Saturday, March 07, 2009

Seeing New Patterns

So, continuing the thread from the last post, re-reading Watchmen has made me realize how totally inept Rorschach is.

Okay, perhaps that's unfair. He's quite the fighter, and his overactive paranoia makes sure that he's generally well-prepared. But beyond that?

In issue six, Rorschach talks about the event that transformed him from a costumed superhero into a brutal vigilante. He discovered that a kidnap victim had been butchered and fed to dogs, and after exacting some brutal justice, he was no longer Walter Kovacs in a mask, "playing Rorschach," but he had become the character he had been portraying.

His assessment is true, I think, in a more literal sense. Until that point, Rorschach had been more or less like his colleagues. He spoke well, he had an understanding of people and politics, and as evidenced by his solving that kidnapping, he was a pretty decent detective. After that, though, things fall apart. From that point onward, every one of his solo interrogations is of some innocent party, he blunders into a fairly obvious trap, and for someone who's described as being stoic, he monologues at every opportunity--either live or through his journal.

You'll notice that I said "solo interrogations," and that's because the only time Rorschach is ever effective in the first two acts of the story (excepting the flashback, of course) is when he's with Nite Owl. Interrogating the middleman for Adrian Veidt's would-be would-be assassin is the only time he ever comes close to doing anything to solve the mystery.

And immediately after that, he goes on a nine-panel-long paranoid rant, attempting to draw connections and treat the mystery as a "logic puzzle," while Nite Owl quietly and efficiently gathers the necessary evidence to solve it.

The problem, I think, is not that Kovacs became the Rorschach character, but that he became a character. He interrogates "criminals" like Batman or The Shadow, through brutal violence and intimidation tactics that he expects will elicit confessions. He watches people as though on stakeout, trying to predict their behavior, but he has no understanding of how people behave. He drops clever puns like James Bond and engages in grand monologues to think through the case and solve it through logic, as though he were Sherlock Holmes. Any of these might be useful tactics in another story--in a story, period--but the conceit of "Watchmen" is that it's the real world, and conventional story logic doesn't apply.

So Rorschach becomes a cargo cult superhero, adopting the external trappings of fictional crimefighters as though that's enough to make him an effective crimefighter himself. Confronted with the harshness of reality, Rorschach retreated into the comforting fantasy of masked crimefighter melodramas. But those melodramas are conceived with beginning, middle, and end all plotted out from the start. Everything happens for a reason, and so every detail is necessarily linked to the others, part of the single focal mystery--and in that kind of story, under a Conan Doyle or a Christie, Rorschach would be the brilliant heroic detective who can piece the puzzle together from his armchair without lifting a finger (but only after breaking a few). It's a simple enough story: "Rorschach and the Case of the Mask Massacre," where he's the lone crusader who brings the other heroes out of retirement to solve one last case--that of a serial killer who is quickly moving through their ranks. The plot sounds so familiar that I'm reasonably certain I've read or watched it before.

But that's not the story Rorschach is in. Despite his delusions, he's not the intrepid protagonist, and this is not a standard murder mystery. And no one should understand this better than him: "Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose."

Rorschach may have stared into the abyss, but he stared at it long enough that he started imposing all the familiar patterns onto it. He managed to be oblivious even to his own revelations.


Diamondrock said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head here. And I think there might be something wrong with me because I think I'd much rather read "Rorschach and the Case of the Mask Massacre" than "Watchmen"...

But then, I can't stand Alan Moore, so...

Jason said...

I think part of the issue for Rorschach is that this particular mystery is just too big for him. He's a street level detective used to dealing with low-lifes, but instead he's up against the "smartest man in the world". It's the equivalent of Daredevil going up against Thanos, it's just out of his realm.

But, I do also think that is part of the point of the book, that, in all actuality, superheroes are destined to be failures. While they may save some lives and solve some crimes, in the end, they cannot save the world.

Jason Langlois said...

There's another moment of detective work where Rorschach is effective - when he figures out the Comedians secret closet. Which seems to be a bit of distraction to make us think he's more of a detective than he is, given his later performance. But it is suggestive of the old Kovacs capabilities.

Scott said...

Well, to be fair, he does notice the Pyramid check in Moloch's apartment, or at least remembers it after the fact. Which doesn't mitigate the point that he could have, you know, asked him where his money was coming from these days if he weren't distracted by brutalizing him.

Also, how smart is Adrian really if he names his dirty jobs division Pyramid and has an obvious password like RamesesII?