Last week, Marvel Vice President David Gabriel made quite the controversial announcement. Apparently, after the wildly successful marketing push surrounding the death of Johnny Storm over in Fantastic Four last month (and before that, the death of Captain America back in 2007), Marvel has decided to make large character death a normal occurrence at least once per yearly quarter. He followed the statement up my clarifying that now, he “wasn’t kidding.” Now, death in comics has been a controversial matter for decades, but this is the first time a company has actually come out and made a policy enforcing it. However, what does it truly mean for a character to die in a fictional medium and why has it become such a popular phenomenon? Why is it that people care so goddamn much? Is there really such a thing as too much death in comics?
Now, Marvel is not the only company that has derived heavy profit from big ticket character deaths: the death and return of Superman was one of the biggest stories in all of comics in the 90s from a sales perspective (and one of the worst from a creative perspective), and it kind of drew the line in the sand in terms of expectations. Sure there were significant deaths within comics before that (some of whom actually stayed dead), but this was the first time that a major character death also proved to be a commercial windfall for a company. Since then, be it Batman, Captain America or most recently, the Human Torch, the big two have managed to turn a major profit on the death of a culturally significant character, and in an industry increasingly dictated by profit shares (for better or worse), Marvel’s bold proclamation was all but inevitable, really.
But WHY are these death issues so popular? Lord knows the vast majority of long time fans hate them, but even taking into account that comic fans have a nasty history of buying comics they dislike, the sales on these issues indicate that a LARGE majority of non-regular fans have bought them up. I think the conclusions to be drawn here are pretty simple: lapsed readers or even non-readers are picking these comics up not because of the story being told, but of the perceived value (both culturally and financially) of the comic itself. This idea of perceived value is instilled in the populace in two ways: first is the fact that the companies create buzz and hype (usually at the expense of the story being told) around the issue and the death and attach a special significance to the issue (not the arc, not the trade, but the issue) that usually turns out to be non-existent as soon as the character returns to action. At that point though, it doesn’t matter: the comic is already a “collectors item” (whatever that means) and the piles of them sitting in bins at flea markets and conventions for ten bucks a pop already exist for rough neck capitalists to exploit earnest fans.
The second way this value is created is almost as a natural outcome of our media driven society. Celebrity status is not limited to those that breathe air and walk on the Earth, and in a lot of ways fictional celebrities enjoy a higher status because fans can insert a much larger sense of ownership over them. Remember how people were up in arms about Ken and Barbie’s break-up (don’t worry, she took him back later)? Same deal with comic deaths. People connect to these characters either out of choice or simply due to media saturation, but when a fictional being dies, any and all artifacts of their “life” become just as valuable as that one napkin Elvis touched once to some people. Of course, the decades of stories that came before that one death issue don’t matter…a fictional life, it seems, is only defined by how it ends.
Alright, so we’ve established why people care about these deaths and why they are so valuable from a financial standpoint (AKA losers, skeezy salesmen with mullets and soccer moms like to be pack rats), but what kind of an impact do these deaths have on the medium itself? Despite what the internet may think, there really are two sides of this coin. The pro side is pretty obvious: people die. Death is as much of an ingrained part of life as breathing and the Jonas Brothers. It isn’t right and often times it is never fair and it comes and it goes as it likes and there is not a damn thing we can do to stop it. Just because you’re an empowered alien from a doomed planet or a guy that can ignite his body into flame, doesn’t mean you can escape death by conventional human understanding (unless weird healing pods or time travel are involved…sometimes both.)The idea that fictional characters are, at their core, immortal is a silly one to maintain within a medium that strives to balance realism and fantasy.Continued below
However, the cons have some compelling logic too, and while I can pick any of the thousands of stances available on *insert comic forum*, I’m going to call on my own personal stance on the matter: comic book deaths don’t matter, not anymore at least. Now I know, the idea of “mattering” is a touchy subject in our little, smelly subculture, but going back to me previous example for a second, for a death to matter it HAS to be permanent, which is why REAL death is so terrifying. The idea of a permanent death in comic books is laughable at this point, and for all intents and purposes it SHOULD be. This is fiction, it is not limited by conventional human understand or the natural laws of our world. If a person can leap tall buildings in a single bound, you best believe they can come back to life. So, at the core of things, the only reason a character should die or return from the grave is to service the story being told. In a lot of ways, a death in a comic is a story beat, nothing more, and it would be silly to assume it matters any more or less than other element of the story.
But it does. It does because we’ve either been told it does or have created a bit of fiction of our own. And that is a fallacy.
By drawing so much attention to a character death, by equating it to death in the real world and attempting to instigate a similar response, it lessens the impact of death within whatever fictional world it is occurring, ESPECIALLY when the character is resurrected. Each big ticket death and resurrection has an impact on the legitimacy of that particular type of story beat, to the point that killing a character off just seems lazy and uninspired. More over, by making such story beats an unwritten (or maybe its written now, who knows) policy, THAT has a direct impact on the entire creative legitimacy of that company’s output. If they are mandating sub-par storytelling elements, then why should I care about ANY of the stories they’re telling?
Am I saying characters should never die and if they do they should stay dead? No. What I am saying is that if it happens, it better be in a way that tells the best story it possibly can, not for short term financial gain. Yeah I know, “comics are a business” blah blah blah. Obviously I think comic companies should be allowed to make money, but they should do so by creating the intelligent, genuinely inspiring stories I know they are capable of rather than formulating quick sale stunts that insult the intelligence and dedication of their fans. If the only reason I can’t read new Human Torch stories for a few years was to sell some black bagged comics, then just bring him back already, mission accomplished.