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.