If you haven’t seen, or read, Watchmen then this post will be chock full of spoilers, and if you want to avoid them, then please read no further. In an effort to keep this as spoiler free as I can for as long as I can, the actual title of this post is a bit farther down, after the “continue reading” link. I’m avoiding spoilers even in the title because on the off chance you haven’t read or seen Watchmen, I think you should do that before coming here to read this. It is well worth your time to go in spoiler free.
Still with me? Okay, then, to the post.
Was Rorschach The Only Hero In Watchmen?
Before I delve into this, if you haven’t read (or seen) Watchmen allow me to very briefly recap the plot (or click here for a more detailed summary) for those of you who don’t care about spoilers. Skip to the next paragraph if you already know the story.
Watchmen takes place in the 1980’s in an alternate universe earth where superheroes are real, and nuclear war is not just a possibility but an inevitability. The Keene Act has outlawed “costumed adventuring” so the superheroes have disbanded; the members either retired, or working for the government – except for Rorschach who continued his vigilante activities. The book opens with one of the Watchmen murdered, and Rorschach trying to find out who did it. Nite Owl comes out of retirement to help, and they eventually find out that ex-superhero Ozymandias is planning to kill millions to bring about world peace. By the time they confront him and he reveals his master plan it’s too late (he pulled it off thirty five minutes ago). The assembled heroes agree to keep quiet as what’s been done can’t be undone and world peace is almost a certainty, so they all live happily ever after. All, that is, except for Rorschach, who is vaporized because he refuses to cover up the atrocity.
The above summary doesn’t do justice to the book, and you should still read it. But I digress.
Watchmen has been hailed as a pinnacle of comic book story telling for years; Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s epic tale is something that every comic fan should read at least once. It isn’t perfect, but it is a fantastic graphic novel (one of the best), and a great story in its own right. There are many great characters in Watchmen but today we’re looking at Rorschach. Created by Moore to explore just how an archetypal anger fueled vigilante (think Batman) would exist in the real world, and his conclusion was that the character would be “a nutcase.” Rorschach, although slightly unbalanced, has a very black and white moral view of the world. He views his real self as the masked vigilante, and his alter ego of Walter Kovacs a disguise.
But what if, like the Hulk and Bruce Banner, they’re two different people?
Rorschach, although slightly unhinged, was also perhaps the only traditional hero in Watchmen. When you compare him to other comic book heroes such as Batman, Superman or Spider-Man, then you can see he exhibits the very same refusal to back down, the same dedication to truth, and justice (even if his definition may be different to that of the heroes mentioned earlier.
When talking to the prison psychologist, Rorschach tells us that when he first started out he was just Walter Kovacs pretending to be Rorschach. It wasn’t until a particularly troubling case that he stopped being Kovacs “pretending to be Rorschach,” and actually became Rorschach. During the conclusion of the case, the criminal he was confronting, Gerald Grice, screamed at him as Rorschach handcuffed him to a furnace, “Y-you can’t prove anything. I mean, wh-where’s the evidence? You can’t do anything to…” Rorschach leaves a hacksaw by his hand, “…me.” Kovacs, unable to process or cope with the evil shown by Grice earlier – prior to their confrontation – had become Rorschach both as a coping mechanism, and as his own savior from the futility of his “softness.” Rorschach dealt with Grice by giving him a very painful way out of a soon to be burning building (because Rorschach sets fire to it). Grice never made it out.
Rorschach remained active through the outlawing of the superheroes, refusing to allow something as trivial as the law to stop him from meeting out justice to criminals who would otherwise escape, or avoid, the courts. By the time Watchmen begins Rorschach, not Kovacs, has been active for about ten years, and it is Rorschach who primarily drives the plot along (from the readers’ perspective) in the early scenes of both comic and movie.
Probably one of the most quoted comic book characters (especially if you take into account how many pages he actually appears on), when asked about whether he would cover up Ozymandias’ plan for the Great Good, Rorschach tells Nite Owl “No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.”
Those words, words that could so easily come from so many other superheroes from more traditional superhero stories are some of the last words that Rorschach utters.
But Ozmandias’ thinking is morbidly persuasive in its own way. We, as the audience, want a hero to stop him and save the day? But if the world is about to destroy itself? What if saving the day means killing a few million to save a few billion? Ozymandias will threaten the world with a bigger threat than nuclear war to prevent a total apocalypse, he will accept the deaths of millions. But Rorschach will not, he will tell the public the truth. Do the right thing, and never compromise. And then Dr. Manhattan annihilates him. But as he leaves the arctic base of Ozymandias, Rorschach knows that he is going to die. He will not compromise and hide what has happened, but he knows that he cannot be allowed to leave alive.
It is Walter Kovacs who stops Rorschach, screaming at Dr. Manhattan to end his life. By removing his mask – Rorschach’s true face – before he dies, it is Kovacs way of showing us that he knows Rorschach must be stopped. Rorschach will never compromise, but Walter Kovacs will.
Walter Kovacs will force Dr. Manhattan to kill him for the Greater Good.
In most other superhero stories, the heroes would find a way to stop the evil master plan, or reveal it if they were too late, whilst still preserving the new peace earned because of the mass destruction. Not in Watchmen. In Watchmen, the heroes are too late to stop the catastrophe (which one depends on whether you’re reading the comic or watching the movie), and rather than do what traditional heroes would do and tell the truth… they compromise. For the Greater Good, they compromise. They follow along with Ozymandias’ plan they agree to sacrifice millions of lives to avoid a nuclear war and save billions of lives. The only man who knows the truth and who won’t compromise, is murdered. Does this make the other assembled heroes any better than Ozymandias? In a non traditional superhero story they would become classified as villains by the audience pretty quickly, but the way Moore writes Watchmen, the question of the rest of the superheroes morality is never asked; we understand why they’re making the choice that they are, and most of us put in the same shoes would probably make the same choice.
If Rorschach was the only true (traditional) hero in Watchmen, and we’re able to understand the choice those who killed him make, what does that make us?