Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Super Hero Marriage and Maturity: The Short Sighted Path

I had a hard time coming up with a title that didn't make this sound like I was in support of the Defense of Marriage Act, so I removed defense from the title to begin with, as this post has nothing to do with gay marriage. Well, a little, since the Batwoman issue is what cued it, but that's only the most recent symptom of a problem I have seen expanding over mainstream comics the past few years. I want to admit up front, since this is an op/ed piece, there is more focus on a problem in the industry then something to celebrate, but I will be talking about some really great comics along the way, with probably a little section at the end about some of my favorite married superhero stories, and this is something I feel pretty strongly about.

For those of you who don't follow the comics news sites with the religious fervor that I do, this past weekend it was announced the creative team of DC's Batwoman title were leaving due to editorial interference, much of which had to do with DC not wanting the character to get married to her partner, GCPD Captain Maggie Sawyer. Yes, Batwoman is gay. And the main hue and cry has been that DC is afraid of pissing off people by having a gay character get married, or are themselves homophobes. I'm not going to speak to either of those points, since I am not acquainted with the people involved and don't want to cast aspersions. But what I see here is something more systemic than Batwoman and Maggie (who are a great couple, by the way, and I was hoping they'd get married), but has more to do with the second half of that two part phrase; "marriage" is more of a dirty word in mainstream comics than "gay" right now, and that is symbolic of one of the industries real problems. And for the benefit of the uninitiated as well, I'll be talking about The Big Two in this essay, meaning Marvel and DC. They are pretty much the focus of what I'm saying, so no one give me a comment about change, marriage, and maturity with a list of indy books after this, since I know and read plenty of comics that embrace the solution to the problems I'm gonna be talking about in DC and Marvel.

In the late 80s and 90s, there were a rash of superhero marriages. Spider-Man married Mary Jane, Superman married Lois Lane, Flash (Wally West) married Linda Park, Cyclops married Phoenix (the real Jean Grey, not a clone or cosmic doppelganger), and quite a few others. These were usually pretty big deals, especially the Spider-Man and Superman ones. These were major changes to status quos; things that had been etched in stone for the majority of the character's existence had been rewritten. And there, my friends, is the real problem that we have here: CHANGE. Super hero comics embrace the illusion of change, but the real thing causes all sorts of stress amongst fans and professionals, and frankly most, if not all, professionals started out as fans.

So, as is the way with nearly all real changes, these were slowly phased out. Spider-Man sold his marriage to the devil to save his aunt from dying (because the people they were worrying about offending by a divorce would have no problem with deals with the devil). Phoenix died. And the New 52 meant pretty much all DC heroes were younger, and thus not married, or like poor Wally West didn't exist anymore. And the reason that was given for this was usually that the creators/editors/whoever wanted the characters to be more relateable, and they felt the demographic they were looking for couldn't relate to a married hero.

Now some could argue that there are still married heroes left. Let's look at the few married heroes. Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four is not meant to be the character that is the reader proxy in that title. He's aloof at times, manipulative at others, and is the father of the family; readers are meant to associate with either Human Torch or The Thing. Animal Man's family has basically been hostages and targets since the inception of the New 52, which is fine from a story POV, and his daughter Maxine now has her animal powers, and so the book is as much about her growth into that power as Animal Man's own superheroic struggles. Frankly, as mature superhero books go, Animal Man is one of the best examples I can come up with, dealing with family, loss, fame, and heroism.

And in that last sentence there's the key word: maturity. Superhero comics started out as adolescent power fantasies. If you look at the majority of creators of the earliest superheroes, they were sickly, outcast, oddballs, and people seeking to find their power. So many Golden Age creators were Jews in a time where a shadow was being cast over their European families, no wonder they looked for a simple answer (Curious to learn more? Check out Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book for a great history of the golden age). But that was seventy-five years ago. And while comics have come a long way, dealing with all sorts of issues that Siegel, Shuster, Kane, Simon, Kirby, and Eisner never would have, so much about mainstream superheroes haven't.

Change and maturity are two very different things, which is something the Big Two tend to confuse. Mature is not a comic that has boobs and violence; mature is a comic that deals with people as people and sees them grow and change into something more than what they are at the beginning of their story. DC's Vertigo imprint has published some very mature comics, and one or two of Marvel's MAX  titles have also been mature, but many are just labeled as "Mature readers" to allow for things that might possibly offend a parent who might stumble upon a comic their kid bought.

When you look at life, there are some very clear marks of maturity; graduations, marriages, and the births of children come to mind. The sliding time scale of the superhero comic allows aging to be avoided rather easily, but these kind of milestones are signs of changes in life, and when they happen the character is changed. I feel like the creators of Marvel and DC comics are doing their readers a disservice. I work in a comic shop, I see the audience, and the mainsteam superhero comic isn't being consumed by seven to twelve year olds. The Big Two wants to appeal to an older demographic, but they're doing it by appealing to the lowest common denominator, the people who associate boobs, blood, and barbarism with maturity.

The issue where Cyclops and Phoenix got married stands as one of my favorite X-Men comics of all time, and I know plenty of others who feel the same way. And while the Superman Wedding Album was clearly rushed due to DC's having to line it up with the wedding on the Lois & Clark TV show, there are still some golden moments in it. And the married Superman and Lois Lane worked brilliantly together. Their relationship was a partnership, and when written properly, she brought out the best in him and vice versa. They grew together, and became different and interesting characters. It's how I first really encountered them (the first Superman story I read was the one where Clark proposed to Lois), and I think there's a lot to be said about what really grounds Superman, and I think it's a lot of what is missing in his New 52 characterization. Exploring how life is different can make for interesting stories, more interesting than rehashing the old will they/won't they. I will give DC credit for not immediately dipping into that well again by pairing Superman with Wonder Woman, but as long as Lois is there, everyone will know who Superman is meant to be with.

So, where does reverting thee heroes really get us? The short sighted path. The idea that we now have the same swingin' single Spider-Man of the 60s and 70s is fun, but when another writer gets the idea to really hook Spidey up with someone who means something to him, are they going to do it, knowing that whatever happens Mephisto can pop up and it will be rewritten by an editor who doesn't like the idea. When Superman and Wonder Woman get too close, are they going to split to give him and Lois a chance to dance the dance they did for fifty years? I'm not naive enough to believe that most of the people involved in these characters lives' aren't in it purely for the money, but at the same time, the industry can only alienate existing readers so many times before they call it quits. Growth and continuity aren't the same thing. You don't need to have read thirty years of Superman to understand his relationship with Lois when it was written well. A married couple is a couple like any other, and by the way, anyone who says a married couple can't have adventures, on their own or separately, and that there's no conflict left once you've "settled down," is so utterly unfamiliar with what real relationships are like that I feel kind of sorry for them.

So, what can be done about this? I wish I could tell you. I won't say you should all drop Batwoman, since I think Marc Andreyko is one of the best and most underappreciated writers in comics, thanks to his work on Manhunter (and, for those of you who are interested, one of the few publicly gay writers in mainstream comics) and I think he's going to do some very smart and mature work with the character, married or not, and dropping a book before you give it a shot is anathema to my beliefs that trying a comic before badmouthing it is the way to go. But what you can really do is support books that reward character as much as action. Batwoman has done a great job of this, as has Wonder Woman, Batman & Robin, Hawkeye, and the late, lamented X-Factor.

Oh, and if you like stories featuring your superheroes married, you might want to check out some of the following: Adventures of Superman by Greg Rucka collected in three trades, Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix by Scott Lobdell and Gene Ha, Mark Waid or Geoff Johns's The Flash, and anything you can track down featuring Ralph and Sue Dibny, DC's Elongated Man and his wife, my favorite superhero couple. And if you want a story of a superhero growing up and maturing set within one of these universes, try James Robinson's brilliant Starman.

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