SPOILER WARNING: This article contains significant plot and denouement revelations regarding the graphic novel and movie Watchmen.
The moral center of Watchmen, both the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and the new, much-discussed movie based on it premiering today, is a curious and prickly masked vigilante who goes by the name Rorschach.
The surface meaning of the name is visually obvious—his mask contains swirling black blots on white that remind one of the psychological testing mechanism. But applied to his character, the name is both appropriate and ironic.
It’s appropriate in that the character is obsessed with stark duality—black and white—and ironic in that the mushy “it’s whatever you see” vagueness opposes his very definite vision of what’s what in the world: There are good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys deserve to get it, good and hard. Rorschach’s mission, from which he will not diverge, is to give it to them, no matter what the demands of law, government, or social mores. He lives by his objective understanding of right and wrong.
In the original conception of the comic book Watchmen, the characters were going to be old Charlton Comics second-string superheroes that D.C. Comics had won the rights to. In that conception, the Rorschach character would have been The Question—a character created by Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man.
Ditko was a huge fan of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. After getting out from under Stan Lee’s thumb at Marvel Comics he decided to let his Rand flag fly, first with Charlton’s Question and later in his self-published “Mr. A.” That’s A as in, A is A, the essential statement of Randian Aristotelianism. Reality is what it is, Rand held, and an objective set of moral imperatives follow from that. Thus, Rorschach is Moore's vision of an Objectivist superhero.
Ditko's Mr. A is far more dispassionate than Rorschach—he’s a purer representation of a perfect Objectivist as opposed to what a real one might actually be like. (And unlike Rorschach, he doesn’t work in the slightest as an actual believable character one could care about.) When Mr. A refuses to save a kidnapper dangling above certain death, he informs the little girl (who Mr. A succeeds in rescuing, unlike the kidnapped girl central to Rorschach’s character arc, who ends up food for vicious dogs) that “I won’t help anyone who believes he has a right to hurt you!...I only care what happens to the innocent and the good people! I treat people the way they act toward human life! I grant them what their action (sic) deserve, have earned!”
Both Rorschach and Watchmen’s villain (who I’ll avoid naming, for slight spoiler protection purposes) are willing to kill in the name of what they think is a higher good. Indeed, given Rorschach’s contempt for what he sees as the moral stink of the Watchmen world, it's easy to imagine that he might have been willing to accept that each and every person killed in the movie’s central scheme might have actually deserved it (as Rand did in a smaller-scale disaster; Atlas Shrugged’s train wreck scene).
But Rorschach would deliver that as a personal, individual judgment—breaking what bones needed to be broken with his own hands—not from a world away with indiscriminate techno-gimmicks and no sense of actual individual guilt. The opposition between Rorschach and the villain is easy to read as that of individual, true justice versus the state’s collectivist version. In every single war ever waged, governments make the kind of moral judgment that Watchmen’s villain does, and the movie and comic, with Rorschach’s help, make us wonder whether those decisions that governments—and superheroes—often make really are tolerable. Rand would have been proud.
When you think of Rand’s aesthetic, it seems appropriate somehow that Rand should have invented the superhero. If the idea of the costumed vigilante, superpowered or not, hadn’t already been a pop cliché by the time she was writing Atlas Shrugged, it would fit Rand’s sense of romantic symbolic imaginative power to have, say, Ragnar commit his piracy-for-justice under a colorful masked identity; similarly, John Galt’s science-fictional invention could have turned him into a Dr. Manhattan type.
Rorschach’s sense of justice may make him hate most of humanity—he brags to himself at the beginning that if mankind begged him to save them, he’d justly say “no.” But by the end he sacrifices himself in the name of avenging the deaths of millions who he doesn’t know. He does it for another reason as well, one of particular holiness to the Objectivist: the truth, the facts of reality. Whether or not the villain’s scheme might result in some “higher good,” it did so at the cost of Faking Reality—a cost no Objectivist will bear. We don’t know if Rorschach’s attempts to set the record straight will do any good—but he’s willing to bear any burden, let the very heavens fall, to stay square with reality.
To be the kind of man whose highest value is to “have lived life free from compromise,” as Rorschach says, makes that man “unreasonable” in the colloquial sense—that is, you aren’t going to be able to talk them in or out of much. You are going to find them abrasive, aggravating, and in circumstances like those the characters in Watchmen find themselves in, mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
Moore’s conception of what an Objectivist hero would be like in “real life” (or at least in his realistically detailed fantasy) is both respectful and disrespectful to Rand’s vision in interesting ways: Rorschach seems driven to madness by his ideology; a radical Objectivism forges a character that seems obviously damaged in unpleasant ways.
Yet he’s also the only man around who stands up for everyone’s right to be judged individually on the basis of their character and actions, their right not to be a means to someone else’s higher end—no matter what one might think of that end. He knows what it means to be human—that’s why he has to condemn those he kills as having betrayed the essence of man qua man, relegating them to the status of dogs to be put down.
But always, Rorschach judges as an individual mind, and judges individual minds. Rorschach is no handsome Rand hero as she imagined them; but he’s still probably the most vivid and well-thought-out Objectivist hero that Rand didn’t create.