It is often said that Watchmen is the most influential comic ever to be released. That comics wouldn’t be where they are without it, for good and for ill. But how did we get here, exactly? More to the point, just what influence did Watchmen provide to the larger world of comics? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Watchmen? Who watched the Watchmen?
Let’s get this out of the way; Yes, Rorschach is the coolest character in Watchmen. Now, I know a lot of people don’t like to hear that. Twitter leftist types mainly. “Oh, now can you say Rorschach is cool? He’s violent! He’s a bigot! He doesn’t support restorative justice and police abolition!” And to that I say…so what? None of that changes the fact that he’s the coolest dude in the book. Sure, Rorschach is a bigoted rape apologist who reads the 1980s equivalent of Brietbart, but Alan Moore still gave him all the coolest parts of the story. No one else erupts from a fridge. No one else kills a man by breaking a toilet. No one else says, “I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me,” which is possibly the coolest line ever written in comics. Being a good person has never been a requirement for being cool. The key to Rorschach’s coolness in Watchmen are two factors: his brilliantly crafted dialogue and the creativity of his violence.
Watchmen gives Rorschach a plethora of cool lines. The screaming “I’m not locked up in here with you.” The calm, couldn’t-care-less-about-your-threats delivery of “Tall order” and “Fat chance.” The sheer power of “I’ll look down and whisper No.” I may not personally care for the work of Alan Moore, but I will freely admit that the man is a dab hand at dialogue. Before Watchmen: Rorschach, conversely, doesn’t give Rorschach a single good line. His first line of spoken dialogue in this comic is “Bitch to be you right now.” This, to put it mildly, fucking sucks ass. This line is so bad I just had to google it to make sure it wasn’t a reference to a crime movie I haven’t seen. Alan Moore gave Rorschach a very deliberate way of speaking. He has an incredibly brisk manner of speaking that implies a calculated utilitarianism in what he chooses to say (comically at odds with the overwrought manner in which he journals). I would posit that Rorschach has one of the most defined character voices in all of comics, and Azzarello has ignored it on the first line to have Rorschach talk like a second rate Yoda.
Here I must admit that I did not reread Watchmen for this article. So I am going off memory and some quick skimming here, but I am very certain that Rorschach never swears in Watchmen. He certainly could have sworn. Watchmen is not a clean language book after all. But the choice was made by Moore to never have it happen. Perhaps this is part of Rorschach’s black-and-white view on what is good and bad behaviour, perhaps it isn’t. But regardless of what Moore’s intentions were, Azzarello has decided that literally the first thing Rorschach should do in this book is swear. The fact that it’s a misogynist slur used to emasculate someone is a whole other tin of biscuits. You could make the case I suppose that this is a deliberate attempt on Azzerello’s part to draw attention to the inherent misogyny of the character but, uh, I’ve read other Azzarello work so I’m not giving him the benefit of that doubt.
Two pages after this bizarre opening line Rorschach threatens a drug dealer who has just given him some info with this exchange:
It is staggering how poorly this scene works as both a threat and as a piece of dialogue. It is less intimidating and more vaguely confusing. It’s like the cleaning lady bit in Scott Pilgrim except this isn’t being played as a joke.
I don’t want to tell Brian Azzarello what jobs he should or shouldn’t take but if you’re gonna agree to follow up Alan Moore in the badass noir dialogue department, you should take a more realistic look at your writing skills.
When it comes to executing violence Rorschach doesn’t just punch people in the face like he’s the cross-hatched hero of a Jim Lee joint. We’ve all read a million comics where the requisite lantern jawed big boy punches some poor sap in a moment suspended in time, completely divorced from any sense of time or choreography around the event. But a scene where a five foot nothing kills a dude by kicking apart a toilet? Where we watch him calmly set the whole thing up in real time (as much as comics have real time)? That’s the kind of out-of-the-box creativity and forethought that writers always tell us Batman is capable of but never actually show. Watchmen‘s Rorschach is the pencil trick from The Dark Knight in character form: creative, surprising, and memorable.
In Before Watchmen:Rorschach, he just punches people the same as in any cape book. Some punches, some kicks, some more punches. It’s all just montage pages of close ups of limb-ends hitting faces. Actually, Rorschach is the victim of violence in this book far more than he is the perpetrator of it, but it’s still just the same punching panel montages. There is nothing about the violence in this book that separates Rorschach from an average Captain America comic (or, at least, a Captain America comic drawn by Lee Bermejo).
The prison sequences in Watchmen are exciting because Rorschach is in the worst position he could be in: his back to the wall, seemingly no options available to him, but then he pulls out an option nobody, including you, saw coming. “Can Rorschach escape his grisly demise at the hands of Big Figure? Tune in next time! Same Rorschach time! Same Rorschach channel!”
The first time he gets ambushed in Before Watchmen: Rorschach, he escapes by…having his assailants walk off and just assume he’s going to die from his injuries but then he doesn’t. You can practically hear Seth Green asking the rest of the gang why they don’t just shoot him. Even the one big fight that Rorschach loses in Watchmen (his ambush and subsequent capture by the police) is still used to show that Rorschach thinks on his feet and utilizes whatever tools he has to hand. All this fight shows us is that…Rorschach can take a beating I guess? Sure, detectives taking a beating is a time honoured tradition of the genre and Rorschach is a detective (or at least he dresses like one), but usually there’s a point to the beatings. The detective is beaten as a warning to drop the case and the detective endures that beating and continues the investigation in order to show us how determined he is to see justice done despite the personal cost. We don’t need to be told that Rorschach will seek out justice despite the personal cost, we already read him say “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.”
Later in Before Watchmen: Rorschach, he is ambushed a second time and this time the gang has him tied up with the intention of torturing him to death. Rorschach escapes this situation because the gang’s pet tiger starts killing the gang members and Rorschach just gets up and walks on out of the gang hideout. Rorschach in Before Watchmen: Rorschach is an Inspector Clouseau of violence, bumbling his way from one encounter to another, surviving by happenstance and never once needing to think his way out of a problem.
This is the first (and, thankfully, so far only) solo Rorschach book (We will get to Tom King and Jorge Fornès’ work with Rorschach. Suffice it to say, it’s not a Rorschach book in this sense. -Smilin’ Sean Dillon). I would imagine that if you were giving a solo book to a character who’d never had one before and also hadn’t been in a comic in twenty-five years you would be doing that because you had something you really needed to say about or with the character. Some great story to really celebrate the character and show, through the art itself, why this character deserves their own book. Or maybe you want to talk about why this character is overrated and you want to change people’s minds about the character with a story that really pulls them apart. Or perhaps you have something you want to say about the world that you’re only able to say with this character. Before Watchmen: Rorschach doesn’t do any of those things. The biggest problem with this comic is that it isn’t even really a Rorschach comic. It’s a Punisher comic where the Punisher forgot to bring any guns. And it isn’t a very good Punisher at that. It’s the most stock standard “a single minded vigilante fights some criminals” comic possible, with no flair, no personality, no anything to make it unique. Well, I suppose the Lee Bermejo art helps give it a bit of a unique identity in that he never drew a Punisher comic, but I don’t know how much of a unique identity it could be if you can take any panel not explicitly featuring the title character and slip it unnoticed into Joker.
I have previously described Before Watchmen: Comedian as a Funko Pop in comics form as it is a worthless simulacrum that exists only to squeeze money out of nerds. Before Watchmen: Rorschach is a different beast though. Before Watchmen: Rorschach is Dark Klaus in comic form because upon finishing this comic I, like the children in Klaus and the Crisis in Xmasville, was unable to imagine a future for the comics industry. I have read many bad comics in my time (I read every issue of Countdown to Final Crisis for a start) but I have never before read a comic that left me so genuinely depressed. Never before have I read a comic that caused me to despair so much I very almost threw my library copy across the room. Never before have I read a comic that made me question the inherent worth of art.
I read this comic nine years after it came out, and still it made me despair at the state of the comics industry. It’s been nine years and there’s many examples of great output from the Big Two doing fresh, innovative stuff that should counter this despair: Superman Smashes the Klan, Immortal Hulk, and Zdarksky’s Daredevil. But in nine years there’s also been Three Jokers, Dark Nights: Death Metal, and Doomsday Clock (Sean, please insert some forward sizzle about your Doomsday Clock article here in order to increase reader pre-orders. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always— do not forget this, Veronica— always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine Superman proclaiming he gives people hope— forever. – Smilin’ Sean Dillon). For every bold new comic taking exciting, creative risks there’s another four comics that exist purely because of IP inertia and the need to fill holes in the publishing machine. Another four comics to remind you that DC and Marvel are not in the art business, they are in the business business.
The true legacy of Watchmen is that there is no art that cannot be broken down into soulless tripe and resold to nostalgic drones eager to throw money at anything that briefly reminds them of how much happier they were as a teenager.
Reading this comic made me sad and writing this article made me sad all over again.