Mark Millar’s rape comments, ‘Superheroes’ TCA panel: The comics world responds

Aug. 08, 2013 | 4:44 p.m.
Michael Kantor, director of "Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle," and comic book writers Todd McFarlane, Len Wein and Gerry Conway discuss the docu-series during their panel at the 2013 Television Critics Assn. tour on Aug. 7, 2013. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)

Michael Kantor, director of “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle,” and comic book writers Todd McFarlane, Len Wein and Gerry Conway discuss the docu-series during their panel at the 2013 Television Critics Assn. tour on Wednesday. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)


It’s been a rough week for women in comics.

First, Wonder Woman was (once again) relegated to the back burner, while a TV series for the Flash is being fast-tracked in her place. Then, during Wednesday’s Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the new PBS docu-series  “Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle,” several comics creators said of the dearth of women and people of color in their pages, that readers are “not interested” in those characters.

Today comes a New Republic story that quotes “Kick-Ass” creator Mark Millar defending his comic book depictions of rape and sexual violence, saying “I don’t really think it matters.”

Comics creators, journalists and others of the comics community took to Twitter to respond to what they saw as blatant sexism, both in the TCA panel and in Millar’s comments.

Mark Millar (Courtesy Mark Millar)

Mark Millar (Courtesy Mark Millar)

Millar, the boundary-pushing comics writer who in recent years has become a Hollywood heavyweight thanks to film adaptations of his comics and a position as chief creative consultant for Fox’s Marvel films (“X-Men,” “Fantastic Four”), told New Republic writer Abraham Riesman that rape, when depicted in the pages of comics, is simply a storytelling device.

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” Millar said. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”

The story also quoted Laura Hudson, the former editor in chief of the popular blog Comics Alliance and a senior editor at Wired, who rejected Millar’s stance.

“There’s one and only one reason that happens, and it’s to piss off the male character,” she said. “It’s using a trauma you don’t understand in a way whose implications you can’t understand, and then talking about it as though you’re doing the same thing as having someone’s head explode. You’re not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing rape scenes.”

READ: Women in comics: You can’t keep a good creator down

Famously dubbed the “women in refrigerators” syndrome by Gail Simone, the overwhelmingly disproportionate number of female comic characters who are killed, maimed, raped or stripped of their powers for the sake of advancing a male character’s plot has long been a problematic strain in the world of comics. When Simone and other writers were gathering creator responses for the “women in refrigerators” project in 1999, Millar had this to say.

“Granted, the female stuff has more of a sexual violence theme and this is something people should probably watch out for, but rape is a rare thing in comics and is seldom done in an exploitative way,” he said at the time.

Not surprisingly, his more recent comments have drawn the ire of comics creators and journalists.

“In a culture in which rape is undeniably endemic, Millar’s steadfast refusal to consider the potential ramifications of his work remains astounding, infuriating, irresponsible, and sad,” writes Joseph Hughes of Comics Alliance. “To pretend depictions of rape and sexual assault in popular fiction play absolutely no role in further informing a culture that seems largely hellbent on not dealing with these statistics is, at best, willfully ignorant, a position adopted by a writer more concerned about the money he’s making than actually improving as a creator.”

Here is a very small selection of responses from Twitter:

Millar’s comments came the day after a TCA panel for the PBS documentary “Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle.” The panel included the documentary’s director Michael Kantor, as well as creators Todd MacFarlane (Spawn), Len Wein (Wolverine) and Gerry Conway (the Punisher).

When asked by ThinkProgress writer Alyssa Rosenberg about why there are so few women and minorities represented in comic books, McFarlane argued that aiming for more diverse characters would lead to tokenism and would come at the expense of good storytelling. Kantor said that women and minorities have been marginalized in comics because they’ve been marginalized in history.

“I think the bigger question is why readers are not interested in those characters,” Conway said. “Comics follow society. They don’t lead society, they reflect it.”

Comic book writer Todd McFarlane speaks onstage during the TCA press tour's panel on "Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle." (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)

Comic book writer Todd McFarlane speaks onstage during the TCA press tour’s panel on “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle.” (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)

McFarlane also suggested that superhero comics are, by nature, testosterone-driven and therefore the wrong platform for messages of female empowerment.

“I’ve got two daughters, and if I wanted to do something that I thought was emboldened to a female, I probably wouldn’t choose superhero comic books to get that message across,” he said.

Conway added to the argument that superhero comics fall strictly into the realm of men and boys’ fare, and also spoke about his daughter, saying she is “not interested in the guy stories,” but rather in those by “a girl named Faith Erin Hicks.” (Never mind that Hicks is a woman, not a girl, and the author of “The Adventures of Superhero Girl,” which has garnered a following among both men and women.)

“I think it’s a mistake to sort of, like, pigeonhole superheroes, or to add so much to superheroes that you’re missing the fact it’s a genre within itself,” he said. “It’s like saying, ‘Why are there no medieval stories about female knights?’ Because there was only one, you know, Joan of Arc. … It’s an inherent limitation of that particular genre, superheroes.”

Rosenberg criticized their logic in her story, saying they “ignore that superheroes don’t actually exist, and that the production of superhero comics is not actually a biological function determined by whatever bodies we’re born with…. The decision to stay within the narrow lanes of your own fantasies is a choice, not biological determinism.”

She wasn’t the only one to speak up.

What’s your take on the controversy? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+


[Warning: This gallery contains profanity.] "Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom's" six-part title story is by writer Lauren Beukes and artist Inaki Miranda. It also includes a story by "Fables" and "Fairest" creator Bill Willingham and artist Barry Kitson. The cover art is by the Eisner Award-winning Adam Hughes. (Vertigo)Lauren Beukes takes Rapunzel to Japan

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75 Responses to Mark Millar’s rape comments, ‘Superheroes’ TCA panel: The comics world responds

  1. Dan Jones says:

    As a father to a little girl who, at only three years old, is already interested in superheroes, I wish there were more Faith Erin Hickses and fewer Mark Millars and Gerry Conways.

  2. @SonsofAres says:

    So the comic book world is staffed by men who appeared fully formed on Earth and apparently (exception noted) no knowledge of mothers, sisters, or daughters. And fhey write for an audience comprised of barnyard exhibits and other assorted eunuchs. *What* a surprise you hear this crap. I would pay money to see the look on McFarlane's face when his daughter tells him she was discouraged from math or science because "girls just don't do that." Hypocrite.

  3. Joshua Logan says:

    As a white male comic book reader for the past 20 years (29 here), I'm a bit tired of the fact that people can't write a strong female lead by now. The ones who can seem to rely less on character and more on character design (ie Powergirl, Wonderwoman, Psylocke, Emma Frost, etc.) Women aren't uninteresting in comic books b/c women are uninteresting, women are uninteresting in comic books b/c they are used for little more than eye candy and runner up to lead male characters. It seems like no one writes them strong. I think we need some George R.R. Martin logic here and stop writing women as second to men and start writing them as people.

    Women aren't interesting? Daenerys Targaryen. It's not the characters, it's the writers.

    And rape in comics … it's not something I ever want to see.

  4. Steven R. Stahl says:

    The primary reason for the dearth of females and minorities in superhero comics is probably that so many superhero comics are simple power fantasies, and appeal primarily to readers who want to immerse themselves in fantasies. The stories lack meaning, to the extent that they even qualify as stories; more often, they’re simply platforms for the characters.

    Conversely, in commercial fiction and, of course, in literary fiction, giving a character exposure isn’t the only reason that the story exists. When a writer has something to say and wants to appeal to a reader’s intellect, the material will reflect that, and use of women, minorities–any sorts of people–will depend on the writer’s preferences and the audience for the story.

    That’s not to say that people who enjoy simple superhero stories are necessarily stupid, but if the repetition in the stories and the lack of creativity in the stories don’t turn them off, they’re not reading them for the intellectual stimulation. Fantasy, like a drug, can be addictive.


  5. Anonymous says:

    You know, I was with the article about this insensitive hack, but that "in a culture where rape is undeniably endemic" thing is a bit much. Sense of proportion, please, Mr. Hughes. If you're talking about geek culture then you're overstating it some, and if you're talking about American culture you're overstating it a LOT. The Congo is a culture where rape is endemic. This is a culture where it's a significant issue.

  6. I think this is all just a result of people being desensitized to the brutal murders that go on every day ( of which, decapitation was just an example).

    Honestly, what action would you have a character do to show a modern audience that he's the worst kind of evil scumbag? In today's culture, what is the scummiest thing a character can do?

  7. This is what is wrong with comics today, no one has the guts to reach out to the female fans (or the LGBTG fans) who are starving for a hero to call their own who isn't a bikini model, male hero accessory or wearing negligee to fight crime! #beheroic

  8. Randy says:

    Alan Moore would smack each of these guys down and then write an awesome, thought-provoking comic about it!

  9. Da´na R. says:

    So those comic book creators think women don't read superhero comics??? Gee, thank you so much for dismissing the fact that I as a woman read DC comics since 1978!!!

    I make sure never to buy anything Millar or McFarlane have written. We don't need misogynistic writers, so do boycott all their works, and spread the word!

  10. paul says:

    i'm a little confused. i've been led to believe that violence in comics (or video games or movies) doesn't correlate with violence in the real world. are you suggesting that this is untrue for violence specifically directed towards women?

  11. Polite Elliot says:

    And how many times did Shakespeare write about rape? Are you burning his plays too?

    There is terrible insensitivity in the comic world – how can anyone write about Galactus without having experienced having one's world eaten, or the terrible plight of the mole-men rejected from society, and lets not forget the persecution of the skrulls and being unfairly forced into bovine form.

    More perspective, less internet/twitter hysteria please. Hit Girl & Jenny Sparks ftw!

  12. Anonymous Coward says:

    So, one comment is taken out of context and everyone goes nuts with their own activist agendas. Seize the moment! Get out there are cry "RAPE CULTURE!" when a writer says that rape is a violent act equivalent to decapitation. If you had to choose, which would you prefer? It's absurd. People need to learn the difference between portrayal and advocacy. He didn't rape someone. He's a writer. He expressed an opinion about violence of different types being used to show how terrible a villain is in a comic book. He didn't say, "rape is great and fun for all" here, people. Stop overreacting.

    Also, whomever made the comment that men cannot understand rape is an ignorant sexist. Men get raped. It does happen. Our society marginalizes the rape of men. If you think women are scared to file charges against a rapist, but men aren't, you've got it wrong. Men are much more afraid to openly admit to being raped or filing charges against a rapist, especially against a woman. There are even people who deny that it's even possible for a woman to rape a man. Women who commit sexual assaults against men use this to their advantage. A male can be the victim too.

  13. Matt says:

    It sounds like these are a bunch of little boys who never pulled down that NO GIRLS ALLOWED sign on their crappily constructed tree houses.

    It also sounds like they're creators totally detached from their audience, who have no idea who even reads comics anymore. (The answer, by the way, is pretty everyone.)

    I mean, the amount of people who pass through my comic shop, women and men and kids and people with three-inch thick glasses and people who look like they do nothing but run track, and who all pick up and pull from all these different books and stories. It's not a boy's club thing. It hasn't been one for a long time, I think. And these creators are diminishing the importance of the medium by saying all this sexist mumbo jumbo because they're the ones keeping alive the stereotype that people who read comics are middle aged men in their 30s who can't get over women.

    And so the question becomes, why are they the people who get the attention?

  14. What a moron. In twenty years time Mark Millar will be long forgotten.

  15. kisaoda says:

    I suppose what's bothering me about the outcry is that we're assuming these three are defending the "Women in Refrigerators" motif. How can we tell? I've read some pretty serious rape scenes and, IMO, they have pretty well shown the gruesome atrocity that it is from the perspective of the victim as well as the main character (if they're not one in the same). How do we not know that's the type of scene they're defending?

    I don't mean to be a white knight rushing to their defense as McFarlane made a pretty stupid remark about female readers, but I just am not sure that we're seeing what they're seeing in terms of writing those sorts of scenes.

  16. misslustfulenvy says:

    one scene comes to my mind when i read the part of ''rape''….in the movie ''under the red hood'' the scene where robin gets beaten up by the joker and he just leaves…im sorry i was for sure that robin got raped!!! look at his expression, the faq that he's shackled, his clothing ripped… he got raped. lol but anyway, there's super heroes comic for young(teen titan,young justice,etc) there's for teenagers and young adult, and the last one that people always pick on….the Dark Adult Comics…a good example, Watchmen,Spawn,Batman(dark knight) Deadpool…. i wouldn't give a deadpool comics to a kid, but i would totally read it as an adult.

    the fact that you put ALL comics in the same range of age is wrong, it's like giving 50 shades of grey to a 14 years old girl… it's wrong. It's not true that women are always let down in comics, most of the time they have great roles but aren't exploited. Either that or the writer just want to write his little Fantasy. Girls do read comic books, do they always go around telling how bad it is cause there's not enough girls? nooooo! They go around making Pairing witht he guys because they look gay!!

    best example would be Batman and Robin!!! seriously, they're gay! even with catwomen in the back, sorry i dont believe that Bruce Wayne is straight…

    Harley quinn and Poison Ivy, they're lesbos! i love that pairing! even mroe then Harley /joker… but eh..what do you want. Not exploited much because A)they're villains B)Girls C) Both A and B.

    There's comics for girls, they're just not popular like the big name of the industry.

  17. Ric Lancaster says:

    When was the last time any of these men attended a Diversity training course, attended a workshop about women in comics or stepped outside of their genre to observe their compatriots and what they do, think and say ! Its embarrassing !

  18. jenfoolery says:

    I guarantee you if there were a wave of decapitations happening to the same extent that rapes happen? Nobody would be using them as a trope in comic books. We would be having a massive international war on decapitation.

  19. dg101 says:

    …stop whining and make your own superheroes. Don't like the way women are depicted? Make your own. don't just sit there and cry about it, DO something. Write it, draw it, promote the living crap out of it and MAKE the change. But if you're expecting MEN to fairly represent a woman in comics, I think you're going to be waiting a LONG time.

  20. Jack says:

    I'm sorry, wait wait wait. First off, I'm no fan of Mark Millar. I think he gets way too much attention and far too much credit. At the same time, I find it deeply sexist that it doesn't seem as though anyone brought up his actual wording: “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” SOMEBODY. Not a woman. Not a girl. Not even a male. SOMEBODY. He was referencing the fact that rape itself–be it against a male or female–is the terrible act, as terrible as killing someone. Why is it that it immediately became a gender-specific idea?

    I understand the backlash, I do, just as I recall how Kevin Smith said that he found the whole idea of using rape as story tool was reprehensible. He specifically said that he felt the violation of a woman was pathetic as a writing element (paraphrasing him). Millar, who writes very specific stories and usually very dystopian ones, knows exactly what he means and says it. He said "rape." He did NOT say "rape of women."

  21. Robert Monroe, Jr. says:

    I think that it's interesting that the article focuses on gender issues and ignores the issue regarding the lack of melanated characters of substance in comic books.

  22. rocky says:

    Such a silly defense for this idiocy.
    Even if the comics are meant just for boys it would be an even bigger deal to treat rape with more care since it is a crime almost entirely committed by men and boys.

    I'm just amazed at how close mined some of these writers are

  23. @CatEdison says:

    Concerning the comment about rape not being endemic and using proportional sense, as well as the response to said comment:

    Certainly many people have experienced sexual assault and rape. Also, consider any statistical estimate as low considering how many people (male and female) don't say anything about their own experience with rape to the institutions that collect data. Being a woman certainly heightens your awareness of how far-reaching the issue is when you hear friends relate their own stories they never reported and you are raised being warned about this crime regularly and it becomes a prominent part of the female culture. As a man if you have ever been in a situation alone when you were frightened or concerned about being attacked/mugged, consider many (even strong) women feel this way every time they are walking down the street alone, in their home alone, etc. THEN add to that feeling the strong awareness of the likelihood that an attack on you will also involve sexual assault and you can begin to understand the endemic part.

    Along with the rape issue, when considering the lack of meaningful female characters, does anyone believe the first success of the first Kick Ass film had nothing to do with Hit-Girl and Chloe Grace Moretz's performance? I know it's not the comic itself, but there is no denying that the comic gained popularity from the film and Millar gained a lot from that success. There is no way without her that the film would have become what it has. She was the reason for my interest, as well as many others that I spoke to about the film before it's release.

    It's idiotic to suggest girls shouldn't look at comics, especially citing they shouldn't look for strong women to follow in them. We should remember that the boys looking at comics need to be reminded that there are strong women as well. This is just rampant ignorance, disheartening and disappointing coming from people whose work I have enjoyed throughout the years.

    P.S. – I'm a woman and a comic lover, my daughter is growing up reading comics because she wants to and she has every right to enjoy them without feeling less-than, objectified or marginalized. I have enjoyed and do enjoy all kind of comics that are respectful and are not respectful to women, the issue I have is not the content that is there already, but the attitude these men have about it and their dismissive response to a real concern about the direction and evolution of comic culture. Their influence is real and if they don't believe that is true, why would they be writing in the first place? Responsibility in the public forum comes with putting your work in a public arena.

  24. Jill Braden says:

    If his daughter is sexually assaulted, will Mark Millar pat her on the arm and say "Thank goodness your boy friends' story is more interesting now?"

  25. @sierratac says:

    So intensely enraged at this. Screw your little boys club mentality, it's outdated and gross. Ugh. I wonder how your numbers would look if all females just STOPPED reading, and STOPPED going to movie adaptations??

  26. Margaret says:

    Gerry Conway: "I think it’s a mistake to sort of, like, pigeonhole superheroes, or to add so much to superheroes that you’re missing the fact it’s a genre within itself,” he said. “It’s like saying, ‘Why are there no medieval stories about female knights?’ Because there was only one, you know, Joan of Arc. … It’s an inherent limitation of that particular genre, superheroes.” "

    Maybe Joan of Arc was the only female knight in real life–which is still one more than the total of real-life superheroes of either gender. But female knights played a significant role in popular Renaissance knightly epics like "Orlando Furioso," "Gerusalemme Liberata," and Sir Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queen" (which is actually about the adventures of various knights in service to a queen who's a thinly-disguised analogue of Queen Elizabeth I). They may be far outnumbered by the male knights–only "Orlando Furioso" has more than one female knight, the tomboyish jock Marfisa and the less obsessively battle-oriented Bradamante, who winds up marrying one of her male fellow knights–but they play a significant enough role in the story that they were obviously of interest to contemporary audiences. So Conway both got his facts wrong and assumes that modern-day readers are somehow more inherently sexist than those in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Presumably he hasn't heard of Brienne from "Game of Thrones" or Tamora Pierce's YA series about Alanna and other female knights, either.

  27. Tempy says:

    Sexism is wrong. Assumptions of gender roles and preferences is wrong. They are all wrong. Just like casting white girls for the role of a character in a motion picture where the lead role was another ethnicity in a book . . . disgusting. There IS a demand for female comic book badasses! I loves Spawn as a character, hell. They are all wrong. And I think I am done endorsing this industry. Finished.

  28. Carl says:

    I'm not the biggest fan of Millar's work, or his attitude, but he's talking about rape and murder in relation to storytelling. Not reality. Several years ago I spent a month watching a loved one rot in a coma before being forced to make the decision to turn off their life support, but that doesn't mean that I object to similar plots being used in the most trashy and irreverent forms of genre fiction. Those are just stories.

    That said, the mainstream comic industry really needs to grow up and attempt reach out to intelligent readers of both genders and all ages. For too long the industry has relied on "the fans", and an audience of obsessives and collectors who will generally lap up anything the major publishers print.

    But those people saying that there are no comics for female readers are clearly not looking hard enough. If you look beyond Marvel, DC , Dark Horse and IDW you'll find that there are plenty of talented women producing great indie titles.

  29. lordragonstar says:

    Hey, Millar and the rest of you guys who use your positions to denigrate women and prove you've not the intellect to truly understand why women are upset (can never understand what they go through, though), you must be fired and replaced. Even in the Christian line of thought, there is condemnation of Eve; let's not forget 1) She didn't exist to hear God say what He said; hearsay from Adam. 2) Adam NEVER told her of how no animal could reason to question, let alone speak 3) He (Adam) always went for a walk with God; leaving her unguarded; yet women carry the entire stigma. Men, we should know better. Pontificating is in poor taste, what you guys say and do… tastes worse than poor… You embarrass real men

  30. kaystiel says:

    incidentally, there were stories written about female knights, check your La Morte D Arthur by Mallory and read Bradamante, who goes and saves the handsome prince. Not to mention real life warrior women of legend like Queen Bodecia and her daughters, it's all there if you look for it.

  31. good boy123 says:

    i want to know what ALAN MOORE would say.

  32. scarecrow says:

    i picked up wanted, got to that part where the villain rapes the actress, put the book down and never bought another millar book again. hes the howard stern of comics, a pointless shock jock.

  33. john says:

    This is coming from a man who has a daughter.

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