Marriage in the Comics Universe:
What Do We Really, Really Want?
Fiction is one of our greatest, most persistent models for real-life behavior. Our social norms and mores are deeply affected by the decisions we see our favorite fictional characters make within the boundaries of their universes, which often so closely resemble our own. And when it comes to marriage, the comic universe is giving us some pretty mixed messages.
Both within the universe, but with a vast difference between them, lie comic books and comic strips. The “funnies” that populate newspapers are often meant to be just that – funny – though some strips (Brenda Starr and Tarzan, for example) fit more neatly into the “adventure” category. Regardless, these daily or weekly strips more often than not depict domestic life and are geared more towards children than adults.
Comic books, on the other hand, more frequently utilize superhero or other metaphysical archetypes and, especially with the rise of comic book specialty stores and graphic novels throughout the 1960s and 70s, claim teenagers and adults as their main demographic.
Likewise, each genre seems to have a distinct way of dealing with romantic relationships.
As even the casual reader knows, Peter Parker (better known as Spiderman) has been in love with “the girl next door,” Mary Jane Watson, since the comic debuted in 1965 (though Gwen Stacy and the Black Cat certainly did give her some competition early on). The two married in 1987, but almost as soon as they took the plunge, editors were attempting to undermine the relationship. Clones, faux deaths, xenophobic laws, and demons kept them apart until in 2010’s “One Moment in Time,” their marriage was erased from the timeline completely.
Within the DC Universe, Flashpoint and the creation of the New 52 timeline was the fix all in terms of putting DC’s sexy superheroes back on the singles’ market. Among the marriages wiped (not divorced, not annulled, but made as if they had never happened in the first place) were Superman and Lois Lane (dating off-and-on in an ‘it’s complicated’ manner since Action Comics first premiered its Superman line in 1938 and married since 1996), and Barry “The Flash” Allen and Iris West (dating since 1956 and married since 1966).
Between the folds of newsprint, however, marriages are much longer-lasting. Blondie Boopadoop and Dagwood Bumstead, of the strip Blondie, have been married since 1933 and have two children (not to mention dog Daisy and her brood of puppies). Jon Arbuckle, of Garfield fame, has had a crush on Liz, Garfield’s veterinarian, since the comic debuted in 1978 and is now dating her. The Mitchell Family (Dennis the Menace) and Family Circus household have remained intact since their debuts (1951 and 1960 respectively).
So, what causes the divergence? Are graphic novels and comic books supposed to provide us a more “realistic” fictional facsimile of our world? Does that have to mean a parade of failed relationships? Is it simply that interpersonal relationships and domestic life are not the plot lynchpin in comic books and graphic novels in the same way they are in most newspaper strips?
The Archie Comics publications are an interesting middle ground. Depicting the adventures of Riverdale teens, the titles have been published in both book and strip format and are relatively grounded in reality. Likewise, the love triangle between Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, and Veronica Lodge takes prime place in nearly every issue . . . even spawning a 2009 miniseries entitled Archie Marries…
As the title suggests, the six-part series explored two alternate futures – one in which Archie marries Veronica, and one in which he marries Betty. Not only was the choice of mate apparently too impossible for Archie Comics execs to make, but the entire series took place in one long dream sequence – exempted from the canon of Archie itself. Not to mention that in Archie #633 of this year, Archie gets another possible future in which he marries Valerie Smith (of the Josie and the Pussycats imprint).
Despite its domestic focus, Archie seems just as determined as its superhero book counterparts to keep its red-headed protagonist living the single life. Do readers simply find successful fictional relationships boring? Satisfied as we may be in our real romantic lives, do we consciously or unconsciously crave the conflict, the indecision, the relentless butterflies-in-the-stomach? And if this is what we want from our fiction, what does that mean for what we want from our real-world lives?