Oscar Wilde once said: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell the truth."
Masks are all common in superhero comics and they represent a paradox by concealing an identity yet revealing another.
For example when Bruce Wayne puts on his mask it both hide his identity and transforms him into the Batman, we can say that masks have a certain power about them and no comics book represent it better in my opinion than watchmen, with the use of the character Rorschach.
But before we dive into those waters I think it's important to at least touch on the origin of masks.
In the mask handbook by Toby Wilsher the author explains that masks originate from two primary resources: religious rituals, where the masks transformed the wearer into a paranormal being and in theatre, where the change is in the psychological perspective of the audience .
In the case of Rorschach and his alter ego Walter Kovacs, he find a new identity trough the mask and the ink pots do exactly what they were designed to do, allowing the reader and lookers in the comic book itself to project and see any sort of meaning that they want in those images.
In the comic book this mask was made out of a dress with a very unique properties but it was discarded as ugly, this echoes Kovacs's own like as he himself was seen as unwanted and ugly in fact the comics call him with the quote "fascinatingly ugly" and yet both him and the dress find a new meaning and a new purpose trough transformation.
The dress becomes a mask and trough that mask Walter Kovacs becomes the vigilante Rorschach.
The inherent paradox that the mask creates still shines trough here.
Rorschach denounces humanity for being cruel yet while wearing the mask he himself can make terrifying acts of violence
Quote:"it's as if continual contact with society's grim elements has shaped him into something grimmer, something even worse" and the ever-changing patterns on Rorschach's mask represent that, yes, he sees the world in black and white but also that the world is meaningless, as he explains in the quote "Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for to long. No meaning save what we choose to impose"
There are even two points in the book where Rorschach is talking about never compromising and they show him whit the exact same pattern on his face both times, symbolising his unwavering nature for the things that matter most to him.
The use of Rorschach's mask allows him to further denounce humanity by stripping away all of his human facial features.
I think a quick history lesson is in order before we go any further, back in the 1980s Dc Comics bought Carlton Comics and had a lot of characters like Blue Beetle, Night Shade and Captain Atom. When Alan Moore proposed a story that would use those characters, but either kill or retire most of them an editor at Dc old him to, maybe use original characters for that story, that way we can still use these ones that we just acquired.
Blu Beetle became Night Owl, Night Shade became Silk Spectre and Captain Atom became dr. Manhattan, and of course Rorschach was based on The Question a character with a completely blank face.
His mask allowed him to hide completely his identity without providing any sort of supplemental identity for the reader, it was just a blank slate, Rorschach takes this a bit further, yes his mask is absent of facial features but even his speech pattern is stripped down and without his mask, he still has "no expression in either face or voice"
Though he does consider the mask to be his real face as oppose to the one he was born with, something that we have seen later with Batman and Moon Knight.
In the dramatic scene where he is captured by the police Rorschach bags and screams for his face back after they unmasked him, which brings out something that I think Watchmen does incredibly well, it showcases the power of the mask.
Superheroes who typically wear a mask do so to hide their identity, to disguise themselves to keep a part of themselves away, hidden from the public.
And so, because of them, there is an inherent power in the mask and in unmasking a hero, take that scene again where Rorschach is captured they could jus arrest him and wait to unmask him at the station, but no, they do it immediately the police waste no time getting Rorschach's mask off, because it knows that it would show dominance over him that would strip his power away.
Up into that moment, not even readers knew for sure what was under Rorschach's mask, it created a sense of mystery and then It was just revealed to be, like a guy.
I'm sure it would not be hard to think of any other superhero story where the villain tries to unmask the hero.
What's interesting is that when you think about it it's almost always done before they kill the superhero, they want to unmask them first before finishing them off when it could easily be the other way around.
Take that very small scene in the dark knight where batman is temporarily defeated and one of joker's thugs instinctually thinks to unmask him when he could have just shot him in the head, not that the joker would probably allow that, but you get my point.
Or take Spider-Man 2 when Harry Osborn has Spider-Man captured, bound and unconscious, he could just kill him right there and then pull the mask off after the deed is done, but no, he has to do it before, he has to finally strip away that last shred of power that Spider-Man has by revealing his identity. And only then, only after he's unmasked can Spider-Man be truly defeated.
Now up until this point we have been talking about specifically facial masks, but an argument could be made that the entire costume of a superhero works as a sort of mask.
I mean what do you think was under Rorschach's trench coat?
Watchmen uses costumes in a very interesting an brilliant way, not just showing them off as dangerous an in practical but also having them represent the shells of the people who wear them.
This in effect allows the costumes to stand in for the masks that some of us wear every single day of our lives, proudly displaying confidence an happiness when on the inside you might feel the opposite.
Hey it wouldn't' be a post about Watchmen if we don't get to the other side at least a little depressed.