“‘In the end?’ Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
Least of all, Watchmen itself. For more than four decades, Alan Moore and Gibbon’s hit has endured as the genre-defining standard in comics. Not just a masterpiece, but the rare kind of cultural touchstone capable of transforming comic books themselves from a once disposable genre into an artform, one capable of masterpieces at all. Watchmen isn’t just a comic book, but the comic book.
And now, after a Warner Brothers film, a hit HBO show, and more accolades than I can think of, the title has come back to some different beginning with Rorschach.
Like its source material, Rorschach’s a 12-issue DC comic mini-series penned by two of the biggest names in comics — Tom King (Vision, Mister Miracle) and artist Jorge Fornés (Batman, Daredevil). But what is it? A continuation of the classic? Or simply more of it? Another echo of Manhattan’s threat that nothing ever ends?
A War that Determines Everything
In a sense, yes. King’s story takes place after Watchmen, in an America that has aged in real time. The “alien attack,” nearly 40 years old now, rings in every part of King’s PTSD America like the background radiation left after the big bang, giving rise to a political landscape where the book’s eponymous character, the late Walter Kovacs, has been imperfectly immortalized into a kind of culture warrior by a part of America.
The book opens with an unnamed investigator digging into the second death of Rorschach. This time in the form of an impersonator who — we learn through flashback — has been killed alongside his apparent “side-kick” during the course of their failed assassination attempt on a political candidate. The death of these two, its connection to Kovacs, and all three’s connection to the candidate, form the mystery our nameless protagonist has to solve before the madness of it and this still-doomed America swallow everything whole.
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If the choice to name Rorschach seems confusing at this point, that is only because the book is confusing. Beautifully so. Given the subject, what else could it be?
Where Watchmen is held up as a masterpiece of imagination told though deconstruction, Swiss-quartz precision, and brilliant homage, this hopeful sequel is its complete opposite: an overly simple and yet horribly contrived low-genre work filled with oblique references, gaudy inclusions, gratuitous cameos, and the same dreary, unrelenting violence that’s plagued comics since… well… its source material.
And that’s exactly what’s right about this new work by King and Fornés. Put simply, beyond the character name, a few splashes of ink, and the most brief and begrudging of recaps, Rorschach borrows almost nothing immediately that even feels like Watchmen. Honestly, combine all the pages with a direct or unmistakable reference to Moore and Gibbon’s original and you’ll get less than half of a single issue. But to fully explain why a comic book that would use a license seemingly out of spite is a near-perfect sequel, we’d have to explain why DC’s last decade of “faithful” continuations and adaptations aren’t. And that’s a subject so long, it really needs its own article. (Ed: Or at least its own video.)
So for now, let’s stick with how Rorschach sticks to one of the strongest themes of Watchmen: hurt people hurt people.
Like its predecessor, Rorschach is soaked in blood; a murder mystery set in a paranoid world bent on self-destruction. It’s the tale of an America on the verge of war, pushed there by monstrous politicians, blood-thirsty media, and a populace obsessed with its own violent self-mythologizing. In this way, the sequel matches the source beat for beat, and yet King gets there by turning every one of Moore’s choices on its head.
Where Watchmen focused on America’s Cold War fear of communism and a Russian attack, Rorschach shows us an image more familiar today: America’s fear of other Americans, and how our political parties have us more terrified of a civil war than a nuclear one.
That inversion carries into the structure of both books as well. Moore’s repetition of concepts and events and Gibbon’s repeated images and symbolism make Watchmen into a mystery that races relentless efficiency towards a seemingly unavoidable doom with a single question: why?
But the story and art that King and Fornés craft work in the exact opposite direction. By beginning with an attempted political assassination, the audience is given closure immediately. Not only are these would-be killers named, their motivations are seemingly obvious (it’s a political assassinatinon after all), and their plot stopped… but nothing has ended. We seemingly have our answer, and yet step by chaotic step, we fall deeper into mystery.
The original Rorschach was as open to interpretation as the test he’s named after, and whether he was a hero, antihero, villain, or satire might be arguable. What’s not is how Moore and Gibbons used the aesthetics of those roles — the holy trinity of “cool image, iconic voice, and epic cause” — to create the character. And then use him and those aesthetic choices to help interrogate the whole industry.
But this book ostensibly based on Rorschach exists not only largely without that character — but almost completely without those three elements (beyond what it necessarily borrows to qualify as part of Moore’s universe.)
King’s main protagonist is a nameless investigator; maskless and unremarkable. Even the trench coat he wears — his sole concession to the book’s branding — does more to make him nondescript than connect him to Kovacs.
The investigator also has almost no voice. Gone are the vicious pronouncements, the grandstanding of the original. The journal’s single sentences carved out with a Burroughs knife, rough-edged as the torn pages and speech bubbles. But it’s more than a matter of aesthetics; the overwhelming majority of the text in this book belongs to other characters. The investigator’s speech is sparse, asking questions, giving little in the way of answers. When he reads, we see flashbacks of the events without his commentary. The effect of this silence is subtle, but chilling: A man less real than the ghosts and conspiracies he chases.
All we see is a man dispassionately solving a murder simply because it’s his job. A mystery within a mystery.
I’d say it’s mundane and as far from a comic as one can get… except for how it drags real life comic book creators into it, creating a disorienting tale that is somehow literally about the genre despite having almost none of it’s predecessor’s loving homages. Even the art goes in the opposite direction as it gets flirtatiously close at times to Gibbons iconic 9-panel grid and yet intentionally, maddeningly refusing to match, with panels that will not behave, be even, or even connect.
The effect is so complete that by the time the story inserts a literal comic into itself, it’s almost hard to remember how the original did the same with ‘The Black Freighter.’ Neither King’s use of the narrative device nor his content feel anything like Moore’s subtle original. To some, it’s going to be a turn off. Honestly, I think that’s the point.
The Devil Is In
These kinds of glaring artistic differences build towards the same familiar atmosphere of dread, making the reader think Rorschach has lost its mind, all while secretly flaunting one of Watchmen’s best, most enduring, most iconic trademarks: attention to the most subtle detail.
King proves it from the very first pages.
Watchmen opens with Rorschach arriving on the scene of the crime after two police men have told us that Robert Blake lays dead several stories below us. King takes this idea and flips it on its head, his version opens with that character already there, shot dead on a catwalk several stories above the ground, the police arriving late to the scene.
In one, “tonight, a Comedian died in New York.” In the other, “a man almost died yesterday. A great man.” Two sentences made up of nearly opposite words. Both told to us through broken windows. Both about dead men that can’t be saved.
Nothing ever changes. And perhaps that’s with good reason.
Where I struggle with Rorschach is when it appears to attempt to address Watchmen as a cultural artifact.
Before I get into specifics, I would like to give King and Fornés credit for trying to address this material so fully. Any sequel would be challenged enough by simply working with such well known characters and events, let alone ones crafted in Moore’s distinctive voice and Gibbons’ meticulous hand. That’s a daunting task all by itself — and one I think Rorschach has met admirably — but to do so would leave the job half-finished and any work at least partly hollow without also addressing Watchmen’s station as a masterpiece and the impact it’s had on comic books. Particularly in light of the original’s use of violence (sexual and physical certainly) in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and perhaps even its use of political violence (particularly in this post January 6th world.)
Again, this is an enormous demand to place on any two artists. Particularly asking King and Fornés to in some ways amend the work of two different men from decades past. But fair or no, I think that demand comes with the task. And to their credit, the two do attempt to show Watchmen more fully, flaws and all. But ironically, this may be the one place where King and Fornés’ decisions to distance themselves from Moore and Gibbons’ choices might backfire for some.
Frequently, Watchmen is framed as a conversation about the endless cycle of violence in both comic books and the modern world. Its frequent use of Cold War visual imagery, the Doomsday Clock, US/Soviet war rooms, and the Hiroshima lover’s embrace, as well as texually with elements like the Keene Act’s obvious parallels to McCarthyism and the addiction/relapse cycles of certain characters as they try to remain out of costume.
Its most infamous example being the rape of Sally Jupiter. Moore is no stranger to including sexual violence in his work, but in Watchmen, the crime is moved from a mere element or theme to an entire central plotline that is not only of questionable length, but alarming importance to the story.
In the years since Watchmen was first published — in particular, these last few years — we have seen an increased discussion about the prevalence and severity of sexual crimes, in particular those against women, as well as increased awareness of the media’s role in these horrors.
Crucially, the entire comic book ecosystem has been hit hard by a series of damning allegations, gut wrenching stories, and more than enough evidence to show that our artform is not filled with as many heroes as we might have hoped.
And most specifically, Watchmen — along with much of the rest of Alan Moore’s catalog of both comics and literature — has been the subject of intense scrutiny for its use of sexual assault, treatment of women, sex workers, LGBTQIA+ individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, and beyond.
This is what I speak of when I say that any meaningful sequel to Watchmen would need to address the book beyond its textual elements.
Laura Cummings and Agency in a Predestined Universe
To King’s credit, Rorschach does interrogate its source material beyond its popular image. In particular, King does a fantastic job of using Rorschach’s other father figures: Steve Ditko and Frank Miller. Rorschach’s debt to Ditko’s The Question and Mr. A are a matter of record, with Moore stating he used both characters and their creator when crafting Kovacs’ morally absolute world view (and character design). Less famous is the contentious friendship between Miller and Moore, and how it’s speculated that Rorschach’s brutalist pulp dialogue was Moore’s attempt at a viscious satire of Miller’s trademark reliance on women (in particular sex workers) and racial, ethnic, and sexual minority groups as antagonists in his stories.
In Rorschach, King does a masterful job then of addressing both Ditko and Miller as troubling figures in the world of comics, highlighting their substantial personal shortcomings and how they arguably impact their works… without denigrating the works themselves. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but in my opinion, King does a remarkable job with it, even keeping to the theme of the book and eschewing the chance to present either creator as a villain or hero. Not even in their own stories.
More difficult to pindown is Rorschach’s new character, Laura Cummings (aka. ‘The Kid’.) Cumming’s traumatic upbringing, terrible relationships with men, and eventual role in the attempted political assassination that begins this story could all be seen as attempts on King’s part to at least partly address Watchmen’s portrayl of women. This could be supported further by Fornés’ choice to give The Kid a costume with colors that echo both Silk Spectre outfits, as well as a “domino mask” that echos the Comedian’s.
Cummings’ character is certainly far deeper than either Laurie or Sally Jupiter’s. She enjoys far more agency and her actions form the thrust of the central narrative as well. Perhaps most importantly, the way King uses her life to speak about the treatment of women is far clearer, with much better boundaries, while still maintaining enough mystery to keep her compelling. Despite its namesake, Rorschach is either her story… or else she steals the show.
What’s clear — and perhaps most important — is that Laura Cummings is the one part of Rorschach that feels clearly superior to any Watchmen counterpart. As a matter of craft, she’s the better female heroine.
But if the Balad of the Kid is truly meant to be an answer of sorts to The Rape of Sally Jupiter, then I’m not sure it works. Again, I’m not certain that this is King’s goal or DC’s. Even if it is, I don’t presume that every one of this book’s readers is after such an answer. But for those that are after some final referendum on Moore, King’s heroine offers no resolution. Maybe it’s the fact that The Kid’s story is, at best, too abstracted a metaphor when compared to the plain text of either Silk Spectre. Or maybe it’s the agency Cummings has and her choices of what to do with it that tells us that reminds us of the ultimate futility of thinking there could be a hero in a universe Moore designed to deny them.
The Kids’ lesson seems more about the madness of perpetuating a cycle of violence to somehow end it. Or she’s a true piece of Moore’s autocratic reality, proving that not only does nothing end, but nothing can be undone.
But more of that reality might not be the solution some need.
Rorschach is a must-read, regardless of your opinion of Watchmen. It’s as independent as any inspired work could ever be, while subtly saying volumes about its source material.
Sadly, these things will probably be overlooked as readers rush to evaluate the book as a sequel to Alan Moore’s classic original. Which is a shame, as King and Fornes have turned out something as exciting, original, and meaningful as I’ve read in ages — qualities which should make this the rightful heir regardless of canonical connections.
To answer the question: I believe Rorschach is as good a sequel as fans may ever get. In it’s skill and daring, it may even be better than they could have expected.
But what’s more important is the real message of the book: Watchmen does not need a sequel. It is not a question that needs answering.
Comics need sequels. And this is a damn fine comic.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.
Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.”
— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
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