Television

A Comic Book Vigilante Turned Zen Buddhist Is the Missing Link Between Watchmen’s Rorschach and Looking Glass

A right-wing hero called the Question inspired Watchmen’s faceless vigilante. But later stories took the character in a very different direction.

Looking Glass, Rorschach, and the Question
Looking Glass, Rorschach, and the Question.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO, DC Comics, and DC Comics.

In “Little Fear of Lightning,” the fifth episode of Watchmen, Looking Glass eats beans from a can.

It’s a minor detail in an episode that also features psychic squid attacks and clone dog incineration, but for fans of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic books on which the show is based, it is a significant detail. When Looking Glass, aka Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson), shovels cold beans into his mouth, readers recall a similar meal enjoyed by Rorschach, the nihilistic detective from the original comic.

Bean dinner is only the latest connection Watchmen has drawn between the two characters, from their mercurial masks to their dire assessments of contemporary society. As a detective for the Tulsa Police Department specializing in psychological profiling, Looking Glass drives one of the most memorable scenes in the series’ first episode, in which he interrogates a member of the white supremacist group the Seventh Kavalry. Sitting in “the Pod”—a circular interrogation room whose walls project charged images, including Klan rallies, Gen. Custer, and the American flag—Glass asks his prisoner a series of probing questions. The blur of images on Glass’ silver mask recall the amorphous blobs that cover Rorschach’s face and give him his name, and if the connection was not clear enough, the sequence ends with one last image on the Pod screens: a blot from a Rorschach test, the same one Gibbons and Moore use in a chapter about Rorschach’s origin.

Damon Lindelof and co. trouble a clear analogy between Glass and Rorschach by making the latter’s presence more clearly felt in the form of the Seventh Kalvary. Fully embracing the racist undertones of Rorschach’s conservatism, Kalvary members wear discount versions of their hero’s black-and-white mask and quote from his journal as if it’s Scripture. But unlike other characters in the new series, Glass does not appear to be a hatemonger in disguise, nor does he even seem to adopt his predecessor’s violent ways. Glass does not prevent his partner Sister Night (Regina King) from brutalizing suspects, but he doesn’t participate either. He doesn’t mince words when describing the shortcomings of his murdered friend and colleague Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), but he doesn’t deny the sorrow he feels at his friend’s loss. In the series’ first five episodes, Looking Glass has been less a ruthless truth seeker and more an aloof voice of reason, one whose most effective interrogation technique is forcing his subjects to look into their own eyes.

A detail in “Little Fear of Lightning” reminds us that, despite the superficial similarities between Looking Glass and Rorschach, these are two very different men. As Wade kisses a potential love interest, episode director Steph Green momentarily cuts to a medium shot, which captures the lovers holding each other in silhouette outside a bar. Wade indulges in some very un-Rorschach-like behavior here, and not just because he kissed someone smoking a controlled substance (tobacco, which is outlawed in the world of the show). The image of entwined lovers is a motif Gibbons laces throughout the comic, one that Rorschach describes in less than romantic terms when it appears as graffiti: “Silhouette picture in doorway, man and woman, possibly indulging in sexual foreplay. Didn’t like it. Makes doorway look haunted.” Where Rorschach sees depravity, Looking Glass sees tenuous acceptance.

We have not yet been given a plot reason for the physical similarities between Looking Glass and Rorschach—is Wade a fan, or does he see himself as Rorschach’s mirror image? But we can trace both of them back to Rorschach’s comic book forerunner, the Question.

The brainchild of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, the Question is a faceless crime fighter in a blue fedora and trenchcoat. Conceived for Charlton Comics’ Action Hero line, the Question gave Ditko a platform to espouse his Ayn Randian objectivist politics: Whenever news anchor Vic Sage uncovered a mystery, he punched his way to answers as the Question, content to let evildoers suffer horrible fates as the just reward for their poor decisions.

The Question and his fellow Action Heroes made appearances over the following decades, but they didn’t reach wider audiences until DC Comics acquired the rights to Charlton’s character in 1983, just as Alan Moore began writing Watchmen. Barred by DC from using the new properties in their superhero deconstruction, Moore and Gibbons made their own analogues, and thus the Question became Rorschach—giving Moore opportunity to draw out and critique Ditko’s worldview.

Watchmen’s legacy has so defined its source characters that the Question is now commonly written as an unpleasant nut. But in 1987, the same year Watchmen’s final issue was published, writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Denys Cowan launched a Question series with a very different take on the detective. The first issue begins like a Ditko-era tale, with Vic Sage discovering a new wrong and punishing evildoers as the Question, but it ends with him being shot in the head and left for dead. Somehow, Vic survives, and the next 40-plus issues follow the Question as he abandons objectivism for the more peaceful and complex precepts of Zen Buddhism. O’Neill and Cowan never show Vic fully completing his transformation. He’s in a constant state of growth and failure, highly conflicted about his superheroic methods. During his meditation states, or when he’s debating with his mentor Aristotle Rodor, Vic controls his anger and disavows violence. But when investigating crimes around the city, he constantly feels compelled to fight and even kill, to give “criminal scum” what they deserve.

O’Neil and Cowan acknowledged their character’s tangled lineage in 1988, with an issue in which Vic reads a copy of Watchmen while on a plane. Though impressed by the “heavy stuff” he finds, Vic drifts off to sleep and dreams that he is Rorschach. Although a man in the dream sacrifices himself to save Vic, this hybrid character cannot call him a hero. “Maybe there are no heroes … and no villains, either,” Question/Rorschach opines. “Maybe there is not one damn villain in the world.”

That’s a concept unfamiliar to not only Rorschach and Ditko’s Question, but to superheroes in general. Whether it be Green Arrow, with whom the Question teams later in that issue, or Looking Glass’s partner Sister Night, superheroes make distinctions between good guys and bad guys, between the moral good of harming a villain and harming the “innocent.” But while Vic gets into a fight in nearly every issue of his ’80s series, O’Neil and Cowan never make him a clear hero. He’s a broken man who can’t always tell the difference between himself and the villains.

In the original Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons imagined superheroes as sad people who use costumed adventures to avoid their problems. That concept returns in Sister Night, the protagonist of Lindelof’s “remix.” Sister Night isn’t just a good cop looking for justice; she’s a deeply violent woman whose simplistic morality obscures her bad deeds.

“Little Fear of Lightning” shows us that Looking Glass is less like Sister Night or Rorschach, and more like O’Neil and Cowan’s Question. The episode opens with a flashback to young Wade as a Jehovah’s Witness missionary in 1985, certain that the world is about to end. But it ends in 2019, with Wade, who’s spent three decades living in constant terror that the interdimensional squid that nearly destroyed New York will return, learning that it was all a hoax. Disillusioned and shattered, he betrays Sister Night and delivers her into the clutches of the FBI. As they come to take her away, Wade looks up at his partner and asks, “Is anything true?”

That’s something Rorschach would never ask. Nor, it seems, would Sister Night or any of her fellow costumed cops. These heroes see right from wrong, and would never compromise, not even in the face of Armageddon.

But as we watch Wade pull the silver mask over his sorrowful face, we know that Looking Glass cannot believe in such certainties. He doesn’t have answers. He only has questions.