Trigger warning: rape and sexual violence.
The benefit of being the Contrarian Fanboy is that I get to think and write about the things that happen in the comics world that offend, upset, insult, or plain just don’t make sense to me. This time, though rather than saying “I hate/love this piece of generally worshipped/universally hated” artifact of nerdom, I’m going to harp on a writing tic that has become a bit of a crutch as of late.
As comics have “matured” (which is the word we use when we really mean to say “gotten more violent”), I’ve noticed an increased prevalence of rape and sexual violence as plot points or characterization. I can’t be alone in noticing this and I can’t be the only person put off by it (I hope).
Let’s not misinterpret what I’m saying here. I’m not saying that matters of sexual violence are immediately off-limits or that depicting them is automatically sexist. Many stories have dealt with sexual violence in a humane manner that is both respectful to people who have been victims of sexual violence and to the story/characters as well. What I’m talking about are the stories in which sexual violence is nothing more than
a) a generic character motivation meant to motivate a male “white knight” (“they raped and killed my girlfriend…this time, it’s PERSONAL!”)
b) a shorthand way of letting us know that a character is evil (he raped a woman on page one, of course HE’S EVIL!”)
c) a single note of personal history that comes to totally define a character, or
d) a single beat of plot-development that is never again revisited by the character.
Perhaps the reason rape is more and more common is because the worst abuser of rape-as-convenient-plot-point/bit-of-characterization is, sadly, my beloved Alan Moore. Alan Moore is probably the most respected comic book writer in the western fandom and it makes sense to me that the younger generation of writers would ape some of his tics. Unfortunately, as Moore has gotten older (or maybe as he’s decided that he no longer cares about comics as a medium and comic readers as an audience) he’s tended to use rape and sexual violence as a plot point in ways that demonstrate a kind of lazy callousness that I’d never have thought I could say about Moore. Even Grant Morrison, whose career owes a massive debt to Moore said that “We know Alan Moore isn’t a misogynist but fuck, he’s obsessed with rape.”
Let’s look at it by the numbers. There’s been an instance of sexual violence (much of it shockingly offhand and quickly dismissed or forgotten) in every major work Moore has written and in many of his minor works. Every volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen contains one instance of sexual violence (almost all aimed at Mina Murray). Lost Girls, his long germinating erotic adventure, veers between joyful sex and sexual violence so rapidly that I found myself wondering (however momentarily) if Moore even remembers the difference between the two. Neonomicon, his ode to Lovecraftian horror, features a grizzly rape. Tom Strong, his attempt to write an old-fashioned superhero comic has a rape (which is actually played as a punchline).
Even his earlier works (which in my opinion tend to be better than his offerings from the last ten years) have a disturbing pattern of sexual violence. Watchmen, V For Vendetta, Killing Joke, Miracle Man each features a scene of sexual violence. And while many of these were treated with seriousness and humanity, still others were, in my opinion, both unnecessary and ultimately insulting.
Obviously the problem is bigger than Alan Moore, but Moore is often held up as the God of comic book writing and, just as often, as the conscience of comics. This lofty status means that what he does, like featuring so much rape, deserves some added reflection.
When Gail Simone wrote about the trend of women being “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured” as cheap story-telling contrivances, it should have instigated some soul searching among comic creators. What’s instead happened is not only an increase in depictions of sexual violence, but an increasing callousness in their depiction. Moore is an example of this sad trend too. If his depiction of sexual violence in Watchmen is (more or less) tactful, his depiction of rape in Neonomicon and the last few LoEGbooks has been callous and unnecessary.
Like Gail, I’m not trying to cast “blame about an individual story or the treatment of an individual character and it’s certainly not about personal attacks on the creators”. I’m really not. And that’s why it sucks to have to use Moore as an example. I will always and forever have respect for Moore. He’s written a number of comics that are explicitly feminist and he wrote them when women in comics were little more than fanboy pin-ups. What troubles me is the ease with which he goes from writing rich and complex women characters to turning those same characters into victims of sexual violence.
The problem as I see it is that rape has gone from being a topic that signaled an author’s willingness to seriously address real problems to being a cheap shorthand for realism, emotional investment, and characterization. This problem is obviously bigger than just one writer. It’s about the whole medium. That this exists in tandem with a fan culture that is not just dismissive but often outright antagonistic to women goes a long way towards illustrating why it’s hard out there for a lady geek. When both the fans of a medium and the man considered to be the greatest living comic author both consider rape to be a perfectly acceptable way to delineate evil characters from good characters, then it makes sense that women would feel put off by the whole culture.