Ask Chris #260: Love, Exciting And New; On the Dramatics of Superhero Love Interests
Q: Why do people feel a need to keep inventing new love interests for pretty much every major superhero? -- @krinsbez
A: I'm not saying that I am a person who has no OTPs --- ever since I was a kid, I've felt pretty strongly about Peter Parker and Mary Jane, or Superman and Lois, or Batman and the very concept of justice --- but I'm also not opposed to creating a new love interest for an established character. I mean, there are definitely cases where it's done poorly and where a new character is introduced at the expense of one that already exists, but that's not a problem with significant others so much as it is with new characters in general --- the same thing happens to villains whenever new Bigger Bads show up and prove how dangerous they are by thrashing an existing bad guy.
But really, I'm not sure the question should be why the creation of a new love interest happens as often as it does. It a lot more surprising that it doesn't happen more often.
It is, after all, one of the easiest ways for a new creator to leave their mark on a book. Superheroes always exist in this weird balance between a recognizable status quo and the constant but incremental change that comes from long-form sequential storytelling, but that's something that really only applies to the main characters. Everything else is up for grabs, and while major elements tend to go back to a default state, you tend to have a lot more options for a lasting change when you're dealing with things like the supporting cast than you do when you're trying to make a new element to the main characters themselves.
I was talking about this with CA's own Benito Cereno, and he made the very good point that this is why love interests, even more than villains, tend to be very tied to a specific era. Characters like Lois Lane and even Catwoman might have been around for a while, but it's hard to think of Silver St. Cloud without immediately thinking of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, or of Carlie Cooper without going straight to the late 2000s and the "Brand New Day" era of Spider-Man, or of Terry Long without the late '80s and Marv Wolfman and George Perez's New Teen Titans.
Or, if you're the kind of person who's really, really into obscure Silver Age Wonder Woman characters, there's Benito's go-to example of Ronno the Mer-Boy. You can't really think of him without going straight to the Silver Age and Robert Kanigher.
You know, assuming that you think of Ronno the Mer-Boy at all. I don't know your life.
The same thing can be said of more major characters, too. Talia, for instance, is a character who's been around for forty years and been in a lot of stories by a lot of different creators, but she's always going to be most strongly identified with Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams and the '70s world-traveling adventurer era of Batman comics, if only because they were the environment that set the tone for her as a character and laid down the basic elements of how she worked.
That might also explain why it's something that happens so often, too. When you have a character that's so strongly identified with a particular creator or era, it's not always something that you want to stick with. There's a temptation not to step on your predecessor's toes by taking over something that's distinctly theirs, a feeling that doesn't generally apply to the heroes and villains. And, if you want to give it a little more of a negative connotation, since love interests are so identified with a particular time, it's very easy to see them as something you should leave in the past when you're ready to start your Bold New Era.
And that's on top of the usual shifts, like a creator wrapping up a story with a love interest before leaving the book. Silver St. Cloud leaves Gotham City forever, Jason Bard leaves to go undercover, Shondra Kinsolving... Well, we don't really talk about what happened at the end of Knightfall, but folks, it's not the kind of thing that keeps you around as a fun part of the story for a good long while.
And those are, in all honesty, the best case scenarios for a lot of love interests. Like everything in a comic book story, they exist to create drama, but superhero comics have historically had a very specific kind of drama in mind when it came to the fates of romantic partners, especially, overwhelmingly, women: They tend to wind up dead for the sake of a cheap thrill and setting up a villain. It's a cliché so prominent that it's become one of the best known tropes of the genre, and while that's frustrating and detrimental on a lot of levels, it also has the very practical function of almost requiring new love interests to be introduced.
Because they are, after all, necessary. Romance is a huge part of the drama that forms an adventure story, every bit as crucial to the formula of building a superhero as the rest of the action that we all expect. Adding in a love interest is one of the best ways to reveal something about a character's personal life --- the type of thing that really makes you care about them beyond just getting into a punch-up with someone who's trying to rob a bank while dressed as an egret or whatever --- but it's also a purely functional way to add in entirely new worlds of drama.
It's not just the classic cliché of giving your hero an opportunity to get into the action when Lois Lane or Steve Trevor fall out of a helicopter and need to be caught, it's building those personal relationships and conflicts in a way that can enhance and be reflected by the larger-than-life action that comes with the rest of the drama.
When you have a genre that's been defined by stories that interconnect and build on each other for years, adding new elements to the story to keep things fresh, defining and refining and exploring different aspects of a character through new stories, new villains and yes, new love interests is always going to be a very, very necessary part of the process.