Rat Queens, domestic violence, and death of the author

[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Hex. Visit her blog!]

“Death of the author” is a theory put forth by a Frenchman named Roland Barthes in 1967. In his original essay, Barthes suggests that the creator and the creation are unrelated and should be viewed independently. His argument is that knowing the political views, biases, or personal histories of the author limits how a text can be interpreted. Instead of having multiple potential meanings, the work has only one.

What’s becoming increasingly clear over time is that this philosophy is great in theory, but hard to actively subscribe to. In the age of the internet, where your greatest shame will live on eternally, it’s easier than ever to discover that people you admire are flawed human beings.

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On October 31, 2014, John “Roc” Upchurch was arrested for domestic violence. For those who don’t recognize the name, he’s co-creator and artist of the Image title Rat Queens, a comic about four mercenary women in a high fantasy world kicking ass and taking names. It’s a fantastic title with a dynamic cast of ladies dealing with real problems and Lovecraftian monsters. Naturally, this is one of my favorite ongoing books, and I was jumping for joy when it got optioned as an animated series. But now I have to face the uncomfortable fact that Upchurch is not a good person.

He says that his wife started it, and while I hold firm to the belief that anyone can be a victim, the extent to which he “fought back” was excessive, to say the least. He reportedly pushed her down some steps, choked her, and bashed her head in. Unless someone has a weapon or is being equally violent, this is unnecessary force. Which is emphasized by the fact that he seems to have come out of the encounter unscathed, implying that however she attacked him, she caused no significant injuries.

What makes this uncomfortable for fans is that, while Upchurch will no longer be working on Rat Queens, he still co-owns it and will be profiting from the sales. Now, here’s the big question: does this matter? Should my love for Rat Queens and my dislike for the actions of one of its creators be separate? Should I, in fact, kill his authorship? He hasn’t been convicted yet, so should I assume he’s innocent until proven guilty, and financially support him until then?

Kurtis Wiebe, the other co-creator of Rat Queens, has confirmed that Upchurch will no longer have a creative hand in the series. So wouldn’t a lack of readership only harm the title and not Upchurch himself? What about Wiebe and the artist taking over for Upchurch? Should they be punished because of someone who no longer works with them? Reportedly, Tess Fowler will be filling in and she certainly hasn’t been arrested for domestic violence. Do I ignore the issues with her name on it because of the actions of her predecessor?

This is a dilemma that many of us face these days. As I mentioned earlier, the internet has a long memory, but it also has a very short attention span. Next week, next month, or next year, the few people who care about Upchurch’s bout of violence will (possibly) forget, mitigate, or ignore what happened. This happens all the time. Nearly a decade ago, over a dozen women claimed that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them, but it’s only now becoming a real news story. We know for a fact that Roman Polanski raped a thirteen year old girl, but yet he went on to win an Oscar. Mel Gibson made plenty of racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic comments, but people are still willing to go see his movies.

So when the time comes that this part of Upchurch’s personal history is either forgotten or forgiven, Dee, Betty, Violet, and Hannah will still be fighting monsters with sass and sorcery. They’ll probably be just as awesome as before—the only difference is that some readers will be missing out. What it comes down to is: do I want to be one of them?

Honestly, I can’t say. I love Rat Queens, but I hate domestic violence. All I know for certain is that I won’t forget or forgive. Even if I do buy this comic again, it will no longer be because of Roc Upchurch, it will be in spite of him.

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  • Solkir

    Yeah I’m with you there. We’re kinda in the same position. I actually met Roc at NYCC in October. We talked for a few minutes, I bought a print and had him sign my book. Now I’m just like…”What now?”

  • yugande

    It may be difficult in practice, but it’s also the only way to have a objective opinion. There’s all kinds of classic movies that you can throw under the bus based on people who were involved in it’s production alone. To use your examples, chinatown and mad max 1 and 2 or great movies. If roman pulaski had glorified child rape in the story of chinatown or mel gibson had made racist or sexist comments as adlibs or something that were left in mad max 1 and 2, you can then use their real life actions as part of your argument because their in the movie. People are free to have non-objective opinions, and you’re free to not “support” something based the actions of it’s creators(though you have no control over the money once you’ve spent it, so it could always go to something you don’t agree with without you’re knowing it.). Personal bias is always there because people are, well, human beings and not robots. But it’s also means you might not give something a chance that you might otherwise enjoy. But that’s your lose I guess. After all, I don’t care about this comic strip. Never have read it and probably won’t simply because I’m not interested in it’s look or story concept. But if you enjoy it for whatever reason, and the writing remains good with this guy gone, you’re only hurting yourself by not buying it.

  • jokmank

    There’s an awesome writing on Anime News Network about a similar case here:
    http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/answerman/2014-11-21/.81190

    Read this, I beg you!

    If you like the work, support it. You’re not supporting abuse of women, you’re supporting good comics.

    Let’s imagine if, let’s say…Stan Lee, is suddenly revealed to be a wife-beater or something?

    Yes, he would be revealed to be a terrible person, but would that mean that you should stop reading Spider-Man or, well, any Marvel comics?

    And, hell, it’s no secret that Bob Kane was a di*k and yet I don’t see anyone stop reading Batman because of that.

    Yes, finding out that your hero did/said something awful can be rough, and, yes, pop culture is f***ed up as hell when some celebrities never answer for their wrongdoings, while others have their careers destroyed, but supporting a franchise doesn’t automaticaly means that you support the politics or worldviews of the people behind those franchises.

    And, as the article above said, support the good guys that create the work you like, instead of nourishing grudges aganst people you don’t like and whose private lives have nothing to do with their work.

    • Rockatansky

      Bob Kane may have been a dick, but he did no violence to anyone. His behavior toward Bil Finger was certainly reprehensible, but it was also very much in line with that of many publishers and creators from the 1930s right up to the present day.

  • SithSmurf

    Another thing to consider is that if you stop buying the comic, innocent people will be hurt. Not hurt a lot by just one person refusing to buy the comic, of course, but then you wouldn’t be helping Roc a lot by buying it, either.

    It might be considered similarly excessive (though, I have to admit, to a rather lesser degree than bashing one’s wife’s head in).

    • Rockatansky

      That’s a view I actually (as an artist) argue with. No one will be hurt in any meaningful sense if you stop buying “Rat Queens.” No one will be pushed down the stairs, no one will be choked, and no one will have their head bashed in. The booK itself may be cancelled due to poor sales, but that won’t truly harm anyone, although it certainly will spur them into finding new work (which tends to be an inevitability in the artistic field…among others…in any event).

      There is nothing excessive in refusing to support someone whose views and actions are contrary to your own values.

      • CaptainCalvinCat

        I don’t know, I see “Not being able to work on my dream project because my co-creator is a stupid bastard, who hit his wife excessively and now the image of my comic-book is tarnished and no one will buy it” as “being hurt in a meaningful way”. Surely, not in a physical sense, but in a way, that can count, too.

        My idea: The rest of the Rat Queen Team create a foundation and 20 Percent of each purchased comic should be used for good – namely to support people, who suffer from domestic violance.

      • SithSmurf

        I did address that in my comment, anticipating this objection. The degree that others will be hurt (a slight monetary penalty) is the same degree that Upchurch will be helped by a purchase (a slight monetary benefit).

  • April

    This is something I wrestle with as well. One of my favorite artists is Eric Gill who had a creepy sexual history, including having sex with his daughters when they were just kids. One of my favorite books is “Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley and she was a molester who protected a serial rapist of children. It’s a very tough tightrope to balance.

  • Sarah Pace

    I ponder this issue as well. I weigh reading “Ender’s Game” against Orson Scott Card’s vile views and political activism against homosexuality. It’s one thing if you don’t know where your money will go but I hesitate risking supporting any anti-LGBTQ groups by buying his works.

    • lenny

      I’m in the same position. I have no interest in seeing the movie, but the book pops up regularly on “top sci fi books ever” lists.
      On the other hand, just yesterday I watched Naked Lunch, where the the shooting of William S. Burrogh’s wife (by him) is rather casually inserted.
      Then there are probably a lot of dark secrets, that never come to light or are just not widely enough known. Or what about Sean Penn’s violent outbursts in the past? When does s.th. stop leaving a bad taste?
      The “death of the author” theorem is certainly enticing, but could also prevent further discussion of the topic.

      tl;dr : many artists / people of fame are dicks (male or female) and I have no good answer either.

  • Cameron Vale

    I’m a great believer in Death of the Author, and I see no conflict. You agree that bad people can make good art, so you’ve entirely separated those two things. You’re just weighing them against each other to decide whether or not to do a boycott.

    • CaptainCalvinCat

      Most definitely, Cameron.
      I said it in the “Green Hornet” thread yesterday – one should be able to seperate artist and art.
      You are a big fan of “Two and a half man” (the Charlie Sheen years) but you know from media, that Charlie Sheen is a not very nice person? You still can like “Two and a half man” but condemn the actions of the actor Charlie Sheen.

      I for my part like Knight Rider, Star Trek Classic, Andromeda, Stargate SG-1, but I know that David Hasselhoff has a worldview, that one can only see as “interesting”, that Shatner is allegedly an egomaniac (although, when I met him on Fedcon, I found him to be very cool), that RDA is supporting Sea Shepard (I think, he even is on the Board of Directors) and I have my two to three problems with that organizsation.

      I can condemn, when a german actor, who was in my home town was treating me unfair (at least I saw it that way) and yet enjoy the movies, said actor is in.
      I can still enjoy the Mission Impossible Movies with Tom Cruise, although Cruise is supporting Scientology and sometimes seems to be acting very weird.

      And I still can watch and enjoy the “Cosby”-Show.

  • msgundam2

    The old stupid logic of “you was arrested for a crime so you are automatically guilty”. Who need trials? Who needs evidence?

    • Solkir

      Well, to be fair, he did make a statement to Bleeding Cool where he fully admitted to hitting her. Justifying it by saying that she attacked him first.

      http://www.bleedingcool.com/2014/11/18/comics-artist-john-upchurch-arrested-on-charges-of-battery-misdemeanor/

      • SithSmurf

        I think the author of this essay is OK (-ish) with him hitting her in self-defense (which seems fair to me too — if I were to walk up to someone 6’8, who had just finished bench-pressing a city bus, and hit him, would anyone say he couldn’t hit me back?)

        (I mean, I would, at the time, obviously…)

        But if the full extent of what allegedly happened to her did (and that sounds likely), it was far more than would have been justified by self-defense.

    • Hex

      I thought I made it clear in the article, but I guess not so let me clarify. Like Solkir said, he fully admits to hitting her without detailing exactly what he did. He claims it was self defense because she was attacking him. I am perfectly ok with any one of any gender or physical build defending their life when it is necessary. However, the details and images of his wife that she posted after the conflict suggest that he responded excessively (both have been taken down since). This is no longer a question of “did he do it?” but rather “was he justified?”.

      Your concern is valid, and one I tried to address in the essay, however briefly.

  • Cristiona

    Eh. And Lovecraft was a horrible, awful racist. But I’ll still read his works (yes, even the Rats in the Walls and Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family). Sometimes it can be hard to separate the artist from the art, especially if the artist is still alive, but I try to keep them separate.

    Of course, I’m also sick of everything being political and needing to do background checks on every business that I deal with and every artist that I look at, listen to, or read the works of. It’s just too much work for far too little real impact.
    Frankly, if you like the book, keep buying it and enjoying it. Besides, if you dig deep enough, I’m sure you can find something awful about just about everyone everywhere. Granted, not necessarily /this/ awful, but where do you draw the line? Abhorrent views? Misdemeanors? Felonies? Feh.

  • Jonathan Campbell

    Okay, I’ve asked this before, but I’ll ask one more time- by what process does one become a (prospective) staff writer?

    • I’ll post something in the raw feed about it later tonight.

      • Jonathan Campbell

        Good, good.

        Persistent pestering pays….(thesaurus) proceeds?