"I know rape is terrible...but she is really hot." So stated a now-deleted caption on an Imgur gallery containing a three page scene from Invincible #110 in which the title character is pinned down by an antagonistic female character, has his clothes ripped off, and is raped. The scene culminates with the rapist flying away post-orgasm after stating matter of factly to the victim that she plans on sexually assaulting him again.
What little commentary I've seen online about the issue has focused on whether this scene was intended as a shock device, or if there's faith in the creative team to handle the consequences of this scene in a realistic and respectful way. Personally, I'm leaning towards the former, as the writer of the issue, Kirkman, is known for shocking acts of violence in his comics, which is part of what makes The Walking Dead so successful. I think that the hyper-violence Invincible is known for has run its course, which led to Kirkman trying to find new ways to up the book's shock factor. How can you top showing the title character's head getting caved in from a few issues ago? By depicting a sexually charged rape scene.
I also question the claims that the scene was depicted to accentuate the violence of the assault. In one page, we see close-ups of the female character biting her lips in pleasure, arching her back as she pins her victim to the ground, silhouettes of the two characters in coitus, and several gratuitous shots of the rapist's lower breasts and buttocks. As the caption mentioned at the beginning of the article indicates, this was a scene meant to simultaneously titillate and shock. And I think that's where my real problem with the scene lies.
Despite my misgivings with Invincible #110, I wasn't planning on writing about my problems with this scene at all when I read it earlier this week. I don't feel that I'm very qualified to discuss sexual assault, in comics or in real life, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around what the scene means for Invincible, its creators Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley, its publisher Image Comics and the comic industry and its fanbase. I've seen firsthand the extreme amount of emotional damage sexual assault causes people, and I know that even discussing the topic can trigger unintended emotional consequences, not to mention open the door for the lovely commentary that the Internet is known to bring.
However, the caption mentioned above, as well as a comment made in a CBR review of the issue which referenced some sort of difference between "non-consensual" sex and rape, got me thinking more about the consequences of this issue and the surprising lack of commentary the issue has engendered so far. I guess I can't be surprised that no one has really spoken up about the scene so far, it's an uncomfortable topic and one that the comic industry has traditionally handled poorly.
In 2004, Dick Grayson, the main character of Nightwing, was raped by supporting cast member Tarantula in the pages of his own comic. Tarantula had just killed the villain Blockbuster, leaving Grayson in a state of shock. Tarantula took advantage of Grayson's emotional state and has sex with him, ending the issue on a weird and disturbing note. Despite the context of the scene, the writer of the book, Devin Grayson, stated in a 2004 interview about the scene that Tarantula hadn't raped Grayson, but had only engaged in "non-consensual" sex with him, while smiling and quipping how difficult writers are.
I remember the controversy surrounding this Nightwing issue pretty well, as it occured right as I was discovering comics and online fandom for the first time. I remember reading Grayson's interview and being a little shocked about it all, and then quickly deciding that I was probably overreacting since I was a stupid eighteen year old who was just discovering mature entertainment at the time. That's right, eighteen year old me thought that sexual assault was just something that happens in grown up comics, movies and TV shows, which sadly isn't that far from the truth.
As I grew older, I realized that sort of dismissive commentary about sexual assault in comics is more normal than I'd like. Take the discussion of Superior Spider-Man #2's cover back in 2012, which had the title character (Spider-Man with Dr. Octopus's brain) appearing to forcibly kiss Mary Jane, whose eyes were widened in shock. When several comic book commentators mentioned the "rapey" (sorry, I really can't think of a better word for it than that) implications of the cover, the book's editor and writers angrily huffed and puffed on social media while imploring fans to read the book. I remember one commentor on this site loudly decrying the sexual assault implications, since villains mind-swapping heroes would never happen in real life, and therefore it wasn't relevant to the book. Was the discussion about the cover a bit overblown? Perhaps. But it was disturbing to see how quickly people looked for ways to dismiss it.
I think comic book fans, especially fans of the modern superhero, sci-fi and horror genres that dominate monthly comics, are programmed to dismiss shocking acts of violence as part of the culture. I don't think this is necessarily exclusive to comic fans, I saw plenty of reviewers cheer as a pre-pubescent girl stabbed a man in the throat causing him to drown in his own blood on camera in Game of Thrones last week. However, that sort of conditioning leads to dismissing other actions designed principally to shock or disturb readers, including those involving forced sexual actions, which may be why we're not seeing very many thinkpieces about Invincible #110 on other websites this week.
I guess I'm wondering why there aren't more people talking about this comic. Is it because by doing so, we give Kirkman what he wants, controversy and press time? Is it because the scene didn't occur in a Marvel or DC book, and so it's not as likely to be covered by mainstream comic sites? Is it because we're conditioned to roll our eyes at sexual assault in comics and dismiss it as just the latest example of what's wrong with the culture? Or is it because others, like me, are uncomfortable even trying to discuss this controversial aspect because they don't feel qualified or knowledgeable enough to speak about it?
Or is it because the scene depicts a male being raped by a female, which I've heard described as "not really rape" or "reverse rape", due to ignorant people not knowing that a man can't always control an erection, and can orgasm against their will? That's what Rich Johnston suggests, that Kirkman got away with graphically depicting rape because it was male victim and a female attacker. Is that why no one but Bleeding Cool and now the Outhouse, often described as the worst and the worstest comic book sites around, are the only ones who have written articles about this scene?
I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that the lack of discussion on various sites is just as disturbing to me as the scene itself. I know sexual assault in comics is a disturbing thing and an uncomfortable topic, but we owe it to ourselves as fans of the industry to debate the merits of the scene and discuss what sort of place sexual assault scenes have in genre comics (and I'm not saying that sexual assault is a topic comics should avoid, either). Just like the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment has only recently gained steam on the blogosphere, I think it's time to try having a serious discussion about this, too. Otherwise we'll end up with more idiots talking about hot rape scenes in semi-popular comics.
Maybe I'll be proven wrong in a few days and a flood of editorials will pour out in the coming days. I certainly hope that's the case, I just don't know if that'll happen.
ADDENDUM: Alex Zalben over at MTV just linked to an interview he did with Kirkman that addresses the scene. It's provides some additional context to Kirkman's decision to write this scene, and notes that it will have a permanent effect on the series. I do think that it's unfortunate that Kirkman states he decided to include this scene because rape is a common trope in comic books, and I'm not entirely sure that interesting is what I'd use to describe how the victim will leave the experience. But it's a highly recommended read, and kudos to Zalben for speaking to him about it.