Romance In Comics And The Editorial Tug Of War Over Characters

Hi! Popping back in after weeks of absence to discuss how romance in comics can serve as an indication of what is currently seen as the most important aspect of a character.

As probably anyone that’s reading this knows, I love Dick Grayson. I’m very much invested in stories about him. But I do not care whether he ends up in a romantic relationship with Starfire or Barbara Gordon or any other character. I like Kory, I love Barbara, and there’s probably not going to be a new love interest that I actively can’t stand, so. It does not matter to me. What does is Dick getting to remain the beautifully complex character I’ve literally loved for more than half my life and develop so that he doesn’t stay stagnant forever. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to talk about his development – past, present, and future – without discussing his romantic relationships. This is because his relationships with his two most prominent love interests act as kind of a barometer for what editorial considers most important about him, and as such, what we can expect in the future.

Characters that have their own solo series – characters that are considered anchors, of a sort – usually have their own supporting cast from which the key players are chosen, the key players being love interests, Rogues Galleries, family members, and the like. It makes sense – it’s way cleaner than trying crossover pairings. I think that’s one of the many reasons Superman and Wonder Woman didn’t work. It’s not just about Lois. It’s that you can’t have them as main characters in each other’s solo titles. Forget about in universe reasons and how iconic Superman and Lois Lane’s relationship is. Long term, Superman and Wonder Woman can’t last, because it’s not practical in terms of writing. That brings me back to Dick.

Dick is a unique case. He’s undoubtedly a major character – he’s got his own series and supporting cast. He’s one of the core members of the Batfamily. He’s led the Titans – hell, he’s led the Justice League. He’s absolutely not a character that’s only perceived as important as a member of the Titans. Despite that, for a long time, his most important romantic relationship was with his fellow Titan, Kory. Someone that has absolutely nothing to do with Gotham or Bludhaven. What’s interesting about this is that while in many cases, this sort of relationship would indicate to me a character that writers and editors had no intention of developing as an individual, the context and timeline behind it make it seem more like the era in Dick’s publication history where he was most independent.

Dick joining the Titans was him asserting his independence, because he didn’t have a solo series until the 90s. He was defined by his partnership with Bruce. His relationship with Kory, his leadership of the Titans…those things helped him break free of being considered a supporting character. And you know how I said that I don’t really care whether Dick’s with Kory or with Babs or with someone else altogether? That’s still true, but despite all the good elements of stories featuring him in recent years, despite the fact that I’ve loved seeing him as Batman and as the eldest son of the family, all told, the era where he and Kory were a couple and he was on his own was probably better for him as a character.

Dick’s relationship with Kory spoke of a time of freedom for him. He was involved with her when he gave up the Robin identity, when he became Nightwing, when he wasn’t on good terms with Bruce. They went through a lot together. And they could have still been together today…had it not been for the tug of war between those writing the two of them and those that wanted to bring Dick back into the Batfamily. The latter won out. And as much as I do love his dynamics with the different members of the family, it kind of sucks that him going back home involved pushing him back into being, on some level, a Batman sidekick, rather than the completely independent and awesome hero he had become.

When Dick is off with a team – whether that team be the Titans or the JLA – he gets to be the hero that learned from both Batman and Superman, the former sidekick that’s surpassed his mentor. But – as I brought up in a post I wrote a while back on the issue with the ever expanding Batfamily – when he’s back in Gotham, in the same story as Bruce, he’s often pushed back into Batman’s shadow, because Bruce has to be so special that his son can’t ever be better than him at anything. So he gets deaged, made less competent, and has parts of his history erased. That brings us to his relationship with Barbara.

When Dick shifted back to being considered a Bat character, we started to see the rise of his and Barbara’s romantic relationship. That has continued into the present. When it comes to comics, Dick is nowadays considered primarily a Bat character and secondarily a Titan. His relationship with Kory has been left to the past. He doesn’t spend nearly as much time as he once did far away from Gotham with the Titans. The focus is on his relationship with his family. Romantically, he’ll have brief relationships with others, but those are relationships that we know have expiration dates. Even while he’s in those, there are reminders of his and Barbara’s relationship. Right now, that’s a pretty significant part of who he is (of course, once we bring in the Ric thing, there’s a lot more discussion to be had about the nature of who he is and Barbara’s importance, but frankly, I’m way too tired for that. Let’s not talk about Ric).

In adaptations, it’s different. The Bats aren’t so much the priority anymore – not like they were in the 90s and early 2000s with Batman: The Animated Series and the related movies. Even though the comics version of Dick and Kory’s relationship has been left to the past, that’s Dick’s primary relationship in the adaptations, possibly just because we haven’t had as much real Batman stuff as we used to. The exception appears to be Young Justice, as of season 3, because that version of Dick is involved with Barbara. This is interesting, because it seems to me a sign that the Batfamily – and by that, I mean the family, not just Batman or Nightwing – seems to becoming a priority in at least this one adaptation. Dick has been a major character from the beginning, of course. And Bruce has had quite a few significant scenes, and is arguably one of the most important supporting characters. But it wasn’t until season three that we really started delving into the others. We have Tim, of course – we knew that already – and Steph, and promos have shown we’re getting Cass…but in a spectacular wham shot, we now know we’re going to see Jason and baby Damian, as well! This season is likely going to have a lot of the Batfamily, and we should have seen that coming from the second we found out that Barbara had become Oracle and was flirting with Dick via text, because the second we knew Young Justice involved their relationship, we knew that this version of him is most definitely being written as a Bat.

I find this a tiny bit frustrating, not because I’m opposed to any of these relationships or to having a character fit different roles in different stories, but because it implies that writers and editors find Dick to be kind of a piece of clay that they can stick in different places to tell other stories.He is a malleable character. None of his relationships are comparable to, say, Clark Kent and Lois Lane in terms of how essential to the character it is. He does serve different purposes in different stories, and I’m all for exploring his different relationships. But that doesn’t mean it always has to be romantic. I’d like some more focus on his consistent traits and on the strength of his friendships. Because those are just as important – indeed, when it comes to Dick, probably more – than his romances, and having this much weight given to his romances really isn’t all that helpful to actual character exploration.

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