by KC Carlson
As 1960s British Invasion band The Troggs once famously sung, “Love Is All Around”. (They also more famously sung “Wild thing, you make my heart sing”, but the licensing clearance for that song is probably a lot more expensive.) But “Wild Thing” may be closer to the ultimate comic book romance — and it’s probably the favorite love song of both Anthro and Moon Boy, “wild things” who both ultimately found their true loves, although one was a cute cave girl (Embra), while the other appears to be a giant red Tyrannosaurus Rex, who’s probably a mutant. (Oh, and before I get into trouble, the latter is probably not a romantic love. Or have I inadvertently shipped a brand new romance? Egad!) Such is the state of contemporary superhero comic book romance. Bonk Bonk Bonk, indeed!
Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought a quick look at comic book romance might be appropriate. Until I thought about it harder and realized that almost every epic romance in comic books ultimately ends in tragedy or death — just as all good soap opera should. For every Reed and Sue Richards, there are a hundred Scott Summers and Jean Grays. Ooo, tragedy and death!
So with that in mind, Happy Valentine’s Day!
If It’s a KC Column, There MUST Be History!
(It’s Okay — It’s Short — and Partially Made Up)
Once upon a time, there was a whole genre of comic books devoted to romance. It was called… uh… Romance Comics. Like everything good in comics, Jack Kirby was involved, creating the first romance comic book title (called Young Romance) in 1947 with his partner Joe Simon. It was a very popular genre and attracted a huge and loyal readership — mostly young women, many of whom (gasp!) really enjoyed reading comic books about things that interested them. Romance comics were largely a mystery to young boys, however, mostly because boys had the entire rest of comic books (superhero, crime, western, sci-fi, horror, jungle, etc.) to choose from. Romance comics even featured different advertising than other comic books, mostly about stuff that would only interest girls. That, added to all the kissing and hugging and mushy stuff, made romance comics not very interesting to young boys. So most boys didn’t care much about them at all.
(Until many years later when the stupid boys suddenly realized that not only were many of the romance comics written and drawn by their favorite creators, but there were also a lot of cute girls in them! So, finally, they started buying them, and because of that, they drove the back issue prices up. Stupid boys!)
Then one day, in the ancient and mysterious 1970s, giant comets crashed into the Earth, and eventually the greenhouse gasses killed off all the comic book genres. All except superhero comic books. Many crackpot historians believe that alien fanboy visitors may have really been the cause of it all. Nevertheless, romance was dead.
Thus endeth the history lesson.
Okay, Then, Where Was I?
Actually, there was plenty of romance to go around in superhero comics (although most young boys were probably distracted by all the flying around and funny underwear). Given all of the tragic love stories to come in the genre, ironically, the very first one is one of the most classic, endearing (and enduring) fictional romances of all time. I refer you to When Clark Met Lois from Action Comics #1, 1938.
No matter what Earth, or which version of the characters, or even the sheer craziness of the Weisinger era of rivals and embarrassing plots, Superman and Lois Lane have always been comics’ “it” couple. Their romance has endured everything — from bad writing to even death itself. While it took forever to get them down the aisle, it appears to be a union that no man — or supervillain — can put asunder.
The Superman mythos features not just one, or two, but three strong, lasting romantic bonds. Besides Lois and Clark, there’s also the long-standing marriage of Clark’s adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent — better known as Ma and Pa Kent to fans. Obviously, there was a lot of love in that household. As there was between Kal-El’s birth parents, Jor-El and Lara, who sacrificed everything so that their son could escape Krypton’s inevitable destruction and find a new life — and loves — on another planet. It’s a wonderful trifecta of healthy — and inspiring — relationships.
Not every relationship in the Superman family was as lucky. Daily Planet editor Perry White and his wife were separated (and possibly divorced?) in previous continuity, although I’m not sure what his status is now. (There should really be a Facebook for DC characters — or at least an updated Who’s Who!) Similarly, Lois’ sister Lucy Lane was once married to Planet reporter Ron Troupe and had a son, who apparently has disappeared into continuity, and Ron and Lucy’s current relationship (if any) is undefined, especially since Lucy is currently seemingly insane.
Ben & ‘Licia, Sittin’ in a Tree…
Only the hands of creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could bring us a tragic but incredibly moving romance between a man trapped inside a monster — Ben Grimm, The Thing — and the blind sculptress Alicia Masters, who could touch the man within. In true comic book style, it was a romance that seemed destined for heartache, especially when it was discovered that she was actually the stepdaughter of one of the FF’s early foes, the villainous Puppet Master, who apparently caused her blindness. Alicia played a pivotal role in a classic early FF storyline (the so-called “Galactus trilogy”), where she pleads with Galactus’s herald, the Silver Surfer, to spare the planet and its people, an event which would have long-reaching ramifications years later.
Ben, when he’s not being all cuddly or in clobberin’ mode, tended to be a mopey boyfriend, eventually driving Alicia into the arms of another — his teammate (and playful rival), Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. Alicia and Johnny eventually marry, and Ben forlornly drags himself to the wedding. But wait! It turned out that she wasn’t really Alicia at all — it was a Skrull named Lyja who abducted Alicia and took her place for years! But that’s okay, Johnny still loved her (ew!). Things turned tragic after Lyja sacrificed her life to save Johnny. (Later, she “got better” and returned, still in love with Johnny.) After Secret Invasion, Alicia became part of a support group for people who were replaced by Skrulls. (Is this covered by National Health Care?)
Things were still strained between the real Alicia and Ben. Eventually, Alicia left him (and the Earth) when she became romantically attracted to the Silver Surfer, and the two traveled the galaxy together for years. After they broke up, Alicia returned to Earth, where she and Ben have had a seemingly on-and-off relationship for the last several years. Notably, when The Thing was recently returned (temporarily) to his human Ben Grimm form, the first person he turned to was Alicia, and they spent some “off-camera” time together. Awww…
Superhero team books, most notably the many iterations of the Legion of Super-Heroes and various X-Men teams, are generally rife with potential romantic entanglements. Perhaps because these teams prominently feature a lot of adolescent characters, all thrust together in a largely enclosed environment. Like High School. And when you add in all those raging hormones… Well, do I hafta’ spell it out for you?
The Legion has seldom had a time where there have been fewer than 20 members, and if you add in all the previous members, Substitutes, honorary members, time-traveling part-timers, Science Police officers, etc. — and then multiply them by the number of times the Legion has been rebooted — well that’s a few more than 20. So the potential romantic entanglements are practically infinite, yet on the whole, many of these kids in the future are relatively stable in their mating/dating habits.
Especially the main Legion Threesome — aka the Founding Members — Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad (or Live Wire, depending on which reboot you call “home”). In the early days of the LSH, Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad were THE Legion pair, always together and often acting like they were already an old married couple. (In fact, they were the second LSH couple to marry, after the somewhat surprising re-bound romance of Duo Damsel and Bouncing Boy.) But one of the fun things about the reboot was that you could kinda mess around with readers’ expectations and see what happened if — in another place and time — Imra (Saturn Girl’s real name) got fed up with Garth’s (Live Wire) wild ways and decided that maybe Cosmic Boy was the ideal dream-date for her. So fans got to see it both ways (but not together — you pervs!). Nowadays, with Admiral Levitz back at the LSH helm, things are pretty much back to normal.
Speaking of Duo Damsel, long-time Legion fans remember her unrequited crush on Superboy from the early days of the Legion. But fans knew (and so did Duo Damsel herself — SINCE SHE LIVED IN THE FUTURE !) that she and Superboy were never going to be an item as long as her initials weren’t L.L. Yet, if you even mention a certain scene of Duo Damsel crawling through Superboy’s 20th century secret tunnel on a mission — and suddenly realizing that she and Superboy will never be together — to a Legion fan of a certain age, they will be instantly reduced to a blubbering mess. It is one of the most iconic moments in LSH history. Not a memorable battle. Not a shocking death. A young girl moping over a lost love — and then finding a new resolve. For those of you who have always wondered, that’s what makes the Legion such a big deal. That particular moment is an emotional touchstone for a generation of Legion fans.
A Romance Derailed
The X-Men, on the other hand, in its earliest, somewhat directionless 1960s years, seemed obsessed with the ongoing saga of Scott Summers and Jean Grey, until Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum and John Byrne arrived to really shake things up. Claremont became known for writing women and relationships particularly well, and obviously, both Cockrum and Byrne were quite adept in artistically conveying beautiful people having fascinating connections. So, for a long time, that was the superhero book to read if you liked romantic entanglements. And this was where the Scott and Jean thing came to a head, tragically, but memorably (at least for now).
Much has been written about the Scott/Jean pairing, and specifically about the whole “Dark Phoenix” storyline (which famously did not go the way the creators originally intended — and ultimately set in motion a whole house of cards regarding both character’s futures). So I’m not going to dwell on the details here (Google is your friend), except to say that several Marvel creators have invented a complete cottage industry around all the possible variations and ramifications and What If’s? of this classic romance/storyline.
Later, after both Cockrum and Byrne had moved on and Claremont got unceremoniously booted from the X-books, carefully scripted relationships devolved into just sex, and more and more artwork looked “inspired” by lingerie catalogues. While still under Claremont, Scott married a Jean look-alike (Madelyne Pryor), had a child, and attempted to leave superheroics. But Claremont had no control over what happened next. To no one’s surprise, Jean came back, Scott abandoned his wife and child to go back to Jean, Madelyne went insane and tried to kill everybody, Scott eventually married Jean, and Jean eventually died again, in Wolverine’s arms (and a lot of readers think that Logan and Jean are actually the great mutant romance) — while Scott was infatuated with a new arrival to the team, Emma Frost. Believe it or not, things got even worse later, as this has become Marvel’s premiere “Never-Ending Story”, and canny readers expect that Jean will eventually return again (if she hasn’t already, in another guise).
Some love is bittersweet.
As this is running long (as usual), I should wrap things up, although I didn’t get a chance to discuss my favorite Bat-romance (Silver St. Cloud), or the especially twisted tale of the Vision and Scarlet Witch, or even the often sad legacy of the “Schwartz Women” (Iris West, Carol Ferris, Jean Loring, Shiera Sanders Hall, and Sue Dibny, all faithful wives who wound up villainized, abused, dead, or multiples of the above). Perhaps another column someday. But feel free to use the comments box below to mention your favorite comic book romance — or disagree with my choices!
While romantic conflict is always a staple of any good superhero story, it’s also important to remember that it should be just that — one element among many, combining to make a story that’s exciting, compelling, action-packed, yet moving and significant. While superhero stories by their very description should always include some sort of “super” element, as well as something “heroic”, the really good ones should always have more. And romance is just about as universal as you can get.
Which is why a romantic subplot or two is always a plus in superhero comic books. Everybody loves seeing the hero get the girl — or boy!
KC CARLSON sez: My own Valentine, the ever-loving Johanna Draper Carlson (Comics Worth Reading), gently reminded me that not all great comic book romances occur in traditional superhero comics. So I’ve talked her into doing a future column so you can meet Zot and Jenny (Zot!), Abby and Mark (aka The Crusader) (Love and Capes), and Tom and Lily (True Story, Swear To God), among others. Look for it soon!
Thanks, honey! “You make everything… groovy.”
Classic covers from the Grand Comics Database.