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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.

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