Andy’s Read Pile: Before Watchmen, Rorschach

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Andy Hello to all my comic reading fans out there! It’s your good friend, Andy Larson, host of the Ghosts of the Stratosphere podcast, back with another edition, of reading some comics and talking about them so you don’t have to! Speaking of the podcast, just this week we released a brand new episode in which we created and debated a top 10 list of the Greatest Street Level Comic Heroes in real time.

That means that unlike other top 10 lists we’ve had on the show, this one was created without not a lot of forethought or planning. Some may call it “off the cuff”, but regardless it was important to note that as a result, we commented that there may have been some super heroes that we forgot to even nominate for this list that we would later regret.

For me, that sad realization came to me half way through editing the episode in which I shouted out to my fellow Ghost hosts, Rob Stewart & Chad Smith, that we forgot to include any of the characters from Watchmen, including both Night Owl and more importantly Rorschach. Of course, Chad Smith, who is not really a fan of the murderous trench-coated fascist in the white ink blot mask, said he was more “side of the curb” then street level indicating his disdain for the character.

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However, for as distasteful as Rorschach’s actions are, I am bizarrely drawn to this character. He’s by far my favorite from the Watchmen mythos given what I consider an extremely interesting backstory and motivation. Plus, I really do love his simplistic visual design, hearkening back to classic pulp age heroes like the Green Hornet and The Shadow.

Therefore, I wish I would have at least nominated him for the list as if there’s anyone that represents that dark and gritty mindset that seems to go hand in hand with the notion of street level characters, it’s Rorschach. I mean, it could be argued that he actually invented the notion of what we consider “street level” based on how iconic his representation in the original Watchmen series was and how immensely influential it was.

To make up for this oversight, I decided to review a book featuring Rorschach on today’s read pile. Since we already reviewed Watchmen on the program (which I’ll get to later in the article), I decided to focus on his portion of the collection of limited series stories released by DC Comics back in entitled “Before Watchmen”.

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A series of books supposedly aimed at adding more depth to one of the most popular and well read comic series ever, Before Watchmen was written by a variety of very talented comic book folks, despite the fact that none of them where actually Alan Moore, the original architect of the Watchmen world. Although this was seen as somewhat controversial at the time and there are still some out there that decry these series as some cheap marketing ploy by DC to cash in on the Watchmen legacy, I’m here to give this particular series featuring the man also known as Walter Kovacs a fair shake.

So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the 4 issue series “Before Watchmen: Rorschach” written by Brian Azzarello with art by Lee Bermejo.

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10 Cent Synopsis:

The Year: 1977. The Place: New York City.

Shortly before the actual historical event of the great NYC Blackout of that year, Rorschach has been busting up heads on the streets trying to take down a notorious new drug kingpin named “Rawhead”, named aptly for his heavily disfigured face that he received during Vietnam. At the same time, the police are baffled trying to track down a new serial killer named “The Bard” has been killing women in the streets carving disturbing phrases on their dead bodies.

Despite Rorschach’s normal “tenacity” for viciously hunting down criminals, Rawhead frequently stays one step ahead, having his gang ambush him in the sewers and deliver a savage beating that leaves Rorschach half dead. He is only saved by a kind young waitress that has taken pity on his alter ego of Walter and drags him to the hospital for treatment.

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In revenge, Rorschach invades Rawhead’s club in the midst of the Blackout with the hopes of evening the score, but again Rawhide’s gang gets the better of him. Worse yet, Rawhead then steals Rorschach’s mask and starts killing people rioting during the chaos.

But that’s not the only murder being planned as the Bard has found his latest victim in the waitress that helped Rorschach

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Initial Thoughts:

One of the major reasons I liked Rorschach so much in Watchmen, was because he was portrayed as the “ultimate bad ass”. I’m sorry. Call me a stupid hairy neanderthal but there is something simply awesome about seeing the way Rorschach coldly and dispassionately dispatches criminals in the original series, especially during all of the scenes in the prison.

Superbly confident as he makes it clear that all the crooks are locked up with him vs. the other way around, it’s hard not to feel the testosterone coursing through your veins a bit. Despite the angels of our better nature, that blood lust can bubble up in even the best of us and Rorschach’s character taps into that brutality in such a classic action movie way, with the perfect one liners and timing, that it’s hard not to get caught up in all that.

The main issue with the Rorschach in Before Watchmen, is that we are given a much more fallible version of the character, a much more human version, than a near unstoppable killing machine we get in the original series. I mean there are moments which still show why Rorschach is rightfully feared by the criminal underbelly like the opening shakedown of a low level pusher for information. While not exactly the fryer scene in the prison, it’s still pretty savage.

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And although I saw the reason for all this from a narrative perspective, as this is still early in the character’s progression in which it’s still Walter pretending to be Rorschach instead of the other way around, seeing all of the vulnerability actually made me like the character less rather than the other way around.  I mean this is a Rorschach that is constantly getting beat up, constantly getting captured, having to rely on the kindness of young waitresses to save his life. And worse of all, it’s a Rorschach that allows the bad guys to steal his “face”.

This is almost the anti Rorschach, a character that seems still interested in genuine human interaction as when he asks the waitress basically out on a date as gratitude for saving him. A character that shows inferior strategic planning in letting Rawhead get the drop on him not just once but twice.

In short, in an attempt to make Rorschach more human, this book made me realize that I really don’t like my Rorschach human. It sounds weird, but I think it’s part of the characters ultimate appeal. It’s like Roman gladiators or the executioner in the hood. We need our death dealers to be impersonal and faceless. It helps keep mental distance from the horrible things they do. It sounds sick, but I think it’s just human nature.

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And in making Rorshach more “normal”, it also shone a spotlight brightly on the fact that he wasn’t really a superhero. Superheroes do extraordinary things like tear through hitmen with nothing more than toilet water and a broken light bulb. He was just a mentally ill loner with deep psycho-sexual hang ups and major rage issues that had to be saved from death by deus ex machina tigers. That’s more pathetic than anything.

I mean sure the original Watchmen touched a lot on how deeply disturbed Rorschach was from a psychological perspective, but it always balanced it by showing also how enormously capable he was. He was shone as an a excellent detective and last person you’d ever want to get into a fight with. In short, he was a deeply flawed superhero, but he was still a superhero.

This series. He’s pretty much a loser.

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Fun Facts:

I’m not going to spend a lot of time in this section other than to plug the fact that again we did an entire podcast episode about the original Watchmen series last Thanksgiving.

We touch upon briefly the HBO show and get into a discussion of the greatest Thanksgiving desserts, but ultimately the entire show is all about our thoughts and views on this seminal comic book work. If you didn’t give it a listen the first time, I would highly recommend giving it one now!

Click here to listen to our podcast review of Watchmen

11.26.19

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Final Thoughts:

I did go into this series wanting to enjoy it. As I said I really did like Rorschach as a character, I typically dig Brian Azzarello’s writing, and Lee Bermejo does deliver some solid art here, being portraying an excellent grimy realistic feel which fits the atmosphere of the story well.

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But there was just too many things that turned me off about this book. Not only the delivery of a somewhat ineffectual Rorschach as I mentioned above, but the entire “Bard” serial killer story-line which made up a good chunk of the book seemed to a narrative dead end.

Maybe it was Azzarello’s attempt to just pull in some of the historical “Son of Sam” feel given that was going on during the real NYC Blackout of ’77. But given this is a story about Rorschach, the inclusion of that in the story paints a picture for the reader that this is going to be ultimately the major plot arc of the series: Rorschach solving The Bard murders. So the fact that the two characters don’t even intersect until the very last pages in what seems to be a tacked on epilogue, that I feel is a pretty big check the story failed to cash.

Plus, we are given a villain in Rawhead  who does interact with Rorschach quite a lot unlike the Bard. Yet in the end, despite being sincerely a smugly terrible SOB who we hope will get his just desserts by Rorschach’s hand, let’s just say his character exits the book in a very unsatisfying way with Rorschach being nowhere in sight. It’s pretty anti climatic to say the least.

I think in the end, the part I liked the most was the inclusion of a “cameo” of sorts in Travis Bickle, the Robert De Niro vigilante character from the classic 70s movie “Taxi Driver”.

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Given that he saves Rorschach’s bacon with an appropriately timed cab ride and the two of them share some discussion over the “need for vigilantism”, I thought that was a very nice touch by Azzarello. For me, the two fictional characters are very similar in a lot of respects so to see their meeting in this book, it was kind of like a “Flash of Two Worlds” sort of moment.

So in the end, although I can’t give this book a failing grade because it did have some decent dialogue and top notch art, I think there were way too many misses than hits here to be really good. Especially when you are trying to follow on something as universally acclaimed as the original Watchmen.

It has to be “Lights Out” or it’s nothing.

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Andy’s Read Pile Grade: C-


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