The Politics of Art and Artist: Tom King’s Rorschach

Politicians and political pundits in the U.S. routinely debate whether or not the American public is center-right or center-left in their political and ideological grounding. However, a more important and ultimately consequential reality is that the American public is incredibly politically naive.

At the core of that lack of sophistication is the failure to distinguish between “political” and “partisan”—the former being an unavoidable reality of human interaction and the latter being the mechanical workings of the political system that is essentially the Republican/Democratic binary.

While not a new phenomenon, the Trump era has highlighted the jumbled ideological and political sensibilities of the American public, well portrayed in the fading debate around former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem.

The media became enamored with the vocal segment of the public that demanded professional athletes “shut up and just play ball.” Of course, the outcry for no politics in sports came from the same people demanding that athletes conform to so-called proper behavior during the National Anthem, the playing of which at a sport event is a form of political speech and a political decision by the NFL.

In the U.S., the call for “no politics” actually means a demand for “my politics only” so “other people’s politics” is the only “politics” being condemned.

Trumpublicans of 2021, in fact, simultaneously criticize (and mischaracterize) “cancel culture” and demand that certain elements of thought be, well, canceled—such as Critical Race Theory and the right’s (again, mischaracterized) demonizing of “woke” culture.

In the fall of 2021, NFL fans are once again confronted with politics, this time in the person of Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers sits in debates about the best quarterback ever, but he also has enjoyed a life of celebrity, dating famous actresses and briefly being touted as the next host of Jeopardy (based in part on his cultivating an image as “smart”).

A positive Covid test, however, has now tarnished Rodgers’s Golden-Boy whiteness, exposing him to be a Joe Rogan conspiracy theorist and all-around, self-absorbed know-nothing.

What is important here is that while Rodgers is the exact same person he was a year ago, many fans are now rejecting being a fan of his because his ideology, his politics, has been unmasked (literally and figuratively).

The literary world had a similar conflict about the same time with Margaret Atwood, who appears to have slipped over to the J.K. Rowling world of transphobia (or at least inexcusable ignorance about and insensitivity toward trans people).

At its core, these situations are an enduring problem: What do we do when as consumers of entertainment, the ideology and politics of the entertainer and/or the entertainment (sports, film, novels, etc.) conflict with our own?

From Watchmen to Rorschach: “No, Not Once. There Was No Politics”

As a comic book reader and collector from the 1970s, I returned to collecting just before the series WandaVision stormed pop culture. I had been a fan of Vision in my teen years, and the series, I thought, was brilliant.

But it also led me to finding, late to the party, some of the wonderful work with the character Vision since I was away from comic books—notably Tom King’s Vision (2016, vol. 2). With King’s work, I now have a habit of missing the boat since, as a Marvel collector, I just bought and read King’s Rorschach (2020-2021), a continuation of the Watchmen universe created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and then reignited by the Watchmen series (HBO).

In a preview of the series, Matthew Jackson shares King’s recognition of the essence of the sequel to Moore’s Watchmen:

“[Moore] gave us the notes to talk about our current moment, and so I wanted to play in that sandbox to talk about this,” King said. “It’s a very political work. It tries to be revolutionary the way Watchmen tried to be revolutionary.”


King also explains that he and artist Jorge Fornes maintain canon of Watchmen but frame this meta-narrative (like Watchmen, a super hero narrative about super hero narratives and the recurring question of vigilantism) as “film noir — to create a kind of hardboiled mystery story in the middle of the Watchmen universe.”

King’s re-envisioning of Rorschach, however, includes, like in Moore’s work, Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man), but shifts the ideological grounding from Ayn Rand (Ditko’s inspiration) to “‘Hannah Arendt, who is a different philosopher, Ayn Rand’s contemporary, another Jewish immigrant from Germany, but on the left, not on the right, who was obsessed with the concept of citizenship.'”

Both Moore and King offer “very political work,” work that is well crafted with other creators (artists, colorists, letterers), but it is a mistake to discount or reduce that work for attempting to promote a specific partisan politics; instead, I think King is asking readers to consider just what is political—or to understand that everything is political while also swimming in a partisan political reality that can be corrupt on both the left and the right:

The central detective, above on the left, is faced with a planned but foiled assassination during the presidential election between the liberal 4-time incumbent Redford and the conservative challenger Turley, calling for a conservative revolution and target of the assassination.

But as the first panel above shows, even those inside the workings of the plot seem to be unable to see politics at work: “No, not once. There was no politics.”

The Reader, the Writer, and the Text

The assassination plot belongs to “Wil Myerson, a stand-in for Steve Ditko that creates the Question-esque character, the Citizen, who expresses Arendt’s views rather than Rand’s,” explains Steve Baxi, and a young woman sharp-shooter called The Kid.

Despite the admitted political nature of this series, I agree with Baxi’s defense of the series:

[S]ome critics reject the series as a dangerous both-side-ism that creates a problem out of fake left-wing extremism in the context of a real life right wing insurgency.

This reaction, I think, has made it difficult to see the rich work being done by King, Fornés, Stewart and Cowles on this series which examines not only the origins of fascist thought, but the ups and downs of Arendt’s own work. This is not a series that feels like a sequel to Watchmen outside the setting, and instead tells a story that is influenced deeply by the current political climate, taking in the past in a manner akin to what Arendt called Pearl Diving

Watchmen Two-in-One: Hannah Arendt and Rorschach (2020) – Part One

Briefly, I want to conclude here by arguing that the problem is not whether or not a work or an artist is political, or even if that work or artist has a blunt political agenda, but the consequences of how readers respond—and why the politics of the reader is where the real problem lies.

Drawing on Baxi’s explication of the use of Arendt in Rorschach and Lousie Rosenblatt‘s view of how meaning is created from text (the interaction of the reader, the writer, and the text), I think we can confront how literalist conservatives and critical progressives respond differently (and predictably) to any text.

Baxi notes that Arendt’s work fits well into the Trump era, overlapping with Rorschach:

For Arendt, the foundational question of philosophy was “Is there a way of thinking that is not tyrannical?” Indeed everything from training with Heidegger and Jaspers, up to her rejection of Adorno and Critical Theory comes back to a philosophical thinking that richly interrogates our ability to understand and to imagine the world from the perspective of another.

…the problem with Eichmann, and fascists in general, is a failure to think….This capacity for thought is what Arendt’s work focused on, using concepts like storytelling to explain how our ability to think ties into our ability to have empathy, freedom, and sound political judgment.

Watchmen Two-in-One: Hannah Arendt and Rorschach (2020) – Part One

Like Moore, King likely has a political leaning that can be viewed on the left/right spectrum, but ultimately, King is making a narrative case for “[t]his capacity for thought” and “our ability to have empathy, freedom, and sound political judgment.”

In Moore’s original Watchmen, Baxi adds:

…Rorschach was a riff on the Question, and largely a joke Alan Moore was making about Steve Ditko qua Ayn Rand’s objectivism taken to its furthest possible extreme….Regardless of the reasons why, Moore’s presentation of the objectivist, moral absolutist became less a joke and more a serious position of its readers….

The critique of course is that such extreme devotion to an abstract good is ultimately self-contradictory and absurd, as Rorschach’s methods do not play by the same rules as his self-righteousness. While this nuance is clear in the text of the series, it’s also perfectly understandable that some might read Rorschach and find him aspirational. Correct or not, there is an ideology of Rorschach that does see him as good, as right, as the hero we might need.

Watchmen Two-in-One: Hannah Arendt and Rorschach (2020) – Part One

Ayn Rand fits into this perfectly since as a philosopher and a novelist, Rand is nearly universally rejected in the fields of philosophy and literature, but a favorite of naive readers, often adolescents and literalist conservatives/libertarians. In short, many fans of Rand’s novels read them as if they are “how to” manuals, and not texts to be interrogated.

Critical readers handed any text tend toward challenging the text and messages, and often fall closer to Arendt’s ideal (similar to Myerson’s The Citizen).

The legacy of Trump includes organized attacks on K-12 and higher education, focusing on controlling what students are exposed to. Those attacks represent the conservative misunderstanding about the political power of texts and knowledge.

In short, there is politics in any artist, in every text, and in every reader; that political dynamic is unavoidable.

King’s version of Rorschach clearly argues that partisan/ideological fanaticism, regardless of being from the left or right, is corrupt and dangerous; there are many bodies left on the ground in the series.

Neither Moore nor King offers a neat political or partisan solution as they remain in an enduring question at the heart of super hero narratives, as King explains:

“Instead of constructing Rorschach from a Randian point of view, if we construct him from an Arendt point of view, how does that change our conception of superheroes, and our conception of vigilantism? If we go from the idea of ‘it’s obviously bad to kill people without trials’ to ‘Is it bad to kill Nazis without trials?’ it makes a different moral universe and [asks] different moral questions, or at least the same questions but, you know, turning the ball on its side so you can see it from a different angle.”


The politics of the audience confronts us, and the larger question, maybe the largest, is about the potential in that audience to be the sort of human Arendt (and likely Moore and King) envisioned.

See Also

Watchmen Two-In-One: Hannah Arendt and Rorschach (2020) – Part Two, Steve Baxi