Sunday, 8 September 2013

In defence of unmarried super heroes

And so the news that DCcomics has forbidden the marriage of Batwoman to her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer and the predictable uproar follows. There are multiple sources of outrage to enjoy: editorial interfering in the sacred creative process, homophobia, dramatic stagnation, anti-marriage prejudice and of course the lingering hurt of a self-in-the-foot-shooting spree by DC over the last couple of years.

But I think it’s the right decision. I think splitting up Spidey and Mary Jane was the right decision and splitting up Superman and Lois was the right decision, too.

Romantic intrigue is a terrific source of narrative tension. Think how much mileage they made from it in the silver-age. Obviously we think of those as light-hearted fluff, but don’t they express something of the sexual politics of the late fifties and early sixties? Maybe in fact, they anticipate feminism – here is a strong career woman trying to penetrate the core of masculinity.

The fact that she’s fended off and often humiliated in every attempt perhaps reflects the intended audience of teenage boys, but it’s also a form of courtship. The stories take the form of romantic comedies, where she’s trying to trick Superman into marriage through finding out his true name, and there’s only two romantic comedies end: will they or won’t they?

Of course, it’s almost always the former and comics in the silver age would probably not have dealt too
much with the latter (except perhaps for occasions Superman’s forced to make woo with a sultry villainess through mind control, threats or some other form of duress). It’s implied in the Lois and Clark shenanigans that this isn’t ‘will they won’t they?’ but ‘HOW will they (and occasionally won’t they)?’

Lois and Clark getting married is, of course, the only logical conclusion of that story. That’s true of any story that depends on sexual tension to drive the plot. The big moment when the narrative tension final breaks is always worth waiting for. At the very cracking point of the story, if you can time it just right you’ve got a classic love story on your hands. The first kiss, the big marriage, the moment when they wake up together knowing this is it is like the big bass drop on the dance floor or the physical rush of a roller coaster.

Spider-Man of course is a classic example of the girlfriend paying the ultimate price, with the death of Gwen Stacey. This is another type of climax, pity and fear; the romantic tragedy is as much a popular approach as the romantic comedy. It has the advantage of leaving the hero conveniently single but inevitably leads you down the road to Women in refrigerators and all the questions that raises.

The problem is that romantic fulfilment and marriage are pretty unexciting. Whatever people try and pretend, it doesn’t come with a emotional swings that singledom and pursuit do. That’s one of the reasons that people get married, in fact, so that they can have a bit of emotional peace and quiet.

Creating drama in a marriage means creating conflict; while you can spend ages teasing out the fraught emotions of romantic pursuit and still remain upbeat, a string of stories of a marriage under strain turns from romantic comedy to soap opera. That moment when Spider-Man misses a dinner date because he has to save the world changes from being one of ‘one day I’ll have the time to devote to MJ’ to ‘one day I’m going to dump Peter’s ass’. That story also, typically, has one destination and its frankly a downer. A love story is enobling; the story of love’s demise the opposite.

The best example of a superhero marriage that works is Reed and Sue Richards. They got married relatively early on, and it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when Ben Grim held a torch for Susie before that fateful rocket flight. That’s one of the reasons it endures still: it comes from the time when the architecture of the Marvel universe was still being laid down, the years before about 1980 when everything that happened was considered canonical. If Spidey had married MJ in 1968 and had a kid by ‘72, he might be married now. But the classic Peter Parker has just left school and is making money a photographer while studying at Empire State U.

It also came complete with a continual weak spot in the form of Namor, Sue’s path-not-taken. Namor’s a compelling character in his own right, but the passion that attracts Sue is exactly the thing that makes him too erratic to ever really be a threat to Reed. In fact, the presence of temptation in the form of Namor makes their relationship stronger: Sue’s aware of the alternative and has made her choice very deliberately.

Reed and Sue also have that other great source of a marriage narrative: kids. Kids provide some of the story functions that love interest can: they can be endangered or randomly empowered and they can be romantically adventurous (if they’re of a sufficient age). Childhood also comes with all its own stories of growth and lessons learned, that bring their own form of narrative tension. The final destination here is ‘what kind of adult will they be?’ Marvel Comics in particular are clever at exploring this idea through their nest alternative worlds and alternative futures.

If they’re is going to marry off Spidey and Superman then how long can they put off the arrival of spider/super babies? That’s just as contrived as the characters never marrying at all. SO they have kids, and the kids get older and before you know it Peter Parker and Clark Kent are grand parents. Once you’ve decided to move characters away from their origins in this way, you start on a journey that ends in (you guessed it) only one way: in the grave.

There are some readers that crave this! DC’s pre-Crisis Earth 2 was a clever way of satisfying this minority, Astro City is the way the creators have crafted an entire continuity in a patch-work of time frames, telling a story that’s decades long by focusing on the experiences of different characters at different times.
but I guess DC felt it’s continuing existence threatened to dilute the value of the intellectual property. A huge appeal of

That option’s not really open to the Big 2, with profits from TV, movies, toys, pyjamas and lunch boxes to protect. So what do they do? From time to time they fudge it. Characters get re-set. Old relationships are redefined. Sometimes this works out fine – most people judged the first Crisis on Infinite Earths a success for DC, and Marvel haven’t often had to resort to pacts with the devil.

It probable that Batwoman hasn’t quite got the kind of momentum of Spidey or Superman. There’s certainly nothing to say that she couldn’t become an established player in the DC universe, and one that’s established as married in the way of Sue and Reed. But at some stage she has to reach her state of status quo. After a while the character must age and die, or they’ve got to be re-booted (explicitly or implicitly) to remain credible.

So, it looks like the writers have done their job with the romantic tension in Batwoman: the readership is hungry for her and Maggie to get together. But let Batwoman remain single. In fact, why treat her any differently from Batman? What’s the gain in seeing her domesticated? It’s bound to come at some stage (in fact the furore kind of guarantees it) but it won’t stick even if the current Batwoman incarnation does prove long lived, in fact especially if she’s long-lived. And ff she gets married then she’s stuck in another static situation that’s no more interesting than her previous, and in fact somewhat less.

All images copyright DC comics and totally swiped from superdickery.

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