The Problem With Superhero Romance


Superheroes and romance have become almost synonymous over the nearly 85 years since Superman was first introduced. Clark Kent and Lois Lane, Peter Parker and Mary Jane, Batman and Catwoman, and more have become iconic in American popular culture. Despite the near-legendary status of some of these relationships, the world of comics has been littered with issues regarding romance for just as long as they’ve been around.

This stems from two fundamental problems. The first is widespread misogyny within the comic book industry. The second is a stubborn refusal to let characters grow and change and constantly returning them to the status quo.

At first, the misogyny was fairly straightforward, where it was the larger-than-life hero saving the helpless damsel in distress or in the case of Batman, the brooding hero being attracted to the mysterious Vixen. The creation of Selina Kyle, also known as Catwoman, is particularly problematic.

“I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs,” said Batman and Catwoman co-creator Bob Kane. “While dogs are faithful and friendly, cats are cool, detached, and unreliable. I felt much warmer with dogs around me; cats are as hard to understand as women are. Men feel more sure of themselves with a male friend than a woman. You always need to keep women at arm’s length. We don’t want anyone taking over our souls, and women have a habit of doing that. So there’s a love-resentment thing with women. I guess women will feel that I’m being chauvinistic to speak this way, but I do feel that I’ve had better relationships with male friends than women. With women, once the romance is over, somehow they never remain my friends,” wrote Bob Kane, the co-creator of Batman.

This particular form of misogyny died out fairly quickly however with the ultimate turning point being in June of 1973 with the death of Gwen Stacy. This was not only a pivotal turning point for Spider-Man but also by defacto spoke against the idea of having female characters be a damsel in distress by having Spider-Man ultimately being the one to kill her in his attempt to save her. This event gave way to another form of misogyny within the industry, however. 

Though coined by comics writer Gail Simone in 1999, the idea of “fridging” has existed for a long time within the comics space. Fridging refers to maiming or killing women in stories just to further a male hero’s story. This is especially highlighted when women aren’t written to be their own characters or have any real plot significance outside of their death.

This term stems from 1994’s “Green Lantern” #54 where the current Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, found the body of his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, stuffed into a refrigerator. Fridging was a problem for a very long time, and after the death of Gwen Stacy, it only became worse. Other prominent examples of fridging include, Elongated Man’s wife, Sue Dibny, in DC’s “Final Crisis,” Firestorm’s girlfriend, Gen, in “Blackest Night,” Barbara Gordon in “The Killing Joke,” Karen Page in “Daredevil: Guardian Devil,” Elektra in “Daredevil” #181, Milla Donovan in Brian Michael Bendis’ “Daredevil” run (yes, Daredevil has a problem), Jean DeWolff in “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man” #107-110, and more.

This is not to say that there aren’t any good relationships in comics; this is only to point out that many of them started with or continue to have problematic elements. 

Many of these relationships, however, have moved past these problematic elements.

Lois Lane, for example, no longer is a damsel in distress but is now one of the coolest civilian characters in DC comics. In particular, her portrayal in the Peter J. Tomasi “Superman” run was fantastic, especially early on when she puts on a bat-suit meant to take on the entire Justice League to defend her son, Jon Kent. Furthermore, stories like “Lois Lane: Enemy of the People” by Greg Rukka, “Event Leviathan” by Brian Michael Bendis, “Wonder Woman: A Day in the Life” by Joe Kelly, and “Batman: Double Date” by Tom King have cemented her as one of the best female characters in comics separate from her relationship with Superman

Her and Superman’s relationship has almost always been fantastic and DC over the years has definitively shown that while she doesn’t have godlike powers, she has just as much ability to change the world as Superman. She is no longer just Superman’s girlfriend. 

Sadly though, Superman and Lois are one of the few major relationships to have worked out long-term. There, of course, are other long-standing couples like Wally West (Flash) and Linda Park, Reed Richards and Sue Storm, or Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne, but for every one of those, there is a relationship that Marvel and DC fumble with over and over again.

The biggest offenders here are easily Batman and Spider-Man. It’s no secret that they are the biggest characters at DC and Marvel respectively, and because of that, they somehow get treated the worst in terms of their love lives.

It’s no secret that editorial for both companies deeply resent the idea of Batman and Spider-Man being in committed relationships but this has turned both characters into a never-ending paradox of on-again-off-again relationships and it makes it feel like these characters never really grow or change.

Spider-Man and Mary Jane are one of the most iconic couples in all of fiction but for some unknown reason, Marvel Comics keeps insisting on breaking them up time and time again in some strange insistence that Peter would no longer be relatable if he’s married.

I could somewhat see their point if Peter and MJ weren’t already married for over 20 years. The famous wedding issue for Spider-Man and MJ came out in 1987 and since then, he had some of his most iconic and popular stories of all time such as “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” “Venom,” “Maximum Carnage,” the second clone saga, and the J. Michael Straczynski run. Their marriage was a staple of Spider-Man comics for years until Joe Quesada insisted on wiping the marriage from continuity in “One More Day” and erasing 20 years of history.

Since then, their relationship has constantly been on and off like a bad soap opera.

I wish I could say Spider-Man and Mary Jane are treated the worst but that simply wouldn’t be true in a world where Batman and Catwoman exist. 

Batman historically has gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to his relationships because he’s had Catwoman in his life since the beginning. Unlike Superman, however, DC is completely unwilling to allow the Bat and the Cat to actually stick. The two have some amazingly beautiful stories that explore their relationship but almost every time they split up for exceedingly odd reasons.

The worst offender was in James Tynion IV’s recent run. This directly followed Tom King’s 85-issue run on the character that was almost entirely dedicated to Batman and Catwoman’s relationship and whether or not Batman can be happy. After numerous trials and tribulations, the two get back together to overcome one of their greatest threats. In the climax, Bruce says:

“After the alley, the pearls… I… I was a child. That…I thought was the end. I was the end. I went to…to kill myself with a knife. Instead, I took a vow. I killed myself with a vow. I was on my knees. “I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” I lived by that vow. I was the vow I was Batman. I am no longer a child. Life is not a trap you make when you’re ten and you’re hurting. Life is a choice you make every day. Every damn day. I choose her. I choose happiness. I chose family. And I choose Batman.” 

So how was that followed up? The first story after the end of King’s run had them break up.

It gets exhausting after a while having to see such tremendous strides be made to develop some of these characters only to have it be reversed by the time the next author takes over. In an attempt to constantly return characters to the status quo, it leaves many of these relationships feeling short-changed. I want to get invested in Peter and MJ or Batman and Catwoman, but I can’t when they will be broken up again within a few years.