Blogs > Cliopatria > Reality and the Imagination in Cartoon Fiction and Non-Fiction

Aug 17, 2004 2:05 pm

Reality and the Imagination in Cartoon Fiction and Non-Fiction

Either there is or there ought to be a conversation going on among Abu Aardvark, Tim Burke, Jason Craft, and Tim O'Neill about fiction and non-fiction in cartooning. Burke is bothered by the introduction of rape in DC Comics's cartoon series, Identity Crisis. O'Neill makes the case that Chester Brown's portrayal of Louis Riel as an unknown cipher in his cartoon biography is a positive thing, inviting readers to explore multiple interpretations of his character.

Are these additional examples of fiction and non-fiction reaching out to or past each other? Rapes have occurred from time immemorial [ed: do you know that or do you just believe that, like some people believe that heterosexual monogamous marriage dates unchanged from Adam and Eve?], but I can't recall them occurring earlier in cartoons. Must our fantasy texts include that reality, as some people's fantasy apparently does? On the other hand, do we now find virtue in flat portrayals of historical characters because they invite readers to find whatever they please in a text?

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Jonathan Dresner - 8/17/2004

I would say that the representation of rape in superhero comics is rather overdue: since just about the beginning, they have traded in implied rape, or the threat of rape, every time an 'innocent heroine' was held captive by the 'bad guy'. This is a trope that goes well beyond sequential art (I have a copy of McCloud's DESTROY! which is a great treasure of mine) into a lot of the early adventure literature and movies.

And one form of crime which the superheroes never did deal with was violence against women. Even when female superheroes became prominent, I've never seen it dealt with substantially, either as a systemic issue or as a 'major crime' to which bad guys are prone. The Dark Knight series and later Batmans are an exception, to some extent, particularly in their dealing with child abuse.

I'm not saying, of course, that I want to see it become common, or graphically represented (anyone remember the 1990s Japanese manga "Rapeman" whose hero brought unruly women back in line via sexual assault? Yikes.) but there's something to be said for opening it up as a line of inquiry at a time when graphic art is dealing with real and interesting and difficult issues.

Timothy James Burke - 8/17/2004

If we're just talking about comics, or as Scott McCloud likes to call 'em, "sequential art", the representation of both rape and sexual activities are as old as the form itself. Pick your medium, and I promise that the first thing that was done with it when people invented it was to make pornography, and when men in particular make pornography, they sometimes make images of rape or sexual violence (stressing that I do not think pornography is by definition a form of sexual violence, usually it's not, imho).

It's just that this particular comic book takes characters from a mainstream superhero-genre comic mythos--a genre which is both more recent and more particular than comics or cartoons as a whole--and introduces some tropes from contemporary mystery-thriller writing. As Jason Craft observes, the superhero-comic genre has a long history of capaciously absorbing many other genres and forms, so in that respect, this is nothing especially new either.

This is really about me not wanting someone to add a particular twist to what I freely admit is a kind of cultural comfort food for me. I like superhero comics, and I even like them to be a bit original or inventive or different--but not too much, maybe. Some time ago, it became pretty conventional to start having villains and antagonists in mainstream superhero comics kill tens or hundreds or thousands of people, for example. One writer did it once, and it seemed an amazing line to cross, that had a lot of impact in story-telling. Then it became a genre convention, and boring--much as any repeated story element does in serial drama. You lose the story-telling punch you might get with an event like that, and it leads to one-upmanship. Now a comic-book bad guy has to pretty much destroy an entire city in order for a writer to establish his badness, and even that's becoming routine in the mainstream comics.

So that's my fear about adding rape to the list of things that bad guys dressed in spandex do to good guys dressed in spandex. Once, it's got a representational punch to it, I suppose--it certainly works to ratchet up the tension in the particular story that Jason and I are talking about. Twice, thrice, it becomes a routinized narrative element that really would foul the nest as far as I'm concerned.

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