A Queer Reading Of Rorschach And Watchmen, At Nine Worlds

So, I thought I understood pretty much all of Watchmen. I have read the Annotations. I have watched the Kieron Gillen presentation, nodding along. I thought I had squeezed all the nourishment out of that stone. And I was utterly wrong.

The first panel of the day that I went to at Nine Worlds London Geekfest today in Hammersmith was presented Dr Katherine Hubbard of the University Of Surrey who has been examining the use and understanding of the Rorschach Test in modern culture –  and how Watchmen has played a major role in that.

queer reading watchmen rorschachDr Hubbard gave a presentation to Nine Worlds today to an audience that included one Rorschach cosplayer, seeing herself in the role of Dr Malcolm Long from Watchmen, studying not just Rorschach but the test itself. Even to the degree that he doesn't recognise that Rorschach is called Rorschach when administrating the test.

Indeed, later in the talk, she would say that some studying public perception of the Rorschach Test were told a few years ago to ignore anhthing related to some comic called Watchmen with the character it it as it was warping results. Dr Hubbard rejects that and states that Watchmen is now in the history of the Rorschach Test and needs to be taken into acount by psychologists rather than simply erased. This kind of erasure would be a common theme.

She talked about the origins of the test, how its creator died before his work could be used as he intended, leaving others to improvise a lot, and how the Test often reveals more about the people who use it than the people they use it on. And how it has been discredited in the US, but is still studied and used in France, while the UK only used it in an unofficial capacity.

But Dr Hubbard concentrated on how, in World War II, it was used by the US Army to determine which of their officers was gay or just pretending to be gay to get out of service. And while the original test was more concerned about whether people saw movement, or saw negative space as positive space in the images they saw, in practice it was decided that people who saw, sexual detail, details of mouths, genitalia, human or animal, or female clothing could be gay. Even masks, faces and eyes could be interpreted as signs of paranoia. And why? Because the person may be gay.

And that the details that Rorschach sees, even as he is lying to Dr Malcolm Long, and revealing his own story and history, gave answers that would have been interpreted as possibly being homosexual. That Rorschach himself at one point becomes that test, talking about someone he is looking into as "possible homosexual – must investigate" , like the test, he is a result of a failed ethical system, one who is invalidaded by the psychiatrist, and not believed – but in the end his truth will out. And we see his involvement with women's clothing, cutting up the dress meant for Kitty Genovese to wear as his own Roschach ink blot mask. And when he is unmasked by police, arresting him, he is called a phrase that named this panel, a goddamned queer.

It's a reading that Alan Moore is likely to have intended, after studying the Rorschach Test literature when writing Watchmen, at the same time as he was writing his gay history comic story Mirror Of Love with Rick Veitch and publishing it in his own magazine, AARGH – Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia. It is just one that missed me until now, and Nine Worlds is just the kind of place to give me such a revelation about something I believed was so familiar with.

Dr Hubbard also talked about other more obviously gay characters in Watchmen, such as Silhouette and Gretchen, and Eileen and Joey,  the couple arguing at the crossroads, one lending the other an anti-psychiatry text Knots, then with Dr Malcolm Long getting in between their fight, with psychiatry seen as an opponent to gay identity.

She also spent a lot of time talking about Kitty Genovese, who gets a passing mention in Watchmen but has the added quality fo being real. Known for the famous case of her rape and murder while neighbour looked on, no one calling the police or intervening, this has inspired many a psychological study on the behaviour of people, such as those in cities, when responsibility is divested by them to others, known as the Bystander Effect. But much of that wasn't true, there weren;t 37 people watching on, people did call the police, someone did intervene and thought they had scared off the attacker.

But Dr Hubbard pointed out that the reports tried to make Kitty an everywoman to emphasis that belief that it could happen to anyone, but the photo they used disguised the fact that it was a mugshot, that Kitty was a gay woman going home to her partner who later identified her body was erased. That this is why she may have been attacked didn't fit the narrative being told. She had been reduced to a cypher, a point to be made, rather than a person. Her queerness was erased in the process.

This is just a snippet of the presentation, itself a snippet of the paper being published, and I look forward to reading the whole thing. I'm wondering what else I missed…

About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.