Why the Legacy of Rorschach in Watchmen on HBO Is Perfect

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BY October 29, 2019

Rorschach is a deeply misunderstood character. Since the 1980s, people saw him as the “coolest” character of the Watchmen, and everyone wanted to be like him. This was only perpetuated in 2009, with Jackie Earle Haley’s fantastic performance of the anti-hero. But here’s the truth. Rorschach isn’t cool. He’s a reflection (and indictment) of Generation X’s immaturity and toxic masculinity. HBO shows in their new Watchmen series how the Rorschach Legacy mutates from its angsty man-child beginnings, in which the character, though flawed, had a moral center and at least meant well, to a symbol of white supremacists, who are also toxic man-children.

Twisting a Character’s Legacy Isn’t Exclusive to Rorschach or Watchmen on HBO

Seventh Kalvary, Rorschach, HBO, Watchmen They went from learning how the richest white man in the world destroyed New York City…to wanting to kill all non-white people. Sure, makes sense. (Image Via: HBO)

Seeing white supremacists take the Rorschach mask as their own, twisting the words in his journal to justify their actions, felt very familiar. On a macro-scale, it is what the Westboro Baptist-like Christians do with Jesus. But there is a better example, even if it looks at the opposite side of law: the police and military using Punisher’s symbol. The Punisher is a lawless murderer who kills anyone he thinks is a criminal. At a time when civil libertarian movements like Black Lives Matter exists, it is grossly problematic when officers of the law adopt the symbol of a lawless character. This bothered Punisher’s storytellers so much that he even wrote a comic where Punisher tells police officers to stop.

But in the world of Watchmen, there’s nobody to defend the Rorschach Legacy. He’s dead. He can’t stand up and defend his identity as the 7th Kalvary spews racism while wearing his face (and Rorschach always called it his “face,” not his mask. That’s how important it was to his identity). Punisher was able to stand up to egregious use of his symbol. After 30 years of no one defending the inkblot mask, it becomes the symbol of white supremacy in America.

Rorschach was Never Supposed to be the Watchmen Character People Look Up to

Night Owl, Rorschach, Watchmen, Zack Snyder, The real hero of Watchmen is in the background. (Image via: Watchmen, Warner Bros.)

Rorschach’s journals (those pesky prose sections of the Watchmen graphic novel) paint a much different picture than the comic by itself does. He is quite a xenophobic character. He’s misogynistic (which is odd considering his mask is made from a woman’s dress), homophobic, and anti-immigrant. The newspaper he sends his journal to, the New Frontier, is a right-wing publication that thinks Richard Nixon was too liberal. In the context of the Watchmen world of HBO, this is all Rorschach gave people. But why did he send his journal? Justice. Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan just murdered thousands of New Yorkers, and he wanted the world to know the truth. But what the world really focused on was his fear of the other.

What Alan Moore Had to Say About the Legacy of Rorschach In His Version of Watchmen:

Even Watchmen scribe Alan Moore had a problem with how people saw the Rorschach Legacy. In a 2008 interview, he said:

“I wanted to kind of make this like, ‘Yeah, this is what Batman would be in the real world.’ But I had forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans that smelling, not having a girlfriend—these are actually kind of heroic. So actually, sort of, Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I meant him to be a bad example, but I have people come up to me in the street saying, ‘I am Rorschach! That is my story!’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘Yeah, great, can you just keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again for as long as I live?”

Batman, Rorschach, Doomsday Clock, Watchmen See what kind of example he leaves? Eating Batman’s breakfast? Shame. (Image via: Doomsday Clock, DC Comics)

Rorschach, for that matter, isn’t even a good “Batman.” In the comic, he doesn’t solve some big mystery. In fact, his conspiracy theory of a cape-killer makes it easier for Ozymandias to cover his tracks. It’s really Night Owl who does the legwork, a version of Batman that’s a little more forgiving.

The True Legacy of Rorschach is What HBO Gets Right in Watchmen

Rorschach embodies desperation—and that is what makes him so perfect as an accidental white supremacist icon. Every white supremacist is desperate for a world that never existed, to be safe from a world that doesn’t exist, and for a vision of the world that will never exist.  Watchmen on HBO might rub some people the wrong way, doing this to the legacy of Rorschach. But that was always Alan Moore’s point—you were never supposed to be comfortable with the character, much less think that he was “cool.” When a character like Rorschach thinks the world is “black and white,” (like Regina King’s Angela Abar said to her adopted son in the second episode of the HBO series) it means he thinks he knows who deserves to live or die. That’s the foundational part of his character. He knows who is worth saving and who isn’t. Combine that sort of foolish moral clarity with fear, and you have the exact recipe for terrorists like the white supremacists in the Watchmen.

Featured Image: HBO

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Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.

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