Two people are shot and killed on a catwalk above a political campaign event. She's wearing a domino mask and a western outfit. He's wearing a hat, a brown overcoat, and a store-bought Rorschach mask, the visage of a masked vigilante killed over 30 years ago. A sniper's rifle lies by her feet as colorful balloons fall on the crowd below, celebrating the candidate's success.
Written by Tom King
Art by Jorge Fornés and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC's Black Label
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Like so many good stories, Rorschach #1 opens with death and with a mystery. Here it's not the body of a big, burly man being thrown out of a high-rise window but Tom King and Jorge Fornés establish a fascinating puzzle in just the first three pages of this new series.
Especially in our current political season, just weeks before a major election in the United States, the timing of this book feels like it is setting its audience up for some grand statement about our current zeitgeist. After all, based on the pedigree of this franchise (and it's now more than safe to call Watchmen a 'franchise,') these stories work best when their ambition and achievement are more than just being about the simple nature of superheroes and supervillains.
So these two dead people are the mystery and every mystery needs its detective. The campaign calls in their man, a detective with no name given in this issue, to discover who these two people were and what they were doing at this event.
Tom King's writing in this first issue is much more strictly procedural than we usually see from him. In his work from The Vision to Batman, you can trace his line of deep, character-driven writing that uses superheroes as metaphors for deeper, more obviously personal explorations of what it means to be a man, a hero, a husband, or a father. His work usually starts with already compromised characters and follows just how deeply broken they are on the road to recovery.
This detective is not one of those characters, at least not yet. Unlike Scott Free or Bruce Wayne, this character doesn't have a past, he doesn't have trauma, so the mystery of these two dead vigilantes becomes that necessary past and trauma needed to propel this tale.
Of course, there's more to it than that but this is just the first issue. This is just building up to something about the detective later on down the line. So enjoy that anticipation for now.
The conspiratorial atmosphere surrounding this issue gives it the mood of an old '70s thriller movie. Fornés and colorist Dave Stewart lean into that feeling, embracing the out-of-time feeling of this story, right on down to the detective's use of a payphone and the complete visual aesthetic established early in this issue.
There's a weariness in the lower levels of this story that's present from the very beginning of this issue. The death of this man wearing a Rorschach costume is the end of one story even as another begins. The detective's job, when he's brought into it, is to uncover the past, to uncover events that have already happened. Fornés stages his comic as a world already in progress, with its own history, its own styles, and its own goals. The detective is stepping into it but it still moves on whether he's there or not. This world is in motion whether you're part of it or not. It's unending in so many ways that just invite this weariness to be a part of its very nature.
King and Fornés focus in on the dead costumed figures but provide details about the wider world if you're paying enough attention. These suggestions and hints just add to the mystery by alluding that these dead bodies are a reflection of the larger world around them. Unlike most of his recent work that functions in well-established continuities, King takes this opportunity to slowly explore the world and environment of this detective. While it's familiar to us as it is the world that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created, King uses the distance from that original story to set us all in uneven and unexplored territory. And even though we've by now seen all kinds of stories under the Watchmen banner, King and Fornés are operating adjacent to but separate from what has come before them.
This issue itself functions as a Rorschach test, providing the general shape of the story to come as King and Fornés leave it to their audience to fill in the context around it. What you see in it is informed by what you put into it yourself. We know that there is something here but King and Fornés only give us enough to start filling in the details and shadows ourselves. At this point, it actually feels a bit more like a trap, like we're being set up already for some twist that we half expect but won't see coming down the line. As we're being eased into this story, we know as much as or less than what the detective knows so we are put into his role, trying to complete the picture through our own assumptions and worldviews. And from a first issue, can we really expect anything more than that?