While I was offline, Janelle Asselin, one of my former editors at DC Comics, wrote an article for CBR critiquing the T&A aspects of the cover to the forthcoming Teen Titans #1. Some readers liked the article. Some didn’t. And some of those who didn’t decided to anonymously threaten her with rape.
Think about that for a minute. Multiple individuals were so incensed over an article pointing out the sexual objectification of a teenage female superhero that they felt their only recourse was to threaten the writer of the article with rape. Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened in the comic book section of publishing, nor is it only in comic books that it happens. I know of it happening in both the horror fiction and science fiction sectors, as well.
Too often, this is brushed aside or excused or ignored. In our own section of the industry, Nickolaus Pacione regularly threatens to rape various females, but too many of our peers shrug and say, “Well, he’s mentally ill so it’s okay” and then continue to follow him on Twitter for the comedic value of watching a train wreck.
Or we often hear the excuse, “Well, it was probably just some dumb kid making a dumb joke.” That’s horseshit. My oldest son is 24, and while I love him and am immensely proud of him, there are times he is the living embodiment of “all-the-dumb-things-we-all-did-at-24″ (and I can’t holler at him for it because I did many of the same things at that age). But no matter how many times he acts without thinking, he’s not out threatening to rape people. It’s disingenuous to excuse such transgressions as simply youth saying something stupid.
Another excuse I often see thrown around is “well, even if they threaten it, they’ll never act on it”. Which is, again, horseshit. Here’s a shining example of this type of misanthropic idiocy. During my time offline, I was so incensed by what had happened to Janelle that I hopped online via my ex-wife’s computer and posted to Facebook about it, promising that this essay you’re now reading would be forthcoming once I’d finished my move. Loyal reader Thomas Clark shared the post on his wall. And then, something that calls itself Tim Bruzdzinski (I say ‘something’ because the individual in question is certainly not a man, and in my opinion, doesn’t qualify as human) offers pearls of wisdom in the comments like “idiot threats don’t matter. Nobody is getting raped, this happens eleventy billion times every day and nothing ever comes of it.” (Incidentally, Little Timmy is the front-man for a Syracuse-based bar band called Nails In The Pulpit, so yeah, fuck them).
I’ve always had more female friends than male friends. Looking back, I’d say three out of every five women I’ve known has been directly impacted in some way by rape. I also know men who have been impacted by it, and not just indirectly. Rape happens. It’s not a sexual crime. It’s a violent crime — a crime of force and will and blood and pain and control. It is absolutely one of the most repugnant, heinous things a human being can perpetrate on another human being, and it leaves scars that never wholly heal no matter how much therapy you undergo or how much vodka you drink. To threaten another human being with rape makes you just as repugnant as the act itself.
We have spoken up about this within the horror fiction section of the industry before, and now, as a result of what has happened to Janelle, we see comic professionals beginning to speak out against it, as well. But that is not enough. I encourage professionals from ALL sectors and ghettos of publishing to speak up. Let your audience know that this type of behavior is unacceptable, regardless of race, creed, or gender. Whether you read comics or horror novels or science-fiction tie-ins or true crime or westerns, whether you’re a socialist, libertarian, conservative, progressive, liberal, anarchist, or apolitical — you should agree that people should be treated equally and not threatened with fucking violence just because they wrote something you disagree with. If you can’t agree to that, then quite frankly, I don’t want you as a fan, or a reader, and I don’t want you in my genre (and since they’re giving me the Grand Master Award in Portland next week, it is my fucking genre).
And if you’re a fellow professional, don’t think “Well, my fans would never do this” or “I don’t have an audience as large as Brian Keene or Joe Hill or Jeff Lemire or John Scalzi or Greg Rucka or Chuck Wendig so it’s not worth it for me to speak up”. Because that’s horseshit, too. This is a problem that impacts us all, and it is your duty to speak up. If you make art, if you create entertainment, if you examine the world via words or pictures and offer folks a few hours of escapism and release, then you have a responsibility to get involved.
Which brings me to part two of this rant.
Amid the legitimate and justified outcry I’ve seen over this issue, I’ve also seen a secondary narrative decrying the usage of rape in comic books, television, horror novels, and other forms of the medium, and the suggestion that such works should be banned, and that there is something wrong with the people who create them or read them. This is also horseshit.
I’m a horror novelist. Just as it is a science-fiction writer’s job to invoke a sense of wonder (or perhaps dread) about the future, it is my job to invoke unease and fear. All writers, regardless of what genre they work in, act as a mirror of sorts. We examine life and humanity and we write about those things. You may remember your first kiss, but do you really remember the actual emotions that came with it? Can you still articulate how it felt the first time you encountered death or love? How it felt the first time you realized your parents weren’t infallible? What it was actually like to be six-years old, and the unique worldview that comes with that age? You may think you do, but you don’t. Not really. Memories dim over time, leaving us with impressions, but nothing more. A writer’s job is to make you feel those things again. We observe the world around us and we mine our observations into prose, and thus, make the reader feel them once again. As a horror writer, I’m meant to make you feel scared, uneasy, horrified, uncomfortable, etc. I’m supposed to examine what’s out there in the darkness. There’s nothing wrong with that. People have been examining the darkness since primitive man first drew comic books on cave walls. The Bible, the Koran, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Vedas — all of our earliest texts contained elements of horror.
Rape is a horrific act. But to call for banning it from film or literature (and when I say literature, I’m including comics) is chilling, as well. Instead, perhaps a call should go out to use it responsibly, rather than gratuitously, but even then, that’s a slippery slope. One person’s porn is another person’s art. One person reads an Edward Lee novel and is repulsed by the grotesqueness within. Another reads an Edward Lee novel and sees the clever social commentary nestled between the excess bodily fluids. Some people think Crossed is vile. Others think it is delightfully horrific. Personally, I’m repulsed by the so-called “rape porn”, in which adult film stars act out scenes of rape, but as long as nothing illegal is occurring, I’m not going to tell someone else they can’t watch it. There’s a difference between two actors and a film crew in a studio following a fantasy script versus a victim and group of thugs armed with a cell phone camera in a back alley somewhere. Comics, film, and books have featured murder, cannibalism, and other atrocities (and not just in the horror genre). Why should rape be an exception?
An example I see offered again and again is The Killing Joke, a Batman graphic novel written by Alan Moore. There is a scene in which the Joker shoots and seemingly rapes Batgirl. The shooting is shown. The rape is suggested. But there’s no doubt in the minds of most readers that it happened. Putting aside for the moment that Alan Moore is a horror writer (even his non-horror work such as Watchmen and V For Vendetta contain elements of the horror genre and influence from Lovecraft, Machen, Hodgson, and others) let’s examine what Moore, as a writer, intended to do with that scene. He wanted to show just how violent and dangerously unhinged the Joker was. Furthermore, he wanted to shock and terrify the reader. As someone who read The Killing Joke upon its initial release in 1988, I can tell you he succeeded. Before that, the Joker has always been sort of a neat villain. With The Killing Joke, and specifically that particular scene, he became absolutely terrifying. Moore used rape to a similar effect in the pages of Swamp Thing, when Abby Holland has sex with a man who she thinks is her husband, but in reality is her husband’s corpse, possessed and reanimated by her uncle, Anton Arcane. Disgusting? Sure. Horrifying? Absolutely. Gratuitous? No, not in my opinion. Moore’s goal in Swamp Thing was to scare the reader, and that scene was scary to the point that I remember it clearly, some three decades later.
I don’t think the problem is using rape (or murder or cannibalism). I think it’s how you use rape (or murder or cannibalism). And I think that awareness only comes with time, because you see others discussing it and then you look back and examine your own work.
I have two friends named Amanda and Eryn. If I ever had daughters, I’d want my daughters to be like Amanda and Eryn. They are very much involved in geek culture, and unapologetic in their fight for equal standing at the comic book shop. They make me so proud and fill me with hope for this next generation (and I’ve never told them that before now). A few years ago, I signed a copy of CASTAWAYS for Amanda at a convention. Admittedly, she doesn’t read much horror, preferring superheroes and sci-fi instead, but she read CASTAWAYS, and when she was finished, I asked her what she thought.
“It was okay,” she responded, “but have you written anything without giant rape monsters in it?”
I explained my stance that rape made sense in the context of the book — the tribe of cryptids are dying out because of inbreeding, and they need new mates, and I pointed out the afterword I’d included at the book’s conclusion, discussing rape and its usage and how it made me uncomfortable but it was necessary for the plot. But because I respect Amanda, and because her and Eryn teach me things without them even knowing it, I went back and examined the rest of my books. I’ve written a lot of them. I can happily say that not all of them include rape. But some do. In the case of GHOUL and DARK HOLLOW, I’d argue that it was as necessary as it was in CASTAWAYS. But THE RISING? Gratuitous. I didn’t think so at the time. The man who wrote THE RISING was a much younger man, and not as well-informed, and he thought he was showing how cruel humanity could be to one another after society collapses, but in going back and re-reading that old manuscript a decade later in advance of the publication of the anniversary edition? I cringed. I cringed and I thought, “Jesus fucking Christ, Brian. What the fuck were thinking?” I was tempted to edit the scene down, but ultimately I didn’t, because there are a bazillion other copies out there already. But I can tell you this — I don’t like that scene, and I wish I’d written it differently.
And if we’d been having this discussion back in 1998, I probably would have written it differently, because I would have been more aware.
And that, in a nutshell, is why it’s important for creators to speak up now. I’ve done my part.
Now it’s your turn.
Discuss. And not just here, in the comments below. You have your own Blogs and social media outlets. It is not okay to threaten people with rape, and that shit stops now, but it only stops if you do your part.