On Sunday, HBO and Damon Lindelof will blow the lid off this superhero thing with Watchmen, a TV show that dares to do the impossible: “continue” the story of the comic book series by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. A difference of 30 years divides the comic and the show, but the events of the comic radically influence the series in big and small ways.
And there is no Watchmen character whose existence reverberates across 30 years quite like Rorschach’s. A violent vigilante who once claimed membership with the Watchmen, Rorshach’s image has been appropriated by a brutal cell of white supremacists who call themselves the Seventh Cavalry. Rorshach masks are the new Klan hoods in HBO’s Watchmen, and how that happened may have already been revealed in the final pages of the original comic.
For those who need a refresher on Rorshach, especially those who might not have picked up and read the comic for themselves (and you really, really should), here’s what you need to know about Rorshach.
“But Doctor, I am Pagliacci…”
Rorshach, real name Walter Kovacs, was born the son of an abusive, prostitute mother. At the age of 10, he half-blinded a bully who mocked him for being a “whore son.” From there, he grew up under state care, where he appeared well-adjusted, and later found employment as a garment worker. But after a tragic incident involving a customer, Walter used the fabrics of his store to become the masked vigilante Rorshach.
In 1975, Rorschach became a far more ruthless vigilante, willing to kill when an investigation of a missing girl showed him the worst of humanity. It was that investigation, he’d tell a psychologist, when he ceased to be Walter Kovacs and instead fully became Rorschach.
Fitting his name, his mask resembles that of an inkblot test that changes shape. It is not known how Rorshach made this work; the Seventh Cavalry’s Rorschach masks also do not change shape.
Of Rorschach’s many memorable quotes, one has found life as a meme. It also happens to perfectly, and succinctly, define Rorschach’s character down to the bone.
“But Doctor, I am Pagliacci” is a punchline to a joke told early in the pages of Watchmen. It begins when a narrating Rorschach talks about the Comedian, a jingoistic superhero heavily involved in the US government’s foreign affairs. Says Rorshcach in the first issue of Watchmen:
“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, ‘Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. Says, ‘But doctor…I am Pagliacci.’ Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”
It’s hardly a spoiler now, but Rorschach is killed at the end of Watchmen. After Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias) successfully carries out his plan of genocide in New York (via an exploding psychic squid monster), Rorschach is determined to return home from Veidt’s arctic compound to tell the world.
“Evil must be punished. People must be told,” Rorschach tells Doctor Manhattan, a blue ghost capable of manipulating physics itself (and the only individual in the canon to have superpowers). Doctor Manhattan’s detached, alien-like observation deduces that Veidt’s plan to unite the world against a common enemy is objectively right, which Rorschach rejects. When Manhattan insists on stopping Rorschach, Rorschach dares him to kill him. “Do it!” Rorschach yells.
So Doctor Manhattan does.
At the end of Watchmen, Rorschach’s detailed journal, leading up to the showdown with Ozymandias and his death by Doctor Manhattan, is dropped off at a neo-conservative newspaper, New Frontiersman. The final pages of Watchmen show an editorial assistant discovering Rorschach’s journal before cutting to black with a John Cole quote from the song “Sanities.”
“It would be a stronger world, a stronger loving world, to die in.”
30 years later…
In the new HBO series, a little over three decades have passed since the events of Watchmen. It’s 2019, but the world is different. Actor Robert Redford is in his third term as US President, there is no internet or smartphones, and Vietnam is the 51st state in the union.
Superheroes were a real thing, except they’re outlawed. All members of authorized law enforcement in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the story takes place are anonymous and hide behind their own masks to protect their identities from other masked villains and terrorists.
White nationalism has evolved from the Ku Klux Klan into the masked Seventh Cavalry, who hide behind their own Rorschach masks. It is likely that the truths revealed in Rorschach’s journal, published by conservative newspapers, led to white nationalists memorializing Rorschach as a folk hero. Of course, Rorschach isn’t around to tell them otherwise.
A compelling inverse to Lindelof’s series is DC’s own crossover/sequel to Watchmen. Doomsday Clock, a twelve-issue comic book sequel to Watchmen that also features characters from the main DC Universe (Batman, Superman, the Justice League, etc.) introduces a new Rorschach. A Black man going by the name Reggie Long is the new Rorschach, who sets out to kill Ozymandias as revenge.
The television series isn’t canon with Doomsday Clock, which is scheduled to publish its final issue in December. But it does offer another compelling alternative and thematic companion to the series as it also reworks and reinterprets Moore’s original canon into something new.
So don’t expect this new Rorschach to turn up on HBO, but thanks to the Seventh Cavalry, Walter Kovacs’ legacy lives on. Even if it’s not the one he would have wanted.
Watchmen will air Sunday, October 20 at 9 p.m. Eastern.