Review: Rorschach hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Chances are you arrived to Tom King through Heroes in Crisis or his 81-issue (nee 100) Batman run. And chances are between one or both of those, you have strong opinions about King’s work, for or against. But each of these are exceptions — Heroes with its clear editorial troubles, and Batman by the fact that it’s longer than 12 issues. Because 12 issues seems to be the sweet spot — Sheriff of Babylon, Omega Men, Mister Miracle, and so on (with no shade thrown on Superman: Up in the Sky, either). As I set aside what doesn’t fit the pattern and focus on what does, no question why the prospect of limited series endeavors from Tom King — Strange Adventures, Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, Human Target — get my heart racing.

If you were sad that Damon Lindelof didn’t make a second season of TV’s Watchmen but couldn’t imagine what it might’ve been about, Tom King’s Rorschach is your answer. Wholly unrelated to Lindelof’s story, but clearly (and courteously) of the same universe and cut from the same cloth — nuanced, political, another story about how the trauma of the past visits itself on the present. It’s been a long road to sequels to Alan Moore’s Watchmen that are additive rather than sensationalizing of the original (unauthorized or not); that we have two finally (across different mediums) is a miracle. There’s a clear path to a third, though I don’t dare to think we’ll ever see it.

[Review contains spoilers]

Some of the difficulty in arriving to Watchmen sequels (narratively, not contractually) is that Watchmen itself is a story that ends at its beginning. The death of the Comedian, the mystery, the breakup of the Minutemen in flashback — all of this is prologue to the inevitable, Ozymandias' faux alien attack on New York to stave off nuclear war. It would be a different story if Rorschach and company had been able to stop Ozymandias, but in the context of Watchmen’s larger world, their struggles are but a footnote. I’m far from an expert on all the alternate history swirling in Watchmen’s zeitgeist, but the main story of Watchmen has always seemed backward-facing, mulling over Nixon and Vietnam some 10 years later. Watchmen has stuck around but its Cold War panic has not.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Unfortunately but fortunately, Where creators like Lindelof and King have finally found ways to talk about Watchmen is through shared trauma. The quest to stop Ozymandias is finite, unsuccessful; the squid attack is infinite. It has taken time for good fiction to respond to Watchmen because I do not think for some time we had cultural need to make metaphor of Watchmen’s most salient event. What was “just” the end of Watchmen in 1987 looms large now in the 21st century, most pointedly after 9/11 but on through the years to the current pandemic.

Before Watchmen was, by its very definition, still more backward-looking. Doomsday Clock busied itself with Watchmen’s loftiest metaphysics (when it too wasn’t being pulled in innumerable editorial directions). But now our reality has caught up with Watchmen’s fantasy — we have seen a city terrorized, we have felt fear on a global scale. Creators like Lindelof and King can now make art successfully within the Watchmen universe because we can see ourselves in it — we have had our national traumas, as they have, and we struggle with them just as the fictional characters do.

Lindelof’s Watchmen swirled together a number of traumas, not just the squid attack but the real-life 1921 Tulsa massacre and other instances of racial violence. King’s Rorschach, too, takes as its impetus the squid attack, that Ozymandias' plan to save the world so traumatized some that they became cult-like in their devotion to stopping another supposed alien invasion. From unrelated beginnings, a long train of events culminates in an old man and a young woman trying to assassinate a presidential candidate. Rorschach is here, of course, and Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, but really King’s book has both everything and nothing to do with the original Watchmen, much more so (or less so) than Lindelof’s series. It is not Rorschach or Comedian or even Ozymandias that’s important here — it’s the people and how a world-changing event affected them. I’m increasingly convinced nothing more matters in a sequel to Watchmen than that.

Neither can I claim any expertise on where reality and fantasy meet in Rorschach (nor the origins of a variety of philosophies espoused), but I understand enough to know that King’s story is really ambitious, if not equal parts blasphemous or absolutely nuts. Central to the story is a fictionalized version of a real seance attended by comics creators Otto Binder and Frank Miller, and later Miller appears as a character and is arrested in the story for his knowledge of the attempted assassination. It is astounding this was published by DC — astounding that this story ever came into King’s head — and I adore the sheer gumption of it. Clearly the snake’s eating its own tail here; some 30-odd years later in a Watchmen sequel, Miller as a contemporaneous stand-in for Alan Moore, expressing misgivings for his role in the darkening of comics (as imagined by Tom King, who himself isn’t exactly writing animal funnybooks). It is weird, and wacky, and you know I love my weird and wacky over the same old, same old.

I asked time and again while watching Lindelof’s Watchmen whether this was actually a Watchmen story. It’s hard to say, and especially of a television show, and I do think the more Lindelof’s Watchmen hewed to the original Watchmen and its characters, the farther from its target it got. Rorschach has no such trouble, and indeed without the actual presence of any of the original characters, I thought King’s callbacks landed better — a catalyzing murder, the flashbacks, a conspiracy where who has seemed victim is actually the perpetrator, supposed good reasons but bad methods. To me, Rorschach seems very much a Watchmen story, and I appreciate King and artist Jorge Fornes' restraint with the nine-panel pages, too.

If Rorschach had one sour note for me, it was that I did not think King quite earned the ending, in which the book’s unnamed detective kills the corrupt presidential candidate and his assistant lest they cheat and murder their way to the White House. It is fiction, of course, and it was always a forgone conclusion that the detective would, in the tradition of Walter Kovacs, take justice in his own hands. But Governor Turley accusing President Redford of trying to have him killed is, comparatively, not the same as Ozymandias' squid killing three million people. Under “normal” circumstances, I’m not sure one would turn to killing a governor before trying to out him with evidence or seeking refuge with the target, the actual sitting president. The book had to go there, I recognize, but the detective’s turn seemed more needed than natural.



In Tom King’s Rorschach, young Laura Cummings creates a reality out of whole cloth, imagined but entirely unimpeachable except by those who simply know better, that Dr. Manhattan transferred the heroes' souls to hide from the squids and that the last message of the “Spirit Man” is “Kill Turley.” It would be easier if we could laugh off this kind of psychosis as comic book villainy, but Watchmen stories have never let us off so easy. We need look no farther than the conspiracy theories of our times to know that if it can be conceived of, it can be believed — and that the ravings of those less stable are ripe to be weaponized by the more powerful. Twelve issues, a character just off the mainstream — another winner for the Tom King library.

[Includes original and variant covers, design gallery]

Comments ( 1 )

  1. Comic Books rarely get better then this. Thank God, I have already read this twice. Though you clearly label this with Spoilers. You probably can not do a full review of this book/series, like you normally do , with limited spoilers.


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