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Watchmen & The Tyger (lit essay)

Posted on February 12, 2013 at 8:25 AM

Watchmen (1987) is a twelve-issue comic series, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It depicts an alternate history of the world in which superheroes began emerging in the 1940s and 50s, and aided the United States government during the Cold War. The series itself is set during the 1980s, after the Watchmen have been outlawed and disbanded by a totalitarian American government, and the nation readies itself for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Moore contrasts the fantasy of the superhero mythos, with the vicious reality of urban crime and the nuclear age. The sublime manifests itself in Moore’s characters, each of whom aspires to uphold a childlike notion of good and evil, while having to face the infinite shades of grey that make up postmodern society. Throughout the comics, Moore makes numerous literary allusions, particularly to William Blake, and his 1794 poem The Tyger.


The fifth book in series is titled “Fearful Symmetry”, and centres on the character Rorschach, an effective, but deeply nihilistic crime-fighter. Though super-heroes have been outlawed by the state, Rorschach continues to stalk the streets of Manhattan, guarding its citizens, and punishing its criminals. By quoting Blake’s poem, Moore is making a clear link between Rorschach and the Tyger. Both figures inspire a mixture of awe and fear in their surrounding environment, and often in the reader. While guided by unwavering moral principle, Rorschach is a deeply violent and disturbed individual. His hatred of criminals sometimes erupts into a blind, murderous rage. Like the Tyger, Rorschach’s appearance provides a stark contrast with his environment. Slight in stature, garbed in a fedora and trench coat, Rorschach would usually blend into the monotonous drone of urban decay, were it not for the strange mask he wears. Wrapped around his head is a sheet of white material, with a black ink stain printed across the face. The ink stain seems to change shape every cell, depending on who is viewing it, yet constantly maintains a symmetrical pattern. It is a clear nod to the Roschach test practiced by psychologists, and echoes the symmetrical black and yellow symmetry of the tiger.


Like Blake’s Tyger, Rorschach is beyond all description and understanding. His mental and spiritual landscapes are a mystery. It isn’t even clear whether he is sane or not. He may only seek to punish criminality to expel his own bloodlust, rather than the pursuit of any moral code. Or perhaps he is aware of his own spiritual violence, and has crafted a superhero identity in order to harness it against those who deserve his wrath. Neither his allies, his enemies, nor his therapist are able to capture who he truly is, and in this ambiguous, enigmatic nature, lies Rorschach’s sublime presence. Moore has written the character as though he is a predator, and rather than being his home, Manhattan serves as his hunting grounds. He stalks criminals from the shadows, and when his mask is off, he walks beside them on the street. He is everywhere and he is nowhere. The boundaries of his physical presence are blurred to the point where criminals see him even when he isn’t there.  They see him in the architecture of the city, and in the shifting night air, ready to pounce on them like a carnivorous beast.


Rorschach’s mask is inextricably tied to his crime-fighting aura, and his own fractured psyche. The symmetry of the ink blots symbolise his two conflicting natures – life-saver and killer. They also symbolise his dual identities – the masked Rorschach, and man behind the mask, Walter Kovacs. Unlike other superheroes, however, Rorschach considers his mask to be his true face, to the point where removing it is like have his skin flayed off.


Because the mask contains a Rorschach inkblot, its image changes depending of who is looking at it. It inspires terror in criminals, and hope in their victims. The mask, and Rorschach by extension, is a blank canvas, devoid of human feature or emotion. He is the abyss, and people project their innermost thoughts and fears into him. This indistinct form and constantly transforming and dissolving identity are emblematic of the sublime experience. Rorschach has crafted this persona specifically because it inspires awe, and an irrational fear in his enemies. Like the character of Batman, Rorschach alters and embellishes his precence through deception and theatricality, forming an irrational fear in his prey. He represents one of the rare instances in which we as readers are exposed to the inner monologue of the predator, the abyss.


Rorschach’s psychology is deeply fractured. Part of him is hopeful, determined to uphold moral order. But part of him is deeply cynical about human nature, having observed all of the atrocities of urban crime, and worse still, the apathy of everyday people in the face of this moral decay. Rorschach is a violent, brutal and mentally unstable person. Yet the identity he crafts is a symbol of justice, and inspires a measure of hope amongst Manhattan’s civilian populace. His mind resides somewhere between Walter Kovacs (the man he was born as, but rejects) and Rorschach (the man he created, and regards as his true self). This liminal, grey area in which his psyche rests is emblematic of the “fearful symmetry” Blake alluded to in his poem.


Rorschach’s horror is unmistakable, especially when he descends into blind rage. In one scene, he discovers the dead body of a little girl, having promised her parents he would find her safely. When the killer admits his crime, showing no remorse whatsoever, Rorschoch’s explodes with anger, and butchers the man with an axe. Whatever morsel of satisfaction we may feel for seeing a child-killer punished, is quickly evaporated in the midst of Rorschach’s psychotic violence. The euphoria of Rorschach’s presence is more difficult to locate, but it is certainly tied to his moral code. Rorschach is the only character is the series that refuses to compromise. He seeks the truth and justice above all, even at the cost of his own soul.


Categories: ESSAYS, Literature

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