Friday, February 11, 2011

Death in Comics, pt. 2: Shock to the System

Now we're going to dig in a little bit and look at one of the first ways death has increasingly been used in comic book stories....

Shock Value.

The shock value death is one designed to startle the audience out of their complacency. It is meant to make the audience feel fear (usually for the hero(es) ) or anger (usually at the villains) or sadness (usually at a tragic turn).

As with all things, a shock value death isn't a bad thing when it's done right. Countless action-adventure and horror movies have used the sudden death of a character to startle the audience. You're sitting there, you think you know where the story is going next, you're actually quite comfortable with the story then...... BAM! Death. Cue more drama or action, or characters running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

There are a few things, though, to using the shock death...

For one thing, it does have to be a surprise -- you can't telegraph this one. Action hero sidekicks and red shirted crewmen from the original Star Trek series are really not likely candidates for a shock death. These types of characters might as well have targets painted on their chests. It isn't a matter of *if* they will die it's a matter of *when* they will die. If you want to go with a true shock death you have to go with a character or a situation where death is not expected. For example, in original Star Trek if you had one of the red mini-dress chicks beam down and get killed that would be a shocking death because, by and large (not entirely, mind you) women in Trek were fairly off-limits when it came to death... unless they were actually the villains. But I digress. The point is that there used to be certain rules and certain characters were kind of "off limits" for death... the girlfriend of the hero, kids, cute family pets... those sorts of characters.

Over time, though, because those characters were "off limits" they eventually began being targeted for shock death because the audience was used to them surviving. The problem with that is that, eventually, readers and audiences caught on to that scheme as well to the point where now no one really goes in thinking anyone is truly "off limits".

The other way of providing a death with shock value is not with the character but rather with the timing. There are certain situations and certain points in any story where the audience really isn't expecting a death. Picture a scene in a restaurant. It is expensive, romantic; there are candles on the tables, and seated at a table for two is a young couple. They are earnestly discussing their relationship. The music on the soundtrack swells to a romantic crescendo... and suddenly the man has a seizure and keels over dead. Shocking because it's unexpected and it comes at a point where everything is telling you this is a romantic moment. You are in an emotional mode to be receptive to that romantic moment. The last thing you are expecting is sudden death. Or, another example -- a character seemingly takes a sniper's bullet. OMG she's been shot! But she stands up and opens her jacket to reveal she was wearing a bulletproof vest. She's fine! You breath a sigh of relief.... suddenly a sniper's bullet strikes her head -- she's dead. You were not ready for this moment. The rules of writing state that you have rising action followed by falling action. You just passed a rising action moment and you know it so you are ready for the falling action and, indeed, the scene seems to go into that mode when.... sudden death!

Now, as I said, these tools of the trade are just that -- they're tools, neither good nor bad. Shock value deaths can provide a lot to a story. They can push a plot along, they can make sure the audience is fully invested in the story, they can invoke an emotion in the audience that the creator wants to invoke. But they also have to be used cautiously.

The audience, you see, are not idiots. We're savvy. We're onto the ways and means writers of various stripes use to jerk our emotional chains. And if a writer is going to use a shock death they have to invest in it. It has to truly come out of the blue, or it has to involve a character the audience wouldn't ever, ever *ever* expect to be killed.

And here's where far too many comic book writers have gone wrong with using the shock death. Too many of them think that just killing a hero at all is enough to be shocking. Well, years ago it probably would have. However, nowadays there are probably more dead superheroes than there are currently living ones. It isn't a big thing to kill a hero anymore but too many writers think that this is all they have to do. The result of this is that the audience isn't shocked and more to the point they think less of the writer for trying to use a cheap and easy shock value death.

The other thing about comic book shock value deaths is that the writers aren't really willing to lay anything on the line. As I said before, it isn't shocking to kill off a red shirt in Star Trek and likewise it isn't shocking to kill off a hero who has been on a shelf somewhere for ten years. For a shock death to be really effective in many ways the audience has to be invested in the character who dies. You can't introduce a character on page one of a comic, kill them off on page ten and expect the audience to be shocked. Most comic book readers know anymore that if a writer brings in a character that no one has seen or heard from in five years or more then very likely they will be cannon fodder before the end of the story arc -- sometimes before the end of the issue. Not. A. Shock.

And here's the thing. Failed shock value deaths are bad. They're really bad. Because if the audience isn't made to feel the emotion the writer wanted them to feel then the writer has failed and more to the point the *reader* knows exactly what the writer was trying to do and that he or she failed at it. It also means that the death is worthless. And that is also something that is increasingly ticking off comic book fans. A failed shock value death cheapens death, usually then seems unnecessary, and adds to the growing cynicism over death in comics. It's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" in a way -- if the writer doesn't get an emotional response he/she keep trying and trying and trying but it will become harder and harder and harder to get the response he/she wants and in the meantime people stop caring about the deaths at all because they have become increasingly useless and meaningless.

Shock value death do still have their place in comics and they always will. When done right it can make you gasp out loud and wait with baited breath to see what happens next. But when done too often and done poorly it simply makes it harder to enjoy it when it's done right.

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