Sunday with the Marriage Counselor
Reading superhero comics for as long as I have, about forty years, patterns begin to emerge. You start to see certain rhythms, certain ideas expressed over and over again.
And there’s one particular idea — you could almost call it a prejudice — that is really beginning to annoy me. If you were to boil it down to a single sentence, it would be something like, “You marry off a character and that story is over. All the drama is gone.”
This is of course a ridiculous assertion on its face, even if you don’t happen to be married, but I can give you first-hand testimony. I am married and I can assure you life did not instantly become simple smooth sailing for me or Julie the moment after we exchanged vows. If anything, life gets a hell of a lot more complex when you get married.
Nevertheless, that is the commonly held belief — you get married, you instantly become dull. Apart from the implied insult to everyone who’s married, this notion has become especially grating in the last couple of decades as superhero creators strive to achieve ‘realism’ in all sorts of other areas, because it really brings into sharp relief how BAD they are at dealing with THIS particular area of human relationships “realistically.”
Superhero publishers can gloat all they want to the media about how comics aren’t for kids any more and they’re all about raising the bar for ‘adult storytelling’ when it comes to depicting sex or violence… but what I see in comics, more often than not, isn’t realistic. It’s juvenile, or at best, arrested adolescence. It’s true that superheroes aren’t for kids any more — at first glance, it seems that many of them are more for misogynist twentysomething guys who are scared of girls. Hardly a step up.
A lot of this prejudice against matrimony isn’t confined to comics. You see it just as often on television, and the same tired arguments get trotted out. “Look at Rhoda,” people often say. “Or Moonlighting. Or Remington Steele.”
Okay. I’ll take the dare. Let’s go ahead and look at them for once, instead of just saying the names like they’re talismans that confer instant credibility. Moonlighting and Remington Steele were both conceived as romantic comedies, the engine that drove both shows was the sexual tension between the two leads. Fair enough. Absolutely, as a storytelling vehicle, that premise comes with an expiration date: marriage would end those two shows because that is the natural end to those two particular stories. But so what? Why does that apply to superhero adventure? It’s a completely different genre. Do policemen stop fighting crime as soon as they get married? Do firemen stop risking their lives? As our friend John Seavey would say, it’s a completely different kind of storytelling engine for a superhero story than for a romantic comedy.
That leaves Rhoda, everyone’s favorite example. It’s been so long since that series was even aired in syndication I’m pretty sure that at least half the people who carry on about the Rhoda argument never saw the show. Well, I did, and here are some things you might not have been aware of —
1. It was a spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a vastly superior production. So you had a certain dilution of talent, as well as the problem of how to make Rhoda interesting enough to go solo. Iffy at best considering the character’s entire reason for existing was to be Mary’s comedic foil and wacky neighbor.
2. The show changed format three or four times as well as trading out supporting cast members from year to year. It was struggling on dozens of different levels, and yes, one of them was that they’d started with a romance plot that got resolved too quickly, but it was hardly the only reason.
3. The marriage plot was rushed because Fred Silverman, then president of the network, wanted the wedding show in time for sweeps. You might say he insisted that the characters act contrary to their established nature in order to get a big short-term success out of a manufactured event. Does that sound familiar, DC and Marvel fans?
Sure, there are lessons creators can learn from looking at examples of series gone wrong. But at least let’s be looking at the actual lessons. The example of Rhoda the situation comedy, as much as you can apply the mechanics of a sitcom to a superhero adventure, shows only this: plan for the long term, and don’t force something for the sake of a stunt. It’s got nothing to do with the idea of characters getting married. The flaw was in the execution.
Oddly enough, the execution is where you usually see the marriage plot unraveling in comics, too. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, just as an idea. In fact, on its face a lot of comics seem to embrace it… as a stunt. Everybody loves the idea of doing the Special Wedding Issue, the big event. And it still works — I glanced through the Green Arrow/Black Canary book, despite my distaste for most everything Judd Winnick has done at DC, and as I suspected, the whole thing seemed forced and looked to end on a grim note.
Although that particular wedding would have been tough to pull off, no matter who did it — Mike Grell did such a thorough job of breaking those two up when he was writing Green Arrow that it would be damn near impossible to get them together again without bending them completely into the wrong shape. At the very least it felt horribly rushed, especially to those of us who watched all the careful work Gail Simone did with the Canary over in Birds of Prey. If Ollie and Dinah end up actually married at the end of whatever convoluted story they are spinning out of that book, I’ll be amazed. After all, superhero comics have a long history of teasing us with the fake marriage.
Which is, you know, not a bad thing either, depending on the execution.
I was a little taken aback, looking up covers to use here, how much mileage the Superman books have gotten out of the ‘fake wedding’ story over the years.
It was practically a third of the run of Lois Lane’s own book, it seems like.
Even Jimmy Olsen had to deal with the fake wedding story every so often.
And of course, in a Weisinger-era Superman book, matrimony is the real kryptonite for everyone. It always spells doom.
You have to wonder if Mort Weisinger ever got over the whole “girls are icky!” grade-school thing. Obviously somebody had issues. No wonder the folks at Superdickery.com have such a low opinion of the Man of Steel.
But the main point stands. If you are doing it as a stunt without any idea of where you are going afterwards, of course it’s bound to be a train wreck. But that’s true of ANY event-driven storyline in superhero comics. Why does marriage get singled out as the big misstep so often?
When it’s done right, it can be very cool. Certainly it worked out well in the old Tomb of Dracula… oddly enough, I think Vlad and Domini may have been one of the healthier depictions of married people in comics.
They were like that weird couple — everyone knows at least one like this — where you shake your head and say, “I have no idea why those two are together, but it seems to be working for them.”
Weirdly, all the people who are complaining that marriage is a terrible idea for comics characters are okay with Reed and Sue Richards in the Fantastic Four, who’ve been married for most of the book’s history… over forty years, in fact.
Reed and Sue have even had KIDS, widely regarded as a plot that means the kiss of death on a sitcom. Doesn’t that sort of defeat the whole weddings-ruin-comics-characters-same-as-on-TV-comedies argument?
If you look at it honestly, with a clear cold eye, there are lots of characters in superhero comics where a marriage worked fine.
Mostly because it happened naturally as an organic evolution from the stories they were already telling, and the people who worked on those books weren’t automatically terrified of the concept.
Here’s the thing. If you are one of the people that are clamoring for ‘adult realism’ in your superhero adventures, then realistically, some of these adult characters are going to get married and settle down. It’s what many adult men and women do.
Even superpowered men and women, if you’re going to treat them as realistic, are going to be pairing off and some are going to try getting married. So then the burden is on the creators to think it through a little bit beyond the big stunt wedding issue.
Sadly, this is where comics writers consistently fumble the ball. This is where I really start to wonder about the emotional health of the people who work in the industry.
Either they are horribly scarred by their own marriage experiences or else they just plain have no idea at all what it really is like to be married. (Some writers, you can make the case that they probably have no idea what it sounds like to even talk to the opposite sex for people over the age of fourteen.)
I started by talking about patterns. Here is the pattern I see emerging over the last couple of decades — the conviction that you can’t generate any drama from a married couple other than by A) breaking them up or B) killing one of them.
Sometimes it’s a valid story to tell. I was okay with the Scott dumps Jean for Emma thing in X-Men, because let’s face it, that whole crowd at Xavier’s school is screwed up. And it was done in a plausible way… weird when you realize you’re talking about mutants and telepathy and so on, but it had a good build, it made sense, it grew from established events. And Scott has always been a doubt-ridden wreck when it comes to his personal life. That guy has no business being married.
But, far more often, breaking up a long-term romance just seems gratuitous and stupid; often it feels like a cheaper stunt than the wedding stunt that provoked the let’s-undo-this reaction in the first place. And I am convinced that it’s because many comics writers simply have no grasp of how to depict a married couple. How many times have you heard writers bitch in interviews about coming up with stories for married couples in comics? “This is too hard, I can’t think of anything, there’s no drama there.”
Spider-Man has suffered hugely from this. It’s probably the most grating example in comics of a character’s basic nature being trampled by writers who are twisting it to meet short-term needs. It started with the killing of Gwen Stacy, a misstep that’s echoed in the strip for decades. Then that circumstance forced the writers to remake Mary Jane into a sort of pseudo-Gwen to fill the gap. As a stopgap measure it worked okay, and the book slowly found its footing again after some ups and downs.
Then it was decided that Spider-Man needed to marry, and specifically, he needed to marry Mary Jane Watson. So we got more weird last-minute character bits designed to shore up a basically stunt-driven idea and make it look plausible, despite everything that had already been established. The marriage to MJ conveniently ignored the fact that Peter had already asked her and been shot down, not to mention forcing all sorts of ludicrous retcons to Mary Jane’s own backstory, and finally we are left with a married couple that didn’t make a lot of sense and that no one really knew what to do with. No wonder reaction was mixed.
But I can’t stress this enough — it’s all in the execution. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of Spider-Man being married, or even with him being married to Mary Jane Watson. The vague discontent many comics creators feel with the idea allegedly stems from the fact that it ages Peter Parker, they say it ruins his youth appeal.
Pfft. Clearly none of these people go to the movies.
The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man has a HUGE teenage following, many of them girls, and they are all about the Peter/MJ romance. For God’s sake, look at how much emphasis there was in the trailers for the last two films on the romance between Peter and MJ. The movie people, at least, understand the huge youth appeal there.
Likewise, there have been many brilliant stories done with a married Spider-Man — even stories ABOUT the relationship — that ring true, that make sense, that are exciting and dramatically interesting and don’t hinge on the idea of tragedy or broken romance. They almost never happen in the comics, but there have been many in the ancillary licensed books. Peter David, Diane Duane, and Adam-Troy Castro all gave us a terrific take on the married Spidey in their prose books put out by Byron Preiss and iBooks. Peter David’s story “Five Minutes” in The Ultimate Spider-Man is practically a diagram of how that relationship should work. It ought to be required reading for everyone who works on Spider-Man. That’s how married people act.
There are just too many good stories out there with a married Peter Parker to discount the idea automatically as being a bad one. It was badly-handled initially and there have been many, MANY bad stories about the marriage subsequent to that — Howard Mackie’s take on it leaps to mind — but the solution to those bad stories is to write better ones, not revamp the book and declare that the character should always be single.
Likewise, comics fans often grouse about how Superman should never have married Lois Lane and how that ‘ruins’ him. But step back and look at it for a minute.
If you posit that Superman is all about truth and justice, and further, that Clark Kent was raised in the heartland and spent his boyhood immersed in traditional American values and had the splendid example of Ma and Pa Kent to shape his worldview, well of course he’s going to want to get married and settle down. It’s a no-brainer.
But it was determined that this was impossible and so there were all sorts of arbitrary reasons given why it could never happen, even after superhero comics allegedly grew up and weren’t for kids any more. This is what I mean about ‘realism’ in superhero stories being largely a shuck. It took decades for DC Comics creators to make that leap of logic — that if we are going to treat Superman and Lois as adults, then either they work it out or they break up, they can’t be kept on indefinite hover and still be realistic. Even then the execution of it was hampered by the Lois & Clark TV show. But Mike Carlin, the editor of the Superman books at the time, made a very sensible point when he said that you can’t hold up Superman as a paragon of virtue when so much of his private life is built on lying to the woman he loves. Especially if Clark’s stated motivation for it doesn’t hold up to a moment’s scrutiny — “protecting his loved ones”? Please. Come on, was Lois ever in measurably less jeopardy in all those years she spent NOT knowing Clark’s secret? Yeah, pull the other one.
So if you are going to approach these characters with an eye towards ‘realism,’ then you have to follow through. You don’t get to only do half an extrapolation, not without cheating your readers. Either really do it, or else shut up about it and own up to the fact that you are doing adolescent fantasy.
I’ve gone on at length about the Lois/Clark relationship before, so I’ll try not to rehash too much of that here. But I will again remind everyone that there have been some really, really well-done stories with the two of them as a married couple and there’s nothing intrisically wrong with the concept, especially since it makes perfectly good sense for Clark’s character.
Really, Lois is the one that would have a hard time adapting to the idea of settling down. That’s where the drama and the tension would happen — and where it does happen in the better stories that spin out of that relationship.
Thankully, the current crew on the Super books seem to have a better handle on the characters than we’ve seen in quite a while. Kurt Busiek, especially, has given us a great look at how Lois and Clark’s day-to-day relationship functions, a vast improvement over most writers in the last decade or two who’ve tried to depict the marriage. I daresay it probably helps that Mr. Busiek is himself married and has been for a while.
Speaking of guys that can bring actual experience to the table, I have to give credit where it’s due. Greg Rucka’s run on Adventures of Superman had a great many things that rubbed me the wrong way, but the reason I kept up with it was because he had so many great character bits going on with Lois and Clark and he understood where the difficulties in their relationship would happen. For one thing, he was one of the very few writers — maybe even the only one — to address the idea that once they’re married, Lois is also saddled with the image of Clark Kent, mild-mannered milksop. She would constantly have to defend her husband to her friends and family, and it would probably grate on her more than it ever did on Clark himself to know how wrong everyone is about him. Likewise, Clark would suddenly have to deal with a completely dysfunctional family when he meets his in-laws, in the process discovering that there are some problems even Superman can’t solve. Rucka had a couple of great scenes with Clark and Sam Lane that I wish had built into a longer arc. There was some great potential there.
Not to suggest that the Superman books should be written with an eye towards domestic comedy. I’m just saying it doesn’t automatially shut down the potential for dramatic tension or story ideas to have a married Superman.
Those are just a couple of examples. I could go on for lots more, but this has already gone on long enough, I think. So I’ll just close with a simple plea: for God’s sake, can we please put an end to the endless bleating about how the very concept of matrimony ‘ruins’ superheroes when it so obviously doesn’t, given the right approach and talented creators?
I’m asking all you superhero writers to at least give the concept a chance before running screaming from the room. You might even find some NEW stories there, instead of rehashing the same old tragic-loss, tormented-lover plots over and over again. Drama for married couples comes from how they work out how to live their lives together, and how they adapt to each other. There are an infinite number of story ideas in that process. If you really want your superhero-romance stories to be ‘adult’ then quit your whining and look for them.
All of us folks who didn’t ruin our lives or lose interest in them when we got married would appreciate it.
See you next week.