Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…that the lob
Why are the best superhero comics love stories?
I just got out of The Lobster, which is arguably a love story. Love isn’t a genre of story though. I’m not sure what exactly you’d call it, maybe a mode or a goal? But I’m certain it’s not a genre. Romantic comedies aren’t a genre, they’re just a trope laden version of comedies that also happen to be love stories. I suppose if you wanted to assign a genre to The Lobster, you’d call it a dystopian fiction, if painting in very broad strokes.
Looking at that genre, I imagine very few people would attempt to claim the best stories occupying it are love stories. There are certainly romantic elements to some classics. 1984 hinges on its ability to give you hope in the form of a romance before destroying that last glimmer forever. It’s not the romance that makes something like 1984, or The Road, or Brave New World function though. If you want to argue for these stories being some of the greatest in this specific genre, you will most likely want to focus on their ability to extrapolate from and parallel recognizable conflicts and patterns. They point to present problems by expanding them, and help us understand why they need solutions.
That The Lobster, a tremendous film and oddly potent romance, features a love story isn’t key to what makes it a great dystopian fiction. Its commentary on human interaction, expectations, and the management of both brought to a terrifying extreme is what accomplishes that. While the film wants to comment on the idea of love, it’s not love that drives the film itself. That’s dystopian fiction though, and we’re here to talk about superheroes.
I have no doubt in my mind that the absolute best version of the superhero genre and the stories contained therein are defined as love stories.
There may be an initial instinct to object and point to a variety of other usual suspects. What about them being power fantasies? Are we ignoring those that speak to ideals of fairness and justice? Who will speak to elements of classic mythology made modern? How can we not speak to the tragedy underlying so many heroes?
These are all great concepts that superhero comics can and have explored to incredible results. You’re asking me about the existence of a single, core thread that can weave all of the greatest superhero comics together though, and I don’t think any of those are up to the task. They are common themes, but not the universal DNA that we can carefully parse to create this caped family tree.
To discover what that is we have to question what the central purpose is of the entire superhero genre. That’s one hell of a big question and it’s one that entire doctoral theses could be devoted to without a definitive answer. I’m going to take a stab at a grandiose, sweeping response to it though. Y’know, the kind this sort of self-entitled op-ed column is perfect for.
It’s best to look at the superhero genre by starting at the beginning or pretty close to it, at least. Pick up a copy of Action Comics #1 created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and you’re getting pretty darn close. Flip through it and what do you see?
There’s no dramatic science fiction origin. There are no supervillains. Superman isn’t even all that powerful, unable to fly or wreck cities with his might. What you will find is a story filled with high ideals and hope. It’s the tale of a man who uses incredible abilities to right wrongs (saving an innocent woman from death row), protect the innocent (saving a woman from her abusive husband), and look after those he cares for (saving Lois Lane from a grabby gangster).
You can certainly see early strains of the power fantasy, especially coming from two young, Jewish teenagers in Cleveland, and a strong sense of social justice. At the heart of all these acts is a stronger connection though. What Siegel and Shuster dreamed up was a story in which one person would always do the right thing. It’s a tale in which a man, their idealized man, could put himself in front of knives and toss around mean-looking mooks to help others. He isn’t a person who acts for personal gain or any form of self-interest. This character, this model for the entire superhero genre acts from a genuine sense of caring, compassion, and kindness.
That’s where love comes in.
When you look at superhero comics (or cartoons or movies or whatever else), the core of these stories rest in the ideals they explore. They so often resemble children’s fare because they rest in the idea that certain morals and ethics are not only inflexible, but that following them will certainly win the day. This genre is founded in the greatest of grandiose beliefs, no matter how cliche they may appear. It might be worth looking at one of the greatest cliched lines in existence to see how that so clearly boils down to the concept of love. It’s taken from a book that folks try to draw parallels with Action Comics #1 far too often.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” – 1 Corinthians 13:13
I’m not a religious man, but that bit and all of the talk that precedes it still gets me teary eyed. It’s those broad strokes of great moralistic foundations and a belief in an undeniable power of human goodness that, while easily derided as simple, can also provide incredible inspiration. That’s the heart of the superhero genre.
Just look at two true masterpieces of the genre that are commonly referred to as being cynical or grim to see how love is still a defining characteristic of their greatness. Start with “Batman: Year One” created by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli. It’s a muddy, mean take on Gotham City before Batman is hero it needs or deserves or whatever. Batman spends most of the story getting his ass beat by cops and prostitutes, while he struggles to take down the regular mobsters who only precede far worse monsters to come. The story is told primarily from the perspective of a young Jim Gordon who has begun to have an affair while his wife prepares to give birth to their first son. It’s not exactly a nice story.
It’s the climax that gives away what “Year One” is really about though. I’ve written about the final pages of the comic before and how buried at the heart of all these terrible happenings is the heart of the story. Much like the story of Pandora’s Box, Miller and Mazzuchelli are not as concerned with what spirals out from the start, but what is discovered at the end. That conclusion is centered on the combined efforts of Jim Gordon and Batman to save Gordon’s infant son. They give everything they have in a desperate chase to rescue a single innocent life, and succeed. It’s not much given the incredible challenges still facing both men, but it’s enough. In those final moments as Batman rises from the mud to hand a father his still-breathing son, it’s clear this is a story of hope and it is based in the untainted love of a parent and child.
You can take a step further down that chain of “grim and gritty” style originators and discover a similar lesson in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen. This is the comic in which the most heroic protagonists are an impotent inventor and retired, disinterested superhero who both become complicit to genocide in the end. Everyone else falls into some category of sociopath, rapist, murderer, or generally awful person. It’s a book filled with the ugliest aspects of human kind.
When you step back to consider the endings of the central cast of characters, it quickly becomes clear that the difference between those with happy (or at least mildly redeemable) endings and those left to literal or metaphorical oblivion is the ability to experience love. The Comedian, Rorschach, and Ozymandias are utterly destroyed by their view of the world and lack of meaningful connection to it. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, the two most human characters of the comic, are capable of finding meaning outside of their costumes by coming together though. They discover happiness with one another, lying together in the shadow of death after the climax of Watchmen #12 occurs and shown preparing to start a family in its epilogue. Their love for one another becomes their salvation in the wake of disaster and continuing face of oblivion.
It’s Doctor Manhattan that I find most interesting though. His clinical perception of humanity leaves him with little regard to the difference between life or death as he flees Earth for the cold, lifeless refuge of Mars. He finds the manipulation of sand as satisfying as any other connected series of atomic machinations. That is until he becomes aware of the origin of his ex-lover Silk Spectre. When he recognizes her parentage as the combination of two human beings with every reason to hate one another, and the further impossibility of an exact pairing of sperm and egg in a precise moment resulting in the human he sees before him, Doctor Manhattan recognizes the miracle of human life.
This realization does not lead to him to suddenly saving the day or fixing the world; Watchmen is not that kind of story. It does create something much more meaningful, however. It shifts the focus from supermen and power, the obsession of Ozymandias, to the extraordinary details of everyday people. The arc of Doctor Manhattan, a being of god-like power and knowledge, coming to recognize and cherish life, speaks to a purely logical appreciation of love. It is this insight that allows him to smile at the end of the story and proves the supposed victory of Ozymandias to be a purely pyrrhic one. Even in the moment of that victory the focus of Gibbons’ panels rests on the people of New York City coming together, a news agent hugging a boy he barely knows, revealing the depth and fortitude of people in which Ozymandias possessed no faith.
No matter how deep down the rabbit hole of the true masterpieces of the superhero genre you go, it’s impossible to divorce the genre from its roots in big ideas, sweeping statements, and optimism. Even when unfairly maligned masters like Miller and Moore are at their most cynical, you can still trace the weave of their stories back to themes of the value of human life and love.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that one of those masterpieces, perhaps the most perfect story in the superhero genre ever told, is a love story from beginning to end. It’s a comic that embraces its genre, examining without deconstructing, presenting the foundations at their most pure. It’s a comic that dates itself back to almost the very beginning of the genre (and comics medium), while simultaneously feeling ageless.
I’m talking about All-Star Superman, of course.
There is no better example of what the superhero genre contains or what it is capable of than this comic, and it’s apparent from the very first page that this is a love story. You might think of those four incredible panels beautifully summarized in eight words, “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.”, and wonder where Lois Lane is. It’s Superman’s origin though and it defines his ability to find and give love to others, as it was provided to him by both his biological and adoptive parents. In the way Frank Quitely depicts both the faces of the Els and the Kents you can see that this little baby boy is their world, even as one is destroyed on the very same page.
When you turn to begin the story with a stunning spread of Superman flying across the surface of the sun fully formed, it’s apparent where his strength and values come from. While Quitely and Grant Morrison pack in loads of Silver Age adventure topics ranging from the Bottle City of Kandor to Bizarro World, All-Star Superman is really defined by the relationships of its hero to others. You can run through a list of the supporting cast and quickly see how the emotion of love lies in the heart of each interaction.
Pa Kent: In All-Star Superman #6, Clark Kent loses his father to a heart attack while fighting the Chronovore, which robs him of the three minutes he needs to say goodbye. It is a heartbreaking moment, but one that also clarifies the love Superman feels for his parents. In the eulogy he gives for Jonathan, he speaks to the lessons his father taught him. He honors his parents with his actions returning the love they gave him to the world.
Jimmy Olsen: Superman’s relationship with Jimmy reflects a brotherly love. The two can rely upon one another and will put themselves in danger even when the other is being actively destructive. In All-Star Superman #4, Superman is turned evil by Black Kryptonite and Jimmy must put himself between his best friend and innocent lives on Earth. There’s not even a moment of hesitation in doing so, just as Superman has never hesitated so save him. At the end of the issue, both friends are okay because of their relentless dedication to one another.
Lex Luthor: All-Star Superman #5 begins with a judge comparing Lex Luthor to the worst monsters of history, including Hitler, of course. Yet it is Superman in the guise of Clark Kent who goes to prison in an attempt to understand Luthor and then save his life during the course of a riot. Superman even feels love for the man who has caused his impending death, seeking an opportunity to help rather than harm him. And it is Lex’s sudden ability to see all life is connected as Superman does in All-Star Superman #12 that ends his destructive onslaught.
Regan: Perhaps the best remembered moment in all of All-Star Superman comes in the singular interaction between Superman and a suicidal young woman named Regan in #11. It is here that he stops from his series of Herculean tasks to tell a single person, a complete stranger, that her life matters. This is the encapsulation of love for strangers and humanity as a whole that empowers Superman and makes the breadth of the emotion so clear.
Lois Lane: If there’s a central love story to All-Star Superman though, it comes in the form of Superman and Lois Lane. Ma and Pa Kent, Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor, Regan, Perry White, Zibarro, and so many others all have important parts, but Lois is the heart of the tale. She is there at the start preparing to take down Lex Luthor as a journalist as Superman foils Luthor’s evil plans as a superhero. Her date with Superman takes center stage in All-Star Superman #2 and #3, and she’s never far from the action from then off.
They consistently challenge one another, pushing themselves to be better and learning from the other’s perspective. It is through this relationship that it is made clear that Superman, despite outward appearances, is not perfect. He fails to reveal his secret identity to Lois until after he has received a terminal diagnosis, failing a key test of trust. In this moment of imperfection, the significance of their relationship is revealed. Lois is the person in Superman’s life who demands he strive to be better simply through her very presence.
Their shared love is one that drives them to be the best versions of themselves and provides the emotional core for almost every achievement and sacrifice made in the story. That is why in the final moments of the series, as Superman prepares to fly into the sun once more, sacrificing himself to save the world, his final words are to Lois. He kisses her one last time and says, “I love you, Lois Lane. Until the end of time.”
That is a big commitment. Love of a parent, a sibling or friend, an enemy, or even a stranger all require a massive emotional investment and a preparation for sacrifice. Each person we choose to love takes a piece of us. So to find someone that will play such a central role in your life, that their presence will affect every other relationship, and then to know you will love that person ad infinitum, that’s an almost unbelievable sort of commitment. But it’s the sort of commitment so many of us will make at some point in our lives, as we prepare to take a leap into the unknown and make someone part of our family forever. That kind of thing is what the incredible, bigger-than-life, endlessly optimistic superhero genre was made for.
Superhero comics help us believe in ideas bigger than ourselves. They can give us hope in the face of endless misery. They can give us faith in impossible ideals. And they can remind us of how powerful and world-changing of a concept love is.
That’s why when you read a truly great Superman story, it’s possible to believe you can love someone. Until the end of time.