Rorschach’s Hypocrisy: The Moral Ambiguity of Watchmen’s Black and White Antihero

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By Ingrid Sit 

(UBC Arts One, Prof. Miranda Burgess Seminar)


From the saturated pages of Watchmen emerges Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ antihero protagonist Rorschach, a stark representation of black and white against the vivid colouring of Watchmen’s setting and other characters. As the only character that does not adorn any bright colours, Rorschach appears to become Watchmen’s moral centre—the black and white amidst the chaotic colouring of his environment. For Rorschach, the monochrome inkblot mask he dons serves as the physical embodiment of the set of impossibly rigid moral ideals that he places before his own identity. As a character, his championing of a clear sense of morality and a refusal to compromise added to the advantage of the story being told in his perspective earns Rorschach the reader’s favour as a clear-cut hero at first glance. However, upon examining his character without the inclinations one naturally develops for a story’s protagonist, it becomes evident that Rorschach’s unwavering moral code is underlain by the outright hypocrisy of his actions. Rorschach’s sense of morality is in fact, not so black and white and his actions venture into what many might consider morally questionable. The hypocrisy of Rorschach’s character is not difficult to uncover, yet upon its discovery, the reader still feels an inclination towards him and his motivations, because his inherent hypocrisy may very well be Rorschach’s greatest source of appeal as a compelling character. After all, a character that blatantly advocates strict morals but betrays those morals more than they realise is perhaps more relatable to the average person than one would care to admit.

Rorschach’s insistence on projecting his black and white sense of morality upon the world reflects on a need to categorise the world in an effort to simplify humanity. When discussing the concept of black and white morality itself, Swiss psychologist Philippe Rochat raises the example of Adolf Hitler being a vegetarian, a piece of information that finds many by surprise:

The majority reaction regarding Hitler’s vegetarianism captures something essential about our morals. It reveals that for the majority of us there is an inclination toward overly simplistic and categorical ways of judging the morals of others, typically in black and white, either/or, or knee-jerk eliminative terms, leaving little to no room for scepticism and critical thinking . . . Hitler was a vegetarian? A profound oxymoron, a blatant contradiction, a moral absurdity deduced from our majority categorical inclination to think of the world in black and white, good or bad terms with no shades of grey. (p.9)

Rochat dissects how the human need for simplistic explanations lends to a willingness to overlook anything that contradicts established moral assignments that were overly simplistic, to begin with. In actuality, the world is rarely so simple. Humanity is messy and often chaotic, as reflected by the oversaturation of Watchmen’s colouring. To look at the world through a monochromatic lens disregards the chaos of humanity, instead offering every encounter or event the simple assignment of either good or bad. The idea of being able to view morality as black and white accepts that immorality does exist in the world and is just as prevalent in humanity as morality. What it does not accept is that the two may not be all that removed from one another. This mentality reflects on a human need for simple answers, for plain categories that explain everything that is messy. To think of morality as black and white is to refuse the possibility of moral grey.

Across the colour-stained pages of Watchmen, not once is Rorschach’s “face” ever tinted by any trace of colour, representative of his adamant refusal of letting the world taint his sense of morality (Moore, 6.10.9). Upon his entrance, Rorschach is characterised as a no-nonsense vigilante who embodies moral absolutism. From how he views his peers, Rorschach definitively distinguishes between what he deems heroic and what he deems not heroic. He considers fellow masked vigilante the Comedian to be a hero for having “stood up for his country . . . never [letting] anybody retire him”, and “never [cashing] in on his reputation” (Moore, 1.17.6). Whereas Adrian Veidt, who retired from being Ozymandius to become a billionaire businessman, is described in Rorschach’s journal as “pampered and decadent, betraying even his own shallow, liberal affectations” (Moore, 1.19.2). Rorschach applauds the Comedian for remaining anonymous and active while expressing distaste for what he saw as Veidt capitalising on the vigilante cause. When handling the criminals of New York, Rorschach believes in matching the crime to the punishment. Speaking of his treatment of criminals before 1975, Rorschach describes himself to have been “soft”, for “[coddling]” criminals and “[letting] them live”, a treatment he did not think they deserved (Moore, 6.14.3-5). However, in the event of discovering Gerald Grice, a criminal that had abused and fed a young girl to his dogs, Rorschach fully takes on becoming Rorschach—the vigilante with an uncompromising moral code—and proceeds to kill the criminal’s dogs and set his house on fire with him handcuffed to a chair, repaying the violence that Grice had inflicted upon the girl upon himself. This is how Rorschach distinguishes between black and white and determines what consequences correspond to what actions. The comedian is a hero because he “didn’t care if people liked him”, and was “uncompromising”; Adrian Veidt is undeserving of the title of hero because he monetised his vigilante career; Gerald Grice deserved to burn in flames for what he did to a young girl (Moore, 6.15.3). Rorschach relies on his clear-cut morality to make sense of the world he lives in. Regardless of the moral ambiguity around him, he refuses to acknowledge it because doing so would threaten his entire worldview and sense of self.

In the act of wearing a Rorschach blot test upon his face, Rorschach erases his identity as Walter Kovacs and instead allows his rigid sense of morality to become his entire identity. In a case study of the costumes of Watchmen, Barbara Brownie and Danny Graydon suggest that Rorschach’s decision to devoid his “face” of facial features reflects on “his feelings of shame about all things human”(Moore, 6.10.9; Brownie, p.140). Such a decision may even be borne of Rorschach’s need to remove his past as Walter Kovacs from who he has become. Brownie and Graydon argue that “Rorschach’s anonymity seems to protect him from the cruelties that he experienced in his own past” (p.140). To take this point further, I would suggest that Rorschach’s reliance on his moral code compels him to simplify the world. Within his strict boundaries of good versus evil, he leaves no room for the complications of individual experiences. Hence, it is only by removing himself and his past from his persona of Rorschach completely, that he can enforce his moral code to its full extent. Since he depends on his sense of morality for every decision he makes, Rorschach must eliminate anything that could blur the lines he has clearly drawn between what is black and what is white, even if that includes the face of Walter Kovacs.

Despite the literal act of adorning his morals upon his face, the reader will come to find that Rorschach’s morals do not extend much further beyond the appearance of his persona. Regardless of Rorschach’s every effort to strip his persona of human bias and ambiguity, he still falls victim to the very hypocrisy and moral ambiguity he champions against. Even if the black and white on a Rorschach test never mix, its “meaning is projected onto it by its viewer”, thus shifting in shape and interpretation per person. Similarly, the character’s morals tend to vary depending on what situation they are applied to. At the mention of the sexual assault Sally Jupiter (the Silk Spectre) experienced at the hands of Edward Blake (the Comedian), Rorschach declares that he is not concerned with “[speculating] on the moral lapses of men who died in their country’s service” (Moore, 1.21.8). The “service” Rorschach refers to is the Comedian’s vigilantism as well as his participation in the Vietnam War on behalf of the US government, under Richard Nixon (Moore, 1.21.8). Seeing the Comedian’s contributions to the country as patriotic and noble, Rorschach has simply labelled him as morally good and is willing to disregard all other aspects of his character. Were the Comedian a common ruffian that tried to assault someone, Rorschach might treat him with the same violence he delivers to any other criminal, but because his rigid moral code allows no room for grey area, he cannot consider the possibility of the Comedian’s complicated moral standing. A study done at the University of Kansas defined moral hypocrisy as “the human capacity to appear moral—even to oneself—without being so”, finding that “In the masquerade of moral hypocrisy, moral rationalization and moral motivation are allies, not opponents” (Batson et al, p.12). To Rorschach, the Comedian’s classification as heroic denies the possibility of him being morally ambiguous. He relies on his oversimplified judgement of the Comedian to excuse any other behaviour he sees from him. Hence, he disregards all of the Comedian’s faults and rationalises his actions even if they inherently violate Rorschach’s moral code without even realising his hypocrisy. Whether he is able to recognise it or not, Rorschach’s morals may not be as black and white as he would like to think, and his actions come to reveal the deep-rooted hypocrisy of his views.

From Rorschach’s judgement of the Comedian, it is made clear to the reader exactly what he deems to be the qualifications that make someone a hero. But what is a hero? And how do we form our own ideas on what makes someone a hero? A study done for the Journal of Moral Education at the University of Kansas begins by stating that “our beliefs about and identification with heroes reflects on how we perceive ourselves, or at least what we hope to be” (White and O’Brien, p.81). A perhaps, more operational definition would identify a hero as someone courageous, noble, and admired for being so. Yet when asked to describe a hero, many of the mid-teens participating in the study described a hero as someone who “stands up for beliefs, regardless of consequences”, and “has own ideas and is not afraid to stand up for them” (White and O’Brien, p.88). The study found that with increased maturity, the students in their teens no longer find heroism in “glitz and glamour” but in those they deem worthy of emulating, people who “demonstrate moral excellence” (White and O’Brien, p.93). In other words, a hero is meant to be someone that represents a sense of morality that we can look up to.

With that definition in mind, one can turn to the character of Rorschach to determine whether he himself fits into his concept of a hero. From his idolisation of the Comedian emerges Rorschach’s partial adoption of Kantianism.The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy identifies Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” as “an objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow despite any natural desires or inclinations we may have to the contrary” (Johnson and Cureton, p.1). To Rorschach, the Comedian is admirable because he acts as an unsung vigilante that enforces a strict ideal of justice without compromise or public recognition, traits Rorschach sees as indicators of “moral excellence” (White and O’Brien, p.93). As a result, Rorschach tries to emulate the sense of morality he idolises, going as far as trying to impose his sense of morality upon the world. Rorschach fails, however, because as he excuses the Comedian’s less-than-moral actions, he excuses the same for himself. In the same manner he disregards the Comedian’s brutality and acts of sexual assault, Rorschach excuses his acts of extreme violence because he sees himself to be morally correct. Ultimately, Rorschach fails to be a hero because his idea of a hero does not exist, in the same way the world does not exist in black and white. The Comedian, whom Rorschach idolises is not simply good like Rorschach thinks him to be; Rorschach himself, therefore is not the morally upright vigilante he sees himself as either.

To counter Rorschach’s inability to see through his own hypocrisy, Watchmen presents Doctor Manhattan as a moral counterpart. If Rorschach fails as a hero because he does not realise the hypocrisy of his refusal to compromise, Doctor Manhattan presents a doctrine that is the exact opposite—he not only sees the value of compromise but unhypocritically acts on it, which perhaps makes him the true hero of Watchmen. While Rorschach embodies moral ambiguity disguised by moral rigidity, Doctor Manhattan offers the opposite—moral apathy that lends itself to a position in a moral middle ground. The difference between the two stems from their varying sense of connection to the rest of the world. Although Rorschach is socially isolated, he still sees himself as a part of humanity. Doctor Manhattan, on the other hand, feels no connection to the world other than through his relationship with Laurie Juspeczyk. Rorschach is willing to do whatever it takes on his way to achieving justice because he firmly believes in what is right, while Doctor Manhattan struggles to find a reason to care for the fate of the world. Following his self-inflicted exile to Mars, he explains to Laurie that she had been his “only concern with the world”, without which he no longer has any motivation to remain involved in its affairs (Moore, 9.8.8). Ironically, Doctor Manhattan’s disconnect from humanity is exactly what allows him to judge its state without the same degree of bias as the other characters of Watchmen. He embodies a sense of calm moral ambiguity that is able to adapt to the situation at hand, whatever it may be. At the end of Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan kills Rorschach to prevent the exposure of what Adrian Veidt had inflicted upon humanity. While Rorschach insists that one should “never compromise” “even in the face of Armageddon”, Doctor Manhattan calmly determines that a compromise must be made for what is left of humanity (Moore, 12.20.8-9). To preserve the unity that has formed amidst disaster, the truth cannot be revealed.

Doctor Manhattan’s sense of morality that allows for compromise makes him the true moral ideal of Watchmen. One that is arguably as unattainable as Rorschach’s hypocrisy is relatable. While the Doctor’s consistency between his actions and his preachings set an admirable example for the reader, the almost artificial smoothness of his overall character risks distancing the reader, who instead turns to Rorschach despite all his faults. Creator Alan Moore himself has mentioned in an interview that despite his intention of making Rorschach a “bad example”, he encounters readers on the street proclaiming that “[they] [are] Rorschach! That is [their] story” (Moore). Indeed, Rorschach was named the 16th “Greatest Comic Book Character” by Empiremagazine in 2008 and was famously named by American politician Ted Cruz as one of his favourite comic book characters. Realistically, Doctor Manhattan’s sense of morality is hard to find among the average person. In reality, humans tend to set a moral standard that they fail to reach even if they are unable to realise it themself. Yet, this unavoidable hypocrisy does not stop the individual from establishing a moral ideal for themselves. Carol Gilligan’s work on the Concepts of Self and Morality notes that the potential for “enhancement in self-worth” requires “a conception of self that includes the possibility for doing ‘the right thing,’ the ability to see in oneself the potential for being good and therefore worthy of social inclusion” (p.78). Despite Rorschach’s feelings of isolation, he still identifies with the rest of the world, which is why he holds on to his rigid sense of morality even if he cannot live up to it. Compared to Doctor Manhattan’s unrealistic positioning in a moral middle ground, this sentiment is more relatable to the average person than one might realise, which explains why the reader is more drawn to Rorschach’s character, even beyond his positioning as the protagonist of the story.

It is not until he has reached his final moments that Rorschach begins to realise the impossible standard he has set for himself and, by extension, for the rest of the world. After Veidt’s scheme causes the death of millions in New York City, Rorschach alone insists that “evil must be punished” and the “people must be told” the truth (Moore, 12.23.5). Even in a moment of crisis Rorschach latches on to his rigid set of principles in search of simple clarity—inflicting death upon millions is an act of evil no matter the intentions.  Yet, in the face of an impossible situation, even Rorschach himself begins to see that the situation at hand cannot be reduced to the simple classification of black or white. When Doctor Manhattan tries to stop him from announcing the truth, Rorschach removes his “face”, thus removing the physical representation of his moral code, and tells Doctor Manhattan to kill him, which he does (Moore, 6.10.9, 12. 24.1-4). The moment Rorschach realises his sense of morality may not have a place in humanity is also the moment in which he decides he can no longer bear to live. The black and white sense of morality Rorschach has placed before his identity is no longer enough to ground him amidst the chaos of the world. He strips off his inkblot mask, accepting the futility of his moral code, and lets his life end. Ironically, the crisis Rorschach witnesses is not much different from a situation he once wrote of. In a piece of writing from his childhood, a young Rorschach (Walter Kovaks) praises Harry Truman’s use of the atomic bomb:

I like President Truman, the way Dad would of [sic] wanted me to. He dropped the atomic bomb on Japan and saved millions of lives because if he hadn’t of [sic], then there would of [sic] been a lot more war than there was and more people would of [sic] been killed. I think it was a good thing to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. (Moore, 6.31)

Veidt’s plan of introducing an alien threat to unite the world follows the belief that by sacrificing the lives of millions, the rest of the world will be saved, a sentiment that echoes Rorschach’s views as a youth on the bombing of Japan. In theory, Rorschach would be willing to go along with the scheme for the sake of the rest of humanity. Yet, when he is personally involved, Rorschach struggles to find the clear-cut sense of right and wrong that he relies on, struggling to enforce the same moral code he champions. Even if concealing the truth would preserve the peace borne out of disaster, Rorschach refuses to carry the weight of protecting a lie that involved the death of millions. In his failure to abide by his black and white sense of morality, Rorschach is forced to face his hypocrisy. Upon realising the hypocritical nature and impossibility of his moral code, Rorschach’s entire identity crumbles, and whatever remains of Walter Kovaks cannot bear to live either.

By positioning Rorschach as the protagonist at the centre of Watchmen, Alan Moore seems to set him up to be the story’s moral compass. In actuality, the same attributes that have earned Rorschach a following among readers—his unwavering set of morals and unwillingness to compromise—only renders him a hypocrite. Rorschach constantly breaks the moral code he expects others to abide by, and upon the realisation of the impracticality of his principles, Rorschach, unable to face the reality of his own morality, chooses death. Rorschach spent his career upholding an impossible ideal, to the extent of making his moral code the sole foundation of his identity. His overreliance on his moral code is why Rorschach could not exist without the insistent belief that everything was black and white.  Rorschach’s determination to categorise everything in plain terms ultimately fails him becausehumans are complex beings that cannot and should not be explained away by a mere designation of good or bad. Despite being a failed advocate for the violent enforcement of moral uprightness, the underlying humanity of Rorschach’s character earns him the reader’s inclination regardless. Rorschach, in spite of all his glaring faults, is able to strike a chord with the reader as his hypocrisy is innately human and serves as the reason behind his relatability; because ultimately, everyone is a hypocrite, whether they are willing to face it or not.


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