- You are a comic-book writer or editor attempting to create a team of superheroes. You are sensitive to diversity issues in comics, but as a heterosexual white man, you are concerned that if you make characters of color, gay characters, or (wonder of wonders!) both, you will be accused of tokenism and appropriation. What do you do?
- You are a submissions editor at a major comic book publisher. You receive a pitch from a brilliant and well-known creator for a series whose content you consider extremely offensive. The company at which you work is in serious financial trouble, and you know that signing such a big-name creator might make the difference between going under and staying in business. What do you do?
- You are a writer or artist and a member of a minority or nonprivileged group (or groups) frequently misrepresented in or omitted entirely from mainstream media. You feel strongly about the importance of accurate representation of you and your peers in mainstream comics, and you believe that it’s vital for the Big Two to step up and take responsibility for this. However, they have consistently failed to respond to your frequent letters and submissions. What do you do?
- You are a die-hard fan of a publisher or creator whose work you respect deeply. However, that publisher or creator has just released a work you find extremely and inexcusably offensive. What do you do?
- You are a woman and/or minority who wants to break into mainstream comics. Knowing that comics is traditionally a monochromatic boys’ club, you are torn over emphasizing the contributions you could make in terms of diversity, and downplaying your otherness so that you will fit in and advance more quickly to a position in which you would have more power and impact. What do you do?
- You are a writer or artist working on a book which features a character of color. This character has been written and drawn for decades as a palette-swapped Caucasian. If you change that, you risk angering fans of the character by significantly altering his or her ‘personality’ and appearance; however, you feel that the character’s current appearance and personality are not true to her or his heritage, or to your own experiences and knowledge. What do you do?
Today, boys and girls, we’re going to talk about Misty Lee’s body. She’s been talking about other people’s, so it seems only fair.
Misty Lee’s body has nothing to do with her credibility as a person and a commentator. The color of her eyes does not influence what they perceive. Her weight-height ratio has very little to do with her ability to interpret data. The degree to which she does or does not adhere to our society’s beauty standards does not determine her qualifications to accurately gauge the propriety or quality of a piece of media. And the number of men interested in seeing pictures of her naked has nothing to do with her ability to judge the validity of other people’s reactions to the Heroes for Hire #13 cover.
Misty Lee’s body is no more the issue than were the bodies of the women she insulted on her show, the women who, Lee claimed, objected to the blatant objectification and victimization of female characters in comics because they themselves were ‘fat and ugly.’ Unsurprisingly, many of these women reacted angrily to Lee’s comment; unsurprisingly, several of the reactions involved refutations of her claims, backed with physical descriptions and even photographs.
I think they missed the point: it doesn’t matter how fat and ugly I, or Misty Lee, or any other blogger or critic happens to be. When guys got up in arms about Citizen Steel’s package, the first accusations were not that they must be hung like infants. When men object to the content or subject of comics, it is not assumed that they are doing so to compensate for their own inadequacies, physical (fat, ugly), social (unable to get a date, no sense of humor), or mental (just don’t get it).
But if it’s a woman, appearance trumps. She doesn’t like this drawing of Power Girl? Must be because she’s insecure about her flat chest. Thinks women in comic books are objectified? Obviously, she’s jealous of the reactions they elicit from real-life men. When a male creator does something fans disagree with, they cast aspersions on his capabilities. When a female creator pisses off fanssometimes just by having the temerity to play in the boys’ leaguethey immediately attack her appearance. This is social control at its purest, kids: reducing over half the population to little more than fashion plates, whose thoughts are always secondary to their looks; making women creatures to be seen and judged, but never really heard.
In ‘Just Past the Horizon: On Reflection,’ Lisa Fortuner wrote about the importance of finding our reflections in the ‘paper mirror’ of comics, and the hurt and betrayal we feel when we see those reflections warped beyond recognition; when the books we read tell us that those female heroesand, by extension, the readers who identify with themexist only to fulfill someone else’s fantasies and dismiss our ardent need for heroes of our own. The same, I suspect, holds true for all of the groups relegated to the mirror’s edges or cut out altogether: people of color, queers, disabled persons, and others who do not fit the narrow mold of ‘normalcy.’
I am amazed that Misty Lee, of all people, failed to make that connectionto see that there’s more to women’s interest in comics than imagined comparisons with female superheroes.
And I wonder how she would have reacted if one of the women on the Heroes for Hire #13 cover had been Zatanna.
Discuss this column here.
The recent upsurge of fan activism in response to some particularly egregious products makes me really happy. Yeah, it’ll die down a bitreally, it’s already begun tobut it’s nice to see more people standing up and demanding that creators and publishers take responsibility for their work. And it’s in that spirit that I’m going to talk about one of the most popular and time-honored channels of communication between fans and publishers: letters to the editor.
As an assistant editor, I read a whole, whole lot of these. Here’s my useful and highly subjective list of Dos and Don’ts for letters to comics editors:
-Be respectful. Nothing will piss off an editor or creator like a rude letter, no matter how valid the complaints within. I will cheerfully read, respond to, and even print negative or critical letters as long as they’re civil. I like criticism. I like knowing what people think, and I appreciate fans who take the time to tell us what does and doesn’t work for them. If, on the other hand, you have sent me a five-hundred-word diatribe on why a comic or creator ‘sucks’ or what a ‘faggot,’ ‘douche,’ or ‘idiot’ I, another editor, or a creator is, I will mock your letter mercilessly with my colleagues before throwing it away.
-Know what you’re talking about. If you have a complaintor a complimentbe able to provide some context. We get an awful lot of letters complaining about things that ‘don’t make sense’ in single issues but which are perfectly clear within the context of the stories in which they appear.
Editors put in forty-to-sixty-plus-hour weeks for relatively little money. While we are generally happy to help answer questions, please don’t ask us to do your homework for you or send us questions you could answer with a Google search. That’s just not cool.
That said, ‘I’ve just discovered your comic! Where should I start?’ letters are pretty rad. However, you might still have better luck on a message board, since our frames of reference are hopelessly skewed.
-Avoid unnecessary jargon or abbreviations, and make sure spelling and grammar are at least clear. You don’t have to be perfect, but it really helps if we know what you’re talking about. Obviously, you get more leeway if English isn’t your native languagethen we’re just really honored that you took the effort to write to us in ours. If you’re writing your letter by hand, please, please, please try to write legibly.
IF YOU’RE WRITING TO A LETTER COLUMN
All of the above, plus:
-Be succinct. Most letters which find their way into letter-columns are going to be edited heavily for lengthwe try to publish letters from as many readers as possibleand although the editors will do their best to preserve your meaning, the best way to keep cuts to a minimum is to keep your letter clear and to-the-point. Avoid unnecessary qualifiers, rambling anecdotes, and unnecessarily strung-out descriptions.
Also, the shorter a letter is, the easier it is for me to find a place for it in a column, and the more likely it is to get published.
-Proofread. Ever notice that letters to the editor are always properly spelled and punctuated? That’s ’cause assistant editors go through them and make corrections before the columns go to press. But you’re much, much more likely to be taken seriously if you sound mature, and that means proofreading your own email and avoiding text-message-style abbreviations. It also makes my life much easier, and I’ll love you for it.
-Make character attacks. This should be self-explanatory. Calling an editoror a writer, or an artistnames is not going to make them want to make you happy, and it is not going to make them receptive to your ideas, no matter how good those ideas may be. This doesn’t just go for people on the creative team, either: it’s generally considered pretty bad form to talk too much smack about anyone in comics unless it’s clear that anything you’re saying is confidential and between friends. The whole industry is one big, incestuous family, and we all know each other. It’s okay to tell Editor X that you don’t like Creator Y’s artjust don’t talk about what a jackass you think Creator Y is.
-Use a letter to the editor as an opportunity to pitch your own comic or advertise your website / business / publication. Most publishers have fairly strict submission policies, and ignoring or attempting to bypass them will basically tell editors that you’re irresponsible and lazy (it’s usually fine to ask for informal feedback on your work, as long as you’re not actually trying to submit it). Querying is one thing, but sending a pitch in the guise of a fan letter is really bad form.
For a great example of an eloquent, civil, and very angry letter to the editor, I highly recommend checking out Katherine Keller’s ‘An Open Letter on the Topic of Stephanie Brown’ over at Sequential Tart.
And in the meantime, talk back to me!
I’m having a vile week, so I’m going to write about something that makes me happy: Kate Corrigan.
Kate is a character created by Mike Mignola, although these days, she’s written primarily by John Arcudi and drawn by Guy Davis. She first appeared in Hellboy and is now a regular in spinoff series B.P.R.D.
Kate is smart. She is crazy smart. She’s also an academic: she has a Ph.D. from N.Y.U and has written over a dozen books on European folklore. She has millennia-worth of history and myth at her fingertips, is a polyglot, and spends most of her money onyou guessed itmore books. She writes papers for fun.
So? you ask. She’s just another dusty old professor-type. What’s so special about that?
Ah, but that’s not all she is. Kate has given up her teaching position to work as a consultant, Field Director, and Special Task Force Liason at the B.P.R.D., which. for those of you who don’t read Hellboy and B.P.R.D. (and shame on you!), is the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Kate goes on missions. She gets dirty and bruised. And she loves it, because it’s fun and it’s interesting. Oh, and she doesn’t just play the token egghead and spout useless trivia, eitherif she’s on a mission, it’s because she knows or can do stuff that matters.
Kate is somewhere between thirty-five and fifty. She has short, unkempt hair. She dresses practically and comfortably. She doesn’t wear makeup. When she’s not on assignments, she likes to wear long, flowy skirts. She drinks green tea and tries to make friends.
In the B.P.R.D., she’s the levelheaded one: unlike Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman, Kate stays pretty angst-free. She’s practical, she’s smart, and she’s even genuinely nice.
Kate has been around since pretty early in Hellboy, but she didn’t really get a chance to shine on her own until the B.P.R.D. series The Universal Machine, in which she got sucked back in time to the home of the ancient and sinister Marquis Adoet de Fabre, a nasty, centuries-old nobleman with a castleful of vampires and an incredibly powerful demon in his thrall.
I’m not gonna give too many details, ‘cause it’s a great read and full of teriffic twists. But I will tell you that Kate ends up tricking the Marquis, cutting off three of his fingers, destroying his castle, and generally being badass. Kate does this without any superpowers, and, more impressively, she does it without breaking character. She’s smart, she’s witty, and she stays aware of her surroundings, and that’s enoughwithout diminishing her accomplishment or making it look like something anyone could have done.
I like Kate. I like her because she’s a well-realized female character, and I like the people who created her. I like her because she isn’t a cliché or a stereotype. I like that when I think of her, the image that jumps to mind is her face, not her body. I like her because she’s smart and nice, and because I suspect she’d be a lot of fun to get drunk with, and because she loves books. I like her because she’s someone I’d like to know, and because she reminds me of people I really do know. I like her because she reminds me a littleokay, maybe more than a littleof me, or at least of someone I wouldn’t mind becoming someday.
As Kate’s original creator would say, There you go.
I’m writing this on a bed in room 819 of the Madison Concourse Hotel. Next to me, Robyn Fleming is updating The Hathor Legacy. On the other bed, Karen Healey and Elizabeth McDonald are skimming the Girl-Wonder forum. At the desk in the corner, Andrea Rubenstein is working on the next issue of Cerise.
We’re all tired and a little grouchy, catching our breath from the crash of WisCon ending earlier today. Later, we’re going to order pizza and maybe watch some bad television or dive into the dozens of books we’ve bought over the course of the con. We’ll probably stay up too late, regardless. Tomorrow, my friend Michael will pick me up; I’ll spend the next day with him, then fly back home on Wednesday, and it’ll be back to work and life.
But I’ll be going back with something I didn’t have beforefaces to the names (and, in some cases, names to the handles) with which I’ve grown increasingly familiar over the past year in the feminist community. Also, I bought some porn, which may be another column in its own right.
For now, though, I’ll stick with names and faces, and the people behind them, and to start, I’ll make a confession: I’m scared of women. Not all women, of course, and certainly not in a shriek-and-run-away sort of way. And it’s not fear preciselymore like discomfort, or maybe mistrust. I worry that they’re talking about me behind my back, holding me up to standards I can never even try to meet.
In high school, when I started gaming, it was always me and the guys. There were other girlsGracie and Heather, who huddled together and giggled behind their hands but neither of them gamed, and I was never really one of them. Instead, I occupied a frustrating and lonely liminal space. The girls made it clear that gaming and comics and other such geekery was guy stuff; they preferred to whisper and occasionally burst out laughing at the guys’ silliness. The guys were friendly enough, and quickly accepted me as one of their own (you know you’re one of the guys when they start telling embarrassing masturbation stories) but never quite gave up on the idea that I was somehow closer to Gracie and Heather, connected by the invisible link of our gender. I was intensely lonely, but because I was a generally fucked-up and angst-ridden adolescent, I didn’t think much of it.
In college, it was a little bettera few girls gamed, and a few read comicsbut only a little. Most of the women I gamed with were still trailing reluctantly behind their more enthusiastic boyfriends and made it emphatically clear that they were not gamers. They were dismissive of ‘geek stuff’ like comics and video games. They liked to plan ‘girl time’ for while their boyfriendsand I, who was again denied membership in that exclusive club, or perhaps just forgotten along the waywere gaming or hanging out at the comics shop. It was a less painful space to occupy than it had been in high school, because my friendships with the guys were much closer, but it was still awkward, and it was still acutely lonely. I wanted friendships with other women, but I was tired of those friendships being conditional on my pretending not to careor at least staying carefully quietabout a substantial slice of my life.
Groups were the worst. There were some women who I knew were geekswho had pull lists at the comics shop, who played in CCG tournaments and waited breathless for news of the latest World of Warcraft expansion. One-on-one, we could chatter happily about our interests. But when there were more people around, everything changed. My friends would jump back into their girly, non-geek personae. They’d clam up or even outright lie.
By the time I started at Dark Horse, I had very nearly given up on having many close female friends who didn’t tacitly dismiss or outright mock my hobbiesand now, my career. When I was first introduced around the editorial department, it was with growing dismay that I discovered that many of my coworkers were women close to my age: even though they made comics for a living, I was quietly convinced that nothing would changetheir jobs must simply be anomalies. They couldn’t really be into comics, let alone video games; I couldn’t imagine that any of them collected dice.
When Samantha Robertson asked if my partner and I did any tabletop gaming, my first thought was, ‘Oh, fuck. Am I that obvious?’
‘Yeah, some,’ I said.
‘What systems?’ she asked.
It turned out Sam played tabletop games. She also played video games. Jemiah wrote vampire novels and adored classic movies. Katie, who had a Fray poster and a sticker that said ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention’ in her office window, was a rabid fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and didn’t care who knew. They were liberal. They were brilliant. They were women And they were confidently self-identified geeks. I suddenly had a pretty decent of how East Berlin must have felt when the wall fell.
I started posting on comics forums not long after and was lucky enough to find Girl-Wonder almost immediately. I had been abstractly aware that there were female and feminist comics fans out there, but finding an organized community of them was a revelation akin to connecting with the other women at Dark Horse.
But it didn’t clicknot really, not so I believed ituntil WisCon. Attending an explicitly feminist conventionmeeting and touching and talking and living with the women I’d connected to on Girl-Wonder and elsewhere in the feminist geek communitygave me a whole new understanding of just how much those connections matter. In an industry in which we make up an often overlooked or dismissed minority, taking time to celebrate and connect with each other is not only importantit’s necessary. Our individual experiences and beliefs may differ, but as we celebrate and recognize the common ground that we are breaking together, to share ideas and join forces, the old adage of a whole greater than the sum of its partsa whole that, by existing, adds to those partsbegins to make sense.
This is the coda to a series about sexual assault and comics. You can find the previous posts here:
Rape in the Gutters
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 1
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 2
Is It Too Much to Ask?
Rape Is Rape Is Rape
The Morning After
Back when I wrote about the Conan #39 letter column, several people asked whether I could post the actual text of that column here. I checked with the boss-types, who said yesprovided that I wait ’til Conan #40 hit the stands. Luckily for me, #40 came out in the midst of my panicked preparation for WisCon (Augh! Paper! Panels! Costume Ball!), so I don’t have to come up with a column’s worth of new content.
Before jumping into the letter column, I want to say a few things: First, if you’re glad to see this, please consider buying the comic that it appeared in. Second, this column happened because of the tremendous amount of feedback we got from fans regarding Janissa’s rape. If you like this idea, or if you want to see more of this kind of material, please take a few minutes to shoot off an email to me, Scott Allie, Matt Dryer, or Dark Horse in general to let us know. Finally, although I didn’t get to mention this in the letter column itself, I want to reiterate that it wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of support from Conan‘s editor, Scott Allie; my partner in crime, Katie Moody; the Girl-Wonder community; and former Conan layout artist Thomas Yeates, with whom I corresponded extensively in the process of writing this thing.
So, without further ado, the Conan #39 letter column.
This month I’m handing over the lettercol to my assistant, Rachel Edidin. She’s been making a massive contribution to my books the last six months or so, and had an idea for this month’s lettercol to which I couldn’t say no. By the time she’s done, it’ll be hard to add marketing plugs for our other books, so I’ll get that out of the way here. Next issue of the monthly features Paul Lee and Dave Stewart back with Tim, and Thoth back to mess with Conan’s life. Meanwhile, the epic saga of King Conan’s dark journey into Stygia continues in Conan and the Midnight God.
This lettercol will no doubt renew a topic that’s been kicking around this series for more than two years. I appreciate this sort of dialogue with readers. Some people have written to say that the way some people approach the subject is inappropriate, in one way or another, but I’m happy to see people addressing it, so I try not to judge. There are some things to which it’s hard to have any ‘proper’ response.
I’m writing this column for two reasons. First, I want to address some issues that have come up in connection with the rape in Janissa’s backstory (Conan #12). Second, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and in connection with that, I’m going to talk a bit about some sexual assault facts and resources.
Two years and twenty-seven issues after Janissa’s introduction, we’re still getting letters about her. We’ve been accused of misogyny, of misrepresentation, of sloppy storytelling; in addition to the dozen-odd letters that have appeared in columns, we’ve received and responded to several that were simply too long to run.
One of the most common complaints we received was that Janissa just wasn’t a realistic representation of a rape survivor: that someone who had been through what she’d experienced should be severely traumatized and minimally functional, not ‘a sexy comic book ninja babe.’
I didn’t read Janissa as a sexy comic book ninja babe; from her first appearance, I interpreted her as deeply damaged. But then, I spent four-plus years as a volunteer victim advocate at a rape crisis center, and I’ve had a lot of direct experience with survivors of sexual assault. Everyone reacts to traumaespecially sexual traumain different ways; I’ve seen the classic ‘sobbing in fetal position’ scene, but I’ve also seen women who coped with brutal assaults by cracking jokes. What they had experienced was no less traumatic, and the fact that their reactions weren’t the ‘right’ way for a trauma victim to behave makes them no less valid. One of the first things that crisis advocates learn is never to judge a survivor by her or his behavior.
And what if Janissa is sexy? For some survivors, presenting themselves as sexualand sexyis a way of reclaiming their sexuality and self-confidence. Sometimes that behavior comes from a less healthy source: some survivors feel that they’re ‘damaged goods,’ and that, as such, they might as well play the part. To me, Janissa reads as confident (or self-destructive) enough to run around in armor that leaves pretty much every vital organ and nerve center exposed. (I’m concerned less with the ‘sexiness’ of her outfit than its wild impracticality!)
So, while Janissa’s demeanor may not be what you’d expect from a trauma survivor, that doesn’t mean it’s not realistic. But is Janissa’s story sexist?
The obvious test is to ask how much the story would change were its protagonist male. Not a lot—you can feasibly replace Janissa with, say, a second son of an aristocrat who’s sick of living a passive life of leisure and goes to a sage to learn how to become strong and self-directed, etc. Case closed, right?
But art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The reality is that a male writer wrote a story about a woman who was gang-raped by demons in a society (and literary form) in which the throwaway status of many female characters reflects the status of women in real life; in which rape is often blown off or blamed on the victim. Regardless a writer’s specific motivation, the fictional use of rape as a default story element in female characters’ back-stories is indicative of how casually and unquestioningly we perceive sexual violence as universal to women’s lives.
Does that mean it’s always inappropriate or sexist to portray women who are rape survivors in comics, or that Kurt’s story was inherently sexist? Hell, no. I think that Kurt’s decision to include rape in Janissa’s background was a sound creative choice. He wanted to create a character who had become a dehumanized fighter; systematic use of sexual violence is a pretty effective means of achieving that end. More important, he didn’t rely on the trope of ‘woman gets raped and decides to become a warrior’—the rapes are instead the Bone Woman’s vicious twist on Janissa’s desire to develop strength and skill.
But: The objection that a writer, editor, or publisher shouldn’t have to take responsibility for something that isn’t his or her fault—in this case, the tired trope of female heroes as rape survivors—ignores the real problem. While I don’t think that the chronic victimization of female characters is the responsibility of a single writer or publisher, I think that all writers and publishers should take steps to acknowledge and address that problem and the climate that created it. Even small steps (like dedicating a letter column to addressing rape issues in a given comic!) can make a difference by promoting open discussion and increasing awareness.
In America, a woman is raped every two minutes*. It’s been estimated that one in six women is a survivor of sexual violence, but that’s a conservative guess: the real number is likely closer to one in four. More than half of female rape survivors were assaulted when they were under the age of thirty. Nearly a third were assaulted before they were eleven.
Less than a fifth of those assaults are ever reported to law enforcement agencies.
Rape isn’t just a women’s issue. One in thirty-three men has been a victim of rape or attempted rape; of those men, at least half are exclusively heterosexual. Again, that’s a conservative estimate; it’s impossible to know the real number, and men are even less likely than women to report being sexually assaulted.
It was an accident that Janissa’s return coincided with Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but coincidence or not, it’s too important an issue to bypass. Based on the number of letters we’ve gotten about Janissa’s rape, many of you feel the same way.
It’s important to discuss this because rape feeds on silence and shame. Survivors are hesitant to speak up for fear of skepticism and social stigma. The rest of us are hesitant to raise our voices because hey, it isn’t our problem.
Rape is everybody’s problem. If you yourself aren’t a survivor of sexual violence, you more than likely knowor will eventually knowand care about someone who is.
Some Common Myths About Sexual Assault:
Sexual assault is a crime of passion and lust, and victims have usually ‘led on’ their attackers through dress or behavior.
Rape isn’t an act of passion; it’s an act of violence. It isn’t about uncontrollable desire: it’s about power. It is never okay to force sex on someone, no matter how they look or behave.
If she doesn’t protest, it’s not rape.
Acquiescence is not the same as consent. If someone was impaired (chemically or otherwise), verbally coerced, or threatened, or even if they simply didn’t consent, it’s not okay to have sex with them.
All assailants are men / all victims are women.
While it’s true that the majority of rapes involve a male assailant and a female victim, that’s not the whole story. Ten to fifteen percent of rape victims are male, and although female perpetrators are rare, they do exist.
If a man is raped / rapes another man, he must be gay.
Rape doesn’t have anything to do with sexual orientation: remember, it’s about power, not desire. 50% of male rape survivors identify as exclusively heterosexual, as do an even higher percentage of their attackers.
Women often lie about being raped.
According to the FBI, less than 2% of rape reports turn out to be false.
If you or a friend has been assaulted, if you want to know what you can do to help stop sexual assault or support survivors, or if you just want to learn more, here are some resources:
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network: www.rainn.org
National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Sexual Assault Awareness Month: www.nsvrc.org
Men Can Stop Rape: www.mencanstoprape.org
The Clothesline Project: www.clotheslineproject.org
*All statistics are from either the National Institute of Justice or the Illinois Department of Justice.
Conan #39 (including the above letter column) Copyright © 2007 Conan Properties International, LLC. Conan® and Conan the Barbarian® (including all prominent characters featured in this issue) and the distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of Conan Properties International, LLC unless otherwise noted. All contents © Conan Properties International, LLC unless otherwise noted. Dark Horse Comics® and the Dark Horse logo are trademarks of Dark Horse Comics, Inc., registered in various categories and countries. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the express written permission of Dark Horse Comics, Inc. Names, characters, places, and incidents featured in this publication either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead), events, institutions, or locales, without satiric intent, is coincidental.
Go here to discuss this column.
I’m not gonna talk about the Mary Jane Watson Parker Comiquette statue. Honestly, everything that can be said about it has, at this point. But I am gonna talk about Occasional Superheroine’s oh-so-novel suggestions in response to that discussion:
I mean, the MJ and Stephanie and Power Girl discussions, they’re a good start. It’s like school. Graduate from school, and apply all that passion and sense of social justice towards something in our reality. You can still discuss Power Girl. But break it up a little bit. Maybe devote 50% of your bandwith to Stephanie getting her trophy case, and 50% to Afghan women setting themselves on fire because their lives are so damn miserable. Or maybe 75% Stephanie, 25% Russian sex slaves. Or maybe two pages of posts on ‘Fangirls Attack’ on MJ, one page on domestic violence in Canada. Maybe I’ll stop being such a self-absorbed snarky blogger myself. You don’t think I read about the real st that goes on in this world and feel like a jackass sometimes for the stupid fangirl st I write about?
I don’t think Occasional Supeheroine is dumb, so I have to assume that she knows it’s not as simple as she’s making it look. First of all, anyone who doesn’t live in a box can recognize that there’s a relationship between the portrayal of women in media and the treatment of women in real life. And she is technically correct: Stephanie’s trophy case and MJ’s egregiously awful statue aren’t nearly as important as the lives, rights, and dignity of real women. If I had to choose one and only one to agitate about, the choice would be simple.
But it’s not a matter of either/or. If I canvass for reproductive rights, it doesn’t mean that I am no longer allowed to write to my senator in support of same-sex marriage, or volunteer at a rape crisis center. My Feminist Majority, ACLU, Friends of Lulu, and Apostrophe Protection Society memberships do not cancel each other out.
Maybe I find Occasional Superheroine’s comments so damn offensive because I’ve just finished a month of columns that are all about the intersections between comics and other feminist issues. Maybe it’s because when it comes down to it, Inside Out is all about the intersections between comics and real life. Maybe it’s because I know that many feminist comics bloggers are publicly active in feminism outside of comics, and that Girl-Wonder devotes one of its five main boards to discussion of ‘real world’ feminism and gender issues. Or maybe it’s the hours I spent researching and compiling information for our Sexual Assault Awareness Month resource page. Maybe it’s because I find comparing the validity of activist movements kind of offputting in itself, like comparing types of abuse on a linear scale.
Should feminist comics bloggers and columnistsmany of whom write for multiple blogs and sites, on a range of issuesbe vilified because of compartmentalization, the choice to have a column or a site specifically devoted to feminism and women in comics rather than more general and pressing ‘real-world’ issues? Occasional Superheroine seems to think so. I don’t.
If you want me, I’ll be in the comic-book shop, dancing with Emma Goldman. You can join our revolution any time.
Come dance with me.
Edited to add:
This is not, not, not an invitation to go flame Occasional Superheroine. While I’m still angry about what she said, I also recognize that there’s some merit to it, and that she also had the right to be pissed. If you feel like you have something useful to add to the conversation, do so. If not, keep your vitriol off the webthere’s already more than enough to go around.
This is the eighth and final installment of a series about sexual assault and comics. You can find the previous posts here:
Rape in the Gutters
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 1
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 2
Is It Too Much to Ask?
Rape Is Rape Is Rape
A bit over a week into May, I’m finally posting the final installment of the Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month series. It’s somewhat fitting that this is going up after April has ended, because it’s going to be a brief retrospective of the month, along with some reflections on writing the preceding installments and the responses they’ve gotten. And (because you demandedactually, politely requestedit) I’m also going to talk about secondary survivors in real life, and what to do if you learn that a friend or loved one has been assaulted. If you want to skip straight to that part, click here.
First, some good news: Several people asked if I could post the text to the Conan #39 letter column. I’ve talked to the Official Types, and the answer is ‘yes’but not ‘til Conan #40 hits the stands on the 16th. If you don’t want to wait, you can always shell out the $2.99it’s a one-shot, so you won’t be paying for an issue mid-story.
Speaking of Conan #39, the Dark Horse and Conan.com forums’ responses to the letter column have thus far been really positive. There’s also been a bit of spillover into the Girl-Wonder forum from Conan.com, which makes me really happyI think they’re two communities that could learn a lot from each other.
In general, this series seems to have gotten a lot of press. It’s been linked a lot, and not just at When Fangirls Attack. What I’m hoping that means is that a bunch of people are learningand, more important, askinga lot about sexual assault, in and out of comics. It’s really important that we keep this dialogue open: Sexual Assault Awareness Month is over, but sexual violence continues to happen year-round. Keep talking and keep questioning.
Most of all, talk to comics publishers, creators, and editors. One of the most frequent responses I got to the Conan #39 column was ‘It’s about time someone talked about this stuff.’ Hold the industry accountable. Vote with your dollars, but also make your opinions heard. Want to see more stuff like the Conan #39 letter column? Let editors know. Pissed off that another female hero has had sexual abuse retconned into her backstory? Say so (but do it civilly, please, and bear in mind that the folks you’re writing to are people, too, with their own perspectives, experiences, and reasons. Be willing to listen to their angles, and they’ll listen to yours).
And comics pros, this is a challenge to you, too. Keep the dialogue open from your side, and take responsibility for the stories you write and publish. On that note, I want once again to thank Kurt Busiek, who wrote both Conan #39 and the story that inspired the column in it for taking the time to drop by and lend his voice to the discussion on the Girl-Wonder forum. If (probably ‘when,’ since you’re in the next town over) we eventually meet, remind me to buy you a drink.
I was going to post links to every blog, website, and publication that had mentioned SAAM in relation to comics, but I lost my partial list, and I don’t have the energy to track them all down. So, I’ll make a deal with you: post URLs on the forum, and I’ll add them to this column.
[SPACEHOLDER SO RACHEL REMEMBERS WHERE TO STICK THOSE LINKS WHEN YOU START POSTING THEM]
On the personal sideDamn, that was intense. This has been a really, really difficult series to put together and keep going. Researching and writing two columns a weekespecially columns as long as this month’s have beentakes more than twice the time and energy of researching and writing one, and it’s been a constant struggle to keep updating remotely on time. It’s also been incredibly draining to write 4000-plus words a week about sexual assault. When I was doing crisis advocacy, I was able to keep my rape crisis center work fairly compartmentalized so that there was relatively little bleed into my work and personal lives. That doesn’t work so well with this column: I’m writing it at home, as me, about my work. I haven’t really allowed myself the convenience of a warm-but-detached professional personathis is me, skinned knees, purple hair, and allso there’s very little to keep the material I’m writing about from getting under my skin.
That said, writing the SAAM series has also been an incredible experience. This stuff matters a lot to me, and being able to say something useful about it, start a couple discussions, and maybe encouraging a couple people think about sexual assault in comics feels like a pretty damn worthwhile way to have spent a month.
Still, it’s going to be nice to write about something else for a while. Like kittens. Or writing believable bisexual characters. Or kittens who write believable bisexual characters.
But before that, I’m going to keep my promise and take some time to talk about and to secondary survivors.
A secondary survivor is someone whose life has been affected by a sexual assault she or he wasn’t directly involve in. It’s a broad term, indicating anyone from family members and friends of survivors, to witnesses, to anyone else whose life has been impacted by a specific act of sexual violence.
Even if they haven’t been assaulted themselveswhich isn’t a given, since many secondary survivors are themselves survivors of sexual assaultsecondary survivors can find themselves dealing with a lot of the same emotions as survivorsanger, fear, sorrow, guilt, and so forthwhile trying to support someone they care about. The experience of supporting a friend, loved one, or acquaintance in the aftermath of an assault can also be very difficult and deeply draining. Many secondary survivors struggle to balance their own needs with the demands of supporting a primary survivor.
So, what do you do if someone you love is assaulted?
First and foremost, make sure theyand youare physically safe. If the assault has occurred recently, you may need to help your friend get to a safe place. If they have been injured, you should encourage them to seek medical help. Depending on the circumstances, you may be at risk as well. Your first priority should be physical safety.
Beyond that, there really isn’t a single set of rules. You have a right to experience and express your reactions and emotions, but when you are comforting a friend who has been assaulted, it’s important to remember that the conversation isn’t really about you. Don’t make it about your experiences and reactions: let your friend experience theirs.
No matter how angry you are, avoid acts of vigilante violence or revenge. If you feel that you must act in response to the assault, act constructively: do something that will actively contribute to your friend’s sense of well-being or safety without harming anyone else.
Understandand this is the hard partthat no matter what you say or do, you cannot fix what has happened; you cannot make it right. What you can do is make it easier to face.
Earlier in April, a friend of mine wrote in her blog about her own experiences as a victim of a voyeur. She wrote about the responses she’d heard to her story, and about the very simple responses she wished she’d gottenthe responses she should have gotten:
I believe you.
You did the right thing.
It wasn’t your fault.
Think about those responses, and what they mean. The phrasing doesn’t matter; it’s the ideas behind it.
I believe you.
Don’t question the veracity of your friend’s story or the validity of their experience. You are not a judge or a jury; it is not your responsibility to determine whether that story is true or false. You will not be making arrests or pressing charges.
Skepticism is often one of the first responses assault survivors get. It’s a natural response to haveno one wants to believe that one human being would do something that awful to another, let alone to someone you love. But when someone you love comes to you after being assaultedminutes, months, or yearsthey’re not coming for cross-examination, but for support. Those three wordsI believe youand the idea behind them are an awfully powerfuland awfully importantthing for an assault survivor to hear.
You did the right thing.
Anything that gets you out alive is the right thing to have done. It’s tempting to pick an assault apart, figure out what you or they could have done differently; it’s a way of grasping for control of an out-of-control situation.
But the truth of the matter? If they’re alive, they did the right thing. And that’s all that matters.
It wasn’t your fault.
It’s tempting for victims to grasp for control by trying to take responsibility for what happened to them. The same is true of secondary survivors, who often find themselves playing through scenarios that begin with ‘if only I was there…’
They weren’t raped because of anything you did or didn’t do. They weren’t raped because of anything they did or didn’t do. They were raped because a rapist was there.
But even with this stuff, there is no script. Every situation, every assault, and every person is different, and sometimes you have to rely on your own instincts for the right words.
My finaland perhaps most importantpiece of advice to secondary survivors is Take care of you, too. When someone you care about goes through an experience as traumatic as sexual assault, it’s easy to put your own feelings and needs on the back burner and give until you’re drained.
It’s important to know your limits, both practical and personal: what you can offer without resentment or excessive strain, and what of that will be genuinely useful. Remember that being a good friend or relative doesn’t have to mean being a therapist, doctor, lawyer, chauffeur, and crisis counselor. Sometimes, the best and most helpful thing you can do is help your friend find someone else to meet a need or perform a service with which you’re not able to provide or simply aren’t comfortable with. Letting yourself become your friend’s sole source of support isn’t fair to or healthy for either of you.
At the same time, make sure that you have an adequate support system in place. Supporting a survivor can be really draining, and secondary survivors often have their own sets of assault-related issues to deal with. External support is really important, especially when someone else is already leaning on you. Many rape crisis centers and women’s centers extend their services to secondary survivors as well as immediate victims; don’t be shy about taking advantage of those, or of talking to a therapist, counselor, clergyperson, or other support person while you deal with your friend’s trauma. There are also support groupsonline and in real lifefor the friends and families of assault survivors and victims of other violent crimes. Your local rape crisis center can put you in touch with resources in your area.
Although this is the last of the Sexual Assault Awareness Month series, please don’t hesitate to continue discussing the stuff that’s come upand to ask any questions you still haveon the Girl-Wonder forum. If you need a less public means of contacting me, you can PM me on Girl-Wonder or reach me via email, at rachel(at)girl-wonder(dot)org.
Next week, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming. In the meantime, you can discuss this column here.
This is the seventh installment of a series about sexual assault and comics. You can find the previous posts here:
Rape in the Gutters
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 1
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 2
Is It Too Much to Ask?
Rape Is Rape Is Rape
April is done, but I’m not: there are still a few topics I want to touch before the SAAM series comes to a close. However, this will be the final column dealing directly with sexual violence in comics; the nextand lastSAAM column will be about real-life resources for secondary survivors (in response to several requests) and my general reflections on the series and the responses its received. After that, we’ll return to the regularly-scheduled programming.
Today, though, I’m going to write about same-sex sexual assaultsand their absencein comics.
I struggled a lot with how to handle this topic, because, even more than heterosexual sexual assault, same-sex sexual assault is divided down gender lines. Assaults with male perpetrators and victims are perceived and portrayed very differently from those with female perpetrators and victims, both in and out of comics, reflecting stereotypes based on both gender and sexual orientation.
When I was researching this column, I asked a number of friends and colleagues whether they could think of examples of same-sex rape in mainstream comics. A few tentatively mentioned Apollo’s assault in The Authority. One faintly remembered a teenage Spider-Man being molested by an older boy; another recalled that Bruce Banner had been the victim of an attempted rape at some point. I remembered Starr’s rape from Preacher. Soon, we were stumped. And if we didn’t count Lost Girls (which it hardly seemed fair to), we couldn’t think of any same-sex assaults involving women at all.
Of the assaults we did think ofas well as ones I discovered latermany involved an adult perpetrator and a juvenile victim. In most, the perpetrators, victims, or both were gay. And in a few, I was horrified to see victims become gay or bisexual as a result of their assaults.
I’m going to table the pederasty for nowit’s really a whole other discussionwith the qualifier that its prevalence among same-sex assaults in comics reinforces the harmful and dangerous fallacy that homosexuality and pedophilia go hand-in-hand.
That leaves sexual assaults perpetrated upon and by adult men. Of the three I mentioned aboveApollo, of The Authority; Starr of Preacher; and Bruce Banner of The Incredible Hulkonly one (Apollo’s) was handled in a remotely appropriate manner. The other two were grotesque parodies, one played for laughs (Starr’s) and the other for homophobic shock value (Bruce’s). What we learn is that all gay men are rapists; that being raped by other men can make previously straight men gay or bisexual. If I had to choose one of the two that was more offensive, I honestly don’t know which I’d pick: Starr’s rapeparticularly its long-term effect on his sexual proclivitiesis a horrifically twisted portrayal of rape-as-pleasure, but Bruce’s attempted assault features the most blatant and offensive homosexual stereotypes I’ve ever seen in a superhero book.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Well, for starts, over 50% if men who are victims or perpetrators of same-sex rapes identify as exclusively straight. Being raped is not a transcendent experience that moves victims to reevaluate their sexual preferencesunless by ‘reevaluate their sexual preferences’ one means ‘shy away from sexual encounters or engage in extremely risky activities.’
And not one of the scenarios really deals with the long-term aftermath of sexual assault, which is often much harsher for male victims of same-sex assaults than for any other population. Very few ever report their assaults, and those who do are often subject to the sameor worsetreatment as their female counterparts: in addition to victim blaming, they frequently face homophobiaregardless their sexual orientationsand occasionally even criminal charges for ‘crimes against nature.’
But what about the women?
Woman-to-woman sexual violence is nearly invisible in our society; even more so in our media. Few people are aware that women can sexually assault other women, let alone that they actually do. Unlike same-sex sexual violence between men, same-sex assaults between women are much more likely to take place within preexisting intimate relationships; they’re also more likely to involve verbal and emotional coercion or threats rather than physical violence, although that’s far from a universal rule.
This situation is made more complicated by the fact that until fairly recently, sexual and domestic violence were almost invisible within the lesbian community. Survivors who came forward within that community were often accused of lying, because our cultural concepts of sexual violence require a male perpetrator and are therefore antithetical to a community of women. Like male survivors of same-sex assaults, women who have been raped by other women frequently find themselves the victims of homophobia, profiling, and even criminal charges.
When writers portray same-sex assaults in comics, they are doing so in the context not only of their cultural conditioning and prejudices gender and sexuality, but also of internalized homophobia. Furthermore, they’re writing about survivors who suffer much worse treatment at the hands of law enforcementand often even friends and familythan perhaps an other group of victims of crime; perpetuating and reinforcing that treatment through inaccurate caricatures and serious assaults played for uncomfortable laughs is lazy and irresponsible writing.
CODA: In the discussion of Rape Is Rape Is Rape on the Girl-Wonder forum, a poster mentioned the upcoming comic Satan’s Sodomy Baby, which involves (among other questionable content) same-sex rape. I’m going to copy and paste my response here, because I think it addresses an important issue: that the standards for the portrayal of assault are very differentand very rightly sofor serious and satirical comics:
SSB is very, very clearly satire, and it’s published as such; it’s a spinoff from a very off-color humor comic (The Goon, which I heartily recommend to anyone with a strong stomach and a twisted sense of humor). While I could pick it apart and insist that it was in fact subtle commentary on issues in mainstream comics, I’m much, much more inclined to chalk it up to the fact that Eric Powell’s sense of humor starts where most of ours taper off into confusion and horror.
It’s also being shrink-wrappedwhich means it shouldn’t be sold to minors. Its cover will be black, with a large warning label. This is not a comic being marketed to people who will buy it without knowing exactly what they’re getting into.
Given that context, and given the tone of the story itself, I don’t think the rape that takes place in SSB can really be judged by the same standards as rapes in mainstreamparticularly superherocomics that are fairly serious in tone. No one is going to develop misconceptions about sexual violence in the real world based on its portrayal in SSB.
I am a queer feminist pacifist with very strong feelings about appropriate ways to present sexual assault in comics, and while I found SSB incredibly offensive, I was not offended by it.
Discuss this column here.
This is the sixth installment of a series about sexual assault and comics. You can find the previous posts here:
Rape in the Gutters
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 1
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 2
Is It Too Much to Ask?
For the last few weeks, I’ve focused on the most commonand most commonly portrayedsort of rape: heterosexual assault, with a male assailant and a female victim. And while the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults do fit that profile, there are still a fair number in both real life and comics that don’t.
The exception I’m going to focus on in this column is one seldom acknowledged in or out of comics: male rape victims. As before, I’m going to start with an overview of some of the cultural assumptions that inform our portrayals of and reactions to men as the victims of sexual assault, then examine a specific trend in comics that I find particularly alarming. I’m also going to discussand contrastthe cases of two specific male survivors in the DCU: Jack Knight (Starman) and Oliver Queen (Green Arrow).
To look in any depth at the issue of men as assault survivors, it’s important to first examine some of our culture’s assumptions regarding the nature of masculinity.
We see men as active rather than passive; this is extended into the assumption that aggressiveness and even violence are inherently masculine traits, and, in turn, that they’re traits inherent to all ‘real’ (often read as ‘heterosexual’) men.
Sexually, this stereotype is magnified even further. Men fuck; they are not fucked. They take the active role; they penetrate; they act upon others. At the same time, women are assumed to take the passive role; they are penetrated; they are acted upon.
Furthermore, men are sexually insatiable. Their sex drives are so powerful that they are nearly entities in their own rights. They are constantly or near-constantly aroused, and only in exceptional circumstances will they turn down an opportunity for intercourse.
So, we’re culturally predisposed to assume that ‘real’ men cannot be victims of sexual assault, just as ‘real’ women cannot perpetrate it. Which is bullshit.
In the United States, one in thirty-three men is a survivor of rape or attempted rape. That’s a very conservative estimate, because it’s based on law enforcement records: only one in five women who is raped reports her assault to the police (and that’s a high estimateothers range as low as one in twenty), and the rate of reporting among male victims is far lower.
Here are some popular myths about male survivors of sexual assault:
Men only get raped in prison.
Actually, 83% of sexual assaults perpetrated against men occur outside of prisons.
The only males who are raped are children or weak adults.
Like female assault survivors, male assault survivors don’t fit into any one profile. They are all ages, all races, and all levels of physical fitness.
If a man is raped by / rapes another man, he must be gay.
50% of male rape survivors identify as exclusively heterosexual, as do an even higher percentage of their attackers.
And as a corollary:
If a man experiences an erection or ejaculates during an assault, it is proof that he wanted / enjoyed it.
Erection and ejaculation are involuntary physiological responses not only to sexual arousal, but also to pain, fear, and anxiety. If a man experiences an erection or ejaculates while he’s being assaulted, it makes the assault no less traumatic or valid.
Women cannot rape men.
While only a slim two percent of sexual assailants are female, women can and do rape men.
This last stereotype tends to be particularly insidious. While we assume the innocence of female assailants, we also deny and invalidate the experiences of men who are assaulted by women, many of whom are themselves so culturally conditioned to believe that men cannot be raped by women that they are reluctant to acknowledge their own experiences as sexual assault, regardless the personal or physical impact those assaults may have had.
Because we tend to perceive the male libido as an overwhelmingly powerful entityone which can be neither stopped nor stemmed, and which is in fact so powerful that it can literally force men to act in ways that they would never otherwise considerwe assume that no situation in which a man is offered sexual release can occur entirely without his implicit consent. For a woman to initiate sexual intercourse with a man who is unconscious, delirious, or otherwise impaired is therefore implicitly ethicalor at least not overtly unethical to the same extent that a man taking the same liberties would be.
That assumption carries over into comics perhaps more forcefully than any other false stereotype of sexual violence. A surprising number of male characters in mainstream comics are survivors of sexual assault; of those, the overwhelming majority have been assaulted by women, and most of those assaults were never acknowledged as more than mildly inappropriate behavior on the parts of the perpetrators.
I find this trend deeply upsetting for several reasons. First of all, it ignores the reality that the vast majority of men who are assaulted are assaulted by other men, which also reinforces the obsessively heteronormative attitudes of most mainstreamand nearly all superherocomics: writers and editors (and readerssee the letter I quoted regarding Conan #12 in ‘Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month: The Widowmaker’) assume that to portray a male superhero as the victim of same-sex sexual assault would undercut his otherwise unimpeachable heterosexuality.
At the same time, the treatment of female perpetrator / male victim assaults in comics is alarming because of the rarity with which the assaults are recognized as such. The comparatively ‘gentle’ nature of most or all of those rapesovert physical force or threats of violence almost never come into playcreates a spurious distinction between non-consensual sex and sexual assault and downplays the violation of the victim and the culpability of the perpetrator in the former.
I chose Jack Knight and Oliver Queen as the two survivors whose cases I wanted to examine because of the ostensible similarities between their situations. Both are second-string DCU superheroes. Both were assaulted by women who functioned primarily as their opponents but with whom they had substantially more complex relationships than the standard hero / villain rivalry. Neither was conscious of capable of either consent or struggle during his assaultJack was unconscious, and Ollie was delirious from a fever. Finally, both were raped by women whose main goal was procreative.
Despite their ostensible similarities, the two rapes were portrayed very, very differently; likewise, both primary and secondary survivors reacted very differently to the assaults and their long-term effects (both men have sons as a result of the assaults).
The first caseand the one that I think was the far better of the twois that of Jack Knight. Early in Starman, Jack was kidnapped and drugged by his self-styled arch-nemesis, the Mist. It was not until over a year later that it was revealed that Mist had raped Jack while he was unconscious and nine months later had given birth to ‘their’ baby. She informs Jack of all of this in a letter (ellipses indicate dialogue outside of the text of the letter):
My Dearest Jackie. My love.
I’m sure by now you’ve questioned why I haven’t returned to Opal and struck again. The fact is I won’t. Not for a while longer, anyway. The reason for this? I’ll get straight to the point.
I’ve had a baby boy. Our child. You’re a father, Jack. Doesn’t that make you feel good to know?
When I had you at the toy factory. When you were unconscious. I lay with you. We conceived the child then, with you in my arms so peaceful and still. That really was quite a day, all in all, wasn’t it?
I’ve named the boy Kyle. That was my dear brother’s name, as you know, but what you might not know is that it is also my father’s real name.
The boy’s middle name is Theo. I was keen that he have a little of both our fathers in him.
I will teach our son to hate you, Jack. He will be my brother and father boy. Does that make you feel good, knowing you’ve sired such venom?
I’m enjoying our son at present. We’ve been traveling through Europe, enjoying the sights and the sun.
But I will return soon. More will die, and you’ll be unable to prevent it.
Love as always, Mist.
P.S. Our son’s eyes are blue.
Although Mist couches the terms of their coupling in language of romance and consent, it’s obviously mocking: both she and Jack are clearly aware of the violation she has perpetrated. Our first glimpse of Jack’s reaction is from his father’s perspective, as Jack sits on the porch of the elder Knight’s observatory, clutching the letter, tears streaming down his face.
The term ‘rape’ is never used to describe Jack’s assault, but it is clearly implied, and the impact that learning of both the assault and its consequencesthe birth of a childhave on Jack are inarguable. Both before and after the rape, Mist goes out of her way to use terms of endearment when talking to Jacki.e. calling him ‘my love’precisely because she knows the insinuation of intimacy upsets him; she is generally characterized as an aggressor and as the perpetrator of both sexual assault and ongoing harassment.
The first person to learn about Jack’s rape and the birth of his son is Ted Knight, Jack’s father. As I mentioned above, we first learn about those events when Ted finds Jack crying on the porch of Ted’s observatory. Jack gives the letter to Ted, who reads it aloud, with occasional comments. He doesn’t question the validity of Jack’s reaction; once the letter is read, Ted simply sits down beside his son and puts an arm around him. The scene ends there.
Like Jack, Oliver Queen was assaulted by a womanostensibly a villain at the timewhile he was delirious. However, neither the comic nor the fan community acknowledged what happened as sexual assault. Dinah Lance, Ollie’s then-partner, blamed Ollie for the rape, treating it as a conscious act of infidelity. ShadoOllie’s rapistattempted to defend him by telling Dinah that he had called Shado by Dinah’s name during the rape, pseudo-exonerating Ollie but still failing to take responsibility for her own actions, which she blames on Dinah’s refusal to ‘give’ Ollie a child. And a few years later, we even get to see Ollie’s son Connor Hawke on the cover of his very own titleas Karen Healy so succinctly put it‘kissing daddy’s rapist.’
The fan community is likewise largely unwilling to accept Shado’s actions as rape. The Wikipedia entry on Green Arrow describes Ollie and Shadow as having become ‘on one occasion when Oliver was injured and delirious, lovers.’ ‘Cause, y’know, it’s so romantic to shoot the guy you like in the chest and then fuck him while he’s delirious from the infected wound. Good God. The DC Database Project isn’t much better, describing the incident as follows: ‘When Ollie was injured and being cared for by Shado, she proceeded to ‘rape’ him while he was unconscious, conceiving a son.’ She didn’t ‘rape’ him, folks. She raped him. It’s. Really. That. Simple. On the Broken Fronteir message board, a poster grudgingly acknowledges, ‘if you want to get technical is [sic] was pretty close to rape.’ Y’know, even if you’re not technical, it’s pretty close to rape, especially if you define ‘pretty close to’ as ‘the same thing as.’
Compare those with the Wikipedia entry on Jack Knight, which plainly states that Mist ‘drugs and rapes Jack’; Jack Knight is also listed in the Wikipedia category ‘Fictional Rape Victims.’ Comics blogger Postmodernbarney comments that ‘the only sexual assault against a male character I can think of that even comes close to being treated seriously as a sexual assault is the Mist’s rape of Jack Knight. She assaults him for the sole purpose of becoming pregnant. It’s a clear incident of an individual being robbed of their consent by another person.’ From what I’ve read, that reaction is fairly typical. Is it because Starman tends to attract a more sensitive and erudite audience than does Green Arrow? Maybe. But it’s also because fans and critics take interpretive cues from the tone of the comics they read. The simple truth of the matter is that Jack’s rape in Starman was presented as rape, and Ollie’s rape in Green Arrow wasn’t.
A final trend in commentary that I want to touch on is the tendency to respond to the rape of a male characteror an actual manby trying to compare it to a similar assault with a female victim. You can’t.
While it’s possible to compare the superficial details of two assaults, it’s both impossible and inappropriate to draw an accurate analogy between them in order to gauge their relative impact or severity. Rapelike any assaultis a deeply personal crime, and to try to place an assault on a linear scale does a grave disservice to the individual experience of each survivor.
Finally, a heads-up: Because it’s nearly the end of April and I got a bit behind last week, the next several posts are going to come in very quick succession. The next one will address with same-sex assaults in comics; I’m hoping to get it up later today, or tomorrow at the latest.
You can discuss this column here.