Doomed Love: Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Failure of Relationships in Superhero Comics

Three years ago, my husband and I finally got married after eleven years of dating. And like most couples, we received plenty of wedding gifts. Knowing our geeky tendencies, my mother-in-law gave us a sign which placed our names alongside famous superhero couples: from Superman and Lois Lane to Daredevil and Elektra. I loved the sign and still do, but the longer that I looked at it, the more I began to realize something very important.

“Hey, Tanner,” I found myself asking one day, “are any of those couples actually still together?”

Eventually, we determined that Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Woman were still going strong, but beyond that, every single one of these comic book couples had, one way or another, perished.

As someone who started out as a fan of fiction, and came to comics later in life, this is a trend that I find a little frustrating. I may not read romance novels, but when it comes to the couples I care about, I want my happily ever after, dammit! But in mainstream superhero comics, it can seem like pretty much every pairing comes with some sort of expiration date, whether that be divorce, death, or having their relationship erased from continuity.

Eventually, it got me thinking. When it comes to mainstream superhero comics (DC/Marvel), why do so many superhero romances fail? And does this trend really result in better stories? When I can’t speak on every couple, I can comment on one, Superman and Wonder Woman, a couple who had an entire comic book, Superman/Wonder Woman, devoted to their relationship during DC’s New 52 Era. But in order to cover this topic, this column will be filled with spoilers. So keep that in mind if you’re planning on picking up the comic.


Power Couple: The Honeymoon Period

I came to the Superman/Wonder Woman comic with a heavy dose of skepticism. To be honest, putting together two of the founding members of the Justice League felt a little gimmicky to me, instead of being born out of genuine chemistry or mutual affection. The fact that each character already has their own classic, written-in-the-stars love interest made me suspect that that Clark and Diana were doomed to fail from the start, but as someone who was really enjoying the Wonder Woman comic book at the time, it made sense to at least give the title a chance.

I picked up the first graphic novel Power Couple from my library, and felt my skepticism begin to dissolve. With Clark and Diana, I found the type of love story that I crave, and rarely receive from my media: a healthy relationship between two mature adults who support and care about each other, and rarely give into soap opera antics. It was like the writer (Charles Soule) took a genuine look at these two paragons of virtue and asked himself, how would their relationship actually play out? How would they help each other? And what problems would they deal with?

And yes, there are problems. The two have very different opinions on how open they should be about their relationship. Wonder Woman, who has always (at least in The New 52 continuity) been forthright about who she is, wants to be equally so about their romance. Clark, who is used to keeping the most personal parts of his life hidden behind a secret identity, wants to keep their love equally secret. This provides some tension between them over the course of the first arc, which they both deal with in mature ways, seeking out advice from friends.

By the end of Power Couple, I was was ready to give the Superman/Wonder Woman ship a chance. I eagerly sought out future volumes, excited to see more.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the problems started.

Testing Love/Creating Conflict

After a couple of arcs, the writing duties of Superman/Wonder Woman were passed from Charles Soule to Peter Tomasi. When asked by USA Today, how he was planning on handing the central relationship, he replied,

“It’s not strong love if it’s not tested. Anything with two hearts in mind, if they’re not put at odds or built through hardships and tough times, I don’t think they’re real relationships.”

It’s a sentiment that I can understand. A relationship feels much more powerful when it is earned, after all. And the right kind of conflict can be just the thing to bring a couple closer together. But despite Tomasi’s words about “building through hardships,” it eventually becomes obvious that such hardships are less about bringing our two lovers together and more about tearing them apart, and the results are not pretty.

In his first collection Casualties of War, Superman and Wonder Woman are suddenly reduced to parodies of themselves: Clark, the dull boy scout, and Diana, a nagging shrew who can’t understand why Clark spends all of his time working when they’re supposed to go ooout! Over the course of Tomasi’s run, he backs off of this harsh characterization, but the problem still remains. The supportive, adult relationship I enjoyed so much from Power Couple has vanished. As the two fall apart, more often then not, it feels less like natural development of the characters we were introduced to in Power Couple, and more something foisted upon them by the expectations of the higher ups at DC.

In Dark Truth, Diana goes behind Clark’s back to question those closest to him using her lasso of truth, something he disagrees with on a ethical level. In A Savage End, Wonder Woman discovers that Clark is planning on breaking up with her when Steve Trevor makes a move on her. When she turns him down, explaining that she’s still in a relationship, Steve is confused, having been lead by Clark to believe that things were already over. Ouch.

I found myself shaking my head. Who were these self-sabotaging strangers, and what had they done with the mature Diana and Clark from Power Couple?

Of course, a story needs conflict in order to be successful, and I get that happy, long lasting relationships don’t come with the same level of conflict that unhappy ones do. But by that train of thought, adding in conflict should make a comic book more enjoyable to read, and that’s just not the case with Superman/Wonder Woman. The more their relationship broke down, the more I considered just dropping the book all together. Had I not been getting the graphic novels for free from my library, I would have. Conflict is good, but if in adding said conflict you find yourself destroying the thing that people picked up the comic for in the first place, you have to wonder if you’re making the right call.

No Happily Ever Afters: The Cyclical Nature of Comics

When it comes to love stories, the big moments — the proposals, the marriages — often (but not always) come at the end of the story. These powerful symbols of commitments are natural points of resolution, so it makes sense to end on them — whether that be the final chapter of a book, the closing scene of a play, or the last lines of a fairy tale — a happily ever after.

Only, can you truly have a happily ever after if you never have an end?

In A Savage End, Clark Kent considers the possibility of proposing to Diana, only to put it off over and over again. At the end, he decides against it, determining that his commitment to being a superhero means that he can never have the type of happy marriage that his parents did. It’s a moment that’s equal parts heartbreaking and frustrating. People of all walks of life can find lasting, committed relationships. In fact, most of us do. Why are superheroes any different?

I sometimes wonder if the answer has less to do with superhero antics, and more to do with the fact that the structure of mainstream superhero comics works against traditional romance tropes. When it comes to DC or Marvel, superhero stories have no true end point, after all. Yes, there are endings — the last issue in a story arc, or a major era like the The New 52 — but comics are constantly moving on to the next thing, and then the next. You can have those big romantic resolutions in comic books, but the fact that that the story continues means that they aren’t really resolutions. And rather then try to tell a story about an endless, happy, healthy marriage, it probably seems easier just to add in that conflict and break them up (or never allow them to become married in the first place, or erase their marriage from the time line).

When it comes to other modes of fiction, the fact that they do have end points (the final chapter of a book, the series finale of a television show), allows them to tell stories that are truly linear: there is a beginning, a (at times very long) middle, and an end. Mainstream comic books, by comparison, can feel almost cyclical. We may have illusion of moving forward — loved ones die, a new character takes on the mantel of a classic superhero, and the universe itself is pulled apart — but those things rarely stick. At the end of the day, it’s all just one meandering circle towards the status quo. It’s probably a big reason why relationships — even the big ones — fail so often in DC/Marvel titles. Because even though everything leads back to the status quo, the cyclical nature of comics means that, eventually, they will circle away from it again.

RIP Superman/Wonder Woman

As I was writing this column, the Superman/Wonder Woman relationship was given the ultimate kiss of death from DC: it was erased from the timeline in an issue of Action Comics. This means, that according to DC’s new continuity, the entire Superman/Wonder Woman relationship, and the comic book that resulted from it, never even happened. And while part of me was sad to see this love story go, it’s not entirely surprising.

Let me be frank, the Superman/Wonder Woman comic was, as a whole, very uneven. Despite its promising start, the book was riddled with inconsistent characterization, some supremely bad artwork, and was constantly handicapped by the interruption of crossover events (a common problem with New 52 titles). Superman/Wonder Woman often felt like an afterthought, a spin-off to the Superman title, resulting in Diana feeling like a side character in her own comic. DC certainty didn’t help themselves when they decided to collect these comics in hardcovers. In classic DC fashion, they refused to gather the entirety of these crossover events in said hardcovers, leaving out important parts of the story, including, frustratingly, the final issues of story arcs. Add the mishandling of Clark and Diana’s relationship on top of this, and the results aren’t always pretty.

With the New 52 now a distant memory, DC has continued its cyclical pattern back to the status quo with the Rebirth Era, placing Steve Trevor and Lois Lane back in Wonder Woman and Superman’s lives. So far, I’ve read some of the Wonder Woman comic (I have mixed feelings on it, although those are thoughts for another day), and, despite always being more of a Wonder Woman then a Supes fan, I’ve found myself intrigued by the new Superman comic.

You see, Superman and Lois Lane aren’t just back in each other’s lives romantically. They’re married and have a son.

A married superhero and father? Once more, I find my interest piqued, and once more I will be requesting the trade from my local library. I can only hope that Clark and Lois’s relationship is better handled then Clark and Diana’s ever was.

13 Comments

  • zariusii May 25, 2017 at 2:44 pm

    Horrible relationship. I loved it when Rucka revealed Diana was just using Supes.

    Reply
    • Shara White May 25, 2017 at 10:09 pm

      As someone who hasn’t read the arc and doesn’t mind spoilers: how was she using him?

      Reply
    • vicky May 26, 2017 at 3:31 am

      You never read about that relationship… right?
      Rucka is THE WORST.. Better Superman than Trevor… Nothing against Lois..

      Reply
    • Nancy O'Toole Meservier May 26, 2017 at 8:10 am

      If the entire relationship has been retconned, then hasn’t that been rectonned as well? I feel like the way they’re packaging the trades means I haven’t gotten the whole story yet.

      Reply
    • Gerry May 26, 2017 at 2:37 pm

      Greg Rucka opposed the Superman/Wonder Woman relationship so he turned Diana into a Wonder Woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. For almost 30 years Steve Trevor was a non-presence in WONDER WOMAN but I suppose Trevor had to be brought back to the forefront because of the movie. (Steve Trevor only appeared in one issue of WONDER WOMAN in The New 52 if I recall correctly). Rucka is not the first writer to turn Wonder Woman into a hot mess and and likely will not be the last. I miss SUPERMAN/WONDER WOMAN. Superman and Lois Lane were lame and tired well before FLASHPOINT and continue to be so in REBIRTH. Giving them a son just turned Superman into a selfish jerk instead of being the hero who put the saving the world first above anything and anyone else much like Wonder Woman did in The New 52.

      Reply
  • Carey Ballard May 29, 2017 at 11:34 am

    Welllllllll, now I can spare myself from reading the rest of the storyline. Gah. I remember where I was when Superman and Wonder Woman shared their first kiss: standing frozen in the middle of the comics shop, screaming NOOOOO. Okay, not screaming, but I was the only customer in there at the time, and the guy behind the counter totally sympathized. “I felt the same way,” he said. “It’s like when I walked out of Matrix: Revolution.”

    The last thing I wanted was to read WW’s comic and feel like she’d been sidelined, as Nancy mentioned toward the end of the post. (Like Michonne and Rick in TWD.) I couldn’t believe DC went down this road. And I’m glad it’s over.

    Reply
    • Nancy O'Toole Meservier May 29, 2017 at 10:10 pm

      Yeah. I mean, don’t get me wrong. She was still a character with agency and all that, but it was all too easy to forget that her name was on the cover, as the storylines were always about what was going on with Clark.

      Reply
  • Drew B May 29, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    While I don’t dislike Lois. I grew exhausted of the old Lois and Clark dynamic years ago. And was beyond excited when I found that Clark & Diana were going to get a chance at being together. While I generally enjoyed Charles Soule’s run as the writer it became clear to me DC was lukewarm about them. Since every other writer was allowed to ignore or undercut their relationship. And once Tomasi took over it became clear it was going to crash and burn. I knew they weren’t going to marry or have children, but I at least hoped for good writing and a satisfying end. With things the way they are, its unlikely I’ll buy another DC Comic anytime soon.

    Reply
    • Nancy O'Toole Meservier May 29, 2017 at 10:07 pm

      To he honest, a promising start followed by a string of disappointments was a more common occurance in the New 52 the I’d like to admit. With a few exceptions, during this era, DC really seemed to lack strong creative teams with compelling visions that they were willing to see through til the end.

      This is also why I’ve come to get all of my DC comics from the library. It’s just so hard to find a title that’s consistently good.

      Reply
  • David Grant Lloyd (@davidgrantlloyd) May 29, 2017 at 11:02 pm

    Good article. Very accurate in presenting the pros and cons.

    The New 52 and the Superman Wonder Woman relationship is (was) the best thing DC has done in mainstream continuity in … forever. Finally embracing new and exciting ideas rather than recycling tired, boring old cliches.

    The first arc of SMWW demonstrated the potential of the most interesting and exciting superhero relationship ever done. Why did DC kill it thru constant meddling and poor creative decisions handled by editorial? (Which is pretty much the same way that amazing Batwoman run by JHW III around the same time was killed off) Maybe they just can’t help themselves by taking one step forward and then two steps back …

    Such a shame DC keep shooting themselves in the foot by constantly producing unlikable tripe (Rebirth/ Rebarf is living proof of that, not to mention their last couple of appalling films).

    Reply
    • Nancy O'Toole Meservier May 30, 2017 at 8:23 am

      Ugh, poor Batwoman. It was hard not to think about how hard that comic fell apart while writing this column. I know she has a title in Rebirth now, but it’s so new that I’ve heard pretty much nothing about it.

      Reply
      • Shara White May 30, 2017 at 10:53 am

        Don’t get me started on Batwoman. One of the primary reasons I read the title was for the art alone, but I everything went to hell with JH Williams III leaving due to DC’s “superheroes can’t be happily married” stance that I could barely stomach the next few issues after. The story went to shit and without the art to make up for it, ugh… I know Williams was telling the story too, so it was an epic fail all around.

        Reply
    • Hans Martinez Iuset July 26, 2017 at 5:53 pm

      Sir I salute you with respect and awesomeness

      Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: