Saturday, July 2, 2011

Till WHAT Do You Part?

Okay, so all this talk about dismantling Clark and Kent and Lois Lane's marriage, only twelve years old, has had me thinking a lot lately.

About wedding bells.

About marriage vows.

About power couples who travel across dimensions and somehow still have time to work on their relationship, like these happy people:

Basically, I've spent a lot of time thinking about marriage in comics and what it means, overall. Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman seem to have it figured out (despite the world's worst, least feminist-friendly superhero names). How is it their marriage remains relatively un-messed with by writers and editors alike, while Clark and Lois will be hitting the reset button on their antagonist rival reporter relationship come this fall. I'm telling you now, look forward to plenty of old school Siegel style banter:

Wow, tell us how you really feel, Lois. Don't you know your nerdy co-worker is sensitive? Exhibit A, from a later Lois Lane comic:

All in all, I feel like marriage is taken for granted as a chance for character growth within mainstream superhero comics. It's just something that happens, and it's something that ends as easily. Often, marriage is dismantled with nary a thought to the impact it has on the characters within hero books. I suppose this shouldn't surprise me, given that I can think of maybe three writers in past DC stables (Greg Rucka, Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek) who were able to drum up marital conflict without resorting to soap operatic misunderstandings, cliches about somebody being in danger while hubby's out on patrol, or running themes of miscommunication until somebody ends up in a mental hospital (thanks, Daredevil--you're great with the ladies, but once you're in an actual relationship, women don't fare well in your book).

Side note: Is it any wonder the writers I mentioned above no longer work at DC full-time? They're too realistic (actually, they all have personal side projects to work on, but many of those projects probe into the superhero as an allegory for American life in amazing ways)! In his run on Superman, Rucka had Clark and Lois grow apart simply because Superman was having a lousy time at work and Lois was assigned to follow a war in another country. Realistic, everyday things like time and distance separated them, and the sadness they both feel at their limited communication is palpable. Check out this short series of panels, in which Lois heads out for her assignment. I defy you to find a better depiction of two people who want to say a lot but can only manage to say a little under the circumstances:

DC's competition fares no better at allowing married couples to act as married couples do, I fear. Hell, Joe Quesada over at Marvel made one of the least popular editorial decisions in that company's history by breaking up Peter Parker and Mary Jane's marriage. How he do this? He had the couple make a deal with the devil. Seriously. Mephisto vows to save his Spidey's older aunt, who's lived a long, long life in exchange for the following thing:

Diabolical. What he does with their love is anyone's guess. At least when DC's version of the devil, Neron, stole Wally West and Linda Park's love, he ended up cuddling and comforting all the minions he'd been torturing only hours before. Still ridiculous. Then again, Mark Waid also had Wally race into a Vahalla for speedsters, only to come back because Linda's love was his beacon back to Earth. Corny, I know. But still believable, in its fairy tale way. Perhaps more astonishingly, Waid took Wally from being this guy--

--To being this guy:

Articulate, a leader of heroes, and just plain adorable in his marriage proposal. (Of course, Waid had help from Mark Millar and Grant Morrison here. Good on ya, guys!)

But this rather picture-happy rambling forces me to come to a point. What's a more mature, courageous decision than dedicating your life to the support, love and protection of another human being? (You might even call it heroic.) In comics, marriages should be taken at least as seriously as they are in real life, given that character actions in comics often stand as huge metaphors, slipping into allegories, about the everyday heroism displayed and required by real people. What do writers have to say about marriage? How can they make understand the state of the union in a contemporary context through a pulpy, pop culture medium? Could they surprise us? Often, they don't.

Like when, say, Black Canary has to murder her husband on their honeymoon, but it turns out that he's an impostor, so no consequential blow-back happens -- despite having harbored the impression that somebody killed the man they loved for more than a few moments. I gotta think that such plots rob the exploration of marriage any validity or meaning beyond spinning the wheels of a character's lifespan. Rather than showing what a major and somewhat terrifying commitment marriage is, to prove our hero an even greater hero, writers sometimes pull the rug out from under a reader and create false drama.

Not only can violent conflicts be upended using the impostor angle, not only can marriages be stolen by the devil rather than allowed to run a natural course into lovelessness and exhaustion (based on compelling character mistakes), they can be thrown into the jaws of death and THEN snatched right back, as if nothing bad ever happened in the first place. It's okay. Green Arrow and Black Canary are still together today, those crazy kids.

Ultimately, I think it's the impermanence of the marriage institution that drives me a little crazy. Maybe I'm revealing myself to be a prude here, believing in marriage as an institution when half of marriage fail nowadays. But let me be clear: I don't think divorce should be kept out of comics, I don't think everyone should be married, and watching superheroes come to that conclusion would be FASCINATING. An emotional landscape they can't conquer is rare to find; why not explore something more complicated?

But the marketing departments at DC and Marvel seems to think the readers of comic books can't handle a sticky situation involving one's spouse. Rather than go for the heart, they go for the entrails and the easier solution--death, mistaken identities, curses, etc.--rather than explore real conflict between two people. We're already dependent on technology to connect for us; avoiding actual human interaction in our art, substituting it with gore and sophomoric horror and compromises--what does that say about us about an American culture?

I imagine this avoidance mindset grew out of the male-created romance comics from the 1940s and 1950s, where women were either temptresses or pure as snow, and fulfilled their boyfriend's every wish because that was what was expected of them. These comics were written for young girls to bask in sudsy, forbidden predicaments, true, but they also reinforced both the fantasies and nightmares believed of women by nerdy male writers, which led to things like this:

Liking girls, or having any kind of sexual or emotional dependence on anyone--regardless of gender in few cases--leads to compromise, and I'm sometimes told, a lack of action in superhero books. In other words, when heroes get married, they're a snorefest. Well, that's only true if a woman's either a Madonna or a whore. Making her a character in her own right is a step in the right direction for creating good stories and making honest statements about marriage in a surprising context. What makes Mr. Fantastic and Sue Storm work probably has a lot to do with the fact that they star in a book dedicated to showcasing the weird families we make for ourselves, just as The Fantastic Four does after being irradiated into being superheroes. Because of their choice to stick together as a family, strong characters are formed, and marriage features easily in the book, and will always be a permanent feature in it.

I'd love to see more of this. I'd love to see more characters working through the regular stress of a relationship within heightened, universe-shattering circumstances; that's drama on a goofy, adventure-sized level. It could be meaningless, but the right writer could pack it with significance, showing us why we love the characters we're reading in the first place, and how they can prove to us us when we need to suck it up and get on with our lives.

But you don't get that attitude often. More often, you end up with dead ghost detectives, or worse, rebooted lives with a strange new set of circumstances to tangle with--not deep issues, just plot-driven ones. (Check out the Superman 2000 proposal, later cannibalized by several writers involved in the rejected project, for an example of an O. Henry-esque sacrifice to effectively reboot Clark and Lois' relationship, as their marriage is wiped out of everyone's minds:

Marriage can be active, it can be as nail-biting as any villain's deathtrap; Aquaman and Mera (they're basically eco-terrorists now), Reed and Sue (um, they travel through dimensions and have kids), and Clark and Lois (balancing work with his constant absence) have proved this on and off--overcoming obstacles that make their feelings for one another even more epic. Getting hitched allows characters to face a new type of conflict and react in ways that makes them even more likeable, complex and adventurous. In that light, de-institutionalizing the concept of marriage, or making characters' choice of it insignificant via rebooted circumstances is a travesty of wasted opportunities. I hope the writers at DC remember this when they decide to have Clark pop the question again years from now.

No comments:

Post a Comment