Heroes Never Rust #88 by Sean Ironman
Watchmen: Turning Exposition into Plot
At the end of the fifth issue, Rorschach was caught by the police and unmasked. The sixth issue of Watchmen deals with the fallout and gives Rorschach center stage. While the other characters kind of sit around, Rorschach is the active one. He is the only one concerned with who killed The Comedian. So far, he has been the hero of the comic. At the same time, Rorschach is screwed up. He’s barely sane. No one seems to want much to do with him, including his ex-partner, and he slinks through the shadows in his mask and trench coat. But, readers have yet to find out why. Why is Rorschach the way he is? Readers, at times, do need to understand why the characters readers are following act the way they act. Character motivation is important for readers to know. But, the issue with backstory is that exposition is boring for readers. Get back to the murder mystery. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have their cake and eat it too. They get to keep the story moving forward and reveal Rorschach’s backstory by introducing another character.
Say hello to Dr. Malcolm Long, Rorschach’s prison psychiatrist.
When Doctor Manhattan was given a focus in issue four, he was the main character of that issue. But, in issue 6, Rorschach’s issue, Dr. Malcolm Long is the main character. Rorschach is relegated to a supporting role. Think of it like a novel that is told from multiple characters’ point of views. When one character takes over, the others become supporting characters for the chapter. The issue is refocused so that the story is no longer Rorschach dealing with being in prison but now it is Dr. Long’s attempt to understand and help Rorschach. This allows backstory to be given directly to the reader and still keep the story going because as we learn more about Rorschach, Dr. Long is getting closer (or so he believes) to his goal. The issue basically acts as a mini-story in the larger Watchmen comic.
Scenes in which Dr. Long does not appear in are from notes he is given after the fact. For example, a scene depicting Rorschach in line for food beat another inmate after said inmate attempts to stab him. The reader is shown the scene as if the reader was following Rorschach, but the scene is introduced with a narration caption from Dr. Long’s point of view. “The Deputy Warden just called. Apparently Kovacs was involved in an incident today, just after he’d seen me. It happened during lunch, in the canteen…” The comics medium allows for the scene to be presented in a visual manner and not stay in Dr. Long’s language. There is more leeway here than in prose, but the concept remains the same. By introducing the scene from Dr. Long’s point of view, the story stays focused on showing Dr. Long’s analysis of Rorschach, rather than just giving readers Rorschach in prison. There is a story to follow.
If Dr. Long’s story only featured Rorschach, the issue would fail. If it is indeed supposed to be Dr. Long’s story, then readers need to be given his whole story. He needs to become a real person and be just as well rounded as the other characters in Watchmen. Throughout the issue, readers are presented with scenes from Dr. Long’s personal life. It begins innocently with Dr. Long working late hours at home and his wife makes him take a break. A few pages later, the scene is repeated. Only this time, Dr. Long refuses to take a break and his wife goes to bed angry. The story readers are following quickly becomes not one of Dr. Long helping Rorschach but one of Dr. Long being corrupted by Rorschach. He begins to see only the horrors of the world, like Rorschach, and stop believing in the goodness of people. At the end of the issue, nothing has changed with Rorschach—his own plot has not been moved forward. But, Dr. Long is broken. The final sequence features Dr. Long staring closely at a Rorschach test in the dark and the comic ends with an all black panel. “We are alone. There is nothing else.” The issue is not taken totally away from Rorschach, however. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons understand still that this issue is one piece of a larger story. By having Rorschach be the reason this seemingly fine doctor breaks down makes Rorschach’s own journey more interesting and relatable. Readers are put in Dr. Long’s place. We are also trying to understand Rorschach. And at the end, just like Dr. Long, we too could not handle the horrors Rorschach faces.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.