Superhero comics have definitely grown up.
It most certainly is not the days of “Your Grandpapy’s Comics” where Captain America punched Hitler in the face (although I am all for Nazis being punched in the face more often). Now, superhero comics have pushed the envelope more and more and taking on some very real problems. Some may say that they’ve become too adult for children to even read them, but that is an argument for another day.
What prompted this discussion was the most recent issue of Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley’s comic, Invincible. Now, before I dig into the issue, I’m just going to say: I really enjoyed Invincible. I felt it was incredibly good at examining superhero tropes but it never fell into the vibe that communicated that we superhero fans were pathetic for liking these stories like I get from stories like Kick-Ass. While it was in no way for children, it was still a very good superhero book.
Then issue #110 happened and this is your last chance to look away for spoilers.
…they gone? Good.
Okay, well I will get out of the way that the first half of this issue is quite good. It deals with Mark Grayson a.k.a. Invincible returning from an alternate dimension, but not realizing that several months have passed and his now very pregnant girlfriend, Eve, is furious at him. Kirkman does an incredibly good job in making sure that neither is treated as a villain in this conversation and it is incredibly poignant.
Then we get to the second half of the issue…
Okay, no more dancing around the issue. Mark is raped by Anissa, a female member of the dying Viltrumite race that Mark himself is a hybrid on his father’s side. Before you victim-blaming shit-heads of the universe start jumping to your keyboards, stop. Kirkman and Ottley make it very clear that this is rape. It is highly uncomfortable and incredibly disturbing to read.
Now, rape happens in comics and in the superhero genre. I don’t like it and, of course, that is the point. It is one of the most horrifying things a person can do to another. It is different from putting rape in a novel because comics, like television, are a visual medium and as such; it calls for the creators to consider using such an action very carefully because it can backfire incredibly easily.
At the end of the day, context will always play a massive key as well as exploring the ramifications of the action. The context within the story is made clear; Anissa, like the other Viltrumites, are trying to save her race through reproduction via humans. In previous issues, we do see Anissa trying to court Mark in a more standard way. However, by this point, she has had enough. Horrifying discomfort ensues.
What will take time to examine is the out-of-story context. I can only attest to my readings of Invincible since I do not read The Walking Dead, but I know that Kirkman plays a long game. I have no doubt that this will be further examined and perhaps it is being done to explore the double standard of violence to women performed in superhero comics by having this be a female-on-male rape. Only time will tell on that.
I only have my initial reactions. I write. I may be an amateur, but I study the craft of writing. I would never be able to bring myself to use rape in my own creations for several reasons. One is that I do not think I can pull it off with the intelligence and the sensitivity necessary to discuss this topic. It is a dead serious situation and I feel that if you can avoid writing it, you really should.
This brings me to my second reaction: making your villain a rapist. This is where I start to get into my mean side when I think making your villain a rapist is one of the more lazy things a writer can do. If you want to establish your villain as pure evil in order to justify the actions of the hero, make them a rapist. One such story that did this was the DC Comics story, Identity Crisis, the story I often call the “superhero comic that hates superheroes”. Many know of this books infamy, about how once goofy villain Doctor Arthur Light had been retconned into having raped Sue Dibney, wife of Silver Age hero Elongated Man, in order to justify the Justice League mind wiping him… and then mind wiping Batman to cover their own tracks! The ramifications of the rape are never explored (in fact, Sue Dibney’s death at the beginning of Identity Crisis was what started the story), we never try to explore the pain and humiliation of this act. It is used as a cheap plot device to justify good people performing incredibly horrid acts.
Like I said, I like Robert Kirkman’s work on Invincible. However, I have seen this kind of event exploited in very horrible fashions. Maybe this is the beginning of the mature exploration of tropes in the superhero genre and comics medium that make people rightfully uncomfortable or maybe it will be used as a cheap shock. This has honestly brought me to the edge of whether or not I want to continue with this book, in spite of its many many achievements.
Only time will tell.