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 us assume that Rorschach is exactly as good as Watchmen. Not simply that it is a good comic or even a great comic, but that it is as good as what many consider to be the definitive comic. The final statement on all things comics related. There are a number of absurdities with that statement, both with regards to Rorschach and Watchmen. But, for now, let us ignore this aspect and engage with the assumption.
Many of the conversations surrounding DC Comics’ follow-ups to Watchmen that are… critical of the works tend to frame the narrative of the follow ups as nothing more than shallow knock offs that didn’t need to exist. Indeed, even the best of these can be said to have been nothing more than a waste of the creator’s time. While the worst has destroyed any faith in comics ever being good. And Rorschach is good enough that claiming it’s exactly as good as Watchmen doesn’t feel like a cruel joke as it is the best of the direct follow ups to Watchmen DC has made by a country mile.
(There is another reason why I’m taking this approach with Rorschach. But that is perhaps best saved for subtext rather than text.)
By having a text that not only lives up to, but matches the original work, this narrative can be questioned. The implications of Watchmen as a text and its subsequent legacy can be engaged with on a level more akin to works like The Wicked + The Divine or From Hell. One as a work of fiction rather than as a metaphor for everything wrong with this wicked world of ours. As such, I can write a piece that won’t end with a horrific revelation about the nature of Watchmen’s Legacy.
As such, let us begin with a common criticism of Rorschach: It didn’t actually need to be a Watchmen follow up. A common narrative when speaking about Rorschach is that, bar the character signifiers, it has absolutely nothing to do with Watchmen. There are no appearances from familiar characters, no reveals about the world that we didn’t already know.
Before getting into the reason why that is inaccurate, let us consider the role Watchmen plays within Rorschach. Rorschach, unlike its brethren, seems quite disinterested in Watchmen. Not in the sense that there is no interest, but rather in the sense that it doesn’t feel the need to one-up the comic and everything it believes in. There are no scenes where a character snarks at Moore’s prose or sneers at the stupidity of Ozymandias’ plan to save the world. Rather, it is a comic that is content with simply living in that world.
This is perhaps best highlighted in the first moment in Rorschach that directly harkens back to explicit moments within the text of Watchmen. In the fifth issue, our lead has a one on one conversation with the target of assassination that is the heart of the narrative, Governor Gavin Turley.
The book makes no bones about its feelings towards Turley as an unlikable, grotesque man who fetishizes historical monsters. Prior to getting into politics, Turley served in the Vietnam War and met Edward Blake (alias, The Comedian) on two occasions. The first—which is given three pages of space split over the course of four—was of a rescue operation. The main focus of the conversation between Turley and Blake is about how many people they brutally killed. The answer they come to is “Not enough, my son.” The joke makes both men laugh.
But it’s the second one—the one that ties directly into the events of Watchmen—that’s the more interesting. It is contained only within two panels, only one of them showing the events while the other verbalizes the context. The scene is, rather straightforwardly, of a man walking in the background while two important people are talking.
The interesting thing about this moment, and demonstrative of Rorschach’s relationship to Watchmen, is that it never draws attention to the fact that this scene was in Watchmen. The closest is the usage of the nine panel grid within the page. If it were the first instance of the grid being used within Rorschach, the nod would be clear. However, Rorschach’s usage of the grid—a sparing usage I might add—has a specific effect. In its appearances in the four issues that predate the nod to Watchmen (once in issue two, four times in issue three, twice in issue four, and never in issue one), the grid appears in moments when people experience death. Be it directly at the hands of characters or implicitly through conversation and location. This would continue throughout the book, leading to the climactic moment of the book, wherein the Detective kills Turley and the man who hired him—Turley’s campaign manager, Alan.
As such, this moment would be read by an attentive reader through the lens of the recurring implication: that someone died in that moment. Within the pages of Rorschach, we never learn what exactly happened here. We know what happened because of Watchmen. (i.e. Blake murders a woman pregnant with his child while Dr. Manhattan does nothing.) Watchmen, then, is the underlying subtext that haunts the world of Rorschach. The ghost in the machine that allow us to see their presence as we try to uncover what is happening. Rorschach—like many Tom King comics—is haunted by ghosts.
If one is to engage properly with the legacy of Watchmen, one must first admit that it’s dead. The story reached its ending, the threads tied neatly together, and all the arcs resolved in its clockwork majesty. The legacy in all forms—be it sympathetic, critical, or cynical—is inherently an autopsy. We are looking at a crater inflicted upon the world. In all its grandeur and monstrosity.
So then, what does Rorschach take from Watchmen. Or, rather, what does Rorschach take from Rorschach. Prior attempts at engaging with the character outside his core text opted to go for a rather Mike Hammer approach of the man as nothing more than a blunt instrument punching his way through the world. And, in fairness, that’s not an inaccurate approach to the character. However, it is one that’s limited in the desire not to engage with any of the political ramifications of Watchmen—as basically all but two of DC’s attempts at a direct follow up to Watchmen do, and even most of the indirect attempts if I’m being honest—and instead decides to be a rather drab noir story where women get murdered on the side while the real action is about black thugs. (And don’t get me started about “Bitch to be you right now.”)
Rorschach—being one of DC’s two attempts at engaging with Watchmen politically—decides to go down a different path. And it can be seen through the main focus at the heart of Rorschach: conspiracy theorists. It is, of course, no surprise that Rorschach would take this approach. Watchmen is a conspiracy thriller about how the world is going to be drastically changed by a billionaire through horrific means. Rorschach himself reads the right wing newspaper The New Frontiersman, which feels at home with the work of David Ickie and Gary Allen. And, of course, Rorschach’s first instinct upon discovering the Comedian’s dead is to assume it’s a conspiracy against superheroes.
The nature of the conspiracy at the heart of Rorschach is one of the many wry jokes with teeth within the book. The story goes like this: In 1986, New York City was attacked by an alien race commonly referred to as Squids. They had psychic powers that could traumatize people who weren’t even in the direct vicinity of the attack. These Squids are planning another attack. Their plan involves hijacking the brains of humanity to let them prepare the world to accept Squid control. Their initial attack also involved discrediting the superheroes, most notably in giving all of Dr. Manhattan’s close relations cancer. Luckily, the superheroes were able to uncover this deadly Squid plot. Not quick enough to prevent the attack, but quick enough to prevent it from getting worse. So they plot to escape the Squids via having Dr. Manhattan send the souls of Nite-Owl, The Comedian, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach into other people’s bodies (Ozymandias refused, thinking he was smart enough to fight off the psychic attacks. He was not). The superheroes are out there, waiting to rise up and save the world.
There are two angles to this that destroy the conspiracy to anyone who is paying attention. The first, and easiest to grasp, is that this does not follow from the events in Watchmen. Obviously, The Comedian was dead long before the Squid attack happened, which itself was a hoax brought about by an explicitly leftist billionaire who aspires to conquer the world (A bleaker version of this project published by The Comics Journal would no doubt have an entry on Qanon). Dr. Manhattan cannot, in fact, transfer the souls of the dead into other people’s bodies. And even if the Comedian was alive at the time, his costume had a gimp mask in its latest incarnation.
The second is that it’s an extremely nerdy approach to how the world operates. Not in the sense that there’s a lot of technical jargon involved in the explanation. But rather… it’s basically approaching the world as one would a work of fiction. This is vital to the mindset of a conspiracy theorist. Conspiracy theories are frequently based on simplistic narratives that, rather than engage with the world, merely flatten it so that things can be easier to understand.
There is something to be said about the relationship between modern fandom and conspiracy theories, how many approaches to what constitutes modern media criticism merely confine themselves to solving a work of fiction or, god forbid, winning a review. Analysis not only requires one to dive deep into a work, but also to play on its level. To empathize with what a work is doing rather than impose an order to it that might not necessarily fit with the work. Fiction, much like life, isn’t something that can be solved. It can only be experienced (Curiously, this is a minor theme within King’s larger body of work, not only appearing in Rorschach, but also Mister Miracle, Love Everlasting, and Dreadful Reigns).
For the conspiracy minded, the complex machinations of a series of systems that constitute existence can be simplified into an ARG style narrative or a game of “Who’s the next Rorschach?”
It’s a game that fans constantly play all the time with legacy media that art has engaged with in a number of ways from the chronic phallus sucking of Ghostbusters: Afterlife to Scre4m’s deconstructive approach wherein the killer aspires towards being the next Sidney Prescott. Conspiratorial thinking, in other words, relies upon approaching the world from a simplistic vantage point where everything wrong with the world can be blamed on a smaller number of people. Otherwise, one would have to think about the sheer horror of the world.
Which brings us, at last, to the work of Hannah Arendt. In interviews leading up to the release of Rorschach, King talked at length about the influence Arendt’s work had on his approach to the titular character. In particular, how he wanted to use her as a contrast to Moore’s usage of Ayn Rand for his Rorschach. In practice, one can see the influence upon the work. But as other articles have engaged with this already, let us stick with one of the more misunderstood concepts Arendt brought to the table: The Banality of Evil.
When most people discuss the Banality of Evil, it is often boiled down to the phrase, “But I was only following orders” or “Men like Eichmann were motivated more by personal success than by personal ideology and that the Nazi party was to blame for the evils committed during the war, rather than the individuals who committed them.” Not only are these extremely off base with what Arendt is exploring, she rejects them entirely within the first installment of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Indeed, she spends a lot more of the time questioning the ethics of making genocide into a show trial to demonstrate how great Israel is, and how it deserves the land it stole from Palestine (One cutting bit involves Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion noting that comparing the Nazis to some Arab rulers was absurd because there are decent Germans. Arendt then notes that he made no mention of decent Arabs).
As such, it’s worth looking at the exact moment Arendt says the words “The Banality of Evil.” In the final main chapter of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt reports on the execution of her titular figure. The thing that stood out to her more than his unwillingness to engage with his guilt under the pretense of only following orders, was that he was speaking in cliches. Eichmann went to the gallows without any sense of personality, personhood, or interesting detail.
In other words, Hannah Arendt’s conclusions about the fascist mind are essentially what every single worthwhile analysis of fascism from Eco to Sandifer inevitably comes to: they’re idiots who will kill us all through their sheer stupidity. For Arendt, the key is that Eichmann couldn’t think of the world outside of the limitations of the society he lived in. That he could imagine the end of the world, but he could not imagine the end of Nazism.
As Arendt notes in her condemnatory final analysis of Eichmann:
“You also said that your role in the Final Solution was an accident and that almost anybody could have taken your place, so that potentially almost all Germans are equally guilty. What you meant to say was that where all, or almost all, are guilty, nobody is. This is an indeed quite common conclusion, but one we are not willing to grant you. And if you don’t understand our objection, we would recommend to your attention the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two neighboring cities in the Bible, which were destroyed by fire from Heaven because all the people in them had become equally guilty. This, incidentally, has nothing to do with the newfangled notion of ‘collective guilt,’ according to which people supposedly are guilty of, or feel guilty about, things done in their name but not by them— things in which they did not participate and from which they did not profit. In other words, guilt and innocence before the law are of an objective nature, and even if eighty million Germans had done as you did, this would not have been an excuse for you.”
Rorschach, interestingly enough, opts to use this as justification for committing an assassination. And it is here where we must return to the loudly unspoken subtext of Watchmen. In Watchmen, the superhero was either an agent of the US Government or someone working outside of the system (but still, ultimately, in support of that larger system). Regardless of the path, both demonstrated monstrosity and horror. Be they sadistic bastards who rape and kill indiscriminately, moralistic Republicans who see nothing wrong in breaking a few thumbs if it means the world makes sense, or sad complicit men who can do nothing in the face of the cruelties of the world.
But this is the perspective one has from seeing things from a Super Heroic perspective. We see the grime and bone and misery of these sad, lonely people. Rorschach, by contrast, opts to focus on the people Who Watched the Watchmen. The people who were inspired by, influenced by, horrified by, and ultimately misunderstood the heroes that came before. It’s about all the reactions to Watchmen in its various forms.
And so, for many, all they could see were the aspirational aspects of the characters. Rorschach, the detective who revealed the truth. Dr. Manhattan, the God who could do anything. Nite-Owl, the genius. The Comedian, the badass. Silk Spectre, the girl who feared nothing. Most people don’t see the day to day lives of caped figures like Superman or Spider-Man. Ask a person on the street of New York, and they’d say Spider-Man was the funny one. They never even heard of Gwen Stacy or Ben Parker.
As a result, people looking fondly upon the masked heroes—away from the tumultuous 70s and 80s—want to know where they all went. What happened to the American hero? And they come to some interesting conclusions:
“One: They abandoned us. The bad of the world was just too mighty for the good they represented. They lost and they ran and they hid and they died and hope is nothing next to power.
Two: They planned. They passed on their legacy to us. We are the superheroes. There is a chance. A chance for the good to overcome. For the righteous to triumph. They didn’t retreat. They sacrificed to give us this chance.”
As a text outside the context of Watchmen, Rorschach still makes a compelling case for the latter. One need only look at the actions and attitudes of the people in the world, especially the people who think the Squids will kill us all any day now. These are people driven by fear and desperation, a belief that the world can only make sense if there are barbarians at the gate. Their hope is for the barbarians and their quisling allies to be exterminated.
This is especially notable in the way Jorge Fornés draws violence. Where Dave Gibbons opted for static moments to demonstrate the tightly controlled nature of Rorschach’s movements, Fornés opts to highlight the quickness of the moment. When violence appears in Rorschach, it never lingers on the moment. There’s no sequence of a character breaking numerous fingers or an onslaught of brutality. What is lingered on, however, are the bodies left behind.
To pick one example, in the third issue, Laura Cummings—alias The Kid—shoots her father in the head. The act itself is depicted at a distance and very quickly. One panel, the father doesn’t have a bullet to the brain, the next he does. The next two pages linger on his corpse, also from a distance. Despite traveling forwards through time, the corpse still lingers.
This recurs throughout the book from the Vietnamese soldier being dragged out of the water by his child to the victims of the death of Carl Thompson. Even the climactic moment of the series opts to instead focus most of the brutality of its moment on the silent tape recorder as it’s happening and on the dripping hand of Governor Turley as it’s wrapping up. Fornés keeps us at a distance as the events occur.
This is the recurring trend at the heart of Rorschach: distance. It’s a comic about people—about the world and our connections within it. But it is one that constantly keeps us at a distance from the world. We do not see the inner machinations at the hearts of people’s minds. We do not read journal entries that reveal how they feel about other people and the world at large. All we have are people’s perceptions of one another.
The unreliable narrator is a common reoccurring element within King’s work. From the lies that surround the characters in The Sheriff of Babylon to the subjective third person perspective used in Mister Miracle all the way to Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow’s usage of first person to demonstrate alternative character interpretations and hint at other characterizations. Perspective, ultimately, drives the worlds. One could look at Lightray as a beacon of hope and homoerotic fantasies or see him as a rather smug—but still well meaning—guy who’s out of his element.
As a result, the perspective of someone who has read Watchmen, has understood Watchmen, is different from those who do not know the full extent of the conspiracy at the heart of Watchmen. The detective’s interpretation of Laura offers two possibilities for how the world works: Hope or Power. What it assumes is that the Squids attacked New York City. Never once does the binary consider the awful truth: A Superhero planned this. A superhero—working optimistically and with pure, unbridled hope in the better angels of humanity—dropped a squid on New York City as a hoax. To pull humanity back from the brink and help it ascend to the heavens.
The ghost of Watchmen, then, is that Rorschach, ultimately, agrees with its thesis. That when placed in a world outside childish fantasies and into one of geopolitical actions, one is forced to admit that they become absurd and horrific. And while we do live in an extremely absurd world where there’s probably no point bar (arguably) existing in it, attempting to act as if this whole thing isn’t absurd–even with something as small as a snarky remark about how silly it could have been–only results in horrors.
More than anything else, this is why I can assume Rorschach is as good as Watchmen. Because, as with Watchmen, reading it and thinking about it makes me want to engage with it further. It’s an extremely worthwhile comic that I find something new every time I read it. I’ve barely scratched the surface with what’s going on here. I’ve not talked about Dave Stewart’s colors, the paneling, the Otto Binder stuff, how Tom King’s Hauntological nature impacts Rorschach’s engagement with the weird, how King’s fascination with mirrors ties into things, the use of Western imagery and the superhero’s relationship with the genre, King’s career long conflicted relationship with nerd culture, the full political context of the book and what its ending signifies, or who the Detective is (Spoilers: He’s not the new Rorschach).
It’s a fantastic, fascinating book that I want people to engage with on a higher level. To dive deep into the implications and find things I couldn’t see, things I missed. I want to see the full extent of its failings, its limitations, its strengths, its beauty. Because that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? That’s why we watch the Watchmen. To see something bigger, something stranger than we could have possibly imagined. To find out more about this world of ours.
This brings us to what might be the single most important question in this entire project: Just how good is Watchmen, exactly? Well… it’s pretty damn good. The art is stellar, highlighting both the small moments of intimacy alongside the larger moments of brutality and horror. Alan Moore paints a rich, fascinating world full of implications and ideas that are still being picked at to this day. The characters who wander its world are intriguing and highlight a wide potential for the superhero field. The use of paneling in particular is brilliant, oftentimes reorienting the reader over the course of a single page. Each issue, even the ones that don’t work as single issues, comes with a new idea.
At the same time though, there’s a degree of hermeticism to it. A sense that everything is packed within the confines of the book and, as a result, you can’t really go any further with what is being done here. It’s not, as often mentioned, the death of superheroes. But rather the death of a specific approach to superheroes. Less a destruction of the field and more a desire to grow something other than potatoes. Equally, the book has several failings ranging from its treatment of people of color (and especially women of color), its tendency towards giving all the best moments to one of its more loathsome characters, and the prose parts can get interminable (Look me dead in the eye and tell me you didn’t skip the Owl Essay). But most importantly, its reputation as the greatest comic ever written often harms actually reading it. Because, ultimately, there have been comics following Watchmen that are better than Watchmen.
The most obvious place to start is with Moore himself. To my various colleagues and friends, I have often touted that—within the confines of Moore’s bibliography—Watchmen is a middling text. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Moore’s climactic comics text, Providence. In many regards, Rorschach is a closer cousin to Providence than Watchmen. Both are cross country explorations of the American subconscious through the lens of 20th century genre fiction as a means of uncovering the rise of fascism in the 21st century (Indeed, both are engagements with the Weird through the lens of the Hauntological). Both feature a major appearance from a reactionary author reeling from horror. Both utilize some rather problematic decisions regarding real life minor tragedies. And both ultimately end with the way things are being completely upended.
Where Providence outshines both Moore’s prior work and King’s current work is in its disinterest in impressing the reader with its cleverness. Yes, the book does extremely clever things with panel layouts and thematic twists, but rarely does it feel the urge to declare its cleverness. It simply gets on with it. Moore (alongside artist Jacen Burrows, colorist Juan Rodriguez, and letterer Kurt Hathaway) is able to draw upon the full breadth of the failings of the 20th century in a way Watchmen’s limited gaze simply couldn’t. Its focus is on the people on the streets more so than those of the skies. The horror lies not simply in the fact that the absurd collides with the real (A New England town of Sea-People is surely as absurd as a New England band of Superheroes). But in the intent of the absurd.
More than that, in stark contrast to Watchmen and Rorschach, Providence is extremely engaged in the world it explores. While the former explores the main roads and the latter the street corners of their respective world, Providence explores everything from the queer scientists hiding from a world that would see them dead to the small towns with secrets and love all the way to the more realistic horrors of men and women killing each other on the streets. Watchmen and Rorschach are content with keeping their gaze on merely superheroes and how they relate to the world. It engages with the world outside of them, but only through them.
Indeed, Providence is heavily invested in something that both Watchmen and Rorschach leave to the side and never fully engage with: the people fascists frequently target. While Rorschach has its Turley supporters talk about how America is for Americans and Watchmen’s Crimebusters list Black Unrest as among the “Modern” issues Superheroes need to deal with, neither text fully engages with these aspects of the concept. More often than not, it’s left to the reader to put the pieces together, often resulting in them deciding not to. The reader can choose not to see because it’s buried in a text piece or in the background.
By contrast, Providence engages directly in the fact that, well, fascists often target marginalized communities. Be they people of color, queer people, or people of the “wrong” religion. The fascists will do unspeakable, horrific things to them for the sake of power and control. They will kill us all. This is demonstrated throughout the book from protagonist Robert Black’s dream of gas chambers killing the kind, if somewhat suspicious, people of Salem, the connections between the cult at the heart of the book and the KKK, and the queer and Jewish shame at the heart of Black. Moore, in his growth as a writer, uncovers the horrors lurking within the works of Lovecraft.
(Which, ultimately, is why the Hauntological is useful. As the name suggests, the Hauntological is a form of horror that engages with the uncovering of unspeakable things. A ghost that lingers. It ultimately comes from within. It questions the present and shows we can never escape the past. Often, this results in creators like Moore, King, and Jackson. By contrast, the Weird comes from without. Something older than man, something alien to how we understand the world. It is an infection, one without a cure. In turn, it breaks the present and makes us doubt the future. This results in creators like Morrison, V, and Barker. The monstrous side of both is clear. One need only look at the Hauntological desire of the Golden Age’s return [THE SOUTH SHALL RISE AGAIN and so forth] or the Weird tendency towards fearing the Other to see that [fascists love to use the metaphor of an infected arm to justify genocide].)
But perhaps its biggest triumph lies within the text portion. Where Watchmen utilized the prose sections to demonstrate the world we are experiencing, the prose sections of Providence are themselves a novelette exploring the events of the story directly from our protagonist’s perspective. As a result, we can see the dramatic irony of him completely missing what’s happening in the story. We see the full implications more than he does. But more than that, we see a rich inner life of a queer Jewish writer living in an age where being both often got you killed. It’s one of the best comics of the 21st century and highly recommended.
Stepping away from the United States, we have Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki’s Pluto. Much like Watchmen, Pluto is a murder mystery that slowly reveals itself to be a larger conspiracy narrative built around a fascination with superhero fiction. Yes, it’s riffing on the Japanese approach to superhero stories rather than the American one, but Astro Boy remains a work of Superhero Fiction. It engages with the mundane lives of its superpowered characters as well as the mystery they’re investigating. Specifically, one based around the assassination of superpowered beings and their allies. And the main baddy’s apocalyptic plan involves the world being united under his leadership.
Where it surpasses Watchmen lies in how it approaches balancing the politics and the super heroics. While Watchmen is capable of engaging with the political implications of its characters, its ultimate engagement with the political is through the lens of how it impacts superhero fiction. It’s the kind of book where one can easily ignore the political aspects of the text, even while it bluntly states them. Whereas Pluto is capable of keeping the political within the narrative by making its story about the political.
At its heart, Pluto is a condemnation of war in general and the imperialistic actions of the United States during the War on Terror. It’s about broken people who want a better world and will do what they can to build it. But it’s also about the reason they’re broken being tied to the racist systems they live in. The monstrous, pointless war they fought bringing nothing more than more pointless violence and cruelty. Nothing comes out from hatred.
In this light, comparing it to Rorschach becomes absurd. For Rorschach, its gaze is limited by its desire for distance. It cannot bring itself to dive headlong fully into the inner lives and tragedies of its focus, even as it presents them to us. It can only glance at these people and their lives. It has empathy, even as it doesn’t fully align with those it looks at. But it doesn’t engage with them as fully as Pluto does. Yes, one could argue that might be because Pluto was a 65 chapter narrative while Rorschach was only 12. But even many of Pluto’s more minor characters have a depth and implication to them that Rorschach sorely lacks.
Among the many, many sections that highlight this is the three act detour into the post-war life of North No. 2. Here we see one of the robots who fought in the war that precipitated the events of the series working as a butler for a blind composer, Paul Duncan. Duncan is long past his hey-day when his genius was utilized for a number of films. The years have made him bitter and resentful, often lashing out at North for being fake.
Throughout the three acts, we see the pair get to know each other better, with Duncan softening to the robot while North contemplates his life as a killing machine, desiring to do something different—something better. North has killed tens of thousands of his brothers and he never wants to see war again. He wants to make music. And through their shared love of music, the pair grow closer together. Until, tragically, the monster appears. Pluto, ultimately kills North.
But even the monster who gives the series its name wants more out of life. He wants to paint a field of flowers. Everyone wants more out of their lives than mere violence. Be it the family man who cares for his children, the orphanage worker who helps war orphans, or the detective who [MEMORY DELETED]. The story is about these characters, about the lives they live and how the horrors shape them. It’s a plea for a better life for us all.
Rorschach’s failures, ultimately, lie in its attempt at being a follow up to Watchmen. One that eschews all the surface level trappings and obvious routes in favor of finding the deeper narrative through-line. And, in some respects, it does. It engages with the world of Watchmen in a way that no other direct follow up has. But that’s all it does. That’s its main intent. As a result, much like the text it’s engaging with, it feels a bit hermetic. You can see all the clever ideas, but nothing could follow from this.
Perhaps the most damnable thing about all of this is that Tom King himself has written a text that is better than Watchmen: Mister Miracle. Much like Watchmen, Mister Miracle is a comic that utilizes the nine panel grid to explore the inner lives of its characters. It contrasts the political realities of the world with the absurd horror of the super heroic. It engages in the sexual lives of its characters as well as being funny in a wry sort of way.
But what makes it better than Watchmen is how it utilizes the nine panel grid. On the surface, it seems rather straight forward: every page is on the grid and every page uses nine panels. However, actually writing for the nine panel grid is like playing the guitar: it’s harder than it looks. While structurally, the grid is simple, actually doing it well is a whole other matter. Other comics can lose focus and end up being confused and distracted by the grid. A true great can pull something new out of the familiar.
And King does so in his usage of the grid. Where Watchmen utilized the grid to highlight the clockwork nature of the world—to demonstrate the dreadful control of what is occurring—Mister Miracle uses it to further highlight the titular character’s mental landscape. Specifically, the feeling that even though everything is moving forward, that new things are happening, everything feels the same. Day in, day out. One panel to the next to the next, all the same size. Nothing changes, save the paint.
It highlights what it feels like to be depressed in a way that doesn’t explicitly say it’s about being depressed, but still allows the reader to grasp the implication. Further cementing this is the lack of borders on Mitch Gerads’ part. Rather than keeping the characters trapped within its walls as The Omega Men did, the lack of borders implies that this is an illusion, a vision of being created by the mind. Some have read this to mean that Scott is in a fantasy world or seeing a dying vision (indeed, the book cannily plays with this in its final issue), but it can also be read as being part of Scott’s perception of the world.
Because perception, ultimately, is within the mind. It is the pattern of the world that we create, that allows us to see other people as people. We can fall victim to narratives, stories that tell us to not see people—even monsters—as people. The trick, as Mister Miracle demonstrates, is that people are always, always, more important than spectacle. If you have people, you have enough.
By contrast, Rorschach is about isolation. It’s about people stuck in their heads and the imagined heads of other people and, in turn, trying to make sense of the things not inside their heads. About trying to prevent bad ideas—for what is the squid/q/conspiracy if not a bad idea—from taking root and how one can fall prey to them. How ideas can shift with time and with interaction in the outside, even if it’s just one person.
Consider the conspiracy at Rorschach’s heart. It begins as your typical right wing gun nut conspiracy where barbarians are at the gates of Rome infiltrating our systems of government to make us weak and passive. Indeed, the idea first shifts when it goes from Laura’s father to Laura herself with the simple question: “Where are the Superheroes?” In turn, the idea shifts again when Wil Myerson gets directly involved, adding in Otto Binder’s tape and his left leaning politics. The story is now about killing Turley. As with any conspiracy, the more people added, the more shifts come through.
But, as you might have noticed, this is about the function. Yes, we see the people and their lives, but the story isn’t fully about them. They are cogs in the watch, not people on the street. By contrast, Mister Miracle is all about people. It’s about two people who love each other very dearly having a massive fight. It’s about an adopted son who tries way too hard to fit in and comes off as a bastard to the black sheep of the family as a result. It’s about a woman who had to keep things together after her husband tried to kill himself. It’s about a son whose father sold him to the devil without giving him a name. It’s about abuse survivors healing from hell. It’s about falling apart in the shower for no reason. It’s about people who want to be better and the number of times they fuck up time and time again.
What all these works have in common—to say nothing of the works I didn’t mention—is that they all try to do something new. They aren’t simply doing the same old superhero punch ups where all the world’s problems are resolved by some dork in fetish gear. They have higher aspirations than merely fixing some continuity errors. They speak to raw emotional truths in ways most superhero fiction—before or after Watchmen—simply doesn’t. And in doing so, they surpass Watchmen.
Even Rorschach, a text that merely matches Watchmen, aspires to be more. It wants to talk about conspiracy theories and sad, lonely people. It wants to try new things with the comic book medium, even if those new things are simply new within the context of Superheroes. It wants the reader to be engaged with the text on more than a surface level. To put pieces together instead of having everything told to them.
And yet, it still remains that Watchmen is the greatest comic of all time. And there’s a simple reason for that. And that reason is that Watchmen did something that none of the other texts I’ve talked about have ever done: Watchmen changed the world. Simply put, Watchmen was the death nail on a particular form of Superhero fiction. One where heroes are inherently good because they’re heroes, where might makes right.
As we have seen throughout this series, the attempts to follow up Watchmen have mostly been by regurgitating its approach. Doing what it critiqued the superhero of being and doing nothing more with it. At best, there are some new techniques, new lessons to be learned. But more often than not, all that was done was more violence. More bloodshed. The same old thing—a rotting corpse of its former self—but given a new paint job.
And try as they might, none of the successors to Watchmen could hope to be better than Watchmen. A line was drawn and it was declared, “This far and no farther.” For once the world was changed, the circumstances that allowed it to be changed were removed. The comic book medium quickly moved insular, towards a speculator market, one where the IP mattered more than anything else. The wider culture quickly followed suit. We now live in an age of cinematic universes brimming with the same three stories and, occasionally, an actual movie.
A comic can still save a life, inspire a work of beauty, even be fucking brilliant. But the fact is a comic will never be allowed to change the world again. There’s simply too much money to be made in keeping things the way they are. Because it’s impossible to imagine doing anything else other than make more follow-ups to Watchmen.
This is Watchmen’s Legacy.
For more in “Who Watched the Watchmen”…
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