Underneath the Mask: Why Marriage In Comics Matters

by Aaron Einhorn
A few days ago, the word came out that due to an editorial edict by DC Comics that Batwoman (Kate Kane) and her fiancé, Maggie Sawyer would not be permitted to ever actually get married, the creative team of J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman would be walking away from the title.

At first, this seemed like a feckless move that was insulting to the LGBT community. I certainly looked at it as such. But in the light of a recent statement made by Dan DiDio during the Baltimore Comic Con, I have realized that it isn’t just a short-sighted move designed to avoid dealing with the possible backlash from showing a gay marriage in their comics (despite the fact that Marvel certainly didn’t seem to suffer after Northstar’s marriage in the pages of X-Men a few years back.) No, if DiDio is to be believed, this instead shows a serious flaw in the attitude towards marriage from DC Comics as a whole.

No happy marriages can be here, so we'll just pretend these two never existed.

No happy marriages can be here, so we’ll just pretend these two never existed.

The statement is as follows (from The Beat):

Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives. They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests.

That’s very important and something we reinforced. People in the Bat family their personal lives basically suck. Dick Grayson, rest in peace—oops shouldn’t have said that,—Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon and Kathy Kane. It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand.

Wow, this strikes me as an incredibly sad and pathetic statement, although I will confess that it makes a lot of the decisions from The New 52 make a whole new sense. The dissolution of Clark Kent and Lois Lane as a couple, the erasure of the marriage of Iris West and Barry Allen, and the absolute lack of existence of either Wally West and Linda, or Ralph and Sue Dibny suddenly makes sense. (Along with the invisible erasure of the marriage between Arthur and Mera. And we won’t even touch on the just pre-New 52 murder of Lian Harper.)

Yes, fans had waited nearly fifty years for this, and we had ten years of compelling stories, but it's better to keep Clark and Lois apart.

Yes, fans had waited nearly fifty years for this, and we had ten years of compelling stories, but it’s better to keep Clark and Lois apart.

Each of these couples illustrated that marriage can co-exist with superheroic activity. It’s hard, and none of these marriages were perfect, but they showed that it can work. Meanwhile, despite erasing one of the highest profile weddings in their history in the form of Peter Parker and Mary Jane, Marvel is happy to have Reed and Sue Richards running around the Marvel Universe along with their family, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones and their child, along with many heroes with non-super-powered wives.

On the first hand, I find this troubling for the reason that it paints a terrible image from our “role models.” What DiDio is saying there is essentially that being a superhero means sacrificing everything that makes life worth living. We look at superhuman characters as heroes and role-models, but I’m not certain I can agree that setting aside everything that a hero wants in their family life in service to their duties as a hero is actually admirable.

I’m a father. I have two little girls who I absolutely adore and love and would do almost anything for. I’m also an employee of a company, and the head of a local branch of superhero costumers for charity. I have responsibilities that override my desires – and while the world I live in doesn’t mean my choices have the same stakes as “Go home to be with your wife or the Joker will destroy Gotham,” it doesn’t change the fact that I have situations come up where what I want for myself, or for my family, conflicts with my other responsibilities. And sometimes work wins out, and sometimes family wins out, and every day is a different struggle.

reed_sue

All of which is my way of saying that having the line be clearly drawn, that a married superhero is compromising their duty to “the mission,” seems terribly black and white. And it means that being a superhero ultimately means cutting yourself off from the very humanity you are vowed to protect.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the other area that DiDio is missing. Outside of Disney movies (ironically, the owners of Marvel Comics where marriage between characters is not verboten), marriage does not mean “Happily ever after.” DiDio is married himself, so I’m sure he knows this, but being married doesn’t mean “a happy personal life.” Marriage is a commitment, and a two-way street, and it is often hard. Is it fulfilling and worthwhile? I certainly think so, but I also don’t think that it’s always easy. Christina and I fight. We disagree about many things and our life together is a series of compromises and balancing our own desires and needs with the desires of each other and our children.

Luke-Cage-Jessica-Jones

We also love each other, and we take a great deal of joy in each other’s company and we are stronger together than we are apart. Which just means that the daily struggles are worthwhile. Kind of in the same way that superheroes struggle against their obstacles, using the powers that make them stronger than an ordinary human, huh?

Luke Cage and Jessica Jones struggled with what being members of the Avengers meant for two people (even two superpowered ones) who were trying to raise a child. Reed Richards must often decide between spending another hour in his lab or taking time to have dinner with Sue and Franklin. For both of these cases, the struggle to balance family and their roles as heroes wasn’t a boring story or an easy out – it made for some of the best stories in their character’s histories.

And of course, through their parent company, Marvel also owns these guys, who are all about finding that balance between family and heroism, and showing that the struggle is never easy, but is always worth it.

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Love is hard, but endures. That's a terrible message to see from our heroes.

Love is hard, but endures. That’s a terrible message to see from our heroes.

Back in the pre-New 52 days, DC was able to do this same thing. Lois Lane gave Superman the perspective and humanity he needed to stay among man and not fly above it. Linda West gave the Flash the emotional anchor he needed to return from the Speed Force. And in the poorly conceived Identity Crisis, the murder of Sue Dibny broke the Elongated Man, and ultimately led to the path that had him losing his life, only to finally be reunited with Sue as a ghost.

I don’t know whether or not the “no marriage” edict is better or worse than the idea that DC simply wanted to bury the idea of a marriage between Batwoman and Kate Kane. But I do know that, either way, it reinforces my belief that DC Comics no longer wants my money, and that the stories being created by Marvel are much more in line with what I want and need to be reading.

I want to see stories where my heroes are human underneath their powers. I want to see those family connections. And yeah, I’m ok if that means that some of these marriages fail, either because the stress of being a superhero is too much and one member cracks under pressure (like Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne), or because of infidelity (Scott Summers and Jean Grey), or because of a literal deal with the Devil. Because marriage is hard, and just like we want to see heroes fail from time to time when fighting Doctor Doom or Thanos, it’s ok to see them fail in their personal lives.

But the counterpoint is seeing the strength that Reed Richards can derive from Franklin, Sue, Valeria, Johnny and Ben. Because if heroes are meant to show us where our own strength is, then they shouldn’t be cut off from the same relationships that make each day better for so many of us.

peter_mj_wedding

DC Shows Poor Judgment With Their “Break Into Comics With Harley Quinn” Contest

580-HarleyQuinn1_rceimv4twg_by Aaron Einhorn
I have, personally, more or less written DC Comics completely off. It is clear to me from the tone of their comics, the choices made by their editorial boards, and the direction of their films and television shows, that they no longer are attempting to appeal to my cross-section of the fan base.

Marvel is quickly pulling me back in, even as DC is actively pushing me away. And that’s just the way it is. Fine, I can live with that.

But that doesn’t mean I can turn a blind eye to stupid decisions made by DC Comics/Warner Brothers. We’re not even a full day away from the debacle involving the decisions around Batwoman, which are actively pushing away the creative team of J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman. And now, in the form of something that should actively be exciting to fans, DC is once again showing us that they Just. Don’t. Get. It.

I am referring to their “Break Into Comics With Harley Quin” contest, details of which can be found here.

On the surface, this seems awesome. A chance to submit four panels of art to DC, to be judged by their co-Publishers, to be used in a page of Harley Quinn #0, a book which will be handled by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner.

But I ask you to look at the content of the panels. Don’t feel like following the link? Ok, fine. I’ll recap it for you.

Read the following script page and give us your original artistic interpretation of what those four panels should look like on a single page:

PAGE 15
4 panels
PANEL 1
Harley is on top of a building, holding a large DETACHED cellphone tower in her hands as lightning is striking just about everywhere except her tower. She is looking at us like she cannot believe what she is doing. Beside herself. Not happy.

PANEL 2
Harley is sitting in an alligator pond, on a little island with a suit of raw chicken on, rolling her eyes like once again, she cannot believe where she has found herself. We see the alligators ignoring her.

PANEL 3
Harley is sitting in an open whale mouth, tickling the inside of the whale’s mouth with a feather. She is ecstatic and happy, like this is the most fun ever.

PANEL 4
Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all. We are watching the moment before the inevitable death. Her expression is one of “oh well, guess that’s it for me” and she has resigned herself to the moment that is going to happen.

Consider the tone here. We’re looking at the potential suicide of one of the most prominent female characters at DC Comics today. And it’s being played for laughs. Now, sure, the Joker and Harley do, in fact, play life up for laughs. But the audience should be in on the real joke – that what they do isn’t funny. It’s sad, pathetic and scary. The Joker and Harley aren’t strong because of their psychosis, they’re weak, broken individuals.

I haven’t read a whole lot of the New 52 version, but the original relationship between the Joker and Harley was outright abusive, and should serve as a warning to young women. So, if we’re going to see Harley contemplating suicide, this shouldn’t be a happy, madcap adventure of Harley trying to off herself in the most over-the-top way possible. This should be a counterpoint – the moment where Harley realizes that she is the butt of the joke, not the comedienne.

To top it all off? The final panel specifies that she should be naked. Obviously, for a “family friendly” comic, you’re going to have to position objects in the room, soap bubbles, etc. to cover the bits of the body that would get you an “R” rating, but we should also know that the eventual winner is almost certainly going to reveal as much cleavage and butt cheek as possible. And this from a company that is currently making headlines because it won’t allow its highest-profile LGBT character to marry her fiancé. Whether Dan DiDio and Jim Lee are actually misogynists themselves is beside the point – this creates the perception that they are, and ultimately that matters a whole lot more.

On his Facebook page Jimmy Palmiotti explains that it is out of context, and others have said that it specifies nudity to reinforce the idea that she should not be in costume – but then, it could have said that, couldn’t it?

To top it off? The terrible timing here gets worse when you consider that September (when this contest was posted) is Suicide Prevention Month.

I’m not the biggest fan of Harley. I’ve long considered an object lesson – an example of what not to do, instead of a role model, which is what she is often seen as by many young women I know. But even so, this seems cheap and exploitative.

Of course, my opinion means little. I was never going to buy Harley Quinn #0, so it isn’t like DC has suddenly lost my money. But it still makes me very sad to see that the company who once brought me characters that inspired me has fallen so low.

J.H. Williams III to Leave Batwoman

batwoman1_c01by Aaron Einhorn
Since the reintroduction of Kate Kane into the DC Universe back in 2010, she has been one of my favorite members of the Bat-family. She debuted in 52 #7, and then took over the flagship Batman-title, Detective Comics starting with #854 and running through the events of the Battle for the Cowl.

After she left Detective Comics, Batwoman ended up in several miniseries which focused on her and her girlfriend, Rene Montoya (The Question), and even survived as one of the flagship titles in The New 52, making her easily the most high-profile LGBT character in DC Comics, and possibly in all comics currently published by the Big Two.

And for almost all of that time, she has been carefully shepherded by J.H. Williams III, along with such notable collaborators as Greg Rucka, W. Haden Blackman and Amy Reeder. And she’s been handled masterfully.

To begin with, Williams’ art is among the finest in comics today. I will freely admit that while I read a lot of comics, I’m not actually a fan of the medium. I would far prefer to read more superhero novels than to read more comics. I like superheroes, not comics – comics are simply the easiest way for me to get my fix. So, I will rarely read a comic I don’t enjoy just because the art is good. Bad art can keep me away from a book with a good story, but good art won’t bring me to a book whose story I can’t get into.

(Which, yes, is the reason I never really bought in to the early Image Comics revolution.)

Williams’ art on the other hand, is that good. I would have bought Elegy even with not enjoying the story, because the art is so beautifully done. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

It would have been easy to make Batwoman derivative, or simply a stereotype. Rucka, Williams, Blackman and Reeder have not done that. They have given her a good set of motivations, distinct from those of Batman and his Bat-family. They have elaborated on her backstory and supporting cast, even when the insanity of the New 52 reboot took away Rene’s secret identity and totally borked Flamebird’s history. The series has even taken us to the point where Kate has proposed to Maggie Sawyer (as of Issue #17). They’ve given her a unique and intriguing Rogue’s gallery (Alice is every bit as fascinating as the Joker at his best), and all in all, they have made Batwoman an awesome and incredible character.

Now, I’m not a fan of the New 52. Before the New 52, I read about 25 DC Comics titles a month. When they announced the New 52, I gave well over half of the titles of the New 52 a try, and I am now done to reading six titles.
Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern: New Guardians, Earth-2, World’s Finest and Batwoman.

I’ve been ready to drop the three Green Lantern titles ever since Geoff Johns left the Lantern family, and I think once they finish the “Light’s Out” storyline, I’m going to be done. Similarly, when James Robinson left Earth-2, that threw up warning signs for me, and while I haven’t dropped the book yet, I think it may be happening soon.

But Batwoman? I was still in love with Batwoman.

And then this and this happened on J.H. Williams III’s and W. Haden Blackman’s blogs.

For those of you who don’t feel like following the link, the important snipped of their statement is as follows:

In recent months, DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series. We were told to ditch plans for Killer Croc’s origins; forced to drastically alter the original ending of our current arc, which would have defined Batwoman’s heroic future in bold new ways; and, most crushingly, prohibited from ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married. All of these editorial decisions came at the last minute, and always after a year or more of planning and plotting on our end.

We’ve always understood that, as much as we love the character, Batwoman ultimately belongs to DC. However, the eleventh-hour nature of these changes left us frustrated and angry — because they prevent us from telling the best stories we can. So, after a lot of soul-searching, we’ve decided to leave the book after Issue 26.

This is the cover to Batwoman #25, so, not quite the final issue.

This is the cover to Batwoman #25, so, not quite the final issue.

To put it mildly, I am extremely saddened by this news. Saddened, but not disappointed. DC’s editorial board has been consistently inconsistent over the past few years, and this has shown in the pages of every single comic, in the interviews and online activity of the creators and in the plans for films and television shows based on their creations.

I’m kind of heartbroken here. I love the DC Comics characters. My first superhero costume was Superman and my third was Batman and I’ve now added Superman Blue (yes, from the crazy nineties storyline) to my line-up. I own a Green Lantern sterling silver ring, and all of the promo rings. And Justice League Unlimited remains one of my all-time favorite cartoons.

But each and every move from the New 52 has served to remind me that these are no longer the characters I knew and loved. As of Batwoman #27, I will be dropping the title – and I think I’ll finally be dropping the Lantern family books as well.

I understand that DC is trying to revitalize and excite readers about their characters, and I sincerely wish them success in that, but I cannot help but feel that they no longer care about the interest of fans like me. Meanwhile, Marvel is taking just as many creative chances, and giving me characters and stories I enjoy reading, and really enjoy seeing on film.

Regardless, I would like to thank Williams, Blackman, Reeder, Rucka and all the others who have given the new version of Kate Kane life. DC Comics may own the rights to the character, but you fine people have the rights to her soul.