Why Can't Superheroes Grow Up?


In one of his last blogposts for The American Prospect, Adam Serwer looks at the inability of comic books to deal with actual adult relationships. I think this is about right:

Married superheroes though, also curtail the vicarious sexual fantasies of the comic-book reader. The most prominent non-combat related subplots to Ben Reilly's tenure as Spider-Man involve his flirtatious interactions with women -- particularly Parker's former girlfriend, the Black Cat, whom Reilly thinks (I'm paraphrasing) looks better than the girls on Baywatch -- how's that for a dated '90s reference? 

Divorce by reality-altering retcons then serve a secondary purpose beyond making these characters more relatable. They preserve the idealized standard of monogamous heterosexual relationships (no infidelity, no falling out of love, no messy divorce) while giving the heroes access to their female supporting characters and their impossible, pornstar-like bodies. Because what's the point of being a cool, superpowered social outcast if you can't use it to get girls?

Adam, for some reason, decided to read The Clone Saga. Good luck getting those brain-cells back. But as I said I think he is basically is right. It's only recently occurred to me exactly how much the need for vicarious thrills actually inhibits storytelling. 

With that said, I remember when Spider-Man got married, and even as 12 year old kid, I thought it was amazing--and not because I thought marriage was amazing. Mary Jane was not Lois Lane--the writers had killed of his Lois Lane (Gwen Stacy.) Gwen Stacy was basically the chaste queen--even if she wasn't always drawn that way. Mary Jane on the other hand was always with a different dude, and, presumably, had at least as active a sex life as Peter Parker. Indeed I would say she had a more active sex life. In short, she was exactly the sort of woman who writers of slasher flicks kill off. 

Instead, Spider-Man's virginal future bride was killed, and he was left to be comforted by the prototypical girl you wouldn't take home to your mother. Except Spider-Man could take her home to mother and frequently did. I also don't recall writers portraying her dating life as something to be ashamed of. But I never saw them marrying, because in the world of geeks, girls like Mary Jane don't get hitched to guys like Peter Parker.

Forgive me if I'm mangling the story here, there was a lot going on. But I think if the writing of Spider-Man's marriage suffered it was, in part, because many of the (male) writers couldn't figure out how to write an aggressive, nonvirginal, obviously sexually active woman as a wife. I don't know if young boys want to see that or not. I wish it had been tried more. In the real world, it happens all the time.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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