Editorial: “...And Death Be All That We Can Rightly Depend On.”
by R.J. Carter
Published: August 28, 2002
“It can’t be! Not you! You’re… you’re dead!”
This exclamation has been plastered across more comic book covers than you probably care to count. Superman’s death was announced on CNN, before his inevitable return a few months later. Reed Richards and Doctor Doom have been resurrected enough times to give Christ an inferiority complex. The Green Goblin’s death was a milestone in Marvel history, undone in recent years by his return to power. Even perennial nonagenarian Aunt May has surrendered to the icy grip of death, only to return.
Why does death in comics lack finality? Does the industry cheapen the characters they’ve developed by not allowing them to expire when the time is right? And do the publishers cheat the readers by largely using unpopular or easily replaced characters when writing a death that sticks? (“Someone on this cover DIES in this story!” I wonder: Will it be Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, or the Stupendous Toad-Boy?)
Years of these non-deaths have jaded readers to any demise in comics, regardless of how well written the story might be. Even in those instances when the readers can habeas the four-color corpus (no plunging into the ocean, no exploding buildings, no disintegration from a cosmic ray), they inevitably find themselves guessing how the writer intends to undo the deed: Was this character a clone? A robot? An imposter? Was the character injured to the point of seeming death? Is the character in a coma? Is the character a time-traveler? Was the story a dream? An illusion? Is this an alternate Earth?
What excuses haven’t we seen?
And it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment
-- Hebrews 9:27
If there’s one thing we have learned about death in the comics, it’s that, as Yogi Berra might have said, it ain’t over when it’s over.
But... is that a good thing?
I’ve seen a lot of death up close over the last ten years. Too much. Doug drove his car into the path of an oncoming train; Shawn argued with his mother, went upstairs, and took a shotgun to his guts; Melanie never used any kind of tobacco, but the cancer ate through her tongue and her throat and her life anyway; Keith left work one night, had a heart attack, and will never come back.
The list goes on. Not one has made a surprise visit since the time they died. The cosmic Writer isn’t going to chronicle my own life story in perpetuity. So why should writers more corporeal do so?
Peter David made a thought-provoking exploration of this subject during his run on Incredible Hulk. Marlo Chandler, affianced of perpetual sidekick Rick Jones, died. But Rick, veteran of the Marvel universe that he is, has seen death cheated too often. He’s even done it himself.
Grief stricken, Rick confronts Doctor Strange and other Marvel notables, seeking a way to bring Marlo back to life. Rick hits a dead-end (pardon the pun) at every turn, as each hero explains the scientific impossibilities or spiritual/magical impediments to such a feat. It doesn’t help their arguments that each of these heroes has “died” on countless occasions. So when the villainous Leader offers Rick the goal he’s searching for, he jumps at it.
Marlo is indeed resurrected through the Leader’s technology, but only on a physical level. The experiment leaves her in a comatose state. That’s only temporary, however, as Peter David proves over the next several issues that love conquers all and that happy endings -- or rather, happy lack-of-endings -- exist for everybody in comic books.
One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.
-- Josef Stalin
One thing you can count on about those comic book deaths that do stick -- when they’re done, they’re done in one of two ways, with rare exceptions.
The first type of comic death is the one that makes a remarkable impact. These are cases where the writer has made the readers care about the person doing the dying, and has that loss affect the development of the characters left behind. Gwen Stacy’s neck snapping is an indelible part of the Spider-Man mythology. The original Captain Mar-Vell’s battle with cancer was an epic milestone.
A recent death of this type occurred in Greg Rucka’s memorable wrap-up to No Man’s Land, when Gotham City’s most infamous psychopath, the Joker, shoots Commissioner Gordon’s wife, Sarah. If any these characters were to be returned to life, the power of the original stories would be weakened by orders of magnitude.
Speaking of the Joker, there’s a good segue to the second type of death that occurs in comics -- that being the kind that occurs in incredible numbers, yet seems to have no impact at all, be it on the readers or on the fictional universe in which it happens. Has anyone bothered to accumulate the masses of people killed by the Joker? Not counting Sarah Gordon and Jason Todd, there must be hundreds upon hundreds of homicides attributed to the Clown Prince of Crime. These faceless, nameless characters aren’t fated for revival, and the sheer enormity of their numbers dulls the readers beyond the ability to comprehend the disaster.
Not that Joker is Gotham’s only killer. With Contagion, Legacy, and Cataclysm -- in rapid succession--Gotham must have plenty of estate sales and rental openings. Yet, how much attention is given to these considerable massacres once the story is over? “Well, yes, thousands died during the epidemic, but that plotline is over now, so it’s back to business as usual.”
Over in Avengers, the latest version of Ultron recently wiped out a small country, an act of genocide perpetrated solely to lure the Avengers into a trap. DC One Million saw Vandal Savage destroy the city of Montevideo in a nuclear explosion, just a few scant years after Mongul and the Cyborg annihilated Coast City during Reign of the Supermen. And yet, these wholesale slaughters are glossed over by the writers, seemingly brought in just for the value of an instant shock, without leaving any lasting impression upon the readers.
As numbers cease to affect the readers’ conscience, writers have turned their efforts instead toward the various methods of killing, making each more gruesome, more horrific than the last -- a cruel game of psychopathic one-upmanship. The Joker was once satisfied to shoot somebody with a spear gun, or push them out in front of oncoming traffic (although poison has always been his forte). As reader reaction has gone from “Oh my God, he killed that guy!” to “Ah well, another one bites the dust,” the Joker’s (and other villains’) techniques (that is to say, those of the various writers) have grown increasingly sadistic.
You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.
-- Medgar Evers
Naturally, I understand characters in comics aren’t real people. (I may be a comics fan, but I do have at least that much of a grasp on reality.) Rather, they are trademarked vehicles that generate tons of revenue for their parent companies through licensing contracts.
Still and all, there comes a time to say goodbye -- and it can be done with style, with reverence to the character, and even with minimal impact to the corporate bottom line.
Case in point: Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, died in DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, in a heroic self-sacrifice. Yet the Flash title hasn’t suffered, as DC managed to keep Flash-dollars rolling in by promoting Wally (Kid Flash) West into the role. (Supergirl suffered a similar fate in the same series -- but the impact of her death was minimized when DC editors decided the Crisis survivors to forget much of the incident, paving the way for John Byrne to re-introduce the character as an other-dimensional artificial being.)
Could DC experience similar success in permanently killing (as redundant a term as that sounds) the current version of Superman? Could Dick Grayson have taken over the mantle of the Bat permanently when Bruce Wayne’s back was broken? Would the fans even allow such a thing to occur? Maybe.
Then again, maybe they wouldn’t.
When DC broke Hal Jordan to make way for Kyle Rayner, a faction of fans loudly decried the perceived injustice to their favorite Green Lantern and formed the lobbying group H.E.A.T. (Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team). DC eventually killed Jordan off in a valiant sacrifice during Final Night, and the outcry grew even louder, which may have been a factor in DC’s resurrection of Jordan in Day of Judgment as the new Spectre. (Hey, if he can’t come back to life, we’ll just follow him beyond the grave!)
Is death and resurrection a cheap sales gimmick or literary necessity? If it’s the latter, how do we define “necessary”? Barry Allen’s demise was met with nowhere near the fanfare as Superman’s, and came after the cancellation of his series due to disappointing sales. Pulling the same stunt with Hal Jordan, under similar economic circumstances, resulted in an outcry demanding a resurrection.
When applied to major comic characters, a death or a resurrection is generally done for publicity -- that is, to revive the interest of the readers who have fallen away and thus resuscitate sales. Should publishers find more creative ways of keeping a character interesting? Or should readers who are unable to handle a childhood hero’s passing learn to accept endings with more maturity? If the readers are unwilling to let go, can we lay the blame for cheap deaths at the feet of the publishers?
In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.
-- Dr. Manhattan, Watchmen
My point, and I think I have one, is possibly best summed up by a dead comic book character.
Gilbert (aka Fiddler’s Green), one of the characters in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, was killed off during The Kindly Ones, along with several other residents of the Dreaming. During The Wake, the new Sandman (yet another example of the replacement and resurrection of a dead character) sets about restoring to life his murdered subjects. As he proceeds to recreate Gilbert, the dead character stops him, and makes a case for remaining dead: “If you bring me back to life, my death will have no meaning. I had a fine existence... I lived a good life and it ended. Would you take that away from me?”
There’s a lot more that could be debated about this topic. Why, I haven’t even touched on the myriad ways DC has managed to keep the Justice Society members alive and kicking. (Isn’t Jay Garrick pushing 80?) There are also retro-stories to be told, which occurred before the character’s death.
Every lasting tale has a good beginning, a good middle, and finally, a good ending. It’s by passing through those three phases that the good characters really live on. Forever.