Health and Inclusivity: Protecting Ourselves with Garcia and Picolo’s TEEN TITANS: RAVEN

Raven is my favorite DC character, and without her, I likely wouldn’t read comics at all. From her introduction in DC Comics Presents #26, created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, she has shown up in many corners of the DC Universe in many iterations, but each time with a specific essence. After watching Teen Titans for the first time, I immediately wanted to learn more about her. With the first Trigon story I read, in the second volume of New Teen Titans — which I then raved to my friends about — my journey with the Titans, with comics, and with Raven began.

That’s why, when Teen Titans: Raven, written by Kami Garcia and illustrated by Gabriel Picolo, dropped, I knew I wanted to focus an installment of Health and Inclusivity around the story and her.

Cover art by Gabriel Picolo

All of my writing comes from a personal place, whether I make that explicit or not. Whether this place centers my favorite DC character or my own experiences, it always informs what I create. Reading through Teen Titans: Raven, I found another reflection of my life.

The story begins with the trauma of loss as Raven grieves her foster mother, who died in a car crash, as well as her own memories. Within weeks, she moves in with her aunt and cousin and begins her final year of high school in a new place surrounded by new people but with zero context. Voices whisper to her, some sinister, as she works to carve a space for her own, ultimately coming to a head as her aunt realizes Trigon’s efforts to influence Raven and her cousin comes into her own source of power as a manifestation of generations of spiritual connection.

The story does not end neatly, and Raven makes difficult choices in setting boundaries for herself, but it does speak to something intimate in many people’s experiences.

Interior art by Gabriel Picolo

Within the lens of Health and Inclusivity, Teen Titans: Raven is a story of protection. One of my favorite things about language is that words can represent so many things, and, as such, so does this idea of protecting yourself. Sometimes, your brain protects you from harmful experiences, though as Miss Eliza points out, ‘the heart never forgets,’ which is why you may respond in visceral ways to events and have no idea why.

Other times, we must seek protection from an oppressive society, finding spaces where we can be separated, even if for a moment, from systems that dehumanize us. Then, there are times we need protection from ourselves, distinguishing sinister voices in our heads from the reality around us and fighting through a damaging fog. All of these themes emerge within this comic, and they all point to how this story can mirror our lives.

Interior art by Gabriel Picolo

Raven’s trauma in this story results in amnesia regarding the events of her life preceding the car crash, though still with recollection of important people. While mysticism plays a huge role in the story, such a circumstance may not be that uncommon.

The thing about trauma? It’s not a one-to-one or one-and-done situation. Traumatic events are not all painted evenly, and we can have vastly different responses to them. This relationship occurs because memory is not as perfect as we think. What we remember can be altered by relatively simple phenomena, like the words others use to talk about our memories, or just the fact that information in our memory naturally decays. In the case of trauma, some moments may be incredibly distinct, while others may be fuzzy, though we can still have highly visceral physiological reactions in either, or other, situations.

A specific strategy we see for managing trauma in this comic revolves around support systems. Finding people that can help us work through complicated emotions, whether we remember everything or not, can be incredibly helpful. I’m not sure we were meant to exist alone, and as humans our skills for metacognition may assist us in thriving if that is the case, but I can definitely say having affirming people around us can be incredibly helpful.

Interior art by Gabriel Picolo

Max and Natalia are significant figures as Raven pieces her past together while also navigating high school life. They both offer her tools to process her emotions, including creating a shield, which we will touch on later, and reconnecting to the past. One thing I appreciate about Garcia and Picolo crafting this story is that they show social support as imperfect.

Both Max and Natalia slip up; their solutions are not always, or maybe ever, perfect, but they do collaborate with Raven as they discover what does work. These relationships are beneficial themselves, but they also point to an important element of recovery, especially within the lens of protection: autonomy.

Interior art by Gabriel Picolo

Besides being an ethical standard in helping professions, autonomy is significant because it gives the healing person a sense of empowerment. When we minimize or even take away someone’s sense of independence as they grow and change, we make it harder for them to take ownership of a personally intimate process. Raven’s challenge to her friends and family is one of justifiable defiance; she recognizes that their strategies may not be for her and she needs the room to examine what is actually useful.

Such a method is vital for helping people heal and cope, and the story approaches good ways for that to happen. Sometimes you need to strike out on your own, or you may adopt a strategy that others may deem unwise but that is meaningful and beneficial for you. By protecting your independence, you are putting your healing in your own terms, not to mention gauging for yourself the appropriate lengths to push yourself to face trauma head on.

Aside from our mind’s nifty mechanism for shielding us from trauma and pain, protection emerges as a theme around Raven being a young woman. Early in the story as her powers surface, Raven begins to take on the emotions of others to the detriment of her immediate peace. If you’re familiar with Raven’s story over nearly the past four decades, you know that this is a common theme for her. Empathy can be and is incredibly useful, but only with limits.

However, for women, empathy is almost, if not exactly, the expectation.

Because of gender rigidity around femininity and the gender binary, we have deemed certain skills or behaviors as necessary for men and women to engage in, forgetting that there really is much less of a basis for this paradigm than people think. The gender binary doesn’t exist; it’s something that is forced upon us.  Thus, the distinctions we make between men and women are false because the world is made up of much more than just men and women when it comes to gender. Unfortunately, though, one of the many oppressive systems we live in — patriarchy — thrives on this notion, leading to many disadvantageous results like the expectation of emotional labor on behalf of femmes and women.

Interior art by Gabriel Picolo

Raven’s experience of psychic empathy can be reflective of the expectations of femmes and women. We see this play out often within cishet relationships, where women are the “nurturers” and men are the “providers,” and thus the emotional load is placed on women in these partnerships, through child-rearing and essentially being their partners’ therapist.

Yet, this form of relating also emerges in connections between cis men and women regardless of sexual orientation or partnering. Cis queer man can and do perpetuate systems of misogyny, including disproportionate emotional labor from the femmes and women around us, though we may feel that if we do not seek romantic or sexual relationships with women this does not happen. It does.

So, we see protection within the paradigm of emotional labor from femmes and women as boundaries. In particular, Max teaches Raven a mantra to strengthen boundaries between her mind and others’ emotions. Developing these shields can be beneficial for femmes and women in mitigating societal pressure to perform nurture and care, often to the detriment of well-being in the moment or in the future, including impacts on work, productivity, and career development. Yet, I would be remiss in pretending that boundary setting always ends up happy. For many femmes and women, especially in their jobs, setting healthy boundaries also poses a threat.

Interior art by Gabriel Picolo

Boundaries are a challenge to the status quo, because femmes and women are not expected to have any. Any time a system is upset, there is a reprisal, and for femmes and women this upheaval manifests in varying levels of danger, from difficult discussions to loss of resources or to violence.

For Raven, boundaries work out, and that is the case for many femmes and women, but it is not the only case. This reality is why we have to remember why boundaries need to exist in the first place, but also why it can be difficult to set them. When you know that what awaits you — even as you advocate for yourself — is more fighting, it can be hard to continue that journey.

So, while Teen Titans: Raven begins to address the necessity of boundaries, we cannot forget the cost of doing so, especially for those of us whose privilege in life does not expose us to loss as a result of drawing lines to protect ourselves.

In addition to boundaries and protection regarding emotions for femmes and women, I see Raven’s story in the marginalization of others on the basis of race, sexual orientation, disability, and many other identities. Protection exists in the sense of needing space away from oppression, to what extent such a thing is possible, but also in connection to a shared history.

Natalia communes with loas through the story as a means of watching over those she loves, both alive and far gone. Voodoo in Teen Titans: Raven is revealed to be central to her family: Viv protected Raven as she grew and Natalia keeps watch over her family, both through spiritual history and ceremonies. Many communities maintain these practices today, but we see similar methods even if they aren’t connected to a specific practice.

Interior art by Gabriel Picolo

Especially in communities of color, many customs exist that ward off bad luck or energy. The ones that stand out the most to me are around New Years. Once the Christmas tree is up, it doesn’t come down until after the start of a new year. Black eyed peas and greens are a customary meal to bring good luck and money. Many families in the South may share this tradition, but it is one I see through the lens of my family as a means of protecting me and bringing blessings as the year progresses. This form of communion with tradition or spirits can be folks’ way of managing through hard times, or at least trying to prevent hard times.

Even without these specific traditions or names, having a shared history can be meaningful for feeling as though we belong. We find these connections through historical figures or stories or myth, and we rely on them to keep ourselves intact. When that history is lost, as we have seen through periods of dehumanization or dismissal, we can lose an anchor.

However, we can also create new ones, as we see through new generations of people within marginalized communities. This element of Teen Titans: Raven spoke to me in a way that reminded me why these practices are important, but also that we can forge them if they have been lost or even if we would just like to create something new for ourselves.

From trauma to cultural perspectives, this comic is rife with themes around protection. Yet, one which certainly resonated with me was the experience of needing protection from your own self. How we see this dynamic represented for Raven is through Trigon whispering to her, particularly when her emotions are high. For those of us who experience mental illness symptomology, from anxiety and obsessions to rumination and hallucinations, it can feel as though we are at odds with ourselves even before the evils of the world knock on our door. It is for this reason that maybe we need strategies to deal with ourselves as we journey to heal.

Interior art by Gabriel Picolo

Some people experience literal voices in their head, considering that auditory hallucinations co-occur with activity in brain areas related to hearing without the presence of auditory stimuli, while others experience an unhelpful mental track that exacerbates anxiety. No matter the modality of symptoms, being home to your own pain is daunting to say the least. After weeks of therapy, I realized just how much energy my anxiety was using, leaving far less room for the things I wanted to enjoy. These experiences point to the need for some kind of assist in managing everyday life.

I recognize why creating ourselves as the villain may not be the most helpful framing, so if this is the case for you, definitely adopt a different course of action. Still, this can result in feeling as though you are the enemy, even if you actually aren’t, and why protection against these internal experiences can be vital.

Raven has moments where she finds it difficult to distinguish her own whims and desires against Trigon’s. Many people encounter this same circumstance, particularly if they experience obsessions and intrusive thoughts. Thus, finding beneficial strategies for countering or challenging symptomology can create a new paradigm where they are more easily put into perspective. Raven fights to separate herself from quick, visceral reactions, uncovering who she truly is in the process.

And, though she is worried, Max points out to her that it is usually that worry that helps point to the core of yourself. For many of us, our journeys involve a similar process. Though our thoughts and feelings are intense and immediate, it can be helpful to remember the core of ourselves. Even in the presence of unwanted and upsetting intrusive thoughts, it is possible to find who you are and to distinguish yourself from them, and it can still be difficult or painful in doing so.

Interior art by Gabriel Picolo

Teen Titans: Raven is not just an enjoyable story. Its parallels to our lived experiences left me with a lot to think about. We need ways to protect ourselves. Some people, like femmes and women, face new odds in trying to establish firm boundaries against a society that seeks to erode them. Within cultural contexts, we can find protection through history and spiritual practice.

And many days, we seek strategies to protect ourselves from our mind and its unhelpful mechanisms. Raven has embodied many of these themes throughout her history, and now we have a new example of what that looks like. Part of what drew me to her as a character was because she dealt with the difficulty of emotion to the point that she had to tamp hers down out of necessity.

Yet, through her trials, she always found a way to make it work and to claim her destiny for herself.

Whether in Garcia and Picolo’s comic or through Raven’s publication history, we can find ways to look at ourselves and uncover what we need protection from, as well as how to protect ourselves, just as she always has.


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