Reading “The Abyss Gazes Also”

This issue is a doozy.

The first half of Watchmen ends with the series’s third character focused issue, this time looking at the history and psychology of Walter Kovacs, Rorschach.  I’ve noted in past posts that he stands out as sort of the dark horse character of Watchmen.  When people think about the grittiness of the series and its impact on comics in the decade following its publication, they’re usually imagining Rorschach, the uncompromising vigilante who sees the world in terms of stark black and white.  He doesn’t shy away from using brutal methods when he’s looking for information, and his response to threats is always unapologetically extreme.  Many readers see in Rorschach a character who acts with unadulterated conviction, but they overlook the signs of mental illness and willful ignorance of moral complexity.  Rorschach is presented as a traditional superhero character acting with traditional superhero morality in a world that demands more nuance.  It’s fitting that he’s grouped into the first half of the character studies with Edward Blake and Jon Osterman; both men act monstrously, but they rationalize their monstrosity behind their circumstances.  Blake revels in nihilism because it excuses him from culpability for his worst impulses (everything is meaningless, so why shouldn’t he do only what’s best for himself?), and Osterman lets his different perspective of time act as a shield against his own passivity in the face of events he’d otherwise have the power to change.  Rorschach, in contrast, never tries to rationalize his behavior; he is simultaneously convinced of his rightness and at peace with the ugliness of his actions.  His monstrosity is grounded in a sort of naivete that neither Blake nor Osterman can claim.

All of this is not to say that Rorschach is a naive character.  His worldview has a lot in common with Blake; both men have at the foundation of their ideologies a belief in the fundamentally meaningless nature of human existence.  What’s interesting is how they diverge from that same starting point.  Blake builds on this nihilism a sense of self-protective cynicism, but Rorschach takes that understanding of the universe and melds it with his own childlike need for a concrete sense of right and wrong; he exists in a framework of thought that has a lot in common with existentialism, though it’s locked into a very crude form.  If Blake is Watchmen‘s quintessential cynic, Rorschach is its ultimate zealot.

Rorschach’s very insistent about his identity. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Naturally, Moore and Gibbons aren’t satisfied to simply present Rorschach as this fully formed zealot.  This issue has as its frame a series of interviews between Rorschach and a psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Long, in prison after Rorschach’s capture in the previous issue.  Long is an affable person who thinks that treating Rorschach is his ticket to professional notoriety; it’s clear at the beginning that he’s the sort of person who exists in a bubble of comfortable ignorance about the extent to which darkness exists in the world.  He’s not exactly lacking empathy, but he clearly has other motives for treating Rorschach.  Through Long’s exploration of Rorschach’s history, we get a picture of how Rorschach came to be the way he is.

The early life of Walter Kovacs is marked with a series of experiences that highlight the various blind spots in Rorschach’s worldview.  His mother worked as a prostitute to support them, and this fact was a point of harassment from other children in Kovacs’s neighborhood.  After he beat and maimed a pair of boys for bullying him about his mother’s reputation, he was placed in foster care.  Kovacs always resented his mother (she neglected to shield Kovacs from the reality of her work and beat him when he interrupted her) and built an idealized fantasy of his absent father.  On presumably multiple occasions before he was placed in foster care, Kovacs observed his mother having sex with clients.  These experiences had a cumulatively traumatic effect, leading Rorschach to express a strong distaste in women and sex.  It’s this aggressive combination of misogyny and sex negativity (along with a low-level preoccupation with the sexuality of other masked heroes) that fuels readings of Rorschach as a gay character; I’m inclined to read Rorschach more as asexual, especially since the more I think about his worldview and development, the more I think Moore and Gibbons intended to depict him as someone with stunted maturity.  He’s more a prepubescent child in a grown man’s body than anything.

Further complicating Rorschach’s worldview is the fact that he’s simply not very smart.  It’s not a point I’ve thought much about before, especially since Rorschach proves to be an incredibly resourceful vigilante (he can improvise a way to torture or disable someone very fluidly based on what’s available to him in his environment), but he’s not a complex thinker.  You can map Rorschach’s political ideology as an amalgamation of the various forms of ’70s conservatism (anti-communism, obsession with “law and order,” belief in American exceptionalism) bordering on fascism (in the bizarro universe where Watchmen takes place in 2016 rather than alternate history 1985, Rorschach would be thrilled by the results of the recent election), and what I keep realizing is that his ideology only holds together for him because he’s incapable of seeing the nuance of complex moral situations.  We see Walter Kovacs being beaten by his mother Sylvia after he interrupts a session with one of her clients, resulting in a poor payment, but the scene doesn’t give us any context about Sylvia’s life.  We can extrapolate the difficult circumstances Sylvia must have been dealing with to be a single mother in the ’40s who had to do sex work to earn income for herself and her child, but Rorschach lacks the imagination and empathy to see that side of the story (none of this excuses the fact that Sylvia beat her son, though I doubt Rorschach sees the punishment as egregious).

Moving past his childhood, Rorschach’s origin as a masked hero begins with his acquisition of a specially designed dress that a customer at the garment shop where he worked refuses to buy after she decides the finished product is ugly.  As Kovacs, he takes the dress and re-cuts it until it doesn’t “look like a woman anymore.”  After Kovacs learns that the woman who had commissioned the dress was murdered in an alley while her neighbors looked on (Moore leaves it deliberately ambiguous whether Rorschach is correctly remembering Kitty Genovese as the woman who ordered the dress), he takes the fabric and makes his signature mask.  Like with many heroes, Rorschach begins his story with trauma, although he’s unusual in that it’s not his own trauma that acts as the impetus to action.

In the story of Rorschach’s life, there’s a final event that marks the turning point from his self-identification as Walter Kovacs to the full adoption of his superhero persona as his only identity.  This last trauma is the most severe, and it occupies the largest amount of space in the issue.  Rorschach recounts for Dr. Long a case from 1975 where he investigates the kidnapping of a young girl.  He finds that the man who has kidnapped the girl has murdered her and fed her remains to his dogs.  The nature of this crime traumatizes Rorschach in a way that other events in his life haven’t.  I suspect that it’s something to do with the lack of coincidence and symbolism that pervades Rorschach’s earlier experiences (he became a masked vigilante because he saw parallels in Kitty Genovese’s death and his acquisition of the dress, but no aspect of the girl’s murder makes discernible sense in this narrative), but after resolving this kidnapping-turned-murder case, Rorschach fully embraces the nihilism at the heart of his moral philosophy.  The world is cruel and violent and meaningless, and people who fail to uphold the fragile social veneer floating atop that reality deserve to be punished without mercy.

I want to discuss briefly Dr. Long as a character in this issue.  Like I already mentioned, he’s an affable man with a comfortable upper-middle class life.  He’s depicted as someone who has gotten where he is with minimal difficulty; he has no firsthand trauma of his own to speak of.  Over the course of the week that Dr. Long spends treating Rorschach, he becomes fascinated with Rorschach’s worldview.  We see glimpses of Dr. Long’s personal life being impacted by his work with Rorschach (he grows moody, has trouble sleeping, and repeatedly rejects sexual advances from his wife Gloria).  Dr. Long’s reaction to Rorschach reminds me strongly of the sort of symptoms that come with secondary trauma.  My experience working with children who had backgrounds of severe trauma often had similar sorts of stressful effects, though they were never as pronounced or had as rapid an onset as what Dr. Long experiences here.  Part of this is a convention of the narrative; the stress that comes from experiencing secondary trauma builds up over a significant period of time, and this issue’s story is only supposed to span a week.  It wouldn’t make for a very satisfying parallel to see Dr. Long just grow a little grumpy from his time with a difficult patient when the issue’s core assertion is that exposure to the nonsensical parts of universe is an immensely traumatic experience.  Still, it’s nice to see a semi-realistic depiction of secondary trauma.

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