Sunday, September 8, 2013

All the Unhappy Bat-Families

It wasn't because she was gay that Batwoman was denied matrimonial bliss, DC Comics co-publisher Dan Didio said on Saturday. It's because DC is against weddings. Or, specifically, Bat-weddings.

For those unfamiliar with the recent controversy, two writers for the Eisner-nominated Batwoman monthly series, J.H. Williams and W. Haden Blackman, recently quit in protest of what they claimed was constant last-minute meddling by DC Comics editors. Among the list of complaints--they were not allowed to show Batwoman, aka Kate Kane, actually marry her lesbian partner, (to whom she already was engaged to, in the issue "Batwoman #17"). This news spiraled into a controversy for DC--already reeling from the recent Orson Scott Card fiasco--and led to heated denunciations and, according to Williams, threats of violence towards specific DC publishers.

Speaking at a panel at the Baltimore Comic-Con to a few hundred DC fans Saturday morning, DiDio strongly denied that their decisions had anything to do with Kane's sexuality. Rather, it had to do with their philosophy about the nature of characters with the prefix "Bat." Since 2011's New 52 reboot, DC has maintained that characters in the Batfamily--(Batman, Batgirl, Batwoman, Batwing, Nightwing, etc.)--do not have "happy personal lives," DiDio said.

"They put on a cape and a cowl for a reason," he said. "They're committed to defending others, at the sacrifice of all their own personal instincts."

I may be wrong about this, but I think his voice cracked a bit when he described how, in 2006, DC came to the decision to re-introduce Batwoman as a lesbian military cadet kicked out of the academy for her sexuality. Gay characters weren't new to the comics then, even for DC, but Batwoman wasn't just any character--she was a beloved 50-year-old staple of the Batman mythology. He said that despite plenty of hate mail, the company remained committed to the character, making her the lead character in "Detective Comics" for a spell, and in 2010 giving Batwoman her own series.

In a bit of a puzzling statement, DiDio said "no other" publisher would have supporter a character like this incarnation of Batwoman.

All of this makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. I've always thought that what makes Batman so interesting is that while other heroes choose to be heroes, Batman has to be a hero. Batman is partially rooted in pulpy detective fiction, and to the best of my knowledge none of those schamuses ended their day with a hearty "Honey, I'm home!"

But were DiDio's statements true, or just some desperate cover for a company that always seems to find new ways to alienate its authors and fans? All I can report is that he certainly seemed genuine.

I'm inclined to believe it--I prefer to believe the best of people, all things being equal.

And if the issue really is Batwoman's sexuality, I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that DC would be so opposed to a gay marriage, but supportive of a gay marriage proposal.

Same-sex weddings aren't exactly new to comics, either. Marvel had one on the cover of "Astonishing X-Men" last year.

The thinking of the higher-ups at DC Comics may be something like, Marvel is the publisher which is about the personal lives of their heroes. Let them focus on Spider-Man's teenage angst, Iron Man's drinking problems, X-Men's love triangles. Our comparative advantage is that our heroes put the job first.

And, yes, it's hard to imagine Batman getting married, whether the person coming down the aisle wears a corset or a codpiece.

It's also helpful to remember not to put too much weight on writers' tiffs, which--no matter how they appear externally--are almost always as much about personal beefs as they are about outside politics.

Sure, it always seems right to take the side of the idealistic artists over the venal, profit-obsessed editors. But--DC Comics gets flak from fans if their comics aren't consistent, in plot or in tone, and how else are they supposed to be consistent without enforcing creative decisions onto their authors?

"You wonder what editors do? That's our job," he said.

So who knows. There are still some question marks around DiDio's statement.

First of all, a marriage does not equal a "happy personal life," as almost any married couple could report. And why such strong opposition to marriage, as Williams and Blackman claim? If the writers felt it was right for the character, was there really no way to include it and stay true to the darker nature of Batman's world? (Maybe chronicling Kane's failed marriage would bring the story too close to Marvel territory.)

I think DiDio's statements are probably "true," but could be classified as spin. Let me put it this way--they are all accurate, but an equally accurate statement might go something like this: Our readers, mostly teenagers--the teenagers who are actually in their teens and the teenagers who are in their 30s--don't want to read about some wedding, and they certainly don't want to read about some damned gay wedding.

I should admit I'm not a reader of Batwoman, so I'm pretty much writing blind here. I just wanted to convey a fascinating little tidbit from a panel I attended Saturday morning. (And which has already been covered plenty on the Internet.)

Working away from "heterosexism," as it is often called, in pop culture is going to be a slow process. I'd support further portrayals of same-sex relationships, but at the same time I agree that the urge to do so shouldn't over-ride artistic logic. If it does, it becomes pedantic and ineffective.

"Brokeback Mountain" didn't win Oscars because it was a great gay love story, it did it because it was a great love story that happened to be about two gay men. And, who knows, maybe there's a great story to be written about a romantically frustrated vigilante crime-fighter who happens to be a lesbian.

UPDATE: Alyssa Rosenberg notes that, even if this is the "real" reason, it reflects a somewhat adolescent view of life. I'd agree with that. A lot of the recent comic book movies--even the good ones--tend to have a 13-year-old's view of the world. I loved Chris Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy--it's the main reason I'm a Batman fanatic--but Wayne's relationships with women was one thing Nolan never quite pulled off. Matt Zoller Seitz complained that the new "Man of Steel" movie desexualized Lois Lane and generally shut women out of the action. Whereas Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent and Margot Kidder's Lane felt like adults dealing with adult problems, this latest generation of superheroes feel like kids, and that can exacerbate some of the worst trends in comic book fiction.

But for some reason, this whole thing makes me sad. DiDio's veiled shot at Marvel was sort of gratuitous, but he has a point--Batwoman is probably the most high-profile gay character in comics. (I don't have the time or inclination to research whether Marvel has a gay character headlining a monthly series--if you know, please add in comments.) But that doesn't get DC applause, rather it means every creative decision they make about her is closely scrutinized, and becomes an opportunity for another example of the publisher "not listening to its fans."

Some DC execs must be thinking, "Geeze, it'd be so much simpler if we had just left Batwoman straight."

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