Author’s Note: I’ve tried to write various permutations of this essay going as far back as March or April of this year. To heck with it, let’s just go with the classical book review.
A Rorschach test is a psychoanalytical tool that is most often used to explore a subject’s way of thinking or emotional wellbeing. They are subjective by design. Maybe that’s why I’ve had so much trouble writing about this comic book. There’s a lot going on and there’s a lot of different angles you can take when analyzing it. At first glance, it’s a low key political mystery in the style of something like All The President’s Men or Three Days of the Condor (complete with 70’s style hairdos and overt references to Robert Redford). But it’s also a sequel to Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s quintessential comic book classic, Watchmen. It’s also an entry into the vey rare “post-superhero” genre. Oh and it’s also a rumination on morality, and of the impact popular culture and symbols have on the way we think of morality. It might also be a quiet evisceration of trends in the medium that lead to the boom period of the 90’s but that’s up in the air. Either way, it’s really interesting and I want to talk about it. So join me for my review of Rorschach, by Tom King and Jorge Fornés.
It’s worth noting that Rorschach has sort of been the Black Sheep of King’s bibliography. Of his books that are currently being published, it wasn’t Strange Adventure, the much hyped spiritual sequel to the groundbreaking Mister Miracle. It also wasn’t Batman/Catwoman, the series that is meant to draw a line under his popular, yet much debated run on the main Batman comic that lasted for well over 50 issues. And it isn’t even Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, his collaboration with the much celebrated artist, Bliquis Evely. Moreover, this book had everything working against it. It’s an unnecessary follow-up to Alan Moore’s seminal Watchman. Given Moore’s very public and very acrimonious departure from DC Comics and the superhero genre in general, this was going to make King’s sequel instantly controversial. Even more so, because HBO and Damon Lindof had just created a perfectly well-executed and thought provoking television sequel of their own. And then there was the matter of the titular main character, Rorschach. Based on Steve Ditko’s character, The Question, in the original comic, Rorschach is, despite being the central viewpoint character for much of the early story, depicted as a barely contained violent psychopath who enjoys hurting others. He’s also a bigot and homophobe who maintains a sense of warped superiority over the rest of society due to his rigid sense of right and wrong. That’s where he gets his name, his iconic mask is made of materials that resemble a Rorschach Test. As the man himself says, it’s constantly shifting patterns of black and white, but never grey. They’re distinct. Oh, and by the end of the original book, Rorschach is dead, little more than a stain of blood on Antarctic snow. Setting up a sequel around this character was immediately met with skepticism. Why write such an unnecessary book? Why focus on one of the most controversial characters from the original series? What were DC Comics thinking?
So the fact that Rorschach isn’t just good (and good by the standards of Tom King, one of the best and most thoughtful writers in the industry right now) but great is a bit of a miracle. A lot of that has to do with how King avoids many of the questions we listed above. For example, the original Rorschach never appears in this story. Instead, we follow an unnamed private investigator as he undertakes a murder investigation for the Republican Party. As the story opens in an alternate 2020 (where Robert Redford has been president for 24 years, and Vietnam is a state), a pair of vigilantes have just tried to assassinate the Republican candidate for president at the party’s National Convention. At first glance, it is an open and shut case. The would be killers tried to shoot the candidate, Governor Turley, with a rifle from the rafters of the auditorium in which he was giving his acceptance speech. Once discovered by security guards, they were gunned down by Secret Service agents after a brief gunfight. There are peculiarities though. For one, both of the assassins were dressed up as superheroes. One, an older man was dressed as the titular Rorschach and the other, a young woman wore a cowboy outfit and a domino mask. The GOP wants the protagonist to conduct his own investigation, just to make sure everything is on the level. What follows is a slowly unfolding mystery featuring a desert cult of doomsday preppers, questions about reincarnation and lots of comic book history, both real and fictitious.
I think that last part in particular was the most surprising and intriguing part of the whole story, especially because it’s barely touched upon in the first issue. But comic books and comic book superheroes play a major role in the story. One of the would be assailants being investigated by our unnamed protagonist, the man dressed up as the titular antihero, was even a comic book artist. Will Myerson was, we learn over the course of the series, an old man who lived a hermit-like existence in New York. We’re told that years ago he was a very popular comic book creator, most well known for his most famous creation: the pirate swashbuckler, Pontius Pilate. See, it’s been established as far back as the original 1986 comic that in the Watchmen universe, pirate stories quickly replaced superheroes in the funny pages after masked vigilantes made the jump to reality. Myerson left the industry though and had been a recluse right up until committing the murder. It soon becomes apparent that Myerson is a stand-in for real life comic book writer, Steve Ditko. Ditko found a great deal of early success in the ’60s at Marvel Comics, where he co-created Spider-Man with Stan Lee. What’s more, much like the fictional Myerson, Ditko drifted away from the comic book industry later in life and lived alone in Brooklyn for most of his life.
That said, it soon becomes apparent that Myerson was deeply unwell. It’s revealed that he poured much of his anger at the world into an unpublished story about a masked vigilante called The Citizen. The Citizen fights villains like “The Unthinker” while spouting pseudo-intellectual nonsense about the nature of right and wrong. He’s also dressed in a very familiar costume including an overcoat, fedora and featureless mask. This is important because The Citizen bears a shocking resemblance to one of Ditko’s later creations, namely The Question. The Question was a morally righteous reporter who fought criminals in his alter ego wherein he was fueled by the power of his moral certainty. The Question was also, as I alluded to earlier, the character Alan Moore directly satirized with the homicidal Rorschach. It’s at this point where Rorschach starts to reveal itself as more than simply a homage to 1970’s investigative thrillers. As the story goes on, King works more real life comic book history into the story, including the somewhat tragic history of the writer and artist Otto Binder.
This theme, the ongoing question of how fiction and comic books in particular influence us reaches its utterly insane zenith in issue 7. In this issue, the investigator shows up at the house of real life comic book creator, Frank Miller and interviews him about his involvement with the events of the case. I would love to know how much involvement Miller had with this issue because it reads like both a confession and an evisceration of everything wrong with the medium going back to 1986. You see, while Watchmen is widely regarded as the book from that year which ushered in the modern age of comics, it’s not the only milestone from 1986. In that same year, Frank Miller also published Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It’s a dark book wherein an older, embittered Bruce Wayne returns to the role of Batman to fight a corrupt Gotham and an authoritarian US Government lead by a not so subtle parody of Ronald Reagan. At the time, TDKR was heralded as a bold step forward for both Batman and the comic book industry as a whole. It was praised for an iconic art style as well as copious amounts of violence and sexual themes. That said, while Watchmen‘s reputation has remained largely intact, Frank Miller’s opus has lost some of its luster in recent years. Which brings us back to Rorschach #7. In this comic, while discussing his link to the plot’s criminal conspiracy, this fictional version of Frank Miller goes off on a tangent about a famous comic he wrote, The Dark Fife Returns. He was given the task of reimagining a campy pirate comic and he wanted to use that chance to “use a pirate comic to talk about [real] fear.” He talks about having wanted to create something that would be true and about how he put everything into that comic and how well it was received. Then, he saw the events of the original Watchmen play out to their apocalyptic conclusion and he had a revelation. What he’d created wasn’t “true.” Instead it was lurid scam, or as the fictional author says “just a way to get suckers to pay the price tag.” In the face of overwhelming tragedy, suddenly there was no value in creating something dark and depressing. Instead, he admits that the original comics, those childish golden age distractions that he was “elevating” were the real works of art. They were beautiful because they were “getting a kid to see something fun, just for a second.”
This incredibly surreal conversation ends up forming the backbone of the comic’s theme. In a world of bleak subjective experience, comic book stories are simple morality stories that give us heroes, villains, right and wrong. Much like Rorschach’s mask, they are metaphorically black and white, never merging and with no room for ambiguity. But then again, maybe the opposite is true. All the characters associated with comics end up coming across as crazy or mentally unwell. Both of the would be assassins our story focuses on were deeply connected to the medium, one as a creator and the other as a fan. Maybe living life based on simplistic morals derived from stories meant for children leads to radicalization, which can only end with political violence. But then again, in the face of overwhelming evidence of corruption, maybe radicalization is the only sane choice? Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Even without the character of Walter Kovac making an appearance, the name Rorschach is fitting. This book is like a labyrinth of themes and ideas to which King gives us no clear answer. It’s a lot deeper and more complex than even your average “smart” comic book and I think that complexity should be celebrated. What’s more, while we’re on the subject, the book sort of had to end up as a love letter to classic comic books, which means it’s probably a pretty good time to talk about the art by Jorge Fornés.
Fornés’ artwork is perfect for this kind of book. For the vast majority of the book, the art is understated but well constructed. With a story that isn’t exactly action packed, the art shines through in the little things, because Fornés is apparently a master of subtle details. This is a story that’s about 75% people talking in hotel rooms, apartments and police stations, so the art is going to rely on things like scene composition, facial cues and other tiny details. In this, Fornés is fantastic. His characters never seem to want to sit still, making subtle adjustments or minor motions on every panel. A particularly fun trick that he’s good at (and which King loves to insert into his tense conversations) is demonstrating the exact moment where the balance of power changes in a conversation. The slight tilt of the head, or a twitch at the corner of the mouth, and those moments where the facade slips. These turns are always great in Rorschach, which is why its great that they happen at least once per issue. But that’s only about half of what’s great about the art. Let’s talk about homage. In addition to acting as an occasional history of comics, and offering a very contrarian take on the medium’s turn in the late 80’s, Rorschach mines a lot of value out of recreating iconic golden age comics in a new context. Whether it’s iconic images of superheroes redone with pirates, or a note perfect recreation of Ditko’s Question, King and Fornés were clearly having a heck of a time. Some of these pieces are even recreated down to sketch lines or halftone dots and it’s always incredible to see. As with the written theme, this culminates in the seventh issue, wherein the fictional Miller’s monologue is paired with art that is incredibly bittersweet and nostalgic. Attention should also be paid to colorist Dave Stewart. Colorists don’t get enough credit in general, but Stewart’s colors in Rorschach tie the whole package together perfectly.
Writing this conclusion fells less like I’m wrapping up an essay and more like I’m dragging myself across the finish line of a mental marathon. I feel like I can’t do Rorschach justice in this one essay. I’m not so good of a writer as to provide so much context and explain my own thoughts on the series all at once. Hell, I mentioned him but I didn’t even delve into the story of Otto Binder or how his story incorporates subtle themes of grief and radicalization. There’s just so much to this comic. But do I recommend it? Well if you’re a fan of comics as a medium? Absolutely. If you’re a fan of political mystery thrillers? Wholeheartedly. If you’re just a fan of Alan Moore’s original Watchmen or everything I’ve discussed so far sound utterly pretentious, then I can’t say this story would be for you. I’ve come around to realize that Tom King’s particular brand of comics really isn’t for everyone and that’s fine, but I feel like this sort of heady mix of themes and imagery is something most fans will have to at least try out for themselves. But then again, isn’t that the point of the Rorschach Test? You look into a swirl of colors and shapes and make up your own mind.