Is Comic Book Death Always Bad?
A couple of weeks ago, Marvel Comics released the momentous 700th issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, making that series the longest consecutive monthly title in their company’s history (they kind of cheated to get there, but that’s another discussion). Surprisingly, a lot of media outlets were picking up the publication of this milestone and reporting on its release in the weeks leading up to it. Why? Well, it’s not because of the issue number. It’s not even because the character himself celebrated his 50th anniversary this year. It was because in the pages of Amazing #700, Peter Parker apparently met his maker.
Well, unsurprisingly, I’m sure that when you read that you weren’t shocked or saddened. Maybe you weren’t anything, except perhaps annoyed. Comic book death, as many people know, is hardly permanent. It might stick around for a couple of months, or maybe even a few years depending on the character, but before you know it they’ll be back in action in the pages of the next big event. Spider-Man is just the latest character to undergo the comic book death treatment (or so we thought), and several high-profile characters have had it happen to them in recent years.
But, you know what? After reading comics for most of my life and being a retailer for the last five years, it doesn’t bother me. Not really even one iota. “Well!” I can hear some people exclaim (I’m off my meds this week), “You’re just a malleable puppet to whatever event the company’s trying to cash in on!” While from a conceptual standpoint that statement may be true, I’m not someone that’s automatically going to discount a character’s death before I know the details of the story. If the story sucks and the death is a useless plot device I’m more likely to have a problem with it than if the death actually has some narrative merit to it.
Which leads me to a discussion I’d had the other day. I was on Facebook browsing comments (uh oh) when I noticed a friend-of-a-friend posted a photoshopped image to a friend’s wall showing Stan “The Man” Lee putting a copy of Amazing #700 through a shredder (the original image was actually Lee shredding a copy of Superman [vol. 2] #75, the death of that character). I observed a different friend-of-a-friend commenting by cheering Lee on, saying that the story within Amazing #700′s pages was basically an automatic dud because of its reuse of the death concept.
Right away, I knew that this person hadn’t read the story, because the way in which writer Dan Slott arrived at Peter’s end was anything from typical.
You see, in Amazing #698, we learned that through his scientific genius, the dying Dr. Octopus managed to switch minds with the venerable Mr. Parker while he himself had only hours to live. It was done surreptitiously, so only Peter and Ock knew of the switch. By issue #700, even after a valiant last effort to get back into his own brainpan, Peter failed, and his mind remained trapped inside Ock’s now imminently-failing body. But, the one thing going was a linking of the two men’s consciousness’s. Peter’s life started to flash before Ock’s eyes, and Spidey’s adversary learned firsthand in that instance what the true value of human life was, and that, “with great power comes great responsibility.” With that, Ock’s body died and Peter’s mind apparently with it. Ock vowed to continue Peter’s crusade, but because of his scientific genius, he resolved to be a Superior Spider-Man.
END SPOILER ALERT.
Not exactly typical, right?
So I went at it with this person, saying that they might benefit from actually reading the story before taking a proverbial dump on it. They retorted, basically belittling my sensibilities and my “tolerance” of the death gimmick. I tried to say that it’s only tired if it’s exploited in the same way, bringing up previous examples of the use of death that, I believe, worked.
See, therein lies a distinction. When you look at the deaths of various X-Men (like Professor X, or the first time with Jean Grey, or Mystique, Sabretooth, etc.) it happens so often that there’s little inherent value in it. X-fans are used to death. It’s become very, very commonplace. But when you kill, say, Captain America, and that death is written by one of comics’ best writers and exploited in a very thematically interesting way, there’s more artistic merit in it and it makes for a very engaging story. Yes, Ed Brubaker’s The Death of Captain America was a publicity stunt on Marvel’s part that was undone after a couple of years, but it was also perceived to be a great narrative about the weight of the mantle of Cap on his successor, and how dark a place our world and country can be without some of its most defining symbols. Yes, you have to dig into that most dreaded of comic book devices to tell that story, but isn’t that a story worth telling?
“No,” this person seemed to say. The concept of death in comics wore paper thin for them 20 years ago. “Ah!” I thought. They were operating off of a previous conception of comic book death! Early nineties, around ’92…1992! That was the year that Superman died!
And that was the one that changed everything. Sure, characters had died all over the place in comics up until the early 1990’s, but The Death of Superman changed it entirely. This was comic book death on a far grander scale, the first one to really capture the media’s attention. The editors and writers, among other reasons, felt like the public wasn’t appreciating Superman, so they decided to take him away from us. While the story gave DC a license to basically print money for a while (and while the story was actually pretty good, at least in parts), many people feel that it ruined death in comics (like Max Landis, screenwriter of Chronicle), or ruined the comic book direct market (like Chuck Rozanski, proprietor of Mile High Comics).
But to me, death in comics when done well has not been a simple repeat of the Death of Superman. When Batman was “killed” in DC’s Final Crisis by my favorite comic book writer Grant Morrison, it caved to typical trappings of comic book death according to the characters within the DC Universe. But as fans, Morrison gave us a peek at Bruce Wayne’s true fate: he had instead been sent to the distant past and stranded there by Darkseid, after Batman helped facilitate the galactic despot’s ultimate defeat. Either way though, the “death” of Batman was only one small component of a much larger and thematically complex story (that I happen to love). The next year, DC tackled the concept of comic book death in the Green Lantern-centric Blackest Night, where it was explained that there was a reason death was a revolving door for so many characters. It took the trappings of comic book death and turned the concept itself into the bad guy of the story!
And it worked!
Comic book death is only tired if the story sucks. If it’s a crutch, if it doesn’t feel natural, then it’s not very possible for it to be good. If you get into comics, I’m personally of the mind that you should accept beforehand that characters will die and come back. Doesn’t your mom do that every week with her soap operas? And, aren’t comics inherently cooler than soap operas? Then just roll with it! As a device, death is only as tired as the author that puts it in motion. It’s like the cover of a favorite song. Trent Reznor’s version of “Hurt” and Johnny Cash’s cover are very, very different. The approaches to the material are paired with their own individual merits and unique styles, but at the end of the day it’s the same song. That doesn’t make Cash a hack for covering it. And, if he makes you think about the material a little differently than the original did, hasn’t he done his job? Wasn’t it worth recording that cover?
After saying all of this, my main point (if I have one) is this: don’t automatically hate a comic book death before knowing the ins and outs of the story being told. If the story itself is bad, that’s one thing. But, on the off chance it’s good? Maybe it’s worth Spider-Man’s death if it makes for a bad ass return that you’ll love reading next year, or if it gives you a new appreciation for characters that you already know as well, or better, than your oldest friends. As comic book fans, familiarity on that scale with the characters we love tends to be a trait we all share.