Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The over-use of death in comics

Perhaps the most problematic element of comic-book stories has always been caused by the unfortunate reality that one of the best ways to sell comics has always been to kill off a character.  Unfortunately, however, killing off a character for sales purposes is a one-time proposition.  Once the character is dead, the company can never use him or her again in future stories. And as your mother probably told you when you were a kid, "never" is a long time.  Even villains like Lex Luthor and side characters like Jimmy Olsen have fans, so if the publisher kills these characters off, and the characters are gone permanently, many copies of the "death" issue may sell, but gone is the chance to ever attract those fans with those characters again.

Death in the Golden and Silver Ages

Ironically, the editors and creators of comics in the Golden and Silver Ages (pre-1975) knew that the "big bang" of sales they got out of a death would not be worth losing the chance to tell future stories with a character (a fact that today's creators seem to have forgotten), and so they became very good at "faking it." They would make the character appear to have died, but always in some way that was not definitive.  The character would vanish in an explosion, or disappear under water, or be buried under an avalanche.  The issues in which these events occurred would sell well, because the character seemed to have died.

But the emphasis here is on the word seemed. By making the death somewhat ambiguous, the writers left themselves (and their successors) an "out" with these deaths. Because you didn't see the character's body blown apart, you couldn't be sure if maybe, just maybe, at the last minute, the character mightn't have escaped through some crack in the wall and gotten beyond the blast radius just in time.   Thus, the character could return with much fanfare 20 or 40 or even 100 issues later, and explain how he managed to thwart death.  And so, characters never really died in comics, but just disappeared for a while.

For decades, the "apparent death" that was not really death was a mainstay in comics.  Readers would often say to each other, "A character isn't dead unless you see the body." Since one rarely was ever shown the body, the reader accepted that comic-book characters generally don't die.

Death in the Bronze Age

The "apparent death" tradition began to change after the mid-1970s.  Little by little, characters were killed and the reader was shown the body.  As with the "apparent deaths," these real deaths were mainly meant to sell comics. But the writers and editors, at the time and for a long while afterwards, generally intended these characters to stay dead.

One reason comic-book companies went for these more permanent deaths during the Bronze Age was exactly because "false" deaths had become such a mainstay in the earlier comics that character "death" had become something of a joke.  Nobody really believed deaths were real by the end of the Silver Age, which had completely robbed character death of its value.  Real death, the writers believed, would inject greater weight into their stories, by making superheroing seem like the truly dangerous profession it always should have been, and making death seem truly serious to the reader.

Among the most famous early "permanent deaths" in comics were the death of Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix (Uncanny X-men #137), the original Supergirl, Kara Zor-El (Crisis on Infinite Earths #7), the original Flash, Barry Allen (Crisis on Infinite Earths #8), and the second Robin, Jason Todd (Batman: A Death in the Family).  These characters were killed off with every intention of the death being permanent.  And for many years, these deaths were honored by the companies -- even characters like Kara Zor-El and Barry Allen, who had large fan bases demanding their return.

The Death of and Return of Superman

Then in the early 1990s, +DC Comics decided that Superman had become "boring," and to get people "interested" in him again, they decided to kill Superman off.  There's a great (although, fair warning, it's laced with obscenities) YouTube video from Max Landis that very accurately summarizes the stupidity of the "death of Superman" plot better than I ever could.

The actual details of the plot (and how silly it was) are less important than the big picture, which is this: Superman, in a blaze of company hype, was killed off "permanently," only to be brought back a few months later (as everyone knew he would -- because we all knew Superman could not be permanently removed from the DC pantheon).  What +DC Comics (and the other companies) learned from this was that they could sell comics by the thousands or even millions when they killed off big, important characters, and made those deaths seem permanent.  And then, they could just bring those characters back, and move forward as if the death had never even happened.

The Death of Death

As Landis says in the video, this "death and return of Superman" event is most significant because it "broke death in comics."  Following the death of Superman, both DC and Marvel started killing off characters left and right, only to bring them back a few months or years later.  Landis lists a whole bunch, including Aquaman, Batman, Daredevil, The Flash 2 (Wally West), Batwoman, Colossus, Animal Man, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, the Thing, Elektra, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Wonder Girl, Mystique, Spawn, Doomsday... and many others.  Landis sums this up by saying, at the end of his video, "Death of Superman didn't kill Superman; it killed death."

And that is basically where we are today. Comic-book companies have so over-used death, that almost every major character in both Marvel and DC has died and come back from the dead at least once (and some several times).  Characters who we were told for years, sometimes decades, were dead and would never come back, have, by now, come back.  There is not a single death that has "stuck."

The most recent installment of this over-used death paradigm occurred last month when yet another Robin was killed off again by DC comics -- this time, Bruce Wayne's son, Robin #4, in Batman Incorporated #8. I did not buy this issue. Heck I don't even care.  Why? Because it's just another death.  The death/rebirth paradigm has been so over-used that death has been rendered toothless.  Indeed, we have come full circle with the Golden/Silver age period when all "deaths" were done with obvious "outs" (like not seeing the body).  Just like back then, death in comics has become a complete joke.

And that's why the following happened last week. I have Batgirl on my pull list, so the guy at the comic shop handed it to me from my pull folder. It was issue 18, which is part of the Bat-family's "Requiem" story-line, showing the aftermath of Robin's death.  The comic-shop guy asked me if I had read Batman Incorporated #8 yet, to which I said "No."  They had reprints, he said... would I like to have one?  "No thanks," I said. "I don't really care about it.  It's just another death that will be undone shortly by another writer."

He tried to argue with me.    No, he said. "This time" it would be different. This death is real, because Grant Morrison is writing it, and he's putting to bed all his characters before he retires from writing comics. (That's a bit of good news -- the sooner Morrison leaves the comic industry, the better off that industry will be, but I digress.)  He knows I recently got back into comic books, so maybe he thinks I'm a comics-newb to believe that. Or maybe he's a newb himself.  But I just smiled at him and said, "Oh yeah? That's what they always say."

"This time it's for real," he answered.

"Uh-huh," I responded. And then I rattled off the list, including some names he was probably shocked I would know. "That's what they said about Jean Grey, Steve Rogers, Bucky, Sharon Carter, Jason Todd, Supergirl, and Barry Allen."  All of those characters, over time, eventually came back, of course. He knows it.   So he had nothing to say, and just bagged up my comics for me.

And this really is my point. The comic-book companies have so over-done death and rebirth that death has no meaning at all anymore.  They have completely subverted their original intent with these deaths, which was to add "weight" to the universe by having the characters occasionally suffer the ultimate consequence. But now, death is just a temporary plot device, making it have not weight, but utter weightlessness.

It's time for DC, Marvel, and all the rest to stop with the over-use of death. Just stop. Killing. Off. Their. Characters.  If they want to do something with weight, have the character lose his powers or have amnesia or retire or disappear or something.  From those things, a character can believably return.


  1. The idea of death in comic books has become comical, I agree. It's not a story as much as it is an event to be marketed to increase sales.

    I have an idea about killing off characters and still allowing people to read about them: set the stories in the past before their death.

    If DC wanted to continue to sell Damian Wayne books, then they could do an "Adventures of" book telling all the untold action and adventure that Damian experienced before his death. Let's face it, time stands still in comic books so they could tell countless stories and get away with it. In fact, the story might even be better as you get lines like, "I'll be Batman someday." when you know ultimately his fate is to die at a young age.

    When you have a character running around that doesn't know his/her fate yet, but the reader does, I think it could have a great impact on how powerful the story can be.

  2. I think that is an excellent idea and could have worked out great if comics had implemented it. But sadly they don't see the deaths as part of a story. As you say, they see them as media hype events.