Alan Moore is one of the most celebrated writers of the modern era. He is considered a legend like no other by many comic book fans. But that doesn’t always mean Moore and readers of his work see eye-to-eye regarding certain interpretations of the stories and characters he creates. One such case is the character we spend the most time with in the graphic novel Watchmen. Rorschach is a character with an aura and aesthetic straight out of a crime noir/thriller, and he has been hailed as a well-beloved character by readers of the story. A reaction that is the complete opposite of Moore’s intentions. This begs the question - what was lost in translation from Moore’s mind to the page? And how has Rorschach’s legacy changed in the following decades? These are important questions that need to be addressed and explored, which is what I’ll attempt to accomplish.
Before we can deal with Rorschach directly, we must talk about what inspired the character. When Moore was planning out his story, he wanted to use characters from Charlton Comics that DC had purchased back in 1983. However, the company had plans to incorporate those characters into their proper universe. So Moore ended up creating his own characters that were still inspired by the characters he wanted to use. In the case of Rorschach, he was based on Vic Sage AKA The Question. Originally created by Steve Ditko, The Question was created to be an expression of Objectivism, a philosophy that Ditko himself supported and believed in. For those who are unaware, Objectivism was spearheaded by Ann Rand. The fundamental belief of Objectivism is that right and wrong are clear-cut, there is no such thing as a gray area. And that no one should compromise themselves or their beliefs for someone else. Ditko had created the character Mr. A as an undiluted expression of this philosophy, but The Question was created as a more Comics Code Authority-friendly version while he was working on the Blue Beetle book for Charlton Comics.
Regardless of how you personally might feel about this philosophy, it was clear that Alan Moore wasn’t a fan and sought to critique this mindset. Rorschach is portrayed as a loner, several members of his former team either don’t care for him or even hate him. The closest he has to a friend is Nite Owl II and that term really only applies in a loose sense. You could even argue that since they are more connected through shared experiences as opposed to genuinely liking each other, there isn’t enough to justify the kind of friendship they do have. He was also someone who clearly embraced conservative beliefs, although how far right his beliefs were remains unclear. One of his journal entries early on does say he should investigate Ozymandias to see if he was a homosexual, so it isn’t out of the question to believe Rorschach harbored homophobic viewpoints. It is also likely he had beliefs that connected to some form of racist ideology. Alan Moore left plenty of clues and details to show that Rorschach was a paranoid and angry man with no friends, barely managing to live within a structured society, who took great joy in hurting and even killing the criminals he hunts down. A lot of this is strong evidence to show that Rorschach shouldn’t be admired.
However…Moore did make one crucial error. And it is here we get to the finale, the aftermath of Ozymandias’s plan. He was able to get most of his other former teammates to agree to keep secret about how Ozymandias was behind the New York City attack in an attempt to establish world unity and peace. But Rorschach takes a firm stance against such an idea. To him, the deaths of millions of people are wrong and can never lead to the utopia that Ozymandias envisions. This is why when he confirms that he plans on exposing everything to the world, Rorschach is killed by Dr. Manhattan. This right here is what turned Rorschach from a grimy shadow of a man into a hero. Generally speaking, a hero should be an individual who fights crime and corruption in the name of protecting the innocent and helping turn the world into a better place. And they should be able to accomplish this without killing, torturing, or abusing anyone. There are of course certain exceptions, and Rorschach is by no means a strict follower of this definition - ironic considering his origins in Objectivism. But to allow so many innocent people to die is an act that he can’t live with. It would be the same choice any of the DC Trinity would make. And in the end, he was given a hero’s death, turning him into a martyr for those reading the story. In the end, it shouldn’t be that surprising to Moore that many would embrace Rorschach, or at the very least give him credit when it’s due.
Thus ends the story of Walter Kovacs. But the story of Rorschach moves forward. Watchmen would end up receiving 3 separate, standalone sequels. The first to talk about is the HBO show called Watchmen. Following the original story, Rorschach’s journal detailing the truth would be published, but only be a publisher known for telling and supporting conspiracy theories. It wouldn’t be until it was discovered by a white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry did Rorschach’s image became popular again. As mentioned previously, it is likely that the original Rorschach harbored some racist beliefs, regardless if he himself realized it or not. So the idea of this group being inspired by him wouldn’t insult him. But it is also likely that he would be against them using his writings to justify the deaths of innocent people and would end up finding other ways they misinterpreted his work for their own agenda. Basically, it would be hard to determine exactly how the original character would react, but this group is closer to the idea that Alan Moore had in his story. The next sequel that should be discussed is Tom King’s 12-issue story called Rorschach. Decades after the original story, an old man dressed as Rorschach is accompanied by a young woman as they attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate. As an investigative agent pieces together who these people are and what likely pushed them to go through with their actions, he finds himself changed by their story. The investigator finds his perspective on reality and the truth blurred before he finally decides to take on the Rorschach identity himself. Again, ironic considering the clear-cut philosophy of Objectivism. This sequel explores the idea of the spirit of Rorschach being reincarnated in several people as a part of a conspiracy theory about preventing the world from being taken over by those corrupted by the squids. It’s a story that explores the cyclical nature of violence and politics. In some ways, it is a sort of meta-commentary on the real-world popularity of Rorschach as well as the current political landscape of the US, especially regarding the conservative side of the spectrum. And in some ways, it does feel faithful to what the original Rorschach was about, for better and for worse.
Finally, we get to the 3rd Watchmen sequel. This is Doomsday Clock and for this one, we see the character Reggie Long pick up the identity to become Rorschach II. The son of the psychiatrist who examined Walter Kovacs in prison, Reggie witnessed the squid attack as it happened and lost both parents in the incident. He went insane from the trauma and went to a mental institution. It is there he became friends with Byron Lewis AKA Mothman of The Minutemen. Reggie would come into possession of his father’s notes on Walter Kovacs as well as Rorschach’s journal. Reggie escaped and intended to kill Ozymandias but begrudgingly decided to team up with him to find Dr. Manhattan to help re-establish peace on their Earth. Only for Reggie to then discover that Ozymandias lied to him about having Cancer as well as his remorse regarding the squid attack, in addition to the revelation that the original Rorschach mentally broke Reggie’s father. Once again, I have to point out the irony of how any Rorschach, a character based on Objectivism, found himself screwed over after letting themselves play with a moral gray area just once. While this pushes Reggie towards dropping the identity, he is quickly encouraged by Alfred Pennyworth & Batman to put on the mask, but this time for something he can believe in. Once Reggie returns back to his Earth, he finds peace as he fully embraces becoming Rorschach II.
This character plays an important role in every one of these unconnected Watchmen sequels. And the main theme or idea that connects all of them is the exploration of who Rorschach is, what others think he should be, and what he can be. We have a group of white supremacists forcing Rorschach’s writing to fit their agenda even though they aren’t fully aligned. Then we have a series of people who recognize who Rorschach was in the past and are hoping to bring him back so that essentially the same hero story can be repeated. Finally, we have one man who ultimately claims the identity for himself after a life-altering experience so he can find his own way forward.
It’s time we finally talk about the mask itself - and I mean that literally. The Rorschach mask is a living Rorschach test, black and white ink constantly moving around in between two layers of cloth that fully hides the wearer’s head. The fact that both liquids stayed separate and never created gray was intended to be a visually engaging representation of Rorschach’s black & white perspective on the world. However, after taking into consideration this character’s legacy, there is another interpretation that is just as accurate. Rorschach isn’t just one thing, he is many things but different people will view him radically differently depending on who they are. This character is the most on-the-nose and meta representation of the Rorschach inkblot test. But that’s what makes him so unique. Characters like Batman, Superman, & Wonder Woman have easily recognizable symbols, and people know instantly who they are and what they represent. But who Rorschach is and what he represents is entirely dependent on who is looking at him, as well as who wears the mask. After The Question was bought by DC, writer Dennis O’Neil would pen an ongoing book that forced the character to confront more complex situations and deal with the morally gray. This forced the character to evolve, but it never felt like a betrayal of who the character was. And on some level, Rorschach has gone through a similar change when you look at his legacy.
Now it is time for me to share how I view this character. Rorschach has a…messy legacy. There are a lot of uncomfortable truths that surround this identity, which feels fitting considering who Walter Kovacs is. But there are other truths that make this someone respectable. To be honest, I don’t think I can ever really call him a hero. A more appropriate term to call him is a vigilante. However, that doesn’t mean that the person underneath the mask isn’t capable of being heroic.