Another 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.