Sunday, 27 October 2013

In Defence of Dan Didio's stance on heroic sacrifice & marriage in DC Comics


DC Comics' Co-Publisher Dan Didio has come under fire from fans in the past few months for his views on heroism and personal sacrifice. As Didio himself put it in Necessary Evil, the recent documentary on DC Villains, he believes that;
(Heroes) have to have something sacrificed… every time they win. They should be a little more broken because of what they’ve done.
This view has been reflected in DC's line of super-hero comics, The New 52, and was brought to everybody's attention most recently when the creative team on Batwoman quit the book after being told that they couldn't marry their lead character to her partner, Maggie Sawyer. Didio has defended his stance on superhero marriage on several occasions. At the DC Nation panel at this year's Baltimore Comic-Con he stated.
 Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives. They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests.That’s very important and something we reinforced. People in the Bat family their personal lives basically suck...Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon and Kathy Kane. It’s wonderful that they 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.
While at this year's New York Comic Con he argued,
These are about superhero comics...I don’t want to read a book about a marriage. This is personal, but what I want to read a book about is how they are balancing all elements in their lives...It doesn’t mean DC won’t have married characters, that's ridiculous...We’re two years into the new continuity, why rush things? It’s not set in stone...we want to develop relationships before we start marrying people...there have to be sacrifices when you become a hero… So it has to come from the personal life… That doesn’t mean DC won’t have married characters, but why do you want to rush to the end?
While I believe it was daft to sacrifice a great creative team on Batwoman in order to adhere to this way of thinking, generally speaking I completely agree with Didio on this issue. Fictional heroes, particularly superheroes, should not be too happy. Tragedy and sacrifice should be a part of their life and in most circumstances they should not be married.

Let's make one thing clear, when Didio talks about heroes it's obvious (at least to me) that he isn't talking about real life heroes. Of course fire-fighters or soldiers or police officers don't need tragedy in their life to motivate their heroism, and obviously a great deal of them are happily married. I'm quite sure that Didio realises this. But the lives of these heroes aren't unfolding in the ongoing, never ending, action-orientated, fictional, soap opera world of super-hero comics. I'm sure there's an audience out there for The Adventures of Alan the Happy Fireman but such a comic would not fulfill the promise that I would argue is inherent in a superhero comic, a promise of hyperbolic action and conflict.

Conflict is essential to any story, and conflict means that your protagonists are never going to be completely happy. In order to tell an exciting story (particularly within the over the top world of a superhero) the conflict needs to be larger than the ones most of us face in our day to day lives. Since the story is about a person who has chosen to help other people then surely it makes sense that the conflict would arise from that choice. Sure, the decision to be a hero doesn't need to come at a cost, but doesn't it make for a more interesting story if it does?

Of course, a lot of the sacrifices faced by DC's heroes occurred before they decided to be heroes. Many heroes, such as Hal "Green Lantern" Jordan have had existing childhood tragedies emphasised within recent stories, whereas other heroes, such as Barry "The Flash" Allen, have had tragedies retroactively inserted into their childhood. It's possible to argue that all this childhood tragedy has made DC's heroes seem far too similar to each other and that they've all become clones of DC's most successful character, Batman. I would argue that if the tragedy in every hero's life was what motivated them to become a hero (as with Batman) then yes, they would indeed be far too similar to each other. But each hero is shaped by the tragedy, and overcomes the tragedy in different ways. For example, The Flash resolves to keep moving forward and not look back, whereas Green Lantern is able to overcome great fear, having already experienced the thing he fears the most. It could be argued that the death of Ma and Pa Kent actually serves to make Superman a less effective hero, since their deaths further alienate him from those he wishes to protect. Each hero reacts to their personal tragedy in different ways, some become heroes because of it, others become heroes in spite of it. Either way their story is made more compelling by the tragedy.

But what about marriage? Is it really necessary for superheroes to be unwed? You could argue that there can still be conflict and sacrifice within the lives of a married couple, and you'd be right. But we're not talking about just any couple. We're talking about couples like Superman & Lois Lane. Sure, they were married from 1996 to 2011 (before their marriage was wiped from continuity) and we got some great stories, but from as early as 2000 writers were arguing that "the marriage and the emphasis on soap opera no longer seems to be working as well in the current market as it once did."  I believe that this is because Superman & Lois are the perfect couple. They were made for each other, how could they marry each other and not be happy? Any sacrifice Superman makes, any conflict he faces, has the edge taken off it significantly by the notion that at he has built a life for himself with his soul mate. At the end of it all he gets to come home to Lois (and vice versa). The conflict could come from some threat to Lois, but that gets repetitive after a while and to constantly repeat that type of story does a disservice to Lois. The conflict could come from tensions within the marriage but could we really believe that there was any conflict between characters like Superman and Lois that couldn't be resolved? The couple could be shown facing a conflict together, but isn't it more heroic (and a more interesting story) if the hero has to face a threat or a tough decision without the comfort of his or her life partner to rely on? Superman is simply not built to forever be a married hero in an ongoing narrative, and I would argue that the same applies to a great deal of his fellow DC heroes.

The fact is, a hero who has found the happiness he deserves is a great ending to a story, but when it comes to the heroes who inhabit the DC Universe, their story can never end. That's the nature of mainstream superhero comics. The heroes are trapped forever in their late 20s, fighting their battles over and over again. That's the nature of the beast. Any happiness they gain must be fleeting, because next issue they must be immersed in conflict all over again. And a story needs conflict, even a story without an ending. Otherwise you've just got issue after issue of happy, well adjusted folks with superpowers easily overcoming lightweight obstacles, and I can't find it in my heart to criticise Dan Didio for not wanting that to be the future of DC Comics.

3 comments:

  1. Considering the large number of happy married couples was very high pre-New 52 (Golden and Silver Age heroes) Dan clearly has personal issues regarding marriage and heroes. (Heck, even look at what he did to Jay and Joan on the new Earth-2!)

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    1. Well it's possible he has some personal issues with marriage but I think it's far more likely that he believes that many of DC's characters can't realistically fit into marriages that would provide drama month after month in an ongoing story. And if this is the case I agree with him.

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  2. Marriage is for Elseworlds Stories, because those have an ending, while ongoing continuity doesn't.

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