Watchmen at Thirty, pt. 6: The Abyss Gazes Also

"I took the remains of her unwanted dress 
and made a face I could bear to look at in the mirror."

The midpoint of the Watchmen saga is probably the darkest issue of the series. (And considering some of the things we've seen... yikes.) How could it not be, being Rorschach's origin story? As was the case with Doctor Manhattan in issue #4 or Ozymandias in issue #11, the whole story flips between Rorschach in the present -

and the experiences in his past that brought him to this point. 

It's difficult to gauge how influential this issue truly was. The idea of a serial killer/ vigilante having sexual hang-ups sublimated into reactionary violence was not startlingly original in 1986, though not nearly as ubiquitous as it would become by the 90s, nor the idea of a doctor's world slowly coming apart the more he peers into his patient's diseased mind. Both were new as-applied-to-comics, of course. Suffice it to say, no (or very very few) heroes or villains (or doctors examining them) ever got the working over Moore and the gang give Rorschach in Watchmen #6.

It's told from the viewpoint of Dr. Malcolm Long, the prison psychologist who sees Rorschach as his ticket to criminal psychology fame. But as the title warns, peeling away the layers of a mind like Rorschach's comes at a terrible price. 

The story begins with Dr. Long showing Rorschach - now just "Walter Kovacs" - a series of ink-blots and asking him what he sees in them. Rorschach is less than forthcoming.

When the taunts of his fellow prisoners overwhelm Rorschach as he's led back to his cell, they change into the taunts of children who bullied him as a boy.

Dr. Long fleshes out the subsequent events of Rorschach's life: after blinding one of the bullies and putting the other one in the hospital, the subsequent home investigation results in his becoming a ward of the state. (The name of his boarding school? "The Charlton House." Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

Relics of his time in juvy comprise the back-pages material of this issue.

But it isn't until Rorschach begins telling him what he really sees in the ink blots that the doctor - and we-the-reader - get a true idea of what made Rorschach into the vengeance-meting sociopath he is. 

Years ago (we're told) there was a kidnap case...

When he discovers a tattered pair of undies in the furnace and evidence of a body being butchered, he puts together the sickening truth...

- and lays in wait for the butcher to return home. (Fantastic colors, Mr. Higgins)

After handcuffing him to the furnace, Rorschach spills kerosene everywhere - 

and hangs around outside for an hour to watch it burn. ("No one got out.")

This was changed in the movie to Rorschach murdering him with a meat cleaver. ("Men get arrested; dogs get put down.") It's still an intense scene, but the sequence of events and how it changes him in the comic is much better. This is, as the character says, the moment when Walter Kovacs closed his eyes, and Rorschach opened them. 

Overall, I'm net-positive about the film and the changes it made. Most of them worked, I felt. The film wasn't perfect, and I know some folks absolutely loathed it. Not me, though. And as far as adaptations that honor - and grok - the source material, you have to tip your cap to Zack Snyder and the gang.

Rorschach's lapse into murderous vengeance has at least one comic book precedent: Michael Fleischer's and Jim Aparo's Wrath of the Spectre. That was seen as a real aberration when it appeared, though as with most things shocking-for-its-era, it's probably a little quaint now. 

Besides learning what makes Rorschach so much fun at parties, the story documents Dr. Long's discovery that he can't just close the file on Rorschach when he leaves the office. He becomes increasingly estranged from his wife in an unconscious imitation of Rorschach's withdrawal from all women and rejection of sex, as symbolized by the butterfly-blot that is the story's main motif - 

as well as the Hiroshima lovers that he keeps seeing.

And even though the entire issue is basically one long "Hangin' with Mr. Rorschach," nevertheless, let's end by showcasing some of our disturbing friend's more meme-worthy moments:

(slow nod)

Rorschach sounds a little like Cohle from True Detective Season 1, doesn't he? I wouldn't be surprised if he - or Thomas Ligotti, whose work is typically cited as the TD character's inspiration - are big Watchmen fans.

Until next time!



  1. Well, just recently, I found out about the new big baddie of DC's Rebirth line:


    It turns out at least one of the original "Watchman" creators was less than happy about it:


    I don't even know what to guess about the kind of problems (if any) that lead to this "executive" decision.

    I've read at least one attempt at defense of this move:


    It uses a logic very similar to Geoff Johns, however the problem I have with this take is that it tries to defend the move by admitting a viewpoint that could, if lead to a logical-illogical conclusion, wind-up pretty much the same as Rorschach's.

    The problem here is that you're conceding any possible high ground to a psycho by agreeing with him that life is bad, therefore we need comic books to just bear up with it all.

    I find that can of attitude to be very self-serving and limited in outlook. In fact, to carry it to a further illogical conclusion, you could take the "Comics Alliance" article writer's words, and, with a bit of imagination find yourself in the Donald Trump camp.

    From a purely artistic perspective, this limits the creative potential of potentially limitless characters, and that speaks more to preserving some kind of childhood playground grudges rather than focusing on telling an entertaining story.

    It doesn't help that it's pretty clear Alan Moore's vie of life is nothing like that of Rorschach. That he has, in fact, argued in favor of more higher fair.

    I don't see any creativity in this latest move by DC. It seems like they're just trying to lazily pass the buck and saying, hey, don't look at us, blame that guy, and pointing to Moore all the while. This could also be a reflection of DC's less than charitable view of their own fans, of course. However, either way, it's a no win situation. They might feel that the fans are "compelled" by...well that's where it all breaks down, because there's no telling what most audiences want most of the time.
    Either way, it's a no win situation.

    Sorry about this; afraid I've gone off on a rant.


    1. Pretty good rant, though.

      I've been steadfastly trying to ignore whatever it is that's going on with this Rebirth thing. I've done pretty well, too; I still don't know any specifics, but I gather that some Watchmen characters are heavily involved, and that's where I'm drawing the line. I bought every single issue of "Before Watchmen," and even enjoyed a majority of them; but I'll give DC no further attention or money than that.

      That said, I feel as if the characters do belong to DC to do with as they see fit. Moore knew what he was getting into back in those days; and if he didn't, he should have. So that's on him. It doesn't mean DC haven't been scumbags, but it does mean that Moore shares some of the blame. And anyways, he got a perfectly great career out of the deal. Without what happened to him with "Watchmen," would we have gotten "From Hell" and "Voice of the Fire" and "Providence" and "Promethea"? Probably not. So that's all worth it, especially if I still have "Watchmen" on top of all the rest.

      The notion of there being a Trump / Rorschach connection -- not literally, but figuratively -- is interesting. Is Trump the Rorschach for stupid people? Is that a glib way to think of it? Yeah, probably. What I'll say is this: if Trump was as good at stringing words together as Rorschach is, we'd really be in trouble.

      I agree that Moore is nothing like Rorschach at all, but he can do a terrific impersonation of him. Him reading Rorschach's dialogue in "The Mindscape of Alan Moore" is reason enough to see that movie.

      Me? I can get close to feeling empathy with Rorschach's point of view. I can do the same with Ozymandias, frighteningly enough. I wouldn't want to be either man, but I can see how they got there, and if I were them, I might consider similar paths. Luckily for me, I'm not them.

    2. One Moore resource I've just purchased is "The From Hell Companion".

      It's great in detailing individual scenes, though I wish it was more of a complete history and background type work.

      One day maybe, depending on how the cosmic coin lands, or what not.

      Anyway, in terms of the whole Rebirth debacle, leave it to the "South Park" guys to put everything into perspective.


      They also give more background info here:



    3. On the subject of "Rebirth" and DC's relations with Dave Gibbons: I couldn't care less about "Rebirth" and am frankly shocked when people tell me they're checking it out. Maybe not shocked, just surprised. I mean, New 52 was 5 effing years ago. What the hell! Someone sent me one of those "You'll never BELIEVE who's responsible!" sort of emails when that Batman with the Comedian's button started appearing, and I was just like "Do you even KNOW me, man!?"

      So, nothing about it appeals to me. Best of luck to them. I hope they treat Gibbons and Moore fairly, but the well seems pretty poisoned at this point.

      As for the Comics Alliance article about grimness in comics, it drips in too many spots with the kind of SJW invective and false premises for me to credit its author with any true understanding of anything. But: parts of it I agree with. Mainly, though, when you live and breathe Identity Politics, it just pollutes all other aspects of your life. The most myopic people I know are the ones who are always banging on about the things in that article, particularly towards the end.

      Which is the funny part: I mean, when he writes about "being inclusive to new fans," he means by pushing out any fans who might think a constant preoccupation with gender and race in comics and elsewhere might actually be counter-productive and regressive.

      But, I'm used to it.

      Anyway, those are my thoughts on those two topics.

  2. (1) Damn. That juxtaposition of the Rorschach blot with the crushed dog head still packs a hell of a punch.

    (2) I agree that the pederast-killing scene is better in the comics. I like the movie, but Snyder opts for ultraviolence in too many instances when opting for Kubrickian "coldness" would have been more effective. But then, Snyder is a fairly lousy director, so it's no surprise that he wasn't capable of bringing the subtlety the movie needed. Surprising it's as good as it is, actually. And I do think it's good; I wanted it to be great, but it not being that doesn't make it not good.

    (3) I'm intrigued by "Wrath of the Spectre." I know that character only from Moore's "Swamp Thing," but he seemed pretty cool there.

    (4) "Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later." -- Chilling. I'm never sure that I ought to enjoy hangin' with Mr. Rorschach, but I always do; not sure if he's speakin' the truth or not, but whatever he's saying, he's saying it well.

    (5) Damn, you're right about Rust Cohle being like Rorschach. The more time passes, the more it seems like that whole first season was just stolen from other things. One of my favorite lines -- Harrelson's about having a big dick -- appeared almost verbatim in a second-season episode of "The Wire" I just watched, for instance. But so be it -- it might all be repurposed, but it was repurposed REALLY well.

    1. 2. Wow. A Kubrick adaptation that never was. Someone needs to discover whichever door leads to that particular Tower level.

      I can very easily imagine how that one would have gone. The irony is, while not a horror story, the audience would get the same vibe as one. The kind that constantly makes you want to look over your shoulder, just in case...



    2. Kubrick's "Watchmen" is damn fun to imagine.

    3. Oh and "Wrath of the Spectre" is a tad dated, but the good thing is, it's only 4 issues. I think they put out a softcover trade at some point. Good stuff, though, if, for nothing else, the great Aparo art. But it's an interesting "shape of things to come" moment for comics: the lust for violent vengeance overrode all other impulses.