Back in February, we started a series called “Bad Romance,” dealing with some of the most unsettling superhero relationships, with commentary from comic pros. Unfortunately, the last of these saw our guest-commentator drop out due to work on something called “Fear Itself,” or possibly those were words used to describe what we sent him.
Undaunted, we contacted other pros, who were forced to turn this commenting down due to con commitments, family emergencies, personal injury, and one case where they were convinced we were making this stuff up.
But we finally got not one but TWO great commentators: Incredible Change-Bots creator Jeffrey Brown, who’s chronicled plenty of bad romances of his own in books like Clumsy and Unlikely (don’t worry, he’s with a nice girl now), and Jeff Parker, the writer of Hulk, Thunderbolts and Agents of Atlas, not to mention such creator-owned works as Underground and the webcomic Bucko.
For our final, super-sized look at Bad Romance in superhero comics, we took on the two biggest superhero teams, the Justice League of America and the Avengers (and several related teams). Who, in total, has had the most disturbing storylines over the years? The answer sent our writer into a bit of an emotional tailspin involving action figures and a bottle of Crystal Head Vodka, as chronicled in the accompanying photos.
Boy, this seemed like a cute idea at the time. Never, ever try to be cute. You’ll learn things you can’t unlearn.
JLA/AVENGERS: BAD ROMANCE THROWDOWN
CAPES: Superman vs. the Sentry: For years, the Sentry kept his wife in a terrifying, emotionally and physically abusive marriage with the threat of violent death constantly hanging over her head. Superman, in contrast, has been a damn fine husband, but when one factors in his dozens upon dozens of Silver Age indiscretions -- up to and including multiple instances of brainwashing, psychological manipulation, falling for women who were technically his ancestors/descendants, a doppelganger for his cousin and a mermaid.
Kal-El wins the creepy award by sheer numbers. Oh, and there's his whole thing for women with the initials "L.L.," which includes several fantasies about marrying Lois Lane AND Lana Lang. Lecherous loser.
Jeff Parker: “I'm surprised if no lady spy ever infiltrated Superman's world simply by adopting an LL name. And yes, Lori Lemaris proves he's willing to cross a lot of boundaries. Also never mind doppelgangers for his cousin, he outright says or thinks several times things like ‘Oh Kara, you're too young for us to marry... now.’ But seriously, just don't make me watch that Larry Niven excerpt from the Superman documentary.
Jeffrey Brown: “Hm, I don't know. Superman's psychological manipulation and deception is much kinder and gentler, though.”
WORLD'S GREATEST DETECTIVE/WORLD'S GREATEST SOLDIER: Batman vs. Captain America: Hey, they've both liked hooking up with kinky criminals (Catwoman/Diamondback) and the exotic daughters of supercriminals (Talia/the Scarlet Witch).
But while Batman's dated a bit more, Cap earns the "Bad Romance" award for the love of his life being Sharon Carter -- the idential sister of his wartime love Peggy Carter (later retconned to be Sharon's aunt, which is still icky).
Given that Peggy is Cap's love interest in the upcoming film (and a variation on this played out in the 1990 film almost no one saw), odds are the more brazen details of this affair will come up again in the Avengers movie. Yay?
Brown: “Retconned to be her aunt - or her cool, hot aunt? Because if it's her cool, hot aunt then maybe Batman should get the point. Besides, aside from the question of who they're with, you've got to think that stranger things are going on in Batman's bedroom than Cap's.”
Parker: “Cap always channels manic Jimmy Stewart from Vertigo with his ability to force people into dead loved ones' roles. Even with friendships: ‘Hi Cap, I'm Rick Jones!’ ‘Rr-b-Bucky Jones? You say your name is Bucky? Can you fit into this costume?’”
GUNG-HO ADVENTURERS: Green Lantern vs. Iron Man: Both Hal Jordan and Tony Stark are known for being high-flying, ray-shooting, lady-loving bad-boys (and depending on which continuity you look at, both have also battled the bottle).
But while Tony's kinkiest relationship has been with a suit of sentient armor (see: “The Mask in the Iron Man,” Joe Quesada’s tale of the armor coming to life), Hal managed to creep out most of the Green Lantern Corps -- and readers -- when he began sleeping with Arisa, an infatuated alien who used her ring to age herself from 13 to adulthood to win his heart. That’s…wow.
Geoff Johns later explained that this was a natural metamorphosis in her species, and due to her planet's odd orbit she was really like 240, which...yeah, it's still squrim-inducing. One can only hope this doesn't show up in the forthcoming movie, or worse, animated series.
Brown: “Kinky relationships with sentient suits of armor are the future of dating, actually. Also, Arisa is actually like 34 years old in dog years, so just right for Hal, I'd say.”
Parker: “I remember the Arisa thing well- could no one get Rob Lowe to play Hal? He is the swinger of the DCU, and I think he once inquired if Mogo the Planet GL was female.
“This point makes me think of the way Billy Batson used to Shazam himself up to Captain Marvel and go on dates with women. I know it's technically different because they're two entities, but I don't know if any of the ladies would have been cool with it.”
IMMORTALS: Hawkman vs. Thor: At first glance, Thor would seem to be the winner -- after all, the Odinson is known for ale and carousing, while Hawkman has been monogamous for centuries.
On the other hand, the continuity established in the last decade had Hawkman pretty much stalking/harassing Hawkgirl, who hadn't been reborn with the memories of their previous incarnations...and eventually, this worked. Even if you go back to the version where they were aliens on the planet Thanagar, the 1980s HAWKWORLD series established that Shayera was actually a young orphan adopted and named after the first, deceased Shayera, Katar Hol's initial love interest.
Sure, Thor's hooked up with the Enchantress in the past, and the original Norse tales have him doing everything from design like a woman to mistaking a large bowel movement for (his) baby. But in the war of winged helmets, Hawkman soars over his competition.
Parker: “Just as long as he never dated one of those Man-Hawks, they terrified me.”
Brown: “Yeah, you can't fault Thor. Considering how strange some of the old Greek mythology gets, he's pretty tame for a god.”
SIZE-CHANGING SCIENTISTS: The Atom vs. Henry Pym: The Atom's ex Jean Loring cheated on him, divorced him, took half his patents and then started murdering JLA spouses to lure him back. About as bad a romance as you can get, hmm?
On the other hand, Henry Pym fell for Janet Van Dyne because she was a younger spitting image of his late wife, genetically engineered her into his sidekick to help her avenge her father's death, married her while under a psychotic episode as Yellowjacket and claiming he had killed Henry Pym, then became physically abusive years later.
Eventually, they worked things out and reconciled, complete with a size-changing honeymoon that writer Geoff Johns still gets flack over, before Janet died during SECRET INVASION...at which point Hank assumed her identity as the Wasp, started hanging out with a naked-looking android with her memories, and was revealed to have used her massive, transformed body as a cosmic entity that functions as an Avengers Mansion.
It's Sid and Nancy, with science and spandex.
Parker: “I never count the slap, because what everybody's thinking of is really more the Ultimates story than the same movie cliché- slap all the heroes were doing at the time. But taking on her name and keeping Jocasta handy... yeah, Pym takes this one hands down.”
Brown: “I think they both win, no points awarded. After all, considering they can be become tiny little guys, they've been surprisingly limited in the creepiness they've actually participated in, and also they spend hardly any time as tiny men nestled between the breasts of women, all things considered.”
ENCHANTRESSES: Zatanna vs. The Scarlet Witch: The Scarlet Witch married an android, while Zatanna once dated John Constantine. Hmm. Tie. On the other hand, the Scarlet Witch also dated Wonder Man, the human from whom the Vision's brain patterns had come, which is extra-weird, and had reality-warped demon-children and blew up the Avengers/reality a few times. Yeah, she's got the edge.
Brown: “I don't think that's so weird for Scarlet Witch. She's got a type. Most people do.”
Parker : “You will never out-weird Scarlet Witch in this category, evig ti pu, annataz. Points for not even having to mention her Angelina Jolie-esque attachment to her brother. This does make me want to promote the addition of Satana on The Thunderbolts, though. I hope to have her in this category soon.”
ANDROIDS THAT CAN CRY: Red Tornado vs. The Vision: Both of these are notable for staying in loving, monogamous relationships with human females, and even becoming dads (the Red Tornado through adoption, the Vision through...reality-warping demonic hand puppets who are now Young Avengers or something). Both have also repeatedly lost their memories after getting exploded.
Hmm, this is a tough one! I'll give this one to the Vision, because he's currently reduced to a teenage hologram powered by a future suit of Iron Man armor and the memories of a young Kang the Conquerer, meaning even he likely has no idea what his origin is supposed to be.
Parker: “And by sheer association with Scarlet Witch. By the way, I have never liked these weepy robots.”
DEADBEAT DAD AWARD, 1.0: Green Arrow vs. Wolverine: Green Arrow's long-lost-possibly-gay-Bhuddist-monk son Conner is an upstanding citizen, while Wolverine's long-lost-bisexual-assassinating son Daken is, well, a manipulative sociopath.
On the other hand, Logan didn't know about his son and has constantly tried to set the punk kid straight, while Ollie straight-up ran away from being a dad -- and his son turned out fine, come to think of it -- plus has another son, Robert, with the assassin Shado that he never sees.
Come to think of it, the cloest he came to raising a kid was Speedy/Arsenal, who turned to drugs after Ollie started ignoring him, and is now dismsmbered, back on the smack and playing with dead cats. Daken might be evil, but Logan's still a better dad than Green Arrow by a mile.
Brown: “That's what the kids are always doing these days, turning to drugs the minute their superhero dad starts paying a little less attention to them. But what do you expect from a guy named 'Speedy'?”
Parker: “GA offers the extra burner when you find out ‘Dad used to be rich? I could have been rich?’”
LIEBELED LADIES: The Huntress vs. the She-Hulk: The Huntress has had a few flings -- including a still-masked one with Nightwing and a self-destructive one-off with a creep named Josh -- but even she didn't deseve Hal Jordan's smarmy (and probably false) gossip about a three-way in Cry for Justice.
She-Hulk's apparent one-off with the Juggernaut also skeeved many fans out, though Dan Slott later explained it was actually a woman from "our" universe "touring" as She-Hulk. We've yet to see the Huntress put the smack down on Hal for talkin' smack.
Brown: “The Juggernaut's not perfect, but you know, the right lighting and amount of drinks, hey, why not?”
Parker: “Too hard to call.”
MOST CREEPIEST: Nuklon/Atom Smasher and Stargirl vs. Starfox and She-Hulk: Technically, this involves the Justice Society, but they evolved into the JLA anyway, and Atom Smasher was part of (ugh) Extreme Justice as Nuklon. Short version is that ever since the start of JSA's modern series, the tiny, teenaged Stargirl has had a thing for the massive, much older Atom Smasher, who's been an adult in comics since before her character was even born.
This wouldn't be so bad, except it's often stated that Atom Smasher feels something back, and a flash-forward years ago showed them married with children in the future. Again, unsettling, but it could be swept under the rug if they didn't keep bringing said "forbidden" attraction back to the forefront, most recently in JSA All-Stars Sure, they even took pains to establish Stargirl as recently turning 18, but she still has braces, for God's sake. It's just creepy as all hell.
On the other hand, Starfox, aka Eros, was known for years for using his "pleasure-stimulating" powers to get women into bed, including a fling with She-Hulk. Eventually, a horrified housewife sued for sexual assault, and after being put on trial, it was determined that his brother Thanos had messed with his head when they were younger, causing him to unconsciously use his abilities often over the years. Horrified, Starfox realized what he'd done and had his powers shut off...which only barely puts him ahead of Atom Smasher, who still requires JSA senior staff to tell him to knock it off when it comes to Stargirl.
Brown: “Very convenient that it's Thanos' fault. I'm not going to give Starfox the free pass. Also, we need to let Stargirl learn from her own mistakes now that she's an adult.”
Parker: “I always preferred the route I took with Venus of the Agents of Atlas- she got people riled up, but never for her own benefit. Mainly she just made Namora kiss a lot of other heroes for her own amusement. I hate Starfox' hair.”
DEADBEAT DAD AWARD 2.0: Green Lantern (1) and The Hulk: The Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott, unknowningly fathered two children in his brief marriage to Alyx Florin, secretly his opponent the Thorn ("unknowingly" because he thought she was exploded on their honeymoon). His son, Obsidian, had an abusive childhood and briefly turned evil, while his daughter, Jade, briefly died and then came back, but overall, he's been a pretty good dad.
The Hulk unknowingly fathered a couple of fully-grown twins through an alien princess (Skaar and Hiro-Kala) and had a third grown from his DNA (Lyra). The Hulk's boys keep trying to destroy things, and Banner/Hulk was up to the idea of killing Skaar until recently. Yep, GL 1.0 proved a sight better at manning up for unexpected fatherhood, minus those years he was gone (and those other years he was in Limbo holding off Ragnarok).
The Avengers' point is increased here because deceased honorary member Captain Marvel also had three long-lost kids -- one with a Skrull and two through genetic manipulation. It's easy to have shorties running around if you're in the Marvel Universe, it seems.
Brown: “What's up with all these guys 'unknowingly' fathering children all the time? And why aren't the mothers more pro-active in pursuing support from them? Someone needs to hold these guys responsible.”
Parker: “Yeah, Alan Scott is in the clear, he was married at least. Bruce just keeps up the facade like he doesn't know what he does as Hulk like it's this drinking problem? And by the way, I compromised on the cell-scraping detail about Lyra, Hulk and Thundra were supposed to have just gotten it on old-school.”
STRANGE LOVE IN THE GOLDEN AGE: Green Lantern (1) and Harlequin/Union Jack and Spitfire: In the 1940s, Molly Mayne couldn't get a date as a smart, competent woman, so she became a mousy secretary who attempted to woo the one guy who turned her on -- the Green Lantern, who was secretly her boss Alan Scott. Repeatedly knocking him on the head with a mandolin as a fake criminal didn't work, but when he discovered her identity decades later, they finally got married, proof that stalking works.
On the other hand, the revival of the pre-Avengers team Union Jack and Spitfire was almost as weird, with the rejuvenated Spitfire dating the best friend of her vampiric son. They broke up (and Spitfire started dating Blade), though they still have the odd awkard moment, and at least the Harlequin and GL 1.0 are still together. Eh, their main problem was that GL was a bit oblivious and it was the 1940s.
Brown: “I wonder what would've happened if there was the internet back then, and Molly had just been sending hundreds of emails and pics to Green Lantern. I bet it wouldn't even have worked out for them. I think hitting people with mandolins will always have a much higher success rate in getting the positive attention of someone you like.”
Parker: “Stalking totally works in comics. That's the message we give readers.”
OEDIPUS WRECKS: Ms. Marvel and Marcus. vs. Black Canary: Okay, get a beer ready. You're gonna need it.
Short version: In Avengers #200, there was a story where Ms. Marvel was pregnant, and then it turned out she'd been abducted an impregnated by a servant of Immortus named Marcus, which was explained after she gave birth to a baby that aged back into Marcus and explained how she'd come to love him after being exposed to his brainwashing machines, and they went off together. Readers were appalled (link: http://www.carolastrickland.com/comics/msmarvel/index.html), and Chris Claremont undid the story in Avengers Annual #10, where she rightly reamed the other Avengers out for not helping her.
The JLA/JSA had a similar problem with Black Canary -- how to explain how she was still youthful and dating Green Arrow despite being around since the 1940s? In the early 1980s, a rather insane solution was reached -- apparently, the Black Canary had a daughter born with a mutant "Canary Cry," who was kept aging in suspended animation with all memory of herself erased, until Black Canary 1.0 was dying and had her mind transferred into her own daughter. Great parenting, Dinah!
Years later, it occurred to writers that it would be easier just to say the modern Black Canary WAS the daughter of the original, and went with that instead.
For the sake of this piece, the Avengers "win" by virture of sheer creepiness. But Black Canary has another shot at the "gold"...
Parker: “That really was a tough one. Something about both those characters hits the weird button in creators.”
Brown: “Avengers might be creepier here, but what kind of jerk do you have to be to have your mind put into your own daughter? That's almost as bad as hacking into your daughter's email account or something.”
SLINGS AND ARROWS: Green Arrow and Black Canary vs. Hawkeye and Mockingbird: On the other hand, Hawkeye and Mockingbird are at least consistent in comparison to the other long-lived acher/asskicker superteam couple. How many times have they broken up and gotten back together over the years? How often did they vacillate over whether they should be in a commitment? How many times did Ollie cheat on Dinah? And how long did their actual marriage last before Ollie screwed it by hauling off and killing Prometheus?
Sure, Hawkeye was pissed when Bobbie let the Phantom Rider die, but that was a more morally ambiguous situation (the creep had brainwashed and raped her), and he still had her back after that. Ollie and Dinah are hot together, but like many hot couples, they tend to burn each other hard.
Parker: “All you really needed to say was Green Arrow AND Black Canary.”
Brown: “Hm. I guess if I had to choose, yes, killing someone is technically worse than just letting someone die?”
NEWLYWEDS: Hourman and Liberty Belle vs. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones: Happy couples are rare in comics, but the JSA and Avengers both boast some of the few functional relationships in comics.
The Justice Society's Hourman and Liberty Belle took some people by surprise, as a "One Year Later" time jump happened just after they started dating, and suddenly they were on their honeymoon. But though both have dysfunction in their past, they've proven a good team on and off the battlefield.
As for Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, they're a loving married couple with a beautiful daughter now, but hopefully said daughter will never know she was conceived during a druken self-destructive hook-up in a position that Alabama printers wouldn't publish. Jessica's Marvel MAX roots gives the Avengers the point. Sweet Christmas!
Brown: “If only printers would start a policy of not publishing comics with overly convoluted continuity problems. Oh wait, that would be editing.”
Parker: “Luke also contrives to keep walking into the Women's Section of the Raft High Security Center.”
PERVERSE OPPONENTS: Doctor Light vs. the Hood: Okay, there’s nothing “romantic” in this. We all lose trying to figure this one out, but the JLA gets the Creepiest Villain Award here, because they had to compromise their principles by mindwiping their perverted opponent, while Tigra got to get one over on the creep who ambushed, beat and videotaped her at her apartment by just sending him to prison, telling him off...and exposing his villain career to his wife and kid. Living well is indeed the best revenge.
Parker: “Dr. Light has this one, hands down. I can remember a time when he didn't threaten everyone he fought with rape.”
Brown: “They aren't principles if you compromise them. Shame on you, JLA.
TOTAL: Hmm, I got 8 to 8…a tie! But is there another bit of creepiness in the history of either of these teams that would put them over the top? Or is this a battle that they would even want to win?
Then again, if you take into account the Ultimate Universe...
Parker: “And I don't!”
Brown: “Two points just for the fact that there was a West Coast Avengers, until there's a West Coast JLA.”
Anyway, this teaches us a valuable lesson: Continuity is a great tool that can provide a rich sense of history, mythology characterization and interconnectivity within a universe of linked superhero titles and characters…
…but there’s some stuff that’s better off forgotten. Or at least repressed.
Also, attempting to apply the logic of superheroic couplings to real-world social mores is a terrible, terrible mistake. Speaking of which, where’s that skull-vodka…?