Monday, February 14, 2011

Love and pain and the whole damn thing

Ah, Valentine's Day.
Another day of stresses and celebrations. Whether you're alone or coupled (or more, depending on your chosen life), the day has stresses, strictures, real and perceived obligations, all tied to a biological, societal and personal imperative to share our lives with one another at different levels of intimacy.
As to St. Valentine, stories vary, but most hold him to be a martyr and savior of persecuted Christians. Small wonder that he's embraced over the much more personally sacrificing (at least in contemporary material terms) St. Francis. After all, how could you merchandise the story of one who took a vow of poverty?
While the connection between St. Valentine and romance is tenuous at best, it's also moot. The day is what it is. The cultural connotation is not be be undone.
In comics, several images come to mind.
First, this Birds of Prey cover.
I'm not much on Chuck Dixon's writing. All that smug macho nonsense leaves me cold. Battleaxes was the least entertaining comic I'd read in years. I have the same problem with Beau Smith's work, and on occasion that delightfully irriataing Mike Baron.
But I did really like Dixon's work on this series.
I also rather enjoyed the TV series, even with its flaws. You can watch the whole thing on HULA now for free, You have to put up with a few commercials, but he, that's what the mute on your laptop is for, right?
The cover below also comes to mind in terms of romance, even though that's not exactly what's going on here.
Such a smart book!
I find it interesting that books about women and superheroines invariably come around to the romance stuff, while it doesn't seem to surface nearly as frequently in "guy" superhero narratives. There are notable exceptions, but the superhero scared of romance in the 1950s mode remains the default for many comics.  One wonders if that's still the presumption of the marketing folks (that this is what the readership wants) or if that's where the writers are at. In some cases, I suspect the latter- smug little bully boys who are ascairt of girls.
There are many emotionally mature writers working in comics. And it's possible to write strong men without resorting to this macho garbage. Bill Loebs, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore (whose characters all seem injured in some way anyway), even some aspects of Mike Baron's writing succeed in this arena.
Surprisingly, many of Neil Gaiman's love stories  involve his characters behaving very poorly towards one another, in different ways. Consider Morpheus imprisoning his lover in Hell for ten thousand years, for the "crime" of rejecting life with him. Or the poorly defined manipulative behavior of Miraclewoman in Gaiman's Miracleman run- an act of jealousy, as the last panel imples, or a mistake pure and simple?
The narrative of Foxglove and Hazel is just as messed up. A naive lesbian gets preggers, and her abuse-surviving girlfriend sticks with her, grumbling the whole way. But that has a happier ending, or if you prefer, a resolution, since they get to go on.
That's the thing about love stories. If they're going to be realistic, they're messy.
There's only a small percentage in hearts and flowers. Most of us have to deal with the messy aspects of trying to understand one another. If doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, bi or polyamorous, though the latter relationships have far greater complications (but when they succeed, they're great!). People are complicated, screwy and self-contradictory. We want someone to love us forever, and when we get them, we want time to ourselves, or we're let down that they're who they are and not who we expected/hoped them to be.
It's a balancing act that never stops.
In comics, the love story as primary plot is becoming more prevalent. I can think of two splendidly successful narratives of the last 20 years.
First, the remarkable Strangers in Paradise.
Never mind that there are some incredibly implausible aspects to the story, and some wild inconsistencies. Is Katchoo an alcoholic, as mentioned in a couple issues, or not, as indicated by her apparently controlled drinking in subsequent issues? How could Casey be in the employ of her true boss and be such a ditz? Sometimes it felt like a Tezuka narrative- the character playing a variety of roles, some of which contradict the roles played by the same "paper actor" in another story. You also see this phenomenon in Barks' Duck stories, and it's worth noting that Barks was irritated,  bordering on insulted,  by Don Rosa's attempts at imposing a unified narrative on the loose aggregate of Barks tales.
That aside, Strangers works despite its occasional implausibilities. This is because:
a) Moore is a strong enough storyteller that he was able to pull it together in a way that worked, and
b) No matter what else it is, it's a love story first and foremost. The issue is not that the people love one another despite all this stuff happening. It's that their love sees them through this stuff, even when they're at one another's throats over real or perceived wrongs.
The last comic to consider on this day dedicated to the ideal of romantic love (and to the sale of cards, flowers and chocolate) is True Story, Swear to God.
There's this guy, Tom. Nice guy, comic book nut.
Takes himself a vacation to Disney World. Meets a Puerto Rican woman at a bus stop. They fall in love instantly. He moves to Puerto Rico to be with her.
It's true. Every last bit of it. Tom has photos and everything to prove it.
The story is about all of the above: miscommunication, frustration, dealing with life, trying to understand each other. It's told simply and cleanly, with honesty that avoids being maudlin.
Tom published about a dozen issues himself, then took the book to Image, where it has currently run 12 more issues. The book deals with everything from a Californian living in Puerto Rico during 9/11 to his spouse wanting to shave her head in support of her cancer afflicted sister. This is what comics can do best- say something about our lives.
I've deliberately not discussed the other great comic book romance that affected my life, Omaha, tonight. Too many memories, not all of them good for this particular day. But I do hold the book and its creators in a treasured place, and will write about them again when appropriate.
For right now, let's just leave it at the default optimistic thought:
Ain't love grand?