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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‘Quantico’ and the Disappointment of a Show Forgetting Its Roots

The first episode of season three of Quantico aired Thursday night, and you know what? Had that been the pilot of a new show, I’d have probably loved it. It would have given the impression of starting in the middle, with characters that have a history which each other and backstories that we’ll learn more about as the show progresses. Plus, there’s a WoC as the main character, a deaf woman as an experienced older agent, a black man as the team leader – it would have been so refreshing to see, had it been a new show. But it’s not. It’s the third season of an existing one, and put into context, it bothers me.

Romantic drama had always been a problem with Quantico. It’s always existed as an unnecessary drag on the story that did nothing to further the plot or develop. The plot itself managed to be pretty contrived. But despite that, I could enjoy it, because at its best, it also had well written and interesting characters. Sadly, though, a lot of them, despite starting off well, were increasingly mishandled as the show went on.

Quantico has been steadily leaking characters throughout the two seasons. Simon. Natalie. Drew. Nimah and Raina. Dayana. Leon. Sebastian. Miranda. Whether because they’re dead or put on a bus, none of them – all with either a lot of potential or interestingly developed – are appearing in season three. And aside from Simon and maybe – maybe – Drew, I think it’s a waste.

I still think Simon’s character arc was excellent. His death was gorgeously done, and I think he had both the best acting and the best writing behind him. His relationships with Alex, Raina, and Nimah were all different and interesting. And you know a death is handled well when even when you miss the character, you don’t want him back, because it would cheapen it. On the other hand, Dayana was just put on a bus with no satisfactory conclusion to her story. Miranda could have plenty more to offer. There’s been no explanation of where Nimah and Raina are, despite the fact they’ve been key characters from the get go. It bothers me that none of them are here when the writers are bending over backwards to make Shelby fit.

Unlike many, I don’t care about Caleb. I’m okay with him not being there. That feels like trimming the fat from the story. For me, he never added any actual value or substance. Maybe a few times, there was a hint of something more – the scenes of him with Raina or Claire or even Alex were all far more meaningful than those with Shelby or her parents – but nothing real, nothing that actually mattered, so I don’t mind that he’s not in season three. I don’t really mind the absence of characters like Lydia, Claire, or Clay either. The one I’ll really miss is Raina.

Raina is amazing. I found her season one arc fascinating. It was well acted. Her relationship with Simon was layered and well done, especially because the conflict there didn’t feel contrived. She was competent and also kind of absurdly impulsive in a way that provided an interesting contrast to Nimah. She was a genuinely great character. There were even traces of that in season two. But for the most part, she was sidelined for Nimah, especially after Simon’s death. When that happened, a lot of her interesting relationships – all platonic – were left unused. Now that she’s  not coming back, it’ll be the end of all of those.

Season two had certain aspects that were better than season one. Reduced focus on relationship drama. More diversity in the male cast and continued diversity in the female. It also had things that were worse, like more dumb subplots and less character development. Season three? It’s a weird, semi-reboot in that you can jump in anywhere, and there are good things about it, but it’s weird. Maybe it’s too early to really tell whether the differences are good or bad, but my instincts to say that I don’t like it.

It doesn’t have the two timelines that the previous two seasons did, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s missing great characters. It’s added even more relationship drama that’s just irritating. For whatever reason, Ryan and Shelby, characters with minimal interaction at best before now, are married. It’s as if the writers got the memo that people didn’t like Ryan and Alex together, but instead of having that end in any kind of reasonable, adult, not weird way, they did this, which was basically, “two pretty white people who are mainly connected through Alex and are two of the characters with the least direct interaction? They should get together! Let’s assassinate everyone’s characters to make it happen.” I’d have bought it had they put Ryan and Nimah – or even Raina! – together. It would have served the same purpose in the plot, and they had way better build up.

I’d get Alex and Ryan breaking up. It’d be kind of annoying for it to happen again, sure, I’d prefer them to either stay together or permanently split up. But this? To have her just ghost him then him marry her best friend? To have Shelby marry her best friend’s ex-fiancé, then get weirdly prickly and defensive about it? It’s gross. It’s bad writing and characterization. The goal seems to be have Shelby sleep with every guy on the show. Caleb, Clayton, Leon, Ryan. I can’t remember if she did sleep with Clay but she had that whole thing going on with  him. In order to get her and Ryan to work, the writers had to turn their back on two seasons worth of characterization and growth for her, him, and Alex.

Season one was genuinely good. Yes, there was a lot of soap opera style drama, and some of the plots were pretty dumb and seemingly only there to give everyone something to do but aside from that, the character work was strong, the cast was diverse, and everyone had interesting dynamics. I can’t decide if season two was better or worse, it was just different. Maybe a decent plot and a couple new characters with substance, but several more without it, and flimsy motivations. I wasn’t much of a fan, but that’s okay. Season three, though? We’re talking less diverse, more soapy, and ignoring a well written friendship between two women in favour of adding contrived tension because of some guy.

As the writer of this post put it, Quantico was about women supporting each other and breaking through the glass ceiling, not tearing each other down.  And while season three hasn’t had Alex and Shelby at odds over Ryan yet, there is a newfound tension in their relationship because of him that I just don’t like. That’s not something I think I’ll ever be able to grow to appreciate. For all Quantico‘s flaws as a show, for all the inconsistency in quality, Alex and Shelby’s friendship was always a strong point because their disagreements were never about a man or romantic relationship. If that changes, I probably won’t be able to continue watching.

‘When We First Met’: A Mediocre Comedy That So Easily Could Have Been Terrible

I wasn’t expecting much when I put on When We First Met the other night. It was on Netflix, and I wasn’t in the mood to commit to watching a full series. It managed to be just good enough that I was both pleasantly surprised at how it averted and deconstructed some of the issues a lot of rom coms face and disappointed at how it reverted to old cliches at the end.

The premise: a magic photo booth takes the lead character back in time to relive the day he met the friend he’s in love with. It’s a skeevy thought – a guy that’s so fixated on this girl that’s never been interested in him feels so  entitled to have her, he’s willing to completely change his life, not because he has regrets that he wants to fix, but because he thinks changing his choices will make the girl fall for him. To the movie’s credit, it didn’t rely on stripping away the girl’s autonomy, nor on vilifying any of the other characters. That wasn’t the happy ending.

The first time he went back, he used his three years of knowledge to say everything he thought she’d want to hear. It was manipulative and creepy and downright invasive, and she rightfully called him out on being a weirdo stalker. Her roommate beat him up with a plant. Her fiancé tackled him. That scene stood out in the movie – it was actually pretty funny. Sadly, he didn’t learn the lesson he should have – that he should stop being an obsessed creep and be thankful for the friendship he wouldn’t have if she knew how much of an obsessed creep he was – and came to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t that he was being creepy, but that he hadn’t been sneaky enough about his creepiness.

At the end, after a few more missteps, he went back one more time to redo the night by doing what he’d done the first time, but there was something that made me uncomfortable about why he did it. It would have been one thing had he done it because he realized that he didn’t have the right to keep screwing with the lives of people that are supposed to be his friends. But he did it because he wanted to do the same thing again, just with a different end goal – this time, he wanted a chance with the roommate.

By the end, it just felt pointless. It wasn’t good, but neither was it particularly bad. It was just an hour and a half of nothingness that I could forget I even watched. It’s not something I have any interesting or intelligent critique to make about why it’s good or bad, because it just was. The director does have the capacity for genuinely funny comedies – he made West Bank Story, which I found hilarious in a crossing the line twice kind of way, even if I felt bad for laughing. Even When We First Met had its moments, what with the using a plant as a weapon thing. But it felt overly long, and the sweet/funny bits were matched by a creepiness that, if much better than it could have been, was definitely present, resulting in my overall impression being: meh.

Romantic Subplots, Love Triangles, And The Strange Need to Vilify the Hypotenuse

The other day I was thinking about love triangles and the different ways in which they’re resolved: death sometimes, friendship rarely, and one of the vertices being portrayed as a villain often. I don’t like love triangles, or any kind of polygon, primarily because of this. So often, they involve pitting characters – especially women – against each other when a much better story would involve them being friends. When I started writing about that, I realized that I had much more to say than I thought I did, so this will be the first of three posts about the resolution of love triangles. This one will focus on the vilification of a character in said triangle.

Oddly enough, one of the best examples of this is a series that I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I’ve read – the Vampire Academy books. They’re not my type of book at all. But a friend of mine got me to read them several years ago when the last book had just been released – I was about twelve, I think – and I’ve never gotten over the poor treatment of Tasha Ozera.

Tasha started off as arguably the best character in the series. She was my favourite by far. She appealed to me in large part because I have very little patience for romantic drama. I’m twenty, and perhaps my teenage experience wasn’t quite standard – I went to a small magnet high school that took kids from around the county, there wasn’t really all that much drama, and we were all pretty supportive of each other – but  it always seemed to me like most of these high school novels that are supposed to appeal to teenage girls are written by people that don’t remember what high school was like at all. Tasha? Up until the end, she was tangential to the romantic drama, not an active part of it.

While everyone else was obsessing over their love life, or being really creepy about a girl in high school, she was being politically active. She was smart. She was proactive. She was out to protect children that her own people wanted to shove onto the battlefield and use as human shields. She wasn’t distracted by how much she loved someone else, or how she was fighting with her best friend, or by anything. She was on top of political developments, and was focused on accomplishing what she had to.

Even years before the events of the series, Tasha – young Tasha, barely out of school, without any training or help – fought off both her brother and sister in law to protect her nephew. And she did. She was outnumbered and scared and facing people much, much stronger than her, people that she loved and was not prepared to fight, but she still managed to hold them off, even after one of them ripped out half her face. That’s just badass. Her story was tragic, and in just about any other genre, she’d be the mentor, if not the hero herself.

Meade expected the audience to believe that this woman – the woman that’s always supported Rose; always been kind and compassionate, even as she was cunning and politically aware; always fought for what’s right, that taught her nephew how to use his magic to fight back instead of expecting other people to protect him; always been brave, smart, and strong – would frame someone else for murder for no other reason than jealousy over some guy.

She was the first character to ever bring up how the Moroi weren’t contributing and were instead just relying on the dhampirs, who didn’t even have voting rights, to keep them safe. She and Christian were the first characters to use their magic offensively. Tasha taught Christian, which resulted in Christian lighting a Strigoi on fire, not only saving Rose, but becoming the only Moroi to kill a Strigoi within the series.

Tasha stood by her convictions. She wasn’t ever speaking theoretically, or because she was looking to score points somewhere – what points could she possibly score from alienating the people with power to support the marginalized? She sincerely believed their society needed change, that they had to fight for equality. She and her family were already ostracized, but she loved Dimitri enough that she was ready for even more societal scorn from having dhampir children. But she was turned into the villain because she was a competing love interest.

The killing the queen part of it? I took absolutely no issue with that, because that was a logical extension of the character’s actions. It made sense. That alone would have been a fantastic direction to take the character – how far would this smart, goal oriented woman go to achieve what she felt she needed to? But framing the protagonist because of…what, jealousy? And not any legitimate reason for wanting her out of the way? That took a good character – one that, had she gotten a little more development, could have even been excellent – and turned her from the only mature adult around to just another petulant child that the author wanted to “get out of the way”.

Several of the most interesting points in the series never got a real resolution – the way the dhampirs never got to make their own choices, the way they were ostracized for not going into a life of personal protection of the rich, the deep classism of the society, the political system. Rose and Dimitri ended up together, the lead characters were alive in the end, but the status quo that the books began with didn’t change. I guess maybe that’s the point of a teen romance, but all the same, it never felt like anything was accomplished. A lot was made of Lissa being a revolutionary, ultra liberal leader, but what did she do to support dhampirs and their right to have their own lives? The primary thing she did was not change the age requirement. For me, it came across as incredibly shallow – like today’s white liberals, focused on putting out fires as they arise and celebrating minor achievements instead of working for real, meaningful, lasting change. The real revolutionary was vilified. The one pushing for real reforms was depicted as just a scorned lover. Perhaps it would have been a totally different story if it focused a little less on romantic drama and a little more on individual characters and the politics of it all, and I know that I can’t judge a work based on what it’s not, but I think what it was could have been much better.

On TV Tropes, this method of resolving love triangles fits into the category of Derailing Love Interests. This category is broader than making one of the characters into a villain – it extends to giving said character any kind of random character flaws to divert sympathy away from them and justify them not becoming the final love interest. It’s lazy. It’s one thing to turn a character into an antagonist. It’s one thing to have development and consistent characterization that explains just why they shouldn’t end up in a relationship with character X. It’s even okay to say, “hey, maybe they would work, but not here”. It’s another to decide that the supposed obstacle needs to get out of the way.

The way I see it, if you need to completely change a character’s characterization to completely resolve a romantic relationship, it’s not a well written relationship. Either that, or you’re not confident in your writing to believe that you’ve crafted a good enough romance to be compelling even with other love interests. Romantic drama can exist without love triangles, and can certainly be resolved without the derailment of another character. If a love triangle has to exist for whatever reason, though…I’d hate it much less if a writer managed it without any character derailment.

Part Two
Part Three