Let Them Bleed Now (The Last War in Albion Part 58: Rape)

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This is the eighth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. The first volume is available in the US here, and the UK here. The second is available in the US here and the UKhere. Finding volume 3-6 are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.


Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore's third arc on Swamp Thing featured a tremendously disturbing scene in which it is revealed that Abby has been being raped by her dead uncle who has taken over her husband's body. This is one of several instances of rape within Moore's work, a point that has been controversial in the past, and which Moore has addressed at length.

"These precious things; let them bleed now. Let them wash away. These precious things; let them break their hold on me. " -Tori Amos, "Precious Things"

Figure 427: The issue ends with Black Canary
saying, "liberated ladies aren't supposed
to say things like this, Batman, but you
know what? You're my hero!" as she kisses
him. (Written by Michael Fleischer, art by
Dick Giordano and Terry Austin, from The
Brave and the Bold
 #166, 1980)
Moore, after all, had already criticized the depiction of sexual violence in comics back in his “Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies” essay in The Daredevils, where he blasted the tendency for comics to “start dishing up evil, sordid little adult fantasies,” particularly highlighting the use of bondage. In that essay, Moore recalls “a particularly charming Michael Fleischer story that appeared in DC’s Brave and Bold [sic] during which the usually quite capable Black Canary spent almost the entire issue tied to a chair wearing only her underwear, while the villain of the piece delivered such memorable and sensitive dialogue as ‘you squirm so prettily, my dear.’” In the face of the use of sexual violence as a form of overt entertainment in which the reader is meant to take the same sort of pleasure as the sadist who is tying up nearly naked women, Moore’s decision to use rape to produce one of the single most horrific moments in his entire Swamp Thing run can, for all its genuine flaws, still reasonably be seen as a form of progress. 

The bigger problem, and one that hangs over every individual instance of Moore writing about rape without quite connecting directly with any of them, is that Moore’s commercial success would eventually lead to a wave of imitators who embraced his more explicit style while discarding trifling things like the underlying commitment to feminism that led Moore to want to depict rape as a serious and genuine object of horror. The result is a dreadful litany of comics that are more in line with Michael Fleischer’s Black Canary story than Moore’s horror tale, only without the stopping short of actually depicting the rape on-panel. Rape, in other words, simultaneously became permitted in comics and, more disturbingly, trivialized. Given this future, Moore’s failure to engage meaningfully with the consequences of Abby’s rape can reasonably be criticized as contributing to this tendency. Beyond that, the nature of the horror Moore employs can reasonably be accused of moving the attention away from the horror of the sexual violence. The swarms of insects, the zombies, and the fact that the double page spread is the point in the narrative where it finally becomes clear that the story features a major character return are all rather more loudly trumpeted than the rape, and are the issues that the remainder of the storyline opts to focus in. The result is that the rape serves as a means of emphasizing another terror, as opposed to Moore’s stated goal of actually being depicted as a horrific thing in its own right. Put another way, there’s only so serious your depiction of zombie incest rape can be. 

Figure 428: The repeated motif of chittering
insects prevents "Love and Death" from ever
becoming erotic. (Written by Alan Moore, art
by Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from
Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, 1984)
But for all of this, the truth is that “Love and Death” is still a marked improvement for a comics industry in which stories like Fleischer’s were and are the norm. “Love and Death” is a twenty-three page meditation on traumatic experience. However much it may push rape to the margins of the story, it is still a story that is overwhelmingly concerned with depicting Abby’s experience as being unfathomably awful. While the nature of paraphilia is such that it is surely inaccurate to declare that nobody has ever been sexually aroused by the “say uncle” double page spread, it’s clear that Moore, Bissette, and Totleben are not only making no effort to depict Abby’s ordeal as sexy, they are actively trying to make it appalling and upsetting. And while there are flaws, many of the criticisms that can be leveled against this specific depiction of rape are ones Moore will address, to varying degrees of success, over the remainder of his career, and, indeed, over the remainder of his Swamp Thing run. Regardless of them, “Love and Death” is at least a clear and sincere attempt at serious engagement with sexual violence as an issue, in keeping with Moore’s defense that “these are important issues, to which I have been visibly turning my attentions for the past three or four decades” and that “I have given these matters a certain amount of thought during that time.” Indeed, given that “Love and Death” marks the first time that Moore depicts an actual rape instead of an attempted one, it must be recognized that Moore’s decades of thought on the subject are, at this point, in their early stages and that some development and maturing of his approach is to be expected.

Figure 429: Rape as depicted in a 1954
EC story. (Written by Carl Wessler, art by
Reed Crandall, from Shock SuspenStories #16)
It is also worth noting that explicitness and seriousness are in no way correlated. Indeed, in his lengthy defense of his use of rape as a theme Moore approvingly cites a 1954 story published by EC Comics that dealt with rape “without referring to the actual crime except by implication.” This story, “A Kind of Justice,” saw print in Shock SuspenStories #16, and is one of the most shockingly and disturbingly intense stories that EC Comics ever produced. It opens with a girl named Shirley, lying on the floor of a dilapidated shack crying as a shadowy figure stands over her saying, “you tell anybody… and I’ll kill you!” The caption explains around what happened: “She’d been waiting, alone… and the next moment she’d not been alone. He’d appeared out of the darkness and she’d seen the look on his face. He’d forced her to the old shack by the quarry. She’d pleaded and screamed. And now it was over. But it would never be over for her… because she’d never forget…” Shirley gets up, traumatized, and staggers home, where her mother realizes what’s happened, but Shirley, terrified by her rapist’s threat, refuses to say who did it. 

Figure 430: The savagely bitter ending to "A Kind of
Justice," in which it's revealed that Shirley's rapist was
the sheriff who had been overseeing the investigation,
and who let an innocent man die to protect himself.
(Written by Carl Wessler, art by Reed Crandall, from
Shock SuspenStories #16, 1954)
For all that it cannot name what happened to Shirley, the story hammers home the awful brutality of it. Shirley avoids taking the bus home, hiding behind a tree because “she was too ashamed for people to see her,” and when she refuses to say who did it her father shouts, “who are you trying to protect? I’ll find out if I have to beat it out of you!” And so her father drags her to the police, where the story’s one seemingly decent character, Sheriff Judson, interviews her. Again she doesn’t answer, and so Judson and his deputy go through town looking for suspects, finally arresting a man from out of town sitting in an all night diner. With little to no pretext, they arrest the man, which leads to Shirley’s father bringing an angry mob to the police station. After a good cop/bad cop routine to elicit a confession from the man, Judson proceeds to tell the mob that he’s confessed, then offers to bring Shirley, who’s father has dragged her to the police station to make an identification, home so she doesn’t have to watch what happens. The mob beats the man to death in his cell while he screams about how Judson promised to protect him. Finally, the scene cuts to Judson driving Shirley home, where he tells her, “you were smart not to talk, Shirley! Remember! You tell anybody… and I’ll kill you!” 

Figure 431: William Gaines was famously
forced to defend this cover in front of
the US Senate.
The effect is brutally, cruelly effective, highlighting the awful and corrupt ways in which power can work. It is, to be sure, an incendiary story, but it is precisely that incendiary nature that has over time secured the reputation of EC Comics as one of the most daring and important comics publishers of its era. Indeed, Moore’s extended defense of his depiction of rape is in many ways simply a detailed expansion of the argument William Gaines made to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency the same month that “A Kind of Justice” came out. In this hearing Senator Estes Kefauver displayed the cover of that month’s Crime SuspenStories, saying that “this seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that’s in good taste?” Gaines’s memorable response was emphatic: “Yes sir, I do - for the cover of a horror comic.” In other words, depictions of disturbing and upsetting material are the point of horror comics. Rape included, not just for Moore, but for Gaines. 

Unfortunately for Gaines, his defense fell on unsympathetic ears. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the way in which EC’s output, at its best, angrily skewered those in power. For all that the nominal focus of the Senate hearing was on the violence in comics, the larger issue was a moral panic whipped up by psychologist Frederic Wertham, whose recent book Seduction of the Innocent condemned the American comics industry, accusing its depictions of crime and violence of leading children into juvenile delinquency on the grounds that many of the children he encountered as a psychiatrist read comics. Wertham’s book is infamous for many of its claims, particularly for his argument for the existence of a homoerotic subtext to the relationship between Batman and Robin, which he described as “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” And yet for all that Wertham’s censorious instincts are rightly mocked, the truth is that many (though certainly not all) of his actual readings were well-grounded. The popular comics of the early 1950s were often violent, lurid, and anti-authoritarian, and, truth be told, there is some pretty massive homoerotic subtext to Batman and Robin. The biggest problem with Wertham was not that he was wrong about what was in the comics - it’s that he didn’t like lurid anti-authoritarian stories. 

Figure 432: For decades, this seal guaranteed
readers that the comic that bore its mark would
be a toothless and watered down snoozefest
that would under no circumstances challenge
existing social authority.
Certainly this is borne out by the eventual resolution of Werthan and Kefauver’s crusade. As is usually the case with these things in the United States, since the First Amendment clearly protects publishers’ rights to publish the material in question, the industries in question instead agree to self-censor to avoid bad publicity. In this case the major publishers formed a trade organization that appointed Judge Charles Murphy to create a code of conduct for the comics industry. This became the Comics Code Authority, which became de facto law due to the near-universal agreement of distributors to refuse to carry any comics not bearing the seal noting that a comic was approved by the Authority. Murphy’s criteria for the Code was, in practice, an attempt to crack down on exactly the sort of stuff that EC was doing. Crime and horror comics - which is to say the bulk of EC’s output - were consciously targeted. Zombies, vampires, ghouls, and werewolves were all explicitly forbidden, and large swaths of the Code seeming as if written to forbid “A Kind of Justice” specifically. Among the rules that “A Kind of Justice” would have broken were: “Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice,” “policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority,” “in every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds,” “illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed,” “seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested,” and “sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.” It is clear here that the point is not merely to prevent the depiction of sex and violence, but rather to demand that comics only be used as tools to promote established order and the status quo. The Code’s true purpose is made explicit in the declaration that established authority must always be presented positively.

Figure 433: Charles Murphy, the first of many censors
to run the Comics Code Authority, was not deterred
by the fact that this image violated no rules of the Code
and demanded the astronaut be redrawn as a white man.
(Written by Al Feldstein, art by Joe Orlando, from Incredible
Science Fiction #33
, 1955, reprinted from Weird Fantasy #18
1953)
In practice, the letter of the law was incidental. Under Murphy the Code operated with breathtaking and idiosyncratic license that, at least until the company was forced to abandon publishing comics in 1955, was mostly used to target EC specifically. Indeed, Murphy famously objected to a story published in EC’s Incredible Science Fiction #33, reprinted from a 1953 issue of Weird Fantasy. The comic is a parable about racism, with an astronaut inspecting a planet populated by robots to see if it’s ready to join the Galactic Republic, only to conclude that it is not because of the systematic discrimination of blue robots on the part of the orange robots. The astronaut concludes that it is not, and departs the planet, with the final panel revealing that the astronaut is black. Despite not violating any of the Code’s stated rules, Murphy demanded the astronaut be recoloured as white, a demand Gaines flatly refused, although this was a pyrrhic victory at best given that Incredible Science Fiction #33 was the last comic EC published. (They only managed to continue publishing Mad by refashioning it into a magazine, which put it beyond the regulatory reach of the Code.) 

Figure 434: As of issue #31, Saga
of the Swamp Thing
 was renamed
as simply Swamp Thing, and, instead
of bearing the Comics Code symbol,
proclaimed itself to contain "Sophisticated
Suspense."
Over time the Code loosened slightly, with some of its more absurd restrictions being removed, but incestuous zombie rape of the sort Moore wrote for Saga of the Swamp Thing #29 was still, in their view, a bit much, and they proceeded to veto the issue. It is this incident, more perhaps than any other, that highlights the quality of Moore and Berger’s working relationship. For one thing, for all that Moore’s complaints about editorial interference might suggest that he prefers editors to simply stay out of his way entirely, it is worth highlighting that the only reason “Love and Death” exists as Saga of the Swamp Thing #29 is that Berger nixed his intended next story on the grounds that Moore should continue to focus on the growing relationship between Swamp Thing and Abby before exploring other avenues. But when Moore’s story was targeted by the Code, Berger was quick to back it, and convinced the rest of DC’s editorial hierarchy to simply publish the issue without the Code stamp and, starting with issue #31, to simply stop submitting Moore’s book for Code approval in the first place. It is this ability to push for improvements to a book but to also fiercely defend the creators’ vision that earned Berger such respect from Moore (and, ultimately, from the bulk of the War’s combatants, where she enjoys the rare status of being liked and respected on essentially all sides). From Moore’s perspective, Berger had won for him a triumphant victory - as he put it a few years later when asked his feelings on beating the code, he replied that “given the insufferable size of my ego, what do you think I think of it? It’s something that gives me immense pleasure and an overwhelming feeling of smugness every time it crosses my mind.”

After its initial splash of controversy the Arcane trilogy resolved more or less predictably, albeit with the substantial wrinkle of Arcane killing Abby. [continued]

Comments

timber-munki 2 years, 6 months ago

Didn't the Comics Code Authority end up just been a husband & wife and it would depend on which one read the issue as to whether it got approved or not?

And of course the irony is that the CCA logo design is now owned by the CBLDF.

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Jordan Murphy 2 years, 6 months ago

That DC went ahead and published the issue without Code approval was a really big deal at the time, as I remember. The advent of underground comix, followed by the rise of the direct-sales market (comic stores) and indie publishers meant there were already plenty of non-Code approved comics for sale in 1984. But for a major publisher like DC to defy the CCA on such a high-profile book was still significant. The Comics Code Authority lived on (much longer than I would've expected), but the absolute and arbitrary authority it had previously assumed was shattered, irrevocably. Kudos to Karen Berger for sticking up for Moore, Bissette and Totleben.

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Anton B 2 years, 6 months ago

Hadn't Marvel already breached the code in the 1970's and published the non CCA approved The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98?

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timber-munki 2 years, 6 months ago

Yep, it did get relaxed in the seventies, particularly in respect to the titles comics could use under the code (which was pretty much drawnup to drum EC out of business), hence the arrival of Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula etc.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 6 months ago

Despite not violating any of the Code’s stated rules

I suppose making the astronaut black makes the story an even more explicit criticism of u.s. segregation laws, and thus a more explicit negative depiction of existing legal authority.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 6 months ago

The Spider-man story, dealing with drug abuse, had been specifically requested by the FBI (IIRC), so Marvel could say they were appealing from the CCA to an even higher authority.

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Jeff Heikkinen 1 year, 10 months ago

Exactly. No-one's saying this was the first such incident, but it was the highest-profile one up to that time that didn't have some sort of government backing.

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