Tardy to the Party: Before Watchmen – Rorschach

Sometimes you arrive early to a party, wandering over to the bar and ordering a drink while you scan the crowd for a familiar face. Sometimes you’re right on time, welcomed with smiles and hugs as you walk in the door. And sometimes you’re late, thanks to a misplaced earring or poorly timed phone call. You’re tardy to the party.

Like my article about the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, this is an instance where multiple “parties” are involved, if you will. Because the main focus of this piece is actually my third encounter with Watchmen-related media, I don’t think it’s appropriate to jump right into Before Watchmen. I need to reflect on the original Watchmen comic book limited series, the 2009 movie (my timing is impeccable—it was released 10 years ago this March), and my relationship with each first. Although I was right on time for one of these parties (the movie), I was decidedly tardy to the other two (the books).

Written by Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons, the comic series Watchmen ran from 1986-1987. The story focuses on an alternate version of the world in 1985, a world in which major historical events had strikingly different outcomes, and the United States and Soviet Union are both standing precariously close to a line that, if crossed, would result in nuclear war. In this timeline, vigilantes (mostly hero-types in costumes sans superpowers, a la Batman and family) have played an important role in the shaping of reality, though there have been mixed feelings about allowing them to continue their crime fighting ways. By the time the series begins, these masked heroes have officially been outlawed, resulting in either their retirement, new (legal) jobs working for the government, or continuing their quests to fight crime in secret. We follow several of these (former) vigilantes as they struggle to figure out how they fit in the present state of the world, and choose the paths they’ll follow into what the world is in the process of becoming.

I didn’t read it when it came out—I was in elementary school, not its intended audience. That doesn’t mean that I was completely unaware of the world of comics, however. I remember watching reruns of the Wonder Woman television series starring Lynda Carter…I didn’t realize she was a comic book character back then, but I think that was the first time I came across the genre. As I grew up, my education in the world of comics continued thanks to several cartoons that happened to be on TV around the time I got home from middle school (specifically Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men). By the time I was in college, I dabbled in actual comics (mostly X-Titles and Batman-related books for obvious reasons) and ended up becoming a tad obsessed with certain characters—admittedly I learned HTML, and eventually CSS, solely so I could build a Rogue/Gambit website from scratch.

But I had yet to discover Watchmen.

A trip to the movies changed all that.

I couldn’t tell you what movie I went to see…but I guarantee I had popcorn and plain M&Ms, my required movie theater snacks, and I specifically got there early so I wouldn’t miss any trailers. Although the Internet existed, this was back before trailers were routinely posted online and YouTube wasn’t the king of video content; one’s main source of trailers was an actual movie theater. The trailer for Watchmen annoyed me. My initial reaction was essentially, “What the hell was that?” But even as I was repelled by it, it haunted me. I must’ve searched for it online and watched it again. The next time I saw it, it elicited a completely different response. The music, the visuals…it was beautiful. Distinctive. And dark. A lone Rorschach (I didn’t know his name yet) might very well have been the one to win me over, standing in the pouring rain on the roof of a building saying, “The world will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’ And I’ll whisper, ‘No’.”  I knew I had to see it when it came out.

The trailer also contained an important piece of information—the movie was based on a graphic novel, and here I was, a girl who enjoyed comics and graphic novels. I decided I would read the original work before I went to see the movie. So I did. I enjoyed it immensely. It was incredibly well-written with a clever plot and that characters were complex, interesting, and perhaps most importantly, flawed. Humanity was depicted realistically as both wondrous and apathetic, capable of creating things of great beauty as well as things that could cause mass destruction, of perpetrating poignant acts of kindness as well as horrific acts of violence. The costumed heroes navigate this world with attitudes ranging from severe pessimism to pure optimism, doing what they can to save humanity from itself, or at the very least, playing their parts in ensuring the scales between right and wrong are balanced in a world that’s falling apart at the seams.

I absolutely loved it. Moreover, there was a character I felt an instant connection to, one who was my favorite by far. His name was Rorschach and I fell in love with him immediately. It wasn’t romantic love. No, Rorschach doesn’t inspire images of long walks on the beach or candlelit dinners. It was a deeper, darker bond that we shared; he was a small piece of me brought to life in the panels of this masterpiece of a graphic novel. It was a piece I had never seen depicted before, and I relished in it. I admired his strict moral code and unwillingness to compromise under any circumstances, while at the same time recognizing that such a stance couldn’t be maintained in real life. At least, not without serious consequences, a fact he’s forced to face and ultimately accept in the end (“Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon,” he declares before paying the price for his beliefs). He was magnificent. I treasured every panel he graced with his presence.

My affection for the original story made me nervous about seeing the movie. The trailer had dug its claws into me and I was determined to see it, but if it didn’t live up to the comic, I would be sorely disappointed. Luckily it was released about a month later, so I didn’t have to wait long to compare the two. I was impressed with Zack Snyder’s version, which was exceedingly faithful to the source material, so much so that I can only think of one other movie that gets as close to accurately portraying a book on screen (it’s The Virgin Suicides, if you were wondering). He made one fairly big change that I’d rather not mention (I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who’s decided they want to read/watch it), but I think it was necessary. It altered a major event in the plot just enough so it wouldn’t seem silly. Because sometimes an idea that works on the page simply doesn’t translate well onto the screen. The event itself is pretty much the same, as is the aftermath, but the cause of the event is different.

Most importantly, Jackie Earle Haley was perfectly cast as Rorschach, bringing him to life with a combination of disgust, determination, and moral superiority. Haley also imbued him with a touch of vulnerability, not an easy feat for this particular character. It’s something that another, less talented actor wouldn’t have been able to convincingly accomplish. Somehow he made me love Rorschach even more.

A few years later, rumors of a comic series called Before Watchmen caught my attention, and I eagerly awaited its release. It was supposed to consist of a number of smaller limited series that would focus on individual characters, including Rorschach, which sounded like heaven to me. But Alan Moore wasn’t involved in any way, a fact that dialed down my excitement a bit, and as issues of each limited series were released, the reviews were mixed. Some received glowing, positive marks from critics, some assessments were decidedly negative, and others were a motley collection of both. Overall, the opinions seemed to average out to an emphatic “meh.” As a result, I decided not to wade into potentially dangerous waters that might ruin Rorschach (and possibly all of the Watchmen universe) for me.

Then came Christmas 2018, when my brother presented me with issue one of Before Watchmen: Rorschach. It was a thoughtful gift given with affection, so of course I was going to read it. And by extension, I’d have to buy the trade paperback so I could read the entire story, because what would I be able to glean from only reading the first part? I read the actual comic my brother gave me (for sentimental purposes), then immediately opened the newly purchased trade paperback to finish the series.

I guess I agree with the critics, because my appraisal is also “meh.”

Although I have numerous complaints about it, I can’t bring myself to give it a completely negative review because, for the most part, it stayed true to Rorschach’s character. And I know Rorschach. Every so often I come across a character that I really, truly understand. I can get into his/her head effortlessly…I know how they think and what they feel. Rorschach is one of those characters, and I have to admit that despite all my problems with the series, it did a pretty good job with him. It’s not perfect, but the parts they got right are so right that I’m willing to overlook a couple stumbles along the way. His journal entries especially ring true; I could totally hear Jackie Earle Haley’s voice reciting them, which might be the highest compliment I can bestow on the writing.

Unfortunately, that’s the best thing I can say about the series. Accurate characterization is arguably the most important aspect of the story (Have you ever read something where characters you know, beloved characters, are so poorly written that everything they do, say, and think go against their very natures? It’s torture. It’s hell.), and it’s also the only aspect that elevates my opinion to “meh.” Written by Brian Azzarello, with art by Lee Bermejo, the main action centers on Rorschach’s encounters with a big bad gangster who’s both the head of a prostitution ring and a drug kingpin, making him doubly despised by our masked hero. There’s also a side plot about a serial killer who carves messages on the bodies of the naked women he dumps around the city, but it’s mostly background noise until the end. The art is pretty decent (I’ve seen better, but I’ve also seen much worse), and as far as storylines go, it’s not so bad. But the storyline is the least of this series’ problems…

Let’s address each problem separately:

1. The Violence

I’m not adverse to a little violence in my fiction. My attitude towards violence is like my attitude towards gore in general—I don’t mind it as long as it’s not gratuitous. Violence for violence’s sake, however, is one of my pet peeves. And Before Watchmen: Rorschach is overflowing with the kind of senseless brutality I loathe. It doesn’t further the plot or play a particularly important role in the story as a whole. Look, I’m not stupid, I came into this expecting a certain degree of carnage. It is Rorschach, after all. But the percentage of pages dedicated to fight scenes and the degree of savagery depicted in those panels was unwarranted. At least half of it could’ve been removed and replaced with character/plot development. And that’s a conservative estimate.

Furthermore, I don’t think the aftermath of said violence was nearly as realistic as it should be. I love Rorschach and all, but he should’ve been dead. Or so badly injured he couldn’t walk for a while. At bare minimum he shouldn’t have been able to piece together a coherent thought for a few days. Or remain conscious for any length of time. On one hand, I get that it’s a comic book, but on the other hand, give me a break.

2. The Lady

During the course of the series we learn that Rorschach (unmasked and his “normal” self, if you will) is a frequent patron of the Gunga Diner. There’s a waitress who’s always on shift when he comes in, serving him regularly and repeatedly trying to befriend him, though he pretty much ignores her attempts to get to know him better. After an exceptionally bad beating, he staggers into the diner bloody and semi-conscious. She tries to help him despite his protests, quickly stashing him in the corner so other customers can’t gawk at him. When he passes out she takes him to a hospital, where he awakens confused and disoriented several days later. He returns to the diner shortly thereafter, insisting that he was fine and her actions were unnecessary. He then unexpectedly thanks her for her kindness, finally tells her his name, and asks her out to dinner.

Now, Rorschach is a big believer in the philosophy of “an eye for an eye,” and based on his unwavering views, I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply that to good deeds as well as bad. The waitress showed him compassion, tried to help him, so it’s just as natural that he would want to repay her benevolence as it would be for him to break a thief’s hand/arm as punishment. It’s his method of repayment that I find objectionable. Rorschach hates women. HATES them. We’re repeatedly reminded of that fact in Watchmen. So I find it difficult to believe he’d want to spend any amount of time alone with any woman ever. I realize that this takes place before the events depicted in Watchmen (hence the title), but his hatred of women stems from even earlier than that, specifically his relationship with his mother (and the “relationships” she had with many, many men). In fact, the series even begins with him sharing an anecdote about his mother, making it clear that his hatred of women is already well established. Yes, he appears to have known this particular woman for a while, and yes, she seems to have always been caring and attentive towards him. I just don’t think that would be enough to undo his preconceived notions about women in general. Wanting to repay her is consistent with his character. Offering to take her to dinner is not.

3. The Tiger

The big bag gangster has a pet tiger. How cliché is that? I have to admit I had similar feelings towards Ezekiel’s pet tiger in The Walking Dead (the television show, not the comic). But in TWD, at least there’s a plausible backstory that explains the tiger. Here we have some random villain with a large predator and zero explanation. I mean, what, he’s big and bad and rich so he decided a dangerous wild animal would be a suitable companion?

Yeah, it helps him keep his men in line, but didn’t it occur to him that there are other easier, safer ways to ensure loyalty? Late in the series the tiger turns out to be even more problematic when it becomes a convenient deus ex machina. The tiger in TWD plays a similar role at one point, but in that case it was executed so wonderfully that I was delighted by it. Here it feels tired and predictable.

4. Character Development

There is none. Zip. Zero. Zilch. While it reinforced what I already knew about Rorschach, I learned nothing new about him, gained no deep insight into his character. Reading this series is almost completely pointless.

Thus ends my major issues with the series, save one.

My final complaint is more of an epiphany, really. It both saddens and frustrates me, but in hindsight it’s the only conclusion I could inevitably reach—Rorschach is simply not meant to be in a solo series, no matter how well-written or good intentioned the effort might be. And it’s his very nature that precludes him from such an honor. He’s too…Rorschach. To write him properly, to stay true to his character, one must weave a narrative that’s so dark and twisted and hopeless that it’s difficult for the reader to consume. And this is coming from a girl who immerses herself in horror movies, compulsively reads/watches/listens to true crime stories in every possible form of media available, and more often than not tends to side with the villain of a story. I love the darkness, I crave it. But pure, unadulterated Rorschach is too much even for me. Watering him down would ruin the character, so I suspect the solution is instead to balance him out with characters who have more optimistic (he’d argue naïve) viewpoints. Better yet, add several characters to the mix, each with a different world view, to create more palatable fare. That’s exactly what Watchmen (book and movie) is. He works best as a character when he’s part of an ensemble. And so I have to admit that while I yearn for more Rorschach, perhaps it’s best to enjoy what I already have and leave it be. It’s like cake at a party—one delicious piece doesn’t seem like enough, but if you wolf down the whole thing yourself, you realize too much of a good thing can make you sick.

My advice? If you haven’t already, read Watchmen. It’s incredible. And though it didn’t receive entirely positive reviews, I thought the movie was excellent, so you should check that out too. But Before Watchmen: Rorschach? Consider carefully before you gorge yourself on the empty calories of the limited series…it’ll leave you wishing you had stopped at just a slice or two of Rorschach. Too much will start to make you queasy.

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