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17 October 2007 @ 01:36 am
19 Ways to End a Superhero's Romance  
19 Ways to End a Superhero's Romance

This was inspired in part by the old song “Fifty Ways to Leave a Lover" by Paul Simon (although he didn't actually list fifty different ways in the lyrics of the song). For my purposes, the best I could do was Nineteen, but I imagine I'm missing a few! Let me know!

Let us suppose that you have just been offered the chance to do a long run (at least two years, say?) as the regular writer on a monthly title featuring that great superhero, Character X. You are bubbling over with happiness as you start jotting down ideas for story arcs, changes in old supporting characters, introduction of new ones, running subplots that will take 15 or 20 issues to come to fruition, et cetera. So far, so good! This is your chance to tell the stories you've always wanted to tell about Character X, ever since you got hooked on his adventures at the tender age of ten, many and many a year ago!

But first there are one or two loose ends that need to be tidied up. Character X has been dating someone lately and it seems to be getting serious. He may have already said in dialogue (in stories written by your inferior predecessor, of course) that he is definitely in love with her.

This is terrible. You want to write a story about Character X falling head over heels in love with a really neat girl, and obviously your ideas for such a story are far better than those of whoever was writing him before you came along. Perhaps you have a brand new female character you want to introduce into his life, or perhaps you always thought it would be really cool to see him meet and flirt with some obscure female character from a different corner of the same large superhero universe whom he has never (or hardly ever) met before "in continuity," or perhaps you are one of those who yearns to bring back Abigail Airhead, his First Girlfriend from the Silver Age, whose name has scarcely been mentioned in the Character X monthly title for at least a decade!

(Hey, why limit yourself? Perhaps you want to do all of the above at once, with three gorgeous babes throwing themselves at him while he tries to pick and choose which one he really feels serious about!)

The point is that first the old girlfriend has to go. Especially because a bunch of those pesky fans (what do they know?) have been getting so excited about Character X's relationship with her that they're sending in a tidal wave of letters demanding to know when he's going to give her an engagement ring and schedule a wedding and get married and settle down to raise super-powered children with her, giving him a nuclear family to come home to after each stirring slugfest with the supervillain of the week.

If the fans have gotten so excited that they actually think there is a real possibility of Significant and Permanent Change in Character X's life, then clearly it is your duty to set them straight by crushing their foolish hopes. Eventually they may realize that "stories about Character X, set in his 'regular continuity'" and "stories in which the major character experiences Significant and Permanent Change" are two mutually exclusive categories, now and forever.

This list is based on the assumption that the superhero is male, and the Significant Other is female. The law of averages favors that assumption, given that the vast majority of superheroes who get their own titles are male, for some reason. But it could be the other way around, or we could be dealing with a romance between two characters who are just part of the cast of a team book featuring many different superheroes. Bear with me. If it will make you feel better, feel free to cut-and-paste this into your word processor and replace every use of “he” with “she” and vice versa, ditto for “him” and “her” and so forth.


01. Kill, kill, kill!
02. Have her marry someone else
03. Break her heart
04. Forced separation
05. Abduction
06. Psychological Flaws
07. Secret Villain
08. Impersonator
09. Mind Control
10. Mindwipe
11. Wrong Body
12. Cheating
13. Never Apologize; Never Explain
14. Irreconciliable Differences
15. Divorce
16. Flashback Romance
17. Pesky Curse
18. A Matter of Honor
19. Retcon!

01. Kill, kill, kill!

Why beat around the bush with mental problems or involuntary separations or bringing in a third party to make it a love triangle? Why not go straight for the jugular? Kill that inconvenient woman and be done with it! Always a popular approach!

(Of course, superhero comic books being what they are, you -- or some later writer -- can always bring her back later on one trumped-up excuse or another, and then go through the process all over again, possibly using a different excuse that time, possibly killing her off again! Speaking of which, how many times has Jean Grey died? Not even counting the time her clone married Scott Summers and later went crazy and died, I mean. Nor am I counting the time Scott decided it was his turn to allegedly drop dead, leaving Jean to struggle along without him for awhile instead of the other way around.)

There’s a long, long list of girlfriends and ex-girlfriends who have bit the big one this way. I offer below the ones I can think of from memory off the top of my head, with the grieving Significant Other listed in parentheses. Granted, in some cases the romance had already been dead and buried for years, so that the person's eventual death was not done to break up a romance "here and now," but merely to use a past girlfriend as an Expendable character whose death could spice up an epic for quick shock value. Kathy Kane, the Silver Age Batwoman, would fall into that category.

In no particular order, and leaving off Kathy Kane and Jean Grey because I already mentioned them . . .

Jarella (Hulk)
Gwen Stacy (Spider-Man).
Karen Paige (Daredevil)
Sharon Carter (Captain America)
Lori Lemaris (Superman)
Tana Moon (Superboy)
Mantis (Silver Surfer)
Heather Glenn (Daredevil)
Vesper Fairchild (Batman – although their romance was long over at that point, at least from the reader’s point of view)
Alexandra DeWitt (Kyle Rayner)

And then there are always the wives:

Sue Dibny (Elongated Man)
Iris West Allen (the Silver Age Flash)
Mary Jane Watson-Parker (Spider-Man)
Sif (Consort of Thor)
Dorma (Namor)
Marrina (Namor)
Mockingbird (Hawkeye)

There are also numerous cases of a girlfriend being created out of thin air for a superhero so that she can be killed off (or otherwise disposed of) for dramatic purposes within the context of a single story, or these days within a single multi-issue story arc. That is the type of character I referred to as “Cannon Fodder” in my post “Ten Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character.” She may be attracted to a superhero and vice versa, but it's hopeless because she only existed to briefly live and quickly die – there was never any chance of her becoming a regular feature in the monthly title. (Although if the writer was doing his job with any subtlety, this should not have been immediately obvious to the typical reader from day one.)

This is different from what happens when a well-established supporting character, who has provided many years of long and faithful service, is arbitrarily given the boot – probably by a different writer than the one who first created her and gave her a start in the comic book business.

And I’m not even counting the deaths of wives as part of a hero’s origin story, because they never had a chance, did they? Often they were already dead before we ever learned of their existence. For instance, Jon Sable: Freelance, the Punisher, the Martian Manhunter, Hank Pym, and Banshee had all been widowed before we ever saw or heard of them, and anything we know about their late wives comes strictly from flashbacks, dream sequences, and so forth.

(At one point, I honestly thought I had read the return of Maria Pym in an old issue of West Coast Avengers, but I later found out that the character who “returned” in that story had subsequently been revealed or retconned as the villainous MODAM, female equivalent of MODOK, who had posed as Maria briefly but was not Hank's long-lost first spouse after all.)

02. Have her marry someone else

Marv Wolfman did this to Nightwing and Starfire in the mid-80s when Starfire, a Princess, was basically ordered to make an arranged, dynastic marriage with another fellow. Nightwing didn't take it well. I don't blame him, frankly -- there were various weird and illogical things associated with that plot twist and its later fallout, but that's worthy of a whole post to itself, which I may actually write one of these days. My general experience has been that anytime Dick and/or Kori are talking about getting married in the near future, not necessarily to each other, you may take it for granted that there's some bad karma (and usually bad writing) headed in their direction at Mach 5!

In a fairly recent Master of Kung Fu miniseries, Doug Moench established that Leiko Wu had married Clive Reston during the long period when we weren’t looking (i.e. the many years when there was no regular MOKF title and only occasional guest spots in other books for Shang-Chi or any of his old supporting cast), which certainly caught me by surprise. Back in the old days, it had been clear that a) Leiko had once been Clive Reston’s lover, but b) her feelings for Shang-Chi were newer and much stronger and Reston had eventually gotten over it himself (although I think they backslid once – long story). Why she finally went back to Clive for keeps was not particularly clear in Moench’s miniseries; it was merely presented to us as a fait accompli.

03. Break her heart

This can involve love triangles. For instance, back in the early 1980s, when Marvel did its first "Secret Wars" miniseries, Colossus of the X-Men fell madly in love with a beautiful alien girl who then died. I don't think anything physical had actually happened between them, but when he got back to Earth he solemnly told Kitty Pryde all about it and broke her heart in the process.

A different approach might be to have the guy do something -- not necessarily of a romantic nature with another woman -- that very badly upset the girlfriend for one reason or another and made it "impossible" for her to pursue any close relationship with him. He might or might not have done anything badly "wrong" as an impartial observer would see it; he might or might not understand what the problem was in the first place; etc., but for whatever reason his love interest is so angry/horrified/humiliated/disgusted/whatever that she calls the whole thing off.

04. Forced Separation

By Forced Separation, I mean it’s not really her fault; it’s not really his fault; but at least one or the other of them gets sent somewhere far away for an extended period of time. (Quite possibly it was only expected to be a brief separation, nothing to get upset about at the time, but circumstances beyond their control make the separation last much longer than either party anticipated or desired.)

For example, if one or both of these characters works for a military or intelligence outfit that operates worldwide (or on an interstellar basis, or whatever) then there's a built-in excuse for sending that faithful field agent off to some exotic locale at the drop of a hat for months at a time, if necessary.

If you have not killed the romance, you have at least put it on hold for awhile because you don't actually need to give the old girlfriend any dialogue at all in your next dozen scripts if you don't want to. She's no longer part of Character X's daily lifestyle in any way, shape, or form, even if he allegedly still feels quite fond of her. And during the next few years, who knows what might happen to change his attitude or her attitude or both as they meet interesting new people?

Heck, you might simply leave her stranded in Outer Mongolia (or wherever) for your entire run and let your own successor worry about how to deal with her! (And he may just leave her there, and his successor may just leave her there, and so forth . . .)

05. Abduction

“Forced Separation” assumed that it just kinda happened, without anyone having maliciously contrived a lengthy separation between the two lovers. Abduction has similar results in practice, but requires more of a Conspiracy Theory explanation. Someone went out of his way to drag a character, kicking and screaming, far away from his friends and family and any Significant Other he might have at the moment, and make sure he wouldn't see them again for quite some time.

Example: In the early 1990s, Bruce Wayne spent some getting to known an African-American physician named Shondra Kinsolving, and felt quite attracted to her. During the events of Knightfall in 1993, Dr. Kinsolving was abducted for what turned out to be the better part of a year (realtime – so at least a couple of months of continuity-time, I’d say), just as Bruce had been about to break down and propose marriage to her (as he eventually admitted). Once he caught up with her again, of course, a different excuse had to be used to make sure they wouldn't go through with it.

06. Psychological Flaws

“Gosh, I might have married that girl – if she hadn’t turned out to be dangerously loony!”

Peter Parker used to date a girl named Deb Whitman, but she turned out to have serious psychological problems once a writer decided not to bother having her around any more.

At different times, Walter Langkowski (the first Sasquatch), Roger Bochs (the first Box) and Kyle Gibney (Wild Child) all made the painful mistake of getting romantically involved to one degree or another with teammate Jeanne-Marie Beaubier (Aurora) who had Multiple Personality Disorder. Bochs turned out to be a mental case himself and died tragically, as I recall, but as far as I know the flings with Langkowski and Gibney never had a prayer of working out either.

Carol Ferris, the original Silver Age girlfriend of Hal Jordan, has occasionally been known to turn into Star Sapphire or do other strange things that are not conducive to the idea that the two of them could ever really build a healthy, lasting relationship (such as marriage).

Frank Miller has made it clear, especially in his “Man without Fear” miniseries retelling Daredevil’s origins, that Elektra already had nasty, murderous psychological problems when she was first dating Matt back in college, but he didn’t realize that at the time. (Or perhaps he just plain didn’t want to realize? At one point, in an admirable attempt to practice the idea that you should share your biggest problems with the one you love instead of letting them fester in the darkness, Elektra actually told him she had killed several people just the other night, and he merely took it for granted she was joking or something – so much for his uncanny ability to hear the distinctive heartbeat of a liar a mile away!)

A minute ago I mentioned Shondra Kinsolving. When Bruce Wayne finally found and rescued her, she used her psychic healing power to give him a miracle cure for his broken back. But the following morning he was feeling fine and her mind had regressed back to childhood due to various stresses it had been under lately, so he checked her into an exclusive sanitarium. The whole marriage thing was obviously out of the question under the circumstances. I can just imagine Denny O'Neil saying to his assistants and fellow Bat-writers, "Whew! Dodged a bullet there, didn't we? Sending a nice girl like Shondra to a sanitarium is a small price to pay if it means we save Bruce from the dreadful fate of getting married!"

07. Secret Villain

"She seems like such a nice girl, at first glance – but in her spare time she’s doing terrible things I never knew about!"

Ann Nocenti did this to Daredevil when she introduced her own creation, Typhoid Mary, into his life. “Typhoid” was a very bad girl, “Mary” was a very good girl, and Typhoid’s metabolism was weird enough that even Daredevil’s usually-infallible ability to recognize you at a distance by the sound of your heartbeat wasn’t good enough to let him catch on right away to what was really happening as he met one or the other on different occasions. Once he finally learned the truth, however, the chances that Matt Murdock could ever settle down to be permanently happy with Mary dropped into the cellar and stayed there.

It’s also been known to happen to Batman – for instance, in the movie “Batman Returns” when Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle were feeling strongly attracted to one another’s “nice” identities, while at the same time the grim and gritty Batman wanted to capture that mysterious criminal, Catwoman, who, in turn, had been chatting with the Penguin about how they could work together to destroy Batman’s public image – framing him for kidnapping and murder was the plan they finally used. Talk about dysfunctional relationships!

(Incidentally, Terra, the one who infiltrated the New Teen Titans in the early 1980s and then died in "The Judas Contract," could be classified as "Psychological Flaws" or "Secret Villain" or both. She was evil to the bone, or so it seemed at the end, but she was also twisted and irrational mentally, which had a major role in killing her at the end after her kinda-sorta boyfriend, Gar Logan (aka Changeling, aka Beast Boy) had finally realized how corrupt she was and counterattacked. If she had done a better job of keeping her composure, she might have won her big battle with the Titans, or at least been captured alive.)

08. Impersonator

In Secret Villain, I meant that the girl really was who she seemed to be . . . when she wasn’t running around in her evil identity in her spare time. So you might argue that she had simply told her new boyfriend “half of the truth” about herself, which was probably about as much as he had told her, too, if he was in the superhero business. (Turnabout is fair play, I suppose!)

In Impersonator, however, the girl wasn’t who she claimed to be at all; she was a complete liar from Day One. We’d been swindled! That ought to bust up a relationship in a hurry, when the "facts" finally come to light!

This was the approach Tom DeFalco employed when he took over as the writer on the Fantastic Four in the early 90s and decided it was his clear duty to start off on the wrong foot by busting up the Johnny Storm/Alicia Masters marriage which had seemed like such a big deal when it happened in Fantastic Four #300. I suspect his slogan at the time was, "It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it!"

So it turned out that the woman Johnny had been calling Alicia for the last several years, since well before their marriage, was actually Lyja the Laserfist, a Skrull spy.

09. Mind Control

A couple of ways this can be used to ruin a romance.

A) All of a sudden, someone mindcontrols at least one of the two lovebirds in order to bust up their happy, trusting relationship.

B) Retcon! It turns out that the “happy, trusting relationship” was always a sham, previously arranged by Mind Control of one or both parties way back when. It is possible that this was done without either of the two lovebirds being aware of it, or one of them may have been part of the evil plot all along without our knowing it.

William Shakespeare had a lot of fun with this sort of thing in his “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” when a magic love potion was being used on several of the characters with reckless abandon by the fairy Puck. It all got worked out in the end, though.

Chris Claremont has fiddled around with Mind Control quite a bit. As just one example: In the early 1980s, Chris Claremont took the time to a) have Wolverine and Mariko Yoshida get engaged to be married, then b) have it all fall apart when Mariko jilted Logan on the grounds that he was not worthy, without his knowing that this only happened because c) Mastermind had walked into her life and used his powers to do nasty things to her attitudes. (Although the two of them later found out.)

10. Mindwipe

In Mind Control, I assumed that the person whose mind is altered still vividly remembers the former sweetheart, but has been forced to feel differently about her (or him) somewhere along the line -- love being erased or inserted as required. In “Mindwipe,” I’m assuming all the relevant memories were simply erased, which means it is in no way the victim’s fault that he never communicates with his former sweetheart, since he’s totally oblivious to her existence! (Or, at the very least, totally oblivious of the fact that they used to be sweethearts, once upon a time. He may vaguely recall that they were in the same high school class way back when, or whatever.)

I saw one case in the TPB collection Superman in the Sixties. It offered a story in which Superman was exposed to a chunk of Red Kryptonite which both gave him amnesia and removed his powers. He ended up being cared for by a country girl who fell madly in love with him. He felt the same way about her – but at the end of the story, his memory and powers came back – with everything that had happened during his amnesiac state promptly evaporating from his head. So he didn’t remember there was a sweetheart waiting for him, and she didn’t know how to contact him, and the whole thing was just never meant to be. (Kind of rough on her, but if the writer had really wanted to be sadistic about it, he could have just killed her off at the end of the story as a way of tying up loose ends. It's been done before!)

11. Wrong Body

Fix it up so that they are physically incompatible -- one of them is a robot, a monster, a vampire, an artificial intelligence in a robot body, or has had his mind switched into somebody else's body entirely, or creates some other obstacle such that, either physically or morally, or both, getting married and consummating the relationship is basically out of the question for the time being.

The Thing is a classic case of this problem putting a damper on his potential love life, at least in some cases. I have the vague impression that even in the pre-John Byrne era, one reason he never got around to proposing marriage to Alicia Masters was that he figured any wedding night in which she, a normal human being, was trying to be physically intimate with a man whose epidermis was a bunch of bulletproof orange rocks would not exactly be an enjoyable experience for her.

The Thing started his superhero career that way, but other characters have begun by looking more "normal" and only later experienced a highly awkward transformation in order to curtail their romantic prospects.

12. Cheating

Quicksilver and Crystal had their marriage fall apart, more or less, after she had an affair with another man in a story by Steve Englehart in the 1980s. (They have occasionally tried to reconcile, but the pesky writers wouldn't let them. I've lost track of where their relationship stands now.)

There have probably been other cases where sexual infidelity was used to tear a couple apart.

13. Never Apologize; Never Explain

In a post last year, "15 Excuses for Bringing them Back from the Dead,” I used this same phrase to discuss cases where a “dead” character suddenly walks back onstage, basically saying, “Yeah, I’m back. Live with it!” No excuse worthy of the name is provided; a writer just wanted to bring him back and did exactly that as quickly as possible!

But that same type of excuse (or Total Lack of an Excuse) can be used in other contexts besides returning from the dead. For instance, if a new writer and/or editor hates a member of the supporting cast, even a girlfriend, they can just sweep her under the rug and refuse to acknowledge her existence from now on. She must have run off to live her own life in some other town when nobody was looking . . . or something like that; the reader is free to stretch his imagination to fill in the details. Quick and easy! No need to waste a couple of issues on some sort of “plausible” dramatic development designed to kick her out of the way; that would just slow things down and prevent the new team from telling the type of stories they actually want to tell about Character X!

Although it was well before I was even born, I believe it is essentially what happened in the mid-60s to Kathy and Betty Kane. Kathy was the Silver Age Batwoman, who had been fighting crime alongside Batman for several years (and flirting humorously with him at every opportunity) while her niece Betty (Bat-Girl) did much the same with Robin.

To do them justice, the reprinted stories I have seen from that era make it clear that both Bruce and Dick, while viewing Kathy and Betty as trustworthy friends and courageous allies, were doing their level best to keep these gorgeous, charming, affectionate young ladies at arm’s length in their personal lives instead of unscrupulously taking advantage of such affection. As a diehard prude in real life, I can respect such self-restraint. Granted, writing stories to suggest anything truly improper was going on between these characters in the Silver Age comics would have been considered professional suicide . . . I’m not convinced that things have changed for the better in that particular respect since the old days.

Anyway: All of a sudden, around 1964 when Julius Schwartz took over editing the Bat-titles, Kathy and Betty were no longer showing their faces in the pages of “Batman” and “Detective Comics." I don’t know that any fancy excuse for their hasty “retirement” from the crimefighting scene (and from the romantic pursuit of Bruce and Dick) was ever provided; it was just a case of “now you see ‘em; now you don’t!”

(I sometimes think of this sort of thing as the James Bond Revolving Door of Romance. Any given Bond movie may well end with 007 kissing the latest Bond Girl, but no matter how fond they are of one another at this point, she’ll never be seen or heard from again in any subsequent movie, will she? “Love ‘em and leave ‘em,” that’s his motto!)

14. Irreconciliable Differences

“I love you, you love me, but I just know it wouldn’t work for us to become a permanent couple! We’re too different!”

This was the excuse Steve Englehart used when he was busting up the Bruce Wayne/Silver St. Cloud romance that he had introduced during his run with Marshall Rogers on Detective Comics (the full run is collected in the TPB “Batman: Strange Apparitions.”) Silver and Bruce had been dating and were extremely fond of each other, but after Silver realized who Batman was, and especially after she later saw him fighting the Joker, she also realized she just couldn’t stand the stress of being involved with a man who went out to risk his neck fighting murderous lunatics with his gloved hands every night, so she was going to call this off and leave town before this went any further and really ruined her life. Batman was about as unhappy with this as she was, but realized she really meant it when she told him not to follow her.

(For what it’s worth, Steve Englehart had created Silver several months earlier, and presumably had intended it this way all along. After all, the chance that DC will ever allow the “modern” Batman to get married and settle down “in continuity” is somewhere in the neighborhood of absolute zero.)

In real life, I believe Irreconciliable Differences sometimes prevent marriage from occurring when the guy and the girl like each other a lot, but it turns out they are both strongly committed to different religions. That is a possible point of conflict that superhero comic books usually find it best to sidestep rather than appear to be taking sides on religious matters.

15. Divorce

This is not necessarily the same thing as Cheating. People can get divorced without proving infidelity on someone's part. If Character X is already married, but that seems terribly inconvenient and you want to free him up for future romantic flirtations and such, yet you draw the line at killing the poor woman, this is the next best thing.

It’s been done to Ray Palmer and his wife (this was a couple of decades before they also did the whole “Psychological Illness” thing to her for good measure, just in case some diehard fans were still hoping they would reconcile someday).

It’s been done to Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne.

And I hear that recently Daredevil married a woman named Milla and later they got an annulment, although I haven't read that material.

16. Flashback Romance

It all happened a long time ago, years before the “current continuity” – and in today's current continuity the Guy and the Gal are definitely not an item, as any regular reader already knows. Therefore, it obviously fell apart somehow, and when we see this “romance from several years ago” story arc, we know it’s automatically doomed to failure from Day One if we stop to think about it. Doesn’t really matter what excuse (if any) the writer explicitly offers us regarding the details of how they broke up; the timeframe makes it mandatory that the break-up has already occurred!

When Frank Miller cut his teeth as a writer by taking over the chore of scripting the Daredevil title in the late 70s, and we first heard about Elektra, we learned that she and Matt Murdock had been quite an item back in their college days, once upon a time. But since faithful fans reading about Matt throughout the 60s and 70s had never even heard of her before, it was painfully obvious that the college romance hadn’t lasted.

Similarly, in “Batman: Year Two,” Mike Barr made it clear that young Bruce Wayne was very attracted to a soft-hearted young lady named Rachel Caspian when he first met her. To make absolutely sure that we realized this wasn’t going anywhere, Barr had Rachel matter-of-factly inform Bruce that she was about to become a nun. That disclosure could probably nip a potential romance in the bud all by itself, but given that the entire story was explicitly set several years prior to the “modern” Batman continuity, it hardly mattered. It should have been perfectly clear to the reader that any affection between Bruce and Rachel obviously hadn’t amounted to anything in the long run, whether she took the vows or not.

17. Pesky Curse

The Incredible Hulk could be said to suffer from a curse (at least, much of the time). Bruce Banner is intelligent and sometimes even charming, but his green alter-ego is (often) a very stupid, very angry, dangerously strong monster. This makes his prospects for a stable romance (such as a long-lasting marriage) much worse than you'd otherwise expect. (Even though he did get married at one point -- but the last time I heard, it hadn't turned out well in the long run.)

I see this as different from the Thing's problems because it's not a matter of a "permanent" transformation of the body; just a recurring problem that can be dangerous and embarrassing. Other heroes suffer from "curses" that are roughly similar in terms of the potential for creating horrible problems in their personal lives, even if the exact details are different.

18. A Matter of Honor

I mentioned earlier that Chris Claremont once had Wolverine and Mariko engaged to be married, back around 1983 or thereabouts. And that he busted it up with Mind Control. What I didn’t mention was that once that excuse had been dealt with, Claremont naturally knew he had to turn around and reach into his bag of tricks and pull out another excuse to keep them from tying the knot! (The dread alternative would be to show Wolverine actually undergoing a really Significant and Permanent Change in his lifestyle – getting happily married, in this case – and of course that horrible fate would never be permitted to befall him!)

To back up and fill in some details: At the end of the “Wolverine” miniseries scripted by Claremont and pencilled by Frank Miller, Wolverine and Mariko Yashida were engaged to be married. Then it all fell apart over in the regular “Uncanny X-Men” monthly title after Wolverine had already invited all the X-Men to come over to Japan for the ceremony. Mariko told him at the last moment that she was calling it all off because he was not worthy, but it turned out she had only done so because Jason Wyngarde (Mastermind) was up to his old tricks again (for the first time since he’d been left a drooling catatonic in the Dark Phoenix Saga a few years earlier) and had used Mind Control to bust up their romance.

This was eventually discovered by the X-Men, and a few issues after being jilted, Wolverine went back to Japan to give Mariko the good news – but now she still wouldn’t marry him because she felt tainted by the way she, as leader of her family, had formed some sort of alliance with the Japanese Yakuza (sort of like the Mafia in Italy or the USA) and now she felt she had to find a way to cope with the messy consequences of whatever she had done while "under the influence" of Mastermind's mind games. For some reason her sense of honor did not permit her to accept any help from Logan (or his friends in the X-Men) to help her clean up the mess, nor did she feel it would be proper for her to marry at this time. Even though they were still in love, and even though it was obvious that he was ready and willing to do anything in his power to help her with any problems she might face.

Was all that perfectly clear? (Don’t break my heart by telling me the truth.) Whether or not this is anywhere near a "realistic" rendering of how a scrupulous woman from an old Japanese samurai family might feel about the requirements of honor in such a tricky situation, I really couldn't say. But Claremont considered it a good enough excuse to put the Mariko/Logan engagement "on hold" indefinitely!

There are other ways to suddenly throw up a Matter of Honor (and/or a Matter of Law) as a huge obstacle to any plans for wedding bells in the near future no matter how in love the main characters might be.

For instance, what if she’s still a legal minor who can’t “legally” and “honorably” marry, according to her culture’s ground rules, without the explicit consent of her father or legal guardian, which is not likely to be forthcoming?

On a similar note, what if her father or legal guardian has already arranged her betrothal to someone else, and even though they’re not married yet, the law (or else her own version of honor) does not allow her to disregard the previous agreement?

What if it suddenly turns out that the guy and the gal are much more closely related to one another than they ever had any cause to think, to the extent that their union would actually be classified as incestuous by the local rules?

A variation on that last way of ruining a romance would be for them to actually get married, and then only later discover the genealogical details that made this a terrible idea – although that would be stronger, nastier stuff than mainstream superhero comics usually like to explore, even today. But let’s insert the obligatory classical reference here in an optimistic attempt to add a touch of culture to my ramblings: Remember what happened to Oedipus in the Greek myths?

As a young man, Oedipus was told by the Delphic Oracle that he was fated to marry his mother and kill his father, which sounded despicable, but he figured he could avoid all that by never again going anywhere near the loving couple who had raised him from the cradle until at least one member of the family had died, which would prove the prophecy had just become impossible to fulfill! It was a perfectly sound plan, except for one unfortunate little detail: He didn’t know he was adopted. So it never occurred to him that there could be any possible ambiguity in the oracular references to his “father” and “mother.” So in his travels to get away from “his parents,” he killed a total stranger in a fight on the road, and later married a widowed queen who must have been quite a few years older than her new husband . . . you know where this is going, don’t you?

(The play “Oedipus Rex,” by Sophocles, can fill you in on the details of how he eventually realized what had happened in spite of his best efforts. That play is the very epitome of what we mean when we talk about “Greek tragedy” – we can see the main character’s doom coming a mile away, yet we keep hoping it won’t actually catch up with him.)

19. Retcon!

“Romance? What romance? I don’t remember any cotton-pickin’ romance!”

Crisis on Infinite Earths did a complete reboot of the continuity of Superman and Wonder Woman in particular, which included any and all past stories of romantic entanglements with anyone at all (although in Superman's case, Lana Lang and Lois Lane and Lori Lemaris were all hastily brought right back into his continuity, but with the tons of previous stories about them now no longer operative).

Batman was not totally rebooted, but various romances he'd pursued in the early-to-mid 80s kinda faded out of the picture, at least one attractive woman who'd been very interested in getting to know him better (Julia Remarque, Alfred Pennyworth's long-lost illegitimate daughter) totally erased from continuity. On a similar note, "Kathy Kane" still existed as a woman who had been an old friend of his, and who had died long before the Crisis, but who now had never been a costumed superhero known as "Batwoman."

The Batman/Catwoman friendship/sometimes-dating-relationship of the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s also got wiped out. By 1993, in "Knightfall," we saw Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, without masks or costumes, meeting each other face-to-face in their secret identities "for the first time" without either person being written as having even the faintest suspicion that the other had a secret identity.

Marvel has never yet had the functional equivalent of "Crisis on Infinite Earths" as an excuse to shake up everything and throw away tons and tons of old continuity all at once, so they don't generally explicitly retcon old romantic storylines out of existence. They just implicitly do it from time to time, with what I call the Total Amnesia Retcon, for instance.

In a previous post, “Sixteen Types of Retcons,” I described the Total Amnesia Retcon as a case where a controversial old storyline may still have happened, since no one explicitly tells us it has been erased from continuity entirely . . . except that if it did, the characters who survived it and ought to remember it vividly all seem to have completely forgotten that anything like that ever happened, for no apparent reason.

Here is an example of a time when that appeared to be happening in one of Marvel's big titles.

You remember what I said earlier about the way Tom DeFalco busted up the Johnny Storm/Alicia Masters marriage?

A few years after DeFalco had left the title, Chris Claremont was doing a run on the Fantastic Four and in one scene he had dialogue roughly like this (done from memory - I don't know where my copy of that issue is at the moment). Sue Richards is reacting to something a character called Caledonia just said about the debt of service she owes to Johnny Storm after he rescued her from something terrible in a previous story.

SUE: My, that sounds almost like a commitment!

FRANKLIN: What’s a commitment?

REED: Just something your Uncle Johnny has always had trouble with.

I blinked. Come again? That was an undeserved insult to him and if I’d been in Johnny’s shoes I probably would have walked out before I started sniping back with biting comments about their own personal idiosyncracies, in an angry response to their sample of uncharacteristically insensitive "humor" at my expense. Johnny proposed marriage to Alicia Summers in the mid-80s, married her in FF #300, and then stayed married to her for about five years realtime (call it one year continuity-time). I would call that making and sticking to a major commitment, as best he could.

Because, of course, the marriage only fell apart after Tom DeFalco became the new writer on the FF and decided it would be a nifty idea to “reveal” that the Alicia who had become Mrs. Storm was actually a Skrull impostor. But that didn’t highlight any basic character flaws in Johnny which any reasonable observer could point to as being “responsible” for the collapse of his “marriage," or any sort of "proof" that he was incapable of making and keeping a really big, serious commitment in good faith.

The way Reed and Sue were teasing him only made sense in one of the following scenarios:

A) Both of them had completely forgotten Lyja the Laserfist for no apparent reason, and Johnny didn’t really feel like reminding them of that painful period in his life.

B) Reed, Sue, Johnny and everybody else had “forgotten” Lyja, either because they'd been mindwiped or because it had just been implicitly erased from history without anyone at Marvel having the guts to say so in plain English - the sort of ambiguous situation which II now call the Total Amnesia Retcon.

In other words, if we go with B), it's possible that Claremont was determined to rub our noses in everybody's obliviousness to the old Lyja the Laserfist stuff as a way of assuring us that in his book, Johnny Storm was still a hotheaded youngster, practically a a teenager, who had never, ever been married to anyone nor even come seriously close to getting married, because that would be a "commitment," and that his sister and brother-in-law were doubtful that he would "mature" enough for this to change anytime soon.

The less palatable explanation, but much more likely if we assumed that "continuity" actually mattered unless and until we were specifically told otherwise (which was my default assumption in those days) was:

C) Claremont was trying to tell us that Reed and Sue were a couple of viciously unfair childish taunters who had no intention of giving Johnny fair credit for the time he had actually made and stuck to a serious commitment (marriage) until it all fell apart through no fault of his own.

I now favor B), but when I first read that story years ago I thought writers were supposed to take continuity more seriously (yes, go ahead and laugh at me if you must!) and it sure felt like an obnoxious case of C) at first glance!

(As I mentioned above, I feel certain I've missed a few ways to tear apart a romance. Any suggestions?)