To me, the year’s best comic, without a doubt, was “Something Terrible,” Dean Trippe’s autobiographical web comic about being a victim of childhood sexual abuse, the years of trauma that followed and the healing power of superhero and fantasy characters, most prominently, Batman. It’s an extraordinary piece of art and an incredibly brave endeavor.
“Something Terrible” recounts how Trippe was sexually assaulted as a boy and how he grew up in severe psychic pain, a phantom handgun pressed against his skull. It’s stark, bold storytelling, with little dialogue and many memorable images. It’s told largely in black and white with washed out, blue-gray highlights. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything because it’s an image that’s been spread across the Internet, but the climax mimics the moment when Dorothy enters the Land of Oz, in all its Technicolor glory, as Batman tells him “You’ll be safe here”:
Trippe’s now preparing to get on the Kickstarter circuit to raise the cash to get the comic printed. He’s publishing it in sequences weekly for free at tencentticker.com but he’s also made the entire story available for download at 99 cents at the same link.
I don’t say this lightly, but I urge you to support this work. And I hope the Eisner people are paying attention.
Even though the story is very much Trippe’s own, it deals with universal themes of alienation and isolation that I think a lot of comics readers and creators can identify with. So I reached out to the artist and over a series of emails, conducted an interview to get into the genesis of the project and its resulting impact.
He was amazingly gracious and shared some of his roughs, showing the progress of his work. These haven’t been published elsewhere and I’m proud to show them off here.
Dan Greenfield: When you first pressed the button on your computer to start sending this out into public, what was going through your mind?
Dean Trippe: Well, I felt a huge sense of relief in completing the project, and it had really hit me that this would probably be the most useful thing I do as a comics creator, for the rest of my life. I spent a year crafting this very short story, trying to carry the future readers deep into a dark place and then bring them out better than when they’d entered into the Batcave with me. I hadn’t considered telling my own secret origin until I’d found my own resolution to the trauma that haunted my life, but putting the true events into scenes and building towards the climactic color page was easily the most challenging work I’ve ever attempted. I started thinking maybe I got into making comics in the first place as a sort of psychological immune system response, a subconscious attempt to finally knit the persistent wound together. I knew my story would break some readers’ hearts, but my hope was that by the end of it, it could put them back together better than before. I posted the comic, and thought, “Done.”
What’s the response been like?
Well, it’s been kind of incredible on several levels. The love and support and understanding and encouragement from my friends and fans has all been overwhelming, especially considering that I kept this massive part of my inner life secret for nearly 30 years, out of fear of rejection, confusion, and discouragement.
Also, it’s been the most reviewed, and most positively reviewed piece of art I’ve ever created, so I’ve been humbled to see such glowing words for this story that took me so long to craft, coming from some of my favorite people working in comics and comics journalism.
And third, it’s been my most profitable comic … surpassing any of my previous print works in just a few weeks of being online, which makes me think I’ll be going digital for all my solo work from here on out.
But most importantly, the response from other victims of childhood sexual abuse has broken my heart again and again, but hearing from other folks who had to live in the darkness, having them say “Something Terrible” helped them let go of their fears or finally choose to seek help for their depression, or just find solace in knowing I grew up in the dark with them, it’s just exactly what I’d hoped to do by telling my story.
You note the profitability. Have you heard from DC or any of the other rights holders?
I haven’t. My story is a true one, and while I considered using thinly-veiled, modified versions of the heroes I depicted, I felt like altering the truth of my life in this comic would cheapen the message and run counter to my openness and honesty needed to make “Something Terrible” in the first place. I feel like my use of these characters, given the true nature of the material, is fair. I don’t expect to hear from any of the companies who own the copyrights to our heroes, though I’ve received many positive notes from creators and other employees working for them. I don’t think you’ll see the Big Two publicly mention my comic.
But their heroes, forged by thousands of poor artists and writers, pouring their hearts into the idea of special people who would rescue everyone they can, actually saved my life, here in the real world. And I’m far from the only one. I’m hearing from former victims from all over the world who endured bullying, child abuse, sexual violence, and so many other crimes, who were rescued by “escapism.” Whether it was Harry Potter, Captain America, Doctor Who, the X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman, or Green Lantern, fictional stories showed them that heroes were possible, despite the absence of them in their own lives. And for so many, as it was for me, it was the perfect hero borne of childhood tragedy, Batman.
And the comic itself is a free webcomic running weekly at the “Something Terrible” site, I just decided to make the $0.99 option for folks who wanted to download it early and contribute to my next comic, a superhero adventure story I’m co-creating with my son. That option’s proved more popular than I could’ve guessed. I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who’s purchased the .PDF or donated to help me keep making stories about heroes for kids, like the ones that saved my life.
You’ve been hearing from a lot of victims. What have they been telling you, in broad strokes? Any plans for their stories?
Well, most of the folks writing have very similar stories. It’s heartbreaking, because so many seem so much worse to me. While the psychic scars and isolation that I dealt with were clearly a huge part of my life for so long, I’m finding myself overwhelmed by just how much worse some of these crimes are. I mean, the stats are insane, first of all. The high range, estimated due to how under-reported child sexual abuse is, put this at one in three girls and one in five boys. That’s an epidemic, and it’s the silence and misinformation that allows it to continue. We were all taught “stranger danger,” but in fact, the majority of these cases, by far, were committed by people known to the victim, often very well.
I’m lucky, as strange as it is to say such a thing, that my rapist wasn’t someone in my family. It was the teenage son of a family we knew well through our church. And once my mom figured out that something was wrong and confirmed her suspicions with me, she was able to get him arrested. He confessed, not only about me, but about his various other victims, and was prosecuted.
For so many of the CSV victims I’m hearing from, it was a family member, even a parent, or a close relative who they had to be around for years. I had a three-day nightmare that changed the course of my entire life, putting me in a darkness that took me decades to recover from, and some of the emails I’m getting are from people who as children experienced assaults on a daily basis for years, as children, sometimes not knowing that this wasn’t a normal part of life for all kids. Some knowing it was a crime, but too terrified to tell anyone. And WORST OF ALL, I cannot even wrap my head around how this is possible, but so many weren’t believed when they did try to get help from another adult, even their own parents.
If I had the TARDIS from my story, I’d not only rescue them, but stop just to slap the hell out of these parents who didn’t believe their own children who desperately needed to be saved from their attackers.
I have no plans to do anything with their stories, creatively, but my official Facebook page, http://facebook.com/ilikedeantrippe/, has overnight turned into a community of support and acceptance, with former victims, men and women, gay and straight, folks from all over the world, sharing their stories, either publicly with the rest of the folks on there, or privately with me, and I feel so moved that my story has somehow created the “safe place” it alluded to metaphorically.
People are opening up, many for the first time, and finding the strength and understanding they need, sometimes to confront the rest of their family about these past crimes for the first time. And from a fandom perspective, it’s interesting hearing from folks which heroes kept them sane and gave them hope that people could truly care about others and rescue those in danger. For me it was Batman. For many it was Doctor Who or Superman or Spider-Man.
I was particularly touched by a message from a man whose hero was Green Lantern, for as a Lantern fan myself, I think the idea of a magic wishing ring that protects you from all harm and could make anything you could possibly need, is perfection. Chalk up another life saved by Bill Finger (and Marty Nodell’s) imagination, huh?
But whether it was Hogwarts or the TARDIS or Middle Earth or the Ninja Turtles sewer lair they escaped to, they are all grateful to those of us in the creative fields who gave them visions of beings who would always do the right thing, even if it was difficult, even if everyone was against them. We humans have done a very clever thing with our hero myths, by telling ourselves we could be better, despite the temptations toward selfishness and fear.
The reason the story resonated with me was that Batman was a great haven for me growing up. Thankfully, I was never the victim of a crime like this, but I had a lot of crap to deal with: My parents had an exceptionally ugly and rancorous divorce and we moved mid-high school so I had a lot of crap to deal with there: outsider, new kid, one of maybe two or three Jewish kids in a school of about 1,000. Have you heard from people with these kinds of stories?
I’m so glad you didn’t have to deal with this particular crime. And yes, I have. I included the one shot to convey that I was bullied in high school by a couple of particularly horrible tormenters, who, to be fair, I’d made myself a target of, by defending the smaller kids they’d locked in on first. The problem with having a quick wit and intolerance of injustice is that you’re bound to get beat up in a bathroom every now and then.
I always felt like an outsider, even though I had several amazing friends, and made people laugh or impressed folks with my then-terrible, but locally impressive drawing skills. But for some of the folks writing me, it was a death in the family, even suicides, which, I unfortunately can empathize all too well with, having lost a very close family member during her battle with mental illness and depression. For some, it was bullying, or absent parents, or just the natural loneliness that seems to come with being a little ahead or a little behind the other students in social activities or intellectual development, or whatever.
It means so much to me that people who’ve fought such diverse battles can relate to my very particular story. I’m glad it seems to have a more universal appeal than I’d expected. It really is meant for everyone. I love superheroes and their basic mission, “Use all of your abilities to help everyone you can,” as much as anyone possibly can, and I’m uncharacteristically proud to have made a comic that explains how valuable an idea that is, that fictional heroes change the real world for the better.
And, dude, I can TOTALLY relate (as you know) to what a haven the Batcave and the Bat-Family are when you are dealing with difficult stuff. I honestly feel like Dick Grayson was my awesome older brother. I had Bruce as a surrogate dad, alongside my stepdad who adopted me, and reinforced his goodness; one of my sisters has red hair, and dressed up as Batgirl one year for Halloween when I was Batman. My whole life has been aided by having these fictional people feel like an extension of my real, and very wonderful, family.
I’m sad for them they didn’t have my mom, though. One Sarah Trippe is worth more than all of Batman Inc., and anyone in my hometown will tell you that … though probably not using that comparison. Ha ha.
What are your next steps with this project? I mean, there has to be a way to take it further. You’ve really hit on something.
I don’t know. I’ve talked to some groups that deal with adult survivors of child sexual abuse, and some folks who work in pop-culture-related therapy situations in order to help people process their feelings and manage their recovery. I’m considering a print version of the story (some of this interview was conducted just before he announced he was going the Kickstarter route), maybe with profits shared to some group, though it’s tough to figure out what the best steps to ending this epidemic are. Is it awareness, helping adult victims recover, lobbying for harsher punishments for offenders? I don’t know. I think the book alone has done some good already.
But my next main focus is going to be a team superhero book with my son, which we’ve been writing together for about two years now, called “The Balance.” It’s got a cool message and features superheroes so fun and powerful they make the Justice League and the Avengers look like the B-Teams. “The Balance” is our chance to give kids some new heroes with new powers and who look a little less homogenized. And it’s fun. I think my strength, artistically, has always been drawing colorful costumed characters doing awesome things, for all-ages stories, so I’m happy to be heading back to that.
You have lovely things in the afterword to say about your family. Tell me more about their reaction to this. Is there anyone who said this project was a bad idea?
Not at all. In fact, having not spoken with my parents about this event much since it all went down, it was funny, because I kinda eased into a conversation about it one afternoon, a little over a year ago, at lunch with my mom and son, talking about protecting him from the kind of things I’d been through, vaguely bringing up the topic. And she had a very knowing, very supportive look on her face. She’s a preschool teacher, and is amazing with kids of all ages, and has had the opportunity a few times to advise some parents either in similar situations to ours, or to help them avoid them.
But I’d just started planning to make my story into a comic, but I wanted to let my mom know I was doing that. And I mentioned how Batman, the idea of a boy who chose who he wanted to be, had helped me so much — she’s heard me preach many a sermon on the virtues of Batman’s origin story, mind you — and she said something like, “And you have the ability to speak to these issues in a way no one else can, Dean. You could help people with your story, because of who you became and what your talents are.” It’s like she already knew somehow. Moms, right?
So I’d told her about the comic. My mom’s always been great, but I’ve never wanted to bring up this old wound, but since we have, we’ve been closer than ever. She was incredibly supportive while I was working on the comic, and when it was almost finished, I asked her for some of the information I never had, had forgotten, or might have had wrong. I was glad to hear my memory of these events was dead on, and finding out a few new things, like that my adoptive dad, Charlton Trippe, literally the man I admire most on this planet, was already dating my mom when this happened, meant the world to me. Everything that year besides the attack had become a blur, because I was so in the darkness in my own mind. But for Dad to have stepped in and helped us through the worst event of my life? Dan, I didn’t think I could love that man more, and now I do. I also had to tell my sisters about it all, the younger of which didn’t know about it at all, but everyone’s been so incredibly supportive.
And I started dating my now long-time girlfriend, Candace O’Neal, the coolest, funniest, smartest, prettiest, kindest person I’ve ever met, while I was in the middle of this book, because we’d gotten to know each other so well in texting and phone calls already, and because I’d gotten comfortable sharing what I was working on with my closest friends, I opened up to her about it on our first date. Which is insane! But working on “Something Terrible,” I’d really gotten to a point where I realized that no one who didn’t know where I came from knew me AT ALL. And I wanted to start out our relationship with the truth. And she is so very much like me in her need to help others, she knew right away what this story would mean to people, and has championed and encouraged me through this entire process. I feel like everything in my life really started clicking into place once I realized I’d found a job, not for a superhero, but for Dean Trippe.
This has been far and away the best year of my life, even though it’s been scattered with weird, wildly unfortunate things, like my car dying several times, requiring extensive, expensive repairs, or having to replace my laptop, or my son being sicker than he’s ever been, or being constantly on the verge of not even having money for gas.
But we’ve pulled through all of these things, and it’s been because we’ve all had each others’ backs. I can’t tell you how much I wish that was true of everyone on this planet. No one deserves to have to struggle in silence or solitude. Even loner Batman has his teams and allies. And if you feel alone, dear readers, please know that I drew page 12 of this story, working on it every day for thirteen days straight, because I wanted you to have at least a mental place where all our heroes are there just for you. And I’m there for you, too, just behind Wolverine.
I started to feel that flush of emotion when you talked about Dick Grayson being like an older brother. God, I felt the same thing, although I liked to imagine that I was Dick Grayson, that my school was Hudson University and that my town was New Carthage. It felt so close and so real and it wasn’t until years later that I understood just how desperate I was to escape. I didn’t even understand the pain I was in at the time.
That’s so often the case. I know I wasn’t escaping to superhero worlds by conscious choice, but just out of mental necessity. And fortunately, it was at a time when the heroes were so comforting and good, so righteous and relatable, they really were able to give me a foundation for functioning as a person that I could emulate well into adulthood.
People who aren’t fans just don’t understand just how immersive these worlds can be and how much they can heal.
Maybe. I think nearly everyone has some kind of silly hobby or interest that gives them some kind of comfort. I do think there are folks who see superhero universes as such an inconsequential interest they can’t wrap their heads around why they matter so much to nerds like us. That’s how I feel about sports.
I’m not even sure I have a question here. … When I read “Something Terrible,” I wanted to reach out and say, “I understand you. And thank you for giving such an eloquent voice to my own youthful pain.” I also am blessed with a warm and loving family. My wife is incredibly supportive and when my son and I go out, it’s like having my very own sidekick. I imagine others have said the same thing. How old is your son now?
Thanks, man. He’s five. I know what you mean about the sidekick thing. I definitely feel that sometimes. I find myself more often falling into Alfred mode, though, and letting my son be the Batman. With my girlfriend’s son, I’m more Nightwing. Ha ha. Oh God, Dan. It’s my whole life. Hero to some, sidekick to others, mentor to a few.