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Wednesday, August 21, 2013


To believe that literature should mirror a desired form of experience, an "ought" rather than an "is," is Werthamism in its most obtuse manifestation.-- THE MYSTERY OF MASTERY PT. 4.

I've avoided the work of Mark Millar since my encounter with the fatuity of his graphic novel WANTED, but I can't help but be drawn into the firestorm of argumentation birthed by this remark from a New Republic essay about his influence:

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don't really think it matters. It's the same as, like, a decapitation. It's just a horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy.”

Up to now my only response to Millar's remark was on this ROBOT 6 post, wherein writer Corey Blake provides his take on the failure of the Big Two's efforts to expand their demographic:

And all of it, those remarks and the repeated embarrassments and failures at making comics for a different demographic, to me it has the subtext of “protect my superheroes.” As if making some superhero comics that might opt to not casually use rape as a villain’s character trait will take away the superheroes I grew up with.

Blake provides no justification for this "subtext," so I attempted-- without success-- to provide a different attitude toward the use of ultraviolence like Millar's that was not at all predicated on the idea of saving one's superheroes:

I for one don’t defend the presence of ultraviolence (whether in the context of rape or in other contexts) because I’m defending just “my” superheroes. I defend it on the same principle I defend both the Marquis deSade and Mickey Spillane, among others. I won’t defend Millar’s use of ultraviolence, because it sucks. But there are people who do it well, and some of them work outside Marvel and DC.  The undergrounds used to be far more physically transgressive than the mainstream. Maybe the modern inheritors of that tradition have got a little too “artsy” for their own good (if one defines “good” in terms of gaining publicity from transgressing boundaries).

Blake's confused commentary falls into one of two categories of responses to problems regarding the Humean dichotomy of "ought" and "is." This category, "Response #1," is one in which the subject merely ignores the fact of an existing situation-- what Hume calls an "is"-- in order to promote his vision of how things should be, his "ought."

Little as I like to defend Millar, there can be no doubt that rape *can* be used by a fiction-writer as a "horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy." Blake puts Millar's factual statement-- that rape can be used for a given narrative function-- in an unjustifiable context, as part of his (Blake's) suggeston that all such "rear-guard" (my word) statements by Millar and others somehow prove  that many Big Two creators are seeking to protect the "superheroes [they] grew up with."  And it's not just any superheroes, it seems, but a particular violent-- and violative-- phylum of superheroes that is presumably oriented only upon older readers.  I *think* Blake is saying that such ultraviolent superheroes are the type which creators like Millar and McFarlane experienced in their youth, but the point is unclear. To be fair, Millar in the New Republic article does indeed speak of being attracted to the "outrageous" quality of certain comics from his youth.

The second category, "Response #2," is more practical in that it tends to admit the existence of the "is" but to insist that it should be transformed into an "ought."  This response appears in the comments-section of this Heidi McDonald BEAT post, from commenter Mariah Heuhner, who takes interviewee John Romita Jr to task for having said that a certain scene in KICK ASS 2 was not a "rape scene:"

My issue with the answers here for the scene in Kick Ass is that it’s a quite a bit of a cop out to act like the direct implication of that scene, which is clearly that rape is about to happen, is automatically less or not problematic because the actual rape wasn’t shown explicitly. This is true, but we know it’s going to and it’s still being used, quite obviously, to show the villains are bad and not much else.

So Heuhner essentially agrees with Millar; rape can be used to serve this bare function. However, she evaluates the KICK ASS scene as a "lazy way to make someone evil," which is characteristic of "Response #2," which is to say, "Yes, this is the current status of the 'is' in question, but it 'ought' to be otherwise."  I have not read KICK ASS 2, or the earlier GN, though I did see the film adaptation of the latter.  I suspect I would agree with Heuhner in her evaluation of Millar's use of a rape-scene for "shock value."

I agree somewhat less with the statement she makes when she compares KICK ASS 2's use of rape with that of the Steig Larssen novel THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO:

Further, the example of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo is interesting because yes, that scene is much more explicit in the book and film. But. It’s also not used merely to shock, it deeply informs Lisbeth’s character, but unlike a lot of rape scenes…does not define her and everything she is. Nor does it function to motivate a male character or just to establish her rapist as evil. Especially in the context of the series, it’s about much more than that, about entrenched misogyny, about a system that is deeply messed up, about rape culture, and about how Lisbeth’s navigates the world and deals with the things that happen to her.

I have absolutely no problem with Heuhner saying that she finds the latter use of rape to be more to her tastes.  However, though I have thus far found Mark Millar's work to be both lazy and clumsy, there are ways to use "shock value" correctly; ways that have nothing to do with examining "entrenched misogyny."  It's true that many creators use male-over-female rape-- which is of course only one possible permutation of that assaultive phenomenon-- as a device to motivate a hero, though there's no intrinsic reason that it can only be a male hero who is so motivated.  But as I've mentioned in other essays, even "shock value" can be used to establish basic moral values.  If Batman rescues a lone woman from a gang about to rape her, and beats the gang into putty, is this scenario ONLY about making Batman look heroic, as many would claim?  I can't speak for anyone else, but for me such scenes validate a moral imperative: that people who violate others should be punished.  I know that there is no Batman able to visit such punishments, but the scene works as a cathartic fantasy.  Structurally it's no different if it's Catwoman who comes to the victim's rescue, as one version of the character does in 1992's BATMAN RETURNS, though I can understand why a female reader *might* prefer the latter scenario as being more empowering.

On a related note, here's a rather famous excerpt from a scenario in which a male character avenges the quasi-sexual abuse-- though not one of actual rape-- of a female character by another male.  Is this scene nothing more than "shock value" alone, as Millar's may be?  Or does the quasi-rape of Mina Murray "define her and everything she is?"  I would say no to both rhetorical questions, but other readers' mileage may vary.

In summation, I remain suspicious of any intellectualized attempts to view a situation purely in politicized terms, no matter how well expressed.

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