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Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: House of X #1

Ever comic book fan has been conditioned to revere Wednesdays as New Comic Book Day. It’s basically Christmas every week. However, much like Christmas, not all Wednesdays are equal in terms of the presents they bring. Every now and then, a Wednesday comes along that a certain segment of comic fans come to revere for years to come.

For X-Men fans, this will likely go down as one of those Wednesdays because “House of X #1” is just that astonishing. Every now and then, a book comes along that is presented as a major paradigm shift for the characters, the themes, and the over-arching narrative of a series. In superhero comics, books like that are hyped up at least once a month. Very few deliver on that hype. “House of X #1” is one of those select few.

To say that the X-Men comics needed a book like this is like saying an insomniac needs a good night’s sleep. For years now, going back to the days of “House of M,” both the X-Men and the entire mutant population of the Marvel Universe has been in a constant state of extinction-level crisis. Even when they’re not about to go extinct, they’re caught up in something that has them just one slip-up away from another dytopian future.

In “House of X #1,” writer Jonathan Hickman dares to rebuild the X-Men’s world without first sending them to the brink of extinction. For anyone who has followed X-Men comics for more than two years, this is like a breath of fresh air, a massage, and a chocolate milkshake all rolled into one. It shouldn’t be that radical a concept, but between Hickman’s vision and Pepe Larraz’s beautiful artwork, it sure feels like it.

This bold new world for the X-Men isn’t built around mansions with high-tech jets hidden below the tennis court. You won’t find orbiting asteroids, isolated nations, or island sanctuaries in the middle of San Francisco Bay. This world is more than a nation or sanctuary. It’s a bold new form for Charles Xavier’s dream.

It comes courtesy of Krakoa, a name right out of one of the most iconic X-Men comics of all time. This living island has evolved and Charles Xavier is maximizing its potential with intriguing results. He comes off as more than just a visionary or messianic figure in “House of X #1.” He has a bold new plan for the entire mutant race and it’s big.

By that, I don’t just mean it’s big in terms of goals and scope. This plan is something that changes the way the X-Men operate. It’s not just flying around in X-Jets anymore. It’s not just peaceful protests and confronting bigotry. Charles Xavier is rallying mutants to his cause in a bold new way. He’s also dealing with humans in a new way, as well.

It’s here where “House of X #1” explores some very interesting concepts that take the X-Men into uncharted territory. For much of their history, the X-Men have been either reacting to attacks by their enemies or trying to counter intense hatred and mistrust of mutants. It hasn’t just hindered Xavier’s efforts at peace and understanding. It has kept them isolated and always on the brink.

Rather than simply brace for the worst, Charles Xavier decides to offer something tantalizing to both humans and mutants alike. I won’t spoil too many details. I’ll just say that he puts the X-Men in a unique position, in terms of how the world sees them. It may not win them the love and adulation that the Avengers get, but it does provide some bold incentives.

That’s something that few X-Men comics have ever attempted on this scale. It’s not enough to confront hatred and mistrust. Hickman puts the X-Men in a position to be more diplomatic with the world. They have something to offer the world. Accepting that offer benefits humans and mutants in a tangible, positive way.

Again, that should not be such a radical concept, but Hickman and Larraz present it in a way that feels both novel and vast. It’s not entirely utopian in its potential, but it has the potential to bring positive change to a world and a narrative that needs it.

As a lifelong X-Men fan, “House of X #1” fills me with both curiosity and awe. There’s a lot to love about this bold new world that Hickman and Larraz are building. For once, it’s not just another threat that puts the mutant race on the brink of extinction. There’s a larger effort to do something bigger.

That’s not to say the threats aren’t there. Just as Charles Xavier pursues his bold new vision in “House of X #1,” other visions forged by other characters emerge to present obstacles. Some parts of that vision are new, but there is some familiar imagery that X-Men fans will recognize. It ensures that there will still be plenty of mutant-powered fights in this new world.

At the same time, “House of X #1” creates a clear impression that fighting killer robots will only be a small part of this new vision for the X-Men. There’s so much more going on, both with the characters and with the larger Marvel Universe. After all the upheavals they’ve had over the past 15 years, it finally feels like they have room to grow again.

It’s an exciting time to be an X-Men fan. On top of Kevin Feige confirming that mutants are finally coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Hickman and Larraz are taking X-Men in a bold, if not overdue direction in the comics. This sentiment is even captured perfectly in Charles Xavier’s first lines of the book.

“Humans of the planet Earth. While you slept, the world changed.”

Truer words were never spoken. In a world that gets invaded by aliens, Hydra, and renegade gods every other day, that’s saying something.

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Romance And Tragedy Done Right (In An X-men Comic)

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When it comes to two genres that are often associated with one another, romance and tragedy are the literary equivalent of peanut butter and jelly. When you think of one, it’s not long before you associate it with another. Romance without tragedy is like fries without ketchup. Both are still good on their own, but it’s only when they’re together that they maximize their potential.

In that same spirit that the likes of Shakespeare and “Titanic,” superheroes often follow that narrative, but with more spectacle than old playwrights and even James Cameron could ever imagine. Being such a huge fan of superhero movies and comic books, I’m more familiar with their take on romance and tragedy than most aspiring erotica/romance writers.

As such, when an amazing, uncanny, astonishing, or whatever other adjective that a comic book puts before their title tells a story that truly embodies those ideas, I take notice. Seeing as how I’m also an unapologetic romance fan on top of being a comic book fan, those kinds of stories resonate especially well for me. They don’t come around too often, but when they do, they’re worth appreciating.

This particular story involves the X-men, which should surprise nobody who has followed this blog over the past couple years. It also involves the romance/tragedy of Cyclops and Jean Grey, which should also not surprise anyone. I’ve mentioned them before when talking about balanced romances and insufferable love triangles. This might end up being the most heart-wrenching, albeit for all the right reasons.

The name of the story is called Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey by Matthew Rosenberg. Now, if you don’t want to be spoiled, I strongly encourage everyone to read it. Either buy it at a comic shop or buy the digital version. Even if you’re not a comic book fan, it’s a great story that will still evoke all the right emotions.

That’s because this story does something that’s very rare and very difficult to do. It’s something that everyone form Shakespeare to Tolken to Stan “The Man” Lee struggled with at some point in their creative endeavors. It gets the balance between romance and tragedy right. It gets it so right, in fact, that I intend to judge all future romance/tragedies by this comic. That includes any I write.

To understand how I came to this conclusion, it’s important to understand the context of the story and why it had such a powerful impact. To do that, it’s necessary to point out the circumstances of this story. When it was announced last year, it’s stated goal was to bring Jean Grey back from the dead. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with comics knows that’s not all that groundbreaking.

Superheroes have been dying and coming back to life for decades. While “The Death of Superman” might have been the most high-profile, the initial death of Jean Grey in the original Phoenix Saga is probably the most iconic. That story established Jean Grey as a character who would be defined by death, rebirth, and everything in between. That’s part of the reason it’s the foundation of the “X-men: Dark Phoenix” movie.

That original story had a lot of romantic elements in it, but it was largely defined by its tragic ending. In that original story, Jean Grey willingly sacrificed herself in front of Cyclops and her friends to stop herself from becoming corrupted by the cosmic power of the Phoenix Force.

It was a truly gut-wrenching moment. It’s because of that moment, though, that it’s often singled out as one of the best X-men stories of all time. It was the culmination of Jean Grey’s struggle to deal with the immense power with which she’d been imbued. Moreover, she reached out to that power in order to do the impossible to protect those she loved, even if it corrupted her.

That’s an important detail to note because that’s a theme that would go onto play out on many occasions for Jean, eventually culminating in her second death in 2004. Her constant struggle to manage the immense power granted by the Phoenix Force and the corruption that often came with it is one of the primary driving forces behind Jean’s character. It’s also a big part of her appeal.

Rosenberg uses those same themes, as well as the immense power afforded by the Phoenix Force, to build the tragedy and romance that plays out in Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey. It’s a story that has more drama going for it than most because, despite the presence of time travelers, Jean Grey has been dead since 2004. Her coming back after such a long absence is a big deal for X-men fans and for her character.

The challenge Rosenberg faced was making that resurrection feel more compelling than overdue in an era where dead characters come back all the time. On top of that, Jean’s association with a cosmic force known for death and resurrection means her character basically has a built-in cheat code for bringing her back. How can that be so compelling, let alone raise the bar for romance and tragedy?

This is where the spoilers come in so again, please take the time to read the comic if you can. That’s because the way Jean comes back in this story has less to do with tragedy and more to do with agency. Way back in the original Phoenix Saga, Jean reached out to Phoenix Force in an act to save her friends. It was a choice of desperation.

Well, since that fateful choice, the Phoenix Force has been like a clingy ex, wanting desperately to stay bonded to her, even thought it often corrupts her. I’ve argued before how the context of that corruption might be more complicated than it seems, but on the basis of history alone, Jean Grey has many reasons to regret that choice.

The Phoenix only gives her another in this series. After having bonded with plenty of other hosts since her death, it goes to great lengths to bond with Jean again. It goes so far as to resurrect both her and everyone she ever cared about, creating this own little world in which Jean never experiences the many tragedies that befell her. It’s like the Matrix, but with a volatile cosmic bird running the show.

 

As part of that fantasy world, Jean Grey’s long-time love, Cyclops, is alive and well. That’s critical because, at least for the time being, he’s also dead. The Phoenix Force basically gives her everything to be happy, content, and loved. Keep in mind, though, it’s not doing this out of pure altruism. It wants to bond with Jean again. That’s the goal and the fantasy world is just a means to an end.

That makes the tragedy inevitable. As is often the case with fantasy worlds, even those created by a cosmic power, they tend to crumble under the harsh weight of reality. The way in which this happens is best revealed through the story. However, the part of the story that really balances out that tragedy occurs in the final issue.

In that issue, the fantasy world crumbles, thanks largely to the efforts of Jean’s fellow X-men. Naturally, the Phoenix Force fights this and tries to tempt Jean into bonding with it again, saying its power can give her everything she desires. It can even bring back those she loves.

As part of a last-ditch effort, it demonstrates this by bringing Cyclops back to life. He’s not a clone. He’s not a time traveler. He’s not some illusion either. He’s the real, flesh-and-blood Cyclops, complete with the thoughts, feelings, and passions of the man she married.

It’s a dick move on the part of the Phoenix Force, to say the least. It’s also the moment where the romance balances the tragedy in an important way. That’s because in that moment, Jean makes another fateful choice, one every bit as dire as the one she made in the original Phoenix Saga. This time, though, she lays her heart on the line, knowing damn well it’ll be broken.

Rather than just reject this tactic as another attempt by the Phoenix to lure her in, she embraces it for a brief moment. In that moment, she gets to say goodbye to her husband. She and Cyclops even go out of their way to make clear how much they love each other, both in life and in death. Even if you’re not a big romance fan, this is a moment of pure, unadulterated heart.

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We still know the tragedy is coming. We know it’s a moment that’s going to end with tears and sorrow. Anyone that ever had to read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school English class knows it’s coming and is might think they’re numb to it, especially if they flunked the test.

That’s why it was so important for the story to reaffirm that sentiment. Rosenberg did something critical when he had Cyclops and Jean Grey remind each other just how deep their love went. He gave even greater weight to the loss.

At least with “Romeo and Juliet,” the characters involved had just met. They barely knew each other. Cyclops and Jean Grey’s love story spans 50 years of X-men comics, complete with weddings, clones,  and raising a child together in the future. To know the extent of their love is to know just how much that tragedy hurts.

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That, more than anything, is what puts Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey in a league of its own in terms of romance and tragedy. Instead of the tragedy defining the romance, it’s the other way around. It’s the romance that gives that tragedy such immense weight.

In too many stories, both in comics and in other mediums, tragedy relies too heavily on its own weight to make an impact. Making a love story dependent on that tragedy gives the impression that the love needed it in order to have depth. That’s why, when the tragedy eventually occurs, it doesn’t always hit all the emotional chords.

Rosenberg left no emotional chords unstruck with this story. It’s because Jean shared that special moment with the man she loved that her decision to reject the Phoenix Force carries so much weight. That decision comes with so much pain, anguish, and sorrow. It’s one thing to just depict it. It’s quite another to truly convey it.

That’s what truly makes Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey so special. It conveys both the breadth of the romance and the extent of the tragedy. Moreover, it does that in a way where one complements the other. For a romance built heavily around two characters operating as equals, I can’t think of anything more fitting.

Again, if you’re fan of romance, tragedy, or both, check out Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey. Even if you hate comics and the X-men, this one will evoke all the right emotions. You’ll shed tears of sorrow and joy at the same time. It’ll feel so weird, but so right.

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What Jean Grey Of The X-men Can Teach Us About Life, Love, And Growing Up

These days, when most people read comics or watch movies, they do with an emphasis on escapism, spectacle, and an ability to talk/whine about it on message boards. Most people would rather not consume media with the idea that it has a bigger lesson to teach. We got plenty of those lessons in grade school and most of us got sick of that crap before we hit puberty.

However, there are occasions when a comic, movie, or TV show reveals something deeper about ourselves and our world that’s worth noting. I’m not talking about the kinds of crazy fan theories that claim Jack in “Titanic” never existed. It is possible for the media we consume to give us real, meaningful insights about ourselves.

That brings me back to comic books and X-men. Yes, this is going to be another one of those posts. After talking so much about the horrors of millennial life and the potential horrors of their children, I’m in need of a less serious topic. I think I’ve made clear that I love comics, I love X-men, and I’ll keep finding reasons to talk about them on this blog.

As it just so happens, a comic came out that conveys just such a lesson. It involves Jean Grey again. Other than Wonder Woman, she’s one of the most frequent topics of discussion on this blog. Considering she has a movie coming out next year, that’s likely to continue.

However, this comic has little to do with her movie and more to do with the themes of Jean Grey’s struggle. Some of them are relevant in the sense that they’re common to many major superheroes. Others are more subtle in that they have a bigger message to convey, one that applies to those who don’t have superpowers.

I doubt that the message that Marvel, a company owned by Disney, no less, intends to convey directly. Most of that message is indirect, but it can still function as a lesson, of sorts, that even aspiring erotica/romance writers like myself can appreciate.

The comic, in question, is Jean Grey #6. It’s the latest in a series that began earlier this year and focuses on the exploits of a teenage Jean Grey, who was plucked from the past several years ago in an event that has too many complications to go over without inducing migraines.

You don’t need to know too many of the particulars. You only need to know that she has a good reason for not liking her future. A lot of her adult life, as has played out in the X-men comics over the years, involves death, rebirth, and more dying at the hands of overwhelming power, often at the hands of the Phoenix Force.

Her teenage self is understandably frustrated with how that life played out. For the past several years, she’s gone to considerable lengths to change her fate, going so far as to ditch the X-men and try to be a normal teenage girl. As is often the case with superheroes, and teenagers in general, that doesn’t work. She still finds herself dragged back into the world of X-men and superheroes.

To her credit, she has handled herself fairly well. She’s managed to endure a space adventure with the Guardians of the Galaxy, go on trial for her future crimes that she’s yet to commit, and take part in a superhero civil war. It’s worth remembering, though, that she’s a teenager. She’s doing all this while also being one of the most powerful mutants in all of Marvel comics.

Her solo series, as written by a very talented writer named Dennis Hopeless, takes Jean Grey out of those roles with the X-men and sends her on a more personal journey. As I said before, her adult life is plagued by many complications that end up killing her. Chief among them, though, is the Phoenix Force. Pretty much all her frustrations begin and end with Phoenix Force.

She’s spent most of her time in the future just actively avoiding it or not thinking about it. In the very first issue of her solo series, though, she gets a message that makes clear she can’t ignore it anymore. Eventually, she has to prepare to confront the all-powerful Phoenix Force and all the problems/heartache it’ll cause her.

As part of that effort, she’s been seeking guidance from various sources throughout the Marvel universe. In a universe full of gods, aliens, and talking raccoons, there’s a lot to go around. Jean Grey #6 has her touch base with Dr. Strange. Those who saw Benedict Cumberbatch bring the charming sorcerer supreme to life last year shouldn’t be too surprised.

It actually starts off fairly similar to her previous efforts to seek guidance from more experienced Marvel heroes. Dr. Strange agrees to help her, which involves a little mystical mojo that should offend One Million Moms and amuse card-carrying Satanists. It’s here, though, where the journey and the lesson play out.

It’s a spirit quest, of sorts, one that takes the teenage Jean Grey through the life she seems doomed to live. It spans multiple eras of X-men comics, from the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby days of Uncanny X-men to her latest death in the early 2000s. What makes this journey a bit rockier, though, is that she’s not just a spectator.

These visions of her future self aren’t just there to remind her why her future sucks. They’re basically drills sergeants trying to hammer some hard lessons into her head that Jean, and teenagers in general, refuse to learn.

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It’s here where Jean starts to get a harsh lecture on having one persona that you have for all those around you while also having a very different, much less pleasant persona just under the surface. Like celebrities that are assholes when the camera isn’t rolling, some people have to pretend to be something they’re not.

With Jean Grey, one of the most powerful mutants on the planet, it’s even more difficult. Jean’s vision basically tells her what she refuses to admit. She makes herself out to be this quiet, upstanding young woman on a team of teenage boys. However, under the surface, she knows she’s more powerful than everyone else on her team and most other teams.

Her maintaining that facade is like trying to play chess with a brain-damaged monkey and trying to give the monkey a fair chance. As is the nature with mutant powers, she can’t turn them off. She can’t ever not be so powerful and frustrated. It’s a lesson that is hard for a teenage girl to wrap her head around, but easy for most adults who can’t stop being adults.

By now, it should be somewhat easier to see the real-life parallels here. We’re talking about overwhelming feelings that we can’t turn off, which tend to affect us greatly later in life. As teenagers, we don’t know how to deal with them or even how to make sense of them. They still affect us, though. We can try to ignore them all we want, but that doesn’t make them go away.

I’ll give the less kinky readers a moment to fill in the blanks. In the meantime, the life lessons in Jean Grey #6 get a lot harsher. As Dr. Strange guides her towards other moments in her life, she encounters a later version of herself that fans of the 90s X-men cartoon should recognize.

This is a version of Jean Grey who has put in the time, effort, and passion to endear herself to a lot of people. This is the woman that many of the other X-men see, or want to see, when they look at teenage Jean Grey. There’s a reason why Jean ranks among the most popular X-men characters of all time. The woman she becomes, which also happens to be a woman teen Jean resents, is just that endearing.

It’s a lot for anyone to live up to. Being a teenage girl, though, Jean isn’t going to just accept that this is the person she becomes. She knows that person still ends up dying. She knows that person still succumbs to the demons she can’t control, namely the Phoenix Force.

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It gets even harsher, though. As with every teenager, Jean Grey’s perspective is very limited. She hasn’t experienced enough of the world to understand what actually shapes someone into a functioning adult.

She, like many other teen heroes, have this idealized version of who they want to be and what life is like. It’s tragic, but inevitable that such idealism will eventually be shattered. That’s just the nature of life, in general. Ideals are for a perfect world and nobody, not even superheroes, live in a perfect world.

This is where the message becomes bigger than Jean Grey. It’s a message that can resonate with all teenagers. Her older self basically lays it out for her in a way so simple that even a teenage mind can process it. The life she thinks is doomed to tragedy and pain isn’t just a matter of rotten luck and crushing disappointment. It’s just life.

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It’s one of those messages that can apply to much more than superheroes and mutant powers. It can apply almost every teenager to some extent at some point in their lives. They’re just starting to learn what the world is like without the rose-colored glasses of childhood. They’re just starting to feel things that are strange, powerful, and make their pants feel tighter than they want. It’s not a tragedy. It’s just life.

It’s a lesson almost every teenager learns the hard way, regardless of whether or not they have mutant powers. I certainly did. I challenge anyone reading this comic, my novels, or this blog to say otherwise. The transition between childhood and adulthood is hard and it has to be hard because it’s such a harsh world.

On top of that, we have to enter that world with all these powerful feelings and emotions that kids just can’t process. This is where the Phoenix Force, the utter bane of Jean Grey’s life and many deaths, enters the picture.

In a sense, this cosmic space bird is a manifestation of the greatest extremes that we experience. In the comics, it’s a force that pushes Jean Grey’s powers over the edge and beyond. In life, it’s basically every overwhelming experience we’ve ever had, amplified to infinity.

When you’re a teenager, you’re full of all sorts of overwhelming feelings. As an adult, they’re still overwhelming, but you gain a sense of perspective. From our ability to love to our desire to make love, it’s a powerful force that shapes how we live and how we die. Being immature teenagers, and even immature adults, we often try to suppress it. Not only does that fail, but it can make everything worse.

Jean Grey, being a teenager, can’t wrap her head around those extremes, be they the Phoenix Force or just being a functional adult. Again, the visions of her older self basically have to belabor it, to the point of frustration.

In her vision, she starts to gain a better perspective of what these feelings are. She comes to see the Phoenix Force as more than just that big cosmic fire bird that ends up killing her twice. It’s not just a force for death. It’s also a force for life. Being a teenager, she can’t help but focus on the death. In doing so, she only ever obsesses over one extreme.

That’s understandable for a teenager who hasn’t lived enough of a life to make sense of it. It’s also the exact mentality that gets her killed. It’s why people who obsess over death tend to live in a state of near-constant distress. It affects them and those around them. By only focusing on one extreme, they basically doom themselves.

Jean Grey is in that exact position. She’s focused entirely on the end, but not on everything else around it. Teenagers, with their limited experiences, are like that and through no fault of their own. That’s why they’ll make such poor decisions, both in their adult lives and in their personal lives.

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This is where Jean Grey has her most defining moment of the comic, if not the past five years of X-men comics. Despite the benefit of foresight afforded to her by time travel and psychic abilities, she still refuses to confront the extremes of the Phoenix Force. She refuses to accept the person she becomes.

Finally, after all the belaboring and mystical-induced spirit quests, she does it. She finally takes a step back from the doom and gloom of her impending death. She finally looks at the bigger picture. She admits that who she is now and who she’s afraid of becoming are the same person. Those feelings that overwhelm her that she’s been trying to suppress are there and they’re not going away.

As an X-men fan and a fan of personal insight, it was one of the most satisfying moments I’ve reading an X-men comic that didn’t involve Emma Frost’s costume. It was one of those moments that felt much bigger than the character. It’s a powerful message that people without mutant powers can appreciate.

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Jean Grey’s struggles are very much akin to the struggles everyone faces when they have overwhelming experiences of any kind. Those experience don’t always have to have a sexual or personal connotation, but those are the ones that tend to stick out.

They’re also the experiences that teenagers, and even many adults, are likely to suppress. They’ll see certain experiences and desires as this powerful, dark force that will consume and destroy them, much like the Phoenix Force. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Just acknowledging that those feelings exist is an important step, especially for a teenager. There are people out there right now in societies and cultures that pressure them to repress desires that cannot be repressed. Like Jean and the Phoenix Force, those feelings eventually find us in the long run. If we refuse to confront them, then they can destroy us.

It’s a powerful lesson, especially for young people still making sense of their experiences. They may not have Jean Grey’s psychic abilities or the insight provided by time travel, but their future still seems every bit as daunting. It only becomes less daunting when you step back and realize that the overwhelming feelings we dread are just part of life, in general. We can’t always suppress them. Sometimes, we just have to embrace them.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Jack Fisher's Insights, Marriage and Relationships