Set in the year 2020, Rorschach isn’t a direct sequel to the 1986 comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, nor a continuation of Doomsday Clock, the 2017-2019 series by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank that brought the world of Watchmen into conflict with the regular DC Universe. Instead, as he tells The Hollywood Reporter below, it’s a comic very much about the world we live in today — what he describes as “very much an angry work.”
Let’s get started from the very, very start. How did this come about? This is not the comic that I expected from you, to say the least. Having read the first couple of issues, this is not the Watchmen comic I would have expected from you at all.
Since I’ve spent half my career ripping him off, it’s not a shocker that I worship Alan Moore and Watchmen. I wrote [2015 miniseries] Omega Men, which is like almost the direct one-to-one rip off of Watchmen — I mean, I used to joke that “Who Omegas the Omega Men” should have been our title for The Omega Men. I sort of come from the School of Alan Moore. I mean, he’s my guy.
Before the [HBO] television show, DC reached out to me, Dan [DiDio, former DC publisher] reached out to me, and said, when Mitch [Gerads, King’s artist on 2015’s The Sheriff of Babylon and 2017’s Mister Miracle] and I were forming our next thing — we’d pitched [current collaboration] Strange Adventures, and he said “You should drop Strange Adventures and do Rorschach, you and Mitch should do Rorschach!” and I was like, “that sounds like a terrible idea.” (Laughs.) For so many reasons! The number one reason is, I just kind of emerged a little bit from Alan Moore’s shadow and it’d be like, “let’s go right back into the shadow and let’s be compared to him. I’ll do a direct thing!” (Laughs.)
I very rarely say no when someone offers me, “here’s something that’s gonna be a best selling, artsy-fartsy project.” That’s a very rare offer, but I was like, “no, we don’t want to do best-selling. We’ll stick with Adam Strange and ride his popularity in the sunset.” (Laughs.)
Then Jorge and I did Batman Annual No. 4 together, and when I was getting the art back on that, my mind was blown. It was very similar to when I first got the Mitch pages back on Sheriff of Babylon No. 5, where it was like, “Oh, I’m working with a genius here.” Suddenly you’re like, “I can’t let this go.” Jorge and I had worked together before and I’ve always admired his art and thought he was brilliant, but in Annual No. 4, I saw this guy can hit another level.
I reached out to Jorge and was like, “What are you doing next?” He told me he was working on Daredevil and I’m like, “fuck Marvel!” (Laughs) No, it was literally the instinct of, how do I work with this person? I know I can create great art with this person if I’m given a platform. DC and put this Rorschach thing on the table earlier and I was like, if I say yes to Rorschach and say I’ll only do it with Jorge, then I could make it something special, then I can do that.
That happened simultaneously with the Watchmen TV show coming. That was, to me, eye-opening in the fact that it was so good, you know? I feel bad for saying this, but I really wanted to hate it, you know? I wanted to be like, “How dare you?” All the stuff I think people are gonna say about me when Rorschach comes out, I wanted to say to the Watchmen TV show, and [instead] I was like, “this is so good.” It’s not Watchmen, but it’s using that vocabulary to talk about huge themes that are happening in our society. And it’s using Watchmen almost as a symbol to say, this is important.
The HBO Watchmen is not about the same things that ’86 Watchmen [comic] is about, it’s about completely different themes of race in history in America. That kind of opened my eyes where I was, oh, this is possible, this can be done.
So it was those two things working in combination that opened the door of what it could be. I just knew that if I worked with Jorge and got him the right script, that we could make something along the line of The Vision and Mister Miracle — something that is just the best comics I’m capable of making.
You’re mentioning the TV show, and like the TV show, the first couple of issues of Rorschach break with expectations of what to expect from a Watchmen project. You’re not using the iconography or the vocabulary of Watchmen; there’s no nine panel grid. There’s no quotes at the end of each issue.
I really didn’t want to do a Watchmen cover song, because to me, what Watchmen is about is, it broke down so many storytelling walls by telling a story in a different way, right? This is the kind of story you’ve never seen before. So if you just tell a story in the same way Watchmen did, you’re kind of, you’re throwing away the one thing it did, which is creativity. If you just repeat what it did, then you’re actually not repeating what it did. It’s like a contradiction.
You know me, I fucking love a nine-panel grid, but I was like, “alright, we’re not doing nine-panel grids. We’re not doing the quote at the beginning.” We’re not — the thing about reading Alan Moore, the transitions are all built on puns. Someone looks at his watch, and then the next thing is a clock. Someone says I’m hungry and the next thing is someone eating. If you read Alan Moore’s book on writing, he even makes fun of himself for doing that — he’s like, I don’t want to ever do this again. So we throw out all that stuff. Even the back matter. We’re not going to do any of this stuff. We’re gonna try to do something new, like he did something new. So we’re going to copy him in that way instead of the way you would think we’d probably copy him.
But you are picking up clues from Watchmen. Watchmen starts with a murder mystery. Watchmen has, as one of the running themes, a commentary on comics as a medium and a business, and you’re doing both of those here but in a way that people will not see coming. When does the idea of, it’s going to be this meta-textual thing, it’s going to be this layered thing that is going to actually investigate the roots of the original characters that inspired this character come from? Was that just instinctive in the DNA of it?
I think if you’re talking about working in that Watchmen universe, you have to be a little meta-textual. To me, Watchmen is sort of a vocabulary and part of that vocabulary, the words you have to use, or I don’t know, if you think of like composing music, like the notes you have to use, like one of the notes, you have to use a sort of meta-textual analysis.
When I write now I find, and I could be wrong, but if you write about what’s you’re obsessed about, it becomes better. One of my current obsessions is sort of comic book history and sort of the effects of comic book creators have inside that, so injecting that stuff into my work — and it’s in Strange Adventures too. That’s just how I spend my days, learning about comics. Writing about that knowledge sort of comes out naturally when I write, I guess.
How conscious are you about this stuff? One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about your writing is, you clearly think this through, you clearly have plans, it’s clearly structured — But there is always this element of you writing about your current obsession where it’s also unplanned. You’re writing autobiography, in a sense. Do you always know what you’re writing?
I mean, I know the general sort of themes. This goes to a bigger thing. I feel like we’ve talked about this before, but if I knew exactly the information in my soul I wanted to convey to you, I would be a philosopher and not a fiction writer. I was a philosophy major in school, and honestly, I was like, “why does anyone write fiction?” You read The Great Gatsby, and you’re like, “what are these metaphors for the American dream? Just talk about the American dream! Why does he have to worry about the stupid green light, it’s a fucking waste of time.” It’s not till you’re like more in your, uh, elderly years, that you sort of start to realize that truth, or the truth that’s inside you, can’t be expressed in words and it’s better to be expressed in story.
I mean that’s why the Bible is more powerful than, well, than Ayn Rand. That’s why Ayn Rand is more powerful than Hannah Arendt! (Laughs) I mean, Hannah Arendt is a big deal, but Rand wrote her philosophy in terms of these stupid shitty novels, and the stories appeal to people and seem to talk to a truth to them that just writing A=A would never make sense to them. To them, like Ayn Rand is John Galt, you know, it’s a guy standing in front of the universe and pulling the lever. You write a story because you can’t get at that thing inside you.
How much of Rorschach is about today? It feels very much like something that is happening right now, for want of a better way to put it. It feels like a political conversation that’s happening right now.
I mean, like the Watchmen TV show and very much like the original ’86 Watchmen, this is a very political work. It’s very much an angry work. Yeah, it’s about our current moment, which you know, by the time half of it comes out, hopefully our current moment will have changed a bit. But it’s about sort of modern American paranoia about a world where 30 percent of our population seems to believe in Q and Qanon, and it’s about a world where we’re like, I’m having this conversation with you locked in my fucking house because there’s a disease outside and there’s 160,000 dead Americans, which seems very avoidable if you look at the statistics of other countries, and it’s driving us mad as a culture.
We’re so angry all the time. We’re so angry all the time. And we have to do something with that anger in order not to go insane, and so that’s this. I mean, this is about an attempted assassination, it’s about people who got so angry, they tried to kill someone. And it’s about how they got to that place. And the whole mystery of is what motivated them to do that. It’s called Rorschach not because of the character, but because sort of what you see in these characters tells you more about yourself than about the characters. That’s the whole idea.
That’s something I was going to ask you because, it’s a comic called Rorschach, and it’s taking place in the world of the Watchmen, and there’s the iconography of Rorschach and other Watchmen characters in there — but Watchmen the original comic was a story about superheroes. It was also about lots of other things, but it was a superhero story at heart. Watchmen the TV show was a story about masked vigilantes, about justice, and about race, but again, there’s an element of costumed adventure in there. Rorschach isn’t the same thing, necessarily. It feels more like a story about people, about people being puzzles. Rorschach feels a very fitting title. You see the thing you want to see.
Yeah, this is a deconstruction of a lot of things, but it’s not a deconstruction of superheroes. That’s not what we’re looking for. This is not trying to examine what a superhero is, or what a DC superhero is, or any sort of those kind of questions. This is looking at who we are as people, and it’s told in this Citizen Kane style where the whole thing is going from character to character, sort of in flashback, as a detective figures out what happened.
And as he goes forward and figures out what happened, what he starts to see is again a reflection of himself. He learns about himself by learning about all these other characters, so it’s sort of about how we learn about ourselves. I feel like I shouldn’t say this for marketing purposes, they’re gonna jump on me, but Rorschach is not about superheroes. It’s about sort of this current moment. And I don’t feel like right now, the world we live in, we don’t live in a superhero world. We live in a world with like actual evil and human beings trying to deal with that evil. And that’s what it’s about.
You referred to Strange Adventures before, and Strange Adventures is doing something similar, I feel? It’s doing it with a more fantastical point of view, but there is the “Who is this person? Who are they really?” question at the heart of it. You’ve talked before about The Vision and The Omega Men and Sheriff of Babylon being an unofficial trilogy, being you investigating one idea across three different stories — is this where you are now, again? Looking at the idea of, there’s a public face that people are seeing, and then there’s who they are underneath that, in multiple stories?.
Those first three things were all about the Iraq war, sort of, about a guy going into a situation where he thinks he understands everything and it all falling apart. And then I think, for the past three or four years when I was working on Mister Miracle, Heroes in Crisis, and Batman, those were all about a combination of that weird panic attack I’ve talked about a lot, and mental health, and living in Trump’s America, where it’s, how do you deal with the absurd?
In the end, I feel they’re very heartwarming books, because they’re about how I found solace, my wife and my family in the midst of all this fucking shit, chaos, all three of them. And now with Rorschach, Strange Adventures, and Batman/Catwoman, I feel like I’m trying to move on to a new theme and a new way to write I’m trying to stretch myself in different directions.
I feel like I won’t find the theme till they’re all done, and I’ll look back and be like, oh, that’s what I was actually writing about. But they’re much angrier books. They’re much more caustic books. This isn’t like, oh man, the world is tough, but at least I have my wife, which is a wonderful thing to write about, but I’m no longer writing about that now. It’s like, the world is tough and I want to scream and what do I do with that scream? And how does that affect life in general?
I live in [Washington] DC now and I walked down to the White House, and I saw the church where Trump had walked through the day before, and I saw the people still screaming, and I just — I mean, that’s what I mean about this sort of current moment of absurdity and death. That’s what it’s all about. And when it’s over, I’ll tell you what the theme of it is. If I knew what the theme was, like I said, I’d write philosophy just to tell you.
I said this earlier, but Rorschach doesn’t feel like something you’ve written. Even more so than Strange Adventures, which has the visual identifier of being something you’re doing with Mitch, like Sheriff of Babylon and Mister Miracle, so it looks like a book by you, this feels like you’re trying to write in a different language, almost.
I wrote this all in one sitting. That’s why it’s different than anything else I’ve ever written. I just took four months off of all my work and said, I’m going to write this. I had lunch with Brad Meltzer, he told me he wrote Identity Crisis all ahead of time. I thought, “that’s a great idea. I wonder if it’s possible in the modern age.” Fortunately, I’m working with artists who needed a lot of time on my other books, so I told my editors, I’m going to do this all straight. I took four months off and I wrote it like a novel, wrote it all the way through, all twelve issues, again just to change it up and do things differently.
I also tried to see the things that I’m starting to lean into and that make me comfortable. I was like, okay, I’m getting rid of repetitions. I’m not going to use repetitive dialogue on this — almost on an architectural level, I was like, I’m going to use longer sentences and word balloons. I’m going to use a character in the detective that has no background story for the first time. You know, absolutely zero background story. I’m going to take the things I’m sitting on that make me comfortable and make it easy to write, and I’m going to throw those out the window and try to start again and do something new and try to push myself in order to make better comics. I feel like people just become sort of comfortable with your style and it’s no longer impactful.
As a writer, everybody’s trying to be the Beatles. You’re trying to be like, “okay, I made Revolver, now I’ve got to make Sergeant Pepper. You try to throw away the things that got you there, to evolve, but hopefully not go too far. I mean, there are songs on the White Album where you’re like, “Oh, they’ve gone too far. Back it up. They’re screaming about pigs now.” (Laughs.)
Tom King will be talking more about Rorschach with artist Jorge Fornés and moderator Damon Lindelof (HBO’s Watchmen) as part of the Expansion of DC’s Watchmen Universe panel in this weekend’s DC FanDome: Explore the Multiverse event, available on demand for 24 hours starting 10 a.m. Sept. 12. Rorschach No. 1 will be available digitally and in comic book stores Oct. 13.