Comic Book Romances. How have they evolved over time? Is there more diversity now? Brand shiny new PHS Editor Maya Kesh tells us everything we need to know.
Romance has always been an important force in storytelling, whether it is the sole focus or as a subset of the narrative. The Superhero Comic Book genre is no exception. The driving force may be “tights and flights” but in most of these stories there is foundational love story.
The one which started it all was back in 1938 in Action 1 with Superman and Lois Lane. How has this evolved over the years? It is fascinating to look at the beginnings and see how each era mirrors society.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s the stories had sensibilities similar to the Rosalind Russell/Katherine Hepburn movies of the time. Lois was very much in that mold. As witnessed in this panel from Action 1.
Over the years, the context has been lost, however Clark Kent’s narration tells the story. If Superman was the Humphrey Bogart character of the story, Clark Kent was the sneered-at weakling. Not just by Lois, but by society. His internal dialog tells us this. He is cheering her on “reluctantly”, clinging to his disguise as a weakling. His behavior as Clark wasn’t what the current culture defined as “manly”.
Then came the 1950s. The term ‘career woman’ was not a compliment. Movies such as Pillow Talk and others did not portray working women in a positive light. A woman’s goal was supposed to be married with children and Lois Lane was no exception. Meanwhile, Superman spent an inordinate time sabotaging her as she tried to prove her suspicions that Clark Kent was indeed Superman while trying to find ways to get him to marry her.
Women’s liberation changed the tone of these stories, yet still there was an outdated idea of gender roles. The writers (mostly men) were still trying to make sense of the changing playing field and often wrote stories in heavy handed ways.
Modern day stories, while not always perfect, because this genre is still very male dominated with not enough women voices brought to the table, have been doing a much better job. The core origin retelling of their early courtship puts Lois firmly in Clark’s corner. So, while he is still hiding behind his meek exterior, she has become his advocate.
Currently in the comics they are married with a son. And it is written as a modern marriage. They both work at the Daily Planet, juggling child care duties, work and life. This, as you can see in the panels below, contrasts greatly to how their relationship was written in the “what if” stories of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Another well-known comic book couple is Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. The current movie shows us a strong Diana who doesn’t understand the sexism of the era but the comic book journey has been a little different, yet very fascinating in the way it has explored gender roles. In the 1950s Steve Trevor would always lament he couldn’t marry Wonder Woman because she had a job saving people. Diana would share this sadness. How could she be a wife and mother and also a superheroine?
In the 1970s, post women’s liberation, Steve Trevor was often not part of the story because writers didn’t seem to know how to reconcile a physically stronger woman to a human male. And in the mid-1980s when they rebooted the story, they sidelined Steve Trevor and married him off to another character. There was another reboot recently which brought Steve Trevor back into play as the love interest. This time they are writing it with far more equality. Trevor is a man used to fighting with woman as equals and having Wonder Woman be the alpha and saving him doesn’t reflect on his masculinity.
That said, I think comics have some ways to go in the area of diversity. Diversity both in stories and in writers. There are some notable stories which show the progress toward diverse love stories. As in the romance novels, a lot of it is happening in self-published and/or independent books. However, mainstream publishers have expanded the playing field with same gender couples and interracial couples. Ms. Marvel, which is the story of a young Muslim-American teenage girl, is one of these. She and a young man of a different race crush on each other.
Same gender romances are also explored. A few years ago, Archie Comics introduced a gay character and it was big news when he married his husband:
And Batwoman proposed to her girlfriend in her book:
These are just few of the examples. There still is a lot of work to do. For example, including Transgender relationships, bisexual relationships and more. As in all media, more diversity is needed at the top to enable these changes, producers, publishers, writers and more. However, I do think we are moving in the right direction towards all-inclusive stories.
Are you a reader, writer or publisher of comic books/graphic novels? What do you think of the way love stories are portrayed in them and the level of diversity? What’s your OTP (one true pairing)? Let us know in the comments or via the PHS Social Media.
Maya Kesh is a lifetime reader of comic books, an active member of the online comic book community, a regular contributor of articles on the subjects of how women are portrayed and diversity in comics. To find out more and join the conversation, you can follow Maya on Twitter.