Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Comic book Death should mean something

First post of the year, and it’s about a depressing theme. Sorry about that, but my reading choices ended up on this (Besides, you all know how rare is it that I update this so I had to keep the monumentum going).

Anyway, Comic Book Deaths. They’re a joke, right? “No one stays dead except for Bucky, Jason Todd and Uncle Ben” and the three have come back already (Granted, Uncle Ben was an alternate – earth Ben and he died again, but the sentiment remains). There was a story in which a villain pretended for all of five minutes to be Thomas Wayne, and if the Waynes can’t be counted on to stay underground, who can you trust? Harry Osborn is back, thanks to One More Day and an incredibly convoluted explanation with Goblin!Juice and even when some heroes have had the decency to stay dead, despite their loyal fans wanting them back (Kon “Conner” Kent, Ted Kord, Panthra… and I think that’s about it at least of the top of my head and not counting the last three months deaths as well, it’s been only three months. They can come back next Wednesday. They’ll count when they have at least a year underground), most of the shock deaths of the last three years have been undone. Even some older deaths have been undone thanks to ‘Superboy punched the time-barrier’ and ‘It was a Skrull’. As happy as I am to see Mocking Bird back, I can’t help but think this was the cheap way out.

Because if even a 10 year old death can be retconned… well, Death has no meaning. Batman is apparently dead, so what? He’ll be back after another non-event. So the Wasp is dead (In two universes, even!), she’ll be back before you have the time to see the other characters deal with her dead. Aren’t we due to yet another return of Jean ‘I can’t stay buried’ Grey?

No matter how spectacular you make one death, no matter if it’s the goddamn Batman fighting against Darkseid, or Captain America not dodging one bullet, all comic book fans know that they’re going to come back. The bigger the body count, the longest the yawn from the public because… well, either they’re cannon fodder (See Ultimatum #1) or they’re a shock death (See Batman, Ted Kord and so on). There are deaths that are wonderfully written (Unfortunately, the one example fresh in my mind is in this week’s comics so let’s try and avoid that spoiler) but even so, it becomes pointless as the readers know that, if it’s a superhero comic book and the dead character has a name, he or she will be back sooner or later. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, much more than the old phrase leads to believe, but most of them are ignored as they aren’t readers favorites. I still well up when I read Cypher’s pointless death in New Mutants, and even when I’m sorta glad that Douglock wasn’t really Doug Ramsey as that would cheapen his death, at the same time I wonder why my favorites don’t rate the revolving heaven door like other characters who seem to have a death-long pass.

All this came to mind while I was reading Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s a manga set during a war, the last few (Japanese) episodes deal with a full blown civil war and the mangaka, Hiromu Arakawa, has always had the custom of counting her death characters at the end of each compiled volume by showing them flying to the sky. The first few volumes had an average of one death per volume (And a friend still doesn’t forgive me for lending him volume 2 that had one of the arguably crueler deaths on the whole run), volume 6 had to resort to a dead fox and two dead rabbits, although volume 7 had ‘too many to count’, same as volume 15 that counted every single death during a past war. However, as the episodes advance closer and closer to what I assume will be the ending (It hasn’t been announced to my knowledge, but I doubt it will be longer than a year before the story wraps up), Arakawa has started to be very careful with her death toll. If a named character (Be it a main one, a secondary one, or an incidental one) dies, it is because there was no other way for that character to end. But when many characters manage to get saved in the second to last minute, I grew worried about the main characters. Because mrs. Arakawa is counting her deaths, and when she reaches the end, I’m not that sure even the main characters will be safe. Hell, half the fandom still haven’t gotten over the last supportive non villain character death to the point that seeing him in a flashback is a welcome thing even if the flashback itself was critiziced!

To avoid making this a manga vs. comic thing, I also looked for an example of a great comic book death that counted because it was final. There was David Quin’s death in Strangers in Paradise, which was telegraphed from around the second volume of the series and still there were fans who hoped against hope that wouldn’t happen, but was pretty much final (As well as the off-screen death of Griffin Silver, which we only see through the consequences it has on everyone else’s lives). There was One Eye’s death on Elf Quest, which was heart-wrenching and kept even the widow in denial for a long while (Actually, all deaths in Elf Quest, at least in the original quest and all the way to Kings of the Broken Wheel are quite touching. But at the moment, the one that I can remember clearly is One Eye’s). Besides the whole fantasy vs. reality thing, what makes the deaths similar is that they’re final. David was not going to come back in the last page of Strangers in Paradise, and there was no coming back for all the death elves either. See Runaways, from Marvel too. Both Alex and Gert were loved by the readers, and even if we got a glimpse of Alex in limbo, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to come back.

At this point, more than event fatigue, readers have death fatigue. No matter how spectacular a death* one writes, if it’s a superhero, no one believes he’s really death, even more if it’s a A-list hero. Makes one wish that the ‘Dead means dead’ policy had been truth. Maybe then, the writers would be more careful when killing characters, and their deaths would be truly felt by their readers.

* or faked deaths, as the case may be. If all deaths are taken as fake deaths, then when a character is revealed not to be death after all, is not a great reveal, it’s just business as usual.