Rorschach, whose visage is prominently featured in HBO’s new Watchmen series, is a growly detective who wears a mask, hunts criminals, and refuses to compromise on his principles. That probably sounds familiar.
But Rorschach isn’t parodying the icon with pointy ears and the cape. His black and white moral ideals are a political philosophy that Watchmen’s writer, Alan Moore, found “laughable,” not laudable.
Here’s the real comic book origin story of Rorschach, starting with something that seems obvious, until you realize it’s anything but.
Rorschach isn’t based on Batman
At least, not primarily.
In the early stages of conception, Moore planned for the leads in Watchmen to be heroes from the stable of Charlton Comics, which DC Comics had recently acquired. But when DC editorial decided they’d rather incorporate those characters into the main DC Universe, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created original characters to evoke similar well-known comic book archetypes. Doctor Manhattan evolved from a carbon copy of Captain Atom to a parallel for Superman. The Comedian mashed the Peacemaker with Nick Fury.
And it would be easy to assume, in this era, that Rorschach is supposed to represent Batman. After all, Batman is exactly the kind of guy who opens a comic by monologuing about how dirty his city is. Batman’s traumatic past has transformed him into a criminal-hating revenge machine who mistrusts all authority. Batman smashes through windows to interrogate thugs by breaking ribs and fingers.
But Rorschach isn’t solely based on Batman because Batman wasn’t any of those things when Watchmen was written. The Batman of the early ’80s was darker than his 1960s counterpart, certainly, but he was still gadget-loving and justice-devoted. What we consider the foundational texts of our modern idea of Batman — The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Batman: Year One (1987), Alan Moore’s own The Killing Joke (1988) — simply had not been written yet when Watchmen #1 (1985) came on the scene.
The schlubby Nite Owl (who evolved from a retread of Blue Beetle) is just as much a Batman analogue as Rorschach, with his nocturnal animal theme, his basement full of gadgets, and his fancy vehicle with its onboard flamethrower.
Rorschach is based on Mr. A
Rorschach owes his ideals, his visual design, and his penchant for violence, to a couple of other characters who were doing the Late-’80s-Batman thing way before Batman. Namely, the vigilante detectives known as the Question and Mr. A.
Mr. A first appeared in a 1967 issue of the underground comics anthology series witzend, as a vigilante who wore an impassive steel mask and the wardrobe of a 1940s private detective — fedora, suit, and tie — but all in white. His calling card was a literal card with a half-black, half-white face, symbolizing his belief that there was no grey area of morality, only good and evil. And, of course, he was the enlightened man who could tell the difference.
Less than a year later, the Question came on the scene, as a backup feature in Blue Beetle. He was a vigilante who also dressed like a 1940s private detective and wore a “pseudoderm” mask that made him appear to be entirely without facial features. But unlike his other Silver Age comics contemporaries, he’d leave the occasional criminal to drown if he felt they deserved it.
The Question and Mr. A were both from the pen of writer-artist Steve Ditko, one of the co-creators of Spider-Man. The reason they seem so similar is that the Question was simply Ditko’s attempt to make Mr. A fit into Comics Code restrictions, which would make him a much more lucrative project.
Both characters were Ditko’s way of expressing his politics through the superhero metaphor.
Speaking of Steve Ditko’s politics...
Ditko was an avowed Objectivist, following the philosophy first espoused by Ayn Rand, which rejects altruism for the individualistic platform that man’s moral obligation is to achieve his own happiness and act as his own judgement determines. Therefore, unobstructed free capitalism is the only moral society, and the only role of the government is to provide police, armed forces, and objective courts.
With Mr. A and the Question (and a few other characters, notably DC’s Hawk and Dove) Ditko sought to express that philosophy through fiction, much as Rand herself had done with novels like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. And naturally, with superhero comics as his genre of choice, that meant that Mr. A and Ditko’s Question (though other creators would shift the Question’s ideology significantly) were dealers of Objectivist justice.
“Fools will tell you that there can be no honest person,” Mr. A tells the reader in one story, “That there are no blacks or whites ... that everyone is grey! [...] When one knows what is black, evil, and what is white, good, there can be no justification for choosing any part of evil! Those who do so choose, are not grey but black and evil ... and they will be treated accordingly!”
In another Mr. A story, Ditko presents a hippie in tattered clothes and hair as the enemy of the good, as the man exhorts the masses to follow his brotherhood of the collective. “We must banish individual selfishness, rights, property and good! [...] There is no one truth, but a truth that works for the common good! No differences are important! ‘Better’ or ‘worse’ is a cruel hoax! All must blend into equality! Ignore impotent reason and logic! Forget right or wrong!”
Ditko’s implication is that an altruistic push for equality, peace, and the haves helping out the have-nots is the path to a “slave society.” The bamboozled men taken in by the hippie’s words agree: “Some guys never learn to compromise, to give in ... stubborn ... won’t listen to reason ... greedy ... won’t share their good fortune ... they need a practical lesson in getting a long with people.”
It’s not hard to see the path from Mr. A to Rorschach, who refused to compromise “even in the face of armageddon.”
Rorschach is a big middle finger to Objectivism
Moore has minced no words about how he never intended Rorschach to be a laudable hero. And over the years, he’s also talked about his opinion of Ditko’s openly Randian leanings.
The writer respected Ditko’s commitment to putting his politics in his art, telling Comic Book Artist magazine that “that in some ways set him above most of his contemporaries.” But he felt pretty differently about the content of those politics.
“I have to say I found Ayn Rand’s philosophy laughable,” Moore continued. “It was a ‘white supremacist dreams of the master race,’ burnt in an early-20th century form. Her ideas didn’t really appeal to me, but they seemed to be the kind of ideas that people would espouse, people who might secretly believe themselves to be part of the elite, and not part of the excluded majority.”
Moore and Gibbons’ Rorschach isn’t the shining example of the philosophy that Mr. A represents. Rather than exhibiting objective moral beliefs about every person’s right to pursue their own happiness, he is a casual misogynist and homophobe. His closest allies find him, at best, off-putting and hard to get along with — contrary to Randian reasoning, his commitment to his ideals has not brought him personal success or happiness.
Rorschach’s final act of Watchmen, in which he refuses to keep Ozymandias’ hoax a secret, is considered by many to be the character’s most purely heroic moment. But it’s an empty one, as Rorschach believes that he’s already spoiled the whole thing by mailing his journal to the New Frontiersman. Moore and Gibbons had a different idea in mind: Not self-motivated heroism of the individual, but the self-imposed tragedy of individualism.
“We realized Rorschach wouldn’t survive the book,” Moore told the BBC documentary Comics Britannia. “It just became obvious; we realized that this was a character if ever there was a character that had a king-sized death wish. He was in pain, psychological pain, every moment of his life, and he wanted out of it, but with honor — in whatever his own twisted standards of honor might have been.”