Walter Joseph Kovacs was born on March 21, 1940, the son of Sylvia Kovacs, a prostitute, and an unknown father only known to Kovacs as "Charlie". His mother was frequently abusive and condescending towards him. In July 1951, at the age of 11, Kovacs became involved in a violent fight with two older bullies, and subsequently his living conditions were finally looked into. He was removed from his mother's care and put in "The Lillian Charlton Home for Problem Children" in New Jersey, where he rapidly seemed to improve, excelling at scholastics as well as gymnastics and amateur boxing. In 1956, after leaving the Charlton Home when he was 16, Kovacs took a job as a garment worker in a dress shop, which he found "bearable but unpleasant" partly because he had to handle women's clothing; it was here that he acquired a certain dress fabric that he would later fashion into the mask he wears as Rorschach. In 1962, Kovacs scavenged the material from a rejected dress that had been special-ordered by a young woman with an Italian name. Though Kovacs learned how to cut and fashion the material successfully with heated implements, he soon grew bored with it, as it served him no real purpose at the time.
Two years later when buying a newspaper on his way to work in March 1964, Kovacs read about the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese, whom he believed was the Italian woman who had rejected the dress. Ashamed by what he read about the unresponsiveness of her neighbors, Kovacs became disillusioned with the underlying apathy that he saw as inherent in most people. Inspired by Genovese's fate, Kovacs returned home, made "a face [he] could bear to look at in the mirror" from the dress's fabric, and began fighting crime as the vigilante Rorschach. Initially, Kovacs left criminals alive, but bloodied, for the police to arrest. In the mid 1960s, he teamed up with Nite Owl II, a partnership which proved highly successful at battling organized crime.
In 1975, an investigation into the kidnapping of a young girl named Blair Roche led to the transformation of the "soft" Kovacs into the ruthlessly uncompromising Rorschach. He tracked the kidnapping to a man named Gerald Grice. At Grice's shack, Kovacs found evidence that Grice had killed the girl and had fed her remains to his dogs. Rorschach killed the dogs with Grice's meat cleaver and waited for his arrival. When Grice returned, Rorschach handcuffed him to a stove, poured kerosene around him, gave him a hacksaw and told Grice that he could cut off his own hand in order to escape. Rorschach then set the building on fire and left. No one emerged. During a later psychological evaluation, the vigilante stated that Kovacs went into the shack, but that Rorschach came out.
When the Keene Act was passed in 1977 to outlaw vigilantes, Rorschach responded by killing a wanted multiple rapist and leaving his body outside a police station with a note bearing one word: "neveR!".