2020. Robert Redford is running for another term as President of the 51 United States of America. He’s challenged by a right-wing governor named Turley, who thinks he might have a shot at the seat by whipping up white grievance and resentment. In shorthand: if he’s president, people will get their high-powered guns back! Ironically, a duo takes a shot at Turley: a young woman dressed like an old west gunslinger and an old man dressed like the infamous costumed aventurer Rorschach. Though both are killed, they get close to killing Turley. Very close.
Turley, a sneering macho twerp, is convinced that Redford enabled—maybe even directly supported—the hit. So, through an intermediary, he recruits a nameless detective to ferret out the truth. The questions the detective must answer are these: Who were these killers? Why did they want Turley dead? Why on Earth was one of them dressed as a long-missing, probably (definitely) dead vigilante? Why does the faux Rorschach have the real Rorschach’s fingerprints?
The detective’s investigation will take him across the continental United States, from a dying town to the still-teetering-post-squid New York City to an isolated ranch where “Rorschach” and the gunwoman planned their hit. It will take him into a world of despair, where paranoia reigns and schemes stack upon schemes. It will take him to the edge of sanity, especially as the truth hidden behind a blood-stained inkblot mask becomes clearer.
Rorschach is a deeply frustrating comic, a well-crafted book that shines as a study of deeply broken people, but trips over its own shoelaces in most every other part of its script. It’s always an interesting read, but ultimately it does not succeed as a comic.
Rorschach is at its best when it delves into the psychology of the would-be assassins, comic artist Wil Myerson (Rorschach) and gunslinger Laura Cummins (The Kid). Both are deeply lonely, isolated, traumatized people who have reason to despair about the state of their lives and the state of the world. By becoming pen pals, they find a quantum of solace, a genuine connection that is as welcome as it is warping. Together, they are not alone. Together, they push each other further and further down a warped spiral of conspiracies until assassinating a presidential candidate to prevent the world from being laid to waste by squids seems like a good idea.
Jorge Fornés and Dave Stewart do beautiful work throughout Rorschach. It’s of a piece with the work Dave Gibbons and John Higgins did on Watchmen, but distinct from it. They cultivate a downbeat, sedate mood, one that rarely breaks save for a few sharp moments (most notably the opening assassination attempt). That the mood remains coherent even as the detective delves deeper into the bizarre final days Myerson and Cummins speaks to how dreadfully ordinary the absurd and terrifying has become for this world. The surreal is present, but even at its most distinct, it is all too familiar to those living through it.
Fornés and King use their players’ acceptance of the absurd to excellent effect in Rorschach‘s penultimate issue, where it becomes clear that despite the process and procedure and familiarity of the detective’s investigation, his hunt has taken a much deeper toll on him than he—and the audience—had realized, a toll that he is not prepared to face due to how much he’s numbed himself to the world. Once the cracks begin, they spread rapidly and dramatically—until the point of no return and drastic, destructive self-change is inevitable.
Consider the above page. The detective is having a full-blown conversation with The Kid and the faux Rorschach, hopping between the hotel room where he’s holed up and the places he knew they were. The boundary between the present and the past-as-the-detective-images-it starts as permeable (hence The Kid retrieving the detective’s discarded bottle) and becomes more so as the issue progresses, until time and space are fully broken, cast aside in favor of the dreadful moment of realization. It’s very, very fine work from the creative team—work worthy of saluting.
But, for as much as Rorschach succeeds as an intimate character study of broken people and a mood piece, on a macro level its script fails and fails frequently.
On a metatextual level, Rorschach‘s engagement with Watchmen and comics history as a whole is clumsy. Wil Myerson’s career as a comics artist and writer is tremendously important to his development as a character, but while there are deliberate parallels between his life and work and the life and work of Steve Ditko, the comparison isn’t one-to-one. And while Watchmen deployed real-world historical figures (most prominently Nixon), they were kept to the background. Rorschach features Supergirl co-creator Otto Binder as a key figure in Myerson’s history, and more directly positions Frank Miller as a major supporting character.
The dissonance between Myerson and these fictionalized versions of real people is substantial and seriously hurts Rorschach. Where Myerson works as a reflection of/commentary on Steve Ditko and the public perception of him, drawing directly on Binder’s real history (namely his reaction to the death of his child) to flesh out Myerson is a sour move. Likewise, while it is amusing to see Frank Miller face to face with Rorschach, there’s a hollowness to the whole affair. Rorschach doesn’t engage with Miller’s very public bigotry, and its grappling with his creative legacy is hobbled by filtering everything through Watchmen‘s pirate-loving popular culture (The Dark Fife Returns as opposed to The Dark Knight Returns) without really engaging with that either. Myerson works because being a fictional character gives him space to differ sharply from Ditko and to have a more intimate relationship with his creative work than the fictional Miller can have. The result is that while Myerson’s relationship with his Pontious Pirate makes for a compelling reading, the book as a whole doesn’t successfully say much about comics history, its creators, or their relationships with their work—which is all the more noticeable given the inherently fraught position any direct follow up to Watchmen exists in given its status as one of the prime examples of mainstream superhero comics publishers’ shabby treatment of their creators.
Likewise, Rorschach‘s world outside the heads of the detective, Myerson, Cummins, and briefly Turley, is not realized with the same care and precision their internal perspectives are. Some of this is down to how tightly focused Rorschach‘s story is on the core cast. In other cases though, the lack of wider angle perspective leads to missed opportunities for insight and storytelling. How is the assassination attempt on Turley perceived by folks who aren’t voting for him? How are the assassins perceived nationally, given their whiteness, given their invocation of Rorschach—whose visage has, in-universe, been appropriated by white supremacists and ultra-conservatives and who was himself a hard right-winger in life—given the resentment Turley supporters have for gun control? There are nods to these questions here and there, but the scope and scale of Rorschach feels very small at times, and not in a good way. Myerson and Cummins were shaped by the world in which they lived, and Rorschach not taking the time to study that world with the same care it studies their fall is a significant disappointment.
Wil Myerson and Laura Cummins are genuinely interesting characters. When it digs into their histories and trace the impact they have on the detective, Rorschach is quite good—and it ends very strongly. But between its muddled metacommentary and the limits of the book’s perspective, it ultimately is not a successful comic. It’s interesting, I applaud the team’s craft—particularly Fornés and Stewart’s—and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to dig into it, but I do not think that it works.
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