Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Heroes and their girl friends

A couple of days ago Wired had a column "written" by Lois Lane entitled "Dear DC Comics: Why Do You Keep Fridging Me?" (fridging = killing). That got me thinking about the relationship between superheroes and their girlfriends.

I can't say a lot about the Golden Age. I've only read a fraction of the comics from then. My impression is that girl friends were rare. The big exception was Superman and Lois Lane although she was more of a college than a girl friend at the time.

By the time I started reading comic books, Lois's relationship had changed. She was more of a pest than anything else. She regularly got into trouble and had to be rescued or tried to prove that Superman was Clark Kent. She could be jealous of Lana Lang who had known Superman since he was Superboy.

The old Superman TV show was still in syndication and probably had an influence on the comic book portrayal. In the show, she was sometimes suspicious of Clack being Superman. There was little to no romantic attraction. He treated her about the same as Jimmy Olsen.

In the comics, Superman always claimed that he would marry Lois but that it would put her life in danger. Just knowing his secret identity could be deadly. This never sounded right, even when I was a ten-year-old. After all, Lois's life was already in danger from being a known associate (a group called the Superman Revenge Squad had a bounty on the heads of all of the supporting cast). She didn't have to tell anyone that he had told her his secret identity. They could even get married in secret.

DC did a number of imaginary and dream issues where Superman and Lois got married. Sometimes he found a way of giving her super powers. Sometimes he married her as Clark Kent. She was often miserable when married in secret because she wanted to be able to boast about her husband's accomplishments (this was the 1960s when a wife was supposed to live through her husband).

I suspect that all of this was aimed at the publisher's view of pre-adolesent boys. In the late 1960s, DC redefined the Superman Family. Lois and Jimmy started having adventures revolving around their careers as reporters. Lois started wearing her hair loose and appearing in bikinis, possibly as an acknowledgement that the readers were older.

The came the Superman movies. The first two centered on the relationship between Lois and Superman. They even consummated it although Clark eventually had to choose between being Superman and having a personal life.

When Superman was rebooted in the 1980s, John Byrne's Lois was inspired by the movie version. They eventually married in the 1990s, coinciding with their marriage in the TV show Lois and Clark. That lasted until last year's reboot.

Outside of Lois, most girl friends in the early 1960s were just filler - something to fill up panels until the hero put on his costume. It was a running gag in The Flash that he was always late for his date.

Marvel put its own spin on the girlfriend - the doomed romance. There was always some reason that the hero couldn't get together with the girl. Iron Man had a bad heart. Thor needed his father's permission. Cyclopes worried about hurting people close to him with his hard-to-control eye beams. Daredevil thought that his secretary deserved better than a blind man. Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk.

There were exceptions. The big one was Reed Richards and Sue Storm married around four years after the Fantastic Four started. This has been the main, lasting marriage in comic book history.

Spider-Man actually went through a normal relationship with Betty Brant. They met and started dating. Along the way she also started seeing Ned Leeds, a reporter. Leeds asked Betty to marry him. Peter almost proposed himself but realized that Betty did not want to be married to a superhero and the two broke up. After a brief fling with Mary Jane Watson, Peter settled down dating with Gwen Stacy.

Other Marvel heroes relationships changed. Thor broke up with Jane Foster and started seeing the goddess Sif. Cyclopes and Marvel Girl started dating. Daredevil and Iron Man broke up with their their secretaries.

A new generation of writers entered the field around 1970 and they stirred things up. The Flash finally married his girlfriend then had marital problems.

Henry Pym (Ant Man/Giant Man/Goliath/Yellowjacket/etc.) and the Wasp had a solid relationship from the beginning although they never got around to getting married. This finally happened while he was thought he was someone else. Later he began abusing the Wasp and they divorced. Even later they reconciled prior to the Wasp's death a few years ago.

There was a period during the 1970s and early 1980s when a new writer on a strip meant a new girlfriend. I lost track of Tony Stark's. At one point he was trying to relieve his guilt over manufacturing weapons by chasing after a hippy chick. Later he dated the daughter of a crime lord. Daredevil went through a few girlfriends with Electra being the most memorable one. Spider-Man's girlfriend, Gwen, was killed and he went back to Mary Jane although he had a fling with the Black Cat (Felicia Hardy). Thor alternated between Sif and Jane Foster before marrying the Enchantress in an alternate future. Captain America's long-time girlfriend, Sharron Carter, died and he dated around before Sharron returned. Even the Hulk got a green girlfriend for a while.

I think that this represents two factors. One is that new relationships are easier to write and can add some freshness to a strip. The other is the desire of a new writer to mark the strip as his own.

Comic book marriages have been amazingly unsuccessful. Either they break up, one of them dies, or the whole event is written out of continuity. The Hulk has been married a couple of times and both wives died (although Betty came back). Cyclopes married two different versions of Jean Grey and both died (more or less). The Flash and his wife both died. Spider-Man's and Superman's marriages never happened.

One final point I wanted to touch on - occasionally the girlfriend outshines the original hero. The Silver Age Hawk Man was married to Hawk Woman. In later continuity, he vanished and Hawk Woman continued.

After their breakup, the Wasp continued on with the Avengers and led the team for several years.

Then there is Carol Danvers. She was a supporting character in the Captain Marvel comic. She was not a girlfriend but there were implications that she could be given the right circumstances. That never happened.

Later she returned as a superhero in her own right - Ms Marvel. An alien machine had given her powers similar to Captain Marvel's. She has bounced around a lot since then. She changed powers a couple times and names several times, but she is still prominent and had her own comic for several years in the 2000s. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, died in the 1970s and his name was given to a female character for a long time.

Why are Reed and Sue still together? Probably because they were married during the Lee/Kirby days. That's long enough ago to be part of their DNA. All of the other relationships were much more recent. Reed and Sue were married before most professionals entered the field and before many of them were even born. Breaking them up would be like changing Superman's powers. You know that it would only be a temporary change.

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