23 March 2014

Who Controls Superheroes’ Family Lives?

Back in September 2013 I cogitated on whether DC Comics’s heroes could have happy family lives without that interfering with the sort of melodrama that modern superhero stories are built on. I promised a follow-up, and never completed it. So here it is.

That discussion had been set off by a comment from Dan DiDio, co-publisher of DC Comics, about why he hadn’t approved a storyline about Batwoman marrying her girlfriend: “It’s wonderful that they [superheroes] try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand.” That’s partly a matter of heroics—heroes are expected to sacrifice for a greater good—and partly, I think a matter of economics.

Gavin Jasper summed up DiDio’s comment as: “DC Comics appears to simply hate marriage, whether it be straight or gay.” Which is typical of internet comics fandom, expressing corporate policy as personal antipathy.

DC Entertainment doesn’t hate anything except declining sales and profits. If superhero marriage could make sales go up, then we’d see more marriages. Indeed, over many years wedding issues did make sales go up, and they were often reserved for landmark issues. But family life? That’s another story.

In 2005-06, DiDio was DC’s Executive Editor when it entered a period of trying out parenthood for several leading characters. Clark Kent and Lois Lane adopted a young Kryptonian refugee with superpowers they named Christopher Kent (shown above). Wally and Linda West had twins, who quickly grew out of the infant stage; for a while Iris and Jae were running in costume alongside their dad, the Flash. Bruce Wayne discovered he’d fathered a boy named Damian. Even Selina Kyle, Catwoman, had a child.

Was that a reaction to Identity Crisis, a 2004 crossover story that had destroyed DC’s oldest superhero marriage (Ralph and Due Dibney), plumbed the deep dark side of another (Ray Palmer and Jean Loring), and killed the first Tim Drake’s father?

Or was it an attempt to appeal to older comics readers who were becoming parents themselves, and might identify with those new challenges for Superman, the Flash, and Batman? I certainly see story potential in Wally West as the Flash trying to find reliable babysitters or rushing to keep up with his kids’ after-school activities. Caring for a kid did take the Clark Kent/Lois Lane relationship in a new direction.

But not enough comics readers evidently wanted to follow those storylines. DC’s sales continued a slow decline during that period. Within a couple of years Chris Kent had been quickly aged to be an independent teenager. Wally West was supplanted by the original, childless Flash. Catwoman’s daughter disappeared into adoption, never mentioned again.

The only child who stuck around was Damian Wayne, and he was the least conventional of those children. (Which says a lot about Damian, given how most of the others had superpowers.)

The market had spoken. Indeed, we might say it had given DC’s leaders a “mandate.” The only DC superhero to have a spouse and kids would remain Animal Man, a third-tier hero whom Grant Morrison had established as fodder for wild experiments years before. (The latest Animal Man series is just ending, critically acclaimed but earning only mediocre sales.)

A couple of years later, another crossover story ended with the death of Lian Harper, daughter of Roy Harper (Speedy/Arsenal/Red Arrow/Arsenal), who had come on the scene as a baby in the late 1980s, as shown above. That might have been a step too far in the other direction; few people praised that series, and it was followed rather quickly by a total reboot of the DC Universe.

But it seems significant that in the “New 52” none of DC’s top-tier heroes restarted with a spouse or child (once again with the exception of Damian Wayne, now dead). That’s not because DC hates marriages and family life; it’s because most superhero-comics readers today have shown themselves to be uninterested in reading about those topics.


Tam B said...

I think this is Didio's edict b/c behind all the noise about heroes with broken personal lives there is a laziness. He dislikes deep continuity and characterization related to that. He wants action, noise and splashy flashy covers. He doesn't want to do the years of back reading and research necessary to really 'get' the characters. This set of values was reflected long before the reboot but was encapsulated in the reboot - ditch continuity, ditch teams that depend heavily on legacies, continuity and characterization and supporting characters. This was why the Wolfman-Perez Titans suffered so badly under Didio. That's their whole formula, anathema to Didio's practice of gimmicks and forced editorial action to drive sales. He wants wooden characters, possibly b/c he lacks emotional imagination, certainly b/c he's too lazy to understand depth of serial story telling and thinks it should be superficial.

Tam B said...

I'd add to that, since you discussed heroes as parents under the earlier part of Didio's time at DC, that there are ways of presenting supporting characters and personal lives of heroes that do not have to be murderously dysfunctional but still can be riveting. I feel that NTT was the main title that accomplished that. So some of this has to do with Didio not getting legacy characters and titles.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm not convinced that this is a matter of Dan DiDio's personal taste, especially since he's had DC try other approaches in his tenure. Like many superhero comics publishers before him, he's responding to the market. He had some of the company's best-paid writers on the family-based storylines discussed here: Johns and Richard Donner cowriting the Superman tale, Waid back on Flash, and Morrison on Batman. And those stories just didn't catch on.

It's clear that simplifying continuity was a big part of the New 52. That meant wiping out almost all the hero teams of the past. It's also clear that that heavily marketed change and the shift to digital helped DC's market share, so, even though the result has left me cold, DiDio and Lee succeeded at their job.