“Watchmen” and the Queering of Rorschach

Whenever I teach Watchmen (which is often around this time of the semester), my students always offer up some brilliant nuggets of observation or analysis that I had not considered before. Sometimes it’s about a panel or series of panels, sometimes it’s about narrative structure, sometimes it’s historical insight. I take some pride in knowing a lot of things about comics, but I don’t profess to be the Most Knowledgeable or someone who has all the answers.

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Today, I pressed them on the character of Rorschach. I got some interesting answers, among them the theory that in Chapter VI, “The Abyss Gazes Back,” Rorschach himself could be the abyss, which is interesting given the number of panels that feature Rorschach just looking dead-on into the reader’s eyes (I think there are more of these kinds of shots than in any other chapter). I’m super proud of them for coming up with that – I hadn’t considered it before. But another thing I prompted them to talk about was the queering (academically speaking) of Rorschach. Rorschach as a character is violent, misogynistic, and has a level of morality we would formally consider “grey.” All of these are typical hallmarks of comic book masculinity (at least, traditionally). But despite falling into categories of violent masculinity, there are moments in the text that challenge the categorization of Rorschach, and in this post, I’ll talk about how the queering of Rorschach assists in that frustration of categories throughout Watchmen. Whether or not Rorschach is actually a gay male is, in my opinion, impossible to determine given the evidence. Instead, I will be analyzing the homophobic slurs thrown at him as well as the backstory of his mask to argue that Moore and Gibbons use queerness as a signal of difference that informs our reading of Rorschach’s antiheroism throughout the entire graphic novel.

***Warnings for homophobia and violence below, including slurs and graphic images.***

For me, all this really needs to begin with the backstory of Rorschach’s mask. In Chapter V of Watchmen, right at the end when Rorschach is set up and captured at Moloch’s house, he famously screams as the policemen reveal his true identity: “No! My face! Give it back!”

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In this panel, it’s pretty apparent that Rorschach regards the mask as his true face, not the flesh that lies beneath it. In Chapter VI, we see a brief few panels where Rorschach tells Dr. Long about making his mask out of a woman’s dress:

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There’s an obvious disdain for women in this scene – Rorschach calls his job unpleasant because he has to handle female clothing. He also describes his process of reshaping the dress as rendering it less feminine: he shapes it so it doesn’t “look like a woman” and stuffs it in a trunk (a description that gives me serious serial killer vibes). But on top of that, Rorschach acknowledges something beautiful about the dress, and when he finally makes it into a mask, he refers to it in the following manner:

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In describing the transformation, he does not say that the dress is just fabric (since by this point, he’s reshaped it so it no longer is a dress), but openly acknowledges it as the remains of a dress – “her” dress (which, on some level, is another misogynistic stab in that the dress is in tatters, but also shows that Rorschach doesn’t have ownership over it quite yet. Or, in a more radical reading, is an unclear pronoun reference: it isn’t “my” dress, for example. Is it the woman who requested it made? Kovacs himself?).

The dress is especially relevant given the identity of the woman who ordered it made (thanks to commenter JL below for pointing it out). In the panels above, Kovacs picks up a paper that details the murder of Kitty Genovese, and he immediately recognizes the name as the “owner” of the rejected dress. The Genovese murder is most known as an example of the “bystander effect,” and in the comic, Rorschach certainly takes issue with Genovese’s onlookers – in fact, he explicitly states that his distaste for these people who did nothing is what motivates him to reject humanity as a whole and pull out the dress/mask after its initial creation. However, Rorschach’s adoption of the mask also resonates with queer history and trauma. Most often ignored in mainstream coverage of the Kitty Genovese case is her life as a lesbian. At the time of Genovese’s murder, she lived in an apartment with her romantic partner, Mary Ann Zielonko, and there is some debate as to whether her murder and the inaction of the bystanders constituted a hate crime (to my knowledge, the attacker only confessed to wanting to kill a woman, not specifically a LGBT+ one). While Genovese’s sexuality is not alluded to in the comic, it is always looming in the background, especially when read in tandem with the homophobic slurs thrown at Rorschach at the end of Chapter V:

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Of course, there’s no way to confirm that the cops know Rorschach’s mask is made out of a dress, much less Genovese’s dress, and if they did, there would be (slight) implications of drag in these panels. But even so, there’s a kind of queering of Rorschach here. He’s a man running around wearing an article of female clothing, one he refers to as his face, not his disguise. That dress belonged (in part) to a lesbian who was the victim of murder, possibly motivated by homophobia. The comic makes no claims to Rorschach’s sexuality, but even so, Moore and Gibbons use Rorschach’s mask as a sign of difference, tapping into associations between queerness and deviance in order to communicate the extent to which readers should feel repulsed by his actions. Queerness has, historically, been associated with sexual deviance, a defiance of heteronormativity. Adrienne Rich writes of lesbian experience and its relegation to the “fringes” of sexual desire, writing that “the bias of compulsory heterosexuality [means that] lesbian experience is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible” (quoted on this blog). The reason for this, as Marshall Clinard and Robert Meier summarize, is due to social norms: “Society creates a deviant category of homosexuality by initiating and reinforcing sexual norms that pertain to orientations and behavior involving same-gender sex… [homosexuality] becomes [deviant] as a result of a purposive social process that establishes such a definition” (pg 406). Though there is a focus on sexual behavior, there is a social element to viewing homosexuality as deviance. By viewing homosexuality as a deviation from the norm, it’s a short jump to viewing homosexuality (and all queerness, really) as a sign of difference from well-regulated society. It is this association that prompts the cops to label Rorschach as queer when they arrest him. Rorschach’s social and legal behavior is outside the norm: his refusal to comply with the law (particularly the Keene Act) and his violent vigilantism (which characters describe in monstrous or ableist terms, all with a tone of distain) serves as evidence that he must be sexually deviant as well. Jamie Hughes picks up on how his social behavior is in line with the abhorrence attributed to homosexual behavior, writing that “many of the characters in the novel (superhero and normal citizen alike) view him as unclean, disturbing, and somewhat psychotic” (quoted in this article). That his mask is a lesbian woman’s dress only compounds this effect – it’s a more tangible representation of his social outsiderness.

But with his mask invoking a moment of queer trauma, Moore and Gibbons also compound the extent to which trauma has shaped Rorschach’s outlook on the world. Famously, Rorschach’s early life is filled with damaging moments, from being bullied to his prostitute mother wishing she had aborted Kovacs before birth. It seems, then, that Rorschach is entirely shaped by trauma, and even his mask invokes it. I would hesitate to say that Watchmen takes a positive approach to queer trauma, however, since the term itself didn’t appear until the 1990s and Rorschach can hardly be considered a clear-cut case of positive representation for LGBT+ characters in comics. However, this moment does contribute to the overall theme of trauma that scholars and bloggers alike have identified in Watchmen as a whole.

Rorschach’s queering and the intertextuality of his mask/queer trauma is not an isolated moment, nor do I think it’s a throwaway detail to make the comic seem gritty and edgy. Moore and Gibbons pay excruciating amounts of attention to detail in Watchmen, and I think these allusions to queerness fit in with the larger aim to undo categorization and easy binarization in the world of the comic. Foundational queer theory applies such breakdowns in terms of gender and sexuality, blurring the boundaries between heterosexual and homosexual, male and female. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes that “the dividing up of all sexual acts – indeed all persons – under the ‘opposite’ categories of ‘homo’ and ‘hetero’ is not a natural given but a historical process, still incomplete today and ultimately impossible but characterized by potent contradictions and explosive effects” (quoted on this blog). Indeed, we can see a deliberate effort to make binary categories throughout the graphic novel, though not necessarily in terms of gender and sexuality. The first clue we can trace to Rorschach’s mask involves the material used to make it. When he sees the liquid move around, he admirably notes that it is “black and white. Moving. Changing shape… but not mixing. No grey.” In one sense, this material reflects Rorschach’s outlook on the world: he sees the world as rather black and white (though, to be fair, a little more black – everyone is part of a rotten and evil society. We see that on the next page), and he likes to think of his actions in rather black-and-white terms. For him, his methods are justified by the end result. Hurting people is ok if it cleans up the streets, even if just a little bit. But that in itself is a contradiction: Rorschach is not a makeup of black and white actions, nor is he easily categorized as a “hero” or a “villain.” He is morally grey – he pursues what we may call “good,” but his violence and misogyny push him more and more into a grey area where good and evil are not so clear cut. As readers, we may abhor his excessive violence, the way he speaks to female characters, etc. but there is also a sense of satisfaction that we feel when he kills Gerald Grice (at least, to some extent).

This moral grey area ties in to the idea of queerness in rather interesting ways. If we read “queer” as a thwarting of categories and marker of difference, then Rorschach, I think, is queered in the graphic novel. He is neither hero nor villain, for one. As a masked vigilante, he more comfortably fits into the realm of anti-hero, but even that in itself can be seen as a disruption of clear dichotomies (the line constantly has to be renegotiated for every antihero, and there’s significant debate as to whether some anti-heroes as heroes at all). He also refuses to discontinue his vigilantism, neither coming out publicly (via revealing his identity) or remaining “in the closet” (via retiring without revealing identity, as Dan Dreiberg does). Resisting queer theory’s inclination to set parameters on what it means to be “queer,” David Halperin writes, “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence” (quoted on this blog). Charles E. Bressler’s overview of queer theory simplifies the last sentence of this quote by reading, “our personal identities are unstable and in constant flux, that we must not allow society to shape our identities and to instead, declare our identities by our acts who we are” (quoted in this article). If we apply this position to Rorschach, then yes, we do see him enacting exactly what Halperin identifies: a transgression of what is normal (can you call his behavior normal?), legitimate (he is a vigilante), and dominant (look at the comic book historical landscape at the time). He acts the way he wants to act, not allowing the law or public opinion to prevent him from punishing the wicked. The reference to the mask’s origin and the use of homophobic slurs only reinforce what is already in the reader’s face from the onset of the graphic novel – that Rorschach is a force that, for all his insistence on a black-and-white world, defies categorization and deviates from norms.

But the added dimension of trauma and hate crime also ensures that we recognize the degree to which dominant social structures inflict harm. If we read Rorschach as a queered character whose identity is shaped by queer trauma, then his rejection of the law and his violent vigilantism appears to be an inevitable reaction to his early life. “Normalcy,” in this comic, has inflicted harm on Rorschach as a character, and his thwarting of the normal enables him to fight back against the status quo in the comic – rejecting what is normal and dominant in the world’s overall power structures.

This reading of Rorschach is in no way meant to be a method of championing LGBT+ inclusion or representation in Watchmen. Rather, my goal has been to illustrate how these small details – these references to an unstable sexual identity – help reinforce the larger goal of the graphic novel: to present to us a world whose characters not only break from norms, but resist attempts to define them with conventional (superhero) categories. While not necessarily the epitome of LGBT+ friendliness, Watchmen rarely includes details like the dress and the use of “queer” by mistake. It is my hope, then, that this post has prompted a little more thought on the ways in which queerness is being used as a tool, one that may or may not align with ideas of what is “unproblematic.” Regardless, it’s worth paying attention to.

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5 thoughts on ““Watchmen” and the Queering of Rorschach

  1. I was surprised this post made no mention that Kitty Genovese was a lesbian and her death was most likely a hate crime. I think it ties in with your ideas!

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    • Thanks for the feedback! I completely blanked on this! I may revisit this post and add some thoughts, in light of your comment. I guess I was so focused on what my students were discussing about Rorschach that I forgot about the context/inspiration for the origin story!

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  2. Pingback: What else to say about Watchmen? | Nothing But Comics

  3. Despite the fact that I have a great deal of respect for the intelligence and articulation of the author of this article, I have to disagree on almost every point…
    First, there is absolutely nothing unique or interesting about asserting that Rorschach is a repressed homosexual. This is the default assumption of most media-dominated culture, (even sub-cultural groups that congregate around expressions such as comic books), if they encounter a genuinely a-sexual male character.
    And, the assumption itself displays its prejudice; the assumption is that it is impossible for a male to be a non-sexual creature. So, if they are not overtly hetero-sexual, and indeed evince repugnance at sexuality in general, then they must be gay.
    This is to say almost nothing of the meta-prejudice underlying the more over one; the assumption that human beings in general cannot be a-sexual.
    I think that another tangent mentioned early in the article is closer to the mark; and aligns with my own concept of Rorschach’s character. I mean the typification of Rorschach embodying the Abyss itself.
    One thing that Moore makes clear, in his flashbacks dealing with childhood of Walter Kovacs; he was traumatized sexually. While there is no indication that he was sexually molested, his exposure to his mother’s prostitution, and her intermittent attacks on him, scarred him.
    I think it is far more apt to describe Rorschach as a-sexual; but that his a-sexuality is motivated by what he learned about human sexuality in his formative years. As such, he never developed any sexuality of his own. He has suspended himself in a state of indeterminacy. From the standpoint of personal phenomenology, this could make him the ideal human embodiment of at least the encounter with the Abyss; if not the Abyss itself.

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    • Thank you for your comment – I do think it’s appropriate to read Rorschach in the context of asexuality, and there’s plenty of evidence for such a reading. I like your point that a lot of Rorschach’s trauma (especially during childhood) stems from sexual situations and he later seems to be uninterested in sexual attraction – I do think this informs a particular reading of the character, particularly his detachedness from others as an adult.

      I do want to point out that my main argument in this piece is not that Rorschach is a repressed gay male (I do explicitly state that it’s impossible to determine his sexual identity for sure, given the evidence). Rather, I hoped to highlight how more so than the other characters, Rorschach is the subject of a lot of homophobic remarks and queer citations, which dovetails with his status as an anti-hero and character that resists easy categorization. In other words: queerness is a metaphor in this comic for Rorschach’s particular vigilantism (whether that’s a “positive” thing or not, whether that uses LGBT+ themes well or not, is not my interest in this post – I’m more interested in how things work than evaluating how well things are used). Given our culture’s use of coding villains and some anti-heroes as queer to highlight their difference from regular heroes, I think reading Rorschach as a point at which all these things converge is interesting. That doesn’t make him by default a repressed gay male, in my opinion, but it does put him at the center of LGBT+ themes in the comic, whether or not he is actually gay, asexual, straight, bisexual, etc. Rorschach is, undeniably, coded as “different” in the comic (in many, many ways), and I hoped to show that all the queer citations can be the comic’s way of highlighting his overall difference from the “norms” (compared to characters like Laurie, Dan, etc) – not as a way of identifying his exact sexual orientation. Given the evidence you cite, I do think Rorschach can be read as asexual, but I also think asexuality is a kind of queerness and deviates from the norm of “compulsory heterosexuality” that dominates much of pop culture. Whether or not asexuality should be interpreted as part of LGBT+ discourse or its own category is another argument, and how it applies to Rorschach can be very fruitful.

      That being said, my reading is just one of many. I’m entirely open to different readings and engaging in thoughtful discussion. I’m intrigued by your point about Rorschach being essentially suspended in a state of indeterminacy, of being the abyss, etc. I’m wondering how (or if?) those things relate to deviance and how it positions Rorschach as in-between (or outside of?) heroism and villainy. I’m wondering how absence works in the comic and how that absence is (mis)interpreted by other characters – and maybe even by the authors and readers themselves.

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