In Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN, Rorschach stands out among numerous characters through his misconception of reality. While no character in the story exemplifies great mental health, his mental instability surpasses the rest. Moore exaggerates Rorschach’s lunacy through his delusional perception of reality. Throughout the comic, Rorschach refers to his mask as his “face,” flaunting his backward concept of life. What shapes this false reality? What causes Walter Kovacs to cast aside his true self? While this delusion raises many questions, the truth behind Rorschach’s “face” reveals that he is just like the rest of us.

Rorschach first refers to his mask as his “face” when he is framed for Moloch’s murder. This is the first time his mask comes off, showing his identity hidden underneath. Rorschach’s irrational attachment to his “face” emphasizes the extent of his delusion. While this exposes severe psychiatric issues within the character, we quickly learn that it is not unwarranted. After his arrest, Rorschach is forced to participate in counseling sessions where he reveals aspects of his origin. I know WATCHMEN was published in 1986, but to everybody who has not yet read the comic book, there are definitely spoilers ahead.

While Rorschach’s secret identity is not revealed until a few chapters into the story, it is a critical part of the story-line. After wondering what caused Rorschach’s mentally instability, the reader is given clues as to why.

An Unwanted Child

Walter Kovacs Watchmen
Image Courtesy of DC Entertainment

As we follow Rorschach, now revealed as Walter Kovacs, through his interviews with Dr. Malcolm Long, we see critical glimpses of his past. The unwanted son of a prostitute, Walter’s mother pushes him away and ignores him. We follow him through his memory of his mom insulting him and pushing him away when he was only trying to help her. Like every child, Walter sought love and attention from his mom but received only disdain. Furthermore, he had nobody to fill the void of love his mom left, since his dad was never in the picture. His unloving mother and absent father left him to sort through his own emotions as he made his way through life. Due to the cold nature of his home, Walter had to seek attention and care elsewhere, but would only find further pain.

In addition to his own mother rejecting him, Walter’s peers also harass him because of his mom’s profession. Another crucial moment from his past exhibits an early stage of aggression. At age 10, Walter partially blinds another child with a lit cigarette after harsh ridicule. This argues that he was emotionally and physically abused both in his home and beyond. The severe trauma surrounding Walter’s childhood develops strong feelings of worthlessness within him. Feeling dispensable in every facet of his life forces him to seek value elsewhere until he finds something to satisfy his necessity.

A New Identity

Rorschach's face
Image Courtesy of DC Entertainment

After failing to find his purpose as Walter Kovacs, Rorschach casts aside his true self. In order to feel valued, he turns to a mask of his own creation, adopting an entirely new identity and reality. The trauma that surrounds Walter manifests itself through this alter ego. In becoming a masked hero, Rorschach discovers both value and attention. The contrast between Walter’s worthlessness and Rorschach’s significance encourages him to cling to his alter ego.

Although Rorschach reveals when he first created the mask, he claims that he did not become Rorschach at that time. From his perspective, he does not fully adopt his alternate self until discovering the fate of a kidnapped girl. When he finds the girl’s kidnapper, he peers into a darker side of humanity. Up to that point, he was nothing more than Walter Kovacs wearing a mask. But after watching two dogs fight over the remains of a young girl, he decides to completely separate himself from the society responsible for this young girl’s demise. To cut himself off from the world, he discards Walter Kovacs and becomes Rorschach.

Rorschach believes that this solitary event triggers his transformation, but it is not the only incident that leads up to his delusional understanding of reality. Despite his claim, each memory Rorschach experiences in his sessions with Dr. Malcolm Long argue additional aspects that lead to his psychosis.

Discovering the Truth

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In order to find the value and attention he lacked in his childhood, Walter turns to his mask. He utilizes fear and desperation to satisfy his desire for recognition. Then, in seeing into the abyss of humanity, he alienates himself from society, discarding his true self. The combination of events throughout his origin transform Walter into Rorschach, but why is it that he claims it was only this one event?

Although Rorschach argues that he did not discard his former self until he found the young girl’s kidnapper, his lack of mental stability greatly reduces his credibility. Considering he refers to his mask as his “face,” it is safe to assume that he is not a reliable narrator. Rorschach’s viewpoint on his transformation argues his deep-seated desire to forget his childhood. He opposes his true identity to escape the pain of his youth. Despite this evasion, Rorschach believes that he becomes his alter ego to separate himself from the darkness of humanity. While he successfully escapes his true self for most of the comic, nobody can live in falsehood forever.

Throughout WATCHMEN, Rorschach stays true to his resolve, save for the moment leading up to his demise. As the comic approaches its conclusion, Adrian Veidt reveals his plot to unite humanity through a false threat that costs countless lives. Despite having to face Dr. Manhattan, and ultimately his death, Rorschach stands alone in opposition. Right before his death, Rorschach pulls off his “face” and reveals a crying Walter Kovacs. This act argues the desertion of his alter ego. Despite his resolve, he cannot completely discard his true self and disconnect from humanity. Furthermore, in exposing his emotions, he contradicts the cold and unfeeling character portrayed throughout the comic. So why does he do it?

Abandoning the Lie

Rorschach's face
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment

When debating Rorschach’s decision to reject Veidt’s plan, there are multiple possibilities to take into account. One probable reason is that he feels the world will no longer need masked heroes. With no more crime to fight, he will have to abandon his alter ego and return to being Walter Kovacs. While this reason is possible, Rorschach sees humanity as a hopeless abyss. In his eyes, humanity could never be capable of the peace that Veidt’s plan aims for. Even if he allows this scheme to unfold, he will always have a place as Rorschach. Therefore, he does not oppose Veidt’s plan because he is afraid of returning to his former self, he opposes it because it forces him to recognize the false narrative of his “face.”

Faced with a solution to end the violence that haunts his world, Rorschach rejects Veidt’s plot because its falsity disillusions him from his own lie. In opposing the plan, he recognizes that he is lying to himself and denying his true nature. Rorschach realizes that he was never anything more than Walter Kovacs. At that moment, Walter understands that the truth behind Rorschach’s “face” is that it was always just a mask. His life since adopting his identity as Rorschach has been a front to escape both the trauma of his childhood and the darkness of humanity. Upon tearing off his mask, Walter Kovacs kills Rorschach before Dr. Manhattan ever has the chance. Walter’s abandoning his alternate identity weakens his credibility.

Unreliable Narrators

Rorschach is undoubtedly one of the most complex characters in comic books. Despite portraying himself as a cold and unfeeling character, he is no different than the rest of us. Rorschach claims to understand himself but discovers that he is simply hiding behind a mask to escape his past. Furthermore, his lack of self-knowledge argues that is just like most of us and is an unreliable narrator of his own story. While many people understand themselves and their actions, there are a lot of us who do not. Sometimes we make decisions we don’t fully understand and other times we hide the truth of our actions from even ourselves.

The truth behind Rorschach’s “face,” is that he is just as unsure of himself as everyone else. He supports his lack of credibility as a narrator through the abandonment of his resolve and argues a common truth in society. In not fully understanding ourselves, we are unreliable narrators attempting to unravel the mystery of our lives. Until we take a look in the mirror and accept our true selves, we will never understand the reality of our actions.

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