“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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3 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

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