Comics Primer: Superhero Deaths

Fantastic Four - ThreeNo spoilers here. Move along. Nothing to see…

Yes, Superhero Deaths are in the air, thanks to the demise of one of the Fantastic Four (in issue 587, the climax of the story ‘Three’). But I’m not here to talk about that specific death (and it’s not like there’s any shortages of places to talk about that at the moment…)

No, what I want to talk about is Superhero Deaths. What they are, why they happen, and whether or not there’s any way of stopping them…

So – what exactly makes Superhero Deaths different from any other form of comic book character popping their clogs?

It’s because superheroes are, really, a genre unto themselves with their own rules. Like almost all escapist fantasies, they’re all about dicing with death, facing impossible odds and winning through in the end. Superhero stories are also different because, at least in comic book form, they’re long. Really, mind-bogglingly long. I mean, take the Fantastic Four – this week’s issue is number 587. That’s a comic that has been published on a pretty much monthly basis since 1962, and averaging at 22 pages per issue, that’s nearly 13,000 pages of adventures since Fantastic Four issue 1 (and that’s not counting the regular miniseries, relaunches or separate appearances elsewhere the characters have made). That’s a gigantic amount of story – and the writers have got to avoid treading new ground, they’ve got to keep the stakes high, with the world, the universe, REALITY ITSELF being under threat. Long-running superhero comic books have over the years (especially since the Sixties and Seventies) evolved to function in many ways like soap operas – but they’re soap operas where (except in rare cases) you’re not able to change the central characters. And sometimes, you want to do something new and different. Sometimes, as Guillermo Del Toro says about his horror movies, you’ve got to shoot one of the Hostages, just to show you’re not kidding around.

A nice big death is one way of doing this. It’s also a way of garnering attention, of hitting the audience where they don’t expect. Because, when it comes down to it, superhero comics are based on melodramatic pulp adventure. If there’s not a sense of threat, they’re not doing their job correctly. The most infamous example of this kind of attention-grabbing death is (SPOILER ALERT FOR ONE OF THE MOST SPOILED COMIC STORIES IN HISTORY) the death of Gwen Stacy in Spider-man. She was a supporting character, but she was a very long-running supporting character, and when she gets abducted by the Green Goblin and hurled off a bridge, the obvious end result is that the heroic Spidey will save the day. Not only does he not save the day, but it’s hinted fairly strongly that it’s thanks to Spidey’s webs that Gwen gets her neck broken. It’s a blisteringly unhappy ending, and a very Marvel twist on what had become a very traditional Villain-abducts-girl, hero-rescues-girl format.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that both Marvel and DC (especially DC) don’t seem to know where to stop. They’re both fictional universes where anything is possible, so when a writer or editor decides that it would be quite fun to bring Heroic Character A back from the dead, there isn’t quite as much standing in their way. Which also, of course, means that it’s easy to get rather devil-may-care with actually killing your characters, if you know that it’s really not too difficult to bring them back again later.

Dark Phoenix Cover - Uncanny X-MenA good example of this is Jean Grey from Uncanny X-Men. Her transformation into Dark Phoenix, where she destroyed an entire alien civilisation, and then her decision to finally kill herself to spare her friends life is one of the seminal moments of late Seventies comic books, and with the Claremont run becoming one of the most influential comic book runs of the times, the emotional shock of Jean Grey’s death worked it’s way into the DNA of superhero comics in general.

Of course, there were plenty of other deaths over the years – but for the first example of real, serious “Look, you won’t BELIEVE who we’ve killed this time!” sales-driving death, there’s Crisis on Infinite Earths – a 1985 miniseries whose sole purpose of existence was to tidy up DC’s cluttered history of multiple universes, and make things accessible to new readers. And naturally, considering there was only going to be one universe from hereon in, they had to show that the stakes were high, so they not only killed off the original Supergirl, but they also killed off Barry Allen, the ‘Silver Age’ version of the Flash (see a future Comics Primer post for a guide to the various ages of Superhero Comics…), a character who’d been published since the mid-Fifties. The reaction was huge. The sales were good. Clearly, attention-grabbing deaths were the way to go.

Superman - The Death of Superman coverThe grand-daddy of them all, however, was Superman. The Death of Superman in 1992 was one of the biggest comics ever, the poly-bagged ‘death issue’ of Superman 75 selling an absurd number of copies, fuelling the speculator frenzy that would eventually cause a gigantic crash in the comics market, and also meaning that one of the biggest selling comic books of all time is a deeply silly story of Superman being punched by a man with rocks sticking out of his face (the oh-so-Nineties villain Doomsday). But, above everything else, The Death of Superman gained the title a massive amount of mainstream media attention. It was talked about. It was discussed. It was everything an ‘event’ comic was meant to be (well, short of actually being particularly ‘good’).

Alright then – attention grabbing deaths. What’s the problem?

The problem is that they don’t stay dead. They can’t. Comic writers and editors do like to talk about superhero tales as modern myths for our world – the trouble is that myths come to an end. Superhero stories can’t, if they’re succesful. Mainstream superhero comics are properties that, for a company like Time Warner, the owner of DC Comics, or Disney, who now own Marvel, are potentially worth millions and millions of dollars in licences and merchandise and spin-offs. In much the same way that the BBC won’t stop making Doctor Who if the Doctor uses up his alotted twelve regenerations (according to something Robert Holmes wrote in 1976), DC and Marvel aren’t going to stop publishing characters simply because the story would be better that way. If the sales are down, the character may be for the chop – but if the sales are good, then they’ll stay around no matter what.

And even if a character does die, there’s no point attracting attention via their death and then going “Sorry folks! Nothing more to see!” Superman’s resurrection was inevitable, and came after about two years of admittedly fun and entertaining (if utterly ludicrous) stories, and a couple of deeply annoying red herrings and feints (especially when we were asked who out of the four Supermen now protecting Metropolis were the genuine article, and the answer turned out to be ‘None of them’). But since Superman’s death, it’s simply gotten insane. Death in superhero universes has become like a revolving door – at least, if you’re an important enough character – a passing malady that’ll clear up in about eighteen months to two years. The number of retcons and resurrections has gotten ludicrous, to the extent that one of DC’s recent events, Blackest Night, was in part a desperate attempt to come up with an explanation as to why so many of DC’s characters were bouncing between the land of the living and dead like tennis balls. And if you’re unfortunate to be a B or C list superhero character, it’s fairly likely you’ll be carved up in a completely throwaway manner just to give a story a bit of a shock twist.

And the main problem with this? It gets difficult to care. Modern superhero comics are addicted to events – to every single story being a genre-defying, epoch-changing tale you simply MUST not miss. As a reader, you want the stakes to be high, and superhero comics are also always trading off the past, dealing in nostalgia… but this trading off the past means that they’re always reminding you of how many times this has happened before. When anything is possible, things lose their meaning. For all the seriousness and ‘adult’ qualities superhero comics reach for, sometimes they’re defeated by what makes them what they are. Sometimes they’re best when they acknowledge their own ridiculousness, rather than trying to wear grim and gritty like a badge of honour.

The other side of it being difficult to care is that sometimes, these deaths are well written. I haven’t read the Fantastic Four issue in question, but I have heard online that it is actually a good story, and that the whole comic has been building towards this for some time – this isn’t just a quick grab for sales and attention. But, until superhero comics can learn to rely more on decent storytelling and a little less on shock tactics, the news that a character is scheduled to die (with the latest target in the next few months being the Ultimate Comics version of Spider-man – a character they already pretended to kill off two years ago!) will be greeted – no matter how good the eventual comic – with a weary sigh of “Oh no, not again…”

As a quick closer- what would you say is a good example of a superhero death?

To be honest – All-Star Superman. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s magnum opus has been massively acclaimed, and one of the main reasons is that it flies in the face of much of what’s traditional about mainstream comics – most particularly in the fact that it’s all about death. The story begins with Lex Luthor once again setting in motion an elaborate plan to kill Superman… only this time he actually succeeds. Superman is flooded with solar radiation in issue 1, so much that his body can’t take it, and the rest of the story isn’t a race against time to see if he can cure himself – instead, it’s all about Superman calmly, and with dignity, facing the prospect of his approaching death, and preparing the world for life without him. It’s beautifully told, surprisingly moving, and at completely the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from the daft wham-bam action of The Death of Superman.

What about you out there? Anyone else want to nominate favourite, moving, shocking or downright embarrassing superhero deaths? The floor (and the comments section) is all yours…

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Comics Primer: What is a Graphic Novel?

500 Essential Graphic Novels coverGraphic Novel. I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before, haven’t I?

It’s a phrase that says, very clearly, “These aren’t just comics. They’re for ADULTS too!” It’s a phrase that’s been used with increasing frequency over the last thirty years. But what the hell does it actually mean?

Good question. And aren’t we just talking about comic books, anyway?

If you believe your local bookshop section, then the answer is yes. After all, most Graphic Novel sections in bookstores are full of books that can safely be described as comic books – but there’s an insane variety. Unless the section has been shelved by someone who knows their stuff, it’ll probably be shelved in alphabetical order. Which is an understandable way of doing things… but is also completely and utterly crazy.

Why crazy?

Well, just imagine a bookstore where all the books are shelved alphabetically. All of them, regardless of subject matter, tone, whether they’re for younger readers or adults only. Manga will usually be shelved separately, but as far as divisions go, that’s usually it, and while the experienced comics reader will know where to look, for newcomers it can be downright bewildering. Added to that, not everything that’s in the Graphic Novel section is technically a graphic novel.

Alright then – stop beating about the bush. What is a Graphic Novel?

Okay – technically speaking, a Graphic Novel is a work of sequential art (i.e. comics) that’s self-contained (or which consists of several self-contained stories) and which is published all in one go. Technically speaking, anything which was originally published in a monthly/bi-monthly/quarterly issue format and was then collected together into a paperback/hardback edition should be referred to as a Trade Edition. (That’s where the now rather common phrase “Waiting for Trade” comes from, in comic circles – people who forgo the monthly wait, and want to get the story in the nicely bound collected edition).

So – my copies of Superman: They Saved Luthor’s Brain and Spider-Man: The Clone Saga V1 aren’t actually graphic novels?

Technically, no. If it was published first in issue format, then it technically doesn’t count. They’re trade editions all the way.

It’s really that simple?

Watchmen coverWell… actually, no it isn’t. If you make the distinction precise, then you know what isn’t a graphic novel? Watchmen. The most graphic novel of all graphic novels wouldn’t count, simply because it was originally published as twelve (semi-monthly) issues. Same with works like From Hell, and especially The Sandman – its status as a 75 issue story means it’s incredibly difficult to make strict definitions stick, especially when it’s very much a self-contained work that, for the most part, showcases the kind of structure, planning and execution you’d find in a Literary Novel.

‘Graphic Novel’ is, more than anything, a marketing tool. It’s been used since the mid seventies as a way of trying to prove that comics can stand on their own as a genuine art form, rather than simply being regarded as something rather juvenile. And, especially over the last fifteen years, there has finally arisen a market for genuine, artistic and risk-taking graphic novels that step outside the barriers set by mainstream perceptions (i.e. “All comics must feature men in spandex fighting”) and head in remarkable directions all of their own.

Care to name some titles?

Certainly. Alice in Sunderland. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth. Asterios Polyp. Persepolis. Ghost World. Palestine. Parker: The Hunter. And many, many more.

So, where did the name ‘graphic novel’ come from?

A Contract with God coverThere are actually examples of graphic novel-like editions going back to the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that things really started happening, with both Marvel and DC experimenting with different formats, and adult comic books flourishing in mainland Europe alongside the collected editions of strips like Asterix and Tintin. Then there’s Blackmark, by Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin, which has been retro-actively called the first graphic novel, although it wasn’t referred to at the time. There’s a handful of other works which could technically fall under the banner (including Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman and Father Christmas), but the first genuine graphic novels are usually looked upon as three books published in 1976 – Bloodstar by Richard Corben,  Beyond Time and Again by George Metzger (even though it was a collection of serialized strips) and Chandler: Red Tide by Jim Steranko. However, the first self-proclaimed graphic novel, and the first work which truly defined what a graphic novel could be, was A Contract with God by the famed comics artist Will Eisner in 1978 (Eisner often gets described as the ‘inventor’ of the graphic novel, despite the fact that he never claimed to be, and simply didn’t realise the term hadn’t been used before). It wasn’t until the mid-Eighties, however, and the arrival of both Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns that the term really caught on. But of course, not everyone likes using it…

Really? Doesn’t it mean that comics are all grown up and adult now?

Yes, but some writers feel that ‘graphic novel’ is trying too hard for prestige and seriousness, when there isn’t anything wrong with works being described as ‘comics’. The best quote to go to is probably from Neil Gaiman, who was once informed that he didn’t write comics, he wrote ‘graphic novels’ – according to Gaiman, “all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”

Anyhow, so how do you tell if something is or isn’t a graphic novel?

Length is a good guide to go with. If it’s a work of artistic intent and a story with a beginning, middle and end that can be bound in one edition, then you can pretty much view it as a graphic novel (the wonderful Bone by Jeff Smith, for example, is just over 1400 pages long in its one-volume-edition, and collects over ten years worth of comics, but is still one continuous and contained story). Once you get beyond one volume, it gets tricky (and once you get to manga, the whole thing gets really complicated), but honestly, the best guide is artistic intent. There are plenty of grey areas, but most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell. For example – the Jack the Ripper saga From Hell is a dark and disturbing tale of murder that also acts as a chillingly intelligent dissection of the Victorian era, while the superhero event comic Blackest Night is (no offence, DC fans) a bunch of people in spandex vs Space Zombies.

Could you recommend some places where I can learn more?

Certainly. There’s 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide by Gene Kannenberg Jr, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life by Paul Gravett, Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk, and the absolutely peerless Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, all of which will give you a brilliant grounding in the kind of remarkable comics that are out there, and exactly how they do what they do.

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