ROBERT GREENBERGER: Death be not proud
The rule of thumb used to be that the only characters that stayed dead are Uncle Ben, Bucky and Barry Allen.
Some version of Uncle Ben is running around in Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man; Bucky turns out to have survived and is now the Winter Solider; and if you believe Dan DiDio’s “slip” of the tongue, Barry Allen may be here soon.
It used to be a big deal when a character died. Amazing Spider-Man #121’s cover, as Spidey faced those nearest and dearest to him with a cover blurb promising one was going to die compelled us to buy that month’s issue. It worked, sales spiked, the status quo was different and people were buzzing.
In 1985, I participated in the planning and, ahem, execution of Crisis on Infinite Earths. One of the key housecleaning elements had to be the elimination of both major and minor figures, heroes and villains, civilians and loved ones. The hit list, as seen in the Absolute edition, evolved as editors and management weighed in. Killing the Flash and Supergirl were the shockers while few cared if the Bug-Eyed Bandit survived or not. Still, these deaths were supposed to be permanent changes to the DC Universe, although few of them have remained dead 20 years later.
By the time Superman died in 1992, the freshness had long since worn off as deaths had been faked (Professor X, Foggy Nelson), undone (Jean Grey, Iris Allen), or were too minor to care (I Ching).
Since then, characters have continued to die and come back with stunning regularity. As a result, the death of a major figure has been more of a blip than a major event, making one wonder what it will take to get people really stirred up.
Much has been made of Captain America’s death and I was among those scoffing at the permanence of his condition. Less has been said about the return of their first Captain Marvel, plucked out of the time stream before his death from cancer (as wonderfully told in a Jim Starlin graphic novel), an altogether new kind of cheat.
Marvel isn’t the only company wheeling and dealing with the Grim Reaper.
Fans were truly shocked to see Ice, minor JLAer, breathing once more at the end of Birds of Prey #104. Gail Simone defended the seemingly-arbitrary plot twist to Newsarama: “Here’s the thing: for several years, when some of the more innocent or charming or fun-loving characters were killed at both of the major companies, we’ve always heard that it’s because (and it’s hard to argue this point) of our fondness for them that their misfortune has dramatic impact. If you don’t love the character, then it means nothing if they sacrifice their lives. As much as I love Ted Kord and miss him, his telling Max to go to hell had real agony in it because it wasn’t, you know, some forgotten Global Guardian or some such.
“I do understand that, but to me, it means the opposite with these characters is also true, that something positive can make you cheer just as something bitter can make you weep.”
Similarly, Greg Rucka was quoted at The Pulse on the same topic, but about a different beloved hero, the Elongated Man. "Really, we don’t have a list, we don’t sit around in meeting wondering who we can bump off next, that’s not the way it works, really. We wanted to show the characters dealing with death. Death has a consequence and if you take that away, you take away the central power of your stories. Ralph Dibny has the biggest unanswered question in the DCU: How come everyone comes back from death, except the woman I love…?"
The answer, for some wags, is give it time. With Ralph dead, there’s little motivation for writers to revive Sue, except maybe to torture her rapist, Dr. Light. Speaking of motivation, having some variant of Uncle Ben wandering around begs the question of whether or not that undercuts Spider-Man’s reason for being a super-hero. Especially with Aunt May now hovering on the edge of death (of course, she too has been seemingly killed but it was a fake out), you have to question how these acts affect the characters and whether or not readers are still moved to the same degree.
Quite often super-heroes die through self-sacrifice, saving the world or others from death. If they merely come back in some fantastic way (except maybe Ferro Lad), does their death seem any less meaningful? Or does the resurrection itself have to be the story rather than the punch line? Frank Miller’s Elektra graphic novel certainly brought her back to life in a significant way, although to read his current comments, it’s a story he possibly regrets telling.
I agree with Gail and Greg that deaths of the nice guy characters we’ve loved still packs an emotional wallop, but it’s also true the sting lasts a lot less than it used to and that a new kind of character development has to be found to garner attention. Once you get past, weddings, divorces, evil doubles, cross-gender counterparts and time-jumping and sixty years of storytelling, that may prove the most interesting creative challenge of all.
Comics industry veteran Robert Greenberger is a regular ComicMix.com columnist.