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CSBG Archive

…And the Superhuman Review – Before Watchmen: Rorschach #1

Every week, Chad Nevett and I will be reviewing an issue of Before Watchmen through a discussion of each issue. We continue with Rorschach #1 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Lee Bermejo (art) and Barbara Ciardo (colors).


Brian Cronin: I continue to be impressed with Brian Azzarello’s approach to his Before Watchmen issues, as he trusts that we know who these characters are and just goes off to do his own story. This rings especially true with Rorschach, where the temptation to handle the 1975 transformation of “Walter Kovacs dressed as Rorschach” into “Rorschach” must be tremendous, as I’m sure many a writer believes that he or she could do justice to that tragically disturbed era of Rorschach’s life – the problem is that they would almost certainly be wrong. Alan Moore said pretty much all you could say about that point in Rorschach’s life in Watchmen #6. No, if you’re going to do a Rorschach story, you just have to do a story starring Rorschach and not try to explain to us how he ticks – just do an interesting story with him already ticking. That is what Azzarello does with this issue, which I presume is set soon after the passage of the Keene Act that banned costumed crimefighters. That is, I believe that this issue takes place after the passage of the Keene Act. The time in the issue is July of 1977. I don’t believe we’ve ever been told WHEN in 1977 the Keene Act passed, but since there is more drama to be had in the post-Keene era of New York City, I presume that’s where we are. Do you agree on the timeline or do you think that this is pre-Keene Act?

In any event, it was a straightforward opening but an interesting one, as Rorschach finds himself run afoul of a new gang of crooks who have set a trap for Rorschach and are not all that impressed with what they discover.

I really liked the extended diary section that opened the story. Holy shit, did Rorschach have a fucked up childhood or what?

Lee Bermejo does a good job on the art, although there were a few moments where his figure work was probably a bit on the stiff side (I liked the “serious smack” pun).

Chad Nevett: I didn’t even consider the Keene Act. For some reason, it seems… irrelevant to Rorschach. Pre-Keene, post-Keene, it doesn’t make a difference to Rorschach. Maybe that’s the point of setting it in 1977 where we don’t know which side of the Act it falls on. If so, that’s a subtle way of communicating something about the character — especially since leaving it ambiguous would mean that the Keene Act will never be mentioned. I hope that’s the case.

Another ‘subtle’ idea placed is in using the typewriter font for the journal entries instead of the hand-written style from the original series. I interpret that as a nod towards Rorschach’s comment in the original about his entries being made in the early draft of his journal. Like he writes it out by hand initially and, then, cleans it up on the typewriter. Since this is well in the past from then, he would have had the time to type the entries for 1977 up. Or, am I reading too much into a font choice?

Getting to the actual comic, I liked this issue. As you said, Azzarello trusts the readers to know the score ahead of time and goes from there. I’m a little surprised at how ‘ordinary’ Rorschach seems, especially in how he fell into that trap. We’d seen him taken down by superior numbers before and there’s a sense that this alludes to his arrest in the original series. The same panic at the surprise and inability to defeat superior numbers… But, at the same time, he doesn’t look particularly good in his failed attempt to fight off the gang either. That’s a surprising choice, particularly since him having a better showing wouldn’t have changed the scene too much.

And, you’re right about Bermejo’s art. In some places, I really liked it, but, in others, it was too stiff or overly rendered/referenced. But, that’s not surprising, since that’s the direction he’s been moving in for years.

BC: Great point about the Keene Act. You know, the fact that Azzarello specifically set the issue at the exact mid-point of the year does suggest that he’s saying “pre-Keene/post-Keene, it really doesn’t matter with Rorschach.”

I imagine that Rorschach not being able to take on all of the bad guys in this issue while he was able to take out even more in Watchmen does play some sort of role – like perhaps this is a message to Rorschach that he needs to train more or something along those lines?

Something that struck me at the end of the issue – are we to believe that Walter Kovacs looks tough? He’s five foot six and 140 pounds. That’s not exactly physically imposing, and yet the people in the diner at the end are shocked that he got mugged. Strange.

It’s kind of interesting that the approach of some of these comics have been so poor that we’re both impressed by stuff like this issue, which is an extremely simple story, ya know?

CN: I took that as them being shocked that someone would think to rob a man that looks almost homeless and completely harmless. Like, why go to the effort to robbing such a pathethic individual when there are so many other targets that could actually make you some money? Who’s going to rob a guy who walks around with a ‘The end is near’ sign?

Rorschach was adept before this, though. He’s been doing this for years and I can’t imagine that he would have lasted so long if he could be taken out so easily.

I did like how the head of the gang didn’t care who was underneath the mask, because that person doesn’t matter. No one cares about Kovacs, just Rorschach — which goes along with the surprise that someone would rob him. It’s funny how everything about this world, including Rorschach himself, seems aimed at destroying Walter Kovacs, either through force or by simply denying his existence.

And, of course, Azzarello remembers K.I.S.S.

BC: Ah, that’s an interesting theory. I dunno, though, wouldn’t the completely harmless people be the BIGGEST targets for muggers?

But yeah, I do like the idea that Kovacs has been so marginalized that even the bad guys think that there is no point in knowing who Rorschach is beneath the mask.

And as for Rorschach’s competency, do we really know that he is really all THAT adept in crime-fighting before the 1980s? Most of the stuff we saw him do in the flashbacks in Watchmen were not exactly great physical feats. Heck, the biggest flashback we got to Rorschach’s past was the scene where he chops up the dogs. That’s not the same thing as taking on five guys, ya know? Something he does easily in the present day scenes in Watchmen but can’t handle this issue. So I think that there’s a good chance that Azzarello is intentionally showing us that Rorschach was not as bad ass in 1977.

CN: There’s a difference between ‘harmless’ and ‘crazy homeless-looking.’ I think…

I don’t know… I would assume by this point in his career, he’d put up a better fight than he does.

This issue also marked the final chapter of “The Curse of the Crimson Corsair” that Len Wein is writing before John Higgins takes over with the next chapter in Dr. Manhattan #1. We’ve been a little down on Wein’s writing on that feature over the past month or so, but he managed to bring something special to his exit. Bombastic and over-the-top and a little weird, it’s not at all like what we’d seen previously and kind of makes me wish he wasn’t leaving. He really goes for it with our narrator dealing with losing his soul, not being able to die, and being bound to the Flying Dutchman — and Higgins! HIGGINS! He matches Wein and delivers some fantastic-looking art that, like the writing, is a deparate from what we’ve gotten in this strip so far. It almost makes you wonder what’s next… and can Higgins keep things interesting solo?

BC: The key point is that Higgins is not leaving, and he’s been the best part of the strip. But yeah, Wein had a fine farewell with this story. It was trippy but interesting. I was even okay with the appearance of the Crimson Corsair, who I did not want to see again for some time.

As to whether Higgins can keep it up, I really have no idea whatsoever. I do have hope, though! I wish I had as much hope for Doctor Manhattan #1…

CN: At the very least, we’ve have Higgins’s art. Hell, with Dr. Manhattan, we’ll also have Adam Hughes’s art — interior work at that.

Also, we’re at the stage where every series will be happening at the same time in this weird release schedule where each week is almost a surprise over what comic will come out. It’s similar to Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, but that felt a little more organised. This seems like a staggered launch built around hitting deadlines more than anything. Which is fine. But, how long before we completely lose track of what’s going on?

BC: Oh yeah, Seven Soldiers was a heck of a lot more organized, and even that had some disorganization when Ferry left Mister Miracle early. I find it hard to believe that we’ll find all that much interaction between these series, except perhaps the Hooded Justice mystery.

CN: I just hope it’s solved in the back-up strip. Hooded Justice is the Crimson Corsair!

BC: That’ll be the introduction of the Black Freighter!

26 Comments

I definitely read the interaction in the diner as them thinking Kovacs looked too poor and homeless to be worth mugging. It seemed more “no offense but who would bother to mug you?” than “who would dare mess with you?” to me.

Between the different font in the journal entries, the liberal use of profanity (it’s been a while since I read the original cover-to-cover but I don’t remember ever swearing and kind of figured he’d consider it a “moral lapse” or something), his getting beaten so badly, and the fact that the book made a point of almost taking his mask off then leaving it on, I spent most of the issue thinking there was going to be a surprise ending where we found out the Rorschach the story followed was an impostor. The appearance of Kovacs at the end threw that theory out the window, though. I doubt those things were accidental, though. I suspect Azzarello is either showing us that this is a Rorshach still on the path to becoming the guy we saw in Watchmen, or he’s saying that, rather than seem like he’s trying to add to Moore’s legacy, he’s just going to write a different version of Rorshach altogether. Like the way Wolverine can be a noble samurai in one book and a gruff berserker in another and we just take it as two different interpretations of the character.

Yeah, they’re surprised that Kovacs would be mugged because he’d have nothing worth stealing. I’ve actually enjoyed some of Before Watchmen – for me, Silk Spectre and Ozymandias have been great. This wasn’t. Azzarello failed to capture the poetry of Rorschach’s journal entries, and the story wasn’t just unnecessary, but also felt like a wasted opportunity to be much more. While Azzarello’s Comedian stories have at least been brave enough to head in some unexpected directions, Rorschach was predictable and banal and my least favourite Before Watchmen story so far. Maybe the fact that Rorschach is so stubborn and immutable a character means that there can be no surprises, but I can’t believe that every interesting story about him has already been told.

Tom Fitzpatrick

August 20, 2012 at 7:11 pm

When I saw that scene where the punks almost took off Rorschach’s mask and the leader not caring who’s behind it, I flashbacked to a similiar scene years back.

I think it was in ARKHAM ASYLUM, the graphic novel written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Dave McKean, where some of Batman’s arch-enemies wanted to know his real face behind the mask. The ringleader: Joker said no, that the mask was his real face.

I may be wrong about which comic this scene actually took place.

The art was quite exceptional. Very New York gritty, grimy, and dirty. Just the way a Rorschach series should be. I do wonder tho’, if this first issue takes place before the Blaine kidnapping that drove Rorschach over the edge.

I do wonder tho’, if this first issue takes place before the Blaine kidnapping that drove Rorschach over the edge.

That was 1975. This is 1977.

The two cops investigating the body left in the dumpster look to be the same two cops that wind up heading up Rorshach’s arrest in the original series, don’t you think?

I could be wrong but that looks too luminous and too modern to be 1977′s New York. I get the impression that Bermejo used a modern photo for reference. What do the New Yorkers say?

It’s a pretty accurate depiction of New York in 1977. Although it is worth noting that the skyline shot DOES look pretty darn bright.

My guess is that the journal entries are typed because the comic is lettered digitally and “hand written style” computer fonts never look good enough.

As for the brightness of the city: I think it’s a problem with the colouring not the art. It would be nice to see the original art and see how dark it is.

Nobody seems to be able to do Rorschach’s speaking patterns just right as Moore did.

I also thought they were surprised that anyone would bother to mug someone who looks homeless. Also, I really didn’t like his poor showing in the fight. This simply isn’t the guy who calmly eradicates Big Figure (was that his name?) and his henchmen in the jail.

Leslie Fontenelle

August 21, 2012 at 7:55 am

This book was awful, purty pictures aside..

Patrick Lemaire

August 21, 2012 at 9:02 am

July 1977 was when there was a blackout which resulted in city-wide looting and other disorder, including arson. I don’t think the time is a coincidence. Since the Keene Act was passed after the riots, we are pre-Keene Act.

SPOILER: Rorschach will probably be responsible for either the blackout and/or the riots and hence the Keene Act.

Patrick Lemaire

August 21, 2012 at 9:03 am

And we will probably have the same picture of New York in the dark.

Alexandre Juliao

August 21, 2012 at 9:30 am

My impression reading this book and The Comedian, is that Azzarello just reworked some stories he didn’t have the chance to publish.
Rorschach was much more skilled at fighting and criminals really feared him in Watchmen. In 1977, Rorschach was fighting crime for more than a decade and since the story takes place two years after the kidnapping that pushed him over de edge, he was already killing criminals at that time.

I didn’t buy the books, and don’t intend to. One of the problems I feared is evident in these reviews. The writers – or at least, Azzarello – don’t get the nuances of the characterization.

Note that in WATCHMEN, Rorschach never complains directly about his personal life in his narration. It’s not in him to whine. We see flashbacks and we have hints – like him comparing the landlady to his mother, but the adult Rorschach telling us a sad episode of his childhood seems weird. He would not admit directly to such vulnerabilities.

Like the Comediam displaying admiration and even hope for JFK. Edward Blake was quite clearly a nihilist at least as far back as he started to wear the costume. Again, he shows signs of having some humanity buried in there somewhere, with his interaction with Laurie, and his regrets when he’s drunk at Moloch’s house, but having a flirt with idealism? Way out of character.

There is a arid quality to the characters that Azzarello doesn’t get.

And yes, I realize that I would not be as exacting if it was just a case of a new writer taking over Spider-Man, but this is Watchmen.

@Rene

Well, if Azzarello – or anybody involved with this project – got the characters in Watchmen, they would not have done these prequels

Read the interviews with Azz, Cooke, and JMS – none of them get the source material

Kind of reminds me of Frank Quitely’s recent Star Wars artwork. He admits that he never even saw the movies when they came out – and he does a gore-filled picture with a bunch of dismembered bodies and one Jedi standing there. Yeah, nothing says Star Wars like bloody limbs

I know this is slightly off-topic, but I was wondering why Chad turned comments off on his Random Thoughts! column? I don’t know if there was some bad trolling happening in a past installment of what, and I totally respect his right to turn the comments off and am not trying to tell him what to do, but I feel the column suffers somewhat without the comments. The interplay and back and forth really added to the column, moreso than with other CSBG features. I especially liked his follow-ups on the previous week’s comments he used to do.

Again, just some constructive criticism and not trying to badger you into any changes you don’t want to do.

I didn’t buy the books, and don’t intend to. One of the problems I feared is evident in these reviews. The writers – or at least, Azzarello – don’t get the nuances of the characterization.

Yes, Azzarello is one of those writers who doesn’t get subtlety. He is of the modern school of thought that thinks that moving at a slow pace, using less dialogue and using narration captions instead of thought balloons somehow makes a work subtle, but it doesn’t.

Note that in WATCHMEN, Rorschach never complains directly about his personal life in his narration. It’s not in him to whine. We see flashbacks and we have hints – like him comparing the landlady to his mother, but the adult Rorschach telling us a sad episode of his childhood seems weird. He would not admit directly to such vulnerabilities.

This is a big problem I have with modern DC in general under Didio. Although neither Marvel or DC have as distinctive a house style as they did in eras past, the closest DC comes to a house style under Didio is something I call “emo noir.” They use this weird, almost-purple prose filled with clipped, tough guy talk and narration that seems to be meant to evoke noir in the vein of a poor man’s Mickey Spillane or a Frank Miller, but if you look past the superficial, stylistic tics of clipped sentences, gritted teeth, and vivid metaphors, the actual substance is emo, overwrought, and navelgazing as hell. What you describe is exactly what I feared when I first heard that Didio’s “Emo Noir” DC comics was going to be revisiting Moore’s Watchmen.

Loved this , each week , I can not wait to get to store to buy these Before Watchmen comics. So far i have only been disappointed with one of the titles. I hope the rumor is true , that they are going to be continuing the Before Watchmen line after the mini’s wrap up. They have my (and my friends ) future $$$ , we are really digging these titles, and will support these comics as long as they publish them

@actor

We believe you. We believe that’s not a completely fake post that you just made

Care to articulate what is good about them, and what you “dig” about them – specifics

“Yeah, nothing says Star Wars like bloody limbs”

Lucas seemed to think so when he showed us the severd arm that Obi-Wan had lopped off the alien threatening Luke in the cantina, at least.

@Prodigal

There is a big difference between a couple specifically placed scenes in the original trilogy – put there specifically to advance particular plot points – and a room full of severed, bloody corpses. I’m sorry that that actually has to be explained to you

Just a pipe dream, of course, but I wish DC could’ve somehow got Ditko to write this series.

My recollection is that the riots came out of a police strike, not a blackout. (Checks the collection) Yep, it’s the police strike. And, during the riots, Nite Owl tells the Comedian that Rorschach “works mostly on his own these days.”
I don’t necessarily have a problem with Rorschach being overpowered by multiple assailants, especially after being sucker-punched by a fist as big as his own head. As has been pointed out, he’s 5’6″ and 140 pounds. Stealth and attitude can only take you so far, and he clearly knows that. He was definitely about to blast those guys with their own shotgun, no question. That said, it’s also plausible that spending the eight years between the passage of the Keene Act and the events of “Watchmen” as a wanted fugitive prompted him to improve his skills. That would certainly explain how the 37-year-old who gets taken down fairly easily by a bunch of thugs becomes the 45-year-old who might have escaped a SWAT team if he hadn’t made a bad landing.
The swearing did strike me as out of character, though. Moore did have Rorschach speak–casually, I guess you could call it–at times. “Guy went sidewalk diving” is how he describes Edward Blake’s death in the bar scene early on. But Rorschach never swears, not even “damn” or “hell.” “Shit” just doesn’t sound right coming from him.

“Emo noir.” Haha, that is very fitting label for Didio’s style, T. It’s the cheapest way to simulate maturity.

I didn’t read much of Azzarello’s work. He may be a great writer, for all that I know, but I think he’s got the characters in WATCHMEN wrong. JubJub may be right, if he had utter respect for Alan Moore’s vision, he wouldn’t take the job. Still, I hoped against all hope that we’d get writers that are clueless enough to take the job, but perceptive enough to come to an approximation of Moore when doing the characters’ voices.

I find it bizarre how few of these reviews don’t note that rorschach never swears or, and almost never even uses slang in the original series, but now Azzarello makes him some jive-talking action hero… how is this rorschach at all, other than the artist drew a guy in rorschach’s costume?

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