By Rachael McDaniel
The visual language of queerness in 2010s America is defined by brightness—rainbows, glitter—declaring a queer existence fully saturated with light. But the torture and death of the only gay characters in popular TV shows, the sensationalization of dead trans teenagers, suggest not brightness but darkness, a shadowy queerness existing underneath the colors. Queerness in 2010s America, then, is at once the brightest of colors and the darkest of shadows. Though it set in an alternate version of history, the America of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen is also haunted by this dual queer existence. The queer characters of Watchmen visually inhabit either the world of shadows and secrecy or the world of demonstrative color, but the deeper in shadow the characters are, the more explicit, dangerous, and violent their queerness is. In this essay, I will consider Moore and Gibbons’ portrayals of queer characters, specifically the Silhouette and Rorschach, through their connection to shadows and darkness, and explore the public violence inherent in the shadowy space of queerness that they occupy.
Included in Watchmen are chapters of the autobiography of Hollis Mason, a character also known as Nite Owl who was active as part of the Minutemen group of costumed vigilantes in the novel’s universe. In these, he insists that perceptions of costumed vigilantes as people with strange sexual fetishes, dressing up and fighting crime not for a desire to do good but “for a kind of excitement that was altogether more adult” (Moore and Gibbons 2.30), are not entirely untrue. “Yes, I daresay some of us did have our sexual hangups,” he writes, before mentioning the events surrounding the death of a member of the Minutemen, the Silhouette, as “proof for those who need it that for some people, dressing up in a costume did have its more libidinous elements” (Moore and Gibbons 2.30). The “libidinous element” to which he refers is the fact that the Silhouette “was living with another woman in a lesbian relationship,” leading to her expulsion from the Minutemen and her almost immediately subsequent murder (Moore and Gibbons 2.32). The Silhouette is the first and only of the costumed vigilantes in the novel to be named by the other characters explicitly as queer, and the manner in which she is revealed as such carries implications for the novel’s other queer characters. The Silhouette, with her name and her sleek all-black costume, (Moore and Gibbons 2.5.3) chose to be a shadow for disguise and as power trip. Being expelled from the Minutemen and deprived of the ability to really be the Silhouette meant, for her, death. After she died, her “sexual hang-ups” were used against her by her former associate Hollis Mason as little more than evidence of the kinkiness of costumed vigilantes (Moore and Gibbons 2.32). There is a trajectory mapped out for queer existence in the Silhouette’s story. Relegated to the shadows, she embraces them, forges an identity based on violent action (the Silhouette gained notoriety by bringing down a child pornography ring), finds protection in the darkness that confines her. Exposed, and with none of her erstwhile teammates lifting a finger to help her, she meets a violent end which the world at large seems to accept. After all, she was a sexual deviant. The Silhouette’s life, then, was a contradictory life: she was both repressed and protected by her shadowy existence and beset at all points by violence. Although she was not the only queer member of the Minutemen – Sally Jupiter, one of her former teammates, says that “a couple of the guys” in the Minutemen were gay (Moore and Gibbons 9.32) – she was, again, the only Minuteman who was ever publicly exposed as such, and not coincidentally the only Minuteman with an overt association to shadows, making her the archetype of queer existence for the costumed vigilantes in Watchmen.
The most shadowy of the next generation of costumed vigilantes, and in some ways the Silhouette’s spiritual successor, is the costumed vigilante Rorschach. He is recognizable by his mask, an ever-shifting blot of black on white from which he derives his name and which he considers his real face. Rorschach exists at the darkest edges of society. When he is introduced at the beginning of the novel, in the year 1985, costumed vigilantes have been outlawed, leading all of them to retire or operate solely under the auspices of the government – all but Rorschach. He remains a disturbing presence, lurking in the grimy corners of the city. “Rorschach never retired… Rorschach’s still out there somewhere” (Moore and Gibbons 1.4.6), a police officer reminds his partner when doubts are expressed about the continued threat of costumed vigilantes interfering with police activities. The officer cannot rest easy because out there somewhere, Rorschach continues to exist in an indeterminate space, like the space the Silhouette once claimed – and indeed, the very first image we see of Rorschach is, on the very next page, his silhouette (Moore and Gibbons 1.5.2). Rorschach’s menace, then, is defined by his relation to shadows, his existence in the darkness, and by his violence. “He’s crazier than a snake’s armpit and wanted on two counts murder one… If he gets involved, we’ll be up to our butts in corpses” (Moore and Gibbons 1.4.7), the police officer concludes.
Rorschach’s connection to violence, his shadowy existence and his status as a public menace – all mirrors of the image of queerness which Moore and Gibbons establish in their depiction of the Silhouette – are obvious enough from Rorschach’s first appearance in the novel. Moving forward, how are readers to extrapolate that Rorschach is emblematic of queer existence, and not just any marginal existence? It is not a question with an obvious answer. Rorschach, a right-winger who decries “lechers and communists” (Moore 1.1.5) and who seems to consider sexual deviants as being on a similar moral standing as murderers (Moore 1.1.3), definitely does not consider himself queer, and is not seen to have a romantic relationship with anyone over the course of the novel, let alone with another man – though he does seem to have a soft spot for his former costumed vigilante partner Dan Dreiberg, even going so far as to hold his hand for an uncomfortably long time while telling him that he is “…a good friend” (Moore 10.10.7-10.11.2). The most compelling evidence for a queer interpretation of Rorschach comes not from his behavior during the action of the novel, but from his origin story.
In Chapter 6 of Watchmen, Rorschach is captured by police, his “face” removed. Out of the shadows, he is exposed under the harsh lights of imprisonment (Moore and Gibbons 6.1.8). A psychoanalyst asks him to describe how he became Rorschach, and he relates how, working at a dress factory – work he calls “unpleasant” because he “had to handle female clothing” (Moore and Gibbons 6.10.1) – he was fascinated by an unwanted dress of moving black blots on a white background, only to find out two years later that its purchaser, Kitty Genovese, had been brutally murdered while her neighbors looked on (Moore and Gibbons 6.10.6-7). “I took the remains of [Genovese’s] unwanted dress,” Rorschach tells the psychoanalyst, “and made a face that I could bear to look in the mirror” (6.10.8-9), choosing in that moment to become a costumed vigilante. Rorschach was profoundly altered by Kitty Genovese’s murder; through ordering and abandoning her dress, and through the circumstances of her death, she was an integral part of the genesis of Rorschach’s identity. Her death, depicted in Watchmen as taking place in the shadows, outside of the reader’s view, with only the faces of impassive spectators in frame (Moore and Gibbons 6.10.7), is one of the most well-known and paradoxically one of the most overlooked acts of public violence against a queer person in the history of the United States.
In her essay “The Parable of Kitty Genovese, the New York Times, and the Erasure of Lesbianism,” Marcia M. Gallo describes how reportage of the murder, while sensationalizing its public nature, completely omitted the fact of Genovese’s queerness, of her living with a female lover. The reportage of the Genovese murder, according to Gallo, “reduced [her] rhetorically to a chalk outline on the sidewalk,” with those responsible for sculpting the news story admitting that they were “‘interested only in the manner of [Genovese’s] dying’” for the purposes of proving a point about human nature (Gallo). There was no concern for Kitty Genovese the person, the queer subject. She became nothing but a shadow on the ground, her life and death void but for the moral meaning the public chose to project onto its violent end. It is a striking example of the relegation of queer people to a shadowy, indefinite space. The event that, more than any previous incident, shaped Rorschach’s relationships to morality, to violence and to humanity at large was an event of public violence against a queer person, of a queer person being turned into a shadow. Rorschach himself would not have known about Genovese’s queerness: Moore and Gibbons depict him reading about the murder in a newspaper (6.10.6). But Moore and Gibbons knew, and with their placing of Genovese’s murder as a catalyst for Rorschach along with his parallels with the Silhouette, his repulsion from female sexuality, and his affection for Dan Dreiberg, it becomes clear that they have laid a foundation for a queer reading of Rorschach.
With this in mind, then, let us turn back to Rorschach’s personal narrative in the novel – namely, his death, which completes the trajectory of queer existence in the shadows typified by the Silhouette and, we know now, Kitty Genovese. Rorschach dies a violent death, like the Silhouette and Genovese before him – murdered by his former associate Dr. Manhattan, in order to conceal the truth about the world peace-inducing mass murder engineered by his former associate Adrian Veidt, alias Ozymandias. Like the Silhouette, then, Rorschach’s death is on the hands of his erstwhile teammates. Like both the Silhouette and Kitty Genovese, his death is simultaneously of great public importance and of no significance whatsoever: “‘Of course. Must protect Veidt’s new utopia. One more body amongst foundations makes little difference’” (Moore and Gibbons 12.24.2), he sneers at Dr. Manhattan, knowing full well that though his death might ensure the preservation of the new world, his death as a subject, as Rorschach, is of no consequence. Abandoning in his death the safety of his mask’s shifting darkness, Dr. Manhattan vaporizes Rorschach, leaving on the snow-covered ground a bloody silhouette (12.24.5). Rorschach meets the same end as the Silhouette and Kitty Genovese. He begins and ends Watchmen as a shadow following an act of violence. And just a few pages later, we see a heterosexual couple, Dan Dreiberg (a.k.a. Nite Owl) and Laurie Juspeczyk (a.k.a. Silk Spectre) bathed in sunlight and sporting bleach-blond hair (Moore and Gibbons 12.28.3), laughing and chatting excitedly about their bright future together (Moore and Gibbons 12.30.1-3). Rorschach is, in his death, nothing more than a shadow cast by Dan and Laurie’s new, light-filled life. The order of their bright, happy world was maintained by an act of violence. This is the reality of violence against queer people: it is always presented as necessary to preserve order and light and ward off chaos.
In her book Undoing Gender, Judith Butler states that the violence perpetuated against queer people “emerges from a profound desire to keep the order of binary gender natural or necessary, to make of it a structure, either natural or cultural, or both, that no human can oppose, and still remain human” (35). The queer characters of Watchmen, posing a threat to structure and light, are made into shadows, exposed, killed, and reduced to shadows again for the benefit of the public order. And so are the queer people, fictional or real, whose suffering and death entertain us today on a regular basis. Now more than ever, given the political embrasure of “queer causes” like gay marriage in America, society, in order to maintain the structures of gender and sexuality, must remind us of what comes to those who challenge these structures: they become shadows, outlines on the sidewalk.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Gallo, Marcia M. “The Parable of Kitty Genovese, the New York Times, and the Erasure of
Lesbianism.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 23.2 (2014): 273-94. Print.
Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1987. Print.