Wednesday, September 21, 2016

INTERREGNUM (ii): Comic Book Logic and Rape

Comics suffer the constraint of perception. For all of its growing social relevance, for all of its long history from the pages of the funnies to the glossiest of graphic novels, comic books still bear the stigma of entertainment for kids. Comics are still that crazy kid’s stuff. And hence that delightful paradox: no longer for kids, who barely think of sex, they’re targeted at teens who barely think of anything else. And one thing teens won’t find in super-heroes books is sex (at least beyond the tame suggestion of it in the context of romance).

Now, it is obvious that sex mustn’t have a prominent place in super-hero comic books, since as a rule those are not erotic or porn books. Each genre with its own rules, even though nothing prevents genre fluidity, or the successful inclusion of explicit content in superhero comics, as both Comico’s ELEMENTAL’S SEX SPECIAL (1991-1993) and WildStorm’s THE BOYS (2006-2007) or Dynamite’s HEROGASM (2009) clearly attest. Nor is either of those matters the point of this brief post, although I intend to tackle both of them in future writings.

If I now bring up the subject of sex I do so in a more specific context – that of rape in superheroes comic books, and even so (saving the subject for a future and longer post), only as the utmost perfect illustration of Goldman’s rule #4: “the comic-book movie doesn’t have a great deal to do with life as it exists, as we know it to be. Rather, it deals with life as we would prefer it to be. Safer that way”. Even if the way we prefer it to be is childish.

First of all, I’m not talking about graphic representations of rape. Just as graphic representations of sex, they would have no place in mass-market entertainment like the comic books put out every month by Marvel or DC. What I really want to discuss is the very concept of rape. The basic idea that anywhere in the universe – in the superhero universe – such a thing could happen. To anyone. Let alone to some super-powered female come from Krypton or a power-stripped mutant in Genosha (yes, I’m thinking of the infamous UNCANNY X-MEN #236) or Kansas, or whatever.

Despite endless talk about why superheroes need secret identities to protect their families and the ones they love, we know that the Vulture, or Doc Ok, or Venom will go straight after Peter once he advertises his true identity, and if they go for Aunt May or Mary Jane, they’ll do so without the least lubricious thought in their minds.

However, one would expect rape to be a professional hazard to super-heroines (if not super-heroes). After all, their job is to fight, many times at close quarters, with vicious super-powered villains intent on world domination and drunk on power. And even more so if said villains are of the Freudian persuasion.

In fact, reality tell us that, even allowing a large margin for underreporting, and despite a decline in crime statistics, and if we’re to believe the UNODC data for 2011, more than 26 women for each 100.000 is a victim of rape, while the FBI, for 2012 alone, lists a total of 67.354 female victims of rape in the United States. In the military (something more akin to superherodom) that number rises to one in three.

But, just as it happened with Gwen Stacy, the intrusion of reality in the comic book world is a shattering event. That supervillains are willing to rape, and that superheroes are unable to prevent it, is something people seem incapable of handling. It’s something that defies Comic Book Logic, something that further punctures the improbability sphere that surrounds the world of each main character in superhero books.

Indeed, the rape of a minor character, Sue Dibny, in a hugely popular mini-series – IDENTITY CRISIS (2005) – was probably the most decried event in comic book history. In fact it was decreed anathema from all quarters. It was deemed by some to be “the stupidest, most offensive move in modern comics”, while others considered it “the embodiment of all of the worst aspects of current super-hero comics”. Some tried to justify their aversion to it because the story did not dwell at length with the trauma of the rape victim, as if that was or should be the point of the story. And others still, with shock-and-awe bombast and no sense of ridicule, proclaimed that the rape of a superhero's spouse ripped through the superhero community, broke rules of corporate superhero fiction, and left the spirit of the DC Comics universe in tatters. But, in the end, what they all were objecting was this:

Quite restrained isn’t it? Even tame, by comparison with some of the other images I chose to illustrate this post. There’s nothing graphic about it – not even the slightest hint of nudity, despite the discrete rrrrrp sound that I imagine is Dr. Light ripping Sue’s trousers. So, the only thing objectionable on this scene is the shock of the rape itself. The unexpectedness of it. Not the unexpectedness of “how could it have happened?”, but of the more crude “How dare them (the publishers/writers/artists) do it?” type. As an example, Shaun Spalding, referring to IDENTITY CRISIS, admonishes his readers: “If you’re going to write a rape into your superhero comic book, be prepared to write it well.” Sadly, no examples are given on how to do it. What a surprise.

The best way to summarize the reaction and the ballyhoo about this scene is the one employed by a reader in a comments thread (and I’m sorry for dropping on her shoulders the heavy burden of poster-girl for social indignation) when she wrote that:

The shocking thing in this scene was, in fact, that Dr. Light dared go beyond the mere threat. The thrill of the menace was enough, just like in a theme park ride. In the comic book world some readers like to inhabit, bad things don’t happen to good people. Superhero’s wives are not raped by unscrupulous villains. Super-heroines are not objects of desire. It’s safer that way.

In truth, this kind of reaction harkens back to a time when comic books really seemed incapable of going beyond infantile prudishness even when dealing with larger issues. Take, for example, JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #84 (September 1962). At a certain point of the cover story for that issue “The Mighty Thor vs The Executioner”, Dr. Don Blake (Thor) is captured by the titular villain, a prescient ersatz Guevara/Castro figure that shows us the Marvel was much more aware of socialist reality than many of its critics.


When the Executioner, who has noticed the enticing young American nurse Jane Foster: “Such lovely eyes… such soft hair” is clearly a displaced appreciation of the girl’s other bodily charms – unmentionable by name in a comic book for kids. The sexual subtext is there, the libidinous menace is clear; and, noticing the concern of Jane over Dr. Blake, the ersatz Cuban dictator expresses his most primal instincts for the young American girl:

Would you marry me?” Yes… the sexual subtext is there, in a language that only children could identify with.


  1. Well, I may be anticipating your next essay somewhat, but as I see it, "comic book logic" applies to your Thor example in that the creators signal to their intended audience-- which as you say, would have been conceived as being no older than 12-- that rape itself can only be a threat, because the hero's ability to intervene will never be compromised. This parallels what you've said about the trope of superheroes rescuing people, like jumpers from high buildings, without causing them any resultant injuries.

    The Executioner's threat of illicit marriage is, as I think you're implying, a strategy to soften the threat of real-world rape itself. Still, it certainly appears in entertainment throughout pop culture, and Kirby himself was possibly exposed, even in the early 20th century, to stories in which the villain threatens to force the heroine into marriage to obviate some debt. It's been said that the immediate source of the trope is from the so-called stage "mellerdramas" of the late 19th century. Only specialists in this pop-cultural period might know what these plays were, though the trope survived into the 1940s MIGHTY MOUSE cartoon, where villains are frequently trying to marry the heroine first before they get down and dirty. For what it's worth, though, the trope also shows up in more consciously "literary" work. Dickens' 1849 DAVID COPPERFIELD builds to a storyline in which the villain Uriah Heep wants to do the same thing to David's potential beloved.

    I would disagree with the critic who thought the INFINITY CRISIS rape "unnecessary;" it was as necessary as the similar abuse in Burgess' CLOCKWORK ORANGE and the resultant movie, from which I would bet Meltzer did some swiping. The idea of the heroes retaliating with extreme measures had to be based in some visceral response, and while it didn't absolutely have to be rape, rape makes as logical a threat as any other one, such as murder.

    I have wondered at times why Meltzer chose Doctor Light. Since he might for some represent the essence of the superhero as juvenile adventure, being a Silver Age villain, I suppose the author thought himself clever to give such a character a nastier, more "realistic" outlook. Yet I think he might have chosen better, even from other Silver Age villains. Despite the Comics Code, a few Silver Age villains are a little "sexier" than Doctor Light, and so any of them might have fit the bill better. (Now I'll be compiling a list of potential Silver Age rapers in the next few days, O joy!)

    1. Hello again, Gene.

      Yes, I see your point about the forced/illicit marriage being a trope, and I agree with that. However, my point was that by 1962, and in a Marxist dictatorship, I'm sure the Executioner wouldn't need the social masking of the forced sex by means of marriage. He would just do it. It is curious (although I didn't reproduce that panel in my post), that in the panel that immediately precedes the one of the "marriage proposal", the Executioner in a gesture of rage, takes Dr. Blake's cane, thus stopping him, innadvertently, of becoming Thor (which, I guess, can be read as a symbolic castration - Blake rests unable to get to his "power source" and thus is also unable to prevent the ravishing of the woman he secretly longs for.).

      And speaking of ravishing, you are of course right as to the need of the rape (or any other heinous crime) in the story, as a trigger to the less than heroic retaliatory measures. When I was drafting my post, I considered rephrasing the reader's complaint as follows: “My primary problem with Identity Crisis, which I mostly liked, was the infiltration by Dr. Light of the satellite and hacking of their computers and threat to all their loved ones, because it wasn't necessary to the story. Dr. Light being crazy dangerous and vicious enough to rape Sue Dibny was enough.” It rests just as true an oration as the original one, which, to me at least, puts it on the level of mere personal opinion or political bias, for it really is not a matter of literary technique. She is not objecting to the necessity (or not) of the rape, but to the rape itself. Should one substitute rape for murder, it would still be an oration with the same truth-value, but it would not trigger the same reaction.

      One hillarious comment that I came across in the same context, and that I'm keeping for a future and more detailed post about rape in comics (that I intend to title A FATE WORTH THAN DEATH... LITERALLY), argued that rape was a lot worth than death, because you could always retcon the death of the character, but you could not erase rape. How's that for logic?

      Otherwise, you write that "Despite the Comics Code, a few Silver Age villains are a little "sexier" than Doctor Light, and so any of them might have fit the bill better. (Now I'll be compiling a list of potential Silver Age rapers in the next few days, O joy!)"

      Well, it's needless to say I'll be eagerly waiting the list, with curisity greatly aroused...



    2. Hey Sherman,
      I wanted to mention that I'd finally got round to responding to the comment you made on my ELEKTRA post last month. For some reason I really wanted to wait until I found, read, and reviewed DAREDEVIL LOVE AND WAR before so doing. So I've analyzed that one for my post-series as well as making my long delayed response.

      I tried to broach the subject of Silver Age villains with "romance motifs" on a CBR thread, prefacing my thread by saying that I knew such villains couldn't be allowed to be erotic evildoers in a straightforward manner. The thread went on for a bit until I mentioned that I was wondering if there was a good substitute for Doctor Light to be found in their ranks. Answer: absolute silence.

      It's also occurred to me that Light might've been selected because he seemed to go through a lot of mental problems, and as far as I recall those problems were supposed to be "explained" by the brainwashing in INFINITE CRISIS.

      The one Silver Age villain that seemed nasty enough to let it all hang out, IMO, is Sinestro. Maybe I think of him because in his origin tale, he's seen lording it over his alien people. Not too hard to imagine him taking advantage of a "droit de seigneur" custom. But he was probably too important a villain to be subjected to those mind games.