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The subject of rape and sexual abuse in comics is, obviously, a very hotly debated topic in the comic community depending on who you talk to. Some fans look at it as a way to add a deeper level of real life horrors into comics or a way to maybe help reinforce what level certain villains are willing to go to now. Other fans look at it as exploitative and completely unnecessary. Comics (or the superhero/super villain dichotomy more specifically) have been around since the 1930s and they have never needed the subject to be breached to show us just how bad the villains are. In this post I will be covering two examples that have stirred up the debates on both of those sides.

                The first example is the Batman story The Killing Joke written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland, both very well respected names in the comics industry. In 1988 DC comics wanted to capitalize on Moore’s popularity following his hit series Watchmen and approached him to write the “ultimate” Batman/Joker story. In The Killing Joke, Moore decided to delve into the Joker’s backstory, something that had only been hinted at before. The Joker had just broken out of Arkham Asylum and wanted to prove to Batman that anyone could have turned into the Joker because of “one bad day”. To prove this point the reader is subjected to one of the most horrific storylines told in a comic. The Joker goes to Commissioner Jim Gordon’s house, where he is spending time with his daughter Barbara Gordon, better known as Batgirl to the readers.  When there is a knock at the door, Barbara opens it and is greeted by the Joker opening fire, shooting her thru the spine, and sending her back thru a glass coffee table. His thugs then hold Jim Gordon back and begin beating and kidnapping him. When Gordon awakes he finds himself in an abandoned amusement park which the Joker has transformed into his own personal hideout. While there, Gordon is stripped naked and beaten repeatedly and then forced to ride through a “funhouse” that the Joker has put together for his experiment. While in the funhouse, Gordon is shown pictures that the Joker had taken of Barbara after Jim was taken out of his house. The pictures are some of the most haunting and disturbing pieces of art shown in a comic as you see the recently paralyzed Batgirl stripped naked and posed in different positions as her father is screaming her name. Batman of course intervenes and while rescuing Jim he is told that he wants the Joker to be brought in “by the book” and “we have to show him that he is wrong, and that our way of justice works.” The point of using this story as an example, as shocking as it is, is because of the importance what happens after The Killing Joke. In order to reinforce that Barbara was beyond the Jokers actions, DC comics turned her into one of the strongest, most inspiring female characters in comic history and giving the new alias Oracle. As Oracle, Barbara used her knowledge in computers to help not just Batman, but become a member of the Justice League of America and use her abilities as a hacker to give them information on the villains they are fighting, literally helping save the world right next to the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman. She also formed her own team of other female crime fighters, Black Canary and Huntress, called the Birds of Prey. As the Birds of Prey the team fought threats that would range from your average street level crimes to international threats. Barbara Gordon did this all while still confined to the wheelchair that the Joker put her in. I cannot stress enough the importance of Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey comics to anyone interested in strong female characters.

                The second example I would like to use is a comic mini-series called Identity Crisis. A comic that is very controversial to readers, most either love it or hate it. Written by international bestselling mystery author Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Rags Morales, Identity Crisis was a murder mystery set in the DC universe. The Elongated Man’s wife, Sue Dibny, is found murdered in her home and it is up to the rest of the Justice League to find out how and why? In the series it is revealed that years before her murder Sue was raped by regular Justice League villain Dr. Light. Sue, along with the JLA are in their satellite headquarters at the time when they get an emergency call and the JLA rushes out to answer it while leaving Sue alone as they had many times before. While gone Dr. Light appears and again the reader is subjected to a traumatizing series of panels of Sue being beaten and raped. The JLA reappears in the middle of the act and stops it from going further. While he is incapacitated, Dr. Light then threatens the rest of the JLA’s loved ones, telling them that he will find them and do the same to them that he did to Sue. Because of this, the JLA decides that the best course of action is to wipe Dr. Light’s mind of all those thoughts and memories. The controversy of the story arose when instead of giving Sue any sort of redemption after that event, she is instead killed in a way that is rarely seen in comics. And unlike most comic characters, she was left dead permanently and given no redemption. In fact, Dr. Light later got his memories back and returned to his previous mindset of wanting to rape and sexually assault other women in the DC universe. Before her murder, Sue and her husband Ralph, were looked at as one of the sweetest most relatable couples in the DC universe. Using her in this series was the marking of what some readers saw as a point of no return for the dark side of comics. In the previous example of The Killing Joke, DC made sure to have reoccurring examples of Barbara and Jim bringing the Joker to justice, while Sue and Ralph were never given that justice after Identity Crisis. As I said, Dr. Light was brought back with his new mentality of wanting to get revenge of the JLA by going after women with the intent of rape, while Sue remained dead.

These are in no way the only examples of rape in comic history. In fact, the writer Mark Millar made headlines recently because of his conservational statements on his use of rape in his comic stories – more specifically the rape of the popular character Hit-Girl in the Kick-Ass series. Depending on your opinion on the subject of rape in comics, the fact of the matter is that it will now be used by writers trying to get the point of villainy across to the readers. What is important for the writers to remember is that because this is a more recent trend in comics used to drive home an emotion of disgust against the villain, and as a way to show real life horrors finding their way into a highly fictionalized form of media, they also should consider balancing it out with equal pay offs of strength and redemption of the heroes and victims in the stories as much as the actual victims do in real life.   

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