Comic Book Deaths

A death is coming.  As the latest event, AXIS, trundles towards its inevitable conclusion, we’re reliably told that somebody is going to die.  My money’s on Havok, incidentally, since he doesn’t grace the cover of ‘Uncanny Avengers #1’.  But all this raises a tantalising question: how should comic books do death?

There’s a certain school of thought that argues no character should ever be killed.  After all, every character is one who has the potential, if picked up by the right writer, to be a star.  But this idea falls apart in the face of three arguments.

The first is that a sort of ‘no death’ rule would be unhealthy – for us as readers.  Escapism to a super-hero world is all well and good, but our western society does its best to pretend death doesn’t exist at the best of times.  Crafting a fictional world without death, where heroes face insurmountable odds without any risk, would be a bad idea.  One of my favourite Christian poets, Adrian Plass, wrote a poem called ‘What do we do about death?’  Whether you agree with the religious sentiments at the end or not, the point is an interesting one.

What do we do about death?
We don’t –
The monster is hidden away.
It’s not in the zoo for the public to view
The look on its face would empty the place.
We don’t want to die, the people would cry
Death is the curse in the back of the hearse
We don’t need to see it today.

What do we do about death?
We don’t –
We shovel it under the ground
Under the sod and hope there’s a God
Whose principles bend at the bitterest end
Or we burn it away, and whispering say
Death is the scream at the end of the dream
There isn’t a lonelier sound.

What do we do about death?
We don’t –
We don’t even give it a name
He’s gone before to a distant shore
She’s passed away, we gloomily say,
He’s fallen asleep in a terminal heap.
Death is the spear that is poisoned with fear
It pierces the heart of the game.

What do we do about death?
We don’t –
But once in the angry sun
A winner was slain at the center of pain
When a battle was fought at the final resort
But because of the cross it was fought without loss
And death is the knife that will free us for life
Because of what Jesus has done.

The second argument is that death is so very often at the heart of a hero’s motivations.  Imagine redesigning the concept of Superman without Krypton’s destruction; or trying to picture a Batman whose parents were never murdered; or a Spider-Man whose Uncle Ben is still around, and whose sage advice had never truly been valued as a result.  Death, we as readers know, is an intrinsic part of the universe, an experience that – for all they are super and we are not – we share with our heroes.  It becomes part of their story that makes them accessible, and in so doing lends them a motivation and a character that we can truly understand.

Uncle Ben is dead
This is the moment that defines Peter Parker. It set him upon his course of heroism, and without it he just wouldn’t be the same.

Thirdly, if super-heroes cannot truly face their own mortality – if there is no risk of a cost for their heroism – then they do not truly represent heroism.  True heroes put everything on the line – real-life heroes leap into burning buildings to save lives – and for our super-heroes to actually be worth looking up to at all, then they have to operate in a world in which there can be a cost.

So then, it’s not a matter of ‘no death’.  It’s a matter of ‘how’.  How can comics do death in a way that’s meaningful, in a way that draws readers into the story?

First of all, death should rarely be meaningless.

As well as a comic-book fan, I grew up loving the ‘Star Wars’ Expanded Universe; and, in the early 2000s, I was hooked to the ‘New Jedi Order’ series.  Midway through this series, in the book ‘Star by Star’, the character of Anakin Solo was brutally killed.

Star by Star
The fateful book..

Del Rey, the publishing house at the time, had made a massive mistake.  They didn’t believe anyone cared about the Solo kids that much; but they plotted ‘Star by Star’ immediately after two novels written by the brilliant Greg Keyes, focusing in upon the character of Anakin.  Readers, myself included, were introduced to a youth who may just well be the galaxy’s future hero; the world suddenly seemed dazzlingly bright with potential.  And then, in the very next book, that light was switched off.

I’m sure Del Rey thought they were driving home the darkness of an alien invasion plotline, but as the years went on I realised that the Expanded Universe was listing off-course, directionless, unable to head into the future.  You see, what Del Rey had actually done was make a single short-term decision – and so sacrifice future potential.

The same is true of many comic book deaths.  Since ‘Civil War’, it’s practically been a rule that every Marvel event has to have at least one death in it.  ‘Civil War’?  Goliath.  ‘Secret Invasion’?  Wasp.  ‘Second Coming’?  Nightcrawler.  ‘Siege’?  Ares.  ‘AvX’?  Charles Xavier.  And the list goes relentlessly on.  But unlike Del Rey, when Marvel feel the time is right they simply wave the ‘resurrection’ idea.  Some of them don’t even make sense; I mean, the explanation of Cable’s resurrection in ‘Avengers: X-Sanction’ directly contradicts his death in ‘Second Coming’!

Not a Pretty Way to Go
Somehow, he time-jumped (even though his time-travel tech was used up) and even recovered the arm he left behind in the past. Right…

I’d suggest the fact that there are so many resurrections actually suggests that the deaths aren’t being done particularly well in the first place.

Death should be done with a purpose.  Sometimes that purpose is to bring a story to a close, as Legion wipes himself out of reality at the end of the superb ‘X-Men: Legacy’ series.  His tale is told, and we miss him, but in truth it was the only way the story could end.  He’s proved his character and his heroism, and everything is tied up into a perfectly neat little bow.

Legion Dies
One of the best X-Men series in years came to a heart-rending end.

Other times, the purpose of a death is the effect on the living.  Now, please understand I’m not advocating Women in Refrigerator syndrome; where a loved one is injured or killed purely as a plot device to move the respective hero from A to B.  Over-the-top deaths like that rarely have an emotional impact that rings true; whereas well-done deaths have such a monumental consequence.  The classic example is that of Spider-Man’s love Gwen Stacy, whose absence will forever haunt Peter Parker.  And the present-day X-universe simply doesn’t work with Charles Xavier still around, proving that his death was a wise move.

Death of Xavier
The X-Men can’t ever truly be the same again. Their greatest leader killed their mentor. As we’re seeing in ‘Uncanny X-Men’, that’s enough to leave major hurt.

What a death should not be is event fodder.  A character should not be killed just because there’s an event going, and the publisher wants it to look big, and so there has to be a cost.  No, that kind of approach is self-defeating; it leads to the jaded, cynical attitude that super-hero survival is just a matter of business decisions, rather than quality writing.

And that brings me to another point: stop with the resurrections, already!

Wolverine hadn’t even been killed before writer Charles Soule told fans that he was dead until “at least 2016”.  I mean, isn’t it an ominous sign that we’re so inured to super-hero deaths that the writers actually feel the need to tell us the death will bind for at least a year and a bit, just in order to reassure us that this death is meaningful?

And in fact, the abundance of resurrections actually distorts the way our heroes deal with death.  When Banshee was killed, Peter David wrote his daughter as refusing to accept it; she believed he’d be back sooner or later (he’s back, by the way).  This was just how a normal human being would react in a world so steeped in resurrection.  And it puts the lie to the over-the-top emotional reaction to Wolverine’s death.  By now, the X-Men simply have to be used to old friends walking through the revolving door of death.

They let Bucky out
‘Incredible Hercules #129’ lampshaded it for all of Marvel, with Hercules entering the domain of death and seeing heroes gambling on a resurrection game!

Worse still, a death story is no longer an experience of loss for the readers.  When Illyana Rasputin died of the Legacy Virus in ‘Uncanny X-Men #303‘, it was a moment I’ll never forget; the emotions poured off the page.  As a child, this was my introduction to death and grief, a year before my grandmother’s death, and the sheer emotional heart of that comic resonates with me to this day.  Nowadays, though, we know the formula; did anyone truly weep as they read Storm’s anguish over Wolverine’s death in ‘Storm #4‘?  Death has lost its power, but in the worst way possible.

So, in summary: yes, comic books should ‘do death’.  It’s healthy, it’s valuable, and frankly necessary in the super-hero genre.  But they should do death well.
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. I agree with many of your points. If its impossible for the hero to die then what’s the cost of dressing up in spandex and fighting villains.

    However death has (for the most part) lost its impact. Back when deaths meant something, it was huge. When Barry Allen died, he was gone fore two whole decades. While Wolverine will be back in a year or two. If you where 10 when Barry Allen died and he was your favorite character, then it was more if an impact as you had to wait til you were 30 before seeing him again. I’m 15 and I’ll probably see Wolverine again when I’m 16 or 17


    1. Sadly, true. Hence I think they need to stop with the resurrections already lol! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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