Cross-Canon: Make Death Count

By | January 31st, 2014
Posted in Columns | 2 Comments

Article originally written by Zachary Clemente

Have you seen the cover for issue 30 of “Nightwing” in the April solicitations for DC? Or maybe the cover of the recently released 4th issue of “Cataclysm: The Ultimates’ Last Stand”? I have and I think it’s time we had a chat about the use of character death in mainstream comics. The undermining of death as a narrative device with consistent rebirth is an outdated and disrespectful tenant of caped comics that can and should be addressed.

But first there’s something I’ve been trying to discuss that’s been tough to place into a logical string of words: how certain events are justified in fiction. We’ve all been in that conversation (early stages of that heated argument) about events that happen in our favorite fiction where the point of no return is someone answering “because it’s written that way” to the question of “why?” This circuitous and occasionally friendship-bruising exchange highlights a schism I want to discuss: the difference between “narrative-logic” and “media-logic.” (I made these terms up, if you have better names, tell me.)

Narrative-logic boils down to: the string of events that work to better buoy the story along, making sure it hits all points intended, while working within determined themes. Media-logic isn’t as straightforward as it’s steeped in subjectivity. It’s the awareness of how a story can affect others and shape the way they live their lives, and a tacit ownership to the responsibility of bringing a new context to an audiences’ world. This “media-logic” is what I attribute to the recently appointed importance of the Bechdel Test, to give an example.

So how does this relate to death (the event, not the myriad of character depictions)?

Death in fiction is a narrative procedure – a situation for a creator to really go gangbusters on character interaction, but is it being wantonly used in mainstream comics and associated content without due consideration of the consequences? Definitely.

Character rebirth from an untimely demise in mainstream comics is a backbone of the industry. The more popular the character is, the quicker they’ll be brought back to print for the vying audience. Take a look at the last year’s “Batman Inc.” where Bruce Wayne’s son and contemporary Robin, Damian, bought the proverbial farm – only for DC to announce a non-canon mini-series “Damian: Son of Batman” by Andy Kubert, currently running. Perhaps not the most applicable choice as Damian’s popularity seemed to be from conflict between supports and opposers, but you get idea. Non-canon or not, the fictitious dust had barely settled; the trade including issue #8, featuring his demise wasn’t even available when the first issue hit shelves. I’m personally quite fond of Damian’s uncouth Boy Wonder, but I had no interest in seeing some gritty “what-if” speculation that only served to unnecessarily pick up where Morrison’s story ended and shove it into the trite mold that produces the majority of DC’s monthlies. I’m under the impression that this book could have been avoided with a specific shift in the way comics are made: treat death differently and make it count.

A good example of this is the aftermath of Damian’s death. It was portrayed in some of the other Bat-books in a remarkable way, notably in ‘Requiem,’ issue #18 of Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s “Batman & Robin,” a wordless snapshot of a hero in grief in a near-perfect example of how to make character death resonate with barbed ache in the audience.

Every major event has a publicity period. The consistent flow of the game-changer, event-of-the-season, one-not-to-miss scenarios inundates the audience with promises of “change” — but it’s a lie we all buy into, one Wednesday at a time. Weirdly enough, I essentially have no issue with that cyclical aspect of superhero books as the removal of that consistency could ruin the potent mythology I actively seek from those stories. It’s just that the act of killing off an important character is viewed as equal to the rest of the potential situations that could “shake the status quo;” characters getting married (or not), the whole of creation being threatened (again), or a villain going good or succumbing back to their darker side but wait it was a ruse — you get the idea.

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Consider that four major deaths occurred within the span of two months in the Marvel universe: Karnak in “Inhumanity”, Rogue and Scarlet Witch in “Uncanny Avengers”, and Taskmaster in “Secret Avengers”. Karnak and Taskmaster might be gone for a couple years but there’s no way two of the more popular X-Men characters will stay down long, especially with Wanda’s participation in Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.

This should be the exception, not the rule.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way calling for the removal of important characters dying or even bringing them back at some later date. I just want publishers to recognize how they’re diminishing the importance of the event by touting it as something it’s not.

How many monthly solicitations include the promise of a character’s last stand? I would hazard too many. What’s worse is that it seems like publishers recognize this as a problem, bashfully sweeping the event under the rug when called out. Remember back in March of last year when Joshua Hale Fialkov walked off of the two Green Lantern books he was writing? Supposedly he left because DC wanted him to tell a story that wasn’t the one he signed up to write: killing off Green Lantern John Stewart. After the news broke, DC back-pedaled from the accusations and to this day, John lives. We have no confirmation on the absolute truth of this, but I’m prone to believe it. If this was merely an editorial problem between creator and publisher, they would have moved forward with the event, finding a different writer to flip the switch. If DC treated the concept of killing their characters with a little more respect, John Stewart may have died a glorious death, leaving us all properly heartbroken.

That’s the thing: death is an absolute, we all get that, but dangling death in front of an audience consistently isn’t an efficient way to illicit the mixture of emotional responses it’s meant to bring out. Take a look at “Empowered” where even the deaths of supporting characters have been downright crushing. “Saga”, like reading the A Song of Ice & Fire series, has held me in a thrall where I’m never sure of any character’s fate. I still feel completely torn up at the end of issue #12 ( also the end of volume 2) every time read it, hell, I cried my way through translating the last scene Wreathian (Esperanto) to English. Even though I read it in trade format up until the ‘Witches’ arc, “Fables” has always found new ways to give me tragedy in the most satisfying of ways and until very recently I had still hoped that Boy Blue was on his way back, horn and sword in tow; despite all the signs pointed to the truth that he was long gone.

Hope despite everything is why I read a lot of what I read and I relish a story that gives me the agency to experience hope. However, reading an issue exclaiming the end of a character on the cover or through publicity only serves to snuff that ability to hope and it undercuts what makes death such a purposefully excellent narrative device: shock. The potential of death is terrifying while the promise of it is kind of boring, and that’s something we desperately need less of in mainstream comics. Blunting the edge can often be a disservice to the audience; it can cheat them out of a complete and genuine experience.

Does this mean I want every death to be the most important thing in the story? Nope. I want a character’s death to matter to an audience for more reasons that having to wait a few months before seeing them again. Is that so much to ask?

If we asked DC or Marvel, they’d likely say “probably.” The expectation that both audience and publishers feed is that superhero comics are delivered in rapid-fire bursts of small arcs each with contained shake-ups and changes which are typically reverted whenever the next re-launch is announced or creative team takes the helm and a quick character death is a really easy way to fulfill those requirements. Maybe it’d be too damn difficult for them to keep the pace up if they weren’t able to place a character in the penalty box for a few months. The covers of Nightwing #30 and Cataclysm: The Ultimates’ Last Stand #4 only serve to show that this “timeout-ing” of heroes is a perpetuating expectation as all we could ask was how Dick or Steve dies, not if.

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It’s time comic houses, especially those with a property-driven publishing foundation (hint hint DC & Marvel), start deeply considering the ramifications of treating many of their characters as something without external worth. Simply put: when a fictional character is created, that character can become a valid perspective for a real audience member to view their own life through. That’s a big responsibility that these comic publishers are refuting, or at least are blind too. I’m directing this at DC & Marvel as they own the characters and worlds theses stories utilize and are ultimately responsible for them, and n the case of other publishers, whoever ultimately has ownership of the stories is responsible; whether creator or company.

Despite apparent unwillingness to incorporate long-lasting change in established caped universes, I feel that the climate is changing for the better and that meaningful character deaths in mainstream comics will become the norm, not the outlier.

Looking for superhero stories that meaningfully incorporate death? Here’s a starter list:

‘The Death of Haggard West’ by Paul Pope

Pope struck solid gold with his recent release “Battling Boy” by utilizing his deep love and knowledge of the superhero mythos and distilling it down into a luscious story about a boy sent to a-ramblin’ t0 a distant city to fight monsters and prove himself. In tow with a strong marketing campaign was the release of the final issue of the faux series “The Invincible Haggard West,” numbered #101. Proclaiming the end of a potentially beloved hero, the issue was in actuality a preview for the full volume, but the intent was undeniable — Pope understood the problem with superhero death and sought to address it before the story even began. He successfully gestures to Haggard’s past while allowing the reader to envision the content contained in the previous 100 issues that never were.

“Empowered” by Adam Warren

If you haven’t been keeping up with the volume releases, you’re probably questioning why Dark Horse’s superhero pin-up book is here — and to you I say: catch the hell up. What starts as a fun and delightfully NSFW romp slowly picking away at the superhero genre moves into full-scale deconstruction by taking a sledgehammer made of pure emotions at itself. If you’re more caught up than not (I want to say up to volume 7), you’d know that Warren goes beyond addressing superhero death and comes full circle with rebirth in a flat-out amazing way.

“All-Star Superman” by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely

The ‘All-Star’ line from DC was to be a collection of off-canon miniseries for the Big Three: Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman, purifying each character down to their essence. “All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder” is one of the most offensively awful books on shelves today and “All-Star Wonder Woman” was never finished and fell through the editorial cracks, likely never be seen again, but thankfully Morrison and Quitely delivered a story unlike almost anything else I’ve read, Superman or otherwise.  By surgically removing the strata of “under-powered, metal-coated, split into electric twins iterations,” they crafted The Superman – compassionate, powerful, and simple. Over 12 remarkable issues, he confronts his ultimate feats of strength and shows us “that the measure of a man lies not in what he says but what he does.”

“Runaways” by Bryan K. Vaughan & Adrian Alphona

There’s a whole mess of topics that could be brought up by talking about “Runaways,” an original series set in the Marvel universe now sadly in infinite limbo. As we’re all learning the hard way with his hit “Saga,” Vaughan pulls no punches when he can and his portrayal of a handful of super-teens on the run from their not-quite-who-they-seem parents is pretty fantastic at slamming you squarely in the heart-guts. Vaughan is of the few writers out there who genuinely seems able to write convincing teenaged characters, clearing caring for where they’re going, even if it could be an early grave.

//TAGS | Cross-Canon

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