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Should Comic Books Address Rape? by Donald McCarthy

If you’re not a comic reader then you’re probably taken aback by the title. Rape in comic books? What’s going on? Cats and dogs living together? Palestine and Israel best friends? It sounds like an alternate universe, but it’s not. Comics have become increasingly adult since the 1980s and became remarkably darker in the 1990s when Superman was brutally killed (of course, he came back to life) and Batman’s back was broken by Bane. From that point on mainstream superhero comics began to address more controversial issues, something independent comics and standalone superhero comics, such as Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, had already begun doing. Alan Moore’s Watchmen was perhaps the biggest influence, hitting on politics, what superheroes would be like in reality, and, yes, rape. It touched on the issue in a mature, rather than sensationalistic, manner, and played out the consequences of the act. It dealt with the manner appropriately, though others disagree.

After Watchmen, things got tricky. Superhero comics started using rape in stories more frequently. To be fair, rape is a common storytelling device in many crime procedurals on television. Shows like CSINCISLaw and Order: SVU feature a rape in nearly every episode, and then the show focuses more on the investigation than on the after-effects of the crime. In those show’s defense, they couldn’t exist without those crimes occurring (and usually off screen). Superhero stories don’t require rapes or even, as we’ll soon be discussing, a potential gang rape.

Yes, a gang rape. DC Comics has a new title out, Amethyst: Issue 0 (they have a whole thing with issue zeros going on–don’t ask, I’m not sure I get the point either), in which a young girl is almost gang raped by her date and his friends. You can see the panel, and some of the reactions to it by comic fans, here. I think the article linked to is a solid one, although I disagree with portions of it. Another reaction that has been going viral is the post “How to Write Rape or Attempted Rape Responsibly in a Mainstream Comic”, with simple answer “Don’t“, which I disagree with, but we’ll get to that shortly.

Before I get into in depth discussion, I want to say something about the writer of the comic, Christy Marx. Marx has been around for a long time, writing for the screen, writing for comics, and more. She’s a capable writer and I dn’t think she’d exploit rape and make it look like an easy punchline. My feeling is that she, and the editors of the issue, just didn’t think it through all the way. I get it. It happens. I don’t expect writers to be perfect, but the trivial way the potential gang rape is presented is a little disconcerting. As discussed in the first link, the incident is written off fairly quickly and what little discussion it does get doesn’t come across particularly well.

The problem, as I see it, isn’t that comic books are dealing with rape. The idea that comics should not mention rape or have it as an event in a story is absurd. Comics are just as legitimate a medium as books, plays, films, and television and thus should deal with all parts of our society, the good and the bad. As a matter of fact, comics are in a unique position to address rape. Comic readers tend to skew male and if a writer has a male audience and wants to discuss rape then I think they should go for it, as long as they take the issue seriously. There is still an attitude that rape is not a male problem. It is. If a writer can show how rape is something men should be taking seriously then they’ve done an excellent service. Comics are a legitimate avenue for such a discussion, because of their large male readership.

The problem is using rape as a crutch, as a quick shock, or, most alarmingly, as something that supposedly gives the story depth. Rape is such a charged topic that it’s doing a massive disservice to both the text and to the reader to have it brushed away so quickly. I’ve long been a believer that comics can strive to be literary and not just a throw away read with pretty pictures–incidents like this, though, aren’t helping.

I mentioned above that I disagreed with Comic Book Alliance’s Op-ed on the issue in a couple of areas. My main disagreement is using the comic series Identity Crisis as an example of rape exploitation in comics. I found the way the series addressed rape was quite an interesting one and I think it could, and at the time did (though perhaps not as much of it should have), spark an interesting discussion, which brings me to my final point. If you’re going to have a rape in a story you need to be honest to the reader and look at it in a realistic, thought provoking, and non-exploitive way. I harbor no ill feelings towards DC or Christy Marx and I don’t think anyone really should; I just hope that this leads to some rethinking on how to approach this topic in the future.

Donald McCarthy is a freelance writer, fiction writer, and SAT instructor. He lives outside New York City.