Should we cut Ted Cruz some slack about Rorschach?

There’s a crucial difference between Rorschach and Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and the rest.

We don’t usually weigh in on political issues here at Overthinking It, but I think it’s justified in this case, because it seems like these days everyone and their mother is subjecting the popular culture to level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve. For instance, take the controversy surrounding the interview that Ted Cruz gave to the New York Times Magazine. Although really, the controversy is just about the article graphic listing Cruz’s favorite superheroes:  Spider-Man, Wolverine, Batman, Iron Man, and Rorschach. (And really it’s just about Rorschach. No one gives a damn about the rest of the list, for all that Spider-Man is the only one who actually gets mentioned in the body of the article.)

The internet is, predictably, going nuts. (In fairness, we are in the early stages of an election cycle, and it was either this or continue to pay attention to Donald Trump.) Here’s Susana Polo explaining in Polygon how this proves that Cruz has the reading comprehension skills of a five year old because if you actually pay attention to Watchmen you’ll realize that Rorschach is a goddamned monster. And here’s a series of tweets by The New Republic’s Jeet Heer explaining that, to the contrary, Rorschach is the shining moral light of the Watchmen universe.

Both of these are entertaining reads, and both make interesting points. (Polo’s article is less about Cruz—and really, less about Watchmen itself—than it is a brilliantly observed account of her own changing reaction to the comic over time. Heer’s tweeticle isn’t as personally compelling, but for my money is slightly more correct in its reading of Watchmen, and makes the not-uninteresting point that if Alan Moore really meant Rorschach to be as off-putting as all that, he may not have quite understood his own creation.) But I think both of them are based on a category error. So yeah, Rorschach doesn’t belong on that list next to Spider-Man. But it’s not that he has a different personality. It’s that he is fundamentally a different kind of creation.

Rorschach is a particular fictional character from one particular book. Imagine if they’d asked Cruz what his five favorite characters from Shakespeare were, and he listed Macbeth.


We wouldn’t even, would we? I think freaking Iago is a great character, so Jesus I hope we wouldn’t. What we’d probably do, what we should do in that instance, is assume that Cruz is making the aesthetic judgement that MacBeth is a well-written character whose struggles are compelling, and so on. And we should treat Rorschach the same way.

But here’s where the confusion comes in—Rorschach is sitting there on a list next to Spider-Man and Batman, and those guys are sort of beyond aesthetic judgement. (So really, now that I think about it, this is Cruz’s own fault. Or rather the fault of his media team, because I’m sure that list was stage-managed to death. 80% bread-and-butter box office draws, and 20% vaguely-on-message critical darlings? Yo, I want to set this list up on a blind date with Hilary’s Spotify playlist, because I think those two crazy kids would really hit it off. But I’m losing the thread here, so let’s just pretend that Cruz made his own list and that it’s about something other than branding.)

Here’s my point:  when it comes to Spider-Man, you can’t say that he’s your favorite hero because he’s so well-written. Spider-Man is a great and a terrible and a mediocre character, depending on who happens to be writing him on any particular day. The same goes for Batman, and Wolverine, and every other franchise character—James Bond, Nancy Drew, Robin Hood, you name it. These characters have been kicked around between different authors, different artists, and different media, rebooted and reimagined and alternate-universed, to the point that there is no such thing as a definitive version of the character. In this sense, they’re sort of like characters from ancient myth:  if you ask me to describe Spider-Man, I’m going to be collating a bunch of traits from a bunch of different sources with varying degrees of canonicity, and although he appears in a lot of things that are obviously literature, something about calling him a literary character feels off. (And there’s other stuff: None of these characters can really arc, for instance, because they have to keep resetting to their origin stories. I touch on this in two old articles on the Batman and Terminator franchises, if you’re interested.)

So if I say Spider-Man is my favorite (rather than saying, for instance, that the early run of Ultimate Spider-Man is my favorite, or something like that), what am I even doing? It’s not small-scale literary criticism, the way it is if I say I like MacBeth or Iago. I have to be doing something else…and I do think that when people pick their favorite franchise superheroes, there’s something aspirational about it. I’m not necessarily saying that I aspire to be Batman, but I’m saying that the world would be a better place if there were more Batmen in it. And again this is sort of like the way we think of characters from myth. If you tell me that Ares is your favorite greek god, I’m going to think you’re a psychopath, even though Ares shows up in a lot of the funniest stories, and he was a great villain on Xena.

So when Rorschach shows up on the same list as Batman and Spider-Man, maybe it’s no surprise that everyone is rushing to judge him by mythic/aspirational criteria. “You can’t want to be Rorschach! He’s a colossal asshole!” “Of course you can want to be Rorschach! He did that one good thing that time!” But because Rorschach is a character, and not an archetype, both of these things are obviously true simultaneously. There are times in the book where we identify with Rorschach quite closely. There are other times when we are violently slingshotted out of our identification with Rorschach—and this is precisely as Alan Moore designed it. Where exactly the line falls is going to be different for every reader. For me, the whole “strident homophobia” thing was a real turn-off. Based on his own avowed positions, Cruz presumably has less difficulty with this. But surely he too draws the line somewhere. And surely the human thing to do, for both of us, would be to aspire to be Rorschach at his best, and aspire to avoid being Rorschach at his worst?

Now, one thing that emerges from Polo’s article is that, whether I like it or not, there are a bunch of people out there who do think about Rorschach as if he were Batman. (These would be the people who ask you who your favorite Watchman is as if that were even vaguely the point. For the record, if I have to pick, my favorite Watchman is The Black Freighter. The thrill of being a boat!) But it seems ungenerous to ascribe this goofy opinion to Cruz when there’s a perfectly valid un-goofy way to interpret him. (And the people defending Cruz’s choice on mythic/aspirational grounds are every bit as wrong. They’re still acting as if “my favorite hero” meant “the hero who best approximates the virtue of heroism.” It doesn’t.)

TL;DR:  if he really wanted to uncritically embrace Rorschach’s ideology, Cruz could have just picked Mr. A. Call me a starry-eyed optimist, but the fact that he picked the brilliant literary deconstruction of Mr. A strikes me not as evidence of an inability to recognize deconstruction, but as evidence of some slight taste for literary brilliance. (Or again, as evidence that this is the image his media team wants to project.)

Should We Cut Ted Cruz some slack about Rorschach?

8 Comments on “Should we cut Ted Cruz some slack about Rorschach?”

  1. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Stokes, I might not be so quick to give him a pass on Batman, either. The fantasy of being Batman can be the fantasy of eschewing the criminal justice system, with its due process and ban on cruel and unusual punishment, for brutal physical violence. When Batman wants information, he will break a guy’s arm (at least in many incarnations, including the Nolan films and this summer’s Arkham Knight video game). So yes, Batman can be written a bunch of ways, but on some days he’s EXACTLY the fascist asshole that Rorschach is.

    Related: I’ve been reading a lot of Judge Dredd recently, which are great, pulpy comics. But I’m having trouble unpacking the underlying message. There’s a sneering contempt for the prolitariat there, with most of the inhabitants of Mega-City 1 straight out of Idiocracy. But is this Thatcheresque propaganda, or a lefty PARODY of Thatcheresque propaganda? (I could certainly Google the idiology of the creators, which I’m sure they’ve been interviewed about, but I’m keen to guess.)

    Or does it matter? Archie Bunker was NOT meant to be a likable dude – Norman Lear was very progressive. But a lot of actual bigots loved him, and simply ignored the show’s message. So it might be that Judge Dredd is supposed to be an anti-hero, but that doesn’t stop people from wishing he was real.


  2. Stokes OTI Staff #

    I wonder… if someone said that they liked Archie Bunker, I would raise an eyebrow. But if they said they liked All in the Family, I’d assume they just liked classic TV, and probably leaned vaguely left. The same might apply to comic books. Nobody would bat an eye if a politician just said that he/she liked Watchmen, right, without highlighting any particular character?

    But I don’t think that necessarily always holds. It might have to do with Archie Bunker having become kind of the archetypal conservative TV dad. I don’t think that people saying that they like Walter White, Elliot Stabler, or Abed Nadir necessarily says much of anything about their views on crystal meth, police brutality, or Cougar Town.

    As for Judge Dredd, I don’t really know the series, but let me ask you this: suppose that your politics are basically progressive. Judge Dredd the comic book might still be lots of fun, but would you find anything compelling or exciting about Judge Dredd the character? Or does he basically just shout “I am the law!” and then shoot people in the kneecap?


  3. fenzel OTI Staff #

    Judge Dredd was, I think, originally, a horror comic. It’s meant to show you terrible things that scare you.

    But the original creator didn’t retain control over it, and he was written inconsistently by a bunch of different comic writers and drawn differently by different artists.

    Thus, Dredd is a pretty inconsistent character, and he’s not always the protagonist of his own stories. Certainly the two movies make the point that Dredd can be whatever sort of main character the tone of the movie wants him to be, and it’s not like there are a ton of hard-core Judge Dredd fans who are going to insist on canon.

    So one way to look at early Dredd is as a heteroglossia – an anthology of short stories about what various people think about the whole Reagan/Thatcherian ideological complex.


  4. DeanMoriarty #

    I’m not sure that I agree with your take on the aspirational allure of franchise superheroes. I think in many ways people do want to be the superheroes they love. Plenty of people want to be Batman. The thing is, it’s not necessarily that they want to go around punching criminals, it’s more like they wish they could be the kind of person who has the willpower to become a super hero who goes around punching criminals.

    I’m speaking from personal experience, here. Batman is by far my favorite hero, though I am pretty much against everything he usually stands for in a political/social sense (Let’s just say I love Green Arrow, almost entirely b/c he’s a lefty superhero). But the fantasy of having the willpower to transform myself, to become a force for ‘good’ is intoxicating. In some ways the ’cause’ Batman fights for is not as important as the fact that he refuses to give up that fight.

    This is why, in my opinion, Rorschach is such an excellent deconstruction of Batman. And why Watchmen is such a brilliant piece of literature. Moore makes sure to include the laudable qualities in all his ‘heroes,’ as well as plenty of parts were the readers first reaction is one of “so cool!” If Rorschach was completely detestable, it wouldn’t say anything. The fact that he contains within his character things that I admire, things that I aspire to be, lets this book not only say something about ‘heroes’ but also about the people who read stories about ‘heroes.’
    I’m willing to give Ted Cruz a pass on the Rorschach thing if he goes on to explain that he sees in Rorschach an exploration and warning of the perils of ideological rigidity and self-righteousness. (I’m sure he’d admit this in Veidt’s case, since Veidt is basically on the ‘liberal’ end of the same politically driven psychopathy spectrum as Rorschach.)

    And finally, I think we can all agree that the only true hero in Watchmen is Bernard the newspaper vendor.


  5. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    You’re probably right about Judge Dredd – it can be downright zany, it can be psychological noir, and the most popular Dredd stories of all time are about him fighting supernatural beings known as the Dark Judges. I do think there’s something fascinating, and sadly timely, about a municipal employee that’s judge/jury/executioner. Neither of the movie versions really explored the concept at length – the first one has him trying to clear his name, and the second one is The Raid.

    Incidentally, there are a number of Judge Dredd / Batman crossover comics, which are a lot of fun even though they make very little sense. Batman and Judge Dredd generally loath each other, if only as an excuse to make them fight.

    Judge Dredd is the kind of guy where if you tipped over a trashcan to escape a mugger, he’d arrest the mugger AND he’d arrest you for littering. Batman sees him as basically a bully who terrorizes people in the name of law and order. (Batman has a moral code, whereas Judge Dredd is an emotionless slave to the letter of the law.) And Judge Dredd, of course, sees Batman as a vigilante who should be locked up.


  6. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    And DeanMoriarty, I certainly don’t meant to say that there aren’t many perfectly good reasons to like Batman. I like Batman plenty, so you certainly don’t need to justify your own Bat-feelings. I’m probably being uncharitable to Mr. Cruz by suggesting he’s a Bat-fan for the wrong reasons.

    But part of what makes Batman compelling is that he’s operating in grey areas, unlike Superman who is rescuing people from burning buildings or earth from alien invasions. My musings on the problematic side of Batman are very influenced by Hulk Film Critic, a brilliant writer who I still believe is Pete Fenzel:


    • DeanMoriarty #

      Obviously, I imagined that you like Batman somewhat, why else would we go on about this if not. And Batman, and my love of the character, is incredibly problematic and I know that.
      It’s one of the reasons I love Watchmen. Moore is able to present the problems and appeal of characters such as these without making a decision for you. It’s what makes him a great writer. Part of the worrying part about Ted Cruz citing Batman and Rorschach as a favorite heroes and/or characters, is that we (the public whose votes he is seeking) don’t necessarily know what he sees in those inkblots.
      But ins one ways, this is really besides the point. I mostly disagree with Stokes’ thesis about the appeal of franchise superheroes. A view that mostly aligns with that Film Crit Hulk article ( I skimmed it just now, since I read it a while back). Stokes says: “I’m not necessarily saying that I aspire to be Batman, but I’m saying that the world would be a better place if there were more Batmen in it.”
      I disagree with that take on the appeal of superheroes, especially superheroes without powers. B/C I do aspire to be somewhat Batman-like (the determination, the intelligence, the cool gadgets, sweet batcave, etc.) but I most certainly do not want any actual Batmen in the world, let alone a bunch of them. That is the most terrifying thing I could imagine. Film Crit Hulk describes Batman as a power fantasy, and it is. But what I’m trying to get across is that it’s not necessarily power over other people or even the world or fate. For me, anyway, Bruce Wayne turning himself into Batman is a fantasy of power over oneself, over one’s laziness, bad habits and defeatist thoughts. Batman does not stay up until 5am rereading Foundation for the 100th time. Batman does not give up halfway through b/c it’s hard and probably useless. Batman gives his life to the mission, even though he is probably smart enough to realize he’ll never completely succeed. That is the aspirational element of Batman ( and to some extent Rorschach) that I respond to. Is that what Cruz responds to? I have no idea. Maybe he does. Or maybe he does respond to the unencumbered one-man force for right that Film Crit Hulk describes. Aren’t they having some sort of GOP Forum/debate soon? Maybe he’ll address the issue and we’ll finally know where he stands.
      (As I write this, it strikes me that my take on Batman has many interesting similarities to the Sisyphus of Camus’ essay. I wonder if there’s more overthinking to be done there?)


  7. JoePosner #

    Not only do the origins of charters like Batman, Iron Man and Spiderman never change but the key elements of their origins are always things that happen to them. Rorschach only becomes Rorschach after uncovering details of something that happened to someone else.

    So perhaps he was always intended to be a rorschach for the reader. The book explains his origin but never explains why the character who believes in absolutism named himself after a subjective test. He may be meant to be a comment that your interpretation of events is what defines you and not the events themselves.


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