Comic Book Love: The Girlfriend Problem
Why don't Comic Book Romantic Interests get their own spin offs? Are they simply the reward for the hero for a job well done? Corinna Lawson discusses the fate of the love interests who made it and those who were sidelined...
Romances in superhero comics have a checkered history but, despite the obstacles, a few have had long-term success, like Lois Lane and Clark Kent, who made their debut as a couple in first Superman story.
But even rare than a long-running romantic relationship in superhero comics is the development of those romantic interest into characters headlining their own series.
Why so rare?
Short answer: patriarchy. The longer answer is more complicated.
The Long Answer AKA Women in Refrigerators:
The long answer goes back to the origins of superhero comics, who overwhelming featured white male leads and rarely featured women other than as girlfriends or family members of the heroes. That means the life of the women in superhero books tended revolve around the male leads. Take Gwen Stacy, famously dropped off a bridge by the Green Goblin to cause Peter Parker angst. She was a fellow scientist, her father was a police officer, and she had excellent potential as a character in her own right. But she was killed off to cause the male lead angst.
This trend of killing girlfriends continued in the decades following Gwen’s death, with the death of Alex, the women literally in the refrigerator, who was the girlfriend of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner. (And, as a successful photographer with a stable career, arguably a far more interesting character than down-on-his-luck-artist Kyle.)
I’ll circle back around to Gwen later because her recent revival could be a sign of changing times. And there’s one Bat-character who was introduced as a girlfriend/foil for a Robin that somehow took on a life of her own. More on that later.
The Long-Term Survivors: Lois Lane and Selina Kyle
First, let’s look at two supporting romantic interests who have had their own series: Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Lois Lane. Catwoman has a long history in Batman comics, starting in 1940, sometimes a foe, sometimes a friend (currently a fiancée). But she’s also had her own book several times, including a recent moody and stylish crime noir run by Genevieve Valentine that explored Selina’s family and her connections to Gotham’s mob bosses. She’s also had her own (bad) movie and appearances on television and in movies. It’s safe to say she’s become a character in her own right.
Lois, in comics, was the star of Superman’s Girlfriend: Lois Lane in the 1970s but also was the star of Lois Lane: Girl Reporter stories in the Golden Age of Comics. The Girl reporter stories amuse me because Lois would be sent out to do basically “female” human-interest stories and come back, having taken down the mob or uncovered a murderer. Unfortunately, the Superman’s Girlfriend stories showed little progress over the Golden Age stories, plus even though the whole world know who Lois Lane is, she keeps getting sidelined still. There is hope, however, mostly offered by Gwenda Bond’s great Young Adult series of novels starring Lois Lane as a high school student, starting with Fallout.
Stephanie Brown: The Girl Who Would Not Die
The third character I mentioned from DC, the Bat-Character that will not die, is Stephanie Brown, who was introduced simply as a love interest for Tim Drake in his original Robin series (two DC reboots ago. I think it was two…could be three?) She was killed off once, declared “toxic” by editorial and yet, she has returned, most recently seen in Batman: Detective Comics.
Stephanie is the daughter of the villain Cluemaster who wants to stop her father’s crimes, so she dresses all in purple and calls herself the Spoiler. Fans quickly flocked to Steph and, eventually, she had a short-lived career as the first in-continuity female Robin. Short because DC decided the best use of this new popular near character was to have her beaten to death by Black Mask. (After Spoiler was tortured with a power drill. DC released a figure of Black Mask, complete with power drill, not long after. Yes, I’m still bitter about that.)
But, opinions changed, and Steph came back from the dead, her death hand waved as being faked. She had a terrific run as Batgirl after Cassandra Cain temporarily gave up the name, and those issues are well worth finding. (As are the original Cassandra Cain Batgirl issues. There are so many wonderful Batgirls to read…) Steph vanished for a while again but came back in the recent run of Batman: Detective Comics, this time in her Spoiler persona. (Her time as Robin and Batgirl apparently retconned out. But at least Cassandra Cain, another terrific character who was once Batgirl, has returned too.)
Gwen Stacy Returns As Spider-Gwen
That brings me back to poor Gwen Stacy, she of the snapped-neck who caused Peter Parker so much angst beginning in the 1970s. She’s back. As Spider-Woman, since 2015.
Well, the comic is called Spider-Gwen but Gwen’s in-universe name is Spider-Woman. She’s from an alternate universe where the radioactive spider bit her, not Peter, and she first appeared in a big “Spider-Verse” event that involved multiple-universe Spider-men. In Spider-Gwen’s universe, Peter grew jealous of Gwen’s scientific knowledge and special gifts and became a super-villain who was accidentally killed fighting her.
Nope, don’t look for a Peter/Gwen pairing in this universe. Spider-Gwen is all about Gwen, her girlfriends, her relationship with her father, Police Captain Gwen Stacy, and her fight to clear her name while also protecting New York City. In other words, this is the first use of the character’s true potential rather than as a girlfriend in a relationship with Peter Parker.
There are some parallels to Barbara Gordon/Jim Gordon in the relationships between Gwen and her police captain father, and that’s a good thing. Armed with a terrific costume design and fan support, Spider-Gwen has been a break-out character, proving she didn’t need Peter Parker. It’s a refreshing change from her original fate.
Write Women Like People, Not “Girlfriends!”
But, sadly, there are too few examples like Gwen across superhero comics. Most heroic girlfriends, whatever potential they might have as lead characters, fade away or are killed.
On the villain side, I can only think of Harley Quinn, who’s been decoupled from the Joker and become a force of nature in her own right. Maybe she’s an anti-hero now? It depends on her creative team. There are also relationships that have started in team books that continue in their own series, such as the new Rogue and Gambit by Kelly Thompson, or Starfire, who had a brief starring role in her own series. But examples of those relationships would be an entirely separate article.
But, mostly, there are far too few girlfriends who have received their own series or have even been fleshed out as fully developed characters in superhero comics, despite the fact male supporting characters are often fully developed, like Jim Gordon or Harvey Bullock or Jimmy Olsen or Harry Osborn.
Even those who do get a spotlight, like Karen Page in Daredevil, mostly come to a bad end still. Though not in the television series, where Karen is more fully developed and has a life on her own, with her own guilt, angst, and dreams.
One hopes TV Karen Page is a sign of better things to come in the comics.
Corrina Lawson's latest book Curse of the Brimstone Contract is available now and her back list will be re-published beginning this May.
What do you think about the state of girlfriends in comics and their stories? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on social media.
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