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Death in Comic Books: Part 1

July 18, 2011

There are few things about the comic book industry that stand out more than the issue of characters dying. Not in creator-owned books, mind you. Those characters drop like flies. It’s in the superhero books by the big two, Marvel Comics and DC comics, where the writers and executives believe that their characters are sacred cows, icons that need to be preserved forever and ever so they can make money off future generations. Thus, they’ll kill characters every so often to generate publicity. Supporting cast members and relatively unimportant superheroes will be killed off whenever a writer feels like it. But a big name hero only dies once every so often, it’s a big deal, and that character is inevitably resurrected. It may be only a short while later, like with Superman in the Death of Superman or Spider-Man in the Other, or it may be many years later like Bucky Barnes, Barry Allen, or Hal Jordan. But it pretty much happens to everyone, villain or hero.

Now, this is a source of major controversy as well. Since companies feel the need to kill off characters every time that there’s a major event (Blackest Night, Siege, Fear Itself), the fans cry foul, saying that the deaths are just to generate discussion and publicity. If the character’s major, he/she’ll be back within a year (or in the case of Hawkman and Hawkgirl, by the end of the event); if the character’s minor, then that’s just another pointless death. On the other hand, some people believe that there isn’t enough death in books, that even though heroes are routinely coming up against massive, powerful forces, there are almost no consequences, no casualties, and when deaths do occur, they mean almost nothing because of the “revolving door” nature of comic books. At the very least, both sides can agree on the fact that death means nothing in comic books.

So is either side right? Are they both right? Are they both wrong? Honestly, yes to all of the above. Death in comic books has become absolutely ridiculous, and the result is that only a handful of deaths actually generate the proper kind of feelings that a well-written death is supposed to do. Instead, most result in cranky fans bitching about their favorite characters dying or how Marvel or DC’s just trying to cheat them out of their hard-earned cash with meaningless drivel. And then a few months later, we get another “Reborn” series. It’s just stupid, and it doesn’t really help in telling good stories. Now, Geoff Johns seemed to indicate that, with Blackest Night and Brightest Day over, DC would be seeing a lot less of that. Perhaps the DCnU will take death more seriously. Then in the other camp, Brian Michael Bendis has killed off the titular star of Ultimate Spider-Man, and someone new is going to don the costume. Perhaps he can do that just because it’s in the Ultimate universe and not the “real” one, Earth-616. Still, writers are addressing the issue, whether it actually gets fixed or not.

So my next major discussion will be about death in comic books through the lenses of a few major storylines, like Death of Superman, the whole Green Lantern Emerald Twilight/Final Night/Spectre/Rebirth thing, the Other, the Dark Phoenix Saga and its sequels, Ed Brubaker’s Captain America saga (which sports two examples), and Crisis on Infinite Earths/Final Crisis/The Flash: Rebirth. We’ll see what works, what doesn’t, why death has been cheapened, and what the Big Two can do about it to make stories mean more.

So there you have it! The next post will come within the next couple of days, so stay tuned!

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