Rape is actually a surprisingly common comic book trope. Huntress, Sin, Green Arrow, Dick Grayson, Carol Danvers, and many others have had a “rape” story…But they usually don’t matter, in that they don’t change the character in any lasting way. There are a few basic “types” of comic book rapes.
Most of the time, it’s implied…Like when Speedball did time in prison during Civil War (see the picture at the top of this article). (He wasn’t raped there—he was being manhandled in handcuffs.)
Or in any Wonder Woman comic from the 1950s.
But other than these casual references, or the use of sexual aggression as a source of humor or titillation, there are a few standard tropes…
1. Sexual Violence as Mood Music
Many books—particularly modern ones—use sexual violence and rape to set a tone for a book or a story arc. This is what Mark Millar was talking about.
The Walking Dead’s “Governor” storyline used sexual violence as a theme to establish a character’s brutality. It actually ended up being handled rather poorly, as Micchione’s retaliation seemed to alleviate the effects of the incident, so that her character didn’t really change much (or at all) afterwards. Then there’s a book like Crossed, which used animalistic, ultraviolent sex as the core of it’s story: Those who have been taken by the Crossed are consumed by the desire to combine sex and painful death, and the book itself became a story about the meaning of God in a brutal world. (At least it did under Garth Ennis—the subsequent volumes are little more than torture porn.)
2. Rape Origins.
The “backstory” rape is the most common: A tale of violence used as a foundation for a character; unfortunately, they usually don’t do anything with it later on.
Use of rape in an origin story is best exemplified by The Black Cat. In Kevin Smith’s miniseries “Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do,” a drug lord captures Black Cat and rapes her. In the story, Matt Murdock tries to get her to submit to an evidentiary rape kit in order to defend charges filed against her for the murder of that same drug lord, but she denies being raped. However, we do learn that she was raped in college, which is what motivated her to become a martial artist: Revenge.
The problem with the Black Cat example, is that she’s best known as a flirty sexpot who is comfortable with her own body and sexuality, and doesn’t seem to have any noticeable emotional scars from her ordeal. In fact, other than in Kevin Smith’s miniseries, you never hear about it again.
Same thing with Rogue, who was raped while in prison during the Genosha storyline. It all happened off-panel, and you never hear about it again and, frankly, her character already had all kinds of sexual confusion so it didn’t really add anything. Other than that it was how she lost her virginity.
Another odd origin rape is Damian Wayne. No, he wasn’t raped himself, but Talia Al Ghul got pregnant after slipping Batman downers and Viagra. He didn’t even remember having had sex with her at first. This is more of Grant Morrison’s own sexual fetish, I think, than an example of involuntary sexual contact in comics.
In fact, aren’t these rapes almost worse than the “casual” or “mood-setting” rapes that everyone is yelling at Mark Millar about? I mean, the subtext here is that good things–heroic things–can come from rape. And while I know several close female friends of mine who were raped and, in my opinion, went on to become great women–that message, at its core, is more offensive than “I want to establish that a dude is evil so I’m gonna have him rape someone.” Because it’s not being raped that made these women great, it’s how they grew and developed after experiencing traumatic experiences.
3. Rapes that “matter”
These are a little like “origin story” rapes, but they’re more of “turning points” than starting points.
Check out The Maxx (Image Comics), created by Sam Keith, in which several characters have violent sexual traumas that actually matter. One of the characters, Mr. Gone, is a serial rapist, and his impact on one of the central characters of the book, Julie, forms the basis for an ongoing character arc—including a story involving the serial rapist’s daughter coming to Julie for counseling. This is actually a rare example of a mature treatment of the issue.
Then there’s Garth Ennis and Darick Roberson’s “The Boys,” in which superheroes regularly abuse women. The rape of Starlight, a wannabe super-heroine, who is forced by the equivalent of Superman to have sex if she wants to be on the team, becomes the thing that transforms not her so much as her boyfriend. This is a pattern throughout comics: When women get raped, men get affected.
Similarly, Jaka’s rape in the pages of Cerebus the Aardvark was used to tell us more about Cerebus than Jaka, but in my mind it stands out as the most potent, impactful use of a power-based sexual relationship in the history of comic books. I’ve read the storyline at least ten times, and it still provokes all kinds of mixed reactions. Does Jaka love Cerebus because he is dominant, or in spite of it? In the beginning, it’s not clear, but by the end of her experience, she’s definitely a changed woman—yet she’s changed for the better, in many ways. Viewing all this through creator Dave Sim’s own misogyny, this book becomes even more fascinating.
The rape of Carol Danvers that led to her pregnancy in Avengers #200 was an example of a “big two” book that actually used the rape as a basis for the entire character to transform into something different. As far as I know, that was the only time a Marvel or DC character was radically affected for a long period of time by an incident of sexual violence. Other than in a MAX or Vertigo title.
Speaking of MAX titles: Jessica Jones was used as a sex slave in Alias. This one rates high for me because the treatment of the issue is mature, and it has lasting effects on the character. At the end of his amazing comic book, Alias, Brian Michael Bendis wrote a story about Jessica Jones being held prison by The Purple Man and forced to be his sexual partner. You never really see it, it’s just suggested, and you see how Jones reacts to it—what it does to her. This is the best written rape in Marvel history, because it doesn’t shy away from the emotional impact it has on the victim. It also helps explain the character’s depression and alcoholism, and why she’s so reluctant to get into relationships with several good men, like Scott Lang and Luke Cage (who she eventually does marry).
But the “effect on men” issue is raised later, in the first New Avengers story arc, in which Luke Cage has the opportunity to slam Purple Man down to the street top.
Wouldn’t the comic have been that much better if Jessica herself had done that?
4. Man-on-Man Rape
Comics are largely written, drawn, edited, colored, lettered, etc. by men. And for many (most?) men, being raped is a huge fear. And comic books really aren’t about deep psychoanalysis (at least most aren’t). So it’s not surprising that there is little serious consideration of the issue of man-on-man rape, other than in a purely homophobic context.
Like when Bruce Banner showered with men at the YMCA.
Or when Red Hulk face-raped The Watcher.
The best use of male rape is in Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s take on the early years of Punisher in Marvel’s Punisher MAX. We see the origin of the Kingpin: Turns out, Wilson Fisk was raped in a prison shower by multiple assailants.
That might make me mean, too.
5. Alan Moore Rapes
Nobody likes to write about rape more than Alan Moore. Sexual violence/fetishization of deviant or aggressive sexuality is a central theme in many of his most celebrated books (From Hell, Watchmen, Lost Girls) and his most vilified (Neonomicon). You could probably write a thesis on his portrayals of sexuality. Hell, I bet someone already has.
The Killing Joke, Alan Moore’s brilliant and dark Joker story, is probably his best rape story. It’s the one where Barbara Gordon is shot and paralyzed, which turns her from a cocky swashbuckler to a cyber detective confined to a wheelchair. It’s not clear whether she is actually raped—it’s implied. But the most disturbing part of the book is the end, in which the Dark Knight who rescued her confronts the evil assassin and…Has a good laugh. Batman and Joker laugh together at the end of the comic. It’s the only part of this famous Graphic Novel that has always bothered me.
Actually, most of Alan Moore’s portrayals of rape are deeply flawed, disturbing, and, frankly, superficial.
Take Neonomicon’s demon rape. Alan Moore and Jacen “Crossed” Burrows teamed up for a violent, disturbing Avatar Press comic that actually centered almost entirely around rapes. Gang rapes, ritual rapes, and demon-raping-woman rape. I actually thought this was a very powerful comic, but it is far from appropriate if you’re weak of heart. It takes a tough stomach to get through it. But, like Burrows’ work on Crossed, the rape is clearly exciting to the artist. This is a horrible thing, but it is told in an erotic (albeit violent) manner. I’m not criticizing this portrayal, but it’s a far cry from a mature examination of how most rapes occur.
In fact, I don’t think it’s fair to criticize any of Moore’s uses of sexual assault: He’s got his reasons, and most are artistic expression. I don’t necessarily relate to them, or find them “real” or resonating, but I understand them in the context of the story he’s telling.
And let’s close this out with the most brutal rape/homicide in the history of comic books. And, it’s actually a two-fer.
In volume one of his over-rated “historical superhero” series, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, the Invisible Man is portrayed as a serial rapist of underage girls at a correctional school. It’s a very bizarre (and unpleasant) storyline, with the fact that he’s invisible leading to a conclusion that the women he impregnates are experiencing virgin births.
But Invisible Man gets his comeuppance in Moore’s version of street justice when, in LOEG volume 3, Mr. Hyde anally rapes the Invisible Man until he is dead. It’s horrifying, actually, because you never see Invisible Man. You just see his blood, and more and more of it, until the rape is over.
Okay. I feel filthy. This article is over.
Drop me a comment and tell me what you thought of it.