Deconstructing Comics #5 – The Watchmen Edition (February 2016)

#RememberWhenParade keeps chugging along – except this time with the final Deconstruction article! Going forward, after the comics are all paraded out, we will be getting some new Deconstructions uploaded! Stay peeled, friends!

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Hello internet! Welcome back to another episode of Deconstructing Comics. Let’s get to it!

When I made Narrative storytelling one of the three major “buckets” or “piles” of deconstruction I understood that it was a very broad term that contained a variety of different elements within it. It is an entire field to itself with its own tools and science all within the greater umbrella of creative production. My last couple of articles focused on the other two categories of deconstruction in their general terms, but for this one I am going to zoom in a little bit closer. I am going to focus on specific elements of the Narrative category and examine their function and position and action within comic book mechanics. I will separate and present each of those elements individually, looking for things like characterization, themes, tone, or stuff like gathering cohesive plot points, context, dialogue ripples etc. The focus for this month’s article is Character.

Characters are one of, if not the main draw to comic books. We read stories about Superman because he is awesome and we want to watch him perform super heroic acts. A lot of comics succeed and endure solely because of their characters, rather than their plots or thematic messages. If you were to read a comic book with the intent to distill the character parts what would you be looking for? How would you read that book? That is the thesis of this article. That is the cut of a comic that we are going to cook today.

Primarily, this episode applies to main characters, not the supporting cast, because a comic only has so many pages to express itself and it will budget more for a main character than a secondary one; therefore, there will be much more meat to chew on in a deconstruction. That is not to say you cannot distill a supporting character from a comic, only that if you do you will have less in your cup to drink than if you distilled the sweet nectar of a main character.

To demonstrate my argument I chose The Watchmen, specifically the character of Rorschach.

The Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons, DC Comics 1986-1987

Distilling Rorschach from The Watchmen

To distill a character from a comic you have to conduct multiple readings in order to penetrate the baked layers of a work. I don’t mean read the book multiple times in a row. What I mean is to read the book for different purposes. In your head you detect each element and interpret their meanings dynamically. Take every scene, every piece of dialogue, every movement and action and tediously scan it bit by bit looking to see if it relates to, or speaks to, the purposes you are reading the book for. Basically, we are asking a series of questions to define the character. You can do this all in one go. In our case, we are reading The Watchmen to see Rorschach.

In a first “reading” of The Watchmen (remember, I don’t mean reading as in cover to cover, I mean how you comprehend the work) we ask who is he and what does he do? We then sift through the plot and illustrations to find a broad sketch of Rorschach. These things are presented on the surface as a foundation for the character, his personality and his position as a hero in the comic book. We construct an impression of the character.

We find his two defining character features to be an uncompromising morality and a reputation for violence. If you were to define Rorschach, those are the first two things you would say: he does not compromise and he is violent. We learned these things by his words and his deeds. What does he say and what does he do. Ok, that is level one Rorschach, a distilled self-contained sketch of the character. But there is a greater meaning to him and a depth beneath the surface. How do we get at that?

In a second reading you would look closer at how he behaves; do his deeds match his words? How does he describe himself? How do his friends and allies and enemies regard him? How does society describe him? How does he react to opposing values? How does he handle success, defeat? This is different than a level one reading because at first you would only ask a couple of question and then be on your way. Here you look for greater meaning and greater context. We learn how he fits into the world and the group he acts with. We learn what the people think of him and how he feels about that. The purpose of the second reading is to create a three dimensional biography. The main point of the second reading is to ask “what if this character was real?” A real person is not solely their words and their actions. They are emotions and relationships and decisions and mistakes and energy levels and social statuses and etc.

These are the things a comic creator has to take into account for each of their main characters because these are the ways in which a character will bloom in a work. If they are solely level one then they are one dimensional (as in, here is what they look like and here is their actions in this scene). A character with multiple dimensions has a backstory, has relationships, has positive and negative memories both within their self and with others (an old friend could criticize them, or they could reflect on a past mistake in context of a current decision etc.) This is exactly what we find with Rorschach.

In The Watchmen, we read that Rorschach is a renegade vigilante disobeying the law of the land but adhering to a very strict moral principle. He is terrifying and confusing for the average person in that world (if we lived in the city this is what we would believe about Rorschach too.) We learn about Rorschach not just from watching him investigate the Comedian’s murder, but how other people speak about him. We hear from others about his response to the Keene Act. We gain insight into his personality and his past through the effort of his prison therapist, how the man becomes disturbed and emotionally soured by interacting with Rorschach. A character is not just who they are and what they do, they are how they interact with others, how they affect others, how others affect them and regard them. Rorschach’s determination affects Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre back into their old hobby of vigilantism. A character’s backstory falls into the second layer of reading as well because it offers reasons for being, purpose. Why is Rorschach a vigilante? Why is Rorschach non-compromising? Why is Rorschach violent? These questions are answered in the bulk of the second level of a character. We read further into the character to create them as a real person.

This brings us to the third reading of character deconstruction. In the third layer, you would ask what the authors use the character for. You would ask why does he exist? What does he mean? What does he symbolize, represent? We interpret the character.

The Watchmen is a great work for this kind of reading because it contains a wealth of ideas and questions and scenarios. We have a world on the brink of nuclear war, an emotionally detached demigod (maybe even deity?) and a swelling tide of criminal and gang activity. Of all this, we have a group of people who believe they are trying to save the world by reprising their profession as vigilantes. As far as characterization, it runs the spectrum of super-human to broken defeated human – from Dr. Manhattan to Nite Owl.

This would be a great opportunity to get into a discussion on the meaning of The Watchmen, to debate what the finale means (the grotesque alien monster that is Veidt’s answer to the Gordian knot of geopolitics) and what the creators intended. I would love to do that. However, that is not the focus of this article and so I am going to strictly argue about the meaning of the character of Rorschach.

We, the reading audience, learned before that Rorschach is uncompromising and violent, but does he still uphold that when he learns his teammates collude with their morally twisted-yet-convincing opponent? Yes he does. And so, at his core he is, really, the only true hero of the whole work (based on his response to the finale of the comic). The main characters of The Watchmen claim to be heroes but we find them flawed and flagging. The comic presents him as a psychotic murderer, hated by the police and population, socially distant from his own hero group – yet Rorschach is the only one who maintains his virtue. He is the only one who put his money where his mouth is to give his life for the cause.

Rorschach is an emotionally flawed and psychologically demented character who cares the most about humanity and proves to be the most heroic. That sounds like a contradiction. Maybe that’s the joke? I believe that Moore and Gibbons intended Rorschach to be a paladin-type character in a world of stupidity and apathy. It is his actions and deeds that will ultimately reveal the hoax perpetrated by Veidt and the Watchmen team. Rorschach, despite his traumatic youth, despite his ostracization and persecution at the hands of the police, despite the fact that most people are terrified of him, is the only one who truly does the right thing. He is the only one who opposes the villainy of his ex-teammate Ozymandias and who pays for it with his life. Rorschach, for all his paranoia and murder, proves to be the solitary, stalwart defender of humanity.

I argue that Moore means to say that a person can claim to be heroic (in the case of the vigilantes), a person can even have godlike powers (in the case of Dr. Manhattan) but ultimately it is the act of upholding and defending your principles – even at the point of ridicule or death – that makes the person a true hero. You could say, ‘duh, everyone knows the definition of a hero,’ but just look at the other characters and how they behaved. Look at Rorschach in comparison to those other characters. The other “heroes” felt embarrassed, guilty about their role, some abused their power (The Comedian), others could care less about the dangers or the conspiracy poised (Dr. Manhattan) but none possessed the purity of cause or the clarity of purpose that Rorschach had.

For a third level reading, then, we learn that the creators used the character of Rorschach to express a point about heroism, morality and making choices about your principles and values. The Watchmen is a super-hero comic book with only one hero: Rorschach. His drive to solve the murder of the Comedian, his actions and his sacrifice offer a greater meaning to the whole of the work than the visual elements or the craft.

If Rorschach was a slice of The Watchmen birthday cake here are the layers you would find: top layer) he is a noncompromising violent maniac, mid layer) he is regarded as a maniac and a criminal to society and the government, his friends semi-trust him but think he is an extremist, bottom layer) the creators intend him to mean that although being morally staunch is extremely difficult and often opposite to what society demands, doing so is the true virtue and the ultimate heroism.