Friday, June 1, 2012

Watchmen: Chapter VI - thematic overview


A quick note:  The characters of Walter Kovacs and his alter-ego Rorschach are two very distinct people in the hands of Moore & Gibbons.  With that in mind, the text that follows distinguishes between each depending upon which character is seen in a particular panel (physically, not psychologically).  I had initially considered identifying the character according to his personal timeline within the greater narrative of Watchmen, but felt that would be far too confusing – for myself as much as anyone.  I hope the fact that I move from Rorschach to Kovacs and back does not affect the response I hoped to avoid. 


Thematic Overview: 

Chapter VI of Watchmen opens with an image of a Rorschach blot.  Appropriate, as this chapter delves into the mind of Walter Kovacs laying bare the experiences that formed his alter-ego, Rorschach.  Additionally, this Rorschach blot is described by Kovacs on Page 1, panel 8 as “a pretty butterfly,” which elegantly illustrates the main theme of this chapter – metamorphosis.  In this chapter we finally discover, through flashbacks, the events that transformed Walter Kovacs into Rorschach concomitant the present-day narrative that details the metamorphosis of Dr. Malcolm Long from the upbeat psychiatrist treating Kovacs to a person more akin to his infamous patient than he could have ever imagined. 

It seems inevitable that Kovacs, an unloved and abused boy, should have become the hardened, uncompromising vigilante Rorschach.  His worldview, formed at an early age, spurred a need for a black and white world rather than the muddled, gray one in which we all live.  As Rorschach, Kovacs meted out justice on the criminal underclass.  But we learn Kovacs, in his guise of Rorschach, spent years as a “soft” crimefighter before alter-ego was truly born.  And when Moore & Gibbons provide the final straw that sent Kovacs over the edge, it’s chilling – the culmination of a slow, steady metamorphosis into the scourge of the underworld introduced in the first chapter of Watchmen

In order to help Kovacs, Dr. Long must fully understand what motivated his patient to become Rorschach.  He expects a malady well within his ability to cure.  But humans are complex, and Walter Kovacs is no exception.  Probing further into the events that transformed Kovacs into Rorschach, Dr. Long falls deeper into the abyss and becomes more sympathetic toward his patient’s plight.    With this fuller understanding of Kovacs/Rorschach, Dr. Long transforms into a person who sees the world through similarly tinted glasses to Rorschach.  It’s an emotional descent into a personal hell that can be hard to watch and just as difficult to turn away from.  These parallel metamorphoses occupy the narrative of this chapter through its twenty-eight pages, until the Rorschach blot metaphorically coalesces, as these two men become one. 

Throughout the chapter, the butterfly image – most notably in the form of the Rorschach blot from the cover – acts as a harbinger, revealing itself during significant junctures in the narrative, turning points in one or the other character’s story.  It is subtle but elegant in its simplicity, emphasizing the transformations these characters go through.  And at the heart of this entire chapter is the realization that, given the right number of circumstances and the right amount of wrong turns, anyone could have become Rorschach.  In the end, it just happened to be Walter Kovacs who answered the call.


  1. The symmetrical work of Chapter V was impressive but chapter VI was possibly the best, and darkest, comic that I read in the 80s.

    It was horrific then, and still is now.

    1. Agreed, Eamonn. This chapter is just horrifying and amazing. I think a lot of that comes from the body language Gibbons imbues Kovacs with. He is so matter of fact in his recounting of events that led to him becoming Rorschach. It's chilling.

      I always appreciate hearing your thoughts here. It's nice to "talk" with someone who read Watchmen when it first came out. Thanks for reading.


  2. A VBA award for your blog!

  3. Eamonn,

    Thank you so much, sir. I will put together a proper post with noms soon.