Dean Trippe's SOMETHING TERRIBLE: A Personal Story of Overcoming Abuse Through Comic Book Superheroes

Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Credit: Dean Trippe

Dean Trippe has worked in comics for about a decade now having contributed to the Eisner-winning Comic Book Tattoo, co-founding the popular Project Rooftop, as well as working on several all-ages books, most recently Power Lunch with writer J. Torres over at Oni Press. However, beneath Trippe's youthful and optimistic work, lay a terrible incident that haunted him for years which he told through Something Terrible, a short story available online.

Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Credit: Dean Trippe

Trippe, without going into too much detail, recalls being assaulted in his youth and how comic book characters, namely Batman, forged him into the person and creator he is today. Newsarama talked to Trippe recently about what made him want to tell his story in this fashion, as well as the closure the project brought him, and how he hopes it will help others who have been in similar horrific situations.

Newsarama: First off, Dean, this work of art is very personal; do you feel any closure now that it's completed and told? Do you still think there's a monster inside you? The metaphorical invisible gun to your head was a seriously moving image.

Dean Trippe: I do feel a great sense of closure. The events of this comic are a few years old for me, so it’s been great being freed from that sense that there might be some secret, psychologically encoded, terrible thing lurking inside me. But making my whole story into a comic has been just as freeing, it turns out, because now I feel like my life and what I learned while trapped by fear and shame can help others find their way out of that same darkness.

I’ve gotten so many letters from people with similar secret origins in the last few weeks, who say just that, that Something Terrible helped them in some way, either to learn that the common misconception that sexual abuse victims become offenders at a higher rate, perpetuated by so many crime dramas, is just that, a common misconception; or that my comic helped them to process their own story and understand why they turned to superheroes in order to feel safe, when the world around them proved itself so dangerous; or to seek professional counseling for the first time. For me, it’s strange and kind of wonderful to have your darkest secret intentionally exposed, only to find so much acceptance, empathy, and understanding.

Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Credit: Dean Trippe

Nrama: What was it about Batman, instead of say, Superman, that made you feel safe and protected and was a sort of symbol of strength?

Trippe: Well, I’ve definitely been a fan of both for many years, but they serve different roles. Superman is the first superhero, and arguably Batman’s greatest ally. But Superman is an ideal being, this godlike figure raised as one of us. He’s very relatable, because everyone who grows up should learn how much more powerful they are than they realized as a kid, but we can never hope to BE Superman. Batman is an OPTION. Every day we choose not to dedicate your life to helping others with the same fierce passion and drive Batman does, and that’s on us.

I couldn’t have explained what really locked me onto Batman when I was eleven, but now I think it’s pretty clear that I saw something that mirrored my own experiences in Bruce Wayne’s origin story. My attacker threatened to kill my family, and showed me a gun. I also always found that “with the devil in the moonlight” line creepily sexual, which may have added something. But Batman wasn’t broken by his trauma, and I wouldn’t be, either. He was a child who decided to build himself into the solution for others. I’ve tried to do the same in my life, and with Something Terrible, I honestly feel like I’ve done the most Batman thing I could do with all that darkness in me and affecting so many others. I’m trying to shine a signal.

Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Credit: Dean Trippe

Nrama: This is the first time you've really branched away from your all-ages format to tell such a personal story. How long ago have you been wanting to get this all out and in the open? What has been the reaction so far?

Trippe: I guess I’ve always wanted a way to tell this story, but it hadn’t reached a resolution point yet that made it anything more than just a personal tale of tragedy. I mean, I think people who’ve experienced similar abuse would have related to it, but I don’t think I could’ve made it into a comic and released it publicly until there was some sort of useful quality to help others, which I think this has. I’ll always do comics with all-ages in mind (that doesn’t mean, “just for kids,” btw, but “also for kids,” which I think more superhero comics should be), but this one had to be told, once my pal Ben Acker convinced me that other people would benefit from it.

One of the reasons I gravitated towards all-ages material when I was in art school, was that my youngest sister is twelve years younger than I am. I just didn’t like the idea of working so hard on things I couldn’t share with her. So between trying to think of stories to impress my college friends and my kid sister in elementary school, I forced myself to make ideas that worked for multiple age groups. I think that’s a pretty useful limitation, to be honest. But now that Melody’s in her twenties, I didn’t feel so limited that I couldn’t tell this story. Also, my son is now the age that I was when my father left, and seeing myself in him, I think I finally can see the level of horror the events of my life at that time truly evoked. Who the hell abandons or hurts little kids?

This is my secret origin, why I became so inspired by Batman, why I found drawing to be such a useful outlet, why I started telling stories, why I wanted to be a good dad, all of it, and I hope one day I can let my son read it, and that he’ll be proud that I made this comic to help others.

Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Credit: Dean Trippe

Nrama: Let's lighten up the convo for a sec and talk about the color scheme used here. It's sort of reminds me of The Wizard of Oz and actually Traffic in how they used different light filters to distinguish different locations and settings. Where did the idea to use the black and blue palette come from? Or was it on purpose to use Batman's colors?

Trippe: I was going to go straight black and white, but when I was working on page twelve, the “You’ll Be Safe Here” image, I knew it had to be in color, even if it wasn’t in color in the story itself, so I colored it. But then I realized it could have that Wizard of Oz effect, so I planned on that. Then when I did the cover, I used a grayish blue—actually the blue colorists use to “back up” the black linework on the color channels, which I thought had a cool feel to it. I think Hannah Nance Partlow, who designed the text logo for Something Terrible, suggested using it throughout, so I did a test of the first page, and we both thought that looked pretty good. I was a little on the fence for a while, mostly because I didn’t know if I’d have time to go back and add the spot color to every page, but then another friend on the inside track, Chad Thomas, said it was night and day better, so, haha, he kinda guilted me into all that extra work. It was the right move, though, I’m really happy with the final look.

Nrama: You also give thanks and credit to Grant Morrison in your comic. What is is about Morrison's work that speaks to you as a fellow creator and Batman-enthusiast?

Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Credit: Dean Trippe

Trippe: Man, so much. And I feel bad for leaving out so many other writers whose stories have meant so much to me, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, on and on and on. I’ve singled out Morrison’s work, mostly because Flex Mentallo was the real catalyst for drawing a little comic where my heroes could save me as a kid. I think Morrison's celebrity in the field affords him a good deal of free rein to take titles in unexpectedly progressive directions. My theory is that he delivers on the promises of the book. New X-Men presents the next stage in minority population growth. His Batman run gives the ultimate surrogate father a son of his own, and later, delivers on the promise of Robin, that Dick Grayson must one day become Batman. All-Star Superman gives us the best last story of Superman ever, even though he’d written a sequel to it eleven years earlier. His stories move forward, and the next guys always reset it back. A lot of my favorite series writers grab a few of his characters and keep them around, and move forward themselves.

I think Morrison and all of my favorite writers enter into a new story with a belief in the core concepts of the characters. When a new writer comes onto a Superman title and says something like, “Don’t worry, guys, I’m going to make Superman cool,” I know they don’t have any business writing Superman. Superman’s cooler than you, hypothetical writer dude. He’s crossed every medium and is all over the world, inspiring people to be better. Also, when someone says Superman’s too powerful to think of challenges for, it just means they’re a bad writer. Imagination is limitless, man. All Star Superman powered him up to crazy new levels, because the challenges that are hard for him are more than just physical, they’re psychological. Otherwise a normal person like Lex Luthor wouldn’t pose any threat at all. How do you defeat someone who destroys every evidence of their crimes, without crossing the lines that make you a hero rather than a villain? Lex Luthor is Evil Batman, so it’s tough.

Nrama: Did you hold back any moments when deciding what to show and tell? Are there any fantasy scenes with other fictional characters you wanted to include but were cut due to pacing or just didn't feel right?

Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Credit: Dean Trippe

Trippe: Yeah, I was going to have Superman and the Doctor arrive with Batman, but I don’t think the rest of the story had time to establish my love and connection with them as well, so I simplified it down to just Batman. And the TARDIS interior scene was going to be another page, but it seemed to take away from the big reveal. I’m thinking about drawing a little deleted scene to send out to folks who have donated at the site. There’s one thing grown up me needed to say to Batman.

Nrama: Aside from the autobiographical aspect, it sort of reads like an homage and love letter to comics as a whole. How did you find the balance between those two sides of the story?

Trippe: Haha, I don’t think I really thought about it, to be honest. I just tried to craft scenes of my life into a cohesive narrative, and it’s not surprising at all that it would read like a love letter to superhero comics. My heart is jam-packed with those feelings.

Nrama: In the afterword, you list several rape crisis organizations including RAINN, but what are you hoping personally a fan or casual reader takes away from Something Terrible?

Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Page from Something Terrible by Dean Trippe
Credit: Dean Trippe

Trippe: I hoped to help destigmatize victims of sexual violence. There are far too many of us for these hateful misconceptions to still be floating around, keeping everyone from sharing their true stories openly with their closest friends. And I wanted to let anyone out there who has experienced these kind of traumas know they can put the invisible guns down. You don’t have to live with a suicide pact. There isn’t something terrible lurking deep inside you. You are who you choose to be. Use all of your abilities to help everyone you can. Life is hard enough without a lifelong, one-person, suicide pact.

I drew so much strength from the story of Batman, but it took drawing him rescuing me and then researching statistics about what happened to me, to finally be freed of it. I can’t tell you how shocking it’s been for me to find so much acceptance where I feared rejection, in telling my closest friends what I was working on this year. If you have close friends who you trust, getting this giant secret out of your soul might help you as much as it did me.

And if not, you’ll always be welcome here with me and the superheroes.

Trippe mentions several rape crisis and recovery programs and networks where you can go to for help including the aforementioned RAINN. If you, or somebody you know needs help, please contact RAINN.org or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

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