This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 5, 2017.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Where do you go after “will they, won’t they” finally becomes “I do”?
I don’t know if this is about me or you, so I’m going to choose to make it about Jack Kirby. But first, a brief detour.
There’s a long history of the “will they, won’t they” relationship in episodic media. While there are some good examples in comics, like Lois and Clark or Mary Jane and Peter, I think it’s a relationship that has been perfected in television. If you refer to a couple as “Ross and Rachel” or “Sam and Diane”, people instantly know what you’re talking about. These are couples whose romances lasted throughout decade long series without a final commitment or lack thereof occurring until the very end. It worked well in the case of Friends and Cheers, and have become iconic because they were all about answering the first of your two questions.
So what happens when that question becomes an answer?
There’s an argument to be made that moving past the initial dynamic spoils the romance or conflict of a relationship. Moonlighting is certainly a good example of this as Cybill Shepard and Bruce Willis certainly lost a lot of chemistry after becoming a couple. Marvel Comics and DC Comics both appear to have endorsed that notion in the past decade as well. Marvel went so far as to have their most popular superhero Spider-Man play footsie with the devil to get him a divorce. DC Comics decreed that there superheroes could never be married in the world of the New 52. The focus at both companies was to keep their main characters in a state of “will they, won’t they” in order to avoid any potential pitfalls of “I do”.
Remember how that worked out for them though? “One More Day” became a classic Spider-Man story and fans applauded when Dan Didio declared Batwoman definitely couldn’t gay marry her girlfriend. Oh wait…
That’s because there’s nothing inherently valuable about the “will they, won’t they” dynamic. It works fine in a sitcom where almost everyone is likable, but things are designed to barely change between seasons. That scenario also shows the limitations of the design. These are stories meant to focus on static characters and humor, not plot or conflict. There’s a reset button that is only altered in rare circumstances like the death of Coach (may he rest in peace).
However, relationships aren’t static. They’re dynamic, chaotic, changing things. A relationship is a connection between two complete individuals whose goals, perspectives, and ideas are already regularly changing. When you combine them, those two already complex dynamics form an even more vigorous third role. And here’s how we arrive at Jack Kirby because who knew more about dynamism in comics than “The King” himself?
The thing about relationships starting, whether it’s with the answer of “I do” to the start of dating or to a marriage proposal, is that they really are just the beginning. Everything leading up to that answer is foreplay and not the fun kind. It’s tension, but it swirls around a singular decision. After that decision has been made there are so many more questions and they never stop coming. Kirby understood that and it’s why he didn’t hesitate to let some of his most beloved couples pair off.
Romance wasn’t a regular feature of Kirby’s work, excluding his work in the romance genre. Yet when he did feature a couple prominently, the “will they, won’t they” dynamic was rarely a long term focus. Reed and Sue Richards were married within the first 40 issues of Fantastic Four (technically in the page of Fantastic Four Annual #3). Janet and Hank as well as Donald and Jane paired off almost immediately in Tales to Astonish and Journey Into Mystery, respectively. Their relationships, read on a purely visual level as Lee’s dialogue often undermined the power dynamics of these couples, presented an esteem for monogamy and commitment. Kirby himself was married young and never once strayed from the side of his wife Roz. The couple was incredibly dedicated to one another by all accounts, and the lessons of his marriage can be traced to the romances in his comics.
Nowhere is this more true than in the greatest superhero romance of all time: Mister Miracle and Big Barda.
From the moment Big Barda first appears in Mister Miracle #4 to when they’re married in Mister Miracle #18 and beyond, the romance is never in doubt. When Barda first arrives on Earth, Scott defends her without equivocation to his skeptical friends and she supports his adventures without any hesitation. They are very much in love and their decision to be together is implicit from that beginning. Even before they are officially an item, there’s not even a moment of “will they, won’t they”. They will and they do.
The comic doesn’t suffer for that because it embraces what is obviously the more interesting adventure. Looking at whether Scott and Barda will become an item is a limited story at best; their marriage is an endless adventure.
That’s the beauty of the answer “I do”, and the resulting relationship or marriage. Saying “I do” is agreeing to the start of a million more adventures. It’s saying yes to an endless team-up. It guarantees an additional level of complexity in every story and with every theme. While those stories might be more challenging in nature, they’re also far more rewarding. There’s no chance to say no and walk back to the bar, because the characters are committed and have to find an answer together no matter what confronts them.
What happens after “will they, won’t they” becomes “I do” is something spectacular. It’s when one story blossoms into a seemingly endless permutation of stories. It’s an answer to a question that offers an infinite number of beginnings. As someone who loves stories, I couldn’t imagine anything better.