Thursday, February 10, 2011

Death in Comics

Okay, this is an editorial. I'm not claiming that my views are the correct ones or the only ones or even necessarily the best ones; all I'm saying is: This is how I feel...

Comic books have been "not kids' stuff" for a very long time now. If you think that they are something for kids I can show you panels in regular comics (as in not graphic novels and not "Mature Readers" comics) where characters get their heads smashed in, where a character is raped off-panel, where a character is seen shooting up heroin, etc. And really, even back in the day when they were considered a child's reading material people might be surprised at the level of violence. I know of several comics in which rival gangsters filled a room with lead courtesy of Thompson Sub-Machine guns. Granted, there is no blood but there is a visible hail of bullets and the people in the room are shown falling backwards in death -- usually with cries of "Oh!" or "Urk!" on their lips. No, what most people think of as comics come from the goofy, neutered, 1950's.

But all that is aside. My point is that death has long been a part of comic books. Bad guys killed people, bad guys in turn often died through their own greed or Machiavellian machinations. Sometimes they were killed by the good guys but usually in a "fair fight" shoot-out. In short -- characters died.

But somewhere along the line there was a subtle shift to death in comic books. Long-term supporting characters died and left an impact on both readers and the characters in the comic books. Batman's faithful butler Alfred was killed in 1964 while heroically saving Batman from a falling rock (just.... go with it. He later got better and I believe the whole sequence has now been erased from continuity). Nearly a decade later comic fandom would be shocked by the death of Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's girlfriend in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. In point of fact, this one, pivotal death is considered as the end of the Silver Age of comics. Gwen had been a supporting character and Peter's "true love" for a number of years before being tossed off a bridge by villain the Green Goblin after the Goblin discovered Spider-Man's true identity of Peter Parker.

There would be other deaths... many other deaths. "Event" comic mini-series such as Crisis on Infinite Earths would be known for their body counts. There, not only were heroes killed but entire worlds were wiped out of existence. And it set a standard that no event comic was complete without a significant body count.

All of these things were meant to show the audience that the stakes in the game were high. Characters could die. Important characters could die. Even favorite characters could die. Just like in the real world bad things could happen to good people and actions could have consequences.

But this had an unfortunate side-effect -- many comic book deaths became about someone else rather than being about the character. Many characters died not because of things which they did but rather who they were. The stories of their deaths were not really about them but rather about another character -- usually the hero but sometimes the villain.

This has become more prominent in recent years -- death for shock effect, death to try to boost sales, and death as a cheap, writing shortcut. And I, for one, am sick of it.

Part of the problem comes from the issue of the person who is being killed is not the focus of the story. For a time this was particularly noticed among female characters leading to (then) comic book columnist and commentator Gail Simone (now bestselling comic book writer) to pen an essay which became a website -- Women in Refrigerators. The name came from a now infamous sequence in the title Green Lantern in which the titular hero comes home only to find out one of his enemies has killed his girlfriend Alex and stuffed her in the refrigerator.

Most people get the focus wrong and they think the outrage is that any character has been killed. Or else they think that the argument is that female characters should be untouchable and nothing bad should ever happen to them because they're women. But that's missing the point entirely. The point is that a character has been killed or depowered or raped or tortured or something else entirely to shore up another character.

In the case of Alex above there, she wasn't killed because she was a superhero. The person who killed her wasn't her enemy. Nope, she was killed off only to deliver angst to the titular hero and send him off on a revenge spree. In short, she became a plot device, not a character.

This can be contrasted spectacularly with the 1976-1977 X-Men story arc known as "The Dark Phoenix Saga". In the time leading up to the story a near-death experience led long-time character Jean Grey to unlock new and near god-like power levels -- leading to her shedding her old code name of Marvel Girl and adopting a new one -- Phoenix. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". With a little push from some villains, Jean tipped over into the dark side -- including wiping out an entire inhabited alien star system. Her friends and teammates managed to bring her back to her senses but she was soon put on trial by an alien empire for her destruction of the star system. Her friends fought to keep her from being sentenced to death for her crimes but in the end Jean could feel her control slipping away and the darkness growing. Knowing that she could never live like that she opted to kill herself. Now that is a story in which the character who dies is the focal point of the story. Jean didn't die to create angst for her teammates, nor did she die to show how much of a badass some villain is.

But that is what gets missing today. Comic book deaths aren't about the characters who are being killed -- they're about other characters. And we'll take a deeper look at this next post as we study comic book death as a writing shortcut.

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