Friday, February 10, 2006

Another Post About The Use of That Damn Four Letter Word in Comics

I apologize in advance if this is ramble, to anyone who might potentially read this, but hey, to quote Christian Cage, that's how I roll. If nothing else, think of this as look in to the mind of someone with bi-polar disorder when they haven't been sleeping very well:

If you read comic book blogs with any regularity, which you almost certainly do if you're reading this, since it's on a blog and all, you've seen the discussion of rape in comic books at least four dozen times on average. I made that statistic up, but I imagine I'm not too far off. Ever since Identity Crisis #2 was published, it's been the subject of much discourse in comics discussion circles. There's been a lot of vitrol, outrage, and snark; in fact, pretty much entirely those three things, mainly because those three things are the main attributes of most comic discussion.

Most serious consideration of the topic beyond a gut reaction level has been about what rape means in the context of the specific stories where it has appeared; the serious criticism of Identity Crisis, the stuff that goes behind "Tiny footprints in her brain!" pointing and laughing, has consisted of a lot of people pointing out how many ways in which Brad Meltzer's continuity implant of Sue's rape doesn't work. The criticism of the long delayed final third of the Kevin Smith written Spider-Man/Black Cat mini-series was along those lines. It was in one review of that series, by our very own Greg Burgas, that I saw the issue addressed as one for comics (at least superhero comics) in general:

Blech. Rape as a plot point is a delicate issue, and it has to be handled carefully. In this series, it is not handled carefully. All Smith wants to do with this entire series is tell us that rape is bad. If we didn't already know that, we're not going to learn it from a comic book. This is a completely misguided series, because this is the kind of thing that should not be done in a mainstream superhero title.

That last sentence made me bristle, because I'm very much a libertine when it comes to storytelling. Nothing should be off limits, even in superhero comics, which were for most of their history (and really ought to be, I'll concede) light, accessible, all ages genre fiction. I don't have any problem with rape being used as a plot device in a superhero story, if we're defining a plot device as a central action in a story and not a cheap tactic to move the story forward and get people worked up on the internet. Which we're not, because a plot device is a pejorative, but I just like to come up with my own definitions for things. My only caveat is the one I have for putting anything in a story; if you're going to do it, do it well. Greg, sort of contradicting himself, apparently agrees:

At any point, Peter Parker dressed as a spider could show up, and then everything gets goofy (and I love Spider-Man, by the way). This is fine for the most part - superhero comics can address plenty of "real-world" issues, including rape - but as I pointed out, it has to be handled well. It's not here. Blech.

That's my barometer for judging these stories. I'm not saying this as some impartail observor of superhero comics with a tepid at best affection for them, like, say, Tim O'Neil. I have affection for a lot of these characters. Spider-Man's my favorite superhero, and he's been in two controversial stories like this; Spidey/Black Cat and Sins Past, although the plot device that caused so much outrage was consentual sex, not rape. I can certainly see and even agree with the argument that comics with characters appearing in cartoons and movies and action figures and underoos that children enjoy are not the best place to feature graphic rape scenes and Norman Osoborn's o-face (which scarred me for life, and I'm 23). Sins Past sounds like a dumb story to me (I haven't read it, and probably won't, so I can't say with authority that it is dumb), and it really disappoints me that JMS did it, if for no other reason than that whatever faults his Amazing Spider-Man run had, at least he'd been about doing different things with the character, not cannabalizing stuff from the Bullpen days.

But in the end, all I really care about in comics is the quality of the stories, in as much as I define quality, at least. Pointing out that these comics only play to a jaded subset of fandom and are limiting the ability of a kids to read and enjoy characters who were created to entertain them is well and good, but I feel in a lot of ways that the ship's sailed there. I like "adult" superhero stories and I still find myself exasperated at the fact that Marvel had to create a seperate imprint for Spider-Man and Fantastic Four stories for kids. But Marvel and DC follow the dollars, even if they're from an ever dwindling group of aging diehards who seem to really embarass the hell out of most of us "respectable" comic fans who blog and read Grant Morrison comics and are therefore better than those mouth breathing fanboys who like Infinite Crisis. I use my comics money to endorse the stuff I want to see, which is mainly Morrison comics these days. That's pretty much all you can do with mainstream comics. Vote with your dollar, and even then, remember it's a democracy, so a plurality's always going to win, no matter how stupid it seems.

I can't get outraged about this stuff. I can't work up bile and vitrol for it. I tend to ignore things that do not sound like they're to my tastes. The only real disdain I can work up for comics that use rape badly is the kind I reserve for everything I don't like; mild annoyance before I move on to something I enjoy. I'm sure my lack of a really giving a damn is because, unlike a lot of people, I have no emotional connection to rape. Meaning that it doesn't elicit a gut response, because I've never known anyone who was raped. I know it's a horrible thing, and if I hate anyone, it's rapists, but I can't work up the same rage someone who's been raped or loved someone who has can. I can't fathom what it's like to be violated like that. It's like my feelings after 9-11, in its own way; the magnitude of how awful it is so stunning that I can't grasp it mentally.

But I don't think it should be a taboo subject, even in superhero comics, all objections aside. I just think it should be used as more than a red herring or motivation for shoot 'em up action. It's too serious of a subject to reference as hapharazdly as comics writers have in these high profile stories(and they're not alone, certainly, but comics are my scope here). I'm sure I'm not alone in this, and that's what a lot of the outrage and criticism of books like IC boils down to. My only missgiving is that I don't think "You shouldn't have rape in your comic, no matter what" should be conflated with "You shouldn't have rape in your comic unless you follow through on the consequences." Because placing any limits on subject matter in comics is, in my opinion, should be the only taboo, so long as the unspoken corollary there is "Do it right."

Read More


Anonymous greg said...

Yeah, you're right, I probably did contradict myself, but that's just my way. I'm a complex individual, damn it!

I tend to agree with you, although I just think that it's so hard to do it correctly in superhero comics that it might be best left alone. Sure, you can do anything you want in superhero books, but it just seems not worth it. That's all I meant. Confound you for calling me out!

2/10/2006 01:06:00 AM  
Blogger kalinara said...

I agree completely about the topic. I think it's overdone in general, but I do think good stories can come of it.

But they need to do it *well*.

2/10/2006 01:25:00 AM  
Blogger markus said...

To me it sounds like that's easily reconciled.
"Genre is not destiny" or somesuch is only technically true. In reality, the superhero genre is associated closely with a number of conventions like the illusion of change, the resolution through physical confrontation, a form of vigilantism, sexy outfits etc. that make it unsuitable for telling certain stories and dealing with certain subject matters.
Since the conventions are not binding, it is of course possible to do away with them and tell any story, and a very skillfull writer can probably write around these conventions even in a mainstream superbook where all conventions are in full force.
However, in most cases it would break the tone of the series and it's generally very unlikly on the whole.
Insisting that it's nonetheless possible to do these stories is a bit like insisting they can be dealt with in nurse novels. Technically true, and one in a blue moon someone will actually do it right, but in common colloquial usage it's perfectly ok to abbreviate to "can't/shouldn't be done".

In short, the discrepancy dissolves if you stop interpreting "You can't/shouldn't have rape in your comic, no matter what" in a literal/logical sense. While the statement is problematic in such a sense, it's claim to approaching the state of things in the real world is IMO marginally better than the technically correct "you can do everything in superbooks". (Short, short version: classic logic is a poor guide when probabilities are concerned.)

2/10/2006 02:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Martin said...

Agreed on every count - particularly on the "most comics discussion consists of snark, vitriol, and outrage". Man, that gets me down.

2/10/2006 05:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Mike Loughlin said...

I think you can have a story that involves sexual assault and super-heroes (see: Watchmen), but monthly, mainstream super-hero books (or mini-series featuring mainstream characters that are marketed to "all ages")? I don't want to read it.

Best case scenario: the rape element is handled with taste and tact, and the consequences of the assault are laid out in a (semi-) realistic manner... while Spider-Man or whoever punches out the villain of the month. I'm not sure those two disparate elements can be reconciled.

I can't go so far as to say "No, never ever do it," but, for me, ugly real-world crimes don't work in all-ages books.

2/10/2006 09:22:00 AM  
Blogger --Greg Hatcher said...

"I can't go so far as to say "No, never ever do it," but, for me, ugly real-world crimes don't work in all-ages books."

I'll go ahead and go that far. This was far and away my biggest problem with all these different examples people are bringing up; I'm very much in the if-the-character-has-an-action-figure-or-cartoon-don't-do-it school. I'm willing to live with the possibility that this means that the brilliant and sensitive mainstream superhero rape stories might not get published. I think that's a sacrifice worth making. Because as nearly as I can tell, these guys just don't have it in them. My feeling is that the knid of writer that is drawn to telling superhero stories probably is not the writer that can also do sensitive realistic tales of sexual assault and its consequences. The one guy that managed it was Alan Moore, and though the Watchmen example is the one people use, to my mind the better one is Miracleman and Johnny Bates. That was a mainstream superhero that got revamped successfully to grim 'n' gritty and no one complained. Hell, there was more squawk about the childbirth than the rape in that series. Why? What did Moore get that no other writer can grasp since?

My answer, which is probably different than yours, is: distance. I think he knew that telling the Miracleman story with the ACTUAL Captain Marvel was going Too Far. He was a star at DC, he could have done it. But he got most of the resonance by using a Brit analogue that had been out of print for thirty years.

Really I think the Giordano solution, first offered for Moore's Charlton proposal that became Watchmen, is best in these cases. You HAVE to tell the story? Don't use the actual characters. Use analogues. I don't think Miracleman or Watchmen or Planetary or any of the other analogue/tribute books are particularly diminished when the target fan audience knows who it's based on, and it neatly sidesteps the issue. My big complaint with it in Identity Crisis or Spider-Man is that it SETS A TONE for books that follow, it should be a one-off if you MUST do it. I mean, of course it should be done well too, but really, all comics should be done well. I don't think that's the complaint. The complaint is more that if you let the genie out of the bottle, it's very hard to wrench the book BACK to the kind of triviality it was dealing with before the writer decided it was time for the Very Special Episode of JLA, or whatever. It colors the stories that follow. No matter how hard they tried, it was very hard for me to shake off the memory of Countdown and IC during the Giffen/Maguire JLI arc of "Classified." And so on.

2/10/2006 10:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree 100%

But one -VERY MINOR- thing kept bugging me.

As someone who used to proofread for a living, the misspelling (not once, but a couple of times) of VITRIOL as VITROL lept of the screen.

VITRIOL, when used in this connotation, is to describe a harsh, volitile feeling. A virulence of speech.

I only point this out to help.

Guaranteed, no one else but me was bothered, or probably noted it.

Sorry to be such a jerk-store.
I can't even read cereal boxes in the morning, because I find so many errors.

To bring up a stupid point like this, while you are on such a fairly serious subject as comic-book rape is sad on my part.

I apologize for the interruption of thought.

Otherwise, well said.

2/10/2006 11:19:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home