On Superheroes and Soap Operas

Spoiler Alert: this piece mentions recent developments in Batman and The X-men.

I’m going to start this piece by describing the main features of either superhero comics or soap operas and then tell you which one I’m describing.

This medium tells serialized stories with a huge cast of characters. Most of the time you know who the heroes and villains are, but once in a while, they’ll change their stripes, usually for the purpose of moving the plot in a new direction. This is a temporary change, and they go back to their devious old ways pretty quickly to bring that story line to a head.

The characters also never (seem to) age, forever portrayed at the age they were when they first appeared. The one exception is with children, where huge leaps in age are not uncommon. Toddlers become teenagers overnight, again for plot development purposes.

There is a sense that the story is never truly finished. One plot closes as seeds are planted for the next one, often kicking off with a cliffhanger (sometimes literally for the characters). Characters each have their own story lines, which are often interconnected with other story lines, once in a while coming together for a big event where everyone meets up.

So, am I talking about superhero comics or soap operas? It’s a trick question because of course. This description applies to both! There are many other similarities between the two as well, such as the fact that both have run for decades, owing to their continued popularity with generations of engaged and committed fans.

For over two decades now, since I started reading comics, I’ve thought the big superhero books like Batman, The X-Men, etc. are all soap operas, just in print and with some bigger stakes in their stories than “Will Bo cheat on Hope again?” (which probably dates me but whatever). Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that as a teenager, I was reading/watching both, discovering them to be not that far apart. When you look at superhero books through the lens of soap operas, it can give a very different perspective to how you read them.

With both of these genres there are tropes you gain a foothold in understanding, to the point where the plot can become predictable. Occasionally, a writer will come along and throw a curveball and you get to go on a very different ride. Most of the time the stories in both soaps and comics cycle around and around the usual personal drama or the same villain over and over, but once in a while there’s a special story line that breaks the boundaries. That’s when they both get good.

Think soaps can’t get creative? Multiple soaps I watched as a teenager had supernatural story lines going on. An alien came to visit on one and on another a character was possessed by the devil. The special effects departments on these shows must have had a field day. It made the comics I was reading and the soaps I was watching feel even closer at the time.

So, why am I talking about this now? I haven’t watched soap operas for over twenty years now, but I do still read comic books. But recently, one of my favorites, Batman, had a story line where he finally finally finally asked Catwoman to marry him. This relationship has been flirty since day one and someone got them up to the altar at last.

Unfortunately, the story took a turn for the worse and Catwoman decided not to marry Batman after all. The world needed him angry, she decided. DC has hinted this might not be the end of the story, but in this case I was glad to be spoiled by mass media. It saved me from reading a disappointing story.

In another recent comic book story line, Kitty Pryde was all set to marry Colossus, that is until someone put doubts in her head the night before the wedding and she left him flat. The blow was softened a little bit here by another long-time comic book couple tying the knot in their place. Drama!

For now, I’ll put aside the gender politics involved with having the woman leave the man at the altar in both cases and focus on why this might be some lazy storytelling at worst, and proving my point that comics are soaps at best.

A married Batman was new idea. It was fresh and different. What would it be like if Bruce Wayne was happy for a while? What different kind of stories could be told? Why didn’t we get to see that play out?

The problem I see here is that the comics industry as a whole, despite Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and all that came after it, still infantilizes the characters in the name of keeping comics “for kids”. There is a palpable mandate with the big companies that kids won’t read comics about married people. Unfortunately, this is an example of not reading the audience, the majority of whom are adults nowadays. There are plenty of kids books out there, and they’re very clearly targeted toward that age group.

As if to prove themselves wrong in the same gesture, many superhero comic books, Batman especially, regularly feature violence, mentions of rape, murder, drug use, and other adult-themed story lines, making them inherently unsuitable for the children they’re supposedly targeting by not marrying off their characters.

To come back to my comparison, soap operas get something right here. They know their target audience, producing story lines that are adult-themed and never having to question whether they cater to children. Granted, they never started out as “kiddie fodder”, but comics have evolved far past that phase such that you would think the big publishers would acknowledge that. Honestly, even if kids are reading these books, wouldn’t it be more kid-friendly to allow characters to form stable, loving bonds?

On the flip side, while soap operas often left folks left standing at the altar as well, they will just as often pull off a wedding or two and let it stick…at least for a while.

These thoughts all leave me even sure of my comparison between the two. Dramatic, over the top, trope-filled, sometimes corny, sometimes creative, always engaging, comic books and soap operas are two sides of the same coin.