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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Temporary Deaths: The First Deadly Sin of Modern Comics

( The first part of a seven-part series examining cliches of the last decade of American comics. Illustrations are all by yours truly. )

The Trend: A major superhero is killed off in front of the audience. The truth, however, is that they didn't actually die, and will later come back in some really contrived supernatural manner-- writers have stopped pretending that dead means dead, and will kill off a character to do stories about their absence. But the cast all believes the hero is dead, so we're subjected to long, often angsty mourning scenes before they return.

The Culprits: Batman ( Batman RIP and Final Crisis ), Captain America ( Captain America: Reborn ), an arseload of DC heroes in Blackest Night ( such as Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Hawkman and Hawkgirl, and others who will be starring in Brightest Day ), Hawkeye ( twice in Bendis' run on Avengers ), Phoenix ( Planet X and Phoenix: Endsong ), Thor ( Thor Disassembled, though that was a case of taking the Odinson off the board until they got a creative team with a good hook for him ). The ur-example is, of course, Superman's Death in the 1990's.

The Problem: Reading superhero comics, we already have to suspend a lot of disbelief. And this isn't even counting the ability to accept a world full of gods, aliens, robots, demons, and other polygenre supernaturals. Unless you're reading a creator-owned superhero comic like Dynamo 5 or Invincible ( both of which I strongly recommend, BTW ), you're dealing with characters who are frozen in place in the interests of the franchise. Peter Parker is never going to see his thirtieth birthday, Tony Stark's origin story is going to be retconned to take place in wherever America last fought an unpopular war*, and no super-battle is going to end with the hero getting capped in the head and stuffed in a box. This isn't to say that franchise superheroes are inherently stifling to innovation, just that there are restraints that writers have to work around creatively.

Having a character get killed off with no intention of having them stay dead isn't working around the restraints, it's calling attention to them. It's reminding us that nothing that happens has consequence because everything gets reset, and in doing so, it makes the stories told during the hero's dirt cat-nap seem like a waste of time.

Take the death of Captain America. If I were to actually believe that Steve Rogers could stay dead, I would absolutely love Brubaker's stories since, because Bucky Barnes is a more interesting Captain than his Patriotic Super-Jesus predecessor. But when you stop treating these as a coming of age story about Bucky overcoming his trauma to take up his brother-in-arms' duties, and realize that said brother-in-arms was just sent off on a really contrived Groundhog D-Day scenario, it becomes less engaging because it's just Bucky as the substitute. Even though I love Ed Brubaker's writing and appreciate him keeping Bucky around as Cap, I just know that when Steve Rogers said he wanted Bucky to stay as Cap or else he'd die, that Steve was breaking the fourth wall. The whole exercise was enjoyable, but it required a lot of disbelief to be actively suspended.

Worse than that is the current situation with Batman, which follows a very similar structure, but is even more ridiculous and difficult to accept. The fact that we learn from the start that Bruce isn't dead makes it seem like all the heroes mourning him are fools, since they live in the DC Universe and are even more familiar than us with means to bring a character killed by unusual means back. And unlike with Steve and Bucky, Dick Grayson is not a more interesting character than Bruce Wayne-- he's had his sidekick inferiority complex for many moons now, and the fact that he's actually been forced to replace his mentor makes the whining super-obnoxious ( though to at least Grant Morrison's credit, the whining's been abbreviated in the main book ). We know that Dick isn't going to get the chance to step up and become the Batman, so as entertaining as the stories are, it's hard to ignore the fact that they're killing time until the main event of Bruce's return. Again, if I believed that Dick would stay as Batman ( and since Batman is a character who exists across so many different media and adaptations, it'd be easy for DC to do alt-continuity stories with the original Caped Crusader while allowing DickBat to continue and develop ), I might not have this problem.

I'm not even going to approach the blanket resurrection of Blackest Night, since I haven't actually read the final issue, but I stopped reading that series early because calling textual attention to the endless cycles of death and resurrection on superhero comics didn't make them any easier to tolerate.

The Solution: Find more unique means to take a major player off the board, ones that don't involve rigor mortis. Tony Stark has been removed from the Marvel Universe three times without killing him; once in a drinking binge, again when dying of nerve damage and faking his death to undergo surgery, and most recently when he became a fugitive bent on destroying the data in his brain. When Chris Claremont wanted to shake up the X-Men way back inthe Mutant Massacre, he didn't kill Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Shadowcat-- he just sidelined them with serious injuries, severe enough to take them off the team and shake the X-Men's confidence, but certainly not a death sentence. And Professor Xavier is the undisputed master of finding ways to disappear when a writer feels like the X-Men don't need adult supervision ( he was stranded in space during the Mutant Massacre, for example ).

With these solutions, you can do stories about a major character's absence without needing a super-silly resurrection story.


  1. I completely agree. I see you only slightly mewntioned Jean. Remember, she's died and returned so much Cyclops should be in a crazy farm now.

    Is she dead again? Is Scott a widower?

  2. I hate this well worn trend as well. Buffy did it in the series but made it work by at least making it plausible in some way, and by having it fit the reality of the series - magic can do what it can do, but in the comics they have brought back the still-flayed Warren and it is ridiculous. But this is a minor part of a much wider comic trend, of which Batman and Captain America are surely the worst culprits. Y'know, there is another genre that does this ad nauseum - soap operas. I rest my case.

  3. BTW, love your cartoon! Very funny :D

  4. Jack,

    Jean is currently dead, and Scott is a widower who's rebounding with Emma Frost, who he had psychic sex with shortly before Jean's last passing. So...yeah.

  5. See what I mean....soap opera. Bold and the mutants.

  6. its absolutely brilliant when they kill them off for real, especially when you don't want them to like Sand Man and when Grant Morrison originally killed Jean Gray

  7. Great article! But wasn't Cap's death just as silly as Batman's? He was trapped in time or something? Hell, they had a body just like Bruce Wayne's and everything. Heck, their sidekicks even took over.

    I only read Batman and Robin so I don't know how much whining Dick actually does in the others, but it seems pretty understated in BaR.

  8. Tom, I agree that Cap's death was just as silly as Batman's, but at least the actual Reborn series wrapped up fairly quickly ( in length, if not actual scheduling thanks to Bryan Hitch's inability to meet deadlines ). This Return of Bruce Wayne thing is not only being drawn out across its own series, but also Batman and Robin, and it goes through the entirety of human history ( as seen with the designs for Cave-Bats, Pirate Bats, Salem Bats, etc. ).

    Also, Bucky is a much better replacement for Cap than Dick is for Batman. Dick's whining under Grant Morrison is only understated in the sense that he's an inherently obnoxious character with a massive sidekick complex. Bucky, on the other hand, has been a wonderful character since he was recreated as the Winter Soldier, and he doesn't whine as much because he's just trying to move forward with his life after the Cosmic Humiliation Conga Line he's been through.

    Not to mention Dick's whining under writers other than Grant Morrison ( who is one of my favorites, and produces a Batman comic that be inconsistent in quality but has some really brilliant moments ). Judd Winick, in his fill-in run before Tony Daniel took over the other Batman book, took Dick's one-panel rant about having to deal with a cape and drew it out over two pages of B&Ming.

  9. Fantastic post as always, Nitz.

    One of my personal Berserk Buttons is the Scourge Of the Underworld, arguably Mark Gruenwald's one creative brain fart.

    Quite frankly, I'm angered to see so many perfectly usable villains thrown away like dirty toilet paper. So much potential was wasted by the likes of the Scourge-Megatak and his delusional video game psyche, the Ringer and his borderline Marxist self-loathing, the Basilisk and his Fantastic Four-levels of power, the Human Fly and his twisted mutations...the list goes on.

    Honestly, what's the harm of leaving the C- and D-listers in jail until a later writer comes up with something good to do with them?

    Danny Fingeroth gave the Ringer an impressive makeover when he returned in the "Lethal Foes of Spider-Man", as Strikeback, a man who'd overcome his previous self-esteem issues and Taken A Level in Badass in the process, taking down Boomerang, the Vulture, Swarm and Stegron one after another to try and reunite with his wife Leila. He would eventually die from his wounds, although he was a man at peace with himself. He also inspired Leila to become something of a hero herself, even as she perished while fighting Graviton.

    Anthony and Leila Davis's deaths had at least some meaning to them, and they weren't treated as throwaway deaths. Fingeroth showed exactly how a comic book death *should* be done, by treating it as something rare and significant, and not just simply destroy a character because a writer doesn't like them and would rather destroy them rather than put them back in the toybox until someone else wants to use them.

    Seriously, just leave them in jail. Not only do you leave the character for the next guy that wants to use him or her, you also get the bonus of averting Cardboard Prison Syndrome, by showing that at least *some* of the bad guys don't get escape after five minutes in the slammer (I'm looking at you, Joker...)

    Even worse than pointless deaths that treat characters like C-List Fodder, of course, are the retcons that undo deaths that were handled right the first time. The deaths of Norman Osborn and Gwen Stacy in the 1970s was given all the pathos it deserved, from the grief Peter Parker suffered at Gwen's death to the acceleration of Harry Osborn's mental breakdown. The death of Aunt May in the 1990s was a perfect end to her story, putting Peter's mind at ease in that she didn't die at the hands of one of his enemies, but instead dying at peace, in the company of her loved ones.

    Fast forward a few years and these are all retconned in some stupid way-Norman Osborn has a healing factor, Gwen Stacy does it for donuts with a man old enough to be her father, and Aunt May was replaced with a genetically-identical actress.

    So, in short, that's what drives me batty about deaths in comics-namely that so many of them are cheap throwaways, and some of the ones that are handled correctly can be retconned and turned into Wall Bangers of epic proportions.