Any fans of the HBO classic series The Wire out there? Well I’ve got the whole series on DVD, which naturally includes a lot of extras—among them a documentary where the creative minds behind the show talk about some of the reactions to the series and its characters. The funniest of these is when they get to the Michael K. Williams character, Omar, and they observe that the initial reaction of the gangtas (wannabe or otherwise) was one of admiration and identification, as Omar was a total badass that struck fear into the other drug dealers, nearly all of whom surrendered their money to him without a syllable of protest. “Yeah, that would be me,” they’d say, “I’m Omar.” Once the character revealed his homosexuality, however, their reactions reversed completely, revealing their homophobia and perhaps more than a little insecurity regarding their own masculinity and/or sexuality.
So why am I bringing this up?
Because there’s a comic character that I’ve found elicits a similar response. When I say his name, your reaction may prove equally revealing.
I’m talking about Rorschach from Watchmen.
Back in the Day
When Watchmen was initially released as a twelve-issue comic book maxi-series across 1986 and 1987, Rorchach’s homosexuality seemed widely accepted, at least among the comic fans I knew and spoke to. Fast forward to 2009 and somewhere along the way this changed. This was the year the Zack Snyder film was released.
I had a group of online friends I was communicating with on the regular at this time, many of whom were fellow comic fans, and certainly all of us were nerds. Upon first viewing the film, I was ambivalent—Snyder had certainly done a fine job capturing all of the surface elements of the comic for film purposes, but he seemed to miss out on the deeper, subtler elements. (I covered this in more detail in my original post on the Watchmen HBO series back in November.) One member of our online group had seen the film without having read the comic, making him an ideal candidate to gauge how true this might be, so I asked if he picked up on Rorschach’s homosexuality while watching the movie. His response was a calm and succinct “no.” The response of others in the group, however, was not so calm, which blindsided me.
Most of this group averaged about ten years younger than me, so maybe it was their experience of having read the story all at once in a trade paperback, as opposed to one issue at a time, sometimes a few months apart (like myself and those my vintage had read it), that led to them missing it. They didn’t digest the story as I had, issue by issue, often with a great many days in between to go over those twenty-eight pages with the proverbial fine-tooth comb and suck up every last detail. Whatever the reason, the vast majority of them did not pick up on Rorschach’s homosexuality. At all. I was largely shouted down and even belittled for suggesting that Rorschach was gay.
In hindsight, this response reminds me a lot of the Omar situation on The Wire. Like Omar, Rorschach is the King Badass of this story. He’s the traditionally masculine ideal; fearless and uncompromising, a no-nonsense tough guy that terrorizes the street criminals he encounters. Ergo a lot of male readers admire him and fantasize about being like him. Then, when confronted with his true sexuality, they feel tricked somehow—because the stereotype is that a gay man can’t be a “real” man; and certainly not the badass that Rorschach is portrayed to be. Add in a degree of that aforementioned homophobia and sexual insecurity, and their reaction might become near violent, as I experienced.
Water Is Wet
To be fair, there were a couple of guys in that group who disagreed with me more respectfully; one even said that I had a right to my own “interpretation” of the character, but that it wasn’t the only legitimate interpretation. To this person, I must respectfully disagree in kind. Rorschach is gay just as water is wet; the story simply leaves no room for any other “interpretation.” If this person is out there reading this, I’m not saying you’re stupid—you just missed it, for whatever reason. It could happen to anyone.
But for those other guys who made fun of me, called me crazy and demeaned me? Yeah, you guys are just brain-dead stupid.
Normally, I hate it when critics/fans drag sexuality into everything. I mean, not everything has to be about sex, y’know? Granted, sexual desire is a big part of life, but it’s not at the root of absolutely everything, particularly not in literature. But in this case it is simply inescapable: Rorschach is an utterly repressed homosexual. It’s baked into who and what the character is and a primary reason why he’s so miserable.
Now in practical terms Rorschach is asexual—he’s not actively having sex with anyone. He may not even be conscious of what his true sexual orientation is; this is how completely he represses it (which then likely leads to deep sexual frustration, which in turn finds its release in the violent acts he commits as a masked vigilante). If he’s at all aware of his sexuality on any level, it probably only serves to feed his own self-hatred, which he then projects back onto the outer world (again, usually via violence). Still, at his core, he is clearly a gay man and in love with the second Nite Owl, Dan Dreiberg.
Don’t bother with the standard arguments against me as I’ve already heard them all. Yes, Rorschach appears to find homosexuality (possibly any sexuality) repugnant, as is made clear by his journal entry in the first issue speculating on Adrian Veidt’s orientation. But this proves nothing—there are countless people in this world that can never reconcile themselves with their own sexuality (be they straight, gay, or otherwise) and can’t be honest with themselves about who or what they really are. There are plenty of hardcore conservatives out there that rabidly denounce homosexuality in public, but maintain a secret profile on Grindr and watch gay porn on their computer every night. I’d argue that Rorschach’s behavior in this regard actually strengthens my case more than it hinders it, precisely because his view is so ridiculously extreme.
And really, what else could Rorschach’s orientation be? I don’t mean to get too binary about it, but for a guy like Rorschach, what other gender is left for him? It’s got to be men; he absolutely hates women. In fact, “hate” doesn’t seem a strong enough word for how he feels about them. He despises women and is largely sickened by them, particularly when it comes to any display of female sexuality. (Recall his disdain for Silk Spectre’s costume and how much he hated working in the women’s garment industry.)
It’s rather controversial looking back from the present-day perspective, as Moore’s Rorschach was not born homosexual but appears to have been made such by circumstance. His experience growing up with a prostitute mother that beat him is at the root of his misogyny and consequently leaves males as the only gender with which he can form any kind of sentimental attachment. This stands in stark contrast with the more modern and widespread belief that our sexual orientation is something we’re born with and not learned, nor at all psychological in nature.
In addition to all the smaller character beats that point in this direction, there are two scenes that clearly spell it out in giant, glowing, neon letters. The first features Dan and Laurie from Watchmen # 7 (Mar. 1987).
We all know what’s going on here: Dan is hot for Laurie. Since they hook up later (actually just pages later in this very same issue), no one is going to debate me on this one.
Now check out this scene from three issues later, Watchmen # 10 (Jul. 1987).
As I quoted Dave Gibbons back in November, “nothing [in Watchmen] is done at whim. Everything means something, although not everything means very much.” (Frank Plowright, “Watching the Watchmen,” Amazing Heroes #97, June 15, 1986, p. 52.) So with this in mind, what do you think the parallels are supposed to signify here?
And clearly these two scenes were designed as parallels. It’s three panels, top tier of the page, all hitting the same beats. Panel one, they’re holding hands. Panel two, physical contact is broken. Panel three, there’s an awkward attempt on Dan’s part to downplay the significance of the interaction. You think this was an accident? An astounding coincidence? In a comic series where they’re keeping track of how many sugar cubes Dan Dreiberg has in his jar, you’re going to try and tell me that the parallels between these two scenes mean nothing?
If such is your position, you’re kidding yourself.
Once you see it, everything about Rorschach starts to make so much more sense. I believe this is also a big part of Rorschach’s emotional outburst at the end, right before Manhattan kills him. He’s just seen Laurie return and knows that with her back in the picture he can never really be with Dan, the only other human being he feels any kind of connection with. He knows he’s cursed to be completely and utterly alone forever, and knowing this he is more than ready to die. In fact, at that point I’d say he actively wants to die. The depths of the tragedy of his life deepens significantly with this knowledge.
Man in the Mirror
Rorschach is gay, folks. Apologies if this knowledge shatters your world (which apparently it does for some people), but it’s the truth. If you still can’t see it, it’s because you don’t want to see it. Why such is the case is a question that will require you to take a long look at yourself in the mirror, which is the only place you’ll find an answer.