Undoing Super-Hero Marriages:

The Failure of the Writerly Imagination

With the news that Superman and Lois Lane will no longer be married after DC’s relaunch, super-hero comics have said loudly and clearly: they hate their characters being married because it makes for less drama.

That’s the justification, anyway: that the famous Clark Kent / Lois Lane / Superman love triangle was, we’re told, a fondly-remembered narrative goldmine that produced riches far exceeding Superman’s married years.

Here’s how Jim Lee put it, over on Newsarama:

“Marriage brings about a certain degree of comfort and security in one’s life,” Lee said. “If you have a life partner, you always have someone to rely on. So from a story conflict point of view, it makes for a less dramatic story. I think a lot of writers can agree that one of the most dynamic periods of Superman’s history was that period where there was a love triangle between Clark Kent, Superman and Lois Lane. There’s a lot of tension and interest you create in the characters by having that kind of dynamic.”

Lee went further for USA Today:

“There was something special and unique about the love triangle that existed between Clark Kent, Superman and Lois Lane,” Lee says. “By restoring that essential part of his mythology, we would get a lot more interest in the character and take Superman and Clark Kent in bold new directions that felt more contemporary and modern.”

Action Comics #1, which will debut as part of the DC relaunch.

The new, never-been-married Superman will debut in Grant Morrison’s Action Comics #1, which will take place in his early years.

Echoes of “One More Day”

This situation, as well as the condemnation of the narrative possibilities of marriage, recalls nothing so much as the justification for undoing Spider-Man’s marriage, in J. Michael Straczynski’s 2007 final story arc on Amazing Spider-Man, titled “One More Day.” There, Spider-Man made a deal with Mephisto, the Devil of the Marvel Universe, that retroactively undid his marriage to Mary Jane Watson (in return for saving the live of Peter Parker’s Aunt May). This in turn led into the character’s new, single status quo, dubbed “Brand New Day.”

And the justifications for undoing Spider-Man’s marriage parallel those for undoing Superman’s: a single Spider-Man made for more interesting stories. Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, Joe Quesada, had previously spoken publicly about his belief that the marriage had been a mistake, which he claimed past editors-in-chief had shared. Put simply, a married hero offered fewer narrative possibilities.

But Quesada didn’t want to make the characters divorce, which he felt would indicate that the characters

gave up on their love, that their life in love together was so awful, so stressful, so unfulfilling that they had to raise a red flag and walk away from it. They quit on their marriage and even more tragic, (they) quit on each other. Instead, we had them make a deal with the devil. ‘Cause that isn’t as bad… Peter and MJ didn’t quit on their love, they sacrificed it to save a life, that to me is a pretty heroic story. (Comic Book Resources)

Amazing Spider-Man #545 (Jan 2008), the conclusion of "One More Day."

In all of his interviews, Quesada never suggested that changing continuity was a perfect idea, merely the best of a list of bad alternatives — the worst of which, presumably, was retaining the marriage, because it constrained narrative possibility. Quesada illustrated “One More Day” himself, as a way of supporting what he’d encouraged. The writer, J. Michael Straczynski, went public about his thoughts on the particulars of the story, which he didn’t support and which had been edited against his wishes.

In both the case of Spider-Man and Superman, removing their marriages has come with other changes. Spider-Man got his secret identity back, which had been revealed to the world during Civil War. Superman will get a new costume and several other changes, such as being DC’s first super-hero again, a status he hasn’t held since 1986. Of course, in Superman’s case, these changes are only part of a wider, line-wide list of changes, whereas the changes to Spider-Man were localized to that character. And Spider-Man got a storyline that, while disappointing, at least provided a final farewell to the marriage.

There are other differences too, however slight. Spider-Man married Mary Jane in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 (1987), meaning he was married for 20 years before his marriage was undone. Superman married Lois Lane in Superman: The Wedding Album #1 (December 1996), meaning he’ll be married for 15 years when his marriage is undone. Superman also debuted earlier, in 1938 as opposed to Spider-Man’s 1962, so he’s been married for a shorter percentage of his publishing history, if that matters.

Both marriages were also occasioned by events outside of their characters’ main comic continuity. In the case of Spider-Man, Stan Lee was marrying the couple in the Spider-Man newspaper strip, and Marvel decided to reflect that in the main comic, turning the occasion into an event. In the case of Superman, he had been engaged for a few years, but the marriage had reportedly been delayed to correspond with his marriage on the then-popular TV show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

There’s plenty of evidence here to parse, for those who support or oppose one marriage or the other, to draw distinctions to these two situations, despite their remarkable similarities.

But the deeper question is this: why do super-hero comics hate marriage so much as to undo them, even when it clearly pains an editor-in-chief to do so?

Capes and the Single Man

There can be no doubt that being single is regarded as a lot more fun than being married. And super-heroes, we’re told, are supposed to be fun.

Being single involves dating. It involves falling in love and out of love and the desperate wish that one’s affections are returned. It lends itself well to hi-jinks, to ploys designed to win affection, to characters falling in love with people who turn out to be super-villains.

And as drama, this is easy to write.

Super-heroes are also disproportionately male, and the single man is said to have all the fun. Just look at Geoff Johns’s retcon of Green Lantern as a ladies’ man. Women, so goes the stereotype (and almost certainly the facts of the matter, however culturally conditioned), want marriage; men are expected to defer, to see marriage as something of a prison.

There’s also a generation gap: Westerners in their 30s and younger, brought up in a culture in which the average marriage only lasts about seven years, tend not to hold the same reverence for marriage. I’m certainly in this category.

But let’s look at why these characters were allowed to marry in the first place. Sure, the marriage of both Superman and Spider-Man were occasioned by events outside of their main comics. But that doesn’t mean such decisions were made casually. DC and Marvel certainly understood that the kinds of stories they told with these characters would have to change as a result. And they were willing to take that risk, believing that new stories would develop — that there was nothing intrinsically more interesting about single super-heroes than married super-heroes.

The conclusion to Superman: The Wedding Album #1, which asserts that no one -- obviously implying creators and editors too -- should put Superman's marriage asunder.

Undoing these marriages must thus be understood as a confession that these new storytelling models haven’t materialized.

If letting major super-heroes marry has been a failure, it has been a failure of writers’ and editors’ imagination.

Yes, writing dramatic stories featuring single protagonists is easier. But marriage isn’t without drama.

Consider Jim Lee’s statement above that “marriage brings about a certain degree of comfort and security in one’s life.” That’s certainly the conventional view, and it’s often how marriages appear from the outside. But Lee goes further, saying, “If you have a life partner, you always have someone to rely on.”

Does that sound like many marriages you know? How many people hide things from their spouses? I’m not talking only about affairs or crushes. I’m talking about everything from money trouble to the mundane, like the fact that someone doesn’t like someone else’s cooking, or approve of their sense of decor. How many husbands hide that they went to the grocery store because they don’t want to have to explain that, no, they didn’t bring the grocery list because they simply don’t want to do all that shopping.

That might sound like less than riveting material. But it’s worth remembering that this sort of real-life characterization was crucial to the success of works like Alan Moore’s, as well as to more recent work, like Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis.

And who says that married people don’t fall in love with people outside their marriage? True, the dynamic changes. Readers might think a character swarmy for doing so. But if we’re going to reflect actual human psyches, every study confirms that the human brain doesn’t shut off its interest in other people, merely because of the social convention of a ring and a piece of paper. This interest need not be sexual, or at least consummated, but there’s no reason why a married character can’t be enchanted with a new person at the Daily Planet, even taking them out for lunch or dinner, ostensibly to talk about business. In other words, marriage doesn’t have to mean an end to any of these narrative possibilities.

The only real difference is the guilt involved, if a character realizes that he or she might be falling in love. What happens when Clark Kent is delighted by a female reporter, or a female agent for the government, or a super-heroine, and business talk carries over into dinner? What happens when he returns home, and Lois complains that he flies around as Superman but never takes care of any of the chores around the house? Of course, this is a perfectly reasonable complaint, and pains would have to be taken so that Lois didn’t come off as a shrewish, nagging stereotype of a wife. But super-heroes aren’t shown buying groceries, yet such matters are sometimes of crucial importance in the day-to-day operation of a marriage.

Does Superman feel guilty? Resentful? Both?

Forget characters saying that they couldn’t marry because they don’t want to place their children in jeopardy of losing a parent. That’s a risk policemen, fire fighters, and soldiers deal with all the time, and it’s insulting to them to pretend that the super-hero is a sort of special class, in this regard.

Instead, what happens in a marriage when the husband is gone in outer space for six months?

A writer who only shows us that outer-space adventure, during which the masculine hero looks at his beloved wife’s photo occasionally, and ending with a happy wife throwing open her arms to welcome her husband home, simply isn’t trying.

In fact, that writer is insulting his or her readers.

Because the space adventure isn’t the real story. We’ve seen that before. It’s rarely exciting, let alone thrilling.

What’s far more interesting is what happens after the story. What’s far more interesting is how the wife comes to terms with the fact that, this time, the beloved hero isn’t coming back. Even if she doesn’t move on, the house they share isn’t going to look the same. This homecoming isn’t going to be something simple, that can be dispensed with in a single panel. It’s going to involve the dog’s legs being older and weaker than when the hero left. It’s going to involve the couch looking worn and stained. It’s going to involve a wife who loves her heroic husband, even as she has to adjust to him inserting himself into the daily routines that she’s established in his absence, as if no time has passed.

The analogy here is very much to a soldier returning from war, in which all of these elements come into play. In other words, there is a model for these kinds of stories.

In fact, most of what’s celebrated in literature and TV is celebrated precisely because of its realistic depiction of these extreme nooks and crannies of human experience.

How can comics writers not see that?

But perhaps they do. Perhaps those are stories comic books simply do not want to tell.

Because Superman and Spider-Man have to be paragons of virtuous perfection. And not in any real, achievable, human way, but in the three-color, Ben-Day dots kind of way. The unrealistic, unachievable, inhuman, bears-no-relationship-to-reality kind of way.

Because so many creators and fans want the super-hero to be uplifting and not burdened with the reality of cleaning up after their building-smashing fisticuffs, let alone the reality of holding a relationship together. As if this would somehow reduce the super-hero, rather than enlarging him. It’s a concept I’ve termed “regressivism,” as it pertains to comics, and it’s frankly horrifying.

Because it’s hard to tell these stories starring Superman and still sell Superman lunch boxes.

These old stories are damaging. Holding people up to unrealistic expectations is damaging, whether it’s no sex before marriage or a picture of married bliss that comes straight out of the 1950s and never existed in real life, outside of TV shows in which those same married couples slept in separate beds.

In allowing Spider-Man and Superman to marry, Marvel and DC were committing to allowing their characters to change. They were committing to telling new stories.

In undoing these marriages, the same companies are admitting that they have failed.

And by the way they’re undone, by retroactively eliminating them, these same companies have stated their commitment to avoiding telling new stories. Because having married a character, the logical course of action to remove that marriage would be a separation or a divorce.

Ah, but those would be new stories. Challenging stories to tell. Stories the world might recognize as literature and not the juvenile tripe they usually are. Stories in which these cartoon paragons of virtue might not come out, smelling like roses.

But isn’t that moral simplicity, that stupidity, exactly what’s wrong with the genre? After all, you might be a hero for stopping the alien invasion. But it’s immoral to pretend that such alien invasions don’t involve real casualties. It’s immoral to pretend that war, real or cartoon, doesn’t leave grieving children and parents, or people dealing with crippling emotional and physical injuries. Because that’s not reality, and pretending it is doesn’t make for a better story — it makes for a worse one, one that makes war seem heroic and consequence-free, leaving people incapable of dealing with reality, when it actually intrudes upon their lives.

I’m not saying all super-hero stories have to be dark and serious. I don’t think that dealing with reality needs to be dark and serious. That’s a dangerous misconception.

I’m also not saying that super-heroes can’t be inspirational or fun or fantastic. I often find them so, but I don’t fail to find a character inspirational because he or she is flawed, or his or her choices aren’t black and white. Quite the opposite, if we are to have any meaningful, mature sense of heroism.

I’m saying that stories that defy reality egregiously strain credibility. And a perfect marriage, or a consequence-free war, is just as much a strain on credibility as a car racing across New York City in ten minutes to stop a terrorist.

And anyone who thinks comics, even super-hero comics, can’t or shouldn’t reflect reality simply doesn’t think much of the medium. Even in fantasy, the laws of physics and of human psychology are expected to still hold; in fact, the first rule of telling stories involving magic is that the writer must establish rules about how magic functions in this fictional world.

Having failed to tell such compelling stories involving married protagonists, we are now being told, in true regressivist form, that we should return to old and beloved status quos.

But rest assured, those old antics will not return.

It’s been four years since Spider-Man’s marriage was undone. Has a single great story been produced in that time that couldn’t have been told if Spider-Man had stayed married? Mary Jane Watson has barely appeared, and the most memorable of these stories have played with the past. In fact, they depend on the reader knowing that Mary Jane was married to Spider-Man.

What’s been done, you see, can’t be undone. Oh, you can remove something from continuity. You can annul marriages through time instead of through legal proceeding. But you can’t lobotomize readers or creators. You can undo their memories. And this means that every subsequent story will be haunted by the memory that, yes, these characters used to be married.

Perhaps Superman will be spared some of this, in that he’s only been married for 15 of his 73 years of publication.

Is this the "bold new direction" Jim Lee speaks of? The cover to Superman's Girl Friend, Lois Lane #7 (Feb 1959).

But the great stories involving Lois Lane were told during the Silver Age and earlier, in which Lois was obsessed with marrying Superman and not above using red kryptonite, time travel, and extraterrestrials to achieve her aims. This obsession extended into proving that Superman and Clark Kent were one and the same, or competing with Lana Lang.

Does anyone think that these stories could even be told today?

Rest assured, they won’t. In fact, in the DC relaunch, we’re told that Lois Lane will have a new love interest. I’m not sure what drama that supplies that marriage wouldn’t, unless DC intends to move the relationship closer to that of Superman Returns, which bravely depicted Superman struggling with the fact that Lois had moved on, despite her conflicted feelings. And I wouldn’t bet on it.

Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t care whether Superman is married, to be honest. I like the character very much, but like anyone who cares about art, I’d rather have a quality story than one starring Superman. I also suspect that Grant Morrison will produce a quality story, in his relaunched Action Comics. I’m not against DC’s relaunch, which I think is a bold gesture, but I’m quite reasonably holding my breath to see the quality of the stories produced — and I’m committed to examining the implications of the specific artistic and narrative choices made as part of the relaunch.

What concerns me isn’t Superman. It’s that super-hero comics, in their turn toward regressivism, have abandoned most of the changes that moved comics forward, beginning in the 1980s.

It’s that mainstream super-hero comics seem to have decided to wage war on intelligence, on mature writing, on reflecting the real world or actual human psyches.

It’s that this is the surest recipe for re-ghettoizing the genre and the medium — that it rejects the idea of comics as literature in favor of comics as hip artifacts of an insular geek culture that likes to play dress-up but isn’t all that smart.

Superman’s marriage is incidental. What isn’t incidental is the admission of defeat and the retreat from intelligent narrative that undoing it represents.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

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2 Comments

  1. David Balan says:

    “Marriage brings about a certain degree of comfort and security in one’s life,” Lee said. “If you have a life partner, you always have someone to rely on. So from a story conflict point of view, it makes for a less dramatic story.”

    This statement is just patently not true. I’m not even sure how you could think it would be. Conflict between life partners is often more ‘dramatic’ than any other type. The issue is that it is hard to make it believable in the context of a larger conflict – how do you have a believable love story when skrulls are about to take over Earth?

    The traditional approach is either:

    A. Have damsel in distress who weeps during the course of the battle and then springs into her hero’s arms after victory. (or some variant.)
    B. Don’t have one.

    It is much more challenging to pace and execute a story of personal love during such a time of conflict – but it can be a very powerful narrative device. I’m struggling to think of a good book or film I’ve read/seen that exemplifies how it could be done, because I KNOW I’ve seen one… I just can’t think of it!

    I’m also with you about the regressivism – it is actually much more invigorating, engaging, and uplifting to watch a character who does have flaws, who makes mistakes, and acts like a real person then proceed to learn to be a hero and rise above all his or her challenges. I can think of a few stories like that I’ve seen, principle among them the film Gran Torino.

    • I agree that there’s conflict in marriage, or between life partners. It’s just that the big companies don’t want to show their heroes’ marriages as other than perfect. Or close to it. Which is not only unrealistic but kind of insulting to the hard work people do in relationships. I know it’s not intended to be, of course.

      Amen on regressivism. Keep spreading the word!

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