Monday, September 08, 2008

Rorschach: Starting Where He Did

When I read the Watchmen graphic novel around the beginning of the year, it was simply to read it. I did not intend to mine it for illustrative purposes. Had I done so, I would've taken notes, dog-eared pages and paid more attention to small details. Instead, I read it as a reader--I simply enjoyed it.

Upon finishing it, however, I was struck by the character of Rorschach. I am not alone, of course--he's basically the star of the book. More precisely, he becomes the most loved character--the same way that Han Solo is not the main character in the Star Wars story, but really he's most people's favorite. So upon finishing it, I had the idea of wanting to paint Rorschach in some sort of portrait-fashion.

From the start, I was drawn to Rorscach's genesis story. The story of Kitty Genovese presented in the book immediately took me back to...well, I'm not sure, but I recall learning about the very story I think in Jr. High School--I seem to recall being in Mrs. Avery's class. I didn't recall her name, it was simply the strange case of a murder that happened in New York, where there were supposedly lots of witnesses, and no one did a thing. In fact, as the story goes, people watched. It shocked my conscience at the time--I think it probably shocked a lot of consciences at the time, which is how the story persisted in popular culture. I don't remember the context of learning about it back in 1986 or so, but come to think of it, I was hearing about the story right about the time Watchmen was being first published. Coincidence? Hmm.

My first inclination was to have the Genovese murder scene as the background, with a portrait of Rorschach in the foreground. I think I imagined him lifting his mask a bit to have a smoke. I liked the occasional scene where he lifted his mask partway. Then time moved on and we ended up in New Jersey a few months later.

In Jersey, I picked up the Rorschach thread again. I began by reading about the Genovese crime specifically, with an eye to perhaps picking up some symbolism to incorporate into the image. It was fascinating on its own to learn more about the case. It was also a little chilling to put a face to the attractive young woman at the center of the crime, the story, the urban legend, the impetus for Rorschach's coming into being, and my developing illustration.

Had she lived, she'd be about the same age as my dad

I was struck with the belief that the initial news reports were sensationalized some, that the night did not in fact go down as callously as portrayed. Rorschach was transformed by the story, and though the pure facts of the attack remain brutal, the part of humanity's indifference it seems to me were not as bad. Was Kovacs' transformation, then, based on half-truths? It's an interesting question. I also ordered my own copy of the book as I had been borrowing my reading copy. I went back through it, re-read the genesis story, the police report on Kovacs, and combed through the images in the book, dog-earing pages with visual cues I intended to use. Of course I realized at this point that Kovacs did not smoke. I think I was importing my own film noir ideas into the story. So I chucked the cigarettes and replaced them with another oral fixation--sugarcubes.

What immediately struck me, and hadn't until I began reading about the crime in more detail, was that the crime scene still exists to this day--the buildings were never demolished and rebuilt as so many in NYC are, so constantly. Suddenly I knew what I had to do.

We grabbed a camera and took a bus into the city, then a subway out to Queens....