but it’s a big part of it. All the storytelling convention points us towards the nucleus of the archetypical prison movie – one man, with no backup, versus an army of people who want his blood, the bars closing in so tight that even the grids of the pages themselves communicate a sense of confinement and tightness.
And Rorschach wouldn’t have it any other way. As the saying goes: he’s not locked up in there with them…
He escapes albeit with a little help from his friends (one who hates him and one who tolerates him) and he escapes triumphant, having gotten to break a few pinky fingers and kill a few criminals in sadistic ways. He eventually dies later on in the series, but he dies a badass, against someone no one could defeat. He starts out an underdog – a lone wolf, a man on the edge with nothing to lose, and the only cliché not checked off being “three days ‘til retirement” – he stays an underdog throughout this setpiece; and he goes out like one.
Rorschach is scummy, to be absolutely clear. He hates women, he hates queer people, his zingers against the Big Figure and his henchmen get pretty ableist, and he’s a sadist for its own sake. He’s a fan of an ideology so uncomfortably extreme it’s confined to obscure publications that could, of course, never find an ideological foothold in the more enlightened times of the modern, internet-connected era, right? He’s scummy and he’s become a popular character regardless; the martyr of Watchmen, glorious in death.
Contrast this with poor Hollis Mason, whose death never sees any redress, as he’s defeated by the one enemy that takes out almost all of us: time. Hollis isn’t going to be teaming up with the second Rorschach when the latter joins the Justice League in a couple of years (oh, it’s coming.) He’s not coming back. He fades away; Rorschach burns out. He burns out so brightly that others are drawn to his mystique.
What is it about the badass that we love so?
It’s not just Rorschach; other characters in Watchmen are as quotable as they are terrible as well. The man who vaporizes Rorschach in the end, and who wound up dating what his wife described as ‘jailbait,’ and who probably killed more people in Vietnam than all the world’s serial killers combined? He sure has been immortalized in quotable memes as well.
Doctor Manhattan isn’t a badass in a conventional sense, but he does share one thing with the archetypical badass: he always knows what to say. He has the privilege of reading the script ahead of time and never stammers in the moment or says a cosmically dumb thing, unless that’s what’s needed to move the story forward at its prescribed pace. Just that for him, this is a prison. For the badass, having the perfect zinger is a blessing.
Twitter – including the abovementioned tweet – is considered to have a zinger density of fully 26% at this stage (the breakdown is 26% zingers, 22% subtweeting about zingers, 19% grousing about zingers on your locked account, 18% complaining about Twitter while using Twitter, 11% screenshots of other Twitters aiming zingers at other-other Twitters in retaliation for a zinger-related beef from five years ago, and 3% complaining about percentages not adding up properly.) Clearly, we love the zinger, enough for the French to have a saying about coming up with the perfect zinger too late (“l’esprit d’escalier.”) We value a good zinger – and in turn, we value someone who can come up with one.
In issue #8, Rorschach’s dialogue prior to his rescue is 100% zingers. He’s never not in control; never really in danger, despite all the buildup pointing to him being deep in the soup. Combine this with the fact that we’re conditioned to root for the underdog, even if they’re not necessarily in the right, and it’s not hard to see why, even if you don’t like Rorschach, you might wind up quoting him. A good zinger makes a bad person sympathetic, it seems.
Of course, Rorschach – and the Comedian, and Doctor Manhattan, and Ozymandias – can come up with these zingers because they’re scripted, but it’s interesting that this gift of gab never comes up with the most human of Watchmen’s main characters, namely Dan and Laurie as Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre. In the Absolute edition of Watchmen, there are quotes from the creators denoting how each character sees the world; Doctor Manhattan seeing it as a sub-atomic system, Ozymandias as an organism with him as its brain, Rorschach as a fallen thing that needs his will imposed upon it, and the Comedian as something he has no interest in defining. Nite-Owl is specifically noted as not knowing how he sees the world; Silk Spectre has no notes in this regard at all.
It seems that to have the perfect bon mot – the perfect response – Watchmen would argue that you also have to have a detachment from the world, so that you can always be observing it and drawing conclusions on it. You need to be dehumanized, either literally in Doctor Manhattan’s case; deliberately as with the Comedian and Ozymandias; or by the result of a traumatic experience in the case of Rorschach. You can’t toss off the perfect one-liner after throwing someone to their death if you’re busy throwing up in the bushes over a fight you’ll remember until you die. To be cool is to be detached; to be detached is to be dehumanized.
So the chief failing of Watchmen with regards to Rorschach is this: Gibbons and Moore may have underestimated, severely, just how much audiences might like the idea of being dehumanized. For some, the dehumanization is repellent; for others, it’s freeing, a power fantasy as surely as being able to lift any weight and fly at any speed. Who doesn’t want to witty and ten steps ahead of all our foes? Sure, there’s a cost to being that sort of person – you wind up unable to relate to the world with much in the form of empathy or compassion, costs that are all over Watchmen. But we don’t quote those moments. We quote these ones.
I don’t really blame Gibbons or Moore for this; Watchmen has its failings (such as the aforementioned undercooked writing of Silk Spectre) but it’s not like they knew what an outsized impact Watchmen would have on the genre; no one can just up and declare that their next project will be exactly as successful as they want, so the impact art has on the world is in large part outside of the control of the creators. They certainly couldn’t have anticipated that we’d still be talking about this book thirty years later, or that Rorschach would be so popular that his successor is currently running around in the DC Universe, eating Batman’s lunch. (This actually happened.)
All the same, Rorschach might be a badass, but he’s a badass who’s a human sewer, and he’s still on T-shirts. So perhaps the lesson to take away in the end is this: if audiences do relate to the person who has the perfect zingers for all occasions, then audience sympathy will tick upwards for every cool snappy comeback you put in a character’s mouth, no matter what kind of human sewer they really are. There are a lot of good lessons to take away from Watchmen’s successes, and also its failures; with the case of Rorschach versus an entire prison, we can learn from both at the same time.
Anyways, please don’t harass the representative from New York asking for her opinions on the Mutant Registration Act. The worst thing that could happen is that she’d reply.
Charlotte Finn has written for several sites, including our old pal ComicsAlliance. She’s now writing primarily for her own site, including her current issue-by-issue walk through Astro City which I jealously read whilst wishing I could publish it on Shelfdust. You can find her on Twitter here!
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