[13 September 2013]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
The story that has dominated comics news is the spat between Batwoman’s creative and editorial teams. One blog post by writers J.H. Williams and W. Haden Blackman, stating that they are unable to work with DC Entertainment’s editors, started a firestorm of controversy over editorial inference and the marital prospects of gay and lesbian characters. While the claim of editorial interference would be enough to make news within the comics industry press, DC’s admitted stance against Batwoman Kate Kane marrying her love interest Maggie Sawyer magnified the events and pushed the story into the mainstream media. Deceptive headlines about DC being against gay marriage inevitably followed – that’s simply not the case as DC is against marriage for all of its characters. I watched all this unfold, following along on Twitter as other creators, fans and critics weighed in, sometimes with good insights and sometimes with wild speculation. While the sexual orientation of the characters certainly makes the story sensational (to a certain segment of the news media), this turn of events is solely about DC’s editorial decisions and how they have alienated creators to the point that the dirty laundry is being aired in public.
We’ve been aware of the accusations of DC’s editors making frustrating last minute changes to approved storylines for some time now. Within the last few years James Robinson, Rob Liefeld, Andy Diggle and Joshua Fialkov have all walked off books stating as much if not more. Creative shuffles with many of DC’s books have done nothing to quell these accusations. Williams and Blackman are just two more creators to join the chorus.
“In recent months, DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series,” Williams and Blackman write in their blog post. “We were told to ditch plans for Killer Croc’s origins; forced to drastically alter the original ending of our current arc, which would have defined Batwoman’s heroic future in bold new ways; and, most crushingly, prohibited from ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married. All of these editorial decisions came at the last minute, and always after a year or more of planning and plotting on our end.”
This development comes after February’s Batwoman #17, in which Kate proposed to Maggie. It marked the first lesbian wedding proposal in mainstream comics. The first gay wedding in comics happened over a year ago when Marvel’s Northstar married his boyfriend in the pages of Astonishing X-Men. It was also around that time that James Robinson reintroduced original golden age Green Lantern Alan Scott as a gay man in the pages of Earth 2. In a contemporaneous Iconographies, I offered my strongly-held opinion that the writers behind those stories should look to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz for advice on how to handle these narratives with integrity. Schulz rarely addressed social issues directly in his comic strips, but would often incorporate socially progressive ideas in matter of fact of ways, such as having African-American character Franklin appear in school with other characters – a move that drew the ire of southern newspaper editors. When Schulz was pressed to change his strips and not show Franklin in school with the other children, he responded, “Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?”
Of course no one would have wanted to lose the widely popular Peanuts strip, so Schulz’s threat was never put to the test. In the case of Batwoman, it doesn’t appear that Williams and Blackman made a similar threat, although their resignation from the title is in keeping with the spirit of Schulz’s admirable artistic integrity.
We can speculate on the issues between DC editorial and the litany of creators that have walked off their books. There is certainly enough evidence to suggest at least some sort of dysfunction. Some of this is as a result of mandates established by the publishers. The one mandate at particular issue in this case is the one that bans marriage among DC’s superheroes. It’s not gay marriage as some news and gossip outlets reported, but all marriages that have fallen out of favor with DC’s top brass. Superman and Lois Lane are no longer married, nor are Barry Allen and Iris West.
There are many reasons for this position. As Young Avengers artist Jamie McKelvie noted on Twitter, “western fiction treats marriage as the happy ever after/final act. Superhero comics are forever in the second act which is why some view marriage as something to be categorically avoided in superhero stories.” McKelvie went on to say he doesn’t agree, neither do I, but the assessment is very much on target. As an audience we’ve been trained to see marriage as the end of the story, when in fact it is often the beginning.
But given the hyperbole that currently dominates online news and gossip sites, DC position to not allow a gay marriage appeared as a strike against marriage equality and gay and lesbian rights. It doesn’t help that these sites are often clueless about current events in comics. For example, entertainment gossip Website Pajiba wrote the headline “Let’s Take A Second To Talk About Those Homophobic Dildo Tridents At DC Comics.” The author of the post then proceeded to mock DC for being homophobic and “woefully outdated.” The homophobia charge is categorically incorrect. As of this writing the article is still posted and has not been amended. It’s one thing to express an opinion, but it’s completely different to make an unfounded and grossly misinformed accusation.
DC is currently the only major publisher to have a gay or lesbian character headline a book, and Batwoman received the 2012 outstanding comicbook award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Plus DC’s decision to discontinue marriage among its characters is somewhat surprisingly in keeping with current social trends. In 2011, the Pew Research Center noted in a study that 51 percent of Americans were married, compared to 72 percent in 1960. Maybe having none is a bit of an extreme position, but in some respects that position is only magnifying current trends.
Over the past weekend at Baltimore ComicCon, DC co-publisher Dan DiDio took the position that Batwoman is clearly a member of the Bat family, and that as a result she shouldn’t have a happy personal life, that sort of existential philosophy wholly dominating those titles in the New 52 era. If anything DC might be outdated for holding the position that being married leads to a happy personal life.
Unfortunately for DC the news story in many respects has become about them not allowing a gay marriage. The charge of editorial interference, and one assumes editorial mismanagement, is bad enough to make headlines with the comics press, but when the focus becomes perceived intolerance, the bad publicity stretches across the media landscape.
Comics, as they have historically, should as often as possible mimic or spotlight current social issues, and the gay and lesbian community’s fight for marriage equality certainly deserves to be part of that spotlight. That DC would not take the opportunity to engage readers with a narrative that plays off that fight, especially with the recent defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act, is more a case of their lack of creative thoughtfulness. This in most respects brings us right back to the actual reason for Williams and Blackman’s departure: a clear lack of editorial stewardship. That seems to be DC’s only fault in this case. Any other charge is out of line.