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DC’s Rorschach: A detective walks into a world shaped by squids and superheroes

Thank you for giving me something to look forward to, DC Comics.
Enlarge / Thank you for giving me something to look forward to, DC Comics.
Nathan Mattise
Warning: Though we’ll take great pains not to spoil anything important from DC’s ongoing Rorschach comic, some of the story’s events will be lightly referenced, given this is a review of sorts.

After the magnetic nine-episode run of HBO’s Watchmen back in 2019… well, Alan Moore be damned. The creator may completely reject all adaptations of his seminal comic, but I will happily be indulging in any and all of ’em from here on. So when DC capitalized on that goodwill in summer 2020 and announced a standalone Rorschach comic, I planned to get into an ongoing series for the first time in a decade (the New 52 Batwoman was great in 2011).

Rorschach, from writer Tom King, artist Jorge Fornés, and colorist Dave Stewart, loosely follows the formula set by HBO’s Watchmen miniseries—the original comic acts as canon, and this story takes place years later. In fact, the happenings of Rorschach appear to take place several years after the events of the TV series, too. In issue one, an investigator makes explicit reference to the popularity of Rorschach masks “even after Oklahoma.”

But halfway through the story’s 12-issue run, there’s an important distinction between Rorschach and those other two works: the superhuman element has been largely set aside. Similar to the pivot Stranger Things made when transitioning to novel formRorschach takes a familiar universe and applies a different genre lens. Two would-be assassins with Rorschach masks had been gunned down before they could take out the “America for Americans” presidential candidate challenging Robert Redford, and the prints on one of them seem to match the long-deceased Walter Kovacs. We the readers get to follow along with an unnamed detective taking up the case, essentially meaning this is the start of a classic detective noir packed with character interviews and flashbacks.

And in a year-plus where looking forward to anything has been rare, each subsequent issue of Rorschach has guaranteed at least one monthly bright spot on the calendar.

Squid drops, not Q drops

One of the hallmarks of any Watchmen work worth its salt is a willingness to grapple with its time. Alan Moore has explicitly said the 1980s original was a critique of the conservative politics of Reagan and Thatcher. Just a few years ago in the height of the Trump administration, the TV series explored police violence, white nationalism, and how American society at large grapples with our living history of racism.

Set in 2020, Rorschach so far appears to have conspiracy theorists and an America-first movement within its sights. Once again, the iconography of Rorschach has been co-opted by fringe groups. Instead of white supremacists, this time it’s… people who appear to believe that squids are still out there and that they have the ability to infect and corrupt a human’s mind. While you might assume the political assassination attempt playing out in the series’ first panels would involve such a nut going after the liberal ideals of long-serving president Robert Redford, well, the opposite happens. Someone in a mask tries to take down GOP presidential candidate Governor Turley, the first serious contender to Redford in decades.

Who are these masked would-be assassins, and why are they targeting the candidate with nationalist tendencies? What’s this iteration of Watchmen trying to say about present-day society? And why does this detective story even need to leverage Watchmen as its language? Through six installments, there has been plenty to think about, even if answers to those questions haven’t been entirely clear. “Like the HBO Watchmen show and very much like the original ‘86 Watchmen, this is a very political work,” King said back when the series was announced. “It’s an angry work. We’re so angry all the time now. We have to do something with that anger. It’s called Rorschach not because of the character Rorschach but because what you see in these characters tells you more about yourself than about them.”

Without any major spoilers, the identity of the two shooters isn’t secret for long, but the story of how they come together and what may have motivated their plan slowly and confidently unfolds issue by issue. (It’s very much still unfolding as issue seven drops this week.) So far, King, Fornés, and Stewart have crafted such a compelling central detective noir, the lack of definites won’t deter you. You simply trust a payoff is coming given the care being exhibited as the backstory and beliefs of these would-be assassins get fleshed out.

Reviewing an in-progress book is like trying to review a TV season after episode 5 or 6—a lot of a viewer’s ultimate feelings will be determined by how things wrap up. For now, Rorschach stays gripping and pleasurable because of the craft involved. King has long been a must-read author in modern comics, to the point that creator Ava DuVernay was set to partner with him on New Gods film for DC and Warner Bros. His overall story and individual speech proves consistently engaging. Like the original comic and the TV series, Rorschach varies the way it conveys information to readers. There are audio tapes from a seance, letters between the two shooters, and comic panels from works in this story’s universe. I particularly enjoyed Rorschach #3, which found our detective heading to the rural hometown of one of the suspects and following their footsteps through passages of a diary. King also cleverly weaves in memorable moments from the original Watchmen to add new context to those familiar images and connect Rorschach to its inspiring text.

And if that last aspect really appeals to you, there’s a lot of subtext in Rorschach waiting for those more steeped in comics history. Even a cursory Google search reveals that one of this series’ main characters (and their creations) seems to have been created in the image of legendary Marvel creator Steve Ditko. A certain dark-and-gritty comic creator that Alan Moore would likely scoff at also seems destined to make an appearance.

Fornés and Stewart’s art will often stop you in your tracks. Though this has the characteristic gray-and-black color palette of a gritty detective story, splashes of vibrant color regularly pop through. Every issue seems to have a full- or half-page singular panel where the art does all the talking, stopping you in your tracks to soak in a particularly “whoa” moment.  After initially reading Rorschach #1 digitally, I have not regretted changing course and ordering physical copies of every issue. (Lord knows your local comics shop can use the steady visits, too; shout-out to Austin Books & Comics.)

Payday was Friday, so Rorschach #7 is now safely en route to my coffee table. If it has been a while since you took the plunge and followed a comic in real time, there’s never been a better moment to have such a regular hit of excitement you can plan on. Yes, you’ll have to get readjusted to the ol’ cliffhanger cadence of month-to-month comic reading (well, if you’re not also concurrently watching Amazon’s Invincible, that is), but each issue will reward you for taking your time and being willing to revisit certain passages and visuals. In 2021, a little positive anticipation happens to be a lot of fun.