Perhaps the best article I’ve read on the issue of Northstar’s impending nuptials belongs to Andrew Wheeler over at Comics Alliance. Though he is himself a gay man who hopes to get married some day, he makes a number of solid points against the upcoming marriage – most notably, that comic book writers treat weddings as ‘endings’ – a view he himself shares, saying that “marriage shifts a character’s status quo in a way that is fundamentally reductive.”
While I personally disagree with that assessment, what I can’t deny is that comic book writers do not – and they’re the ones who will be in charge of charting the paths of Kyle and Jean-Paul after the wedding, not me. Love and marriage have a pretty horrible history in comic book land, all things considered.
For whatever reason, comic creators just can’t imagine that the seismic lifestyle change marriage brings has any narrative potential, despite hundreds of years of evidence to the contrary. And they aren’t alone. How many sitcom wives are reduced to shrill killjoys? How many action heroes in film begin the movie either divorced or with a wife who dies tragically to set him on his path? But comics, particularly in recent years, seem especially averse to marriage. Well, that’s not true – they love marriage, an ‘event’ that moves units; it’s the institution, the day to day life, that they don’t particularly care for.
But why is it comic creators seem so hellbent on wrecking so many marriages? Animal Man’s marriage was solid, one of the strongest in comics, but the second Adam Beechan took over Countdown to Adventure all those years ago, his first order of business was to introduce a heaping dose of marital strife. Superman has been magically de-married by a massive, company wide relaunch. Spider-Man made a bargain with the devil to get a consequence-free divorce for no apparent reason, so averse was Joe Quesada to the idea of a married webslinger. These are not small endeavors, carelessly made – these are massive undertakings that unwrote years (or even decades) of a character’s history because a few writers wanted Spider-Man to fuck someone different for awhile.
And that’s not even counting some of the less-elaborate break-ups, such as Jean Grey’s death so Cyclops could date Emma Frost; BOTH of the Hulk’s marriages ended in the death of his spouses; fellow mutants Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch had their own marriages ended, Quicksilver’s by divorce and Scarlet Witch’s ending when she turns her husband into a sentient weapon to be used against their friends; Ant-Man and Wasp had a famously terrible marriage, culminating in a scene of domestic abuse; and much, much more.
Northstar and Kyle are already well on their way to falling into ‘the marriage trap’. Astonishing X-Men #50, where Northstar proposes to his boyfriend, shows them as a couple who bicker constantly, can’t see eye-to-eye on anything, and hardly have a thing in common. In one issue, which will almost certainly be among the one or two most widely-read issue of comics featuring Northstar, he and his boyfriend fight endlessly, the proposal happens not as a culmination of their (mostly off-panel) romance but as a way to stop the two from arguing, and Kyle gets kidnapped by supervillains. Because of course he does.
Last year, when Avengers: The Children’s Crusade had Hulkling (Teddy Altman) propsing to Wiccan (Billy Kaplan), it was the culmination of years worth of stories where the pair met, came out, fought and supported one another. Like many teenage romances, this one may die out before they actually get married, but the point is that the relationship between Hulkling and Wiccan feels lived in and honest, and their proposal felt like a natural extension of their relationship, while the relationship between Northstar and Kyle feels jerky and half-formed, their proposal coming more as a ‘statement’ meant to move units of Astonishing X-Men than as a natural next step in the evolution of the characters. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it’s a statement that needed to be made by someone and Northstar is one of the company’s oldest, most high-profile gay characters, but I hope someone at Marvel has some stories they want to tell with Northstar, and that they don’t mind the marriage.
What’s worst is, marriage in comics doesn’t have to be so dire. Okay, okay, for some reason a few creators REALLY hate married characters. The best thing about comics is that they can mostly ignore it. There was no mandate that I’ve heard stating Mary Jane had to appear in every single issue of Spider-Man, or that Lois Lane had to appear at least once in each Action Comics to say, “By the way, husband Clark Kent, how is your Superman-ing coming?” There are a million compelling, true-to-life plots that could be told – plots that have almost never even been touched in comicdom, by the way – using a happily married couple, but nothing about being married suggests that you HAVE to exclusively have stories about your spouse, or even with your spouse. The utterly fantastic Friday Night Lights managed to mine the marriage between Coach Taylor and his wife Tammi for FIVE SEASONS worth of drama without once resorting to cliche, and with only having roughly one storyline each season that used their marriage as a source of conflict.
There’s a quote I often think back on when I think about comic book writing. It’s from Kurt Busiek, in the introduction to his fantastic Astro City: Life in the Big City trade, and it reads,
“If a superhero can be such a powerful and effective metaphor for male adolescence, then what else can you do with them? Could you build a superhero story around a metaphor for female adolescence? Around mid-life crisis? Around the changes adults go through when they become parents? Sure, why not? And if a superhero can exemplify America’s self-image at the dawn of World War II, could a superhero exemplify America’s self-image during the less-confident 1970s? How about the emerging national identity of a newly-independent African nation? Or a non-national culture, like the drug culture, or the “greed-is-good” business culture of the go-go Eighties? Of course. If it can do one, it can do the others.”
This is, effectively, what Pixar did with The Incredibles – took all the aspects of parenting, longtime marriage and the mid-life crisis and fashioned them into a thrilling, family-friendly superhero film. And this is also, in a way, what Joss Whedon did with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, using a ‘high school is Hell’ theme that took basic adolescent concerns – losing your virginity, bad break-ups, growing responsibility, even test anxiety – and filtered them through horror movie tropes.
Northstar is in a unique position to do the same thing with the issue of gay marriage. Rather than being a poster-child for it – a meaningless ‘position’ that robs a character of agency – Northstar’s book could look at love and marriage through the lens of bigotry that mutants have often used to sneak in extra drama, and it could do it (in my opinion) without changing very much about the book at all.
It doesn’t have to be about gay marriage, or any kind of marriage. Contrary to a great many writers, I don’t think of marriage as an ‘ending’ for a character, and I don’t think losing ‘romance plots’ (seriously, people, first one to name five truly great romance plots in the last 15 years of superhero comics gets… I don’t know, something neat) necessarily outweighs the benefit of gaining ‘marriage plots’. And just like a book where Spider-Man sleeps with someone new doesn’t have to suddenly become a romance book, Northstar being married doesn’t have to pigeonhole his book into becoming a ‘marriage book’.
Because so many superhero books are created to be like perpetual motion machines, recycling plots, characters and motivations in an endless loop to keep things chugging ahead through the decades, there’s an idea – an idea that is not entirely wrong, in fact – that marriage stops one track of the cycle of stories permanently. Joe Quesada once said,
“When people get married, they tend to settle down — life slows down and you gain different responsibilities, grown-up responsibilities, boring responsibilities.”
There is a degree to which this is absolutely true, though a great deal of real life and literature would argue that many of the responsibilities of adulthood are far from boring. But superhero comics were built on the altar of adolescence, which – in case you don’t remember – was also pretty goddamn boring, but (like marriage) has a lot of angst, fundamental drama and lifestyle changes associated with it. Adulthood is perhaps less impassioned than being a teenager, pissed off and trying to change the world, but it’s no less dramatic. If anything, the stakes only get higher as you age, as your decisions begin to affect more people, your relationships become simultaneously stronger and more vulnerable, and change becomes more difficult.
Northstar’s marriage is a huge step forward both for the character and for the comics. Comic books have a large audience of LGBTQ readers, and it’s fantastic that they are finally getting some much-needed representation and attention in mainstream comics, particularly given the struggles both Marvel and DC have had in diversifying their lines.
But I’m worried. I’m worried that Northstar’s marriage, an important social landmark for comics, will be treated like so many other marriages in comicdom – perfunctorily, at first, then with growing resentment as the years pass and writers want to manufacture easy drama. As the audiences continue to gravitate to ongoing titles led by straight white males, Northstar will quietly be shuffled off to the side, and Kyle will disappear forever.
I hope it’s not the case. I’m thankful to Marvel for exploring the issue, and an X-Men book is the perfect forum for the company to do it in, the ideal vehicle to break this particular ground. I think Jean-Paul is the perfect hero for the task, a complicated, driven man with a fascinating, long-running history. I think this development has a lot of potential for interesting comic books, potential I hope gets seriously explored. But, again, in the heavily-promoted Astonishing X-Men #50, Kyle exists largely to be kidnapped so Northstar can rescue him. It’s an important issue of comics, but it’s not a terribly good one. And given the prevailing attitude about marriage in the industry – that it makes a character less fun to write for, turning them into “the perpetual ‘designated driver’” (in Quesada’s own words) – it’s not one that suggests that Northstar is a character we should expect to see around that often.