Death, Warmed Over, by Elayne Riggs
As I type this I’m struggling through a pretty bad flu, which I am convinced I contracted on Thursday. That’s when I went for a job interview at the World Financial Center, a hermetically-sealed office and mall complex sandwiched squarely between the Hudson River and the now-cavernous World Trade Center site in downtown Manhattan. I’m unsure whether it was the biting winds or the horrendously long "pedestrian walkway" past the gaping hole of Ground Zero and back to the nearest subway that could get me home now that the Cortlandt Street stations are, it seems, permanently closed, but I haven’t been the same since I shrugged off the interview suit upon my arrival home. The next day Robin met his latest deadline, and we were looking forward to a somewhat active weekend — and then it hit. And it’s still hitting me, and has started hitting him. Funny how, at my age, "lucking out" translates into "thank goodness Robin and I got sick whilst I’m unemployed and he’s between issues!"
But you know, in the back of my head I can’t help but wonder whether I got ill, in part, from breathing in dead people. After all, we all know how the EPA of a government renowned for its repeated lies about everything else also lied to citizens about the air quality in that area. I know it’s over seven years later, but there’s still a ton of construction kicking up dust in that area, and the "walkways" offer scant protection, particularly on a cold and windy day.
Living through 9/11, being in the city the day the towers were attacked, one learns never to take life for granted. This is my 50th It’s All Good column for ComicMix, a milestone number of sorts, and so it seems fitting that I come back around to a subject touched upon in my first column here last February 15, scarcely a month after I’d lost my best friend. In fact, this would have been It’s All Good #51 but for the untimely death of my father. Sometimes the Reaper seems inescapable. Because in the end, of course, it is. And as it touches us all in real life, personally or otherwise (as with Heath Ledger’s recent demise), some of us find much less entertainment and amusement in its fictional counterpart.
A lot of comics bloggers have been discussing comic book deaths this past week, as we’re about to see the ascension of Bucky (once known as the Only Character Who Will Always Be Dead, except for Uncle Ben and he was revived as well) to the title of Captain America following the death of his mentor Steve Rogers (who, it must be remembered, Will Always Be Dead). Val D’Orazio asks, "Are we ever going to see a death that matters in comic books any more?" Artist Michael Netzer is spearheading a campaign to save a character whose death is merely rumored to be on the chopping block over at DC. He observes that "the same corporate enterprise that’s so deeply affected by the death of Heath Ledger, and which now mourns his departure and bows its head in obedience to a moral inability to exploit his role in advancing the sales of the film… the same corporate enterprise is arguably exploiting the death of its own heroes today, in order to somewhat cynically tug at their readership’s devotion to their characters, for the expressed purpose of increasing the sales of their comic books."
And our own Martha Thomases notes, " Using death in fiction can be moving, but it can also be over-used so that it loses its impact. The current rumors about which characters will die in DC’s Final Crisis are a case in point. Maybe the story will kill off Martian Manhunter or Aquaman, but no one really cares. Superhero comic fans expect the dead to be brought back to life. It’s a cheap stunt, and it de-humanizes the characters, instead of making them heroic." The excellent comments on her column are also well worth a read, if you haven’t already done so.
Are we at long last tired of death as entertainment? Has our fictional bloodlust been sated, possibly even put to shame, by an insane invasion and occupation about to enter its fifth year that’s stolen countless actual lives? Are long-time comic fans ready to move on and say "fool me once, shame on you, fool me 20 more times and you won’t get my money?"
Alas, I fear this scenario is as unlikely as those same fans vowing never to pick up another Spider-Man comic after the recent cosmic reset button.
Comic book readers, particularly males (about 90% of American superhero comic readers) of a certain age who’ve invested many years in their hobby, like their comfort zones. Nowadays, that means bitching about death and do-overs but still partaking of the product even when, by their own admission, the storylines are not to their liking. It’s all "better the devil you know" with some readers. They may not be happy with a turn of events, but they’ll still buy the event comics because the possible alternative, interesting stories that simulate forward movement and character growth, often constitutes too much of a journey into the unknown. (And not just for them, but for the ex-fanboy editors now running the companies.) There’s an old expression among many creators that fans have no idea what they want until it’s given to them. As cynical as that may sound, it’s not as bad as the one that springs to my mind when looking at modern Big Two comics — "we’re always fighting the last war." A tried and true sales formula will usually trump a daring new direction.
Of course, I may be the wrong person to opine about blood and death in comics. I used to joke that I only went to movies with "cute happy funny aliens." I don’t care for the horror genre, I don’t get a thrill out of amusement park rides, I can’t even deal with embarrassment comedy very well. I gravitate toward very middle-of-the-road fictional entertainment. No violence that too closely resembles the real thing (elves versus oliphaunts are usually okay by me), nothing that relegates women to male-generated punchlines or love interests… well, I admit it, I don’t go out a lot. But even when I did, I never saw the point of fictional blood and gore, of what primal instinct it fed. Heroic fiction, sure; triumphing over adversity, part and parcel of the mythos. But gruesome details of evisceration? Death as a manipulative plot point to move your readers or viewers? It always seemed like cheating, a cheap substitute for moving people through the power of words and ideas. (Even more so in comics, where it’s far harder to visually depict implied ideas than just go ahead and show ol’ blood ‘n’ guts.) It was a shortcut to desensitization and, if there was one thing I never want to be, it’s desensitized.
Then again, maybe it’s just the fever talking, the one I may have picked up from inhaling the ashes of my fellow New Yorkers.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor, and makes an incredibly lousy patient.