Superhero Comic Books Are Good Literature! Part 4: Still Watching You, Watchmen

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In last week’s installment of Superhero Comic Books are Good Literature!,  we started discussing Watchmen and how it relates to our definition of Good Literature. We also learned about archetypes and the real Character, Nite Owl.  This week, let’s take a closer look at some of his “friends.”

Whereas Nite Owl takes a journey of self-discovery before he gets involved in any of the more action oriented elements of the comic book, Rorschach already knows what he is and though he may, at times, disagree, he is, quite simply, crazy.  Readers are shown this through his interaction with Nite Owl and the other heroes he seeks out, as well as diary entries that have an angry, holier-than-thou tone like the ones that open the comic:

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach.  This city is afraid of me.  I have seen its true face.  The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown.  The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!” and I’ll look down and whisper “No.”

Much like Robert E. Howard’s great literary figure, Solomon Kane, Rorschach is a moral absolutist.  To him, the ends never justify the means.  He sees things in black and white, wrong and right, and leaves no room for gray areas, which is ironic based on his chosen moniker.  But in his fanatical obsession, he becomes complex because his concept of what is wrong and what is right is not always what readers would expect.  As an example, Rorschach is shown to have such a low opinion of the city he lives in and the people that inhabit it, that readers are led to believe he would be more than happy to let the story’s “villain” go through with his destructive ultimate plan.

Still, of all the heroes in Watchmen, Rorschach is the only one who voices dissent when the time is ripe for it.  Also, when he fears there is a murderer targeting “costumes,” the first person he warns is the only other superhero he has ever truly considered his friend (though he can be reluctant to admit it)—Nite Owl.  Given his distaste for heroes who have retired and his black and white view of the world, one would think Nite Owl would not be a person Rorschach is overly concerned with.  Later on, as Rorschach recounts to a psychiatrist how he became the man he is, readers are given a glimpse into a truly tortured psyche.  He is a character readers do not want to like, especially considering some of his more disturbing actions.  But nevertheless, Rorschach considers himself a hero and proves it on more than one occasion, thusly forcing readers to like him . . . at least a little.

After meeting with Nite Owl, Rorschach visits Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), also known as the World’s Smartest Man.  Rorschach doesn’t like him and makes no bones about it.  Ozymandias is a superhero who voluntarily retired and went on to become a multi-millionaire by exploiting his career as a costumed adventurer.  Their initial interaction, as well as the setting at the top of one of Ozymandias’ many Trump-like towers, on pages 17 and 18 of the first chapter of the graphic novel, speaks volumes about what motivates each character:

Ozymandias: The Comedian dead?  But why?

Rorschach: You were always supposed to be the world’s smartest man, Veidt.  You tell me.

Ozymandias: I never claimed to be anybody special, Rorschach.  I just have some over-enthusiastic P.R. men.  Listen . . . could it have been a political killing?  Maybe the soviets . . . .

Rorschach: Dreiberg said same thing.  Don’t believe it.  America has Dr. Manhattan.  Reds have been running scared since ’65.  They’d never dare antagonize us.  I think we got a mask-killer [serial killer targeting superheroes].

Ozymandias: Not necessarily.  The Comedian had plenty of other political enemies to choose from, even discounting the Russians . . . .  The man was practically a Nazi.

Rorschach: He stood up for his country, Veidt.  He never let anybody retire him.  Never cashed in on his reputation.  Never set up a company selling posters and diet books and toy soldiers based on himself.  Never became a prostitute.  If that makes him a Nazi, you might as well call me a Nazi, too.

Ozymandias: Hm.  Rorschach . . . I know we were never friends, but even so, you’re being unfair.  Nobody retired me.  I chose to quit adventuring and go public two years before the police strike made the Keene Act necessary.

Rorschach: Yes.  Good timing.  I came here to warn you about the mask-killer.  So you didn’t end up smartest man in the morgue.  But I guess there’s worse things to end up as.  Be seeing you.

Ozymandias: Sure.  Have a nice day.

Ozymandias is clearly far more intelligent than Rorschach, but initially Rorschach seems far more driven.  As the story progresses to its climax in chapter eleven however, readers are given a glimpse into the multi-faceted, highly driven nature of Ozymandias, as well as the end result of all of his subtly foreshadowed behind-the-scenes machinations.

Next week we will take a closer look at these machinations as well as some of the other complex characters in Watchmen.  And don’t worry, we will be getting to other superhero comic books soon enough. 


AE Stueve is a former regular contributor to Broken Frontier.  His first novel, The ABCs of DInkology is due out this fall from WSC Press and The Wave, a line of comic books he is editing, is also due out this fall.

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