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Saturday, January 13, 2007

IDing Identity Crisis

I really wish feminist critics of superhero comics, many of whom I admire and respect greatly, would stop describing Identity Crisis as a comic book "about rape".

I'm not saying that the rape of Sue Dibny wasn't a very significant storytelling decision that revealed a lot about the way rape, maturity, and the roles of women (particularly significant others) are viewed by the editorial staff of DC Comics.

I'm not saying that the rape isn't the plot point that is most memorable about the comic. I'm not saying that it isn't extremely annoying that it's being used essentially to give a half-assed lame villain some evil credibility.

But I get a little annoyed by all the descriptions of "Identity Crisis" as a comic about rape (and in particular, the implication that the rape made the comic sell), because it isn't. That's not the selling point of the comic.

Identity Crisis was about a murder. It was a whodunnit. I'm not saying it was a particularly skilled "whodunnit", but that was the selling point of the comic. "Who killed Sue Dibny?" was the draw. Not "Watch Sue Dibny get raped".

Beyond that, Identity Crisis was about the grey area between good and evil, and the lines that good people can cross when they get pushed too far. And yes, the rape was a particular motivating tool here. It is something visceral, scary and human (as opposed to say, the notion of being disintegrated by a death ray), a trigger that makes the heroes' actions immediately comprehensible to the average person, while still not excusing it.

But the story was about what came afterwards. What the heroes did, not the act itself. And it's honestly debatable as to the real significance of the rape in that sense, as it was established that the heroes had been inching toward that line even before then. The rape was the straw that broke the camel's back.

I was never particularly bothered by the use of rape here, but I do sympathize with those who were. Which is another reason I get annoyed at the blanket summary of "Identity Crisis is about rape" hogwash.

Because the reason that a lot of the readers found it so offensive WAS that the rape was secondary. We never got the incident from Sue's own perspective. We never really got a glimpse of its true effect on her. We've never seen her recovery and her strength to move past this horrible experience as she so obviously had done off panel. She never got to face her attacker or have any say in his fate. The attention was solely on the reactions of the hero characters around her.

And it was a complete red-herring anyway! As it turns out, the rape had nothing to do with the murder, and aside from the brief horrified reaction from youngsters like Kyle and Wally at their colleagues' actions and some brooding from Batman, it vanished from the story.

The rape was ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of the storyline, as just a place-holding "last straw" to set the heroes moving in a direction that they weren't supposed to go.

It's the fact that Identity Crisis was NOT about the rape that made the inclusion so damned offensive.

And ultimately I get annoyed by that argument, because I am over-sensitive. You see, I liked Identity Crisis. It had its flaws. There were certain parts that irritated me and that I wished had been done differently. But in the end, I liked it. And the fact that I liked it and was not (and am not) terribly offended by the use of rape as a minor plot point was actually used to imply that I didn't comprehend the seriousness of rape.

I admit, I doubt those who've made the "Identity Crisis is about rape" statements ever meant to give that sort of impression. As I said, I'm over-sensitive. But I do think such blanket statements do a disservice to people who did find something to enjoy about the series. I didn't enjoy the story or buy the comic because of the rape, even if it didn't particularly bother me either (now the pregnancy test did, but that's a rant for another occasion) but that sort of statement would seem to imply otherwise.

It's just a bit irritating.


  • At January 13, 2007 9:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    But I do think such blanket statements do a disservice to people who did find something to enjoy about the series.

    They also do a disservice to people who want to genuinely critique the book, I think. It's the kind of blanket statement that inspires a knee-jerk reaction, one of either "Nuh-uh!" or "Screw you," neither of which are good for discourse.

    Blanket statements like that, not just ones about "rape books" but all statements like that, are, in my mind at least, basically ad hominem attacks against the books. Ad (latin for books) attacks.

  • At January 13, 2007 9:41 AM, Blogger Zaratustra said…

    Oh, it was about a rape. It was about Brad Meltzer raping about twenty years of comic history with every sharp object he had available.

  • At January 13, 2007 10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I really liked Identity Crisis, too. It's what brought me back to comics. And, at the risk of skating around something really, really personal, I know first hand the seriousness of rape. And, I'm not talking about I know somebody who's been raped.

  • At January 13, 2007 10:00 AM, Blogger Elayne said…

    And see, I was going to say it was about rape, because it was about the repurcussions of how Zatanna and the JLA violated Dr. Light after he raped Sue.

  • At January 13, 2007 12:41 PM, Blogger Biggie said…

    (Since it's delurking week, I might as well post twice)

    At the risk of hurting my standing in the "comic book intelligensia coolness" rankings, I'll admit to enjoying Identity Crisis (at least until the wheels fell off in issue 7). And like you, I never got the impression that the comic was about rape. It was a murder mystery and a study in morality. I did think it was unfortunate that the rape was used as a plot point, and that the ramifications of the act weren't dealt with within the story. I think it would be interesting to see a series that showed the after effects of superheroes and their loved ones after a villian attack, but Identity Crisis wasn't that series. There was too much other stuff going on to show how Sue dealt with her rape or how it affected Ralph. I can wholly understand why that would bother some readers, but it wasn't enough to make me personally dislike the story.

  • At January 13, 2007 5:03 PM, Blogger Alix said…

    (Obligatory Disclaimer: I've yet to get around to reading Identity Crisis.)

    I think a large part of the problem is that it's stompin'-ants easy to take issue with any portrayal of rape. This is not to say that there aren't legitimate complaints about the use of rape as a plot device here (or anywhere), or that the handling here was good. (See above disclaimer...) But it seems like it's too easy to take issue with something about any rape portrayal.

    I ran across a post (on one of the bajillion blogs I read...) a while back, where the blogger was insisting that all rapes had to be told from the perspectives of the victims, and that all victims of rape in fiction had to be the ones to defeat their rapists, and that only then is rape acceptable. First, I doubt that - if nothing else, people will still be complaining about the frequency of rape in fiction, or how adding rape to so-and-so's backstory destroys her character. Second, why? It would be nice to see more stories like that, and superhero comics especially seem like they'd be a great vehicle for that kind of a story, but that kind of restriction just seems ... well ... stupid.

    Sorry; got off on a bit of a rant there, didn't I? I just meant to basically say that you make a good point in this post, and that rape in fiction/comics seems to be one of those things that some people just cannot seem to not find some fault with.

    (Is waiting for someone to misunderstand my point... *looks sheepishly paranoid*)

  • At January 13, 2007 5:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Okay, because I feel like I skated around my last comment, I expanded upon it at my blog at this entry:

  • At January 14, 2007 12:15 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    david: I find them so frustrating. I can understand making that statement in the course of an analytical review, but when it's just used to makes it really hard to discuss what worked and didn't about the book

    zara: Thank you for not only ignoring the point I was trying to make, but also for providing a fine example of trivializing a serious subject via disappointed fan-entitlement.

    loren: I'm glad someone else actually enjoyed it. Sometimes I think I'm a bad fangirl, because I seem to be one of the few people who did.

    And thanks for linking me to your blog entry. I really appreciated reading it.

    elayne: I admit, I probably didn't express myself correctly. I can definitely understand your argument, even if my take is a bit different. My problem, I guess, isn't with the argument itself so much as when it seems to be focused only on Sue's event, using it to dismiss the entire series.

    That gets very frustrating for me.

    biggie: Hi! Glad to meet you!

    You've pretty much summarized my entire opinion of the series very nicely! (Though in my case, it would also need some grumbling about the JLA's idiotic fighting tactics and a complete misrepresentation of Kyle Rayner's abilities). :-) Thanks!

    I've also never had comic book intelligesia coolness, though. I like the word intelligensia. :-)

    alexandria: *nod* Rape is a difficult subject to handle well, and it's a painful subject for many people no matter how well it's represented.

    I do think we tend to forget though that fiction doesn't have to be fair or end happily, which sometimes means that the bad guys win and the victims don't get their fair shake.

    That said, I really want Light to get his ass kicked. Hard. And for good.

  • At January 14, 2007 7:44 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    My personal belief is that they used rape as a quick and easy way to explain why the heroes would do something extreme and unheroic. It was an extreme act that forced the heroes to react in an extreme manner. :O

    I personally didn't CARE for the rape , but I dun care for murder in my stories either :\ However, you are right that ID is NOT about rape, and rape is but a plot device.

    I think tho that it shows how "women as victims" is such an easy device for writers to use to get fans rly riled and cheering for the heroes or hating the villains. But I dun think that Meltzer hates women or has rape/snuff fantasies. :o

    Neways, I just wanted to say that I think it's silly that you liking the story would mean that you clearly like rape or the concept of rape. :| And I agree with you that it's not ALL about rape. :)

  • At January 14, 2007 12:19 PM, Blogger Zaratustra said…

    Sorry :(

  • At January 14, 2007 12:33 PM, Blogger Tom Foss said…

    When all the backlash against IC came down, and consequently the complaints about "mature" themes and stories in mainstream comics, I clumsily tried to defend the story. Every time I thought about rape as the inciting incident, I thought about Law & Order: SVU, one of my favorite shows, where a good 75% of the episodes are about rape. I enjoy that series, where a complex issue like rape can be dealt with in serious and interesting ways, why can't comics do the same?

    I'm not sure I knew where I was going with that comparison then, but I do know now. On SVU, we have a collection of professional police officers and prosecutors who are trained to deal with rape, molestation, and homicide on a daily basis. Despite this training, despite all their experience, they often face challenges to their integrity and to their ability to maintain a professional distance. This is when dealing with strangers; rarely are the families of the officers involved in their cases, and when they are, emotions run hot.

    So, when you have superheroes who aren't trained to deal mentally with these situations, and who encounter the rape of one of their family members, the desire for retribution, the blurring of the lines of right and wrong, and the willingness to compromise their professional integrity are all understandable. I think, all things considered, the heroes' reaction to the rape was fairly natural.

    Anyway, ultimately, I think Identity Crisis was a story about violation, protection, and retribution, and how morality suffers in the face of those decisions. The heroes' lives were violated by the body-swapping villains, so to protect themselves, they violated the villains' minds. Dr. Light violated their base's defenses and Sue Dibny, and they exacted retribution on him, then mindwiped Batman to protect themselves. And the cycle of violation and retribution continues unabated until broken by the nonsensical reveal of Sue's murderer.

    And that's where the story really fell apart for me. Not just the fact that Jean knows everyone's identities, but the fact that her crime doesn't fit the rest of the story, and that's something that shouldn't happen in a good mystery.

    Overall, I did enjoy Identity Crisis. It wasn't a great story, by any means, but it was a good explanation of what might happen if superheroes faced that sort of morality-compromising trauma.

  • At January 14, 2007 1:16 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    ami: Thanks for the support. :-)

    zara: :-) 'Sokay. I was tetchy.

    tom: I tend to think about Law and Order as well. Particularly with the lack of victim perspective. It can be a good story regardless of the direction it comes from.

    I didn't really like Jean as a murderer because while it fits in with the "what makes people cross the line" element of the theme, it really didn't fit everything else.

    And considering all the attention spent on the rape and subsequent actions, I'd have really liked the murder to tie into that.

  • At January 14, 2007 2:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    So uhhhh...

    I've sold Identity crisis more on the fight between the league and Deathstroke then anything else.


  • At January 17, 2007 9:24 AM, Blogger Amy Reads said…

    Hi Kali,
    I agree with you completely. The book is very much a whodunnit, and a smart one at that. I adore Identity Crisis (and we also all know how much This Humble Author adores Mr. Meltzer), and think that the true smartness of the story lies in the periphery of it. It's not a story about Sue and Ralph as much as it is a story about those outside of the "cool kids group," i.e. those who aren't In The Know.

    There is a rape in the book, yes, but unfortunately, rape is a reality in our world. Mr. Meltzer wrote a rape, and then wrote the aftermath, in which the husband and wife moved on with their lives, happy and whole. We don't often see development in tragedy, and I thank Mr. Meltzer for that.

  • At January 17, 2007 2:48 PM, Blogger Bill D. said…

    Kalinara, you are not a bad fangirl for liking this story. And bear in mind this is coming from someone who hate, hate, HATED this book. Personally, I thought it was needlessly grim, over-the-top in its equating shock value with "mature storytelling," and definitely not the sort of story I want to see told with these particular characters (I'm not saying you can't tell these sorts of stories in comics, but there are right venues and wrong venues, you know?). But everyone's mileage varies.

    My point here - and I do have one - is that you shouldn't feel any shame for liking this story, or any other story that interests you in some way. If anything, I might be a little jealous that you found something of merit in here when I did not.

  • At January 18, 2007 6:44 PM, Blogger ComicBookGoddess said…

    I agree with you on the grade-A 100%, dear.



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