Last week, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz caught some heat for saying that Captain Kirk would have been a Republican, and that Star Trek: The Next Generation's Captain Picard was an incomplete captain, lacking the passion and heart of his predecessor.
I disagree with that, but it's not what I'm here to talk about. Because what the righteous Trekkie response missed was an addendum to the body text of the article that appeared only in the print version of the New York Times Magazine. It was a list of Ted Cruz's top five superheroes, and nestled at the bottom of it, after the likes of Spider-Man and Batman, is Rorschach.
I consider myself enough of a Star Trek fan to have an opinion on how our modern ideas of partisan politics would map onto the utopian, post-scarcity society of the Federation. But by laying out his opinions on superheroes, Mr. Cruz has come into my house.
And I do not tolerate people who think Rorschach belongs on a list of great superheroes in my house.
Rorschach, as you may remember, is one of the main characters of Alan Moore's Watchmen. Originally intended as a way to make use of the company's recently acquired stable of intellectual properties from the defunct Charlton Comics, many of Watchmen's characters wound up being amalgams of homage to classic Golden Age characters from Charlton, DC and Marvel.
But where Silk Spectre shared some characteristics with Nightshade (Charlton) and Black Canary (DC), where the Comedian owes inspiration to The Peacemaker (Charlton) and Nick Fury (Marvel), Moore himself has established that Rorschach is based very deliberately on the Question and Mr. A (pictured left), two heroes created by legendary Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko. If there's something else Ditko is famous for, it's for embracing Objectivism, and designing the Question and Mr. A explicitly as Objectivist superheroes. Moore intended Rorschach to reflect Ditko's leanings.
On those grounds, I can understand why a Republican candidate might become attached to Rorschach. Except that both Moore — and, most people would argue, Watchmen itself — has established that Rorschach is a man who gives plenty of lip service to living by a morally unassailable, black and white code, but who nevertheless picks and chooses much of what he considers to be right and wrong entirely according to his own personal prejudices. Possibly, Rorschach does this to a delusional extent.
People like Rorschach because he's the Batman of Watchmen
Which wouldn't bear laying out in such explicit terms, except that "liking Rorschach" is, in my experience, the biggest warning sign that a person has completely missed the point of Watchmen.
Let's pull back and set a scene here. What follows is a real conversation I had with a young dude I was playing D&D with at my local comic shop around the time the Watchmen film hit theaters. It's not the only interaction I've had like this, but it is the purest distillation of it.
"Oh man," he crowed at me, "I’m so excited for the Watchmen movie. My favorite one is Rorschach! Susana, who’s your favorite Watchman?"
"Oh, uh." I stammered, rolodexing through all the responses I wanted to give but that were clearly not wanted by this guy — like that I was skeptical of the idea that the helpless fear of mutually assured nuclear destruction at the heart of Watchmen could be made relevant in the late 2000s, or that I was pretty sure from marketing that Zack Snyder was treating it like the superhero story it really wasn't — and chose the one admission, albeit truthful, that would lead to the least further conversation. "...the Comedian, I guess."
"The Comedian!" He gasped, scandalized. "But the Comedian’s a murderer!"
I was younger then. I hadn't gotten a job that let me express myself on the internet yet. So, if I remember correctly, my brain-to-mouth filter didn't come up in time and I practically bellowed "THEY'RE ALL MURDERERS!"
The first time I read Watchmen I immediately embraced this uncompromising character who, when the going got tough, put his head down and refused to let the government tell him to stop doing the right thing. When Rorschach walked into a bar and broke several fingers of a man who had nothing to do with the case he was working — under the umbrella of "investigation" — I, after a bit of hesitation, embraced that, too. After all, I'd been reading Batman comics for years at that point, that was the sort of thing that Batman did all the time.
Watchmen is not about heroes. It's about people.
This early alliance with Rorschach's point of view made later parts of the comic pretty disturbing for me, as Rorschach's extraordinarily negative opinion of women and the poor and the LGBTQ community is made known, as his intrusive behavior towards his friends arises, as he terrorizes a reformed and terminally ill supervillain for taking unprescribed painkillers, and as he brutally kills animals for their owner's crimes. It was the beginning of the realization — one that I make sure to point out to anyone I know who's reading Watchmen for the first time — that Watchmen is not about heroes. It's about people. Flawed, violent and damaged people.
I've never stopped loving superheroes, or Batman, but over the years I have developed a more adult view of some of the staple tropes of the genre. I won't attribute all of that to Watchmen, but the comic was probably my earliest slap in the face about the "heroism" of taking the law into your own hands to beat up the unconvicted and the mentally ill, and especially the idea that a character could be morally superior or unassailable simply because they do so according to a set of self-imposed rules.
Rules are the very reason why superheroes work as a concept. For example: No matter how implausible, Batman never permanently maims somebody. He never kills. He is never cruel. While my colleague Ben Kuchera and I have agreed to disagree about this, I consider any story that either has Batman do those things or violates the reader's suspension of belief on those points to be poorly written. A story like that is simply A Bad Batman Story, and a candidate to not be considered strictly canonical.
In Watchmen, Alan Moore strips the superhero world of those conceits, and reveals it to be horrifying. That is, as horrifying as any other classic genre setting is — high fantasy, space opera, globe trotting adventure — when you strip it of those improbable, tacit, but narratively crucial rules that make it a staple of escapist fiction. Like that orcs are definitely always bestial monsters, so seeking to kill all of them isn't racism or genocide. Like that it's perfectly standard practice for people to wipe a droid's memory, though even astromechs like R2-D2 clearly exhibit consciousness, emotions, and distinct personalities.
But I digress. Let's bring it back to Ted Cruz.
It's worth saying that what Moore does with Watchmen isn't wrong, it's interesting. The idea of superheroes isn't broken to bits by Watchmen, just presented for examination. But the idea that Moore was writing characters for readers to be inspired by or emulate is a very unexamined one.
It's disturbing to see a kid in a comic book shop think that a "hero" who is merciless, who judges others instantly and reacts brutally to their perceived shortcomings to his own moral code, is cool. But that's a kid.
Seeing a grown man who wants to lead a country proudly list the same guy as one of his favorite heroes? Well, let’s just say it calls his reading comprehension skills into serious question.