MARTHA THOMASES: Death Trip
At the recent Wizard World convention in Chicago, Jim Starlin was part of the DC Nation panel. Starlin created the brilliant graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel, which was so well done that it made me cry like a little girl even though I wasn’t that familiar with the character. A running gag throughout the hour was that, in the upcoming Final Crisis, Starlin was going to let loose and kill a bunch more characters in the DC Universe.
It’s bugged me for a few years that, in comics and sometimes in other media, death is the gag. Death is the only meaningful drama. The recent hype about the last Harry Potter book was whether or not Harry would die, and who else might join him. This misses the point.
Now, I realize that I made a lot of my reputation in this industry from the 1992 Death of Superman (and not just my extraordinary good looks and keen wit). Isn’t that what started this whole death-cult in comics?
Yes and no. I used to joke that DC had to kill Superman every seven years, whether or not he needed it. What made the 1992 event different? Some might think sold so much because the release coincided with the collector craze, but I’ve always thought it was more than that, and started even earlier. I thought it started in the fall of 1990, when Clark and Lois got engaged. The media went crazy, with stories on television news and national newspapers like USA Today. A few months later, it happened again when Clark revealed his secret identity to his beloved.
People felt like they knew the Superman family. A lot of them expected an invitation to the wedding. When they found out Doomsday was going to kill Superman, they felt like they lost a friend.
Marvel was able to evoke similarly honest feelings when Captain America died. Again, they had done their homework with the general public, explaining the central political conflict in the Marvel Universe. In this case, the increasing discontent with the Iraqi war may have also contributed to the emotional response. It’s a perfect storm of entertainment and real life.
J. K. Rowling understands more about dramatic structure and story than many of those creating comics. She knows the rules of children’s literary fiction. Harry Potter was never going to die. His story was an heroic quest, and, as the hero, he was going to triumph. He would have setbacks and losses, and he would suffer to achieve his victory, but he would prevail.
I’m not arguing here for non-violent comics. As I’ve said before, I enjoy my violent media as much as the next person. Sit next to me during Tarantino’s Death Proof, and watch me laugh, jump up and cheer at the ending. Sometimes characters have to die to show how evil the villains can be, so we lose Bambi’s mother. Sometimes a hero has to die to show selfless sacrifice, so we mourn Supergirl and Barry Allen in the first Crisis. Moses didn’t get to the Promised Land because he doubted the wisdom of the Lord.
Did you care when Green Arrow died? I didn’t, and Ollie is one of my favorite characters. I cared even less when Hawk died. Blue Beetle’s death had no emotional weight. Bart Allen’s death irritated me because it was such a waste. When Sue Dibney was murdered, I was sad to see her go. And I wondered if the reason there are so few happy marriages in comics can be found in the fact that there are so few men writing comics who know how marriages really work.
When characters are killed for sport, for sensationalism or for bragging rights, it cheapens the lives of those who survive. It’s lazy plotting, and instead of making the events in the story more important, it makes the other characters’ survival less impressive.
Death may be random in real life, but it doesn’t work in drama. Death serves character when we see the sense of loss reflected in the lives of those still here. Every night, when I watch the news, and they tell us about the handful of Americans who died over there, I ache a bit for their families and friends. Every night, when the anchor goes on to tell me about the dozens of Iraqis who died, I cringe, thinking of the families who will never forgive us for their loss. Having lived through the last several decades, I remember my friends who didn’t, and I’m angry that I don’t have them with me anymore.
Death is the price of love.
Martha Thomases is Media Goddess of all things ComicMix.