My chiropractor likes to chat while he is manipulating my spine. Whether he does this out of a natural garrulousness or to distract me from the wrenching and popping sensations I have never been quite sure. Usually, he tells jokes. Most recently, however, he mentioned that he had seen the Watchmen movie. Having never read the graphic novel, he found the story overly
long and drawn out. To me, coming from the opposite perspective, certain parts of the film (mostly notably the section dealing with Rorschach’s origin) seemed needlessly truncated. Without my having even brought him up, my chiropractor singled out Jackie Earle Haley (who he remembered as a child star) as exceptional. While Haley’s Rorschach was as good as I had hoped it would be, certain aspects of his performance, and the directorial decisions behind it, gave me pause.
Rorschach as drawn is a largely emotionless figure. His voice is described as a creepy monotone. Even during the psychiatric interview sections, his unmasked face remains unchanging and expressionless. While Moore’s Rorschach is capable of humor (see his prison confrontation with Big Figure, reproduced almost exactly in the film) and even a certain lyricism, his face and his body language remain void of affect for much of the graphic novel. This makes his rare displays of fury and anguish, at his unmasking and at his death, even more disturbing.
Haley’s Rorschach is not emotionless. There is a scene in which he holds his masked face in his hands, despairing over Veidt’s betrayal, something Moore’s character would never do. In fact, Haley’s whole performance conveys a sense of barely suppressed emotion. His Rorschach shrugs and twitches. He fidgets and paces the floor. When Haley’s Rorschach hacks child molester Gerald Grice to death with the meat cleaver–rather than simply leaving him to burn, as in the original–the moment owes more to Jim Thompson or Andrew Vachss than it does to Alan Moore. Far from being a cipher, this Rorschach is simply a man whose eyes have been forcibly opened to the brutality and meaninglessness of existence. He’s a man with impossible standards confronting an imperfect world. A noir hero, in other words. While this interpretation can be read into the graphic novel, it is not, in my opinion at least, the complete picture.
It’s also worth remembering that Moore’s Rorschach is not an entirely original creation. All of the characters in Watchmen are loosely based on the heroes of Charlton Comics, which had been acquired by DC in 1983. More specifically, Rorschach is based on The Question, a faceless vigilante created in 1967 by legendary comics artist Steve Ditko. While I am not directly familiar
with Charlton’s Question, I was a big fan of the DC reboot, which ran for thirty-six issues between 1987 and 1990. Drawn by Denys Cowan and scripted by Dennis O’Neil, the series (along with the concurrent Green Arrow reboot) became a soap box for the writer’s twin obsessions, Zen mysticism and martial practice as a path to enlightenment. O’Neil’s Question fights to master himself as well as to defeat evil. In truth, I owe Dennis O’Neil a lot. My interest in archery, my introduction to the works of Eugen Herrigel, my years of tai chi. All these things began with The Question.
Like The Question, Rorschach’s mask has no human features. When we look at them, we see ourselves more than we see what lies behind. Jackie Earle Haley and director Zach Snyder saw a fiercely moral man at war with an amoral world. Dennis O’Neil saw man in search of himself. Alan Moore saw nothing more or less than a man who had stared evil in the face too hard and too long. What do you see? What kind of man are you? That is the real question. And no one knows the answer but you.