In Defense of Sue Dibny’s Rape

Call me a sick fuck, but I’m in favor of Sue Dibny’s rape.

Wait. That came out wrong. I’m in favor of its use in Identity Crisis.

Let me back up here. I didn’t like, at least upon first reading, Identity Crisis #1. Its great sin was that it was confusingly paced. It jumped around awkwardly, and the big payoff seemed to be the death not of Elongated Man — as had been rumored — but of his wife. And I think this disappointment — the feeling of bait and switch as readers expect a super-hero casualty only to witness Sue Dibny’s rushed death — has been the underlying reason for a lot of the controversy.

From Identity Crisis #2

From Identity Crisis #2

In fact, the rape of Sue Dibny isn’t revealed until the second issue. And yes, it’s shown in flashback. But we’re hardly talking about exposed genitalia here. We don’t see Doctor Light’s erect member. And this flashback occurs as the heroes who dealt with Doctor Light after the incident shown in flashback secretly plan, in the present, to go after him for Sue Dibny’s death, believing Light responsible. The emphasis is distinctly upon this secret that the heroes have kept — and upon the trauma of these heroes who fear for their loved ones and made the tough decision to effectively lobotomize Doctor Light after the incident. In other words, the emphasis in distinctly not upon the rape itself.

Despite this, a flurry of condemnation came no sooner than the issue was published. Fans repeatedly blasted the comic as manipulative, as crass, as low. Many expressed a desire for bright-colored super-heroics, for classic good-versus-evil stories. The rhetoric used was that of “super-hero rape fantasies” and “seeing innocent women raped by costumed criminals.”

They Call it “Manipulative”

Is Sue Dibny’s rape manipulative? Well, yes. But no more than an image of Aquaman crying.

Put another way, “manipulative” has two definitions. The first is simply to manipulate in the sense that we manipulate a pencil when we write with it. There’s no negative connotation here. A good work of art is manipulative in this sense. The pieta is manipulative. Showing that a character is a good person may be characterization, but it’s also manipulation — getting you to identify with that character.

Apocalypse Now showing a boar sliced to ribbons instead of Kurtz is manipulative, but it is also one of the most powerful sequences on film.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now manipulates your emotions too. That's why it was shot that way, why it uses the music it does, why those actors were cast... in other words, it's art.

The way most people use “manipulative,” however, is in the sense of “crassly manipulative.” The same characterization of a woman as a busy but good person, preparing food and petting her dog, becomes crassly manipulative when the wide-eyed serial killer enters, stabs the dog to death in a scene with copious spurting blood, and then brutalizes her. Whether we’re shown the brutalization or it occurs off-panel or off-screen is by itself irrelevant: saying that the sweet wife in Seven has been beheaded can be even more manipulative than showing her death. The question is whether the “manipulation” is artistically crass.

And whether something is artistically crass — or “cheap” or “easy” — is entirely contextual. Few would be so crass as to condemn a drama about a woman who was raped coming to terms with that abuse and learning to relate again to men. Although, it is worth pointing out, such a drama would more than likely be staged in the vein of Lifetime’s original movies, which notoriously play with the line of crass manipulation in order to advance emotionally a particularly fact-starved version of feminism. But using rape casually, particularly to escalate the emotional stakes of a story, would be artistically crass.

Identity Crisis may not be fine literature, but Sue Dibny’s rape is certainly not used casually. The focus is distinctly upon the age-old danger in the genre to the heroes’ loved ones — now given a new edge. This threat is not only of capture or death, as has been conventionally depicted, but of torture or rape — after all, these are super-villains we’re talking about here, and they’re known for both insanity and brutality. As always, the focus is upon the heroes’ actions to prevent this danger to their loved ones — except that, in Identity Crisis, this leads the heroes to take greater, more disturbing steps.

What’s the Real Issue Here?

Should it have a “mature readers” label? Well, I don’t know that any comic should have a label — books don’t, and Frank Miller (among others) has rather deftly pointed out the troubling if not outright censoring nature of such labels. But if DC’s going to slap “mature readers” on comics at all, it probably ought to go on Identity Crisis. I think we can agree that Sue Dibny’s rape and the heroes’ reaction isn’t for six-year-olds.

But the attack against Identity Crisis has not been the relatively minor argument that DC neglected to place two words on the cover. In fact, the attack has been distinctly retrogressive: that this has no place in super-hero comics. That, in essence, we ought to go back twenty or so years. These are people who have never read Rick Veitch’s Bratpack. Or French and Japanese comics from Metabarons to Crying Freeman, which don’t shy away from this sort of stuff. Or they just don’t want that stuff in a story with Superman. Which is fine, except that it consigns Superman et al to the dustbin of history.

Comics aren’t just for kids. Some comics aren’t for kids at all — even some super-hero comics. When it comes to Identity Crisis, this is used as a line of condemnation. When it comes to Wildcats 3.0Sleeper, or The Authority, no one minds that we see people in bondage outfits, some of whom sodomize their opponents, occasionally with jackhammers. And by the way, the Mark Millar issues of The Authority didn’t carry the “mature readers” label either.

Even Grant Morrison has chimed in against Identity Crisis because of Sue Dibny’s rape — and Morrison has been one of the prime people advancing super-heroics over the past fifteen years. But then, Morrison’s been becoming a bit of a retrograde as of late: he also condemned The Authority‘s violence in the wake of 9/11.

The real issue here isn’t sex, nor is it violence. Tell me super-heroes don’t have a sexual element, with their skin-tight spandex and bulging boobs and constant sexual situations, going back at least to Superman’s love triangle with his alter ego and Lois Lane. And the problem isn’t the violence of the act of rape: nobody minds when super-villains open fire on crowds of civilians — in fact, comic book readers and movie-goers reward such violence, sometimes calling its implications brilliant. No, the real issue — what really sets people off — is rape.

Yes, rape has been used before in super-hero comics. Many male creators have felt it sensitive to women’s suffering to make a female character a victim of some sort of sexual abuse or assault, dramatizing the problem.

But, more poignantly, rape has long been used in art. Would anyone condemn, with the vitriol reserved for Identity Crisis, the countless paintings of the rape of the Sabines? The depiction of rape from Homer and Herodotus to modern literature? The history of art and literature are filled with depictions of rape, just as much as they are with sex and violence and all other elements of the human condition.

So let’s be more specific. The problem people have is that a super-villain raped a super-hero’s wife — and that just shouldn’t happen. Or, at least, not in a comic by DC. Or, at least, not one with Superman in it.

Conclusions

Identity Crisis #7

Identity Crisis #7

I cannot judge the sum of Identity Crisis: as I write, the third issue has been published only yesterday. I am not claiming the work as a whole to be artistically successful or not: that remains to be seen. But I can say that the reaction against the title — entirely based on its use of rape — appalls me.

Let’s be clear: in a world filled with crazy super-villains carrying personal vendettas, this kind of thing would happen. It is the height of didacticism to assume that a whole genre — even super-heroics — should exist in a rape-free world. If you don’t like rape in your super-hero stories, no matter the context, you just don’t want that much realism in your super-hero stories. You probably didn’t like Frank Miller making Catwoman a whore either. And I respect that. If that’s you, there are a lot of super-hero comics out there — even some good ones — to please you. But at least be honest about it.

Those of us who appreciate comics as art are more inclined to ask how smart the story is, how clever the execution. Rather than, you know, condemning outright.

Identity Crisis, like it or not, is teaching us about the super-hero genre — and it’s doing this both within the text, in terms of extending the old generic threat to the hero’s loved ones, and without, as we observe the retrogressive, didactic, and vitriolic responses to the series.

We are, in short, understanding the medium of super-heroics better because of Identity Crisis.

Classics on Infinite Earths: The Justice League and DC Crossover Canon

Classics on Infinite Earths: The Justice League and DC Crossover Canon

Julian Darius discusses Identity Crisis in greater detail in Classics on Infinite Earths: The Justice League and DC Crossover Canon.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Research & Literacy Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics and his transgressive novel Nira/Sussa. He currently lives in Illinois.

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1 Comment

  1. This was produced many years ago, when I was a different writer and a different person. I’d like to offer a few thoughts, from the perspective of 2012.

    It’s useful to remember the context: Identity Crisis was still ongoing, and as soon as the revelation of Sue Dibny’s rape was published, the internet went nuts with condemnation of it. That condemnation, as I recall it, wasn’t usually from a feminist perspective — this was a different time in comics. It was largely focused on what a terrible thing to do to Sue Dibny. Which is, of course, true. But at its root, this wasn’t a feminist objection. It was a reactionary gesture on the part of fanboys, at a point that was then a solid decade into the so-called “return to fun” that began with Marvels and had by then taken over the majority of super-hero comics.

    This “reconstructionism” tended to repudiate not only the realism of revisionism but the social consciousness that characterized revisionism. Of course, we can argue how problematic revisionism’s social presentations were, but at least they accepted this as an important aspect of their stories. The hostility we now see in mainstream super-hero comics towards anything realistic or challenging or sometimes even intelligent was already on display in the complaints about how Sue Dibny was treated. The party line seemed to be that this was a terrible thing to do to a beloved character, super-heroes should be innocent, and rape simply had no place in a super-hero story. I found this repulsive, and I still do. Innocent super-hero stories are fine, and I like many of them, but I felt — and still feel — a part of a movement that said comics could tell all sorts of stories, and they could be real literature, and they could even address social issues and interrogate the human condition. I take that quite seriously, and the reaction against Sue Dibny’s rape — at the time, not today’s critiques — was centered around how this was unacceptable content on its face. And so I felt compelled to raise my voice in defense of Sue Dibny’s rape — which wasn’t really that at all, but rather a fervent defense of the idea that such content absolutely was legitimate and must be acceptable, if we are to take comics seriously and not as the children’s fare they once were (regarded as). Because no one would say that rape was an unacceptable topic in any other medium, nor in any other genre not for children.

    I raised my voice to say that in that piece, and I think it’s clear there that this is what I’m talking about. It’s true that it’s flippant, and I wouldn’t be nearly so flippant today. But it was flippant in response to a reaction that I found — and still find — absolutely abhorrent and against the very concept of comics as a legitimate art.

    I might have felt differently, had I perceived the criticism of Sue Dibny’s as coming from an ethical point of view, concerned about gender depictions, rather than a reactionary one against super-hero comics being anything but dumb, innocent fun.

    Of course, Identity Crisis was currently underway, and we’re all free, in retrospect, to say that, while rape is legitimate subject matter, Identity Crisis presents itself as a realistic narrative but fails to present this rape with the requisite psychological realism. That is, of course, a totally acceptable point of view, one to which I’m sensitive and discussed at length with friends. I certainly think the depiction’s problematic in many ways, but I personally wouldn’t condemn it in the harshest terms, because I think (1) I don’t think it’s presented in a titillating manner, as is too often the case today; (2) while the psychological realism isn’t what I wish it was, at least there’s an attempt to provide this psychological realism; (3) while I wish Sue Dibny were granted more interior space or even her own segment (which would have improved the story immensely), and I agree that the focus is problematically on how the rape affects the male super-heroes, I reject the argument that any rape requires the victim to be the protagonist (which would reject a great deal of classic literature) or for her to somehow get revenge on the rapist (which sadly doesn’t reflect real life); and (4) historically, Identity Crisis was, for all its problems, on the right side — as an interrogation of super-hero dynamics and psychology, with great concern for realism and intelligent writing, at a time when the pendulum had already swayed violently in the other direction.

    Because of this last point, I’d argue that if one lumps Identity Crisis in with the gender problems of DC’s new 52, one is lumping in an ally with one’s enemies. Yes, Identity Crisis has gender problems. Yes, I elided that fact in that piece and wouldn’t do so today. But for all its problems, like the problems in the admittedly superior V for Vendetta or Watchmen, Identity Crisis was an attempt to take super-heroes seriously and explore social and psychological issues. It’s later than works like V for Vendetta or Watchmen, so it has less excuse for its gender problems — there was already a history there that Identity Crisis failed to completely understand. But it’s also true that this historical placement positions Identity Crisis as one of the (to date) final high-profile, mainstream gasps to even address such matters in super-hero comics, at a time when this was very counter-cultural, as was certainly seen in the reaction against the work. The alternative that the critics of Identity Crisis articulated was exactly what became the kind of dumb, unexamined “fun” that’s now filled with so many prone and half-dressed female characters. Ironically, had Identity Crisis won that argument, we might have proceeded to discuss gender issues seriously, including those of Identity Crisis itself. The battle wasn’t between casual rape or no casual rape; it was between a philosophy that sees discussion and presentation of serious issues taboo in super-hero comics and a problematic work that clearly and indisputably articulated itself (remember that epigram at the ending) as intended to spur more psychologically realistic stories and considerations. Given this, I stand — though not unproblematically or without reservation — with Identity Crisis on this matter.

    I don’t expect anyone else to necessarily agree, but this is why I stand by this old piece, warts and all. It’s not only a relic of an earlier writer but a relic of a very different time in comics. And whatever problems it may have, it came from a thoroughly ethical and pro-comics place.

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