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Characters vs. Concepts

August 15, 2011

Over time, I, like many other fans, have become more and more cynical about comic books as familiar tropes are reused over and over, and companies pull ridiculous editorial mandate stunts in attempts to boost sales. For example, the knowledge that Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, may very well be returning to life in less than six months simply confirms most people’s suspicions that the Future Foundation concept wouldn’t last forever. It’s just much sooner than we expected. And at the very least, the Future Foundation will continue on in its own book, though bereft of its main cast as the team returns to the Fantastic Four. Likewise, the Fantastic Four will be bereft of a huge chunk of its supporting cast, who will be starring in FF. An odd choice, to be sure. But I digress. My point is that cynicism has permeated into the popular consciousness so much that even non-comic book fans know about how often superheroes die and come back, and many similar tropes are discussed by the characters themselves in some sort of metatextual commentary.

Well, just recently, I finally put my finger on the problem. There’s a very simply way of defining most of the problems with comic book writing today, though I would be lying if I said there’s an easy way to fix those problems. They all boil down to this: writers are writing for concepts rather than for the characters. That’s what the whole status quo thing is. Marvel and DC each come up with some crazy idea and twist all their characters to fit that idea for a year or so before moving onto the next big thing. And the DCnU? It’s just one massive change to force the characters to fit “modern” and “hip” ideas. The changes aren’t deriving from the characters themselves. And that’s what leaves so many comic book fans annoyed when they read a lot of these books. The most satisfying stories are character-driven ones because of how naturally the events develop from the characters’ personalities and how they deal with the world. Take a look at Civil War, for example. It was an exciting concept, to be sure, but fans cried foul because Iron Man was suddenly a total dick willing to put all his friends in chains, and Captain America was suddenly completely irrational in his anti-registration crusade. Their reactions weren’t natural for their personalities, and that left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

And Mark Millar’s just one example of a concept-driven writer. Geoff Johns is horribly guilty of writing for the concepts. Sure, he managed to nail down Hal Jordan’s personality perfectly, but Brightest Day was just one giant mess of character tweaking via retcons because Johns wanted the characters to be how he saw them rather than how they were. His “concepts” of the Brightest Day and each of their backstory changes overrode the characters themselves. The difference is that I just happen to like his concepts better, but he’s just as guilty. So are many other writers, including Brian Michael Bendis (Scarlet Witch is crazy and Wolverine and Spider-Man as Avengers, to start), Matt Fraction (Hammerz for everyone!), J. Michael Straczynski (Superman refusing to fly, the “new” Wonder Woman, Thor in Broxton, and partially One More Day), and even Grant Morrison (incorporating all those old, ridiculous Batman stories into modern continuity even though they no longer make sense, if they ever did in the first place), to varying degrees. Of course, some were successful because they happened to work with the characters, like Thor and virtually everything Morrison does with Batman. But in both those cases, Straczynski and Morrison took stock of the characters they were writing. You can’t write without concepts, or else it’s just characters doing nothing, but they used their concepts to develop the characters, rather than used the characters to develop the concepts, as so many writers do.

But in mainstream comics, the writer I’d have to say is the best with character-based writing is Gail Simone. Why do Secret Six and Birds of Prey just feel so good and so right? Because Simone is writing for the characters. She even did that with Wonder Woman; her weird concepts, like Genocide and Wonder Woman’s trip to another world, helped flesh out Wonder Woman as a character. The choices weren’t just random because Simone thought it would be cool for Diana to face an evil, crazy future version of herself; it provided her with a personal foil and allowed Simone to show Diana’s compassion and other positive traits shining through even in adversity. It wasn’t just her saying, “Diana needs to be like this because that would be so much cooler.” As I believe I’ve seen many people say, comics need less fanboys who want to force their interpretations on the characters and more writers.

Now of course with Secret Six, many of those characters are Simone’s own creations. Really, it was only Deadshot that she didn’t either create or redefine. That’s the biggest benefit of creator-owned books, a point I must concede to Robert Kirkman. If you create your own characters, then you define their personalities, making “out of character” moments less frequent. I do also believe that writers can make their own characters act out of character if they’re really not “listening to their characters’ voices,” as it where, but it’s much harder. To me, Grant Morrison is the perfect balance of concept and character. You do need a setting and a plot around which to develop the characters, and Morrison navigates that gray area with his Batman work particularly well. I’ll have to read some of his other stuff to see if that’s something he’s consistently good at, but I figure he’s not one of the most popular writers in comic book history for nothing. He does trip up occasionally, but who doesn’t?

But someday, I just hope that writers can get over their childhood fantasies about whichever superhero doing this awesome but random thing and can just… tell a story. A real story in which characters have consistent personalities *cough*Bendis*cough* and act believably both in reference to how real people might act and to themselves. You know, so we don’t read two different runs on the same series with the same characters and wonder why the same person seems to be inexplicably so radically different because writer 2 thought writer 1 didn’t get that person quite the way he did, even though writer 1 was basing his interpretation far more on past stories than fanboyism. Just saying.

Rush Job

August 7, 2011

One of the biggest game surprises that I’ve had in the past couple years was Dragon Age: Origins, which had some of the best storytelling and character crafting I’ve ever seen. So naturally, I waited with baited breath for its sequel, Dragon Age II, which was released only about a year and a half later. Though since I played Origins over six months after its release, it was only about a year. Dragon Age II starts out with an important tie to the story of Origins: the Blight rushing upon Fereldan. One family from Lothering, the Hawkes, flees from the Blight as it moves north, and along the way, they bump into the Witch of the Wilds, Flemeth, who takes them to safety in return for a favor. You play as the eldest son of the Hawkes, who you get to name, and you get to choose your class, though not your race. You and your family, down one member, as one of your two siblings dies less than half an hour into the game, along with the warrior woman Aveline Vallen, travel north to the Free Marches city of Kirkwall, where your mother’s family was nobility. Keyword, was. Your uncle has lost all their money, and you have to work to pay just to get into the city.

Over the course of your time in Kirkwall, you meet a number of interesting characters, including the pirate captain you met in Denerim in Origins, Isabela, the former First of the Dalish clan from the Dalish origin in Origins, Merrill, the wayward apostate Grey Warden, Anders, a business-savvy, storytelling dwarf named Varric Tethras, an escaped elven slave from Tevinter with strange powers named Fenris, and if you buy the Exiled Prince DLC, the heir to the Free Marches city of Starkhaven formerly promised to the Chantry, Sebastian Vael. As you try to survive in Kirkwall, you end up finding your way up in the world and get caught up in the city’s various troubles, most notably a rather large group of qunari shipwrecked in the city and increasing tensions between the Circle and the Templars, both of whom are led by very stubborn individuals. And this whole story is told as a flashback by Varric, who is being interrogated by a mysterious woman from a Chantry-related organization called the Seekers who claims that in Hawke’s rise to glory, he/she caused a terrible catastrophe that has changed the entire world.

Cool premise, right? Strong basis in pre-existing Dragon Age history, a diverse cast, it all sounds like an instant winner. Or it would be, had the development team not decided that speed was more important than quality. In their hurry to complete the game, Dragon Age’s creators left quite a few things unpolished, and those are the game’s most obvious flaws. For one, the area that the game takes place in is extremely geographically small: Kirkwall and its surrounding environs. Now, they could have made the city absolutely massive with dozens of areas so that it still seemed far larger than it was. Instead, you only have four major areas within the city and two that you revisit all the time, and there’s very little change in what’s there. Plus, there’s only one cave, Deep Roads, warehouse, sewer, etc. map, so all the dungeon maps are constantly reused. Seriously cutting corners. By the end, you know you’ve been to those same warehouses a dozen times. And the city brothel looks just like Fenris’ mansion looks like Varric’s brother’s mansion looks like the fake guard headquarters, etc.

The plot is also rather lacking in many areas. The concepts are, again, very solid. It’s great to see these major ideologies, a.k.a. qunari, mage, and templar, butt heads. It teaches you a ton about the world of Thedas, and they’re all very natural conflicts. The problem is that the game’s writers didn’t take full advantage of their potential. The qunari leader, the Arishok, is well developed, but First Enchanter Orsino and Knight-Commander Meredith only pop up at the end of the second act out of three. And you still barely get to know them in the third act. Perhaps the writers’ intention was to make us fear and be interested in these characters by their absence. Sometimes that can be used to great effect. But instead, this just served as a letdown. Both turn out to be flat characters who don’t seem to have much reason for their actions aside from “well duh that’s what a mage/templar would do!” Sure, Meredith has a tiny bit better of a reason, but you can only find that out if you make the right in-game decision. Worse, your in-game decisions aren’t really as crucial as they could be. One of your party members does something horrible that affects the entire city, and even though you had three acts to convince him to change his ways, there’s nothing you can do to stop him. Your friendship does nothing to change this character; it just enables him. It makes you feel rather powerless. The writers did want to convey this feeling of “tossed around by circumstance,” but instead, it just comes across as lazy, like they didn’t want to spend the time to do all the work that major diverging plot choices would entail.

Worse, the characters, the signature part of Bioware games, fall flat. Aside from arguably Merrill (who, for some reason, has a sizable crowd of haters despite being the sweetest, most stupidly innocent person in the entire world whose every word makes me want to hug her), the rest of the characters are boring to varying degrees. Anders and Fenris are angsty and as stupidly bullheaded as Orsino and Meredith, Varric is a an admittedly funny and likable one-trick pony, Aveline has very little back story, Isabela is rather unsubtly “easy,” and Sebastian is the epitome of a flip-flopper. Some are better, and some are just horrible. The worst are your siblings, which provide virtually no extra depth to the story and do nothing. Bethany’s a waste of space, and Carver’s an absolute asshole who would disapprove of your actions if you were the messiah. Your mother’s pretty useless too. Even Hawke himself is stuck between the three options of being an incorrigible master of sarcasm, an absolute do-gooder, or a complete jerk. You can’t have more subtle nuances of character, as the game keeps track of your picks and eliminates certain plot choice options. If the developers had spent extra time, they might have realized that three stereotyped options eliminate the numerous possibilities of more complex gameplay and roleplaying.

True, there are many good things about this game. The graphics are absolutely great, a massive improvement on Origins, and the voice acting is of equal quality. The gameplay is very streamlined in the same fashion that Mass Effect 2 did for Mass Effect, though some people find that this streamlining in both or either game is diluting the RPG experience. I thought that the gameplay changes were an improvement, as some battles in Origins moved at a snail’s pace as my character slowly swung his sword over and over. Still, I could do without my enemies inexplicably exploding when I just cut them. They’re people, not True Blood vampires. The music is also suitably fantasy and Dragon Age-esque. But the biggest feeling I got from playing Dragon Age II was that there was so much wasted potential. If the development team had not rushed for that early shipping date, if they had taken full advantage of the game’s gameplay and plot potential with more complex characters, greater plot development, and more plot choice, it might have been a suitable sequel to Origins. Instead, it was just disappointing because the original was so much better. It’s still a rather solid game, to be sure. I’ve played it twice, and it wastes quite a lot of time, and it’s still fairly engrossing. But in comparison to Origins, it’s just sloppy. I expected much better from Bioware.

Story: 7.2      Gameplay: 9.0      Presentation: 8.3      Soundtrack: 8.5      Acting: 9.3      Overall: 8.2

Fear, Rise!

August 2, 2011

Seriously, it’s rather hard to not notice the structural similarities between Fear Itself and Blackest Night. And the parallels continue in Fear Itself #4, which sees the Serpent finally come back to full strength. Thor finally makes it back from Asgard to Earth and finds the good people of Broxton, Oklahoma no longer interested in being friends with the Norse gods. Odd that Matt Fraction is using that story point in Fear Itself and Mighty Thor at the same time under different circumstances. The Serpent continues to regain his strength as the Worthy cause fear and wreak havoc across the world, and Iron Man, Nick Fury, and Black Widow mourn the fallen Bucky Barnes. Thor returns and gets them up to speed on info on the Serpent, and Captain America girds his loins for battle. Thor informs Steve of the prophecy about him and the Serpent, taken from Ragnarok, which says that they will kill each other. He’s willing to sacrifice himself to save lives, but Steve won’t have any of it. In Canada, Nerkkod: Breaker of Oceans wreaks havoc and slaughters Atlanteans, and the Serpent summons his kingdom in Antarctica, restored to his youth and wielding an impressive scythe. So where’s Batman’s skull to summon his undead minions? I’m only half joking. Thor races to the Serpent’s castle and takes on his minions, Captain America arrives in Manhattan to assist the Avengers, and Iron Man goes to the ruins of Asgard and gives up years of sobriety as a sacrifice to ask Odin for help. And Odin chooses to respond. Skadi attacks the Avengers, and the Serpent offers Thor an opportunity to evade both their fates by joining forces. Thor refuses, and the Serpent unceremoniously tosses him over to Manhattan, where he finds himself facing Nul: Breaker of Worlds and Angrir: Breaker of Souls both at once.

I find that this series is increasingly just a fun summer blockbuster. The story is somewhat there, and the stakes are big enough that it’s engrossing and distracting. But this is not the delightful character piece that you might expect from Matt Fraction. Black Widow has yet to get the chance to deal with her emotions regarding Bucky’s death. Steve only gets one page in the dark to do the same. We could have some excellent introspective on Bucky’s impact and how that relates to fear, but again, none of that. Tony Stark steals the issue with the best moment, which isn’t surprising, since Fraction’s done wonders with Tony for years. I’m interested to see how he’ll deal jumping off the wagon in the months to come. Thor’s pretty much a one-trick pony, continuing to act noble without any real doubt or questions that might make this a deeper, more meaningful story. We also still don’t get very many pictures of normal people being afraid; the only two are the panel in Illinois and the little vignette of the boy in British Columbia. A panel or two featuring common people reacting to Bucky’s death could have been particularly powerful, but we get none of that. This series just still doesn’t really feel like it’s about fear. It’s just about destruction. Things have also been rather slow in terms of bringing the big bad into the forefront, and again, his rise so strongly parallels Nekron’s that you can’t help but wonder if Fraction knowingly used Blackest Night as a blueprint. The whole thing is just lazy writing that entertains but doesn’t inspire. I expected much better from Fraction.

But just like with Flashpoint, the art is significantly better than the story. Stuart Immonen is quickly proving himself one of Marvel’s top artists with his work here. Every action page crackles with energy and dynamism, and he conveys emotions very well through his faces. All of the characters look properly majestic when the scene calls for it, and he manages to suggest complex emotions in Steve’s scene in the dark that makes up a bit for the weakness of Fraction’s script. I particularly like the parallel page layouts near the beginning of the book with the various vignettes and Odin and the Serpent talking. It shows us what many important characters are doing across the world (though again, more shots of common folk dealing with fear would have been nice) and reminds us of the connection between the two gods. Laura Martin’s colors are also absolutely superb, and their otherworldliness in the scenes with the Serpent and the Worthy really enhance Immonen’s art rather nicely.

So this is a fun read, but it’s just not what I had personally hoped. This book could have had so many more great character moments and could have utilized the concept of fear to much greater effect. Then again, I haven’t truly enjoyed a main Marvel event book in years, so I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised.

Plot: 5.5      Art: 9.4      Dialogue: 8.8      Overall: 5.8

Surprisingly Slow

July 31, 2011

So, what with both the big events going on, I thought I’d take a look at Flashpoint #3, the midway point in DC’s path to the DCnU. Thus far, Barry Allen, the Flash, has woken up in a world radically different from the one he knows, one in which Aquaman and Wonder Woman are at war, and their conflict has decimated Europe. Most superheroes are completely different or absent, and Cyborg, the United States of America’s #1 hero, is trying to rally the world’s heroes together to stop the war. However, he was counting on Batman to help, and Batman’s not interested. After discovering that he doesn’t have his superspeed, he isn’t married to Iris West, and his mother is still alive, Barry went to find Batman and discovered that this Batman is Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas Wayne. As he realized that this is his own timeline, altered, rather than another world, he convinced Wayne that his son is alive in the original timeline and to help him restore things, starting with his speed. However, that went badly when the lightning bolt just burned him alive. In the current issue, he recovers after Wayne bandaged him up. He convinces Wayne to let him try again as his memories continue to change. This time, he’s successful, and he gets back into his familiar colors. In New Themyscira, a.k.a. what used to be Great Britain, Lois Lane manages to finally meet up with the Resistance, even after Steve Trevor’s death in the previous issue. Barry decides to gather together the good old Justice League. Wayne tells Cyborg he’ll help stop the Atlanteans and the Amazons, but they have to do it this way, asking for help finding Superman. They find him emaciated and confused in some sort of lab/holding cell underneath New Metropolis, where the military has been experimenting on him since they found him in his rocket, which had crashed in Metropolis years ago and killed thousands. When they flee from the military, Superman deserts them, and Flash, Batman, and Cyborg find themselves at the ends of many gun barrels.

I have to admit, for what is essentially an Elseworlds story, this one has me rather interested. Geoff Johns is doing a superb job tying in Barry’s mission with the world’s inherent issues, and he’s making all of the characters very compelling. Even Barry’s got more color than usual because of how his mother is alive and Iris is with another man. Thomas Wayne’s willingness to sacrifice himself for his son also provides excellent material. The main problem, however, is that there’s only two more issues, and the team isn’t even together yet. Johns’ biggest mistake was that he’s taken too long introducing all the characters and concepts. After all, we know they still have to gather Hal Jordan before heading to Europe, as they’re obviously supposed to be the new Justice League, with Cyborg replacing Martian Manhunter, as a link to the DCnU. How is he going to get the team together, wrap up the war, face the team against Professor Zoom, and make the timeline change again to the DCnU all in two issues? It’s a rather daunting task that would have been more easily accomplished had Johns simply given himself two more issues to do it in or had cut down on the exposition and gotten things started faster. It’s all exciting and interesting, but that is a rather big issue that’s really hurting this series more than anything else.

The biggest props go to Andy Kubert, who’s drawing the crap out of this book. Kubert was probably the first artist in comic books whose work I really grew to know and like, and he’s doing even better here than anything he’s ever done before. All of the characters are just so crisp and clean, and he does a great job with the lightning effects when Flash is running. Even more exciting is the fact that he can actually differentiate a bit between characters’ faces with different nose types and jawlines, something that most comic book artists artists really struggle with. Characters often all look the same aside from costumes and hair color, so it’s nice to see a veteran artist really make the extra effort.

Absolutely spot-on characterization and superb art. What more could you ask for? Well, again, just a faster-paced story. These last two issues are going to have to move along at breakneck pace, or else I don’t see how Johns will fit all these plot threads in. It’s almost too bad that this world will be gone soon, as I wouldn’t mind Johns doing some more work with it. It’s also too bad that Johns couldn’t write the Flash this well in his own title. At any rate, a lot of these elements will exist in the DCnU, so it’s not all fruitless. Let’s just hope Johns can pick up the pace.

Story: 7.2      Art: 9.6      Dialogue: 9.3      Overall: 7.6

Death in Comic Books: Part 4

July 28, 2011

One of the most important elements of a comic book death is how the character is ultimately resurrected, whether the character was intended to stay dead or not. After all, good writing can always overcome pre-existing reservations, and there have been times when characters were brought back so well that the disbelief about the nature of death in comic books and the annoyance and how it affected other characters was suspended, and the readers were won over. The two best examples of this were Ed Brubaker reviving Bucky Barnes during his still-ongoing Captain America epic, which also saw Bucky take on the mantle of Captain America himself for a few years, and Geoff Johns reviving the Silver Age Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, in the highly critically-acclaimed Green Lantern: Rebirth, which laid the groundwork for his subsequent still-ongoing Green Lantern epic. That’s not to say that these are the only two good examples of resurrections done well. They’re just two particularly shining examples of major characters that are good case studies for what works and what doesn’t.

So what about those two worked so well? The circumstances of each death are wildly different. Bucky Barnes supposedly died when a plane that his arm was stuck to exploded, the circumstances of which provided the back story for Captain America’s revival in the modern day in the pages of the Avengers. Hal Jordan died after his character was suddenly changed via editorial mandate into the villain Parallax. After years of infamy, he sacrificed his life in a final act of redemption to reignite Earth’s sun. Back story versus character salvation from editorial mandate. True, neither story was written by their characters’ original creators, but so are most comic book stories at this point. However, both worked because of these different circumstances. Neither had anything to do with a classic, beloved storyline. Bucky’s death could be argued as such, but as it was a flashback and back story that was not actually depicted at the time it occurred, that’s highly debatable. As for Hal Jordan’s death, this was a way to restore Hal’s heroism after Emerald Twilight so controversially derailed it. One thing the two stories do have in common was that neither character was ever intended to come back. Bucky’s death was a crucial part of Captain America’s life, and Hal had been replaced by the younger Kyle Rayner to revitalize Green Lantern.

However, Ed Brubaker and Geoff Johns both came up with brilliant ideas of how to bring back the characters without damaging the integrity of the original storylines. In Brubaker’s case, we never actually saw Bucky’s death, so it’s not that odd an idea to consider that Steve Rogers might have remembered it wrong, particularly after being trapped in ice for numerous decades. That provided a highly plausible window for his return. As for Johns, Hal had “come back” in a fashion as the new host of the Spectre, so it’s not like he had completely faded out of the DC Universe. But more importantly, although Green Lantern fans had come to love Rayner, Hal’s face heel turn had not been well received by the fans. As such, a revival would be a way to bring back the Hal Jordan that everyone had loved. Additionally, Johns’ idea involved the return of the Green Lantern Corps, which would allow Rayner to remain important and would allow for the return of numerous other classic characters like John Stewart, Guy Gardner, Ganthet, Kilowog, and many more.

Ultimately, Bucky’s resurrection took place in the past. It was revealed that a Soviet general had found Bucky’s frozen form and had revived him before utilizing brainwashing techniques to turn him into one of the most lethal weapons of the Cold War era: the Winter Soldier. This allowed Brubaker to tie Bucky’s life into the Black Widow’s back story, as well as link him to numerous classic Marvel villains from the Soviet Union (though considering the sliding timescale, perhaps they aren’t Soviets anymore). He was kept in cryogenic stasis between missions, and after his “master” died, he was given to his master’s protege, Aleksander Lukin, who was on a collision course with the Red Skull and by extension Steve Rogers. Ultimately, Bucky’s memories returned when Steve used the Cosmic Cube on him (a good choice, as the Cube was a classic Cap item). So really, aside from Bucky’s actual survival, his new back story fleshed things out and added to the Marvel tapestry rather than retconned away. It also brought into the modern Marvel Universe a new character whose existence helped provide new storylines for many years.

Hal Jordan came back far more literally when Parallax was revealed to be a sentient being rather than simply his former villainous codename. He had been possessed by a primal entity of fear on the order of his old nemesis, Sinestro. The creature took advantage of Hal’s disturbed mind in the wake of the destruction of Coast City to take total control of him, and it was responsible for the destruction of the Green Lantern Corps. The Spectre had taken Hal as its host to purify him of Parallax’s control. With Rayner’s aid, Ganthet reunites Hal’s soul and body, and Hal and the other surviving Green Lanterns defeat Sinestro and Parallax. The Guardians of the Universe take the return of the greatest Green Lantern as a sign, deciding to finally rebuild the corps. Although this revival did involve a retcon, it was retconning a much-reviled change in a beloved character. It gave places to all four of the human Green Lanterns, including Hal’s replacement, and laid the foundations for Johns’ extensive re-imagining of the Green Lantern mythos, which connected various disparate elements into a significantly more cohesive, logical whole. The story paid tribute to classic arcs even as it changed them, as even its most important retcon allowed the events of Emerald Twilight, Final Night, and subsequent storylines to remain intact.

So ultimately, the main thing about comic book deaths has to do with retcons. It is true that the constant revival of dead comic book characters can strain believability in terms of the stakes of any given major crisis. It’s when revival stories really pay respect to the ones that caused the characters’ deaths and provide new material for modern stories that readers can overlook the “revolving door.” I would still say that Marvel and DC should be careful about killing off and bringing back characters all the time, as even good revival stories can be too numerous. Not that I’m worried about that, considering how many resurrections are totally unbelievable. That’s one thing that both these stories did. They were perfectly believable within their respective base mythologies. But these two storylines are blueprints for resurrections done right. It would be nice if more writers would take stock of how Brubaker and Johns did it. Then maybe every single comic book death wouldn’t feel so stupid and blatantly money-driven.

There you have it. I may not like comic book deaths, but they can be done well. Right now, though, they’re at such an all-time high that I think there should be a bit of a moratorium on resurrections for a while. “Dead is dead” would be nice for a few years. After all, even though live characters provide plenty of story material, so do meaningful deaths.

Death in Comic Books: Part 3

July 25, 2011

So, in the middle of this discussion, during San Diego Comic-Con, we have the announcement that Cable’s coming back in Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness’ Cable: Reborn. That lasted a long time. And it illustrates my biggest point, the massive problem that comic books have to deal with: cynicism. With so many characters dying and coming back, it’s hard to really feel as though any single death matters. After all, as I said before, the Death of Superman was constructed deliberately to eventually revive Superman. Same with Spider-Man’s the Other. In the kind of story climate we are currently in, in which characters die and come back to life within the same storyline, who can blame the fans for feeling this way? If the character’s a minor, supporting cast member, he/she will be gone. Period. There are a few notable exceptions, like Mary Jane Watson, Lois Lane, and other supporting cast members so crucial to their character’s story that the writers don’t want to get rid of them. So if they “die,” they’ll be back. It already happened to Mary Jane, after all.

But a big name hero? Of course he/she will be back. There’ll be a Reborn series within the next two years, and that’ll be that. Why? Because the comic book industry doesn’t want to get rid of characters who are proven to make them money. Killing off a character and replacing him/her with fresh new ones is a dangerous, risky move, and Marvel and DC would rather keep their “icons” alive and in pristine condition. Still, there’s no doubt that death sells too. Deaths make comic book news headlines and stir up interest, as do resurrections. So they keep killing and resurrecting their characters to generate hype for their storylines and make them seem important and with real consequence.

Of course, if you know that all the characters you really care about will ultimately make it through every storyline or will come back later even if they die, it’s hard to really feel like the stories matter. I mean, not every story requires life or death stakes. Otherwise sitcoms would be significantly bloodier and less funny, though they still do have the occasional death or two for a more somber episode. But superhero comics feature characters regularly risking their lives and hurdling themselves into danger, utilizing ridiculous powers and throwing down with all manners of evil. It’s a kind of war, and in war, people die. Yes, because of these same ridiculous powers, it’s conceivable that some superheroes can defy death. Many have greater resilience and endurance, and others have other unique gifts that let them avoid danger. But if every superhero defies death, if all the big names can always make it through every universe-shattering crisis, then that really takes away the suspense. It makes the supervillains and the threats seem significantly smaller and their stories seem less important. Particularly since, in the current comic climate, books cycle through status quos every year or so. Even non-death-related disasters will be gone fairly soon, and something else will pop up.

So in the end, there’s less believability and less consequence. If major characters really could die, then readers will get sucked up into the story more. There’ll be more suspense, more danger, and more returns on their emotional investments. Comic books should be more than just cycling status quos. Otherwise, they’re just appealing to kids who are more interested in flash and style than in deep, substantive stories. And since comic books have matured over the years, it would be nice if they could reflect that. That is one major plus for creator-owned books: since the characters belong to the writers, they can do whatever they want with them, and they don’t have to keep them “iconic” to satisfy editorial mandates and keep the money rolling in. You can’t really blame the comic book executives; DC and Marvel are companies, and profit comes first and foremost. But it would be nice if good stories, rather than static icons, made the big bucks.

At any rate, it’s just harder and harder to care about all these comic book characters because death means nothing to them. They’ll always be back, so that major events and stories do is toss them around a bit and kill of some inconsequential characters. Including tons of civilians, because they’re always expendable. I’d like to hope that, someday, the Big Two might realize that these practices are hurting their ability to tell good, believable, satisfying stories, but that’s doubtful. Even those writers who might understand that have no choice but to follow mandate, and those companies won’t risk what might happen to their profit margins should their big money-making characters bite the big one for real. So just you wait for Nightcrawler, the Human Torch, Bucky Barnes, and every other currently dead major hero to come back at some point or another. At this point, it’s not an if, but a when.

Still, there are some resurrections that have been successful. So next time, I’ll take a look at some of the really good resurrections, like Bucky Barnes and Hal Jordan.

Death in Comic Books: Part 2

July 22, 2011

Where did this phenomenon known as “comic book death” begin? Well, whether or not there were other instances before, the first real example of comic book deaths was the Dark Phoenix Saga, the first chapter of Chris Claremont’s tour de force as X-Men scribe, which was subsequently reversed in the middle of John Byrne’s famous Fantastic Four run in time for the launch of the first volume of X-Factor. Jean Grey had become the Phoenix and later the Dark Phoenix during the aptly-titled storyline due to the full awakening of her psychic abilities and manipulation by the Hellfire Club. After she destroyed an entire star, dooming the inhabitants of the nearby solar system, Jean Grey realized what she had done and sacrificed herself to save Cyclops and the rest of the X-Men from the judgment of the Shi’ar. Years later, the Fantastic Four discovered Jean Grey, hibernating within a cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay. The Jean Grey who had sacrificed herself years before had been the Phoenix itself, a great cosmic being whose true nature would be elaborated upon by many future writers, that created a copy of Jean Grey’s body and allowed Jean to recover within the cocoon.

Chris Claremont had originally intended for Jean to die in this storyline. Her revival was a retcon invented by Kurt Busiek and later used by Byrne, Bob Layton, and Roger Stern to bring Jean back for X-Factor. However, this opened the door for similar stories to bring back other deceased characters, particularly those who had died under confusing, unclear circumstances (i.e. falling off a cliff, but the body was never found). The first major death of a character who was planned to come back shortly later by the writer of the original storyline was in the Death of Superman by Dan Jurgens. The entire saga, which explored Superman’s impact and legacy, was intended to end with Superman’s return, which it indeed did. This opened up DC’s “revolving door,” a problem which led to numerous characters, including Wonder Woman, Donna Troy, Animal Man, Green Arrow, Superboy, Ice, Kid Flash, Green Lantern, and ultimately the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, dying and subsequently returning to life. Geoff Johns played with dealing with this issue in the last major Teen Titans arc before Infinite Crisis, which saw about half of the team deal with the new Brother Blood, who had used Kid Eternity to keep the door between life and death open. Johns ultimately explained these resurrections as caused by Nekron, a being who was the sentience of the chaos and nothingness that existed in the universe before the beginning of life, trying to get a hold on this plane to return everything to darkness. Now I won’t get into the fact that the absence of life is different from death, but Johns claimed that this would put an end to DC’s revolving door, even though the event ultimately saw twelve characters revived from death at its end (though Deadman did die again by the end of Brightest Day).

Marvel has never dealt with this issue openly, and it is arguably a bigger offender than DC, particularly with the X-Men. Jean Grey, Magneto, Professor Xavier, and Apocalypse have died and come back many times, and Wolverine’s healing schtick is such that he’s probably actually died on hundreds of occasions. In concert with DC, Marvel also completely defied the old adage that nobody stays dead in comics but Uncle Ben, Jason Todd, and Bucky Barnes when Marvel revived Bucky in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run and Judd Winick revived Jason in his Batman run. Brubaker even took this one step further, killing the original Cap, Steve Rogers, and resurrecting him within two years, then allowing Matt Fraction to kill Bucky in the pages of Fear Itself within the last couple of months. The constant deaths and resurrections have caused such cynicism from the fans that few actually expect that the three biggest recent Marvel deaths, Bucky, Nightcrawler, and the Human Torch, will stick for very long, particularly since the last of those three died in an unseen, ambiguous manner typical of comic book deaths. Even the characters themselves poke fun at this practice, as many X-Men and supporting cast members openly acknowledge how few of them actually tend to stay dead.

So what does all of this actually mean for comic books? A breakdown in the believability of storylines, which I will examine in my next post.

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