The Rorschach Test: Watchmen, Truth, and Lies

"WS Watchmen" | Art by JPRart. Used with permission.
I first got into comics when I was in junior high. It was a good time for comics, the simpler days before Marvel’s Ultimate complicated the continuity of the Marvel Universe, before upstart companies like Image and Valiant further challenged what it meant to be a superhero.

The additions to my collection were based primarily on my interest in individual superheroes rather than the quality of the narratives. I was an undiscerning reader: I read The Amazing Spiderman, The Uncanny X-men and a few other Marvel titles because I liked those characters. I bought various Batman titles because Batman’s cool and Superman titles because… well, I don’t know why I bought Superman titles. I have never understood why anyone liked Superman.

And then someone told me about Alan Moore and I picked up Watchmen.  I wasn’t prepared for what I read. It was so many different genres all wrapped into one: mystery, revisionist superhero narrative, political treatise, alternate history. Watchmen was my first exposure to a comic raising deep moral, ethical, and philosophical questions, often questions without clear answers. And it remains one of the few comic I return to again and again because of how Moore treats those questions.

When all the conspiracies within Watchmen have been uncovered, when Ozymandias’s plot to create world peace in an alternate 1985 has been revealed, truth and deception remain powerful thematic elements. Once the truth that Ozymandias has framed Dr. Manhattan for nuclear attack on New York in order to unite the United States and the USSR is revealed, the heroes must wrestle with the information they possess in the light of the new-found peace that could stabilize the world.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see the dangers of Rorschach’s black and white perspective.

Despite killing people and other moral compromises, Ozymandias’s actions are intended to bring about world peace, and Moore’s characters, each of whom sees the world and their roles in that world differently, must ask themselves if peace based on a lie is worth it. All of this comes to a head when the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan confronts and kills the lone vigilante Rorschach, whose rigid moral code refuses to be compromised, demanding that “evil must be punished.” In order to protect the “greater good,” Dr. Manhattan opts to destroy Rorschach.

When I first read Watchmen, I was totally taken with the character Rorschach, whose uncompromising principles, though extreme, made him noble to my young mind. And I was not alone. Rorschach, with his cool mask and intriguing characterization, was voted the comic character most deserving of his own title.  The stand-off with Dr. Manhattan seems to crystalize all that made Rorschach so impressive. Although he lacks any “super” powers, Rorschach refuses to back down even against the most powerful figure in the world. He is not only willing to stand up to such a powerful character as Dr. M, he is also willing to lay down his life for his beliefs. He would rather die than allow a lie, even an attractive lie, to be perpetrated.

Isn’t that the very essence of a hero? Uncompromising in his beliefs?

At that age, I saw the world in sharp black and white morality. Things were either good or evil, right or wrong.  In part, that was the result of my upbringing, a common (and simplistic) Sunday School piety. As I’ve grown older, as I’ve studied and read and learned more, I have found my opinion of Rorschach shifting. Certainly, as I have come to see the amount of grey in the world, my understanding of Rorschach has changed. While he’s still cool, I have come to see the character as deeply flawed and largely unaware of his own hypocrisies.

For all his deeply held convictions about justice, Rorschach fails to see how much he himself compromises in terms of the truth, holding himself to a different set of standards then his colleagues or the rest of society. Though he works closely with Night Owl II (Daniel Drieberg) in the days before the government’s crackdown on costumed vigilantes and knows Drieberg’s identity, Rorschach maintains the secrecy of his own identity. None of the other characters knows who Rorschach really is.

Watchmen was my first exposure to a comic raising deep moral, ethical, and philosophical questions, often questions without clear answers.

Rorschach is also the only costumed vigilante operating outside the government framework of Dr. Manhattan or The Comedian, and, in doing so, Rorschach operates outside of the law. In refusing to stop his crime-fighting, Rorschach is a criminal. There’s also his intentional deception of the prison psychologist. No doubt Rorschach justifies these deceptions to himself. Moore’s crafting of such a troubled and psychologically flawed individual further complicates the rationalization of Ozymandias’s actions by Night Owl and Dr. Manhattan.

Although Christopher Nolan picks up these questions about lying to the public for a great good in the second film in his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, Moore’s questioning lacks a satisfying answer. In The Dark Knight, Batman chooses to allow Gotham to hold Dent up as a crusader for justice by framing himself as a villain rather than exposing Harvey Dent’s fall from grace. The film basically affirms that decision uncritically.

In Alan Moore’s hands, the questions raised by a lie for the greater good have more profound implications. In Watchmen, Rorschach’s refusal to compromise and his subsequent death are less noble and heroic than might first appear. When one considers how much the character willingly compromises, his actions become suspect, less about Rorschach’s strict moral code and more about the limited perspective Rorschach has chosen to see the world.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see the dangers of Rorschach’s black and white perspective. Whenever people are absolutely, uncompromisingly certain of their opinion, they usually lack a significant understanding of grace or the humility to consider an alternative point of view. In the Bible, where Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery, how would would he have treated her if he saw the world in the limited black and white view of that community? If I am uncompromising to someone else, how can I expect to be given any grace for my mistakes in return?

Michael Boyce

Michael Boyce

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Michael W. Boyce is afflicted with severe boredom because he has a brain the size of a planet and he seldom gets the chance to use it at its full capacity. He boasts of a Ravenclaw education and we consider him to be our Yoda.

Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
Michael Boyce