Even though the comic has been out for over a year now, this disgusting panel from Kick-Ass 2 (by Millar and Romita Jr.) is making waves again. There's a new Kick-Ass movie coming out, you see, because the first one was profitable. I thought the first Kick-Ass, book and movie, had some redeeming qualities, especially as the movie had the wherewithal to excise some of the more reprehensible parts of the comic. I like that John Romita Jr. is making more money from these books than probably anything else he's ever done or will ever do, even if I have to wonder if he is completely satisfied with putting his name on these stories.
The panel reproduced above is reprehensible because it takes place as part of a violent rape. It looks bad in isolation, but comics panels (mostly) do not exist in isolation. Context is extremely important, and an examination of the page in question reveals that context does nothing whatsoever to ameliorate the content of the panel. Context makes it much worse.
There's little you can say to redeem this kind of story. If you're going to have rape in fiction - and obviously we will continue to have rape in fiction, much as we may wish that people who didn't know better would just shut up about the subject - then you should be responsible about the kind of violence you're showing, its consequences and its victims. Admittedly, this is a problem with most violence used in mainstream comics (and mainstream movies and music too, for that matter) that portray consequence-free violence of all types. But it's even worse in the case of rape because most men who write about rape don't seem to understand the factors that make rape substantially different than other kinds of violence. (And even a few who probably do, like Alan Moore, let their - shall we say - idiosyncratic ideas about sex lead them astray in some crucial and unsettling ways.)
But I'm not saying anything you don't already know.
What you might not know, or may have forgotten, is that this infamous panel, such as it is, wasn't even particularly original. In fact, the "punchline," if you can call it that, was stolen wholesale from another, far better comic. That comic was Preacher #49.
What's the difference between the way Garth Ennis and Steve Dillion use the line, and how Millar does? There is a world of difference, and that difference is context.
One thing you might not know from reading the page, if you've never read this specific issue, or Preacher before: this is a dream sequence. The series' protagonist, Jesse Custer, has spent four years in a quest to find God and come up completely empty, seemingly abandoned by his friends and alone in the world. Until this issue, that is: although the series still had a year and a half left, this issue is the first and only time Jessie actually comes face to face with God to hold him to account for His creation. Jessie takes some peyote and falls into a nightmare before God appears to him, and it is in this vision that he sees his best friend and lover corrupted by his evil brother.
Just to be sure, let's look at the next page for even more context:
There are many arguments to be had about the function of gender in Preacher. Although Ennis isn't perfect in his portrayal of women, I have always believed Preacher worked more often than not because of the way the entire series was structured as a long-form dismantling of some of the most noxious masculine stereotypes, in particular the ways men treat women. Even benign (and ostensibly heroic!) notions such as chivalry are examined and discarded over the course of the story. Part of what is happening here in this vision is that Jesse is learning just how short-sighted and offensive some of his notions regarding women, even supposedly flattering and romantic notions, actually are. And since it's his nightmare, this lesson comes in the form of his evil brother taunting him in the most offensive way imaginable.
For another illustration of this principle in Ennis, I'd take a look at this essay David Brothers wrote back in 2009 on the subject of the use of "nigger" in Ennis' Hellblazer, and how context makes all the difference with Ennis. Which is another way of saying that context usually does matter, and that even the more offensive elements of his stories (and there are many) usually carry some kind of meaning other than cheap shock. (Not that he's above the occasional bit of cheap shock.)
But this isn't about Ennis, and this isn't about Preacher. This is the fact that Millar obviously stole a punchline from one of Ennis' signature series. That's worth reiterating: this wasn't some obscure Avatar side-project. There's a good chance your local Barnes & Noble has a couple volumes of Preacher on the shelves. And if you look at the two panels side-by-side, it's really blatantly obvious that Millar stole this "joke" from Ennis. The only difference between the two panels is context - and in this instance, context makes all the difference.