On Rorschach #1

In which the blogger attempts to review Rorschach #1, despite the experience proving a thoroughly enervating one. Visitors should be aware that what follows contains spoilers and, uniquely for this article, a moment or two of what my mother would define as bad language. I seriously advise caution. If you’re likely to be offended, please go no further.

If you really are setting out to publicly piss in church, then the least you can do is make sure that your bladder’s full to bursting before you do so. Yet Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Rorschach #1 is so woefully complacent, careless and insubstantial that it hardly seems worth their having attempted the heresy at all. You’d think that anyone taking the silver for a Before Watchmen book would at least want to balance out the damage to their ethical reputation with a bravado display of their storytelling chops. After all, even if you don’t believe in the tenets of the church you’re pissing in, you’ve got to be aware that it is a church and that folks are going to care what you do there. Finding a quiet corner and making just a tiny little bit of a mess while congratulating yourself on your daring isn’t going to minimise the disrespect, but it will leave the sense that you didn’t have the imagination, conviction and nerve to do anything more substantial with your moment of taboo-busting transgression.Yet Rorschach really is nothing more than a string of poorly told, grindingly obvious and misguided references to the character’s starring role in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen. Stripped of their ambition, wit, skill and integrity, Azzarello and Bermejo succeed only in transforming Rorschach from a tragically damaged victim into just another hard-done-by, heroically dysfunctional vigilante.

Rorschach #1 does begin with a homage of sorts, which proves at least that Azzarello’s aware of Watchman’s surface, if not its substance. Just as with the original’s opening panel, the reader’s presented with a frame which is at first glance confusing. In Watchmen, it swiftly became obvious that we were being made to look down on a stream of blood flowing off of a sidewalk and into a drain. In Rorschach, the enigma of an opening scarlet-filled panel is revealed, through a series of backwards-tracking shots, to have been a frame-filling droplet of congealed blood. There’s a fierce irony in this, of course. Where Watchmen was concerned with the consequences of a murder, Rorschach revels in the detail of the process of murder itself. After a few more panels’ worth of context, Azzarello and Bermejo present us with the sight of a serial killer methodically carving messages into the body of an entirely naked, pneumatically-endowed, dead woman. Tellingly, there’s been no attempt made to emphasise the piteous situation of the murdered victim here beyond her obvious lack of animation. She’s nothing but a canvas upon which clues are cut. She’s dead, she was sexually alluring, and now she’s the nude means by which the supposedly fiendish murderer known as “The Bard” can be introduced. The scene is focused on his perversity and her nakedness, but her life and her suffering are entirely irrelevant to the meaning of what’s before us. It’s a sequence which seems to want to advertise the supposed creative daring of both writer and artist, but all it does is emphasise how heartless, chauvinistic and fourth-rate their work is. Yet another by-the-numbers serial killer. Yet another beautiful, objectivised female victim. Yet another example of body-mutilating depravity. It’s all as hackneyed and stupid-minded as it’s sexist and cold-hearted.

The apologist’s argument will no doubt that every woman in Rorschach #1 is portrayed as stereotypically sexualised object because that’s how the title character and the Bard see them. But if a creative team can’t represent prejudice without replicating the form of deeply bigoted work, then they’re really not up to their jobs.

This apparently unthinking contempt for women reappears throughout Rorschach, an expression it seems of both writer and artist’s reliance on empty-headed spectacle and unreconstructed thinking. There’s no such thing as a female character who’s not young, nubile, and peripheral in the comic’s pages, although in truth, there’s barely such a thing as a female character at all. Any attempt on Bermejo’s part to inspire a measure of sympathy for the prostitute who appears trapped in a life of alley-way blow-jobs and pimply exploitation, for example, is killed stone dead by his inability to represent woman as anything other than sexual stereotypes. There’s no individuality in his female characters beyond the slight gradations of allure which he offers. Even the supposed everywoman who we encounter during the diner scene at the book’s close seems to be an eye-catching beauty whose glamour is barely masked by the presence of glasses and an air of table-washing weariness.

Similarly, Rumpish Flakkers will want to suggest that Rorschach was portrayed as a violent torturer who escaped the consequences of violence himself in “Watchmen”. But if anyone can’t grasp the difference in context between that and Rorschach, then debate would be quite impossible anyway.

Faced with the challenge of either creating a worthy, respectful adjunct to Watchmen or producing a vigorous and ambitious experience of their own, Azzarello and Bermejo have chosen instead to inexplicably eulogise all that’s worst about the post-Watchmen vigilante fantasy. And so, without the slightest trace of irony in view, writer and artist enthusiastically collaborate on a sequence in which Rorschach savagely tortures a pimp whose masturbationary pleasures he’s interrupted. (*1) It’s a scene which dead-heartedly glorifies rather than undercuts the character’s viciousness, and if there’s any sense that Rorschach’s behaviour is being criticised, it’s only because he’s far too trusting of the information he forces out of his victim. But then, everyone that Rorschach fights with in damn town is portrayed as irredeemably depraved. What does it matter what Rorschach does to these sub-humans, when his opponents have already disqualified themselves from the human race?

*1:- At least, that’s what I think he’s up to. There’s a whole business with a piece of string which he’s pulling tightly round his arm at the same time. Who knows what perversions & addictions mark the man? More importantly, who cares?

Where Watchmen was threaded with a host of ethical questions and delivered in the form of what was then experimental storytelling, Rorschach is focused on nothing but threadbare genre cliche and boy-man thrilling titillation. When a comic’s single surprising shot is that of a trousers-round-his-ankles reprobate wanking himself off in a room hired specifically for the purpose, the creators can hardly be criticised for an excess of ambition and innovation. Yet for all his enthusiasm for the pruriently irrelevant, Azzarello can’t bring himself to produce a plot which makes sense in its own terms. It defies belief that the gangsters who succeed in trapping Rorschach would opt not to unmask their victim. Similarly, it seems quite impossible that Rorschach should have survived the protracted beating that they dish out, let alone that he should overcome the fact that he’s been left for dead in a sewer with his body on fire. Azzarello and Bermejo appear anxious to convince their readers that they’ve grounded Rorschach in a hybrid of righteously grim vigilantism and seedy NYC Seventies’ excess. Yet all the semen-soaked tissues in the world can’t transmit a sense of verisimilitude when the story itself is so carelessly bolted together. This isn’t just a ethically unpleasant book. It’s a poorly made one too.

With the script having forgotten to clarify whether the assault was intended to kill or merely maim Rorschach, and without a meaningful explanation of why the whole incident was organised in the first place, the reader’s forced to find meaning in the ever-predictable rituals of how the indomitable hero refuses to capitulate to a severe thrashing. Grimace as Rorschach defiantly stumbles down the street! Cheer as he breaks into a chemist to guzzle down painkillers! Laugh as he re-appears with just  a few pity-inspiring band-aids to amplify his gutsy manliness! Within the space of what appears to have been a single day, Rorschach’s even well enough to provide his straight-faced, vengeance-promising grimcracks. It’s all such a well-worn and trite business that it’s infeasible to accept that even Azzarello and Bermejo believe in the story that they’re telling,. If they did, they’d have told it with a greater measure of commitment and precision. Instead, they’ve simply slung together the thinnest of genre conventions, seasoning the insubstantial and somewhat poisonous brew with men’s magazine pulpisms and a nod to the New York film thrillers of the period. It’s a combination of the stupefyingly obvious and the tiresomely ultramasculine which results in the likes of the comic’s groan-inducing final few lines;

Kovacs:-  The muggers … They made a mistake.
Waitress:- Meaning that you didn’t have anything on you …
Kovacs;- Meaning I’m not dead.

Where Moore and Gibbons playfully and purposefully examined the Mr A stereotype of the remorseless, unstoppable super-brute, Azzarello and Bermejo revel in the chance to roll out all the tropes of the little-guy-fights-back revenge fantasy. It’s a process that suggests that both men either simply didn’t understand Moore and Gibbons work, or that they thoroughly disagreed with both its methods and its values. Why, beyond the obvious inducements, did DC commission this team to work on this title with this story? Watchman remains one of the finest examples of a sadly almost inconspicuous genre, namely the superhero comicbook of ideas. It’s not concerned with any spurious representation of reality, but it is clearly focused on how we come to frame our preconceptions of what reality is. By contrast, Rorschach is a depressingly stupid and reactionary book, concerned not to make us think so much as to revel in the uber-masculinity of it all, and that’s as true for Bermejo’s art as it is for Azzarello’s scripts. What have they actually added to – rather than removed from – Moore and Gibbon’s work? Tapping into the visual iconography of Seventies film – from The Wanderers to Taxi Driver – isn’t a sign of innovation and challenging thinking so much as the post-modern equivilant of desperately stuffing a rotting chicken full of a host of hastily selected, taste-masking spices.
that he wanted to make the Watchmen characters “vital again”,  did he understand “vital” to mean banally chauvinistic and dead-heartedly vicious? Did he somehow think that the characters in the original Watchmen had ceased to be “vital” because, for example, Moore and Gibbons had carelessly forgotten to include dead, debased and yet still-shapely bottoms and breasts in their original work? Could it be that someone believes that Watchmen failed to present Rorschach’s excesses in a sympathetic enough way for the tastes of today’s hang-them-all readers?

Could there possibly be a person so crass that they regard Rorschach’s disordered behaviour as an opportunity to exalt rather than question our culture’s adoration of frontier justice?

Yet Rorschach #1 has all the signs of a product created quite specifically to pander to exactly the same prejudices that Watchmen itself was designed in part to challenge. In some ways, that would be a preferable explanation to one founded on the belief that this is the work of men who are enthusiastically and wholeheartedly expressing their creative ambitions and abilities. Better, I suspect, this be cynical rather than sincere.

At least then the creators have a hope of producing better work in the future.

Rorschach should appear to be far more offensive than it does, but it’s so obviously pathetic when compared to Watchmen itself that it’s hard to do anything more than sneer. It certainly is as abhorrent as it’s inept, and yet, what better karma could there be for its creators, than for everyone to know that they’ve produced this? There’s little point in worrying too much about lambasting either writer or artist further when they’ve already done so much to damage their own reputations. For Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen was a glorious opportunity to deconstruct and celebrate the superhero sub-genre. By contrast, Azzarello and Bermejo’s Rorschach is a profoundly unambitious, smugly self-satisfied, sexist, torture-celebrating, macho-centred con-trick. It’s shockingly poor work, it really is, and that’s even by the standards of the pitiful Before Watchmen line as a whole.

By your own works etc etc …

Faced with the choice of pissing hard or not pissing at all, everyone involved in Rorschach # 1 has opted to do neither. A little distasteful puddle of a comic book is all they’ve managed to squeeze through, although from all the smugness and hype, you’d be forgiven for believing that it’s the very best that they could possibly achieve.

But, no, Rorschach’s so wretched a comic that that couldn’t be possibly be true. Could anyone be as shamelessly heartless and stupid as this?

Not by BA and LB

Other, predominantly positive reviews of Rorschach #1 are also available, as can be seen here, here and here.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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