Monday, September 9, 2013

"Heroes shouldn't have happy personal lives."

Before we begin, I just want to point something out: The reason the title to this article doesn't have a quote is because I honestly couldn't come up with a better title for this article beyond what Dan Didio, head of DC comics, actually said. It sums up exactly what is wrong with the major comics industry today in terms of an attitude towards its characters, their lives, and the editorial mandates made to change them. It highlights a terrible mentality within the industry and a problem which is progressively killing off interest with comics over time just as much as rising prices and a multitude of other problems.

To give a bit of context to this, the quote comes from Dan Didio's response to what the lead writers of Batwoman revealed. The duo consisting of W. Haden Blackman and J.H. Williams spoke out over the fact they had effectively been barred from putting their lead female characters in a serious relationship. DC editorial refused to allow them to tell the story they had been leading up to, of Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer's marriage, and refused to let them continue. This has exploded around the internet with accusations ranging from homophobia or hatred of married couples, leading to Didio's response:

"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, 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."

As you can imagine this hardly helped things. There's many ways this could be interpretedThis decision could be put down to Didio's apparent hatred for certain female characters wearing the bat mantle, to the point of trying to make Stephanie Brown effectively a non-person within any DC related universe.

It could also be put down to a fear on the part of the editors of having to deal with relationships, a more difficult part of any comic, and of marriages being "borning" to readers. However, that seems more like a writer problem than someone in the editing department (even if the editors seem to regard themselves as editors most days now) and a fear they would have. The only fear editors might have is a writer seriously screwing things up, see Chuck Austin's take on Superman and Lois Lane's marriage for an extreme example of that.

Rather than speculating on potentially other meanings, let's just focus upon what his response was. A statement which ultimately boiled down to "Superheroes have the duty to protect countless lives, they cannot afford to be tied down to a single person. The situations superheroes are in are terrible and we need to reflect this in their personal lives."

Now, in fairness there is actually a kind of logic behind this. Not the warped, crazy kind that DC editorial usually seems to run on but a common criticism of some comics like Superman. When you have a figure fighting to save an entire world, perhaps even just an entire city, moping about their failing relationship or personal fears makes them look petty or even outright unlikable. A DC example of this was Superman Returns, and a major anime example of this is Neon Genesis Evangelion. When the world is at risk of being completely destroyed the question of "can they repair this relationship" seems insignificantly small and meaningless by comparison. Or rather when it isn't handled extremely well.

The problem here is that not all stories about superheroes focus upon world shattering events and there are often much smaller tales to balance out the bigger ones. Or at least that's how comics are supposed to be told anyway. Rather than being a single tale or a plotline with a definitive beginning and end, comics have the unique strength of having a permanently ongoing narrative to explore character aspects and new ideas with. Furthermore unlike films or series, they can more easily afford to have extremely differing plot-lines to explore a wider range of themes and tales. For every few times there's a plot in which Superman faces down a sun eater determined to destroy reality, there's occasional ones on smaller scales to allow him greater character dynamic. Show his relationship with Lois, the people around him and how he interacts with the city. Good authors can even find ways to balance the two sometimes such as All-Star Superman.

Even the authors of the New 52 have found ways to balance the two aspects out and show how heroes can be devoted to people and have successful relationships. Geoff Johns' first few issues on Aquaman displayed this. He had shifting focus back and fourth between Aquaman's relationship with the city, his wife lover Mera and more personal stories along with the battle against the Trench.

Another problem is that, as you might have guessed from the examples i've been using, the idea of heroes personal lives being irrelevant in the fact of huge threats only works with powerful figures. When it comes down to more street level superheroes, those with less power or ones who don't have to combat world threatening terrors, it's much easier to incorporate their personal lives. Spider-Man is best known for this, Luke Cage's family life is a core part of his character, Arsenal's status as a single father was a major part of his personality, even Bruce Wayne's fatherhood was a major point within his comics.

Batwoman ultimately falls into the above category of characters and while she has faced supernatural threats or foes, she's best known for facing criminals, back alley robbers and crime bosses. There's easily enough room for stories to fit in a personal love story and not make it feel as if she's putting focus towards it over that of major threats, putting many lives at risk. If anything putting Kane and Sawyer in a relationship would be far easier than Clark Kent and Lois Lane due to the similarities in their professions. They would be able to have them both following the same plot threads, facing the same villains when needed, and not have to frequently divide any tales or go out of their way to incorporate the two together.

The idea of having to sacrifice telling about a character;s personal life to tell stories focusing upon powerful characters isn't the only issue however. As Didio stated, he considers that all of DC's heroes should have terrible personal lives, and even ignoring everything said above there is still a reason for this.

Go into any class detailing script-writing in television or any ongoing series and the tutor will always say the same thing: Stress and tension keep the audience engaged. If everything turns out well for the characters by the episode's end, if everything is completely wrapped up with no problems, there's nothing to come back to for next time. The hero always needs to only just win, only just accomplish their goals and often fail just as much as achieve anything. Unfortunately for us the easiest way to accomplish this, and what it is usually translated into, is that is that happiness equals boredom.

The idea of characters having fun and happy moments often come down to being lulls in action. Either because they are slower paced than the combat sequences or just because they don't involve life threatening action or tension. Compared with the characters battling against supervillains, mooks or monsters; scenes where two characters are simply getting along or are even just talking happily can easily be dismissed by some as being dull or even pointless. Marriage is seen as a sign of a stable relationship if it's introduced between two heroic characters, an indication they are supposed to be together and they are fine with one another.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to explain this is hardly always true or that any kind of happy relationship can't have strife or interesting plotlines, but it is an unfortunate idea which has cropped up more than once. It wasn't too long ago over at Marvel that Joe Quesada was infamous for breaking up marriages as he felt the characters were more interesting without them. Effectively every married character short of Reed Richards and Susan Storm were broken up and separated under his direction.You only really need to look at past arcs of comics with married characters to see how wrong an opinion this is. The Fantastic Four, Aquaman, Superman, even Ant-Man and Wasp, all of who have had plot-lines just as good after the lead characters were together as before it. Often it just added a new dynamic to an already established romatic role between figures and hardly killed off any major plots of interest.

Getting away from the marriage angle however, Didio seems to fail to realise that happiness needs to be there in comics especially with characters' personal lives. When you remove all joy from a comic, remove any happy moments or any possible, the audience reading the comic begins to lose interest. Turn it into a nihilistic ruin of a tale where there is no happiness and the only thing to try and keep the audience engaged is some bigger threat and people just stop caring about the characters. It takes a very specific and very skilled kind of author to pull off the type of story where things only get worse which keeps a reader's interest, George R.R. Martin for one, and even then they are not relentlessly depressing. There are glimmers of hope, signs of things going well, brief moments of joy of some kind to give variation in the emotions it is evoking. Often these help to make a tale only more effective, sometimes giving more meaning to later tragedies and failings via call-backs.

Take Serenity for example. Joss Whedon is infamous for refusing to give characters happy endings, but people keep watching as there are variations in his tones and any darkness doesn't overwhelm the lighter moments in his stories. Yet when the darker moments do reach their peak they often use these lighter moments in one way or another. In the film the line "I'm a leaf on the wind" is used by Wash during an extremely rough landing as the ship comes down, when it is used again it is by the same character in far worse circumstances. Something which leads to a far more shocking and darker turn than it otherwise would have had and giving that turn more meaning through the connection.

To conclude before this gets too long, there's some logic behind what Didio's stating but it only makes sense if you ignore many contradicting details, ideas and storylines which disprove them. What he is saying works on an extremely basic level, but falls apart once you place it under any serious scrutiny or consider it for more than a few seconds. To put it quite frankly, it's the kind of half-baked bad decision we've come to expect of the man whose immediate decision upon taking over a Transformers series was to order writers to ignore all previous continuity. Also, by extension DC Comics' administration as a whole.

Still, this is just my opinion based upon the analysis of his statements. I'm sure many others have their own ideas and thoughts on this stance by DC so feel free to state your own opinions on this matter. I'd be especially interested to hear the opinions of Batwoman readers and other longtime DC fans.
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