This is the third of my series of posts regarding the original 6-issue series Marshal Law. The two previous two were Looking for a hero and Back from the Zone. This one’s a little shy on visual content, because it’d be gross. I want to talk about rape in 1986-1988 comics, which means a shocking lot of it.
Although I’m not combing back-issues to catalogue scene by scene, month by month, I remember it as a veritable storm of this event. Off-the-cuff I remember Watchmen, Marshal Law, Cinder & Ashe, Hellblazer, The Killing Joke, and Cerebus, and I’m betting there were a lot more. A number of us letterhacks commented across our pen-pal network, “What on earth is this about.”
Quick review of this content in Marshal Law: in the immediate back-story, Sleepman has been raping and murdering women who for various reasons dress up as the superheroine Celeste, and during the series he does it three more times. The targets are a “strippergram” employee, Lynn who’s dressed to parody Celeste for a student protest, and – what he’s been leading up to the whole time – Celeste herself. In the first, the chase and cornering the strippergram woman is presented, not the act. In the last, only the post-act scene is presented. The sequence with Lynn is detailed and does not pull away the view.
These months of “what, again?” led John Ostrander, Kim Yale, and I into many nights of beer-fueled dialogue about the depictions of rape and debating its story effects and justifiable use. These talks got intense, because all of us were fine with comics bringing in the worst that people could do – the question was not what was wrong to “put in there,” but toward what ends, and how honestly. I’ve already written about our specific discussion of The Killing Joke in Kim Yale., and how their views were eventually expressed in Suicide Squad‘s Oracle.
In later decades of classroom teaching, I discovered that my students knew little about rape litigation: requirement of the victim’s testimony, but no witness protection, and what precisely was found by the FBI report on women’s lying and not lying re: accusations of rape. [the report exploded the myth that women characteristically or specially lie in such accusations; it showed that some of such accusations are false in similar statistics to accusations for other crimes] This explained why the students were at sea in discussing I Spit On Your Grave and Thelma & Louise. “That woman is totally crazy – why doesn’t she just go to the police?” They had no idea. In the discussions I’m talking about, however, we were fully informed about the changes in courtroom policy, which at the time were barely a decade old and far from their current form.
They were also held in the context of a popular book series at the time by Andrew Vachss, then in the first flush of their success. Vachss’ novels are graphic, violent, weird, gritty, and openly polemical. His main character, Burke, is an off-the-grid ex-con who embodies the “dirty deeds done dirt cheap” ethic if it were practiced by Spider-Man. He sort of pretends he’d rather just live in semi-poverty with several aliases between him and everyone else, but he also sort of would prefer to be out reducing the world’s population of child-abusers one or two at a time. A lot of really bad things happen and have happened to most of the characters, either the continuing ones or the ones specific to a given novel, and the heroes do a lot of things which done to anyone else would be called bad. Of the first few books especially, Flood, Strega, Sacrifice, and Hard Candy were all wrapped up in our conversations, both about Grimajck and about the issues of childhood sexual abuse and rape. I can trace a lot of the material in The Spectre, Suicide Squad, the Deadshot mini-series, and others to their roots in these conversation (not just with me, that’s not what I’m saying – I mean, to the processing in general). A big part of this was getting unmentionable material and graphic depiction into fiction without even the hint of shame, being ugly, saying “so what” to anyone who says “but that’s ugly,” and being up-front with your own ethics and policy views. Looking back, I can see that this principle became a priority for John’s and Kim’s writing in comics throughout the next decade. I don’t think they really got credit for out-gritting the more famous names in this regard, often.
So, back to those comics. Doing a little parsing for thought: the act as crime, as story device (itself split into beginning vs. end), as story cycle (typically revenge, and for whom, survivor or survivor’s lover), and as marketable spectacle at that particular moment (and what sort). Only after that do I think we get anything out of discussion, whether gender commentary or policy issues or whatever.
I’m talking about on-page rape in most of the instances, so that’s an issue right there. “Do we have to see it?” That one goes both ways – either glossing over how bad it is if you don’t, or being exploitative or accidentally-glorifying if you do. I speculate that at least in these 80s books, the depictions are uniformly brutal, forms of torture really clearly motivated by hate and dominance. This comes from the effort from the 1970s and early 80s to remove all talk/implications of arousal and consensual sexuality from rape, to keep it from being a joke or “something she’ll get over.”
So the new issue is whether a brutality-and-torture scene becomes itself a form of porn, or rather, if one wants to provide a good story, it’s important to figure out when it does not. Watch a few of the standard actioners from Golan Globus (Cannon Films): an especially nasty blend of reveling in both the victim’s suffering and the perpetrator’s evil. I am sufficiently jaundiced to tag some of the scenes in the comics as similar to these films. This one crossed my line, for sure, although others did not. In my reading of the late-80s/early-90s Ostrander/Kim partner writing, they steered clear of these depictions to focus on emotions.
There’s also the issue of whether there’s a story device in there at all, and if there isn’t, then how is this not merely marketable spectacle, and if there is, then what is the device doing in this particular case? A good example is the disposable rape and/or murder victim, used merely for Kicking the Dog to show how bad bad the bad guy is, and to provide a blanket justification to watch revenge porn build and discharge. This is one of the few times I dust off “objectification” to see if it survives its couple of decades of over-use, because an object of sympathy is still an object. Double points if she’s a sex worker.
John and I disagreed about the scene in Cerebus #95, which he saw as played for laughs, and I saw as the grim intersection of two semi-toxic people, more along what Trina Robbins wrote at the time. (John and I agreed that it is a rape scene; that isn’t a debate among serious people) There’s a lot in play for that title – more even than others, Cerebus has a way of setting the reader’s expectations and framework depending on when you started reading it. I began in the middle of Church & State, in which Astoria, Sophia, Jaka, and Michelle are extremely powerful characters, whereas the “strong” men Cerebus and Weisshaupt are flailing around. Someone who came in earlier, when comedy was the baseline, could read it differently and I can’t necessarily criticize that.
When I suggested Marshal Law was a distinctive title for this topic, the first question Kim asked me was, “Is the texture in there?” Tone and gesture don’t translate in writing that. She meant the tactile horror, an emphasis on identifying with the raped person’s sensation rather than with the rapist. This is not easy! Unfortunately merely showing pain/helplessness doesn’t necessarily accomplish it. There’s a particular … well yeah, tactile horror that is usually missed. This conversation was exactly when I understood how important that is, and why I found the sequence in this title to be more effective and more … what’s the word, more moral than what I was seeing in most of the others. Even more important when every detail of Marshal Law wallows in transgression.
After the series was over, Kim noted that the story almost uniquely showcased the power of voice, that every major character could lay claim to protagonist status and his or her internal life was available to the reader. This was especially true for the targets of rape and murder: the strippergram girl, Lynn, and Celeste. In many of the other comics, the woman is depicted in agony and helplessness, full stop. No thoughts are involved, before or after, no sense of place in things. Here, in some way for each, and centrally to the whole story for Lynn, each woman’s voice and viewpoint is right there. It was especially strong because they are very different characters, and because each one is a point-of-discussion relative to the crime (I use that word on purpose here). Kim regarding the fate of Celeste – “Even she got her say,” meaning she was not a throwaway victim for the Sleepman to show how bad he was. The character is also unlikeable, in my reading, which to me strengthens this point – whether one likes the person who is raped (and murdered) isn’t relevant.
The spate of “what, again?”rape scenes in comics is yet another example of this weird time – relatively radical leftist writers from the UK in a centrist U.S. in which “centrist” meant a solid shift to the right, and a fairly swift shift to much more graphic content in, of all places, DC. The ensuing assortment of character reboots and launch- attempts and relevances and opinions resulted mainly in confusion among the U.S. writers (wait ’til my post about the new Question …), but of all of them, I think this six-issue run of Marshal Law best knew what it was doing.
This has turned out to be a four-part series – the final post will concern villainy, and as it happens, not all that much about the Sleepman.
Links: Andrew Vachss website, A Moment of Cerebus (Dave Sim guest post) (the part specifically in response to Brooks), Degrading the corpses: Marshal Law and its successors, Prosecution of gender-targeted crimes (Wikipedia)
Next: Today is for taboo III: Mess-Factor
Posted on August 13, 2015, in Politics dammit, The 80s me and tagged Andrew Vachss, Burke, Celeste, Cerebus, I Spit On Your Grave 1978 film, John Ostrander, kick the dog, Kim Yale, Lynn, Marshal Law, Mind Control Incident (MCI), rape, She-Beast, Sleepman, Thelma & Louise 1991 film, Virago. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.
One of the most difficult things for me in my work doing criminal defense work is handling rape cases. (Occasionally the topic emerges in my civil-side stuff as battery or sexual harassment.) I’ve been lucky enough to only have a few such cases.
As a self-identified feminist, the there are very serious problems with how our legal system handles rape cases. The first and most serious of these is the general nature of the crime, in which there are usually no other witnesses besides the alleged perpetrator and the alleged victim. The central material fact is lack of consent, and the government is required to prove that lack beyond a reasonable doubt, as it must for the elements of any other crime. Absent some absolutely spectacular extrinsic evidence–for example, a tape recorder or video camera that captures the victim consistently refusing to consent; or a third-party witness; or serious injuries consistent with violent struggle–it comes down to he-said/she-said, and it’s really hard for the prosecution to meet its burden.
Combine this difficulty with a deeply patriarchal, woman-hating, woman-blaming, slut-shaming culture, and it’s kind of amazing that any woman comes forward at all, especially since the outcome is so often an acquittal after really brutal cross-examination of the alleged victim. There are tons of crimes which often come down to he-said/she-said testimony: larceny, assault, what-have-you. But it’s this ferocious cultural stigma about rape and victim-blaming–WHICH IS STILL GOING ON–which makes this crime somewhat unique.
Speaking purely as a citizen, feminist, and a friend to several victims of rape (and a sexual assault survivor), I’m very sympathetic to calls to lighten the prosecutor’s burden of proof in such cases, or perhaps to give specialized jury instructions about how to evaluate a witness’s testimony. New York State, and several other states, has all kinds of really disturbing exceptions to the proof requirements, and even then third-degree rape (the classic date rape scenario) is the lowest kind of felony, with a sentence of 1.333 to 4 years. (Forcible rape, however, carries a penalty of 8.333 to 25 years, comparable to manslaughter.)
Of course, as a defense attorney who has a professional ethical obligation to press my presumably innocent client’s rights to the uttermost and serve his interests, such changes to the law are utterly anathema. If you’re going to lighten the prosecutorial burden for rape as a social policy response to our culture’s deep misogyny, what do we do about cases involving our culture’s deep racism? Or deep class-ism / wealth-bias? Women have certainly been victims throughout history, but so have many other groups. It seems to me that the policy response ought to be on the sentencing end if the defendant is found guilty–it’s how we handle every single other despicable crime, and that if we still have a social commitment to stamping out rape, that can be handled in improving education, awareness, self-defense programs, and publicly shaming anyone who recycles B.S. rape-victim-shaming. Alternately, we could begin chipping away at some of the weird defenses/exceptions to rape, which are a little bizarre.
The sad fact is that not all criminal cases are of equal merit. A murder is comparatively easy to prove: you’ve got, as they say, a weapon, a motive, an opportunity–and often enough circumstantial evidence to make out the requisite “malice aforethought” in the mind of the alleged killer. Same with, say, drug dealing: were there drugs, and as a deal going down? Boom, you’re done. Rape, sadly, is a very serious crime that typically occurs in private, often under circumstances where establishing lack of consent is quite tricky. Like certain kinds of financial services crimes, it’s inherently difficult to prove. That doesn’t mean, however, that the prosecutors should give up: any case where there’s probable cause to believe a crime’s been committed ought to be pursued, and given our culture’s historical indifference to rape, it’s damn well worth pursuing.
It’s been a long time since law school – I’ll have to do some research on the historical period you mentioned, Ron. Thanks for that.
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