Let’s not beat around the bush.
Sexual abuse and rape are topics which are difficult to talk about in any format, but it’s especially hard when it comes to discussing it through superheroes. DC and Marvel Comics have both proven they tend to lack certain… nuances in the ways they portray rape and sex abuse. More often, sexual abuse is used as a plot device for extreme shock value, yet neither company ever properly thinks out the ramifications of using it in their stories. To no surprise, poorly written rape stories drive me up the wall. Even more so when a character’s actions are largely glossed over or excused by the narrative. Or the fandom. Or both.
It’s certainly possible to create a well-thought out story about superheroes and sexual abuse through a smaller, independent company and with original characters. Yet when using preexisting characters with decades of backstory, sex abuse stories usually end up tainting someone in one way or another. One of the most infamous examples would have to be Sue Dibny, who was brutally murdered in Identity Crisis and then retroactively revealed to have been violently raped by Doctor Light. Both Sue’s death and rape have become defining elements of the character (without ever seeing events from her own point-of-view), not at all helped that she remained dead for over decade. Meanwhile, Doctor Light became a grotesque sleazeball instead of simply a bumbling idiot.
It truly doesn’t help that in recent years, multiple sexual assault incidents within the real-life comic book industry have come to light. DC Comics especially has been notorious for having protected chronic abusers such as Scott Lobdell and Eddie Berganza, while prominent artist Cameron Stewart was exposed for grooming women and author Warren Ellis was exposed for years of sexually inappropriate conduct through his message board with multiple comic professionals having looked the other way or downplayed the incidents when they occurred. Knowing Lobdell committed multiple sexually inappropriate acts, only to begin his run on Red Hood and the Outlaws with Roy Harper legitimately considering taking advantage of Starfire’s memory problems to have sex with her will always enrage me.
To that end, it’s not surprising the big 2 comic companies have such a poor track record with talking about sexual abuse given how their staff and creators act behind closed doors.
I was sexually assaulted in middle school, molested by a classmate in 12th grade, and sexually harassed by two coworkers a couple of years ago. That’s three incidents involving SIX different people and I’m only 30 years old. These events clearly left a mark on me, and I still grapple with the guilty idea they weren’t as severe as what some survivors have endured. As you can imagine, the poor execution of rape and sex abuse in superhero comics is one of my biggest annoyances as both a comic fan and an assault survivor myself.
We’ve seen a history of stories leave much to be desired (and leave agency or consequence out of the picture) — from both times Nightwing was raped, how the New 52 Amazons were portrayed as unrepentant rapists and murderers, when the Scarlet Witch molested a reconstructed Wonder Man, to the consistent undercurrent of rape and incest in Alan Moore’s “America’s Best Comics” line.
But to begin, I’m going to be looking at two incidents related to the Teen Titans: the Deathstroke/Terra debacle and the poor execution of Cinder from the “Brightest Day” Titans era.
Most comic fans know the basic premise of “The Judas Contract,” where Terra — a novitiate Titan portrayed as young, innocent, and victimized (in truth, she was indeed all three) — became the team’s greatest enemy by working undercover with Deathstroke to help deliver them to the H.I.V.E. and complete the contract the Terminator himself took up. It was a watershed moment for comics, and one of the most surprising reveals of all time. But it came with its own complications, as Marv Wolfman and George Perez depicted young Terra (not yet even 16) engaging in sexual intercourse with Slade Wilson.
Flash forward 30 years and DC fandom is lit up by the publication of The Other History of the DC Universe #3 by John Ridley and Giuseppe Camuncoli, a beautifully genuine take on Wolfman and Perez’s own History of the DC Universe, but told in first person narrative by marginalized super-heroes.
Told from the point of view of Katana of the Outsiders, this particular issue spends two pages discussing the history between Terra of the Teen Titans and Deathstroke the Terminator, wasting no time in describing this “relationship” for what it was: sexual grooming and rape of an underage, mentally unhealthy teenage girl at the hands of an older male.
The problem that Other History illustrates for us is that this is exactly what Terra and Deathstroke’s relationship was when “The Judas Contract” was first released. Creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez explicitly described Deathstroke as committing statutory rape. However, they also seemed to go out of their way to portray Terra as pure evil by way of being a “total slut.” “Judas Contract” ended with Terra having a mental breakdown upon thinking Deathstroke betrayed her and (perhaps accidentally) killed herself with her powers.
While the Teen Titans tried to remember Terra as one of their own, for decades in and out of the comics she was branded an insane whore who got what was coming to her, even by her own time-displaced self years later. One of the only people to consistently loathe Deathstroke for his actions was Terra’s brother, Geo-Force.
Meanwhile, Deathstroke’s popularity continued to rise because fans considered him an honorable badass. He was never really held accountable for taking advantage of Terra’s mental instability and sleeping with her on a regular basis, to the point he even became a semi-ally of the Titans for over a decade. It wasn’t until Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis that Deathstroke went back to full-on villainy, but even then, his “badass” credentials were ridiculously overhyped.
Deathstroke fans have been especially frustrated thanks to Other History giving the character his long overdue branding as a child rapist. They also tend to act like this is absolving Terra of the crimes she committed, without understanding Terra could’ve done bad things AND be an ongoing victim of sexual trafficking at the hands of someone who exacerbated her preexisting trauma and mental illness.
Are we going to accept the idea of “karmic rape” — that she might’ve deserved to be exploited by Deathstroke because of what she did? Does rape only matter if it happens to “good” people? I guess that would explain why, in Mark Millar’s Authority run, Midnighter got away with sodomizing a man to death with a jackhammer as vengeance for raping Apollo. Or why Mirage, infamous for pulling rape-by-fraud on Nightwing, was later violently raped by Deathwing in Team Titans.
If Deathstroke were perceived and written solely as a villain, there wouldn’t be a problem. But multiple comics feature the character simply as an honorable badass, when his history would most certainly not support that. Some would argue only sleeping with one teenage girl isn’t enough to label him a pedophile since most pedophiles target multiple children (this is a spurious argument to be sure). Yet what do you say about a man who slept with the same girl multiple times?
It’s utterly offensive to lionize a character like Slade Wilson, especiallyin this day and age where multiple men of power have exploited their influence for the sake of sexual domination and abuse (including Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein). To be blunt, Deathstroke’s portrayal leaves nothing but an aftertaste of nasty bitterness.
And so, this is one of the biggest issues with using sexual abuse in superhero comics — in that ramifications for the characters are never genuinely thought out in the long run. And later attempts to address this in the stories themselves tend to make matters worse.
Christopher Priest later tried his own spin on this during his Deathstroke series as part of DC Rebirth. The Deathstroke/Terra relationship was rewritten as Terra trying to come on to Deathstroke, who rebuffed her. When she had her mental breakdown, Deathstroke talked her down by kissing her and making her think they DID have a relationship.
Whatever Priest or the editors felt they were doing, if this was an attempt to settle the Deathstroke/Terra abuse, it left much to be desired. For starters, the blame still subtly shifts toward Terra for being the initial aggressor. She presents herself to Deathstroke naked in his bed before he kicks her out. They are trying to portray Deathstroke as having SOME honor for rejecting the advances of an emotionally screwed-up teenager, I suppose. Even other in-story characters, like Deathstroke’s right-hand man Wintergreen, react with disgust now only after Deathstroke’s just kissed Terra to make her calm down.
If DC wanted to discuss the overall wrongness of the Deathstroke/Terra relationship, what Deathstroke did shouldn’t be downplayed. Priest has even stated how hard he fought to keep Deathstroke a villain and frequently discussed the implications of the “Judas Contract.” So why give this sugarcoating to Deathstroke and Terra’s clearly unacceptable dynamic?
Ultimately, the biggest problem remaining is that the events of the original “Judas Contract” DID happen. DC Rebirth’s tenet that the residents of the DC Universe had forgotten important events while the clock was rolled back. So it’s not that Deathstroke never raped Terra; no one REMEMBERS that he raped Terra.
Readers. also conveniently forget: even if Deathstroke hasn’t consistently gone about sleeping with multiple teenage girls, the character’s shown a disturbing tendency towards exploiting and manipulating them for his plans. In the 2003 Teen Titans comic, Deathstroke turned his alienated daughter Rose into the new Ravager. After christening her new identity, Deathstroke proceeded to pump Rose full of the same drugs that gave him his healing factor. This slowly drove Rose insane until she gouged her eye out in a desperate attempt to prove she was like her father. When the drugs and psychosis wore off, Rose was horrified by her actions and her father proceeded to keep drugging her against her will.
Much later, Deathstroke was used as an in-universe explanation for Cassandra Cain’s inexplicable and bizarre descent into villainy as a stereotypical “dragon lady” character. Angered at Nightwing turning his daughter against him, Deathstroke sought to destroy the Bat Family by stealing Batgirl from them. Deathstroke preyed on Cassandra’s abandonment issues and the fact Batman was apparently showing Harvey Dent, of all people, more trust in protecting Gotham City than her.
It didn’t help that Batman and the rest of the Bat Family had spent the year following Infinite Crisis abandoning Cassandra to her own devices. To that end Deathstroke kept Cassandra doped up on the same drugs he used to control Rose. Deathstroke manipulated Cassandra into becoming the leader of the League of Assassins, which involved her murdering Nyssa al Ghul, framing Tim Drake, and screaming about how her father David Cain supposedly never loved her. While Cassandra’s villainous decay was never thought out to involve Deathstroke at the beginning, him being used to retcon her behavior is still believable given his predilection for teenage girls.
The sequence in World War III showing Deathstroke approaching Cassandra has disturbing parallels to an abuser manipulating a teenager. Deathstroke is drawn holding Cassandra and putting his hand against her face as if he’s caressing her cheek. It’s genuinely rather sickening to look at, even without knowing Deathstroke’s history with Terra.
After the debacles with Rose and Cassandra ended, Deathstroke made a THIRD attempt at using a teenage heroine. Following the events of the Terror Titans miniseries, Deathstroke found homeless teen heroine Poprocket fresh from being brainwashed by Clock King and the Dark Side Club. Poprocket was shown living with Deathstroke for three issues of Outsiders. He even called her “Poppy” and she aided him in his work. However, Poprocket completely disappeared following her appearances in Outsiders and Deathstroke never mentioned her afterwards. It’s probably for the best she vanished when she did.
In the end, Deathstroke repeatedly raped one teenage girl, and proceeded to prey upon three others (including his own daughter) to varying degrees. He can be considered a child rapist for his treatment of Terra, and can be CODED as a predator due to his poisonous, destructive manipulations of Rose, Cassandra, and Poprocket.
This parallels another problematic portrayal of a rape survivor in the form of Cinder, who was a member of Deathstroke’s phony Titans during the “Brightest Day” period. I’ve written extensively about Cinder and how the character’s nothing BUT problems, to the point she’s more a caricature of rape survivors.
Created by Eric Wallace and Fabrizio Fiorentino, Cinder (Carla Moretti) debuted as a brand new character in the Titans: Villains for Hire special issue. With the ability to generate heat and magma, Cinder was a serial killer who targeted rapists and child molesters. Deathstroke stumbled upon Cinder as he watched her burn a man to death. Impressed, Deathstroke offered her a spot on his team by promising to help her reach higher targets such as politicians and cardinals. To that end, Cinder joined in the merciless slaughter of Ryan Choi, the fourth Atom.
From the very beginning Cinder was rife with problems as a character. From the disgusting manner in which she murders a child rapist (by having sex with him and setting him on fire with her vagina), to her remorseless killing of an innocent man, Cinder was not off to a great start.
Eric Wallace made it clear he wanted us to feel sympathy for Cinder, even if he acknowledged she wasn’t a good person. He even had Cinder admit it herself. We gradually learned Cinder suffered from suicidal tendencies, dating back to the day she watched her little brothers die in an explosion. Interviews revealed Cinder’s favorite uncle began raping her at age 14, and this continued for two years. As an adult, Cinder joined the Italian military’s bomb squad to satisfy her death wish. After getting caught in a nuclear explosion, Cinder gained her superpowers and in the process immortality. She can’t die even if she desperately wants to.
That was her entire character. An immortal, suicidal rape survivor hunting down rapists and child molesters to satisfy her bloodlust because she thinks she has nothing better to do with her time. Wallace’s every attempt to try and make us care about Cinder failed due to how forced and otherwise empty these attempts were. Cinder’s only other attempt at an emotional development occurred between her and teammate Tattooed Man, yet these attempts were scarce and just as emotionally devoid as everything else involving Cinder.
It’s impossible to feel sorry or care about what happens to her because Cinder was otherwise a shortsighted, narcissistic wretch who exploited the suffering of rape survivors to justify her killings. Her death wish while working for the Italian military happened in a capacity where, if she did screw up and die in an explosion, she’d be taking others with her. She’s especially hypocritical in regard to killing Ryan Choi — knowing she killed him for the chance to kill more powerful people. Yet with the knowledge of her immortality in mind, what exactly was stopping her from getting to these higher targets in the past?
There’s also her incompetence in trying to murder convicted child rapist Nursery Cryme, with her anger getting the best of Cinder. She rushes her attempt to kill the fiend, and he somehow manages to use her powers to set himself free. Thanks to her blundering, Cinder let an unrepentant pedophile loose to victimize more children and left her with the knowledge it was happening thanks to her.
When all a character does is wallow in unhappiness, how is that supposed to make real life abuse survivors feel? Cinder’s a joke and an insult because she’s defined entirely by her trauma. The fact she’s working for Deathstroke, of all people, is especially laughable. For a character who is defined by her hatred of kiddie rapists, she had absolutely no clue she was working for a man who had raped a teenage girl on multiple occasions.
Despite being such a horrible person and character, Cinder ends on her terms when she sacrifices herself to destroy Deathstroke’s latest plan. She eventually turns against her boss not because she learned of his past transgressions, but because he’s created a device that can bring people back from the dead. Cinder’s given an option to bring her brothers back to life, but believes the world’s such an awful place they’re better off dead. We last see Cinder supposedly dying to destroy the machine, thereby committing suicide as she’s long since wanted.
Wallace ends the character’s arc by trying to portray her as morally right for opposing Deathstroke as yet another means for sympathy, in spite of how literally everything she did until this point was driven by misery and selfishness. It’s a Hail Mary play, and the only good thing about it is Cinder’s gone.
Couple this with DC’s years of hyping Deathstroke as one of their A-List characters (not even just A-List villains) while Terra is degraded as a “slut,” the history of the Teen Titans leaves much to be desired when depicting trauma, rape, and abuse. Would that every such tale got an “Other History” to call out past mistakes.