Monday, 1 December 2014
Comicbook Deaths - When Fans Stopped Caring
Of all the good and bad things you can say about comics, easily one of the single worst ones across any medium are comicbook deaths. Rather than being some obscure page on TV Tropes, it's an idea so infamous that it's fully ingrained within pop culture and even people without any basic superhero knowledge will recognise it. The idea of death having so little meaning that any characters who die will immediately come back, or that their deaths will have no actual relevance is a serious problem.
The question is, how did it come about? Well, in my personal opinion the ones to blame the most for starting it are both DC Comics and Marvel simultaneously with two sagas which shaped the nineties: The Infinity Gauntlet and The Death of Superman. While both certainly have their fans, the former being regarded as an essential read by cosmic superhero story fanatics, and they're rightfully remembered for breaking new ground.
Each saw the heroes pushed to limits we'd not seen them before, raising the stakes far beyond anything readers had previously witnessed. The Infinity Gauntlet featured Thanos gaining unlimited power, and with the Avengers, X-Men and others being hurled into a meat grinder of a conflict. The Death of Superman meanwhile featured the Justice League taking on a foe who was seemingly unstoppable. An unknown menace who arrived, took down the Justice League and was more than a match for any of them, barely being halted by Superman at the last minute. You could also almost certainly add Crisis on Infinite Earths in here, but let's just keep this simple for the moment.
Losses were core to each and they removed the safety bubble which so often prevented major character deaths from ever occurring, at least not on the level seen here. As such it came as a shock to many at the time and they hit hard, undeniably shaped by similar aspects seen in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The chief problem is that whereas the works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller were isolated, with a beginning and end, the other comics needed to continue. Many of the big name characters they killed off for dramatic effect couldn't just stay dead, and they needed to bring them back to ensure the companies retained the rights. This, in my opinion, was where the problems really started but they would only get worse as time went by.
With these big name sagas being hits thanks to their scale and willingness to cause deaths, writers couldn't exactly take a step back. Suddenly returning to crisis events without losses or casualties might have made stories seem less dramatic by comparison, safer or tamer than those from before. As such they needed to keep this trend going. In addition to this, it was during this era that the likes of Image Comics were being set up, with creators emulating the works which shaped their era. The problem is that these consisted largely of artists who had no experience writing prior tales, so they were often producing far lower quality works which were aping the style of more successful tales. Many likely saw sudden deaths as an easy way to crank up the drama so they stuck with that.
The result of each of these was that this led to oversaturation of the idea of character deaths and the growing expectancy to see people killed off for drama. The repetition of the idea soon became commonplace and began to extend to other characters, creating an entirely new problem: Low ranking fodder. While the big names could only be killed off and brought back so many times in a row without completely diminishing their impact, lesser known characters were different. With smaller fan followings, being less established in their works and (let's face it) less profitable names without so much public recognition, they could be more easily bumped off. This is now something which has stuck, and it's a trend the industry has never truly bucked.
Look at all those over past years and you'll see even after event which just involves death to try and crank up the tension. It's almost as if the writers are afraid of seeing what will happen without a few people being bumped off, and even the great ones such as Annihilation are notably guilty of this. Then, of course, you get into countless others, ones revolving entirely around the idea of heroes being killed such as Avengers Disassembled or even entire series these days. Many ongoing comics have deaths suddenly shoved in such as the very controversial sudden murder of Catwoman a couple of years back. It's completely over-saturated within the industry but worse still, the problem is that so many times these characters are killed off without any respect.
The idea is usually to have them hit with shock, like seeing someone cut down in the midst of battle or hit by a bus, but if it happens so frequently then audiences stop caring. At best the heroes will get a token funeral afterwards or some issue devoted to others thinking about them, but this is often so overdone that it just stops having meaning. There certainly are stories which can work like that, Simon Furman has built an entire career out of successfully bumping beloved characters off, but it takes a certain type of writer.
It takes a very specific kind of approach to really hit the nail on the head with this one, and even then it needs to be balanced out with levity or genuine human moments. So many comics lack this or when they do try to approach it, it's often treated in some kind of "ironic" light rather than being genuine. Well, that or use it as padding to draw out the misery, as seen all too often in Brian Bendis' stuff. Without that tonal difference or balance, the constant loss, the constant death and constant misery without any real actual point just creates apathy in readers. The deaths themselves all too often end up being meaningless as they exist as either a way to artificially create tension, or never truly last.
The thing is though, the truly sad thing, is that they often do help to make a story more memorable. The hatred drawn by seeing a fan favourite bludgeoned to death or a minor character unceremoniously killed off can make an event memorable. Fans will complain, they will react with outrage and it will solidify the event in the minds of others, even if it isn't positive. It's the reason that Marvel's constant parade of misery with Avengers Disassembled, Civil War, Dark Reign, Fear Itself and Avengers vs X-Men has stayed in people's heads. Even ignoring their relatively recent inclusion, the outcry over them is enough to have Marvel see their general awareness as profitable, whereas far better events such Maximum Security or the Kang Dynasty go ignored. Both of those, under Kurt Busiek, are classics which built tension without disservice to characters, but hate sadly has more impact than affection.
For all of this though, I am not saying for one second that death cannot be a part of comics. This is just mapping out how a problem arose and why it's become such an issue within the industry, especially with superheros. There are many comics which do use death to deliver excellent genuine drama and we've seen this many times over, often outside the superhero genre. Many can serve as a template on how to allow deaths to have serious impact within stories or even to make permanent deaths of secondary characters resonate strongly within a tale.
One key example which comes to mind is from Strontium Dog, one of 2000 AD's long running series along with Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper. The series followed a pair of Search and Destroy Agents (Read: bounty hunters) throughout various tales, one a mutant with mild telepathic and sight based enhancements, the other a time displaced viking. Look, it's science fiction comics, this sort of madness just comes with the territory. Anyway, after several hundred issues of following the characters, the decision was made to kill the viking, Wulf Sternhammer, off. However, unlike the examples outlined above what made it work was how it was set up.
The arc began with Wulf and Johnny Alpha, the aforementioned mutant, captured and tied up by an old nemesis Max Bubba. The story flashed back to how they had originally met, outlining their connection with Bubba and fleshing out their origins with one another. It was enough to give real gravity to a newly introduced villain, and tactfully handled enough to make the sudden retcon inclusion really fit thanks to turning the entire thing into one massive arc. At the story's end, Wulf managed to break free, starts to fight his way clear and get them out, but is gunned down when overwhelmed. Johnny is left for dead, only to survive and spend a lengthy story arc hunting down Bubba, driven by revenge.
The story here works for a number of reasons as opposed to many others. Wulf's death at the end of the flashback, after seeing the pair victorious over Bubba comes as a genuine shock. It hits the reader hard, but it's not without respect to the character, as Wulf goes down fighting and is only overwhelmed by multiple foes. What's more was that this was permanent, and the comic treated his death as such, with a full funeral and his end having serious impact upon how things played out for the future. His death had meaning within the story and it was done as a part of an ongoing plot, not just a sudden twist addition or massively televised event to boost sales.
Writers and editors need to remember that drama in a story needs to be for a reason. When a character is killed off, it shouldn't have to be one more detail to tick off of a list on some yearly crisis event or demanded when sales are a little low. It shouldn't be done and then completely forgotten about and it shouldn't be something so frequently wheeled out that it loses all meaning entirely.