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January 31, 2006

The following contains spoilers for Young Avengers Special #1 (Marvel).

Can anyone remember the last time a comics character actually reported a sexual assault to the authorities? I can’t. The protagonist in Dramacon didn’t. Sue Dibny never got the opportunity in Identity Crisis. And now it’s revealed that Kate Bishop can be added to Ragnell’s depressing list of characters who have been raped.

I had switched over to trades on this title, but a friend suggested I pick up the special issue because it tied into things that have been on my mind a lot lately. I’m glad I did, because it’s an extremely well-written comic filled with nuanced observations about Allan Heinberg’s cast of young heroes. Kate’s sequence is good, too, particularly for the textured back-and-forth between Kate and former super-heroine Jessica Jones.

But I’m still left wondering if, well-written or not, comics need any more unreported rapes. Obviously, sexual assaults go unreported all the time in real life, no matter how much we all wish they didn’t. In this particular fictional context, though, it seems to be the default setting, and that makes me extremely uneasy.

In the story, Kate is assaulted by a stranger in the park. In the aftermath, she talks to a therapist about the crime and she learns self-defense, but she doesn’t inform the police or tell her family. While the crime isn’t her only motivating factor for becoming a costumed heroine (she also has her late mother’s example of social conscience, doing what one can with the means they have available), it’s significant.

“You can do your best to make sure that what happened to you ever happens to anyone else.”

Except that she didn’t, really, because she never tried to get the man who raped her off the streets.

The friend who recommended the special to me had to talk me down a bit. She pointed out that the apparent disconnect isn’t really implausible, given an adolescent’s sometimes abstract and developing concept of justice, especially in a world full of vigilantism, where the role models are often disguised and apparently unaccountable. And she noted that the crime isn’t Kate’s sole driver for what she does; she was already inclined to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

And wow, do I hope I’m not sounding like one of those twits who think young readers can’t handle anything challenging or complex, but it bothers me that there are so many instances of this. Sexual assault can be portrayed well in any medium, and Heinberg arguably does well with it here. It’s specific to Kate, and it’s portrayed with sensitivity. Even if they aren’t the choices I want Kate to make, they’re believable as her choices.

But why do writers never think to show a victim going through the justice system? Reporting the crime, getting support from their family, testifying against their attacker, and seeing the criminal punished?

(It isn’t just comics. A couple of years ago on All My Children, the soap’s premiere heroine was brutally raped, then spent roughly a week’s worth of episodes meticulously destroying any physical evidence, then months concealing it from her friends and family. When she finally did report the crime, after a near nervous breakdown, her attacker went free because of lack of evidence. The victim had another mini-breakdown, killed him while in some kind of fugue state, and was eventually acquitted.)

And maybe Heinberg will follow up on what happened to Kate down the road, show her realizing that her quest for justice and safety will be incomplete until she gets justice for what happened to her. But the initial impression of the incident will stand in ways that make me uneasy, as I said.

I think it’s because of the fact that YAS #1 is such a good comic that this nags at me so much. Beyond being crafted well, it’s thematically necessary, showing what drives the Young Avengers to do what they do. It’s a special in the very best sense of the word, providing added insight and extra layers to the ongoing series. (The sequence with Wiccan was particularly lovely for me, with its underlying themes of gay kids finding what heroes they can, and one of the only recent portrayals of the Scarlet Witch that doesn’t make me livid.)

But can’t we have one portrayal of rape in comics where the victim gets direct, conventional justice for what happened to them? Does it always have to be this way?

(Edited because verbs are our friends.)