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Two figures, one dressed as Rorschach, the other, female, dressed in cowboy chic, lie dead of gunshot wounds on a catwalk above a packed presidential rally crowd and dozens of red white and blue balloons, in Rorschach #1, DC Comics (2020). Image: Tom King, Jorge Fornés/DC Comics

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Rorschach #1 is more than a Watchmen murder mystery

Yes, it’s better than both Doomsday Clock and all of Before Watchmen.

This week sees the release of the first issue of DC’s Rorschach, the new 12-issue series that isn’t quite a Watchmen sequel but certainly takes place in the Watchmen world, and uses iconography from Watchmen.

Is it a cynical cash-in on the original comic (and/or HBO’s multiple-award-winning television follow-up), or is it, you know, actually worth reading in its own right? Here’s what you need to know about the series.

Who is making Rorschach?

DC’s latest attempt to extend the Watchmen mythology beyond the original Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons series comes from known acolyte of Moore — and lover of Watchmen’s nine panel grid structure — Tom King, and artist Jorge Fornés, whose work recently wowed readers in Marvel’s Daredevil.

It might seem a little too on the nose that King is working on a Watchmen follow-up, considering the debt he owes the 1986 series, as seen in his Omega Men and Mister Miracle titles, and to his credit, he’s so well aware of it that he’s pointed it out in interviews. To his credit, King isn’t taking the Doomsday Clock “cover song” approach to Moore and Gibbons’ comic, here, and Fornés’ artwork underscores that. This is a comic that takes place in the same world as Watchmen, far more than it is a direct Watchmen sequel in terms of format or execution. Think of it as the comic book version of the HBO show, perhaps.

What is Rorschach #1 about?

At its heart, Rorschach is a murder mystery of a sort, except the mystery revolves around the identity of the victim, not the murderer. A man dressed as Rorschach is killed, alongside an accomplice, after failing to assassinate a Presidential candidate during a rally — but who is he, and why was he trying to kill a politician? He might be former comic creator William Myerson… or he might be Walter Kovacs, somehow not as dead as he seemed at the end of Watchmen and still active 35 years after he was apparently killed by Doctor Manhattan.

That’s the plot of the first issue, at least, but thematically, King has talked about the series being about the insanity, frustration and anger of being alive in 2020. If nothing else, that might explain why someone’s trying to kill a Presidential candidate.

Why is Rorschach happening now?

Given the mystery element of the series (and the character as a whole), the answer to just why Rorschach is happening now may depend on the point of view of the person responding.

It might be because, as King has said, he knew that he and Fornés could do great work together after their collaboration on Batman Annual #4 last year, and this offered an opportunity to explore that possibility. It might be because DC and Warner Bros. want to find a way to keep Watchmen as viable intellectual property beyond its use a prop for DC Universe-centric stories — following the publication of Doomsday Clock and the current Dark Nights: Death Metal, especially in the wake of Damon Lindelof’s HBO series. (That show, and the way in which it used the original comic’s iconography and attitude to tell an entirely different story, feels very much a touchstone to what King and Fornés are doing here.)

Batman rescues a lost child, the next day he wrestles an alligator that invaded a Gotham home, and the next he stopped “a disturbed man” flying “an old plane, threatening to crash it into the highway,” in Batman Annual #4, DC Comics (2019).
From King and Fornés’ Batman Annual #4.
Image: Tom King, Jorge Fornés/DC Comics

Or perhaps there’s something in the fact that a comic creator is one of the suspects in the identity of Rorschach, allowing King to pursue his current interest in comic book history and how it interacts with the work fans know and love, as demonstrated in the quotes at the end of every issue of his Strange Adventures series.

Maybe it’s all three, or something else. Take a look and decide for yourself. What do you see in the picture?

Is there any required reading?

Required reading? Actually, no; even someone utterly disinterested and unaware of Watchmen could go into this and get everything that they need, which isn’t to say that there’s nothing here for fans of the original comic. That said, the HBO show feels more of an active influence, especially in the way in which neither Lindelof’s nor King’s take on the material is particularly interested in the superhero genre or deconstructions of superheroes in the same way that Moore and Gibbons were.

A knowledge of real world comic book history may be a plus, however, especially when it comes to some of the names being dropped in one particular, eye-opening, scene.

Is Rorschach #1 good?

Much to the horror of those who feel that Watchmen should be hermetically sealed away and never again touched, Rorschach #1 is a good, if slow, start to a story that feels filled with interesting things to say about a number of subjects that, importantly, feel worthy of discussion and investigation.

This isn’t a moribund attempt to resuscitate I.P. that lacks any other reason to exist, nor is it a Doomsday Clock-esque attempt to reshape that I.P. into something that will slot into the larger fictional universe and set up any number of crossovers in the future. It’s a story that has a certain amount of thematic crossover with the original Watchmen, but might also be a commentary on the original Watchmen in some ways. That Myerson, if he is indeed the man under the Rorschach mask, is a comic creator, a man responsible for a character and series that has since been merchandised into movies and other venues, feels particularly important in that regard.

A billboard ad for Pontius Pirate: War of the West Indies, a blockbuster coming in 2021 in Rorschach #1, DC Comics (2020).
In the Watchmen world where pirate stories dominated comics instead of superheroes, there’s a pirate cinematic universe.
Image: Tom King, Jorge Fornés/DC Comics

Beyond that, it helps that the story’s central mystery — who is this man who tried to assassinate a Presidential candidate, and why did he do it? — proves to be a strong enough spine for the unexpectedly cinematic, retro writing that King delivers. This doesn’t read like King’s other work, not even his current Strange Adventures; he’s noticeably pulled back on his familiar tricks and tics, and the result is something that actually does feel like the work of a different writer. (There aren’t even any nine panel grids in the entire book!)

If King is stretching himself, it should be noted that his efforts are being met by Fornés, who delivers career-best work despite being faced with a script that purposefully shies away from big dramatic moments and demands subtlety and restraint at all points. Well, almost all points; there is one action sequence, which pops suitably against the quiet of everything else in the book. (Credit there should also go to colorist Dave Stewart, who makes very smart choices with regards to the palette of different moments, and quietly keys the reader in to what’s about to happen at particular points.)

By continually choosing shots that focus in with laser precision on what the reader needs to know for each scene, and each character — whether to humanize them, or make them seem distant and unknowable; when to drop in unexpected visual references to Watchmen — Fornés is as much the author of this comic as King, and earns the faith that his collaborator has shown in him with every page. That his work also bears little visual similarity to Dave Gibbons’ art from the original Watchmen feels very much like a benefit, as well.

Rorschach isn’t Watchmen 2, nor is it Doomsday Clock 2, despite its chronological closeness to Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s self-conscious crossover series. This first issue demonstrates that, and also leaves more than enough evidence that whatever it ends up being, it’ll be more than enough to stand up on its own.

One panel that popped

A man walks past the Halloween shop “Prince of Darkness,” which displays Doctor Manhattan and Nite-Owl masks in its windows. In voice over boxes, an investigator grouses that the dead man’s mask wasn’t unique enough to make him easy to find. “You almost wish it was like a fancy one, like the real Rorschach wore. [...] This fake crap. It’s everywhere really.” in Rorschach #1, DC Comics (2020). Image: Tom King, Jorge Fornés/DC Comics

If nothing else, King and Fornés seem to be well aware of the potential audience reaction to this project, and willing to have fun with it.