Monday, September 9, 2013

Thoughts on Marriage in Superhero Comics

That's right, I'm back to rambling here. Going to try to make this more regular (again). A few things are in the works that will hopefully be regular and good.

For now, though, I want to talk about one of the current hot-button topics for superhero comics: marriage.

It's been brought to the forefront of discussion a few times, but this time it's come up because of the DC comic Batwoman. I'm not going to recount everything, so here's what's important for the purposes of this post: The creative team on Batwoman announced they were leaving the book due to creative differences with editorial. One of their specific reasons cited was DC stating that Batwoman and her fiance, Maggie Sawyer, would not be allowed to be married...ever. This turned into a "DC won't allow gay marriage!" as headlines everywhere and the truth turned out to be "DC does not want their characters to be married." This extended to the point of stating that, essentially, NONE of the major characters in the DC Universe are married since their reboot a few years ago.

This isn't the first case of marriages in superhero comics having trouble and being dealt with in somewhat strange ways. A prime example is Marvel's breaking up of Peter Parker and Mary Jane via a deal with the devil a few years ago. Not to mention the various other cases of marriages ending in strange and/or horrible ways throughout the years.

Okay. So. Why?

A common stated reason from companies in breaking up marriages is that characters being married ages them more than they'd like. Peter Parker being married to Mary Jane Watson took Spider-Man from being the younger loser to, in some eyes at least, a middle-aged guy living a more normal life. Marriage also tends to lead to the idea of children, and heroes having kids is another thing entirely. There's at least some truth to that perception, especially when you want to get more kids reading comics and are having trouble pulling that off for various reasons that would require at least ten more blog posts all on its own.

Another reason given is that marriage limits storytelling. Marriage is seen as stability, when it comes to most superhero stories. There is a sense of marriage tying down a character and limiting what future creative teams can do. Now, this isn't a completely wrong thought. Generally, a main character that's married won't be able to juggle multiple dates and saving a city while trying to keep a normal job, and that kind of thing is a staple of superhero comics.

A very accurate statement about superhero comics is that they are constantly second act stories. Essentially, this just means that your origin and basis for the character are well and done with and the nature of these corporate characters is that they won't actually have direct endings, so you never get a true resolution for them. Instead, smaller story arcs will get endings of varying levels, but always with a forward momentum to the next adventure.

I'll keep using Spider-Man as an example here. Peter Parker is a character driven by guilt. Uncle Ben is killed by a burglar that Peter let go, reasoning it wasn't his job to catch criminals. Afterwards, guilt drives him to actual superheroing and there's the Spider-Man we all know. Probably worth adding in guilt over the death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacy, as well, but the key point is that Peter Parker's key trait as a character is struggling with his failures. So there's your second act. But the moment he gets over this guilt, by finding a way to deal with or just through the passing of time, the story ends. That's it. Your act three for this story is Peter coming to terms with all of this, and the nature of superhero comics demands that this NEVER HAPPENS.

What does this have to do with marriage?

Well, for a vast majority of stories, the character getting married and settling down is the end. Act three is the hero getting the girl, to put it in overly simplistic terms. It's the idea of ending your story with "happily ever after" with marriage essentially representing that. The hero settles down, fade-out, and all is well and done. So, for many that look at superheroes, getting married is the END of the story. Structurally, it does make quite a bit of sense.

So here's the part where I really get to ramble: My thoughts on all of this.

On a purely structural level, I don't disagree with this and I actually completely understand the vast number of comic writers that feel they can tell better stories with unmarried characters. Everyone has different ways of doing things and it's not actually right or wrong.

However! The larger sweeping justifications that are generally brought out are, on the whole, kind of bad.

Here's the thing. I was 24 when I got married. That's still pretty young. Now, I know people in their 40s that have been single all their lives. My perception is skewed. To me, marriage isn't really tied to age. But I CAN understand the corporations not wanting characters that are meant to appeal to younger audiences being perceived as aging up too far. At least on this point, I'm more or less willing to concede or call it a draw.

The larger issue, I feel like, is the idea of marriage as the end. All of the struggles of life don't just stop when a person gets married. If anything, a strong argument can be made that they're all heightened. This isn't to say that it doesn't get terribly cliche when stories go to the well of "The hero's significant other has been kidnapped!" but...well, that's still the same if the characters are dating. In fact, many of the perceived problems with marriage still exist with characters that aren't married! Married characters still have the worry of marriages ending, family in danger, or anything else that a single character does if they've got a significant other of some kind, which most superheroes do.

On the one hand, when it comes to corporate characters, blanket declarations like "Our characters will not be married" are going to happen. They own the characters, they can do what they like with them. But I feel like the problem comes in with the very idea that married characters cannot be interesting in stories. Good writers can make anything work, and while some would argue against it, there ARE a ton of great writers working in superhero comics today doing fantastic work.

So this thing is going to keep happening. There are legitimate reasons for blanket decisions like this. But, for the record, married characters aren't boring. Marriage doesn't age a character too far. If that were true, there wouldn't be a huge number of Spider-Man fans that are my age, who only ever knew a Peter Parker that was married to Mary Jane Watson.