The picture above is from the amazing book UNDERSTANDING COMICS by Scott McCloud. This book is the definitive book for anyone who wants to make comics. You can ignore all the others, but this one you cannot ignore because it explains the process by which we can enjoy comics and any other visual medium.
People who have followed my work, from the failed attempt at making comics to my current career as a novelist, will have noticed that there are two particular creators who I firmly dislike and will not hesitate to criticize; Mark Millar and Robert Kirkman. Back when I was making comics, people said I was jealous, after all they are probably the two most successful comic creators of the last decade. The problem I have with them is not their success, however, but their lack of decency in their work. Either they don’t understand how comics work, or they just don’t care about what kind of garbage they put out into the world. Don’t confuse the movies or television show based off their comics with the comics themselves; both men have written some of the most violent and disgusting scenes in comics that will never appear in those other mediums. We’ll get back to that in a second.
The comic industry is a strange thing; you can hate it and love it at the same time. I don’t expect comic stores to last much longer for example, and I’d love to see Diamond Distribution disappear altogether, but there are also a lot of really great retailers who won’t survive the evolution of the comic industry. So while I am out of it, I am also still in, you can never really get out of a relationship you’ve invested so much time and passion into. And while people say that I should just leave these guys alone, fighting with famous people only hurts your career, I feel that you need to draw a line somewhere. I draw the line at violent depictions of rape and murder.
No, I won’t be showing any pages from their books, sorry. I can make my case without using their own work as evidence.
People might think I am being hypocritical; after all there are books and movies that depict rape and violence that I am not offended by, in fact one of my favorite films is A Clockwork Orange, which is specifically about rape and violence. How can I judge one and not the other? Easy, because an apple is not an orange and comics work in a very different way from movies and novels.
In comics there is a thing called CLOSURE.
Despite the numerous similarities between film and comics, fundamental differences exist among the two mediums. Due to the various affordances and constraints of both mediums – film offers the advantage of sound and the illusion of real motion, while comics rely on static panels and the concept of closure to convey a story – the formats offer profoundly different viewing experiences to their audiences. In film, according to Eisner, “the reader is carried through the telling…the viewer is a spectator of artificial reality,” while in comics, “the reader is expected to participate…[and] must internally provide sound and action in support of the images”
As Will Eisner said, we create the reality that exists between the panels. When watching a rape scene in a film, you can turn away or you can display horror or outrage or even titillation, but in the end you are not the one doing the act, or acting in the scene. In a novel, how the author describes and sets the scene, the words they use, will influence how you feel about the scene. With a novel, the writers intentions are clear by the way the act is framed; in other words the true intention of the writer will be apparent to the reader and they can decide if the author is someone they want to continue supporting or they can put the book down and walk away forever. So the comic industry HAS to be held to a different standard because the entire process of reading comics and how it affects the reader is different.
Film encourages passive viewing, while comics demand literacy and an acquired ability to synthesize imagery, symbols, and text, as well as the cooperation and participation of the reader through the act of closure. Closure, the act of “mentally construct[ing] a continuous, unified reality” from the space between the panels, is the underlying “grammar” of comics; indeed, McCloud insists that “comics is closure”.
Therein lies the magic of comics. You the reader fill in the sounds, the atmosphere, the emotional context. You the reader decide what happens between the panels and in between the gutters of the page.
Closure in comics is the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (McCloud, pg. 63). In other words, closure is the act of mentally filling in the gaps of what we observe, thus allowing readers to comprehend the action and meaning between two seemingly unrelated panels. The reader observes two separate panels and mentally pieces together what happens in between them, even though there is no panel containing what actually happened in between. Closure in comics is why comics falls under the category of cool media: Comics requires the reader to be constantly interacting with visual aspects and filling in the gaps between them, whereas in film (a hot medium), two actions are connected visually by the medium itself, rather than mentally by the user, creating a seamless effect.
What I resent about the work of Millar and Kirkman is the fact they force the reader, usually a young or nearly middle aged white male, to become the rapist and the murderer. You can’t passively participate in a comic book, the nature of the sequential images force you to be engaged. It angers me that these two scripters have done this not once, but multiple times, on almost everything they work on. I know there are exceptions but I don’t care about that, what matters most is the work they put out that gets the most attention and most sales. Your career is not defined by the oddities, but by the majority. In other words, you can have a side garden but that doesn’t excuse you from reaping what you’ve sown in the field.
In psychology, desensitization is defined as the diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative or aversive stimulus after repeated exposure to it. Can you think of anything more horrible than desensitizing a fringe group of white males, month after month, until they no longer are shocked by these depictions of rape and violence? Who do you think, in their minds, are the victims? As Scott McCloud mentions in the panel above, the more cartoony an image is, the more people it could be described. So when a character is raped in a comic, it is not an actress, it is not a act, it is a fable created in the mind of the reader who chooses their own victim in their own minds without even knowing it.
In a patriarchal culture where women across the globe are almost always at risk at any time of sexual or physical violence, is there anything more vile and disgusting than creating interactive rape scenarios for your white male audience?
Kirkman even had the nerve to speak out against violence in comics, because apparently Marvel and DC aren’t allowed to do what he does in his books; I think this speaks volumes about him. He understands what he does is wrong but ultimately it is incredibly profitable for him. There is always going to be a market for their material and who knows, maybe over time they’ll learn how to use the elements of comics to make people feel something GOOD and POSITIVE one day. Yet it seems that Kirkman at least doesn’t even realize he is doing it. In a recent MTV interview about the rape of his character Invincible he had this to say:
“ It’s very unfortunate that rape has become a go-to thing in superhero comics.”
Dude, your the one who is DOING it! It sounds like he doesn’t have a problem with rape, but with the mainstream superhero comics using his methods to sell issues.
Kirkman also said this which I will leave you with:
“You can’t do storylines like this without treating them in the most respectful way possible. It is a very serious thing that’s happened to a character, and to treat it with any kind of ignorance, whether on purpose or completely by accident, is doing a disservice to the character, and the real events that you’re trying to portray.
I certainly read up on that a lot.”
I am sure you did, Robert. What you’ve failed to grasp is that your still part of the problem. You read stories about rape survivors? After 100 issues of Walking Dead? So I wonder, are you now exploiting the victims stories, the way you exploiting the violence? Because it seems clear to me you still don’t seem to get it.