Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month: Is It Too Much to Ask?

This is the fifth 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
The Widowmaker
In case you haven’t noticed, this column is late.
I’ve been thinking about rape, reading about rape, writing about rape, nonstop for the past three-and-a-half weeks. And I am burned the Hell out. Monday night, I was going to write a column about male sexual assault victims. Then, I took a break to watch a movie and couldn’t start back up. I wrote some more tonight, but not a column’s worth.
When I decided to recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month with semiweekly columns addressing sexual violence in comics, I had no idea how deeply draining it would be. I’ve kept the schedule up for four weeks, but sometime around this past Monday, it just sort of dissolved. Work has been busier than usual. I’m trying to research a paper I have to present at the end of May and sew a costume from scratch in the same time frame. I have leaky pipes in my kitchen wall, and my landlord says they’re going to have to take out all the cabinets to fix them, which leaves us with nowhere for out dishes and a kitchen in disarray. My cat had fleas. I blew a kyu test. My aunt had massive surgery for uterine cancer.
And then I sit down at my computer and write about rape.
I’m tired of writing about rape, but not as tired as I am of having a reason to. I was working on the next column, which will be about male survivors of sexual violence and will involve case-studies of Starman and Green Arrow. So, I was writing this thing, and I was starting out by going over cultural assumptions about masculinity and how they affect male rape survivors and our attitudes towards them. I was going through myths and facts and I just got really fed up.
I shouldn’t have to write this stuff! It should be self-evident! And it blows my fucking mind that it’s not.
That’s uncharitable, I know. Not everyone had the enlightened liberal academic gender-egalitarian upbringing I did, which is another sort of privilege in action. But it still pisses me off.
I want to live in a world where I don’t have to explain that under the overwhelming majority of circumstances, if someone initiates sex with a person who is asleep, delirious, or otherwise impaired, it’s rape. I want to wake up and discover that survivors of same-sex sexual violence are never, ever prosecuted for ‘crimes against nature,’ and that men who are raped by other men are never abandoned by wives who assume that because they were victims of same-sex assaults, they must be gay.
While I’m at it, I also want a Yamaha Silent electric cello.
The column about male survivors of sexual assault will go up sometime in the next few days. But for now, I just need to breathe.
To tide you over, here are the lyrics to one of my very favorite feminist anthems, ‘Passionate Kisses,’ by Mary Chapin Carpenter:
Is it too much to ask
I want a comfortable bed that won’t hurt my back
Food to fill me up
And warm clothes and all that stuff
Shouldn’t I have this
Shouldn’t I have this
Shouldn’t I have all of this, and

Passionate kisses
Passionate kisses, whoa oh oh
Passionate kisses from you

Is it too much to demand
I want a full house and a rock and roll band
Pens that won’t run out of ink
And cool quiet and time to think
Shouldn’t I have this
Shouldn’t I have this
Shouldn’t I have all of this, and

Passionate kisses
Passionate kisses, whoa oh oh
Passionate kisses from you

Do I want too much
Am I going overboard to want that touch
I shout it out to the night
‘Give me what I deserve, ’cause it’s my right’
Shouldn’t I have this (shouldn’t I)
Shouldn’t I have this (shouldn’t I)
Shouldn’t I have all of this, and

Passionate kisses
Passionate kisses, whoa oh oh
Passionate kisses from you
Passionate kisses
Passionate kisses, whoa oh oh
Passionate kisses from you
You can discuss this column here.

Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month: Writing Sexual Violence, Part 2

This is the third 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
On Monday, I brought up some questions writers should consider if they plan to write a story involving sexual assault. Today, I’m going to give some more specific advice about how to write about sexual assault and sexual assault survivors accurately and respectfully.
An awful lot of the popular beliefs about sexual assault are wildly inaccurate. What you assume might be true of a survivoror a perpetratormay well be a culturally constructed myth.
Let’s take a look at a typical concept of sexual assault:
The victim is an attractive woman in her late teens to mid twenties. She is dressed attractively if not outright provocatively; she is alone in a risky neighborhood / bar, late at night. She may or may not be intoxicated.
The perpetrator is a man in his mid-to-late thirties. He lacks basic social skills and empathy for other people. He is somewhat disheveled and appears disreputable. He may attempt to make overtures at the victim shortly before outright assaulting her, but they have not encountered each other before that unless he has been stalking her. If the victim attempts to struggle, he will physically overpower her, usually without the aid of a weapon.
The assault itself will be violent. The victim’s body will be visibly bruised, and her clothing will be torn. In the aftermath of the assault, the victim will be either hysterical or catatonic.
If it’s a superhero comic, the rape will likely propel the victim into a career as a superhero. At some point, she will be forced to face her assailant, either literally or metaphorically, to come to terms with her previously repressed emotions / memories regarding the assault.
It’s an exaggeration, but not by much. It’s also informed entirely by cultural myths about rape. Let’s pick them apart and see how they work:
The victim is an attractive woman in her late teens to mid twenties.
We assume that the victim must be sexually desirable and physically vulnerable, which translates to a physically attractive and fairly young woman. Actually, people of all ages and genders are survivors of sexual assault, and physical attractiveness has very little to do with whom rapists target.
Rape is a crime of violence, not sexuality.
She is dressed attractively if not outright provocatively
Again, this stems from the assumption that sexual arousal is the driving force behind sexual assault. It also implies that the victim was assaulted at least partially because of her choice of clothing.
The majority of women who are assaulted are dressed normally at the time. Sexual assault has nothing to do with the victim’s behavior or choices.
she is alone in a risky neighborhood / bar, late at night
This implies again that the victim is at least partially responsible for her own assault; it also reinforces socioeconomic stereotypes, since the rape is assumed to have taken place in a badtransl: lower-classneighborhood.
Most perpetrators are of the same socioeconomic class as their victims, and most rapes occur in familiar places, within the victim’s routine.
She may or may not be intoxicated.
And again, we have some implication that the victim’s own irresponsible behavior has put her at risk.
This also implies a correlation between alcohol use and sexual assault. While the two are closely related in some environmentson college campuses, for example, the majority of rapes occur when one or both parties is chemically impaireddrinking neither exonerates perpetrators from responsibility for their actions nor makes victims culpable for what is done to them.
The perpetrator is a man in his mid-to-late thirties.
Most, but not all perpetrators are male. Furthermore, they are all ages. Again, perpetrators tend to fall into the same demographic groups as their victims, so it’s likelyalthough not universalthat the perpetrator and the victim will be relatively close in age (obviously, this doesn’t hold true for child abuse).
He lacks basic social skills and empathy for other people.
Most perpetrators are generally able to function normally in society. Some are married; many are conventionally attractive. Many regularly engage in consensual sex.
He is somewhat disheveled and appears disreputable.
This image of the perpetrator also feeds into socioeconomic assumptions about criminals. Again, perpetrators tend to target victims in their own socioeconomic classes, which cover a wide spectrum.
He may attempt to make overtures at the victim shortly before outright assaulting her
Based on the assumption that rapists are unable to attract consensual sexual partners because they are socially awkward, etc. See above.
but they have not encountered each other before that unless he has been stalking her
The majority of perpetrators are acquainted with their victims before the assault. Many are friends; some are family or intimate partners.
If the victim attempts to struggle, he will physically overpower her, usually without the aid of a weapon.
Okaythat’s actually pretty accurate. The majority of rapes don’t involve weapons.
The assault itself will be violent.
While sexual assault is an inherently violent act, perpetrators also use verbal coercion and target victims who are asleep, intoxicated, or otherwise impaired.
The victim’s body will be visibly bruised, and her clothing will be torn.
Even violent physical assaults can leave very little evidence. Clothing is surprisingly difficult to tear, and any assailant powerful enough to physically force himself or herself on another person can generally do so without causing them visible injuries.
In the aftermath of the assault, the victim will be either hysterical or catatonic.
I’m gonna rant on this one a bit, because it’s one of my favorite pet peeves. THERE IS NO ‘STANDARD’ OR RIGHT REACTION TO TRAUMA. Yeah, I’ve seen the stereotypical catatonic-in-fetal-position scene, but I’ve also seen survivors of really brutal assaults crack jokes in the ER. Different people cope with trauma in different ways, and it pisses me off endlessly when a survivor’s credibility is questioned because she or he didn’t react in the ‘right’ way to being raped.
If it’s a superhero comic, the rape will likely propel the victim into a career as a superhero. At some point, she will be forced to face her assailant, either literally or metaphorically, to come to terms with her previously repressed emotions / memories regarding the assault.
Obviously, this is where statistics cease to apply. This scenario is offensive not because it’s inaccurate, but because it’s so bloody overused.
That’s all for now. Next week, I’m going to look at a specific comicConan #12and the reactions it elicited.
In the meantime, you can discuss this column here.

Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month: Writing Sexual Violence, Part 1

This is the second installment of a series about sexual assault and comics. You can find the introduction here and the first installment here.
I previously discussed some of the more common trends in the portrayal of sexual assault in comics and came to the conclusion that the most problematic instances stem from a combination of ignorance and laziness: writers who use rape as a shortcut to add depth to characters without concerning themselves with the depth of the stories themselves. As a result, they end up relying on tired tropes and stereotypes, and their stories in turn perpetuate some of the most harmful and misogynistic myths about sexual violence.
What follows is a writers’ guide to portraying sexual assault. I’m going to break this down into two sections. The first will have to do with general story decisions, and the second (which I’lll post later in the week) will address some specifics. This guide is written with comics–particularly superhero comics–in mind, so if you’re not a comics writer, adapt as necessary to your form of choice.
So, without further ado, I present Rachel’s Guide to Writing About Sexual Assault:

  1. Don’t.
    Sexual assault, particularly retconned sexual assault, is overused to the point that even the most sensitive and respectful depictions are met with groans of ‘Oh, no, not again.’
    Take a good look at your story. Why do you think a rape is what you need for it to progress? Is there something else that could fill the same function? Unless you have a damn good reason to include rape in a story, you probably shouldn’t. Using sexual assault as a motivation-in-a-box or an equivalent trope will do nothing but steal credibility and respect from a really serious, really important subject. Plus, you’ll look like a twit.
  2. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re considering including a sexual assault in a story:
    -Why do I want to write a story involving sexual assault? If it’s because you think it’ll raise ratings, make your story more ‘mature,’ or identify you as sensitive to women’s issues, think again. If you are an assault survivor writing to exorcize inner demons, seriously consider whether this particular story is the best context in which to work out your issues. I don’t say this to discourage any survivors from telling their stories–something I think is vitally important–but I do want to stress that a fiction story may not be the most appropriate context for doing so, particularly if it involves other people’s characters or plotlines (as in a shared-universe superhero comic).
    Some of the worst stories out there come from genuinely concerned individuals who want to raise readers’ awareness of sexual assault issues. Remember that something that you care passionately about or that has affected you deeply and personally may not be the best subject for a fictional story, since it’ll be very hard to separate yourself from your work enough to get a decent perspective.
    -How will it affect the development of my characters? Even though sexual assault is a big deal, it’s rarely the single defining experience of a survivor’s life. Using it as a shortcut to character development is a cheap and ultimately ineffective trick, and it’ll come back to haunt you later.
    -How will it affect continuity? Will it matter? Why, or why not? ‘Because rape is a big deal’ is not a good enough reason.
    -How much do you actually know about sexual assault? Are you a sexual assault survivor? Do you have close friends who are? Have you ever sat in on a rape trial? Have you ever spoken with a perpetrator? If not, odds are pretty good that you have a flawed understanding of the factors surrounding sexual assault, and you’re going to need to do some serious research to write about it without falling into stereotypes.
  3. If you’re considering writing sexual assault into a character’s backstory, you should ask yourself a few more:
    -What about this character makes me think that she or he is a sexual assault survivor? Why is a history of sexual assault the best explanation for those traits? Not all women who are touch-shy, tough, misandrist, obsessively self-reliant, or paranoid are assault survivors. In fact, most probably aren’t. It goes the other way, too: a confident, caring, and generally well-adjusted individual has as much chance of being a rape survivor as the basket case to her left. Be very wary of less obvious stereotypes, here, too: to assume that a man who is raped or rapes another man is gay, or that a lesbian must have had at least one bad sexual experience with a man is every bit as offensive as–if not more offensive than–making similarly broad assumptions about any other group.
    -Why has the issue not come up before? Why is it coming up now? ‘Because I just thought of it’ is not a good enough reason.
    -What effect will disclosure of the character’s history have on the story? Will it be a major plot event? How will it affect other characters?
    Later this week, I’ll discuss how to handle specific issues and avoid falling into stereotypes when writing about sexual assault. In the meantime, you can discuss this column, ask questions, and make comments here.

Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month: Rape in the Gutters

This is the first installment of a series on sexual assault and comics. If you haven’t yet read the introduction, you might want to check it out for a little context.
Sexuality is not a black-and-white matter; neither, therefore, is consent. There are infinite shades of gray between consent as defined in the Antioch Policy and the legal and medical definitions of sexual assault. Although we can agree on certain terms and definitions for sexual violence, those definitions are far from universal, and they’re thick with semantic subtleties and qualifiers.
When sexual violence finds its way into comics–when writers choose to portray sexual violence in comics–that ambiguity comes into immediate conflict with the traditionally cut-and-dried morality of mainstream superheroes. In worlds where right is right and wrong is wrong and each is defined by colorful costumes, it’s hard to express the confusing and often conflicting cultural and individual factors that surround and therefore define an assault. Even after the popularization of grim ‘n gritty antiheroes and the introduction of a degree of moral ambiguity to comics, the form remains more likely than most to oversimplify both characters and their actions. Furthermore, they’re only gradually emerging from a long tradition of sexism, if not outright misogyny, and the problematic portrayal of women in comics further complicates the issue of sexual assault within the medium.
Sexual assault is almost impossible to express well or respectfully when the characters concerned are themselves simplified to the point of stereotypes. It’s an intensely personal act and experience whose nature and repercussions are heavily colored by both cultural nuances and the individuals involved. Unfortunately, it’s also become a popular shortcut for ‘developing’ female characters. In this capacity, it tends to fall into one of three plot roles: an attempt to give the character a ‘dark’ history, usually as a context or explanation for neuroses; a female hero’s primary motivation for heroism or her catalyst for becoming a hero; or a means of diminishing a strong female character by emphasizing her vulnerability.*
In the first instance, the sexual assault generally has occurred at some point in the character’s comparatively distant past, usually in conjunction with other adversity: she may have been assaulted by an unsavory parent, guardian, or relative whose behavior was symptomatic of the general moral vacuum in which she was raised; or the assault may have served as implicit punishment for her own moral delinquency (i.e. drug abuse, promiscuity, etc.). In these scenarios, the victim is usually portrayed as a complete innocent–at worst, temporarily misled but basically virtuous–and the perpetrator is totally reprehensible and inhuman, an utter rogue who appears sympathetic only when he is deliberately manipulating his victims. He is also generally in a position of power–a parent or other older relative, a pimp, etc.–and the rape usually happens in connection with other abuse.
In the second instance, the sexual assault is the female character’s motivation for becoming a superhero. In these cases, the victim is either deeply traumatized and relegated to a semi-comatose state; or she is immediately incited to a life of crime-fighting, either as a means to revenge or as a way of preventing other women from suffering a similar fate. In these cases, the assailant is almost always a stranger or, at most, an acquaintance, and the assault is usually anonymous, apparently arbitrary, and particularly brutal.
In the final instance, a female character who is already a hero is assaulted as a means of emphasizing her vulnerability and/or femininity: in effect, ‘cutting her down to size.’ This instance is particularly insidious, as it is most often used as a means of diminishing a previously powerful and confident female character. If the assault is completed, the character is generally deeply traumatized and left either catatonic or violently self-destructive to an extent that affects the character’s ability to function as a hero for an extended period of time; if it is attempted, it is generally prevented by the intercession of a male superhero. Either way, the ultimate result is the disempowerment of the character.
What all three scenarios have in common are gross overgeneralizations, sloppy storytelling which relies on crude stereotypes and clichés, and deeply misogynistic and heterosexist undertones. They buy into–and sell back–the most harmful sort of myths about sexual violence because they are too lazy or too ignorant to look beyond popular disinformation.
It is possible to write a mainstream comics story about sexual assault well and respectfully; it has been done (and in my next column, I’m going to give you some tips on how to do it). But it requires writers to abandon shallow tropes in favor of less superficial–and sometimes less marketable–stories; to reexamine–and often reject–their and the industry’s assumptions about gender, power, and sexuality.
*I’m going to go into more depth about gender and sexuality issues later this month. In this column, however, to accurately reflect the portrayal of sexual violence in comics, all three of these scenarios assume a male assailant and a female victim. This in itself is symptomatic of a tremendous problem in the ways in which many mainstream comics address–or overlook–sexual assault. It is extremely important to be aware that not all sexual violence is heterosexual; that not all aggressors are male and not all victims are female.

Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month: Introduction

Today is April second. It’s the second week of spring. It’s almost Passover; almost Easter; day after April Fools’. It’s also the second day of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
This month, I’m gonna do something a little different in Inside Out (as opposed to the whopping…er…two months’ worth of precedent that I’ve set). I’m going to write a month’s worth of columns about sexual assault issues in comic books and how they correspond to real life. If you have any doubt that I can fill a month with this topic, here’s something to chew on: in order to cover everything I want to, I’m probably going to be posting semiweekly for the duration of April. Although I already have a fair idea of the topics I want to discuss, if you have any questions, suggestions, or requests, please let me know in the forum.
Here’s my angle: I am a comics professional; I care deeply about the comics industry and about its quality and integrity. I am also a feminist, and sexual assault is a feminist issue (actually, it’s everyone’s issue, but it’s of particular concern from a feminist angle).
My connection to and concern about sexual assault goes back further than my connection to and concern about the comics industry; almost as far back as my involvement in feminism. I’ve been involved in anti-sexual assault activism for almost half my life, from Take Back the Night, to the Clothesline Project, to the victims’ rights lobby. I spent four-plus years working directly with sexual assault survivors as a volunteer crisis advocate. I have created and taught high school, college, and community sexual violence education curricula. I have held survivors’ hands in the emergency room. I have written fact-sheets. I have seen faces and heard stories. I’ve also talked to and worked with perpetrators. This is an issue I care a lot about, and one regarding which I can speak with relative authority.
So, that’s me; now for you.
Sexual violence thrives on silence and complacency. My goal this month is to speak up and be heard, and to encourage you to do the same: I dearly hope that the discussions this series of columns starts will substantially outlive the month of April. One potential venue for that discussion is the Inside Out board on the Girl-Wonder forum. However, before you start, I want to lay down some ground rules:

  1. Girl-Wonder strives to be a safe space for survivors. You do not question someone’s story. You do not refute someone’s story. You do not belittle or blame someone who has had the courage to speak about his or her experiences. Victim blaming on my board is grounds for immediate moderator intervention, and I will be moderating these threads very closely.
  2. If you aren’t sure what comprises appropriate participation in such a discussion, you are more than welcome to PM me. In the meantime, take a little while to listen. Sometimes, conscious listening can be a more valuable contribution to a discussion than speech.
  3. While I am trained and certified as a crisis advocate, I don’t have the time, energy, or support system to act in that capacity right now. While I will be more than happy to listen to anyone with something to share, I cannot be your counselor. If you’re in need of counseling or direct intervention services, I will be happy to refer you to resources in your region.
  4. TRIGGER WARNING: Both the columns and their discussion threads will more than likely contain trauma triggers. Please be safe.
    The first content will be posted in the next few days. Stay tuned for updates.
    In the meantime, you can discuss this column here.

Why It Matters

This past week at work, I got roped into reading for an essay contest. I know, I know. But the topic looked fun‘How Buffy Changed My Life’and besides, even if there were a few thousand entries, they were all supposed to be 250 or fewer words.
So, I read.
I was expecting pretty cliché responses, with fluffy content. After all, the prize was an appearance in Season Eight: the sort of thing that draws out the scariest corners of fandom. And yeah, there was some fluff. A few ‘I’m not really that into Buffy but I want to be on teevee and I know I’d be a star! Pick me lol k?’ (No. And Season Eight is direct to comics, kiddo. Do your damn homework).
But of the two-hundred-odd entries I read, the vast, vast majority were sincere. We heard from people who had identified strongly enough with characters to overcome major physical and psychological disabilities. Girls who had turned on Buffy and found a strong woman they related to, where they least expected her: in the dead center of the prime-time lineup. We got essays from men who talked about finding the first show and character they were proud to share with their mothers, their sisters, their daughters and wives; people who wrote that Buffy had inspired them to learn martial arts; read fantasy; study filmmaking; connect with their families; return to school; leave abusive partners; come out; stay alive. Those are just a fraction of the responses I read, and I read barely a tenth of the total.
There’s this tendency in the feminist comics community to be a bit prickly about Joss Whedon, because people keep touting him as someone who writes ‘for women,’ and we aren’t fond of being told what to read. But here’s the thing: Joss doesn’t write ‘for women.’ He writes for people. He creates characters and stories that transcend boundaries of gender, of age, of race, of sexual orientation and nationality. And that’s something we could use more of in a field that’s overwhelmingly focused towards young, straight, upper-middle-class white men. This is a guy whose favorite superhero wasand probably still isa gawky, geeky girl. He’s someone who can write stories in which gender isn’t every female character’s defining feature, in which queer characters are more than stereotypes. I may not be Buffy and Joss’s biggest fan, but if more characters and writers would follow their leads, I think comics would be much better for it.
And that’d change my life.
How have women in comics changed yours?

Teenagers, Kick Our Butts

My mom is unbelievably badass. She has a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry and rides a big damn motorcycle. She’s politically active and involved in ecology and sustainable design. But none of that can hold a candle to what she does for a living: she teaches middle school. She doesn’t do this because she lost a bet, or as penance for a life of crime. She does it voluntarily. She’s that hardcore.
When I go to visit my parents, I inevitably end up spending time in my mom’s classroom. Usually, I bring her lunch at some point, and we hang out and talk. She teaches at a fairly small Montessori school, which many of her pupils have attended since they were two. I went there for second through fifth grade (there was no middle school back then). Most of the teachers have known me since I was a little kid, and I’ve known a lot of the students since they were toddlers. Some are younger siblings of the kids I went to school with. Some, I used to babysit. And now, they’re all hulking teenagers with attitudes. They talk about sex. It’s a bit disconcerting.
So, when Mom asked me to come talk to her students about making comics, I was torn between elation and horror. I love talking about comics, and I love the idea of corrupting a younger generation, but I am fucking terrified of adolescents. In my mind, eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds are what you get when you cross the worst aspects of violent mobs and mass media. When I’m around middle-school students, I become an awkward twelve-year-old: the definition of uncool, the flat-chested, frizzy-haired kid who hides behind thick glasses and thicker books, who gets called ‘dyke’ and worse by her peers, who would flay her alive if they knew she still built spaceships out of chairs with her best friend. I start to stammer. I lose my carefully cultivated dry wit.
‘Okay,’ I said.
I spent a lot of time developing content for the presentation, but I spent even longer worrying about how I would come across. Middle school is a time when kids tend to embrace dictated roles—particularly in terms of gender—and actively reject anything that smells of otherness. Montessori kids are often more progressive than most, but they’re still adolescents, and they’re still intensely judgmental.
At the same time, I agonized over how much attention I should devote to social issues related to comics. Should I talk about Women in Refrigerators? Should I mention gender disparity? Should I try to make concessions to diversity at the risk of inaccurately presenting the pervasive homogeny I spend so much time railing against? Should I emphasize the female comics community, or would that further alienate the girls? My mom warned me that the collective attention span of her students was a little under forty-five minutes and asked me not to wear my ‘I am wearing little pants to hide my genitals’ CBLDF t-shirt. I began to worry about age-appropriate content and imagine angry letters from parents.
And then there was the presentation itself. I’ve taught classes and given lectures and workshops before: the critical difference is that they’ve all been to undergraduates, not middle-schoolers. Would they be interested? Did kids today even read comics at all? I panicked some more.
Finally, I showed up at her classroom armed with a box of books, thirty pages of official Dark Horse artboard, two sets of handouts, and my laptop. I had a PowerPoint presentation prepared that went through the definition of comics and the idea of comics as literature, a short history of the medium (especially in terms of social issues and censorship) and a step-by-step guide to the creation of a page. I figured that even if they hated it, they’d have a few cool souvenirs and maybe even learn something.
They were good during the presentation: participated when I asked questions and stayed pretty quiet otherwise. Afterwards, I split them into groups and set them free to make their own comics.
Mandy, the other teacher, pulled me aside. ‘That was incredible,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen them get so into a guest speaker!’ I spent the next few hours wandering through the classroom in a happy daze, answering questions and helping them make their comics (‘I don’t know if you can say ‘crap’ in your comic. You’ll have to ask your teacher.’). Seventh-graders thought I was cool! They thought comics were cool! And, most incredible, they thought the idea of comics as a medium for social commentary was awesome! They thought female superheroes and creators were awesome! They were incredibly excited when I taught them the word ‘metafiction’ and continued to try to slip it into conversations all afternoon!
These kids, these marvelous, strange creatures are growing into the next generation of fans. They’re reading good books—and they’re learning to look at comics and literature from new critical and creative angles. Yeah, they’re into silly teenager stuff, but they’re also into Maus and Hellboy and Little Lulu, and more important, they’re into their own ideas. They’re writing and drawing their own strips and finding their voices, and I suspect that they’ll be harder than most to silence.
And now, the moral of the story: these kids are coming of age at a tremendous turning point in the world of comics. They’re growing up in a world where comics are still deeply flawed, produced by an industry that’s overwhelmingly male-dominated and often hideously sexist if not outright misogynist. But at the same time, they’re growing up in a world that has Girl-Wonder, and Friends of Lulu, where the visible faces of comics—creators and fandom—are gradually growing to reflect more than one race and gender.
And that’s pretty damn cool.
‘I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn
But that’s not your fault, that’s just your turn.’
-Dar Williams, ‘Teenagers, Kick Our Butts’
March 12th, 2007
Categories: Uncategorized . Author: Rachel Edidin

Review: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Comic Title: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Comic Author: Adapted from the novels by Mark Twain. Tom Sawyer adapted by Matt Josdal and illustrated by Brian Shearer; Huck Finn adapted by Roland Mann and illustrated by Naresh Kumar.
Format: Graphic Novel
Reviewed by: Jessica
Both Mark Twain’s classic paean to American boyhood and his most celebrated portrait of the antebellum South get the graphic novel treatment.

I think most of us know the stories, but here you go: Tom Sawyer is a happy-go-lucky kid who is always thinking of ways to con people, get out of work, and go on adventures. Some of those adventures turn dangerous, though, especially when he and his friend Huck Finn witness a murder, or when he and the object of his boyish affections, Becky Thatcher, find themselves trapped in a cave. Tom has the wits and the luck to always come out on top, though, and never a smidge wiser for it.
Following his adventures with Tom, Huck flees his abusive father and finds himself drifting downriver on a raft with runaway slave Jim. They share various misadventures, including falling into the middle of a deadly feud, and into the hands of a pair of nasty conmen, but events reach their peak when Tom Sawyer rears his puckish head again.
Impressions and Opinions:
It’s been years since I read either of these in the original prose, but I do remember enjoying both of them, for very different reasons. From what I recall, the graphic novelizations are very faithful to the original plots. The problem with that is that the strength of a Mark Twain novel is never in the plot, but in the wit of the prose. With so much of that pared down, the best part of the books is gone, and even the jokes that remain fall flat. The famous fence white-washing scene is still there, but you don’t get a real sense of Tom’s cleverness because it’s so awkwardly conveyed. Huck’s personality barely comes through at all (more on that later). The writing really suffered from the transition to graphic novel for both of these books.
And the art…oh, the art. No punches pulled: the art in Tom Sawyer is terrible. Everyone is a face-melting horror, there’s no anatomy to speak of, and Becky Thatcher appears to be wearing a Buddhist monk’s robe over harem pants. The art in Huck Finn isn’t very good either, but after Tom Sawyer it’s a relief, even if all of the characters look alike.
All told, if I were reading these without having read either of the original novels, I would be very confused as to why they were considered such classics.
Have you used this comic in your classroom, or in any sort of educational capacity?
I haven’t used them in the classroom, but the Campfire line is certainly designed for young, modern readers, so theoretically they could be used in place of the original novels for remedial reading students. Tom Sawyer is not very good, but aside from quality there’s no reason it couldn’t be used this way. Huck Finn is notable because it doesn’t use the thick dialect and phonetic spelling that the original novel does. On the one hand, this makes reading it a lot easier, as the dialect is a struggle for almost any reader. On the other hand, it removes a lot of Huck’s personality, as mentioned above; the reader no longer gets a sense of him as a character. Whether that is a fair tradeoff depends on the teacher and the student.
Both books have a couple of pages in the back with additional information. Huck Finn’s are about the history of slavery and give a decent context for the book, while Tom Sawyer’s are inexplicably about famous islands. Both books could probably use stronger historical and societal context, actually.
Is there anything else you feel that teachers should know about this comic?
There’s slight violence and a couple of dead bodies, but no worse than the novels.

Webcomics and the living author

[Trigger Warning: The following contains discussions of rape “humour”]
This week I’m going to talk a little bit about one of the things that make webcomics a fascinating medium; unlike traditional media, webcomics have a living author. I don’t mean that every book ever written is only produced on the death of the writer, of course. I’m referring to a theory of literary criticism set forward by a French literary critic called Roland Barthes in 1967. Barthes argued that when we read a work, we should not consider the author’s background or philosophy; that their intent in creating the work, whatever that intent was, is not the defining factor or indeed a factor we should consider at all when we analyse the work.
This idea’s referred to as ‘Death of the Author’ because regardless of whether or not the author is alive, the analysis of their work says you shouldn’t communicate them; in essence you analyse the work assuming the author died unknown. In a lot of ways, it just makes sense. The first time we read a book, we’re probably not at all familiar with the author’s life and philosophies. We let the book speak for itself. Afterwards, we might find out that the author had a completely different intent to what we read; maybe the author intended a book to speak about the dangers of a totalitarian state, and instead it’s being held up as an example of why such a state would benefit us all. Death of the Author philosophy states that this intent is practically meaningless; it’s just one interpretation of the book among thousands, and it relies on words and ideas that didn’t make it clearly onto the page.
A modern example of this would be with the Harry Potter series of books. After the series had finished, JK Rowling stated in an interview that she had always conceived of Dumbledore as gay. Good for her, but it certainly didn’t make it into her text. It’s perfectly possible to read Dumbledore as straight, gay or other in the books; his personal life is explained, but we never read about his romantic entanglements. In a lot of ways, the best reading from the text alone would be to read Dumbledore as intensely asexual; his life is his work. So who’s right here? Does JK’s pronouncement after the fact change how you should perceive Dumbledore? Does she have any lasting authority over the works she’s authored? Death of the author says no, she doesn’t.
Webcomics, however, are different. I’d argue that they are so different, in fact, that they can be considered to have a living author. Underneath most webcomics, or immediately accessible from the same page as the strip, there’s a blog; a little author’s byline for every strip. The author can be communicated with, instantaneously, between strips. They’re very much alive. Imagine if Harry Potter was a webcomic; JK would be aware from communication with her readers that Dumbledore was not being perceived as gay. Maybe there would be arguments on the forums. She’d have to decide whether she wanted to make the character gay or whether she wanted to leave them ambiguous; altering the strips and scripts to make it clear one way or another. If it was unclear, and later JK said ‘Dumbledore was always gay’, we’d see it as a bit of a cop-out; she’d had every chance to include a positive gay character, deliberately left it ambiguous, and then claimed it after the fact.
There are a couple of examples of this in action, one pleasing and one thoroughly disappointing. The first is from Homestuck (a personal favourite). Two characters share a kiss in the tired old trope of fighting a bit and then smooching each other. The author, however, left a note in the blog and on the forums; he knows that representation of ‘romance’ is problematic, even damaging. He wasn’t suggesting that these two characters were working in a healthy or even an understandable way. All would be made clear; please bear with me.
This is a great example of how an author can be truly alive. Sometimes, in books in particular but even in a single issue of a comic, we worry that the author doesn’t get how horrible an act one of the characters has performed is. We read on, hoping for a deeper examination of that character’s evil, or for some justice, but too often we don’t get it. Even when we do, it’s an uncomfortable read. A living author can dispel these doubts straight away.
The second example is from Penny Arcade, which I won’t link to from here any more. Recently they made a strip involving an extremely crude rape joke, and there were a lot of complaints. Here, as living authors, they had an opportunity to apologise as soon as possible. They could make it clear they understood how badly rape jokes can hurt victims/survivors of rape, that they understood that making these jokes sets up a culture where rape is funny, not devastating, that they were sorry and it wouldn’t happen again. Instead, they followed it up with a strip where they mocked people who’d complained by deliberately misunderstanding their complaints. A week or so later, the artist had a joke ‘Trigger warning’ above their blog post, warning that discussion of dice rolling was ahead, and making fun of the useful, functional and altogether compassionate point of using trigger warnings in the first place. This was followed up by the author announcing a t-shirt that capitalised on the publicity of the rape joke that was made in the first place.
So the creators of Penny Arcade, through the unique nature of the living author in webcomics, have made it abundantly clear that they think rape is funny, that those who complain about rape jokes are humourless, misunderstanding prigs, that it’s acceptable to mock people who might really need trigger warnings, that they will profit from rape culture. I certainly won’t be reading their work any more.
In this way, the living author can be a blessing- it lets us get off the boat fast enough to keep afloat, instead of reading a disturbing work all the way to the conclusion and realising that the author never found it disturbing at all.
Alexander ‘Nines’ Patterson


Today we’re going to have a look at collaboration in webcomics- specifically, why it’s so uncommon compared to traditional comics and what differences this can make to the stories told.
Webcomics are often made and owned by a single person. This is an enormous departure from the world of comics- even creator-owned comics almost always have at least a writer and an artist, and any comic from the two big houses will have a writer, an artist, a colourist and an editor all contributing to the story told. Most traditional comics are therefore collaborative storytelling; the very best have a syzygy of talent, with all the parts coming together to tell a great story. There’s an element of society to it; all working together towads the best outcome.
Webcomics, on the other hand, are more the work of lone pioneers. One person often does the writing, the art, the colouring (if it’s there) and they have final say over what can happen to the characters. It creates a very different space for storytelling, but it does put a mountain of work on the shoulders of the person telling the story; often there’s as many pages in a month as you’d find in any traditional comic, but all that work has been created by a workforce of one, and usually as a hobby.
The plus side of collaboration is usually consistency. Even if there’s a slightly weak link in the chain, the work as a whole can still be marvellous. When only one person works, they need to be an accomplished artist, writer and plotter, and if they want colour they have to be able to add that too. That said, When someone works on their own they can make works that would never normally be created, and I’d like to highlight a couple of these today.
Dar: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary isn’t entirely what it says on the tin (and it is Not Safe For Work). It’s a six-year diary that’s finished now, yes, but I think you’d be hard pressed to describe it as super girly. It’s about the artist’s own life and expeiences as a young, queer, depressed woman, and it gets better and better as it goes along. The artsist’s won awards and it’s safe to say this would not have been picked up as a traditional comic- the art and writing need to come from the same place because it’s so personal. It also includes probably the highest quotient of fart jokes of any comic I’ve recommended.
Hark! A Vagrant is Kate Beaton’s marvellous take on historical and literary events, characters and creators, and you have almost certainly heard of it. The art is endearing and incredibly expressive, and I can’t think that with a traditional collaborative team it would have worked in the same way- the things Kate finds funny are slightly unique.
Both comics are excellent, created entirely by women and well worth a read. Check them out today!
Alexander ‘Nines’ Patterson