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…

[amtap book:isbn=140121102X]