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Rorschach Quest

(we had a lengthy power failure tonight, and it has put me behind in my reading–but I had few things left to get off my chest re: Watchmen, so here I am!! I apologize if it seems a little rushed…)

With the character of Dr. Manhattan, Alan Moore pushed superheroic transcendence beyond even space and time (I wonder if David Lynch was thinking of Watchmen when he created the scene in Lost Highway in which Robert Blake hands Bill Pullman the cell phone and a voice at the other end of the line–also Blake’s–says “I’m at your house”… probably not–but you never know!) Many reviewers have preceded me in noting the complex strategy of doubling and differentiation in this work, so I won’t do any more of that–but I do want to establish that if Manhattan is the superhero concept blown up to impossible dimensions, Rorschach is his opposite number: the moral imagination boiled down to its’ fetid essence.

In the past few months, I’ve hammered away at the idea that superheroes are liberated from “power relationships”–but I never wished to imply that they lose their ability to relate as a consequence! Quite the reverse, in fact. According to Foucault–all relationships are power relationships. For me, the very term is an oxymoron. A moral relationship presupposes equality. Power not only abhors a vacuum, it creates one… Take Peter Parker, for instance. When we first meet him he’s an ostracized nerd–a nonentity. In more realistic fiction, this type of character only has two options open to him: either he continues to endure social oppression, or he becomes a “somebody” by “standing up for himself”, thus altering the power dynamic in his community. In the actual event–he does neither, thanks to the spider bite. Throughout Ditko’s run, at least, Parker remains the same bookish nerd he’s always been. And yet, his newfound indifference to the power structure that so determined his life before his “conversion experience” enables him to develop actual relationships with other characters… His “adventures in morality”, as Spider-Man, ground him.

But what if that adventure consumed his entire life? Wouldn’t that “grounding” then become something akin to a burial? Parker’s activities as Spider-Man enable him to lead a more genuine life–but those activities themselves are most emphatically not “life”. Web-swinging is more like meditation, or an exorcism–it’s not Peter’s “true self” unleashed. And if he got trapped in that condition, he wouldn’t be a “free spirit”, he’d be more like a wrathful ghost. He’d be like Rorschach, in fact.

When Walter Kovacs gives up his dual identity, he upsets a delicate balance. No longer grounded, he goes underground–and his capacity to relate to the world rots away. Rorschach’s strange destiny is to become the undead embodiment of his own moral law. He is absolutely immune to all power relationships. Even when he is locked up in the ultimate Foucaultian structure–a modern penitentiary–he is not defined by it. He deftly manipulates the prying psychiatrist and he stands off an army of thugs–reacting mechanically to each situation, as if hovering above it all. And, of course, he is. We’re told again and again that Rorschach smells like a corpse, and we know he is destined to be disintegrated by Dr. Manhattan. It all makes perfect sense–at a certain point, Kovacs the man became indistinguishable from his moral judgements of the world. As Rorschach, he is synonomous with the observations and meditations in the journal he keeps, and it is quite fitting that, in the final panel of the series, this book resurfaces–the cremated remains of Rorschach–to render the final judgement upon the world and the characters that Moore has presented us with…

good night friends!
Dave

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One comment

  1. Well, there you go! I was going to write about power relationships and superheroes last night, but with “Literature of Ethics” and you finally getting around to it, I would have been redundant anyway.

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