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.
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.