Do DC and Marvel Need a Special Victims Unit?

They might. They might even need a Very Special Episode or two, because - as Spider-Man has just demonstrated - many rapes in comics are unacknowledged. And they aren't the ones you're thinking of.

Comics fandom, as any true fan knows, has always been the thinnest skin of enthusiasm wrapped around a bubbling core of controversy, and this week is no different. The latest tempest to shudder the lid on the comics world is Amazing Spider-Man #604, in which The Chameleon, a supervillain capable of imitating anyone, steals Peter Parker's identity and seems to have sex with his roommate. Many people protested that this was rape and the way it was addressed in the comic was therefore inappropriate.

Although the controversy is ameliorated somewhat in the next issue when it is revealed that The Chameleon only made out with Michelle, the woman in question, a debate sprang up about it that included comic-book-conventions-as-applied-to-reality, arguments about the justice of Massachussetts law, several angry emails, five links on When Fangirls Attack, and at least one cranky cat .gif.

It is strange, though, that other sexual assaults seem to fly below the radar of most internet fans, as well as most comics professionals. Although there have been several explicit rapes of male characters in comics, they have had relatively little acknowledgment, on and off the page.

Don't worry. This isn't a condemnation of internet fans for not being outraged enough, nor is it a ‘what about the men' diatribe. It is simply my observation that sexual assaults, in comics, are treated very differently depending on the sex of the people involved.

The first difference is acknowledgement. There have been three explicit rapes of male character in DC comics, and none of those characters have ever acknowledged what happened to them. The first is an assault on Nightwing, the grown-up Robin, by a female costumed vigilante known as Tarantula. Nightwing, at the end of his emotional and physical rope, collapses on a rooftop, where Tarantula has sex with him. Although not very coherent, he explicitly says, "No. Don't touch me."

The second was back in the eighties, when Green Arrow was shot by Shado, a female assassin. She nursed him back to health. A few issues later, she showed up at his girlfriend's home with a baby in tow. When describing the incident, Shado says that Green Arrow was raving with fever, and thought he was having sex with his girlfriend.

The third, and most recent, was the rape of Batman. Talia Al Ghul, a recurring female character, presents him with her son, Damian, who she claims Batman fathered. She asks him if he remembers a certain night, to which he replies, "I remember being drugged senseless and refusing to cooperate with some depraved eugenics experiment." She says, "You cooperated . . . Magnificently."

These are all rapes. Not one of these men has ever used the word ‘rape' in connection with them. The closest any character within the narrative has come to acknowledging them as such is Green Arrow's girlfriend, who in response to the intimation that her boyfriend cheated on her explained the circumstances of the encounter and said, "Ever wonder how he felt about being raped?"

Yes. I have. But it has become increasingly obvious that no reader will ever find out.

Do DC and Marvel Need a Special Victims Unit?

For female characters, rape is often used as a sort of origin story, or a restart for the character. The character will make mention of it, recognize the pain caused by it, and use it as a motivation to build up strength and toughness. For male characters, rape seems to be a by-product of the need to explain the existence of a child by an extremely inappropriate woman. Unfortunately, when modern audiences read the explanation and rightly identify the conception of the child as rape, the creators are hemmed in. They cannot explain it away, and yet they cannot have the characters deal with it. Why?

This, I believe, is the main split between the treatment of female and male characters when it comes to sexual assault.

Like the trauma inflicted on Bruce Wayne by seeing his parents murdered, or the guilt visited upon Peter Parker by, in his mind, being partly responsible for the murder of his uncle, a rape often re-writes a female character; makes her come back stronger and tougher. This is, when looked at realistically, ridiculous. And yet I can see an appeal to that kind of story. Rape is a terrible event, one that often deeply affects the life of the victim. When treated as an origin story, it can be, in a strange way, a catharsis. What comes out of that trauma is a new life, a new identity, and a new person with a metaphorically clean slate. That kind of re-birth can be an alluring concept. And, of course, since most comics writers are male, rape is a comfortingly distant idea, like the over-the-top tragedies of Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne.

The rape of a man, though, does not have the comfort of a distantly harrowing origin story. Creators are, I think, stymied by three important factors. The first is that an acknowledgment and realistic fall-out from a rape would force these characters, avatars of strength and masculinity, to admit to feelings of violation and vulnerability, something most male readers don't want to read. (To be honest, that's something most female readers don't want to read either, which explains some of the backlash against the rape of female characters.) The second is that rape is a thing that generally happens to women, and to be like a woman is to, generally, lower ones status in society. Jobs, interests, sports and hobbies that are associated with women are generally given less respect than those associated with men. Comic book characters are power-fantasies, and generally people do not fantasize about being given less status and respect. The last factor is a simple one; the perpetrators of these rapes are usually women. Part of the ‘origin story' version of rape is righteous and violent retribution against the rapist, and comics creators have always been reluctant to show male heroes beating female characters, no matter what the reason.

There is, of course, one last, ugly factor in these storylines; the rapists. When male characters rape or abuse female characters, they are often tainted forever and given their comeuppance in later stories. Female rapists receive no such treatment. Of the three rape victims, Nightwing comes closest to punishing his rapist. (Interestingly, he is the least ‘alpha' of the three heroes.) He breaks free of her influence, regains his confidence, beats her up and puts her in prison. He does all of this, though, for the murder of another character, not for the crime committed against himself.

Green Arrow has briefly met his rapist again, in the midst of events too complex to explain, and never mentioned his rape. The woman herself is treated as a villain, but a villain more honorable than most.

Batman's rapist receives a stomach-churning treatment in the text. Never rebuked by Batman or anyone else, never criticized, she goes on to play a semi-heroic part in the later storyline. Dick Grayson even remarks that he can see why Batman is interested in her. Such a thing would never, could never, happen with a male rapist and a female victim. Imagine a man crowing about the fact that he raped a woman, it felt good, and he enjoyed it, and then being treated as a hero later in the story. Never happen.

In the end it is interesting that, while sexual assault on female characters is most often used as a plot device in comics, it is sexual assault on male characters sadly, unintentionally mirrors the reality of sexual assault in life. After all, many assaults and rapes are never reported. The victims bury the event and try to continue their lives stepping around the consequences of the assault. The perpetrators go on with their regular lives as well, sometimes coming to a bad end, sometimes being celebrated. And the taboo continues.

Do DC and Marvel Need a Special Victims Unit?