Love is in the air!
If you’re a writer, it means rich interpersonal drama for the heights or depths of emotion.
If you’re a fan, it means one thing: SHIPPING.
And if you’re a fictional character, well, love actually…sucks. If it’s not the love triangles, the deaths, or the fact that fictional characters are emotional wrecks, it’s the executive team deciding a breakup will boost viewership.
Well, folks, this week I’ll be talking about LOVE! Specifically, love in comics! And to start with…why sometimes it doesn’t seem to work. It seemed like an especially relevant time seeing as, as of the time of this post, Kitty Pryde left Colossus at the altar. By which I mean she did it…AT the altar.
Seriously, Kitty. Dick move.
Ships On The Rocks
So, you’ve heard the cliche, right? Whether it’s a soap opera, a long-running sitcom, or a graphic novel, love is a battlefield, a rocky road that often ends in heartache.
Romance and love interests are a common part of stories, of course. But if the stories get serialised like in the case of long-running series or comics, the format demands plots get extended, stretched out, and milked for all they’re worth before actually CONCLUDING. And as the conclusion of a romantic subplot is “They lived happily ever after”, the relationships of fictional characters are decidedly…not that.
While a lot of the biggest names in comicdom tend to have a true love (such as Lois and Clark, Peter and Mary Jane, Reed and Sue, and so on), the majority of characters are not so clean-cut. Most fictional characters have a tendency to avoid committed relationships. They seldom truly get together, and often suffer through many break ups, reunions, and dating of other people. Even if they have “that ONE person” as their BIGGEST love, there’s a lot of on-again-off-again before they actually get together.
This happens to most characters that aren’t part of a “power couple” like the aforementioned pairs, but it can also happen to Big Names. Yes, even Batman and Green Lantern. There are at least five ways you can look at this:
- The character has a rich supporting cast and multiple choices for dating, some of which are pretty strong, like how Peter Parker had numerous one-sided crushes and dates with the women in his life, but it was only ever a contest between Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy.
- The character is unreliable or not interested in a committed relationship, so they happily date people for awhile then break up. Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Iron Man, basically any hotshot playboy character is a prime candidate, but it can also apply to more well-adjusted ones.
- Romance is not a major element of their plots. I’m sure the likes of War Machine and Miss Marvel have dated people and some of those people were major bonds, but as they were more focused on work and PROVING THEMSELVES, romance was never a major part of their storylines.
- The character has a very dangerous life and can’t afford the luxury of a loved one, so they stay detached to protect others. Which is pretty much the excuse Wolverine and Batman keep giving.
- The character has been active for so long that they have had multiple love interests at different times according to the ebb and flow of marketing and the tastes of the time. Which is why Batman’s three most consistent love interests (if you can call them that) are a spunky-but-socially-acceptable reporter, a mischievous selfish-but-goodhearted antiheroine in a catsuit, and an heir to a vast assassin organisation right out of a fantasy novel. All this despite the fact that the majority of his supporting cast are either trying to kill him or practically family, unlike Spider-Man’s ACTUAL supporting cast.
Why Would You Sink The Ship?
Setting aside the various in-universe reasons you can give for denying a character happiness (he’s afraid of commitment, she’s focused on her career, they were both mind-controlled, the age and cultural differences are too great, she is sent to the Phantom Zone), there’s really only ever one reason behind this and every other setback thrown into the story: The writers want to keep things going.
Just as conflict and setbacks keep the plot interesting and stop it from getting solved too soon, rocky relationships (for whatever the cause) do the same for the romantic SUBplots.
So long as the relationship is not decisively resolved (whether in a full relationship or clearly ending it), then it remains a plot which will continue to draw in readers who are interested in it. Because if a story’s main selling points are the numerous plots in it (Politics in the capital city! Zombie apocalypse in the frozen north! Dragons across the sea! Warfare in the riverlands!), then it is in the interests of the title to keep them going as long as possible.
Or to put it simply, imagine if you tuned in to a show because you liked ONE character. Now imagine that they GOT RID of the character and you didn’t watch the show anymore. The writing team wants to AVOID that. And tell a compelling story where nothing comes easily, I suppose, BUT MOSTLY THEY WANT TO KEEP A CUSTOMER.
Of course, while this may sound overly cynical, I would like to point out that as long as a plotline continues, it will inevitably spawn MORE plotlines, MORE stories to be told. Just as a single plot will have numerous subplots (the romance, the best friend’s quest, the antihero’s redemption, the search for a home for their magical creature, etc.), even a single SUBplot can spawn numerous story arcs. In this case, that means stories like love triangles, romantic tension, temptations, and break ups. All good plot hooks to keep the title going while serving as moments to develop the characters.
And hey. A relationship that is not concluded, much like a story that is not ended, is one big TO BE CONTINUED. And any TO BE CONTINUED is a signal to readers to READ MORE NEXT TIME. After all, if a relationship in the story needs to sit down and have a talk, then the plot can theoretically keep going until they actually have it. And if they keep putting it off, then that just means MORE stories.
Of course, there IS a limit to how patient an audience can be. If it goes on for TOO long, they’ll eventually just lose interest and no longer desire to know more. However, just because a character can’t commit, it doesn’t mean that it’s BAD writing. On the contrary, it represents a lot of potential.
Let’s consider Batman. Even discounting his one night stands, bizarre Silver Age plots and his own greatly varying emotional maturity (ranging from “I’ve made my peace, I’m fighting to save others from being like me” to “MY PARENTS ARE DEEEEEAAAAAD”), he’s STILL got three main love interests: Vicky Vale, Catwoman, and Talia al’Ghul.
Each love interest is a character with a deep connection. And in each character you have years of adventures and continuities. And each of THOSE adventures is full of world-building and supporting characters, each with their own plots and relationships. So with those three ladies alone, Batman has Vicky Vale to cover the whole “public perception of him” angle. With Catwoman, he has your basic “tights and rooftops and double-crosses” storylines, usually featuring the villains she’s working with/selling out. And with Talia al’Ghul, you have the whole “I’m a ninja who dresses up as a bat” perspective, along with the whole “My would-be father-in-law is a sociopathic immortal Arabic ninja master.”
All of that from just THREE characters.
So when characters are designed so that relationships are unsustainable, or if the plot drives a wedge between a pair, just keep in mind: It’s not just for that CURRENT plot. It’s also so that they can keep discovering NEW ones.
After all, although it may seem like cheap drama, having a character get stuck in a love triangle’s temptations promises more conflict (and therefore, more interesting stories) than a boringly simple and sensible “Sorry, I’m flattered, but I’m in a committed relationship. BEGONE, THOT.”
Something Broken, Forged Anew
I’ve talked about the behind-the-scenes reasons for making characters have messed up relationships, both from a production and a plotting standpoint. And the common takeaway is: by keeping things from being FIXED, you let MORE things develop. And now, I’ll close with some food for thought in what might be considered a controversial topic for purists: What happens when you break a MAJOR relationship?
Sometimes the unthinkable happens and a creative team will actually END a long-term relationship. Sometimes it’s a falling out, a divorce, or mind-control, or shapeshifters. Sometimes it’s as simple as death. It would be like Lois Lane dying, or if the Torch married the Thing’s girlfriend. These are assuredly major twists, and if it is handled POORLY, fan backlash and attachment to the relationship will often force the writers to go back on their decision. Like saying it was all a dream, with shapeshifting mind controllers.
Now, death or the ending of long relationships are not new plot hooks. But sometimes, the creative team will go a step further and have their character hook up with someone new. And that’s not new, either! It’s happened as far back as the original 60s and 70s of comics, when the various “They don’t know the other person’s still alive” plotlines led to various new relationships, whether by way of rebound, consolation prize, or just plain pity. But the most prominent example of this is when Jean Grey died and Cyclops ended up with Emma Frost.
Now, obviously that was a big deal for fans and purists, since Scott and Jean were a Power Couple, high school sweethearts with a long history and strong bond. Out of all the X-Men, they are the ones who are arguably the ONLY couple that also STANDS OUT in the Marvel universe. When Emma came in and had her psychic trysts with Scott, it could have been seen as trying to create cheap drama by defiling a pure relationship. Certainly, the writers played with that angle, and it was in an era where fans debated the whole “kill major characters and have everyone be awful” angle. It would have been easy to just raise Jean from the dead and have her reconcile with Scott.
But AFTER that? Well, for starters, the creative team(s) had the guts to stick by their decision. And as a result, created one of the strongest runs of X-Men. All because of a simple decision: They CONTINUED DEVELOPING the characters.
It would have been easy to backpedal, say it was a mistake, and have Emma keep on being the elitist snob and borderline villain. But instead, they nurtured her (along with her own years of complex character development) into a leader who, while snarky and cynical, also discovers her potential as a teacher and a hero…waaaaaiiiiit, that sounds a lot like Wolverine. So Emma was already benefiting from being a main character.
But that comic run I mentioned also featured her relationship with Scott in all its ups and downs (it involved a lot of therapy and mind control), until it reached a point where they were able to genuinely commit to each other. Now, Scott’s dated a few other women before: Jean, Jean’s college friends, a clone of Jean who ended up being evil. Before she joined the X-Men, Emma was NEVER on anyone’s radar as a potential love interest. And if you were to go by stereotypes of fandoms alone, you would think that NOBODY could ever get a new love interest, and that everything had to stay THE ABSOLUTE SAME.
And yet here she is, standing out in the modern era as the second most prominent love interest in his life. An actual love story of two broken people butting heads until they learn how to fit together, instead of cheap drama for the sake of “BUT HE FEELS LIKE HE’S BETRAYING JEAN”. Emma went from being “just a hot babe Cyclops hooked up with” to being the new Mary Jane love interest to Jean’s Gwen Stacy dead girlfriend.
All of that because they killed Jean and let her stay dead for the longest time yet. And because they treated the characters and plots as weighty stories full of potential.
Now, not every major shocking moment is going to succeed. Some of them are just transparent tactics to get more readers, which are doomed to reversals when it’s clear nobody is happy. Some of them are DELIBERATELY making people unhappy because the team already decided that the plot was about FIXING it.
But now and then? Now and then, from the ashes of something that was beloved, from the cliche of the broken relationship…something strong can be made.
But seriously. Dick move, Kitty. Dick move.