Dean Trippe’s ‘Something Terrible’ Tackles Childhood Trauma and the Healing Superpower of Comics
There's a lot to be said for the splash page which concludes Dean Trippe's deeply personal Something Terrible, a new 18-page digital comic available for $0.99. You could spend a serious amount of time figuring out and naming each character pictured in the previously released and wildly reblogged image "You'll Be Safe Here": The Rocketeer, Indiana Jones, He-Man, and essentially every member of the Bat-family. Gremlins, Transformers, Spider-Men and... is that the Crow? Beloved characters populate a scene witnessed in the foreground by a young boy, standing protected by Batman himself.
What you couldn't see until Trippe released the story behind it was just how much the scene meant to him not as a fan but as a man, and how much the world of fiction and fantasy can offer a child who truly needs an escape from an unthinkable reality of abuse and trauma.
Something Terrible is the story of Trippe's childhood sexual abuse and painful struggle with its psychological aftermath. Though the comic itself is sparsely scripted and free of gory details, Trippe provides an afterword that relates the hard facts: he was raped as a child by a teenager, and for three days. The older boy, who took advantage of the trust of someone much too young, threatened Trippe's family and used a gun as persuasion. Though he was eventually prosecuted, there's no undoing what was done.
The most interesting aspect of the comic is how Trippe addresses the convention wisdom of "the cycle of abuse." Terrified by cop shows and other pop cultural procedurals that perpetuate the idea of abused children becoming child abusers later in their own lives, Trippe swore an oath to end his life if he ever had sexual thoughts about children. A distinctly dark and complex topic, it seems to have caused the cartoonist decades of anxiety. What happens to a victim of molestation who is constantly (if inadvertently) told that he himself will end up causing the same pain to someone else? Told that it is inevitable. How can someone live in fear, forever, that he might become a monster?
In a little more than a dozen comic book pages, Trippe explains how the world of fiction became an escape for him -- a necessary one. He fell into the universes of comics and movies, finding solace in heroes who, despite their faults or what had befallen them, managed to accomplish amazing feats and save others from their same fates. Although Trippe's trauma was (thankfully, hopefully) pretty unique, the experience is still universal. We don't often read superhero comics to feel even more fully our harsh, unforgiving realities -- we read them to escape into a world of infinite possibility. Along those lines, Something Terrible addresses the layers below the surface of fan culture, to the things we really need from Gotham and Metropolis. We can gripe and complain about Batfleck and the New 52, but we all came here for a reason. Some of us just need it more than others.
What I love about this comic, and about many autobio comics, is why it was made. No editor was pushing a deadline here; Dean Trippe had a demon that needed exorcising. So much of the art that matters comes from places like that. It's the words in your throat that you can't stop from saying or they'll make you sick. The songs you have to write just so you can get them to quit haunting you. The stories that need to be told so that you can have some kind of closure. It's a vulnerable art, and there's so much to love about that. It's brave, and maybe to a few people it relates in a way that's genuinely needed.
Between this, Noelle Stevenson's Things I Lost and Matt Fraction's recent response to a fan considering suicide, the comics community has been touching on some dark subjects in a surprisingly hopeful way lately.
Trippe's story has the closest thing it can to a happy ending. Read it for yourself, but take heart in knowing that the real life statistics turned out to be in favor of people in his position. Children who have suffered abuse do not typically become abusers. As Trippe says, "The stats are too horrifyingly high for that to be true." It's reaffirming, casting a whole different light on what art can mean to someone in need. Sure, cape comics can be a fun way to fill a lunch break, but they can also be a safe haven for a child trying to deal with the most important questions of his life. Dean Trippe found Batman in a world he couldn't control, and it gave him the tools to put himself back together. Comics gave him the tools to tell his story, and his story might just give someone else what they need to start moving forward.
In that way and many others, Something Terrible is a wonderful thing.