Study Guide

Rorschach (Walter J. Kovacs) in Watchmen

By Alan Moore

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Rorschach (Walter J. Kovacs)

Tell Us About Your Childhood, Mr. Rorschach

Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in, no, our bad, that’s Davy Crockett. Walter J. Kovacs is born in New York City in 1940 to Sylvia Kovacs, whose last non-professional relationship results in Walt’s birth. Still, we never learn who his father is. All through his childhood, Walt’s mom earns her daily bread as a prostitute.

Sylvia blames him for her struggles, believing she “shoulda listened to everybody else! [She] shoulda had the abortion” (V.4.7). After saying that, she beats Walt, and the two of them appear in a silhouette that morphs into one of Dr. Long’s inkblot tests (See Mirrors and Shadows in the “Symbols” section). No wonder Rorschach turns out to be pretty asexual. His mom scars him for life, and with no father around, how is young Walt supposed to know what a healthy relationship looks like?

Then, in 1951, two bullies call Walt a “whoreson.” His response marks the first real checkpoint on the road to Rorschach. In retaliation, Walt bites off one of the kid’s cheeks, and “attack[s the other] older child, partially blinding him with a lighted cigarette. He [is] ten years old” (V.7.9). These will become two of Rorschach’s trademarks: the element of surprise, and a MacGyver-like use of random things as weapons.

That’s why Rorschach is the consummate underdog; he’s small and squirrelly and will always go farther than his opponent. It’s not like he has money, connections, or rugged good looks, A.K.A. the usual superhero recipe for success. Let’s pause with a quick note from Shmoopsville: the most important Walter Kovacs sections are in Chapter V, Chapter VI and Chapter F.

Even after the face-eating, cigarette-burning incident, Walt never explains to the police why he goes after the boys like a rabid dog. Though he’s just a child, he already sees the world as divided between right and wrong, with no need for excuses. He follows his own code, and he always will, no matter if it eventually costs him his life.

Because of this incident, Walt is sent to the Lillian Charlton Home for Problem Children in New Jersey, where he lives until 1956, at which point he begins work at a garment factory. It’s too bad, as Walt shows real talent, both academically (literature and religion) and physically (gymnastics and amateur boxing). There aren’t many other bright spots in his life, are there? Also in 1956, Walt learns of his mother’s murder, and only has this one word to say: “good” (Chapter F.3).

How cold-blooded, even for Rorschach. That’s another one of his trademarks; his resentment runs deeper than any other character’s. It’s part of what drives him. On another note, why does Moore send Walt to work at a garment factory? Can you think of someone less into fashion than Rorschach? He owns just one smelly pair of clothes plus a backup set hidden by the docks. Maybe the fact that he’s a walking contradiction makes him a more compelling character.

Evil, Evil Everywhere, with the World on the Brink

Over the next twenty years, Walt passes two more checkpoints on the road to Rorschach. The first is the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, which happens right outside her own apartment. All the neighbors sit there, watching, doing nothing. That’s a major call-to-action. What makes it personal this time, is that Kitty Genovese was the original owner of the shape-shifting fabric that Rorschach will use to make his famous inkblot mask.

So Rorschach becomes obsessed with protecting women and bringing their perpetrators to justice, even though the single person who messed up his life most is his mother. Cue up the song again, that’s another one of Rorschach’s walking contradictions.

The last checkpoint is the murder of Blair Roche in 1975 (V.18-26). For those keeping score at home, this one takes up one-third of the only chapter devoted solely to Rorschach. That means the scene’s über-important. By now, Walt has spent years working nights, moonlighting as the masked vigilante we know (and love?). We won’t go into the gory details, but suffice it to say, everyone has a breaking point. After the dust settles, Walter J. Kovacs is gone; there is only Rorschach.

This begs the question: are we supposed to even like Rorschach? We do spend a lot of time in his shoes, stinky and small though they might be. As long as we can empathize with him somehow, Moore would probably be happy. Otherwise, he wouldn’t give us young Walt’s sob story. Without that, Rorschach’s no different than any other stone-faced killer.

We All Wear Masks, Metaphorically Speaking

It’s time to bring this party (yeah, right) up to alt-1985. Imagine there’s a spine running through Watchmen that holds everything together. Want to know what it is? Look no further than Rorschach and his journal. His quest to solve the Comedian’s murder is what gives the book its spark, from the first page to the last.

During the events of Watchmen, even as we learn more about Rorschach’s walking contradictions, he never changes. Why? Because he’s incapable of it. The world threatens to change around him, thanks to Veidt’s ridiculous, humongoid lie. Rorschach can’t handle living with all this falsehood, and so he orders Dr. Manhattan to end his sad, troubled life.

Rorschach may be one humorless dude, yet he’s somehow one of the all-time great characters. He’s like a rōnin, a homeless samurai who fights on even though there’s no clear path to victory. It brings tears to our eyes. Let’s pour one out for Rorschach, for poor, unloved Walter J. Kovacs.

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