Thursday, August 07, 2008

Watchmen Book Club: Chapter I

Chapter I: "At Midnight All The Agents..."

So we open, in 1985, on that iconic image of the bloodied Smiley Face button which is being flushed down into the sewers. The blood's from the unfortunate corpse of one Edward Blake, who came down to ground level from his high-rise apartment building the hard way. The detectives investigating the scene figure it must have taken someone awfully strong to pick up the beefy Blake and toss him through his window. The cops don't want to pursue it, but lucky for us we have Rorschach, the masked vigilante and resolute misanthrope. After discovering that Blake's secret -- that he had been the man behind the masked avenger The Comedian -- Rorschach fairly quickly comes to the conclusion that there might be someone out there rubbing out "masks." Superheroing has been outlawed, we learn, ever since the Keene Act in 1977, with only a handful (the Comedian being one of them) who continue to operate in service to the government. Rorschach operates outside the law, as both vigilante and phantom.

Working off of his hypothesis, Rorschach pays visits to Dan Drieberg, the former Nite Owl, who hung up his costume back in '77 and has retreated into a life of quiet pointlessness (Dan occasionally has drinks with Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, and reminisces about the old days); millionaire self-promoter Adrian Veidt, who cashed in on his fame as the "world's smartest man" and built a corporate empire around himself; and the superhuman, super-blue, super-naked Dr. Manhattan, who is also in the employ of the government, tinkering with the very fabric of the universe and keeping the Soviets at bay. Dr. Manhattan's live-in lady friend is Laurie Juspeczyk, the former Silk Spectre who inherited that mantle from her mother
and rejected it (and her) a long time ago. Rorschach's message to them all is simple: "Watch your backs." Oh, and also, "You're all total sellouts for giving up on fighting crime."

So let's discuss...

-- Rorschach's utter inability to give even the slightest break to anyone in the entire universe strikes me as so darkly funny. But it also strikes a sharp contrast to the whole genre, doesn't it? He's not in it to save people -- he even fantasizes about the city calling for his help and telling them no -- and he's certainly not in it for the idea that mankind is redeemable. So what's he in it for? I don't even think he knows.

-- Can we talk about the quotable Rorschach for a minute? "This awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children." "The dusk reeks of fornication and bad consciences." I feel like there should be t-shirts. Any other faves I missed?

-- I also love how absolutely mundane the adventuring vocation can seem through the eyes of people like Dreiberg and Mason. Mason talking about running into the Screaming Skull, who ended up finding Jesus and settling down with a wife and kids, for example.

-- The excerpt from Mason's book, "Behind the Mask," is similarly mystique-bursting. Mason seemed like more of an idealist, but it's interesting to place his motivations -- indeed his politics -- up against people like Rorschach, Veidt, Manhattan, the Comedian. It's something to consider going forward.

-- We get our knowledge of time and place in bits and pieces as we go along: Ford is (still) vice-president; Dr. Manhattan has given the U.S. nuclear superiority over the Russians since '65; the Comedian was putting down Marxist rebellions in South America; the Keene Act outlawed superheroes in 1977. Pieces in a puzzle.

That's enough from me, though. Get to talking!

Next book club entry: Monday, August 11


dan mac said...

So what's he in it for? I don't even think he knows.

Hard to get at this without revealing full knowledge of the story, but I'll keep specific elements out. Hope that's fair.

I think Rorschach wants to see bad people suffer, and wants to be the one to make it happen. All people disgust him, but criminals and evil-doers seem to disgust him more. Helping others and saving the world through his work as an instrument of punishment is incidental.

It's also suggested that he's as bad as the people he punishes, and that's a role he embraces. I think he feels he exists to make the hard choices other heroes won't, which is a fairly common comic theme (hello The Dark Knight). He's fighting fire with fire, confronting bad with worse. He's the only one holding a straight, clear line between black and white, and he won't compromise, ever. I think he sees that as his place in the universe, as a counterweight to the heroes who have grown to accept the world as it is.

It also explains his affinity for The Comedian, another man who chose his role, moral and otherwise, and accepted it wholly.

Anonymous said...

Rorschach strikes me as a bit sociopathic actually, but one who happens to take out his bad tendencies on people that are worse than him, making him, if not necessarily a "good" guy, a "better" guy.

Then again, I'm actually reading this for the first time, so I don't know how it ends!

Anonymous said...


I just wanted to let you know that your dad is walking around work today bragging about your latest news.

Good for you! We're all very proud of you here - your dad is always saying wonderful things about all four of you. He's even got me reading your blog and TWoP (I almost hate to admit it, but I'm a Project Runway junkie).

Nice to hear about your new success. Have fun moving, yet again.


Jon said...

So what's he in it for? I don't even think he knows.
He's fighting fire with fire, confronting bad with worse. He's the only one holding a straight, clear line between black and white, and he won't compromise, ever.
Rorschach was based on The Question, a Charlton Comics character created in the mid-'60s. (Many of the characters in Watchmen have Charlton analogs.) And Dan's nailed the Question's primary characteristic -- he's absolutely uncompromising, refusing to waver from his principles in even the slightest degree. Meanwhile, the world around him is full of men who are almost entirely amoral schemers, willing to go along with whatever the popular will is while secretly working to their own advantage. He cares about right and wrong, in that he's certain that what he believes is Right and what other people believe is Wrong, but he has no use for concepts like "compassion" or "empathy."

But the interesting thing about the Question as it relates to Rorschach is that the Question was made bearable by the fact that he had a small crew of people who agreed with him and supported him -- it made him seem more human. Whereas Rorschach is completely alone. It really is him against the world.

"Lady" Bea said...

I think Rorschach is my favorite character. I mean, I wouldn't want to HANG OUT with him, but he's fascinating to me in the same way that Dexter (from "Dexter") is. He's certainly not trying to improve the world out of any sort of affection for it. I'm interested in his investment in the Comedian, since given Laurie's allegations, he wasn't the nicest of guys. Are his transgressions overlooked because he was a hero?

LOVING the artwork. I keep staring at the pages where Rorschach scales Blake's building and climbs in the window. Beautiful work. And the scenes where Rorschach and Laurie are talking CRACK ME UP because Dr. Manhattan's big blue ass is in the background of all of them.

I'm, apparently, 12.

sb said...

My favorite Rorschach quote: "Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?" Yes, because Rorschach is a BASTION of mental stability.

What I find interesting about Rorschach, in light of his black-and-white view of the world, is that he doesn't condemn the Comedian for attempting to rape Laurie's mother. It seems to show that he does have the capacity to make compromises, at least under the right circumstances.

Joe Reid said...

[Jennifer: Thanks! My dad's a bragger, what can I say? It's probably where I get my inflated sense of self.]

As for Rorschach, what I find so interesting is that, while humanity totally disgusts him and he's singularly focused on making the all the perverts and lowlifes pay, he's not angry about it. He's got this totally flat affect, yet he's clearly exhibited more zeal for crimefighting, given that he's the one who never gave it up.

His giving the Comedian a pass for trying to rape Laurie's mom isn't surprising (if the guy's out crushing Marxist movements, he's clearly on Rorschach's wavelength, politically), but it's certainly a clear violation of whatever moral code he's supposed to have. Somehow, I doubt he'd appreciate the irony.

dan mac said...

The rape is extremely problematic throughout the novel. Moore suggests over and over (even from Sally herself) that she was somehow inviting this violence which... is abhorrent, and I'm not sure what Moore wanted to achieve by presenting that idea.

Anyway, what I mean is, Laurie is one of the few characters to take her mother's rape seriously, so putting my own beliefs aside and getting into the context of the characters involved, it seems likely that Rorschach is another one who believes Sally Jupiter somehow encouraged this act. I expect he wouldn't view her as a victim, and thus wouldn't look at her abuser as a villain.

In fact (not to get ahead of myself, sorry), we get a lot Rorschach's perspective on people and criminals, and it seems he's only capable of showing compassion for children.

Last night I found one word that describes Rorschach to me as well as any other: fanatic.

Nicole Moore said...

I haven't had sufficient time to digest yet, as I just finished reading a moment ago (I have not read this before), so my thoughts may not be fully formed yet.

With regards to the attempted rape, I think it may also be pertinent that (before speaking to Dr Manhattan and Laurie) he refers to the original Silk Spectre as a "bloated, aging whore." It seems to me that he feels antipathy towards her (for what reason, I don't know) and perhaps finds actions against her to be less distasteful than they would be against a random person.

On a different note, I'm getting the distinct impression that this may be a difficult read for me because I tend to have trouble with narrators/main characters that I find antipathetic (and Rorschach is now joining Raskolnikov at the top of the list). In this case, this is definitely due to my (probably naive) belief in the basic goodness of most people.

Nicole said...

I loved Rorschach's "personality disorder" quote too - a guy who won't even take off his mask completely to eat when he's BY HIMSELF in Drieber's apartment is totally one who should be tossing that one around.

I get the idea that while Rorschach was never "normal" (he did toss the fake villain down an elevator shaft after all) being one of the only ones keeping up the adventuring has done something to him. He's not just angry that everyone else left; they betrayed him too. Kind of like at one point they were all in it together, and now he's the only one left cleaning up this impossibly big mess that is humanity.

aaron said...

I don't want to jump ahead of the story, but I think that Rorshach giving the Comedian a pass for the attempted rape stems from his complete disgust at anything or anyone that is slightly sexualized, especially women. Thus, he can brush off the Comedian's actions as a "moral lapse" and igore the victim that he probably feels as having brought it upon herself for playing up her sexuality.

As for what he is in it for, I think others have hit the nail on hte head noting that he sees himself as the one individual in the world that can uphold some sort of moral order. He won't compromise his own twisted morality.

Other things I find interesting are the stylistic choices and the layers and layers of symbolism that can be found in the book. I love how Laurie is skeeved out by Rorshach's monotone voice, and if you pay attention, you will see how Rorschach's words are never emphasized or capitalized in any manner. His word ballons are always jagged around the edges which could either imply that his voice is muffled by the mask or just grating in some way.

As for symbolism, the idea of a clockface or watch and the related ideas or themes can be found throughtout the book in both obvious and subtle ways. When Rorschach or Dreiberg hold the Comedian's bloodstained smiley button, you have a "face" and "hands" that recall the image of the bloodstained doomsday clock that closes each chapter.

It's these little touches that always have me excited to reread this book, because it rewards the viewer on a number of different levels.

Tamara said...

I get the feeling, too, that much of Rorschach's disdain for the other former adventurers is envy, because for whatever reasons (real or imagined), he would not be able to live a "normal" life.

Of course, this is my first time through, so I don't know how accurate that is. But I do wonder what's under his mask, literally and figuratively, that, like nicole said, he won't even take it off completely to eat when he's BY HIMSELF.

I am so not used to reading graphic novels, and have not read comics since I was a kid, so I really need to pay more attention to the art. Thanks for the reminder, "lady" bea.

Stacey said...

Okay, so after reading everyone else's comments I think I'm going to be the underachiever of the group! I feel like the first time I read any graphic novel I want to get through it and absorb the story. On second reading (for those that warrant it) I take my time and pick up on foreshadowing, themes, character issues and so on. So I apologize for the cliff-notesish tone of my comments.

One of the things that has me thinking about the first chapter is that it gives you no true hero; I'm not sure who to root for yet, if anyone, and that intrigues me. Rorschach is such a puzzle and interested to see what he does next.

As with a lot of my graphic novel reading so far, I feel like I'm missing something when I don't take enough time with artwork so I'm glad there was a page or two with no dialogue.

Mars said...

OK, despite what it may say about me, I'm going to talk about rape.

Rorschach has unbending principles but that doesn't make him noble, just unbending. And he's a product of his world and society, which it's pretty clear in this first chapter is a stagnant version of early 60's mentality. Imagine: the vietnam war clearly won so the liberal movement as we know it didn't have a major flash point to build on. So the US is still carrying it's righteousness from being absolutely correct in WWII.

Bear with me...So, we get an American society that has grown, essentially, from 50's values without anything to challenge those values openly. It seems like civil rights came about in Moore's world, but the people there are still stuck in the early 20th century thinking that brought us such gems as "She deserved it, look at the way she was dressed..."

So. Rorschach, the elder Silk Spectre, and the Comedian are all operating with societal programming that casts the raped woman as some kind of Jezebel, unworthy of our pity or compassion. Plus it's the 80's and I can remember that kind of thinking was still pretty vibrant during that time even in our world.

Hard to read about but it speaks very well of Moore's ability to create a world that's recognizable but subtly different than ours. Touches like that are superb.

Anyway...I think I drifted far from the suggested topics and may have dropped some spoilers, but I very much enjoy discussing this GN, thanks.

Tom said...

The only part of the first chapter I didn't like was the attempted rape. It doesn't seem to make much sense. I guess the writer just wanted a quick way to show that Comedian really wasn't that good of a guy.

As for Rorschach's forgiveness of it. It will make sense eventually as you begin to understand him more (at least for me -- I had an OHHHH, OK moment).

jessica said...

I've never read graphic novels before, so this is something of a challenge. I find it fascinating so far, but as has been mentioned, I'm not sure who I'm rooting for yet. It's frustrating on one hand, because, this being such foreign medium to me, I feel like I would really benefit from a "hero," ironically enough. On the other hand, this really has the set up of one of the great classic mystery novels, where everyone is suspect and nothing is clear. With the graphics, it even feels like film noir. Very cool.

A lot has been said about Rorshach and his views of the rape, but what I found more interesting were Laurie's views. She has an open hostility towards her mother and yet vehemently defends her as a rape victim. I'm not saying these two points are incongruous, but I do find it curious. In those few lines, Moore has made us aware of a very layered and complex relationship.

I was also curious about Laurie's dinner with Dan. It felt ... set up, like it wasn't at all as spontaneous as she claimed to Dr. Manhattan. The swank restaurant, her hot little dress, the undercurrent of the unspoken. I'm interested to see what's going on there.

I loved the excerpt from Mason's book and I hope we get more of it. Laurie and Rorschach alluded to a lot of backstory there.

Also noted: the newspaper on Veidt's desk says "Nuclear Doomsday Clock Stands at Five to Twelve Warn Experts" and "Geneva Talks: US Refuses to Discuss Dr. Manhattan." I expect both of those items to come up later.

Greg said...

I read this chapter last night. I never realized (after reading it at least 3 times before) before how much story work is done in this chapter and how Rorschach basically goes around introducing all of the characters.

I liked how when Rorschach was talking to Veidt he was playing with the Ozy figures on the desk and putting them in weird positions.

I was also impressed with the Under the Hood section by how an author from England can write a book and sound like it is written by an American mechanic.

Also Stacey, you are right there was some big time foreshadowing in this chapter.