When DC announced Rorschach in mid-2020, eyebrows were raised amongst comics fandom: Yet another spin-off series from 1980s classic Watchmen, hot on the heels of the ultimately disappointing Doomsday Clock? Written by Tom King, no less, a man whose Alan Moore influence was well-known and resulted in a nine panel grid layout in everything from The Omega Men to his award-winning Mister Miracle?
The fix was in, it seemed, with the 12-issue series (illustrated by Jorge Fornes) preemptively written off as an unnecessary cash-in to a piece of untouchable comics canon. Fittingly, the truth turned out to be something else entirely.
In practice, a lot of Rorschach is concerned with the crossover between fantasy and reality, between presumption and fact. There are conspiracy theories and theorists, political thinking and actual reality, and comic book creators and the stories they tell themselves.
One of the figures at the center of Rorschach is for all intents and purposes a stand-in for Steve Ditko, the real life creator of the Question — the original inspiration for Moore and Gibbons’ Rorschach. The reclusive, politically rigid Ditko was himself an inspiration for Rorschach, making his analogous adoption of the identity here feel fitting in ways that are difficult to understand, never mind explain; as with the larger narrative, the line between what’s real and what’s imaginary blurs so far as to create an entirely disorienting experience at times. But that’s the point, maybe. How else do people fall prey to cult-like thinking if not by losing track of what’s real?
All of this may sound a little confusing. “What is Rorschach actually about?” you might be asking yourself, entirely reasonably. The plot centers around the investigation into the foiled assassination of a Presidential candidate, months before the election. Both of the would-be assassins — one of which was dressed as Rorschach — were killed, and an investigator is hired by the campaign of the target to find out their story. Specifically, he is to discover whether or not they were hired by the opposing candidate, who just so happens to be the President. Rorschach follows the investigation, which leads him to a conspiracy theory about how fake alien attack in Watchmen was part of a longer, more sustained invasion effort by real squid aliens, and a resistance plot by Doctor Manhattan and his costumed allies. One that requires the awakening of ordinary American citizens to their extraordinary destinies.
There’s an argument to be made that what Rorschach is actually about, though, is the way in which ideas spread and infect people. (Even, potentially, the reader themselves.) Like the comic that it spins out from, it’s a time capsule of a particular moment in a particular political reality, written and drawn by creators with a point of view.
King and Fornes deliver a book that appears to push away from directly lifting from Watchmen. They drop both the nine-panel grid format and any attempt to recreate Gibbons’ line or lettering, while King’s script is unexpectedly un-Moore-like, being more conversational and free-flowing, freed of the need to end each issue with a quotation. However, Rorschach is remarkably faithful to the spirit of the 1980s classic when it tries to address the world in which it’s being created.
Overall, the book is far closer to Damon Lindelof’s HBO Watchmen series than either of DC’s earlier comics spin-offs (2012’s Before Watchmen or 2017’s Doomsday Clock). Like the show, it’s a story taking place inside the same world as the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic, in part about the trauma created by the events of the original, but featuring a new cast. If anything, Rorschach goes further than the HBO show; while there are “flashbacks” featuring cameos of the Moore/Gibbons characters, none make any proper appearances in the story, especially not as central figures.
And yes, that means that there’s no actual Rorschach in Rorschach. Surprise!
There are, however, multiple “Rorschachs” to be found in the book. Variations on the famous mask are worn by multiple people throughout, even if none of the masks are the original, and none of the people wearing them are the “real” Rorschach. Rorschach becomes an idea shared by a group of people already obsessed by the shared idea that the world is under invasion from aliens; a delusion born from a lie created decades earlier.
Intentionally or otherwise — I lean towards the former, but I could be wrong — it reads as a commentary on the QAnon phenomena, dressed up in the language of comic books. It’s something that arguably makes the climax of the story even more disturbing than it already was.
So far, I’ve downplayed the importance of Jorge Fornés to the book’s appeal, which is entirely unfair. His work, colored with great subtlety and skill by Dave Stewart, is purposefully unshowy, displaying influences from Alex Toth and David Mazzuchelli as he quietly builds worlds around the central character: an unnamed detective caught up in an increasingly tangled web.
Fornes and Stewart ground the series in a reality that feels familiar, lived-in, and human, making some of their formalist pyrotechnics in the series — that eighth issue in particular is spectacular — even more eye-opening and surprising when they appear. It’s a bravura performance that might fly under the radar, due to its lack of self-conscious, showy moments; it’s also some of the most well-measured, confident art in a comic book series this year, hands down.
Rorschach is an uncompromising work rooted in ambiguity and uncertainty; a book that, like the original Watchmen, feels out of step with everything surrounding it but the result of creators supremely confident in their own choices. In a year where DC has enjoyed a creative renaissance and renewed focus (Hello, Infinite Frontier, The Swamp Thing, Far Sector, and a revitalized Batman line-up, not to mention King’s own Strange Adventures with Mitch Gerads and Doc Shaner), it still stands out above the rest of the publisher’s output as something bolder, more ambitious. It’s a book few would have expected, and a book that, surprisingly, stands up under the weight of the work that preceded it. Without a doubt, Rorschach is DC’s best book of 2021.