Rorschach. Heavens, Rorschach really stays with you. Just the experience of seeing a panel with Rorschach on it — it’s visceral. It’s a punch in the gut, and the pain lingers. I read Watchmen for the first time maybe ten years ago, and I might have forgotten little details right now but every panel that featured Rorschach is branded into the memory.
Watchmen is one of the 100 best novels of the last century. A comicbook, or a graphic novel if you will. No, It’s THE graphic novel. The line on the sand. It was first serialised in September 1986, and the world of comicbooks would never be the same again. Then came The Dark Knight Returns, and that sealed and confirmed the new age of the comicbook. Darker. Not a release from the real-life, but indeed, the real-life itself, in all its hideous glory. And Rorschach, all 5 feet 6 inches, all 140 pounds of brutal, cruel, merciless, super-judgmental, murdering masked vigilante of him, is that entire transformation to a darker comicbook, made flesh. Or panels. It’s complex — if you root for Rorschach, what would that tell you about yourself? This is, in a way, your own Rorschach test.
In a parallel universe almost mirroring our own, in the late 1930s, when the masked vigilantes made their appearance in the pages of comic books, there were men and women who sought to bring about justice to society like those comic book heroes. Some were farces, some were successes (there was a group called Watchmen which was very much in the public eye, so much so that the group was re-created in the 70’s) but by the timeline of this story, they were all but gone.
These superheroes (though except for Dr. Manhattan, none of the others have any superpowers) had assisted the US government in fighting their wars — The US had won the war in Vietnam, Nixon is still in power in the mid-1980s which is the timeline for the stories, but the general public is not in favour of these law unto themselves vigilantes. ‘Who watches the Watchmen’ indeed.
The Keene Act has been passed in 1977, disallowing vigilantes to apprehend wrongdoers, and all the former vigilantes had retired. Except for Rorschach. Soon after the Keene Act was passed, Rorschach had responded by killing a wanted serial rapist and leaving him to be found, with a note saying ‘NEVER’. And then, in 1985, the former vigilantes start dropping like flies.
Someone has decided to find these former superheroes and kill them off one after the other. The Comedian, a vigilante who worked for the US Government, is killed. Adrian Veidt, who would go by the name of Ozymandias, and is now a successful businessman, has an assassination attempt on him. Eventually, and reluctantly, the old gang has to come back together this one last time before they are finished off. But only if it were so simple, then it would be just plain good-versus-evil.
That would not change the course of comic books; heck, that would not change literature as we know it. It is not that simple, and in the question lies the solution — Who watches the Watchmen? Watchmen is an experience. It might delight you, it might shock you, it might disgust you, but it will definitely move you.