Let’s face it: comics have never been a beacon of good parenting. Whether they’re sending their kids into the future to escape a techno-organic virus or just trying to remember they have kids at all, superheroes making time to be even moderately acceptable parents is much more the exception than the rule. This is especially true when writers try to tackle motherhood, a role which they rarely give our heroes the chance–or the inclination–to get right.
That is, except for last year. In 2020 we saw what was probably the most important motherhood story in comics. You might have missed it, and that would have nothing to do with the fact that we were all pretty distracted by the runaway dumpster fire that was last year. It’s because this particular story wasn’t a main arc. In fact, it barely took up two pages in one issue.
Tini Howard’s first arc of Excalibur ended last January with Betsy Braddock accepting the mantle of Captain Britain, her brother Jamie accepting the crown of Avalon, and Brian struggling to accept no role at all. But there was something else happening too; back on Krakoa, fresh from defeating the forces of Morgan Le Fay, Gambit and Rogue are enjoying some much deserved R&R. For one of the first times since they got married, they’re alone. They’re in paradise. They’ve got drinks and no clothes.
But the romantic moment soon turns serious when Rogue brings up one of Krakoa’s laws that has been bothering her: make more mutants. There’s little way to misinterpret this directive, but that doesn’t mean Rogue is interested in following it. In fact, she is just as direct with her intention to do the opposite–as she tells Gambit, “I don’t want a baby, Remy. Not now. Maybe not ever.”
And that’s it. No fanfare. No argument. Her husband supports her unequivocally and sexy times resume again. End scene.
That, dear reader, is the most important motherhood story in comics.
Now, in the off-chance that you’re thinking “…that’s it?”, let’s put this in context.
Motherhood in comics is nothing new. From Sue Storm to Lois Lane, Jean Grey to Selina Kyle, our favorite heroes giving birth and/or adopting a baby is a storyline as old as comic books themselves. Of course, actually raising that baby (and doing a good job of it) is almost always a disaster. And that’s because at the heart of almost every comic story about motherhood, there’s one main problem: it’s not realistic.
Now, that sounds ridiculous when we’re talking about stories where our heroes are regularly saving the world from yet another alien invasion or quite literally cheating death, but it’s not. Because while we love to see them succeed as superheroes, we also love to see them struggle as people. Yes, we may not know what it’s like to fight an evil symbiote hellbent on destroying New York City, but we relate with trying to balance a demanding career and personal life. And while we may not know what it’s like to wake up in an alternate reality where we’re married to our archnemesis, we understand how hard it is to prioritize our mental health when life gets in the way.
This relatability is central to the success of almost every superhero comic and is due in no small part to the writers involved. Over the decades they’ve brought their own experiences to the creation of these stories. Regardless of how fantastic the plot, the good ones feel grounded in reality because the writer has at least some experience to draw from.
But when you apply that lens to stories about motherhood, the number of writers who tell these stories and those with the personal experience to do it justice barely (if ever) overlap. To be fair, comics has long been an industry dominated by men so it stands to reason that men would, on average, write more of these stories. Still, it’s almost impossible to find a woman who has written any of them.
The Scarlet Witch’s fraught journey into motherhood was written by Steve Englehart. Talia al-Ghul’s weaponized version of motherhood was architected by Grant Morrison. Catwoman’s decision to give her daughter up for adoption was devised by Will Pfeifer. Spider-Woman’s struggle to balance pregnancy and single motherhood was crafted by Dennis Hopeless. Tigra’s rape by a Skrull agent and the pregnancy that followed was thought up by Brian Bendis.
The list goes on.
No one is demeaning these writers and their abilities to tell compelling stories, but their personal experience in this respect is limited to that of an observer. And because of that, pregnancy and motherhood in comic books often end up falling back on the same societal expectations that have existed for decades. Motherhood becomes an inevitability. Or worse, a fulfillment of potential; the completion of a social contract that was never actually signed.
This simulacrum of motherhood isn’t just superficial, it’s unrealistic. So much so that in comics, motherhood–and moms–very often end up being used as a plot device rather than character development. Talia only becomes a mother by Batman so she can train the child to eventually kill him. Selina gives up her daughter once it’s established that she could never abandon the Catwoman mantle for her. The Scarlet Witch’s children weren’t even real, just siphoned pieces of Mephisto. Again, the list goes on.
That’s why Rogue’s declaration is so jarring and why writer Tini Howard’s deft hand is so special. Rogue very bluntly acknowledges the expectations she knows are on her, she admits her fears and ultimately, her wishes to the contrary. But it’s not framed with judgement by her husband or characterized as a moral failing by her writer: it’s merely a woman making a choice. She confronts a trope that exists both in-universe and in the real world, and she turns both on their head.
It would have been easy for another writer to blame Rogue’s choice on her past trauma, both physical and psychological. But Howard doesn’t. She also doesn’t ignore Rogue’s past for the sake of the limited space this story had. Instead, she uses it as a way for us to relate to Rogue as a woman. And women, regardless of their backgrounds, have very complicated feelings about motherhood. The risks, the responsibilities, all of it. And that’s okay. Because being a mom isn’t for everyone. And being able to admit that is one of the most important aspects of motherhood.
This is why Tini Howard is responsible for the best motherhood story in comics. Because not only do we relate to it, but for maybe the first time in comics history, we see motherhood for what it is: not as an inevitability or as wish fulfillment, but as a choice. And in superhero comics, that’s just about as realistic as you can get.