Rape by Deception in ‘Aquaman #44’ is Poorly Handled

Welcome to our recap of this week’s DC Comics releases. Ray is the seasoned DC fan, I’m the more cycnical and lapsed DC reader.

We usually focus first on our favorite issue of the week, and work our way down from there but we’re making an exception today. There was one comic with such a problematic plot element, a rape by deception, that we have to start there.

Sorry, Batman Annual #4, our book of the week, and Grayson Annual #2 with your team-up with Superman. We’ll get to you after.

Aquaman #44 – Cullen Bunn, writer, Alec Morgan, layouts, Art Thibert and Jesus Merino, finishes
Ray: 3/10
Corrina: There’s bad writing and then there’s problematic writing. This is both.

Considering this cover depicts the beginning of rape by deception, it's squicky in the extreme. (image copyright DC Comics.)
Considering this cover depicts the beginning of rape by deception, it’s squicky in the extreme. (image copyright DC Comics.)

Ray: I’ve been liking this run for the most part, but this issue went into some kind of uncomfortable territory as well as taking 22 pages to tell a story that could have easily been done in half. Having neutralized the threat for now, Aquaman returns to Atlantis to make one last attempt at patching things up with Mera. Of course, as we know, this isn’t Mera but her evil sister Siren. Arthur explains to her that there’s thousands of innocent Atlanteans in the emerging city of Thule, and he can’t simply destroy them. “Mera” accuses him of being a traitor again, but their fight soon turns to passion, and they wind up having sex in a surprisingly clear segment.

Can we finally have the end of the ‘hero is tricked into sleeping with shapeshifting female villain’ trope? It was creepy in Grimm, and it’s creepy here. It was certainly portrayed as a bad thing in the title, but not with any real gravity. It’s exactly the same kind of lack of consent that we saw with Michelle Gonzales and Chameleon in a Spider-Man title, and it’s a pretty bad mark on a run that was going well until this point.

Corrina: I’m going to take that a step further and point out the reality: Aquaman is raped in this issue. It’s by deception, not force, but it’s still rape. If a story is going to introduce this kind of squicky plot element in it, it needs to handle it appropriately.

It doesn’t.

It’s played as “whoa, look readers, watch them have hot sex,” as if the rape itself is meant to be sexy to readers. Not cool. Next thing you know, Siren will be pregnant and Arthur will feel responsible and Mera will leave him for it. As Ray said, it’s not handled with any real gravity or awareness.

I’ve enjoyed the lead-up to this turning point in the story, though the reveal that Mera had been replaced by an evil double last issue disappointed me, and this issue has turned me off not just the comic but the writer.

Panel from Batman Annual #4, copyright DC Comics
Panel from Batman Annual #4, copyright DC Comics.

Batman Annual #4 – James Tynion IV, writer, Roge Antonio, art

Ray: 9/10 (Book of the Week)

Corrina: Buy It

Ray: The most consequential and easily the best of this week’s annuals, this issue takes us away from the main action of Jim Gordon’s tenure as Batman and throws us into the confusing life of Bruce Wayne, now an amnesiac, as he tries to reinvent himself. Tynion IV has worked closely with Batman scribe Scott Snyder on many projects, and Antonio does a strong job on art.

The issue begins with Bruce being welcomed back to his family home by Geri Powers, who has decided to purchase it back from the city and donate it back to the Waynes as a gesture of goodwill now that she has all of Wayne’s assets. Alfred is happy to have it back in the family. Bruce, however, is just confused, as he has no memory of the place and all it meant to him.

Alfred and Julie Madison attempt to guide him through it as Geri gives them the tour and reveals that it’s being transformed back from its state as Arkham Manor. There’s just one problem – not all the inmates have left. Clayface, Mr. Freeze, and Riddler staged a secretive escape from custody and have been patiently awaiting their moment for revenge against the man they hold responsible for their misery. Riddler in particular is determined to keep Bruce from getting the happy ending they believe he denied to them, and to make Bruce see that he’s just as insane as they are.

Most of the discussion about this issue will focus on Bruce picking up a gun in the climax, but the way Tynion handled it is very in-character and doesn’t take a thing away from Bruce’s mission. He didn’t use a gun like it was intended to be used, he made it work for him without betraying what he stands for. The issue is tense, well-written, and exciting throughout, with great characterization especially for Bruce, Alfred, and Riddler, although I’d like to see Julie become a more fleshed-out character. Still, an excellent side story for this new status quo.

Corrina: The most fascinating thing about this story: there’s no Batman in it.

I can’t remember the last time I read a Batman comic that starred just Bruce Wayne. And it’s a different Bruce Wayne too, the Bruce who has lost years aof training due to memory loss but also lost the trauma that drove him as Batman. So the question becomes whether this Bruce can survive when confronted by three of Batman’s biggest villains?

Turns out that, yes, this Bruce can, with an assist from Alfred. For years, Batman fans have kicked around the idea that it’s Bruce’s tragedy that makes him a hero. This story makes a terrific argument that Bruce’s essential personality is heroic, smart and resourceful. (Though he does also show signs of his Batman persona’s non-sentimental side.)

Originally, tragedy warped this man into Batman. But without it, he still would have been an extraordinary man.

Grayson Annual #2 – script, Tim Seeley, plot by Tim Seeley and Tom King, pencils, Alvaro Martinez, inks, Raul Fernandez

Ray: 8.5/10

Corrina: On the fence. For Grayson fans.

Cover to Grayson Annual #2, the boys are back together. Image copyright DC Comics
Cover to Grayson Annual #2, the boys are back together. Image copyright DC Comics

Ray: An epilogue of sorts for the recent issue where Grayson reunited with the Bat-family, this issue brings him into contact with one of his closest friends – Superman, the man who inspired him to take on the title of Nightwing.

I’ve always liked it when these two team up, because it’s a rare team-up of two characters who are both genuinely optimistic and decent. That stays intact here, despite both character’s grittier revamps in recent years. Superman’s unbridled joy when he finds out Dick is alive is hilarious, and they quickly compare notes on their recent exposures and makeovers.

They don’t have much time to catch up, though, as they come under attack by an evil assassin’s league that aims to kill the rarest target – and an alien, even a semi-depowered one, is atop that list. Not to mention, Dick’s former boss killed their leader, so they’re out for revenge. And they’re working with Blockbuster, the brutish super-strong villain who was the first opponent these two teamed up together to face when Dick was still Robin.

A quick appearance from Lex Luthor as these two heroes are reluctantly forced to draw on his help proves that once again, no one writes Luthor as well right now as Seeley and King. The timeline is a tiny bit confusing, but I’m assuming it’s taking place right after the end of last issue, like within the hour or even right before the ending. That’s a minor quibble, though. In its second arc, this title continues to feel much more like a classic Dick Grayson title than it has before.

Corrina: I have such mixed feelings about this issue. On the one hand, it reads like a classic Dick Grayson story, featuring the optimistic and open hero that I know and love.

I like this Superman too, he reminds me of the classic hero, the boy scout, and his chemistry with Dick is great. (And should provide slash ficcers with plenty of material.)

On the other hand, it reminds me of the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Riley came back while Buffy was having a lousy life. Riley’s appearance reminded Buffy of how her life used to be before things become so oppressive and grim. This team-up reminded me of the classic stories that I loved but also dropped in present plot elements that drive me nuts.

For instance, Dick was careful not to speak openly in the last issue of his series because Spyral is always listening. Here, he has heartfelt conversations with Superman while being spied on. And Superman’s personality this issue reminds me what I liked about him in the first place while simultaneously reminding me that I hate his current plotline of being outed.

So…buy it but be prepared to ignore some stuff. Pretend it’s a comic from the early 1980s.

Justice League #44 – Geoff Johns, writer, Jason Fabok, artist

Ray: 8/10

Corrina: Don’t Buy It.

Ray: There is a ton going on in this issue, to the point where it can feel a bit overwhelming at points. That being said, a good deal of it lacks a bit of impact, just because it’s quite obviously the kind of thing that isn’t going to stick. When we last left off, Batman had taken on the power of Metron, and Luthor had dumped a powerless Superman in an Apokaliptan fire pit to recharge his powers. The issue opens with Hal and Green Lantern visiting the Crime Syndicate’s earth and seeing the total destruction, as Batman’s all-knowing abilities start to grate on his teammate.

On Earth, Anti-Monitor and Darkseid do battle, while their allies tear each other apart and the JL struggles to keep any sense of order in the city. On Apokalips, Superman emerges from the fire pit super-charged, now a glowing New God who seems to be more than a little unstable thanks to his new power. He quickly turns on Luthor and makes clear that he’s not planning on holding back anymore. Ironic that Superman is depowered in his own books, while here he’s more powerful than ever. On Earth, Darkseid summons the Black Racer, who needs a human tether – and he chooses Flash, who becomes the third Leaguer to be transformed into a New God.

As Hal and Batman find the horrific source of the Anti-Monitor’s power buried on Earth-3, the Anti-Monitor turns the tide of the battle and blows a hole in Darkseid’s chest – and the title “The Death of Darkseid” is revealed. Will this stick? Probably not, the same way none of this title’s New Gods are keeping their powers post-this arc. But it’s still a pretty exciting book to read, even though it’s sort of chaotic.

Corrina: I’ve mentioned before that I have event fatigue, especially concerning the New Gods/Darkseid and the Anti-Monitor, as they’ve been featured in ‘universe-ending’ stories numerous times in the last five years. The twist here has them opposing each other but that doesn’t up the stakes for me, it merely makes a bigger mess.

I should be digging uber-powerful Batman-as-Metron but instead I wonder what method will be used for his inevitable return. Elements such as the Flash transformed into the Black Racer won’t last either. As a result, I’m not shocked when it happens, I merely hope that restoring Flash to normal is somewhat interesting.

Spoilers: the world won’t end. Our heroes won’t be forever changed. And Darkseid, who dies this issue, will be out there for another writer to use again. Without an interesting twist on these elements, as Hitch is doing in another comic, I’m tuned out.

Green Lantern Annual #4 – writer, Robert Venditti, artists, Pascal Alixe and Martin Coccolo

Ray: 6.5/10

Corrina: Don’t Buy It.

Ray: This is sort of a breather issue between the two big arcs of Green Lantern, which seems like an odd choice for an annual. Those are usually where you place the biggest stories. Instead, we get Hal, Virgo, and Trapper on their ship as Hal shares the story of how he escaped from the Green Lantern Corps in the immediate aftermath of his theft of Krona’s gauntlet. His version of the story is a big, swaggering tale where he beats his former teammates within an inch of their life and leaves them to spread the tale of how terrifying and unbeatable he is. At least, that’s what he tells Trapper when the space pirate wants to know why he didn’t just kill them. This is, of course, a lie, as the truth shows that he went out of his way not to hurt anyone and to ensure their battle caused no civilian casualties.

It seems an overly elaborate way to remind us that Hal Jordan is a decent guy, something we already knew. I was a bit more interested in the segments involving Marshall Rankk, the new big bad of the series. This agent of the Grey, a ruthless peacekeeping force, is seeking to take down Jordan to establish himself as the new law in the galaxy now that the GLC is no more. The character has a wild west vibe suited well to the uncharted realms of the galaxy. He has potential, but this issue as a whole was kind of lacking.

Corrina: It also seemed to have a flawed premise, that the way to be a leader and be safe in the universe is for people to fear you. I understand Hal’s an outlaw and on the run, but it seems to me a reputation as a good guy who helps the underdog and always defeats the bad guys would be just as useful as, say, having everyone think you’re a crazy maniac. Who would go out of their way to protect a crazy maniac? His compassion is the reason Virgo is with Hal, for instance, and Hal’s bad reputation doesn’t impress Trapper that much.

As for the overall idea that Hal is a brooding sad man driven to these straights, I should have sympathy for him. Maybe Hal fans do. This is not a badly written comic, just one that doesn’t interest me.

New Suicide Squad Annual #1 – Sean Ryan, writer, Philippe Briones, artist

Ray: 4/10

Corrina: Buy It if you’re a Harley Quinn fan

Ray: The ongoing undercover terrorism plotline comes to a close in this oversized annual, but aside from the extra pages there’s really no way to tell that this isn’t a regular issue. The pacing and style of the book are exactly the same as the last issue. Now that Black Manta has revealed his true identity to the evil Saladin, he’s been accepted into the inner circle as Saladin plans to execute Captain Boomerang via an elaborate drowning chamber for crimes against the League. Meanwhile, with only seconds left to save his friend’s life, Floyd Lawton finds himself struggling with the effects of previous injuries as they throw his aim off. When Saladin presents Manta with a suicide mission, he starts to resist, and that causes Saladin to set off the strange time-bomb that he intends to use to throw the world back in time.

There’s a few good moments in this issue, such as Deadshot’s struggles and Harley going essentially catatonic when she realizes how the kids view her after last issue. But most of the issue is generic action, and Reverse Flash’s sacrifice in the climax has no real impact when the character has been useless until now. All I get out of it is, “Man, this dude sucks at running, and that’s his whole thing”. Overall, not terrible, just forgettable.

Corrina: By all rights, I should agree with Ray on this comic. And yet, I enjoyed reading it. Not for the overall plot elements but for the small, human moments allowed members of the Suicide Squad.

There’s Harley’s despair that she caused the kids to be afraid of her. There’s Floyd’s struggle to survive, and there’s Reverse Flash’s idea that perhaps he was meant for something better. And even Manta’s about-face allowed a glimpse of his idealism, as only an idealist could be as let down as he was by Saladin.

That’s, to me, what classic Suicide Squad stories are about.

Superman #44 – Gene Luen Yang, writer, John Romita, Jr., penciller, Klaus Janson, inker.

Ray: 2/10

Corrina: Don’t Buy It.

Ray: Man, everyone knows I’ve been a lot easier on this storyline than Corrina has. I just don’t think it’s been as contrary to Superman’s character as I feared. Well, until now.

This issue is packed full of moments that I never wanted to see in a Superman title, and it’s just awkward. There’s a new Royal Flush Gang in town, and they attack Superman to try to make their name. After fighting them off, Superman is alerted to a hostage situation at the Daily Planet, where Steve Lombard is being held captive by Livewire and the rest of the staff is being held by a team of Superman’s D-list foes (plus Killer Croc, who isn’t really even a villain anymore. Research!). Superman making quips about how frying Lombard’s brain would be an improvement is OOC to begin with.

There’s a random new villain who lost his wife in an accident that he blames Superman for. Then we get Perry White thanking Superman for the rescue by slapping the glasses off his face and telling him that Clark Kent was always a lie. And then we get Superman going on TV and telling villains that anyone who comes after his friends, he’ll hit them back “A thousand-fold”. Because that’s totally Superman – operating by fear and intimidation. Lois calls him out on this, and he coldly dismisses her. It’s funny how it was worried that Lois would be ruined by this storyline. To my eye, she’s the only person here acting like herself.

Corrina: If I weren’t getting review copies from DC comics, I could be blissfully unaware of this story as I’d never spend money on it as Ray has. But at least he’s enjoyed some of it. Several aspects of the plot are well-written and well-done, particularly with stories headed by Greg Pak.

However, this issue is exactly what I expected from the storyline, however, as Superman being all grim and angry about stuff, and everyone yelling at him, and Clark being whiny and angsty and being the furthest thing from the elements that make him a hero. This is as bad as Superman yelling at Lois and Wonder Woman for “betraying” him over in Superman/Wonder Woman. This Superman has no compassion. I don’t recognize him nor do I want to.

Out of Continuity-Tie-In Books:

Image copyright DC Comics
Image copyright DC Comics

Wonder Woman ’77 Special #2 – Mark Andreyko, writer, art by Drew Johnson, Richard Ortiz, Cat Staggs, Jason Badower

Ray: 7/10

Corrina: Buy It.

Ray: I wasn’t a big fan of the first one of these specials, as it relied way too much on the tone of the original series and was kind of hard to get into for someone who never watched it. Fortunately, this issue seems more to be telling timeless, old-school Wonder Woman stories that I think anyone could enjoy.

All three stories are by Mark Andreyko, with different art teams, and he clearly has a very good grasp on Diana. The first story is a reinvention of the show’s Cheetah, as Archaeologist Barbara Minerva is outraged that her work is being removed to make room for a new Wonder Woman exhibit. When she gets cut by the ancient Cheetah dagger, she transforms and creates an army of cat-people to attack Diana. It’s all a bit campy, but fun and exciting.

The second story was my favorite of the three, focusing on a new villain, Celsia (who seems very inspired by Killer Croc) who is hunting down businessmen and politicians, all of whom have ties to a nuclear disaster that destroyed her town and caused her to develop her powers. The whole story is a good look at Diana’s essential balance of thirst for justice and compassion. The third story, focusing on Solomon Grundy defending an abused woman, is too short to be really memorable, but has some fun moments with Diana and Steve at the carnival. I think any fan of WW is going to dig this issue.

Corrina: These stories are old-school, in the best way, as they’re classic tales featuring villains with excellent motivations that brings out Wonder Woman’s compassion.

I also loved the dialogue given to Wonder Woman. Intelligent but still with confusion about how the outside world is managed. And her encounter with the abused woman in the third story is touching. If you know Wonder Woman, you’re never alone.

Bonus: You can pretend to hear Lynda Carter’s voice speak her lines. It makes a fine story better.

Batman: Arkham Knight Annual #1 – Peter J. Tomasi, story and words, Stephen Segovia, pencils, Art Thibert, inks

Ray: 5/10

Corrina: Don’t Buy It

Ray: I’ve overall liked the Arkham Knight series, especially the ones focusing on this twisted version of Jason Todd, but I was really surprised by just how bland and forgettable this annual was.

The issue starts with Arkham Knight apprehending and torturing Firefly, despite being in league with most of the criminal element of the city in some way. He then heads back to the base and meets with his partner in crime – Scarecrow. After discussing their plans for the city, Scarecrow ambushes Jason and subjects him to a heavy-duty dose of fear gas, forcing him to relive all of his worst memories. The problem is…this extended nightmare segment just isn’t very scary, nor is it particularly illuminating. It’s all of Jason Todd’s greatest hits – rejected by Batman, replaced as Robin, stalked by Joker – without too many inventive visuals to really make Scarecrow’s power creepy.

Hell, the cover featuring a demonic Batman is the best visual of the issue. Eventually Jason gets the inner strength to fight off the illusions and comes out of the gas, and he seems to have no problem with Scarecrow poisoning him. That basically sums up this issue – way too lacking in dramatic momentum.

Corrina: The issue is also confusing, as what’s the nightmare sequence and what is reality isn’t clearly delineated. I suspect this was supposed to be the dark night of the soul for Jason Todd, and how he takes that final step into becoming a villain. It takes a great deal to sell me on a Jason Todd story because while I didn’t like his original death, I haven’t liked bringing his back either. He seems to function as the Punisher of the Batman-verse, a testosterone-heavy version of a revenge fantasy.

Nothing in this story convinced me any differently.

Ray Goldfield is a writer/editor for Grayhaven Comics, as well as the author of two novels currently in editing. He’s a comic fan for over 20 years, particularly of DC and Superman, Batman, and the Teen Titans in particular. Now that Cassandra Cain is coming back, he will not rest until DC greenlights a Young Justice: Season Three comic.

Writer, Mom, Geek and Superhero. though usually not all four on the same day. Author of the award-winning Phoenix Institute Superhero series and the steampunk novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract.