The Cliffs of Insanity: Comics, Women, and Rape

Cliffs of Insanity Featured GeekMom
A panel from the Injustice: Gods Among Us video game tie-in prequel comic. Brainwashed Superman has just killed Lois Lane, his pregnant wife.

Welcome to another installment climbing the cliffs of insanity. I had an abundance of topics to choose from this week, as there were many misinformed or just stupid things said about women and comics over the last few weeks of the summer, mostly (not surprisingly) from men. Though, hey, not all of them worked for DC Comics or Warner Bros., so there’s that.

In a previous column, “But He’s Black!“, I covered some well-known comic creators who seemed to think women didn’t like superhero comics.

Marketing fail is part of the reason women aren’t reading more superhero comics, as the largely male creators seem to have a very odd idea of what their geek female readers want. Another part is that violence against women is being used for entertainment value.

Rape should never be just an everyday plot device, though given the past actions of DC comics and the statements of Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar, that should be okay.

Does DC Comics Realize Twilight is About a Superhuman and a Normal Girl? 

First, the marketing fail.

The world at large is now finding out about the upcoming Superman/Wonder Woman series from DC Comics or, as DCWomenKickingAss put it, DC’s attempt to push this couple’s romance and make fetch happen. The Hollywood Reporter had a story, based on a report from The Mary Sue  website, on series artist Tony Daniels’ comments about the book going after girls who like Twilight.

There’s not a facepalm big enough for my reaction to that.

It’s true, I hate this pairing with the passion of a thousand suns. It’s boring, it’s uninteresting, it put Wonder Woman in a second place. This series is done to make Superman look cooler.

This does not mean I hate romance. I say that as a published romance writer. I feel the need to keep saying that because I get annoyed with marketing departments like DC that keep giving romance a bad name.

STOP! We don’t need your, um, help.

Romance is a terrific genre with tons of wonderful writers and subgenres ranging from science fiction to erotica to historicals to contemporary stories. But when marketing people keep saying “well, girls don’t read out comics because they want romancy stuff, so we’ll give them Twilight because girls like that stuff,” I want to toss my favorite romance books across the Internet and bonk you on the head with them.

I’m pretty sure a ton of geek girls and women want to do the same thing.

Yo, Daniels & DC Marketing—every time you say “well, we need to attract women by giving them romance,” a ton of women twitch and think “ick, they’re trying to tell me all I want is romance.” Add in Twilight, which is controversial even among people who like romance, and there goes the neighborhood.

From a personal standpoint, that makes it hard for me to go to that same crowd and say, “Yes, I write romance but, honest, it’s the kind of romance you’ll like. It’s not what you think or what male marketers keep trying to push on you.”

But from a reader of comics and romance, I have news for you, DC Comics: What women want is well-written stories with three-dimensional characters of both genders.

I know this is a radical concept. Bear with me.

What women want is not for the sole representative of their gender in a superhero comic to be viewed through the lust of the male gaze. Instead, woman want female characters to be written and drawn like the male characters—who are people first, sex objects second. And while you’re at it, how about women of all shapes and sizes, too. Harvey Bullock, large frame and all, is still around. Amanda Waller, though, was shrunk and sexified because, hey, no sense having an overweight woman around to ugly up things for the men.

In other words, it’s pretty much the same as what men want in their stories: well-written, three-dimensional characters in compelling stories.

I doubt you’re going to see a mass exodus of men from a title simply because there isn’t enough tits and ass.

Hawkeye seems to be doing quite well with the well-written, great but not overly sexualized art approach. Ditto Young Avengers. At DC, Batwoman has been one of the most successful launches of a DC character. Birds of Prey had over a 100-issue run where the attraction was the female friendships and the cool characters, though we did get some awful cheesecake art now and then. But no romance. (Unless you’re a Dinah/Babs shipper.)

It’s really not hard to appeal to female reader. Stop making us runaway from your comics and we might give them a chance.

Superman/Wonder Woman—with the talk of how it will be all sexy and attract girls with romance and maybe develop a triangle because Lois Lane is around—strikes me as a very male idea of what women want. And, no, I don’t believe Daniel’s comments were taken out of context in his FanExpo appearance. He had said very similar things during the DC panel at Boston Comic Con earlier this summer.

However, if you as a comic book company believe geek girls will read romance and want to appeal to the romantic in us, there is one romance that DC female readers have been invested in for a long, long time. A romance that shares one thing in common with Twilight, in that a superpowered man is fascinated by a human woman. It features a female character beloved enough to have trended on Twitter on her 75th anniversary.

A female character that was just played by an Oscar-nominated actress in a major motion picture.

Ya’ll want to give us a Superman/Lois Lane courtship and romance? Shut up and take my money.

Wonder Woman? I want to see her stand on her own, not be an adjunct to your alpha male to make him look, well, alpha.

And onto a yet another misunderstanding of the female audience.

Speaking of Running Away, Screaming. No, Rape is Just Not Another Evil Violent Thing. 

That would seem self-evident a statement, but apparently not if your name is Mark Millar.  I have warm fuzzies for Millar for helping uncover a troll who was sexually harassing and sending violent threats to a number of prominent female comic bloggers last year.

But even good guys can say uniformed things and this month, Millar did. In an interview with the New Republic, Millar said:

“‘The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?’ he told me. ‘I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.'”

kick-ass 2 rape scene
The scene in question from the comic on which the movie Kick-Ass 2 is based. This scene was not in the movie.

Let’s take this one by one:

1. Rape is just like any other violent, horrible thing.

Well, no. It’s not. For one, one-third of your potential female audience might have personally experienced it. I doubt 30 percent of the current male reading audience has personally experienced some of the over-the-top violence in Millar’s stories, especially decapitation.

Rape is all too real for many women. There’s a reason we’re taught to walk in pairs at night. The reason we’re careful on first dates. Louis CK summaries the problem nicely in one of his comedy routines. Violence against women is the reason Gail Simone had to be a real-life hero this week.

I’m fairly sure most men don’t incorporate the concern that a first date could end in decapitation or being beat down when making dinner plans.

2. It’s not the worst thing that can happen to your hero.

It seems to be conventional wisdom among male comic writers that the worst thing that can happen to a hero is that his girlfriend is raped. Identity Crisis was of this mindset when it put a rape at the core of the entire DC superhero universe. Wait, no, it put the male reaction to a rape at the core of the DC superhero universe. (Which is just wrong on so many levels. More of this below.) Hence the “women in refrigerators” trope, an expression based on Green Lantern #54 in which the hero finds his girlfriend dead in the refrigerator and the story is all about him. Marvel has had its share of “women in refrigerators” incidents as well, starting with Carol Danvers giving birth to her rapist’s child back in the day.

Newsflash: The worst thing that can happen is for the hero to be raped.

Don’t think so? Picture Superman being raped by Lex Luthor. Did that disgust you? Good, it should. Or, and be honest with your reaction, it might make it harder to see him as a hero.

Imagine that over 50 percent of the male heroes in your superhero comics are rape victims. You might start thinking these comic writers have a thing against men. But you’d definitely think they’re lacking in imagination for not finding a different trope.

Now imagine your favorite superhero universe is basically based on a male rape and the reactions to it by the women in the story. The guy is just a prop. Well, he’s dead too. (I’m speaking of  DC’s Identity Crisis, and, yes, I think Joss Whedon should not have written the introduction to the collected edition.)  And then you hear these women writing the comics screamed with glee when the pages where Superman is raped came into the office. “The rape pages are in!” (Such was the report of a former DC editor about Sue  Dibny’s rape.)

Then you might come close to seeing it from the female perspective of reading mainstream comics.

Over on Gail Simone’s forum, we talked about the worst thing that can happen to a guy. I went a bit too far with suggesting it was having their penis cut off. That’s probably not so equivalent to rape, as it permanently, physically, prevents future sex acts. But it’s close and I bet most men would wince if this happened to men in mainstream comics on a semi-regular basis.

But wait, you say. We’re talking about Mark Millar and his independent comic, not superhero comics. Surely, a story featuring Superman and the rest of the DC pantheon can’t have a rape scene as bad as in Kick-Ass?

Umm…you be the judge.

The rape of Sue Dibny in Identity Crisis, which led to the entire Infinite Crisis series. Copyright DC Comics.

The entire DC comic universe was based for several years on this rape and the fall-out events. Not on the fallout of Sue dealing with what happened to her and taking some agency. No, the fallout because the men were all upset and fought about how to handle it.

Just this year, we’ve been treated to a graphic panel of Catwoman shot in the head, yet she still managed to look sexy. (It was a fake-out. She’s not dead, of course, but somehow it was important to show her dead with blood oozing and yet still sexy.) And the panel I have at the beginning of this column—which is, admittedly, from an alternate universe in which everyone becomes evil—is proof of a pattern more than an exception, given Lois’ treatment in the main universe. We saw Lois Lane recently tossed out a window but it didn’t diminish her sexiness either, though she lapsed into a coma. Sexy times with the violence victims. Yay!

Comics shouldn’t be free of violence, of course. But I shouldn’t have to guard myself against possible graphic gore, destruction, or rape every time I open up a mainstream Superman comic. I expect it from Game of Thrones or Spartacus. Those aren’t superhero stories.

It’s sad enough when a mainstream superhero comic and Spartacus, an X-rated series on a cable network, have close to the same amount of gore.

It’s even sadder when the victims of the violence have more agency and are allowed to be more heroic in the x-rated cable series than in a mainstream superhero comic.

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7 thoughts on “The Cliffs of Insanity: Comics, Women, and Rape

  1. WOW. I’d never considered the Superman/Lex alternative scenario. I was shocked at my own horror at the thought. It is an effective analogy. Keep using it. Guys need to get familiar with that thought if we have any hope of understanding the female perspective. I’ve been afraid of being beat up at school or on the bus, but never on a date. Your whole article is eye-opening. Thank you for helping us see the world through a very different perspective.

  2. Thank you for writing that. Amazingly well written on all points, from Wonder Woman & Superman (really, do we have to do that?) to the entire point about rape. I definitely didn’t think about the fact that the entire issue is written from the point of view of the male characters, but it does explain some of my issues with the entire storyline.

  3. I worked in comic for a few years, and one of the stand out shocking moments was the rape of Apollo…a man. It was done quite differently from the above cited examples…it was violent, but many readers probably didn’t know that’s what really happened. And in the end, Apollo got his revenge…after beating he hell out of his rapist, Apollo’s lover Midnighter killed the rapist by raping him with a jack hammer.
    Also of relevance, Apollo is a gay man.

    But you’re right, its not just a comic thing. In most movies and TV shows the rape is shown from the outside in: from the perspective of the brother/father/boyfriend/husband. There was a movie in the 80s called “The Rape of Richard Beck.” That was one of the few films that stepped outside TV fantasy land and gave us a tough male hero who was the victim of a rape. Given the time it was made the took a risk and delivered a thought provoking message. Too bad our comic industry doesn’t take that as an example.

  4. Thanks Corrina. I appreciate your continued willingness to challenge men to see things differently. I am a better guy for having read this. Thank you!

  5. Each time I read that scene in Identity Crisis, I feel a little sick in the pit of my stomach, and I’d just as soon not have the scene at all. You are absolutely right though, it would have been much worse if it had been a male character.

    However, I don’t think that the rape of Sue Dibney was the basis of the story, it was her murder. The mind wipe debate stemmed more from the question of “How far do we go to protect those closest to us? CAN we protect them?” And the answer, unfortunately is : not always.

    Could the scene have been handled better? Probably. Was it even necessary ? I argue no. I don’t believe rape should be used for shock value, male OR female. I’m hard pressed to think of when it’s EVER been portrayed well.

    Again, it would have been good if it hadn’t been reduced to a motivation for the heroes to go out and kick ass, but you didn’t go in expecting to read about Sue dealing with the effects it had on her. While that would have made a good story, people were expecting DC heroes doing their thing and working together to catch a killer.

    That said,it IS immensely satisfying when the victim gets their own back, such as with Michonne and the Governor.

    Actually, I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned Alan Moore, that guy is rape-y. People tend to write off Frank Miller as a mysoginist, and while he kinda is, Moore actually goes all the way and disguises it as “art.”

    It’s worth noting that he’s IMPLIED female on male rape in Tom Strong and kinda portrayed male on male (the victim was invisible) in LXG but he’s never explicitly shown it, unlike his female victims. The scenarios involving the male victims feel more like fantasies and the scenarios with women play out more like fanservice.

    Disturbing fan service.

    1. If I listed every comic writer who uses rape as a plot device to move forward the male’s story, I’d have quickly run out of space in my article. Failure to mention doesn’t mean I approve, I just grabbed some of the more recent and most prominent examples, especially from a prominent video game, one of DC’s best selling books, and the property that became a major Hollywood motion picture.

      As for Moore, I admit his stories simply don’t appeal to me because he doesn’t seem to like *humans* never mind women. They are mostly technically well-written—Watchmen’s panels and art construction is amazing, so all props to Dave Gibbons as well as Moore on that. I will say Moore disclaims some of his earlier work, such as The Killing Joke which didn’t feature rape but certainly used Barbara Gordon’s tragedy as a prop in the story.

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