Fri
Sep 6 2013 11:00am

Batwoman’s Lesbian Marriage Problem

BatwomanAnother day, another comic book controversy that gets twisted around and misinterpreted to satisfy sensationalist news headlines. For those unaware, artist/writer JH Williams III made a somewhat public exit from DC Comics, where he was writing the ongoing Batwoman series (he had previously done the art on the series as well). In a blog post, Williams cited editorial interference as the motivating factor, and unfortunately, he is not the first creator since DC’s “New52” relaunch who has publicly departed from the company after airing similar grievances. Williams mentions several storylines that he had been working on over the last two years that were allegedly cut short or changed at the last minute by the fickle editorial department, and among these points were a new origin story for Killer Croc and Batwoman’s marriage to her fiancé, Maggie Sawyer.

The small but vocal crowd of Killer Croc enthusiasts affected by this news were overpowered by the headlines accusing DC Comics of homophobic censorship. But while the socio-political implications of DC’s editorial decisions are certainly not positive, Williams has been very clear that the issue of gay marriage did not factor at all into the decision. I’m inclined to believe him because the mainstream comics industry in general does not appear to oppose gay marriage. They’re just anti-marriage, period.

(Okay, I admit that was a little bit sensationalist. But I got you interested, right?)

The thing about mainstream superhero comics is that they are perpetually trapped in the second act of a story, for better or for worse. The origin is Act 1, be it radioactive spiders, orphaned alien baby found by kindly Kansas parents, wealthy parents gunned down in alleyway, etc. You’ll notice that I didn’t sum up Batwoman’s origin here because (a) it’s not yet as iconic, and (b) it’s actually a very complex and interesting story that goes well beyond “lesbian Batman” and it would take me more than eight words to explain. The ongoing adventures of the superheroes we love is the never-ending second act of their story, with its sliding timescale, retroactive continuity and reboots/revamps, and so on. Typically the third act of a story is the climax, some kind of happy ending or resolution, and mainstream superhero comics aren’t allowed to experience this third act, because then their stories would be over.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a general consensus among the editorial departments at DC and Marvel that “marriage” is synonymous with “ending.” Consider Spider-Man’s magic devil-powered un-marriage in 2008, or Superman and Lois Lane, whose 15-year marriage was erased from continuity in the New52 reboot. There appears to be an institutionalized editorial belief in both companies that “marriage = bad storytelling,” that by having characters commit until death do them part makes it harder to tell interesting stories with them.

Now, I’m not married myself (though I am in a domestic partnership with no legal benefits) but to steal a time-honored excuse, some of my best friends are married. Heck, two of my parents are married. To each other, no less. And I don’t think any of their stories are done, or necessarily any easier or less dramatic, simply because they’re married. Sure, you lose the stakes of pining for love, but the commitment to a romantic partnership and to a family comes with its own set of complications. It’s a different kind of story, but it’s still a story.

For example, Animal Man remains married in the New52 continuity. The character is kind of a family man, and those struggles are part of his life—taking care of his kids, maintaining his relationship with his wife, all while protecting his family from his enemies. It’s a good story. Similarly, in the Marvel Universe, the mutant speedster Northstar recently married his partner, Kyle. Kyle now has to deal with the fact that he has no superpowers and frequently feels inadequate in the presence of the X-Men, while Northstar fears for the life of his husband should Kyle become a target. It’s certainly different than a character who is single or dating, but there are still inherent dramatic stakes involved in long-term relationship work.

And so, while I agree that DC Comics made several egregious errors in the decision-making process that led to the departure of JH Williams III, I do not believe that they were motivated by homophobia. Rather, their faults lie in a refusal to believe that good stories can be told with marriage involved, and with unnecessary last-minute editorial interference. But this is not the only recent instance of a frustrated creator leaving DC Comics in a public manner, which is perhaps indicative of some larger internal problems within the company (though I can only speculate on that front, and to do so would be unfair).

That being said, though it may not have been intentional, the biggest mistake that DC Comics made in this situation is that they had an opportunity in this situation to make a positive, progressive statement—and they did the exact opposite. Though their decision was not motivated by censorship, they did not consider the implicit politics of the situation. In their defense, however, it’s worth pointing out that, while Marvel may have published the first gay marriage in mainstream superhero comics (which, if DC was in fact hesitant to go that far, well, they already missed the boat anyway), Batwoman is the only mainstream superhero comic with an eponymous gay lead. DC has also published functioning polygamous relationships, as well as transgender characters, so their agenda might not be as conservative as their editorial oversights suggest.

Now, this doesn’t help or change anything about the problems of representation and diversity in SFF in general, or comic books in particular. At the end of the day, I still believe that DC made a mistake, and there are unintended consequences of that mistake with which they will have to deal. But the worst part of the situation is that it still prevents gay or otherwise marginalized characters from being treated equally. I like to think that someday soon, characters will be treated with the same value and compassion regardless of orientation or identity—through convoluted stories, poorly-written plotlines, or any other narrative challenge they might face.


Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. He enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve whiskey and/or robots). He is a graduate of Clarion Writer’s Workshop at UCSD, and he firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net.

18 comments
Colin R
1. Colin R
I doubt it was a consciously homophobic choice to pressure J.H. Williams not to let Batwoman get married either, but it was still pretty stupid. Batwoman is definitely one of the most consistently good titles DC has been putting out since the reboot. Why mess with it?
James Nicoll
2. James Davis Nicoll
Oddly, DC seems A-OK with encouraging snuff porn:

(Not a Dream! Not a Hoax! Not an Imaginary Story!)

http://www.dccomics.com/node/305151

Screencap for when DC takes that down:

http://kstipetic.tumblr.com/post/60419468009/dc-comics-asks-prospective-artists-to-sexualize

I am inclined to say at this point that without wide spread, brutal cleansing of management at DC it is beyond rehabilitation.
Nick Eden
3. NickPheas
For example, Animal Man remains married in the New52 continuity. The character is kind of a family man, and those struggles are part of his life—taking care of his kids, maintaining his relationship with his wife, all while protecting his family from his enemies.
Though in the last issue I read Buddy had failed on every count and Ellen had left him following the death of their son.

I suppose it might get a coming out of the shower moment.
Mani A
4. sn0wcrash
I'll grant you the anti-marriage thing, but I wouldn't bet vast amounts of money on the absence of homophobia. Didn't they hire Orson Scott Card for a Superman title recently?
Chris Nelly
5. Aeryl
All things being equal, this particular marriage snub wouldn't matter.

But when it comes to same sex marriage, things are not equal.
Christopher Bennett
6. ChristopherLBennett
I don't understand the idea of marriage as an impediment to storytelling. Having written a Spider-Man novel, Drowned in Thunder, which is set when Peter was still married to MJ (and which has just come out as an audiobook, by the way!), I found that there was a lot of story potential in writing about the marriage, about how MJ's support and partnership benefitted Peter's heroing career and how his heroics complicated their marriage. My book was also during the period when Aunt May knew and accepted Peter's identity as Spider-Man, and having her as a confidante and advisor was a terrific dynamic as well. It's good for heroes to have people they can confide in -- I find it works much better than the cliche of the heroes constantly lying to their loved ones (which is a pretty unheroic thing to do and greatly limits the supporting characters' roles).

I'd also note that one of the greatest adventure sagas of all time, Homer's Odyssey, was about a man going to great lengths to get home to his wife while his wife strove to stand by her man. And DC and Marvel think that marriage and adventure can't go together?
Kevin Baijens
7. ImRhoven
I've tried to get into superhero comics a couple of times, but it just doesn't work. For this reason: "The thing about mainstream superhero comics is that they are perpetually trapped in the second act of a story, for better or for worse. " I just hate the convoluted mess every story arc turns into. Not to mention throwing a load of characters together that really would've been better served left in their own universes. Then they reboot, then they get a new author who wants to get his own stamp on a story that's already been told and the thing starts over again. Nothing ever progresses.

That being said: I was actually enjoying this incarnation of batwoman. It was actually the only superhero comic series I'm currently following. And now sadly I'll stop buying the books when JH Williams III last issue is done.
Sol Foster
8. colomon
I dunno, I think DC may have the right idea here, given the "trapped in the second act" nature of their comics. If you are trapped in the second act, then anything major which changes the status quo is going to have to be undone eventually. And undoing a hero's marriage is really, really messy. (See Spiderman, for instance.)

Of course, the real problem here is the being trapped in the second act, with occasional line-wide reboots back to the first act. If they were smart, they'd plan on rebooting by starting a fresh version of their comics universe every so often (since they do this anyway!) and so allow the stories to have proper third acts. As a bonus people wouldn't have to try to make sense of decades of continuity anymore.

So Earth-1986's Bruce Wayne could die and be replaced as Batman by Dick Grayson (without undoing the story a year later), while Earth-2011 would get a fresh new Bruce Wayne at the beginning of his career.
Colin R
9. Ragnarredbeard
Whoa, wait a minute! Batwoman is a lesbian? When did that happen?
Colin R
10. Herb4444
The heart and soul of perhaps the greatest TV show of all time--Friday Night Lights--is the marriage between Connie Britton's character and Kyle Chandler's character.
Colin R
11. Greg Cox 2
FYI: Batwoman has been gay since she was reintroduced back in 2006, during the "52" miniseries. (Dare I mention I wrote the novelization?) She was previously involved with Gotham cop Renee Montoya (aka "The Question"), but recently got engaged to another Gotham cop, Maggie Sawyer, late of the Metropolis Police Department.
David Allkins
12. Ghostword
At least Marvel still has Reed Richard and Sue Storm married with childen. Admittedly said children's ages go up and down, but the marrige is still holding.
Colin R
13. Nico_F
Only reason the Richard´s are still married is Stan Lee did it rather early on. Funny, as I find they don´t have that much chemistry, and every other writer does an arc where Sue feels Reed doesn´t really love her. And the times the Torch has matured a bit to regress again next writer change.

About their children, I think Val looks pretty close to Franklin´s age, despite being 9-10 years younger.
Chris Bridges
14. cabridges
I'm not sure there are any ongoing Big Two comics I read anymore.

Between stuff like this, and sprawling annual annoying mega-events, and DC's insistence on stripping away every iconic element of their heroes, I just don't think DC has any interest in creating any books that appeal to anyone besides 14-year-old boys or socially-stunted men.
Colin R
15. a1ay
Typically the third act of a story is the climax, some kind of happy
ending or resolution, and mainstream superhero comics aren’t allowed to experience this third act, because then their stories would be over.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a general consensus among the
editorial departments at DC and Marvel that “marriage” is synonymous with “ending.”

Couple of thoughts on this:
first, it's not just DC and Marvel. "Tragedies end with a death, comedies with a wedding" is older than Shakespeare as a rule. Though Big Will himself was bright enough to realise that just because all comedies end with a wedding doesn't mean that all weddings have to come at the end of a comedy. Hamlet, for example, has the wedding before the start of a tragedy. Richard III has Richard's marriage to Lady Anne halfway through a particularly awful tragedy.

Second, it reminds me strongly of something Lois McMaster Bujold wrote in one of her introductions (probably to "A Civil Campaign"): that when men write romances, they tend to end with the woman involved either dead or lost and the man ready to go on ("The English Patient" and "Shakespeare in Love", and all the Bond films, were her examples) while romances written by women tend to end with the couple settling down. But in neither case (IIRC), she points out, is there much attention paid to the rest of the story; and she has one of her heroines complain that, in all the fairy stories about beautiful Vor princesses, their story stops dead as soon as they get married, which is a bit offputting.

The second act/perpetual reboot thing doesn't rule out characters who are married any more than it rules out characters with other close relationships, but it does tend to rule out characters who get married. And as long as "more of the same" is what the publishers think readers want, then perpetual reboot is going to keep happening. They won't marry; and they won't age or die either. Batman married would be different from Batman single, and the need for "more of the same" rules that out.
Alexander Gieg
16. alexgieg
Another reason to not bother with superhero comics anymore. Since I've switched to manga and manhwa I've seen such themes in dozens of titles, some of which directed at tweens, all of them with proper 3rd acts. The effort to keep superhero comics going on, and on, and on, with characters never actually growing and situations and settings never changing makes everything just boring.
Colin R
17. Habakkuk21
It's fantasy; if yer content with yer life, you stop fantasizing, and fantasy's are all about overcoming difficulties. If they REALLY wanted to, they could have Batwoman marry her fiance, and then have them face the difficulties inherent in a marriage between two lesbians, one of which is a super-hero. Yeah. But who could write THAT? And would 14 year old boys and socially stunted men care?
Christopher Bennett
18. ChristopherLBennett
@17: First, there are difficulties inherent in any marriage, regardless of the sex, orientation, or occupation of its participants. People have been writing about married superheroes for decades, so there's no reason this should be substantially different.

Second, your attempt to stereotype comics readers misses the mark enormously. One: most comics these days are aimed at adults; I recall a news item recently about Dan DiDio or someone joking that DC doesn't make comics for anyone under 45. Two: the fact that comics-based movies are the most lucrative thing in Hollywood these days should easily dispel the old stereotype of comics readers as being limited to a minority of socially maladapted types, so that's a particularly ridiculous stereotype to believe in this day and age. And three: although publishers are still slow to catch onto this, a substantial percentage of comics readers and fans are female.

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