MAW #1: The Abyss

On Marion Weber, sexual violence, and why the scariest things in MAW are real.

MAW #1: The Abyss

Here we are: MAW #1, my beloved sea monster and/or comic series with A.L. Kaplan, goes on sale today. To get a copy, please go to your local comic store – that's the only place that sells them. If your store doesn't stock it, (a) ask them to stock it, please, and (b) feel free to pick up a digital copy on comiXology, Google Play, iBooks or Kindle.

Every month, when a new issue of MAW goes live, I'll send out a newsletter about the issue – its politics, its roots in the real world, or just what I hope you'll get from reading it. This is the first of five. Although you can probably guess what I'm about to say, I'll say it:

There are spoilers in here. Go read MAW #1 before you read this post.

The other thing I want to say is thank you. I've been working steadily, in a very hard industry, for nearly thirteen years now, pretty much entirely because I have readers who buy my work and recommend it to their friends. I have this opportunity because you gave it to me. I'm deeply thankful for it, and for you, and I hope you'll enjoy the series.

The first sexual assault trial I ever read about in the news centered on a girl who was raped by several boys while she was unconscious. The boys taped the whole thing, so there was never any question that they were guilty. One of them was related to the local sheriff. There was never any chance he would be convicted.

So the tape went into evidence, and the defense found a way to make it hurt her. They played the tape of the girl’s rape in court. They made her watch it. They argued that she was a masochist, a fetishist, that she liked being humiliated; they replayed a moment where she twitched and claimed that she’d had an orgasm.

The rape at the center of Maw contains elements of many sexual assault cases I’ve covered or read about over the past twelve years. Some, you’ve likely heard about: Steubenville, or the backlash to Christine Blasey Ford. The outcome — a long, messy, traumatic court trial, followed by a “guilty” verdict that amounts to a couple months and probation — will be most familiar to readers from Chanel Miller’s viral letter to her rapist, Brock Turner.

Yet I have never gotten over that first case. I can find no record of it now. It took place in the very early 2000s, before these things were cause for viral outrage; it was just a local newspaper story, one of thousands. I knew rape existed, before I read that story, and I even knew that it was common, but I thought most people agreed that it was wrong. The idea that the criminal justice system was set up to punish victims had not occurred.

I knew that I lived in a world with bad people. I had not considered that I might live in a bad world.

The horror genre has a long history with rape and sexual violence. It’s one of the most horrific human experiences, and so writers add it into their stories very often. Some of those stories are among the most powerful and cathartic depictions of sexual violence I’ve ever seen or read, in any genre. Some… are not. It made sense for Maw to address rape and gender violence, given that I frequently cover it in my non-fiction, but I also needed to be clear on which elements of the genre I wanted to embrace and which I needed to avoid at all costs.

The first thing I wanted to do was to put rape into its social context. In many rape-revenge stories, the rape is a singular incident; it’s exceptional, a profound rupture of the social contract, which the entire rest of the narrative is dedicated to repairing. The idea that rape is the social contract — that it happens all the time, as a structural condition of the patriarchy we live in, and that our systems are set up to facilitate it — doesn’t enter the picture. Rape happens once, to one woman, because of one man or group of men, and it is usually shown on screen, in gory, over-the-top detail, to prepare us for the equally gory revenge later on.

Stories like this turn rape into a horrifying spectacle, but they also make it seem like a much smaller problem than it is. In my experience, most gender-marginalized people have been sexually assaulted or subject to some kind of gendered violence. It’s often happened more than once, with more than one person. None of us got “justice.” Only one woman I know has successfully pressed criminal charges against her abuser, and that’s because he shot her in the neck and paralyzed her for the rest of her life, which is difficult evidence to ignore in court. The rest got away with it, and when cops and courts were involved, they came down on the abuser’s side.

Marion Weber, the protagonist of the series, has to embody those realities. She’s been multiply victimized — raped as a teenager, and then assaulted again at a dive bar in the series’ first issue. She also exists in a social context where most or all of the women around her have been similarly victimized. There are many, many stories of gender violence in Maw, and only one of them is told by Marion herself.

I also wanted Marion to be an imperfect victim. One of the false stories we tell about rape revolves around the saintliness of survivors; it’s the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” story, the one where being attacked turns you into a crusader for justice and a font of empathy rather than just a person with post-traumatic stress disorder. We call people “survivors,” having decided that “victim” seems insulting. We expect them to put their pain to good use, to serve as role models to for the rest of us. Not only do they have to heal themselves, they have to heal the world.

While I was writing Maw, Daisy Coleman died by suicide. She had been a perfect example of the “survivor” narrative; an organizer, an activist, an advocate, with a whole documentary about how she’d triumphed over being raped and left for dead as a middle school student. The world was so invested in her success that we never stopped to ask what it would be like to endure that level of violence as a little girl, or whether someone so young and so deeply hurt should have to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders.

We forgot that Daisy Coleman was a victim. It’s okay for “victim” to be one of the identities in your wallet, for traumatic events to simply be terrible injuries, and not the origin story of your superpowers. I gave Marion an ugly, flawed, imperfect victimhood – the kind of victimhood I needed to see; the kind I've sometimes had – because even “bad” survivors need to be seen and honored. Marion has PTSD, and the drinking problem that PTSD often causes. She is trying to get drunk when she’s attacked the second time. She’s not nice, or civic-minded, or innocent; she’s a bitter, withdrawn, collapsed star of a person. She doesn’t call the cops or get a rape kit. She just gives up. She even gets in the shower, which is the one thing everyone tells victims to avoid.

The reason Marion doesn’t go to the cops, or the hospital, is that she’s already done those things once, and it didn’t help her. Marion was as deeply wounded by her first rape as any person could be, but not because her rapists got away with it. They were found guilty. It just didn't matter. Marion didn’t get the worst outcome. She got the best outcome, and in a system built to punish and suppress victims, the best outcome is a horror.

A word, here, on verisimilitude. The specifics of Marion’s assault are drawn from real cases, as are all the other incidents of gender violence in Maw. I wanted to combat the way pop culture turns sexual assault into torture porn, the Game of Thrones tendency to make every rape scene bigger and gorier and more grueling than the last, and so, while the story contains fantastical and invented elements, any time you hear about gender violence, those details are grounded in research and drawn from history, non-fiction, or the news. As violent as Maw gets, the scariest things you see or hear are always real.

There is a fine balance between honoring people's stories and exploiting them. Chanel Miller, for instance, has written her own book — though the outcome to her case is common, I do not and cannot speak for her. The woman I read about in the early 2000s is, I hope, still out there. I will never know her. Or maybe I do know her, and she’s never told me. I cannot promise you she would like Maw, or me; I can’t give you those people’s experience of victimhood. What I can do is give you mine. I’m one of the survivors whose story is part of Maw, and Marion’s response to her assault is drawn very specifically from how I lived with untreated PTSD in my twenties and early thirties, which is to say, not well.

It feels important, though, to give you that experience to the best of my ability. Pop culture’s depiction of “violence against women” (a limiting label, but we’ll get there) gives a lot of attention to the violence, but not so much to the women. We like watching or reading about gory assaults, but we don’t give much thought to the aftermath, and “the aftermath” constitutes certain people’s entire lives.

One of the most important decisions about rape, in Maw, was how to depict it visually. I’m of the pretty strong opinion that there is almost no way to film or draw a graphic rape scene without reinforcing rape culture. If you are looking at someone’s body, from the outside, as they’re getting assaulted, what you have is the perspective of a bystander — at worst, the perspective of an assailant waiting their turn. That perspective Others the victim. It turns them into a spectacle. It furthers their humiliation – which is the exact reason so many rapists take photos or videos of the assault. Seeing the assault puts us on the wrong person’s side, and this is particularly true in horror, because scenes of intense violence are part of what people enjoy about the genre. The more spectacularly horrible a rape scene is, the more it serves as a potential selling point or source of gratification for gore-minded viewers.

This doesn’t mean rape should be a prohibited subject. (Again, rape is what Maw is about.) It means that you have to be smart about the visual language you use to tell the story. One of the best-executed rape scenes I know is from the TV show Mad Men; it shows the character Joan Holloway being assaulted by her fiancee. It’s very clear what we’re seeing, but we don’t see it — the camera flips to a POV shot, so we see the couch Joan is staring at as she dissociates from what’s happening to her. We’re never invited to sexualize Joan (which is something a lot of Mad Men viewers liked doing) or gawk at her suffering. We are Joan; the camera angle forces us to stay on her side, literally puts us in her position.

When depicting sexual violence in Maw, I relied on the Joan Holloway principle. Rape is never visually shown in the art. Instead, the assault is depicted the way the victim remembers it — in flashbacks, scattered and sometimes irrelevant memories, little bits of fact. The horror is not some gory assault. It’s the black hole in your memory where something terrible happened. It’s sitting down at a bar and waking up knowing an atrocity has taken place.

It’s also the knowledge that no-one will help you. I’d stop short of telling any survivor that they cannot pursue a criminal verdict — my worldview centers on restoring agency to the victim, meaning that I think it should always be their decision — but I also do not think any survivor will get what they need from criminal proceedings in a system as racist and misogynistic and broken as the one we have. The courts serve rapists, even when they serve victims. You could get all the “justice” you want in that system, all the “justice” this world is set up to give you, and it wouldn’t be enough.

I don’t know who else we can turn to. Each other, or ourselves, or God. I’ve tried to even the scales in my own life, dedicated my life to writing about rape culture and gender violence, and sometimes, I think I’m worse off; I wound up harassed, isolated, denigrated, carrying secondhand trauma on top of my own. I don’t know if “justice” is even an achievable goal, for certain problems. You can make people pay for what they’ve done, or try to, but no-one can repent hard enough to take you back in time.

That absence of hope is the starting point of Maw. Revenge is what people turn to when justice isn’t an option, and there are millions of people who aren’t getting justice right now. Marion is surrounded by people who feel like her, who suffer like her, who have seen the badness of the world, like her. Marion is on her way to the abyss, but she's not alone.

Some other inspirations for Marion:

  • The sexually transmitted body horror of Charles Burns' Black Hole.
  • The extremely gross pregnancy imagery of the original Alien trilogy.  
  • Megan Fox raiding a fridge in Jennifer's Body.
  • Old photos of Patti Smith and/or Smith's song "Pissing in a River," which holds a grief so deep it becomes rage.
  • Marion Crane escaping from a bad situation to a worse one in Psycho.
  • Two documentaries, if you can handle them: Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's Audrie & Daisy; Nancy Schwartzman's Roll Red Roll.
  • There is life in the abyss.