06 October 2013

Unanswered Questions about Nightwing, #93

Nightwing, #93, is undoubtedly the most controversial issue of that magazine. It’s the low point of a long story arc that writer Devin Grayson was creating. The villain Blockbuster had destroyed most of Dick Grayson’s life in Blüdhaven. In this issue the beautiful vigilante Tarantula shot Blockbuster dead in front of Dick, wracking him with guilt for not stopping her, and then forced him to have sex with her.

That magazine came out in the late spring of 2004 with a July cover date. In #94, Nightwing’s voice disappeared from the narration—a loss of self. The book then went into a Batman crossover, and in #100 that part of Devin Grayson’s long arc culminated with Dick regaining his initiative and capturing Tarantula for trial.

In August 2004, as that narrative was still unfolding, Devin Grayson sat for this interview. Like any good storyteller being paid to maintain suspense, she didn’t give away the ending to the arc. And part of that ending was Dick coming to terms with what had happened to him, identifying himself as a victim rather than someone to be blamed.

As a result, Devin Grayson resisted explaining what to make of that scene with Tarantula, writing, “For the record, I’ve never used the word ‘rape,’ I just said it was nonconsensual (I know, aren’t writers frustrating? *smiles*).” But she practically begged readers to stay tuned for the story’s resolution:
I think if you read through issue 100, you’ll see some of the response you’ve been waiting for. . . . The nature of stories is to set up and resolve conflict. We’re just not at the resolution stage with this story yet, and I apologize if it’s taking too long. . . . I really wish we could have this discussion after issue 100, because then I could see if you felt that any of your questions were answered in the normal course of the story, which is of course always the goal. This is meant to be a story about heroism and identity – how do we respond heroically (if that’s our default or aspired-to setting) when we lose all indication of our heroic identity?
As I read those comments, Nightwing’s realization that he’d been raped was a crucial part of the narrative. Though that was part of Devin Grayson’s story all along, she didn’t want to reveal that resolution prematurely in an interview; her coy language kept the question alive for readers. Many of those readers reacted angrily to the suspense and the language, accusing her of fogging the difference between “nonconsensual” sex and rape when her real point may have been that there’s no difference.

Was that theme indeed part of Devin Grayson’s story proposal and scripts? I’ve seen reports that the #93 script was available online at one point, but by now it’s disappeared. And the record of that script is getting muddied on that authoritative source of comic-book history, Wikipedia.

On 27 Sept 2006, an anonymous Wikipedia editor added this sentence to the “Controversy” section of Wikipedia’s entry on Tarantula:
This is further confused by the script for Nightwing #93 specifically mentioning (in parentheses) that this scene was a rape.
But 20 Oct 2010 that sentence was changed by another anonymous editor to:
This is further confused by the script for Nightwing #93 specifically mentioning (in parentheses) that this scene was sex and not a rape.
The citation that followed both sentences in fact predated them both, and really belongs to the preceding sentence. It pointed back to the interview quoted above—which reveals nothing about the script.

Thus, Wikipedia has contained two contradictory statements, both purporting to be based on the same document. It’s possible that the first statement was false, though it survived without correction for four years when the script might still have been available for confirmation. It’s possible that the second statement is false. But they can’t both be true.

Thus, not only is Nightwing, #93, a controversial narrative, but someone has distorted the publishing history of that narrative and falsely reinforced a particular view of the controversy.


Icon_UK said...

The sentence may have been changed on wikipedia, but my problem with this still stems from Devin's original statement.

"I’ve never used the word “rape,” I just said it was nonconsensual (I know, aren’t writers frustrating? *smiles*)"

In what circumstances is "non-consensual" sex NOT rape? It's one of the primary definitions of the offence (And his constant reptition of "No" as he emotionally disintegrates during the encounter makes it pretty unequivocal that it was nonconsensual). It's certainly not something to make a coy, smiling reference to while the arc is ongoing, especially when the arc doesn't clarify it further.

As an active member of that particular board back when the interview took place, it was clear she was not discussing the plot from Dick's POV (in terms of his missing narrative voice and whether he appreciated it's rape or not yet), she was discussing the plot point in and of itself. #93 had already been published and whether Dick was aware of it or not within the story, the readers were aware of what had happened, so wordplay didn't help clarify anything there, or even at the resolution, in fact it sowed confusion by being so vague.

Worse yet was the when Dick does come to terms with it, HE never refers to it, or treats it as, a rape either, and gets himself together by basically beating up Tarantula, which may seem cathartic but is a very poor ending to that sort of story arc.

IIRC there's even a desperate hint added in around 100 which has Dick wondering whether he really wanted her to have sex with him, which seems like painful backpedalling to lessen the severity of the event retrospectively.

The use of Tarantula during the arc didn't help, when just after #94 or #95 she and Nightwing head off to Gotham for the "War Games" event and she is regarded as a visiting hero left a very sour aftertaste.

Gosh that went on longer than I expected it to.

Kristen said...

I felt that the rape narrative was never properly resolved. Dick comes to terms with the Blockbuster issue and even discusses that (as it were) with Bruce in a later issue, but the rape is barely mentioned again. Plus, Devin has other characters, such as Barbara in a very poor example of writing that character, make disparaging remarks about Dick's sex life. Quite frankly, Devin Grayson oversexed Dick, and then failed to clearly acknowledge and adequately deal with an especially traumatic event. Because it was a man being raped, Devin had an even greater burden to clearly - in obvious, unequivocal terms - label Tarantula's act a rape and show Dick getting help. So many people think men can't get raped (you'll even see people claim that when discussing this very passage) that Devin needed to be crystal clear in the comics. Even ignoring that abysmal interview, she did not provide proper healing for Dick.

Dick might have experienced some resolution in issue 100, but I think his time working for the mob was a clear outgrowth of residual guilt over what happened with Blockbuster and Tarantula. And as I said before, when Dick and Bruce finally discuss things after that incident, rape is never mentioned.

If Devin considered the act rape, she brushed it under the rug far too much. To this day, some fans try to claim Tarantula was one of Dick's love interests, which reflects how insidious rape culture is and how much of a failure that arc was. It is a problem of both our society and Devin's writing that so many people cannot tell the difference between rape and a love interest. I am deeply disappointed in both.

J. L. Bell said...

Many people seem to interpret Devin Grayson's statement, "I’ve never used the word 'rape,' I just said it was nonconsensual," as logically equivalent to, "I'm saying it's not rape, that nonconsensual sex isn't rape." But those statements aren't the same. I also think the fact that she was giving an interview partway through her story, well short of the resolution, is crucial to interpreting her statements and intentions.

Imagine a TV mystery like Broadchurch that pivots on the question of whether someone was deliberately murdered, died in a fight or accident, or took his own life. If viewers ask the writers about the murder and those writers reply, "We never said it was 'murder'; we just said someone died," should we interpret that to mean that the writers deny that their story contains a murder? No, we'd realize they were keeping multiple possibilities alive. And if the resolution were to ultimately confirm the show's death was a murder, I don't think it would be valid to look back at the writers' comment halfway through and conclude, "But they believe that was just someone dying!"

That extended Nightwing storyline is no murder mystery, of course. Instead, I read it as pivoting on Dick Grayson's internal journey to realizing the moral dimensions of what Tarantula did and what blame he did or didn't share in her actions. He had to regain his sense of self. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for people who have been sexually abused to wonder if they're in some way to blame. As a strong, supremely athletic man used to being in control, Nightwing might be especially prone to such doubts. I posit that Devin Grayson was trying to show her hero working through that very problem.

You recall Dick's thoughts in issue #100 as "a desperate hint added in" and "painful backpedalling." I suspect those thoughts were part of Devin Grayson’s story resolution all along. If so, the question of whether Dick can think of what happens in #93 as rape would have been something she probably felt she had to withhold from readers—while also begging them to buy #100.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that Devin Grayson's parenthetical "(I know, aren’t writers frustrating? *smiles*)" raises hackles. We readers like suspense, but we don't like storytellers to lord it over us. Even more damaging, that comment ran into the broader response to the problem of sexual abuse victims doubting themselves: the push to say loudly and often that all nonconsensual sexual activity is rape. I suspect Devin Grayson was steering her story to that same conclusion all along, but wanted to make the point in Nightwing, #100, not an online interview months earlier, so she played coy. She might have been better off saying, "Dick has to come to terms with what happened to him."

Whether that storyline could ever be workable, entertaining, or tasteful is another question. Devin Grayson wrote Nightwing best when he was part of the Titans or the Batman family; this arc required that she isolate him. You've commented elsewhere about not liking some of the sexual tensions humming below a lot of her Nightwing stories; here the sex is literally out in the open, with perhaps no successful outcome. As you note, the resolution also got delayed by the "War Games" crossover; in the controversial interview (and others) Devin Grayson seems very apologetic about that interruption. Her subsequent Nightwing storylines were even more implausible and dreary, suggesting that she'd dug herself too deep a hole.

Now my reading of that story arc might be totally wrong. The scripts could indicate otherwise. Did Devin Grayson's script for #93 state that the rooftop scene was "a rape" or "not a rape"? Are the lines you remember from #100 late additions to the lettering, or were they in the original script that she'd obviously turned in before this interview and the subsequent controversy? The fact that the sole surviving public description of the #93 script has been changed drastically is troubling.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that the resolution of the storyline is unsuccessful in many ways. Indeed, I'm not sure that story could have been concluded successfully.

The arc seems to have depended on Tarantula being enough of a love interest for Dick to open the question of whether he might have wanted to have sex with her. Unfortunately, we know that rape can occur within relationships that people have thought (and might still think) are loving. That said, any extended discussion of that Dick Grayson's love life that includes Tarantula should note how the story and their relationship end.

I find it striking how so many people focus on the part of that interview in which Devin Grayson says she hasn't labeled the assault in #93 as "rape" but not the paragraphs at the end when she speaks (not for the first time) about being a victim of sexual assault and insists that the website publish information for other victims.

Do people really think that Devin Grayson was trying to play down sexual assault and rape? That she wasn't hoping to make readers think seriously about sexual assault by showing her popular hero grappling with the experience? We can say—well, we have all said—that her attempt was unsuccessful in terms of storytelling. But her intention seems very clear.

Icon_UK said...

Many people seem to interpret Devin Grayson's statement, "I’ve never used the word 'rape,' I just said it was nonconsensual," as logically equivalent to, "I'm saying it's not rape, that nonconsensual sex isn't rape."

By acknowledging the one word "nonconsensual" but fudging the situation as to the other "rape", when the two concepts are intertwined to the extent they are, Devin did nobody any favours.

It might not be her intent, but it muddied the waters of what she may have meant, and on a topic where grey areas were not the way to go, given the issues that surround male rape (That it "can't happen" etc). It created an implication that, at least in this case that a non-consensual sexual act needn't be rape, when it very definitely IS.

I am also aware of Devin's traumatic past, which is why the almost cavalier way Dick's situation is handled seemed just so disappointing.

Icon_UK said...

One thing which might have but indicated a better end to the arc, would have been for Dick to acknowledge what had happened to him and seek help (Dick has seen a therapist in the past to help him sort out his issues) and, instead of engaging in sparring with Tarantula, have him confront her with with his new awareness of just how broken she must be inside, that she could conflate what she did to him with anything akin to a genuine relationship. Not invoking pity for her, so much as acknowledging what she must have gone through in her past for her to view that as acceptable.

J. L. Bell said...

Devin Grayson herself said in 2005 that she regretted building the story around rape because she wanted to portray how Tarantula coopted Nightwing's as a bigger violation and subjugation. That would have been another alternative way to approach the larger story. Whether it would have had the same power (superhero comics work by making conflict physical, as in kicking each other in the face) is another question.

For me, Dick Grayson's visits to a therapist in Wolfman's Titans raise more questions than they answer. In the "Batman is an urban legend" era, they might have been even harder to justify to editors/readers. But that would certainly have foregrounded issues that Devin Grayson appears to have wanted to put across symbolically or allegorically.

J. L. Bell said...

Devin Grayson's statement "I just said it was nonconsensual" refers, as I recall, to an earlier interview she did with Gail Simone soon after Nightwing, #93, appeared. That was archived on the Devin Grayson website that has expired, or else I'd confirm my memory and link to it.

But my recollection is that Simone referred to the rooftop scene simply as a sexual encounter of some sort, probably trying to avoid spoilers. Devin Grayson replied that the sex was nonconsensual. So in one interview she made a point about Dick not consenting and in the next she reminded people she hadn't gone further than that.

Many readers found that confusing or annoying. I see it as a writer trying to walk an awkward tightrope while promoting an ongoing storyline. If Devin Grayson were truly trying to downplay the sexual violation, however, I don't think she'd have been so clear about confirming the nonconsensuality.

Icon_UK said...

The WaybackMachine has access to Devin Grayson's old site

though the interviews aren't that available.

The issue still exists that "nonconsensual" is a loaded term as regards sexual activity, with only one connotation which has any relevance to the situation Dick was in.

If I am overlooking any situations where nonconsensual sex does NOT equate to rape, I would genuinely have no problem being corrected, but I honestly can't think of any, and I really can't see any point she was trying to make as being relevant after 93 had occured (which it had when that interview was given and published)

The urban legend era has never made one lick of sense, especially when it came after Dick had spent some years as the publically feted, high-profile leader of the New Teen Titans as Robin and Nightwing. I also have no real difficulty accepting that Dick would research his therapist to ensure she could be trusted with the knowledge of his secret ID (If he even used his real name with her, which I think he did, but can't recall.)

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, I poked around the Wayback Machine last night and this morning and couldn’t get more than the first page of the old Devin Grayson site.

There’s a rule in good storytelling of “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t spell out everything for your readers. Lead them up to the edge and let them take the last step on their own. Show them enough details to put the picture together themselves, and they’ll enjoy the process and get more of an emotional experience out of it.

As I’ve said, I think Devin Grayson designed that storyline around Nightwing’s realization of how Tarantula violated him both philosophically and physically. I think she was working up to that conclusion in Nightwing, #100, and wanted readers to make the connection with Dick that she had taken advantage of him in killing Blockbuster and having sex. Therefore, Devin Grayson made sure in the first interview that readers knew the sex was not consensual, but in the second interview didn’t want to reveal too much about her ending and therefore reminded readers that she hadn’t called the sex a “rape.” Readers who were already ahead of Dick on that question interpreted that as trying to make a distinction between nonconsensual sex and rape, but I don’t see any reason to conclude that’s what Devin Grayson had in mind.

Again, if the scripts for those issues turn up and have evidence contrary to this theory, I’ll scrap it. The main impetus for this posting was the discovery that Wikipedia’s entry on the controversy had changed 180° from what I remembered reading a few years ago.