The Watchtower 1.31.03: Don't Fear The Reaper?

Right off the bat, if you haven’t read our big spotlight story this week, Manolis Vamvounis’ exclusive interview with Chuck Austen by now, you’re missing out. It’s a great read and proves once again why Manolis is an invaluable asset to this site (even if he does change the name of his column more than a schitzophrenic on speed). Anyhow, if you have read the interview, here’s my take on the subject of death in comics…

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

The first comic book death I remember being aware of is a pretty famous one: no less than Superman himself.

When Superman died, it wasn’t a comic book; it was an event. I remember the day: I was in fifth grade and it was most definitely raining out. I’d read comic books here and there as a younger kid, but now that my appetite for reading was in full force and I was starting to appreciate art (my mother’s profession), it was around this time that I began my true love affair with comics. As with most kids around that time, I started with the X-Men, but with mainstream news outlets everywhere covering the Death of Superman, the young journalist in me knew that this was something I’d want to know I’d been on the ground floor of in the years that would follow.

Superman #75, the issue in which the Man of Steel met his “death,” was a masterpiece. Powerfully drawn splash pages done by Dan Jurgens, and a narrative that to this day still sends shivers down my spine.

And yes, I knew that Superman would be back…we all did.

I think it was this early experience that, for the most part, made me not think that characters dying and coming back in comic books was that big a deal. The Death and Return of Superman was a fun, well-done epic that stemmed from a major character dying, even though nobody thought he would stay dead.

But while Superman’s was the first death I remember, the first one that really gripped me took place in the pages of the X-Titles not long afterwards. It was at the end of the 12-part X-Cutioner’s Song crossover, one of my favorite stories of my youth. The X-Men, X-Force, and X-Factor teamed up against Stryfe, Apocalypse, Mr. Sinister and more after Stryfe, posing as Cable, shot Prof. X…but more than that, it was a powerful and mysterious story about something brewing between Stryfe and Cyclops & Jean Grey…and ultimately Cable. But before any questions could be answered…Cable sacrificed both himself and Stryfe to save everybody else, and the case was closed…

Of course most fans know what happened afterwards…Cable didn’t stay dead for long, he came back, ultimately so did Stryfe, Cable was revealed as Cyclops’ son, Stryfe as the clone…blah blah blah. Point is, at the end of X-Cutioner’s Song, Cable & Stryfe were two of the coolest characters around in my eyes. The fact that they died at, what was to me, their peak, not to mention at the height of a mystery, cemented that. I would have remembered Cable & Stryfe as those great characters. Heck, even if they had waited a few years and then brought Cable back in a gigantic event, I would have been stoked. But they brought both guys back almost immediately afterwards, and I was underwhelmed.

When Superman finally held Lois in his arms again after being “dead,” replaced, etc., that moment had power. When Cable said “Hey guys, I’m back,” to X-Force…it was cool for, like, a second. I know there’s been some good Cable stories since the early 90s…and probably some decent Stryfe ones as well…but they were never the same in my eyes. If they had stayed dead, I would have always remembered their greatness; if they hadn’t died in the first place, who knows…but the way it went down, I think they ultimately cheapened a great story and two compelling characters for the sake of maintaining the status quo.

So I see the arguments on both sides of the table for killing off characters and leaving them dead. On the one hand, you’ve got the Death of Superman, in which a character’s death was used to springboard great stories, but so was his eventual resurrection. On the other hand, bringing Cable & Stryfe back from the dead cheapened a great story in the X-Cutioner’s Song.

Then of course, the further into the 90s you get, you see the proliferation of the “killing off characters for a quick fix” strategy, in which characters (usually minor ones or reserve members of large teams) were suddenly and brutally killed off with no buildup and little pay-off.

I think that’s the thing that has poisoned most people against the idea of killing off characters in comic books: when it doesn’t lead to a great story. Fans are fiercely loyal to their favorite characters; they have trouble accepting these character’s deaths even if it is the springboard for some exciting stuff, and they will definitely not suffer silently if their beloved characters are killed off to commemorate an anniversary issue or a crossover.

There was perhaps no greater example of pointless death in the 90s then the infamous “Zero Hour Justice Society slaughterfest”. The original incarnations of The Atom, Hourman & Dr. Mid-Nite were all killed by the villainous Extant, in order to establish him as a major player in the DC Universe, while the original versions of Dr. Fate, The Sandman, and Starman were also effectively retired. In the case of Starman, the retirement led to a great series. But with the three deaths, little was accomplished, as Extant was revealed only a month later to be merely a puppet of Hal Jordan, and was then used only once (to the best of my knowledge) following Zero Hour (in an Impulse special of all places!) before his own death in the pages of JSA. In the near decade that has passed since Zero Hour, we’ve gotten great new incarnations of Mid-Nite & Hourman, but both could have existed without the deaths of the originals.

On the flip-side of the coin, both DC & Marvel have used deaths of major characters to lead to some awesome stories. Wally West, the current Flash, star of one of DC’s most consistently quality series over the past decade and a half, has gained much of his characterization from the death of his predecessor and mentor, Barry Allen. Marvel’s killing of the original Captain Marvel established a new precedent in comics, that the hero could die and stay dead, and eventually led into the current Captain Marvel series. The death of Terra in New Teen Titans during the 80s changed the team irrevocably and greatly enriched the characters of both Changeling and Deathstroke. More recently, while it may not have been a popular decision, the death of Psylocke in the pages of X-Treme X-Men has allowed both Chris Claremont and Chuck Austen to explore how the loss of a loved one affects long-time characters like Archangel and Rogue (believe it or not, the mortality rate of X-Men is a greatly exaggerated figure; if you think about it, outside of Colossus and Psylocke, only short term characters like Changeling and Thunderbird ever bite it). Though he didn’t kill off T-Bird in Exiles, Judd Winick may as well have, and has used that make Nocturne a much more interesting character and add another layer to the team dynamic. The death of Live Wire provided a fittingly explosive conclusion to Legion Lost (the writers of every incarnation of the Legion of Super-Heroes also have a great history of using the deaths of team members to lead to entertaining and thought-provoking stories).

Ok, so there’s a wealth of evidence for you to ponder in the abstract, but let me now get into some more tangible stuff. The bottom line: if it can be the catalyst for good story-telling, any and all comic book characters are expendable. Would I be upset if one of my favorite characters got killed off? Well, yeah, obviously, I wouldn’t be much of a fan if I weren’t. But when it comes down to it, I’m only one person, one fan. Someday, it may be Nova, Iceman, Nightwing, or Wally West’s turn to take the eternal dirtnap (and you better believe that last one is more than enough to get me nervous every time the DCU has a major crossover…as Impulse once said, “These things never turn out well for Flashes…”), and even if the story that results is a touching classic, I’d probably still do something futile, like start an online petition or something, because I cared about the character…which mean the writer did their job.

Chuck Austen made some excellent points in his interview. I think the most important was that every character is somebody’s favorite character. If writers never killed off characters because they have any sort of following, they’d be starting on a road that can only lead to creative dead ends and straightjackets. We get our best stories in comics because writers are willing to take chances. These chances don’t always pay off, but if creators don’t gamble and try something new once in awhile, we’d still be in the Silver Age (not necessarily a bad thing, but I doubt the industry would be thriving), with just a series of one shot stories with none ever having any consequences or bearing on what happens next.

So let’s say we can agree that the killing of Character X is justifiable, despite the cult following X may have (I’m referring now to hypothetical Character X, whom I just created, when I say X…not that guy from Dark Horse…never mind…), because X was close to Captain Y, who will have to deal with his grief, and died as a result of negligence by Q Lad, who has to bear the responsibility, plus the relationship between Q and Y (as well as Q and any other characters to whom X was close) is now complex. There is also the matter of how X’s surviving comrades in Team Z now deal with General T, who killed X. There is a whole new realm of possibilities for T now; maybe previously T was a minor villain/threat, but with X’s death he is now a big player…encounters with T now carry an emotional impact they previously did not…maybe T didn’t intend to kill X and now he is dealing with both being hounded by X’s teammates as well as his own guilt…endless possibilities.

However, a writer is still going to hear from X’s fans, who are upset, and more than likely, the hardcore fans will have a reason why X’s death was implausible. There will always be those fans who followed X back when X was a member of J Force and became intimately familiar with the way X’s powers work (way more than the current writer of Team Z, who just thought X was a neat character they’d like to pull out of limbo and do something with). It’s possible that the writer made a glaring error when they had General T kill off X, because something X pulled off back in J Force made it impossible for them to die that way.

Ok…enough with the letters. The point is that comic book writing, as cool as it may seem, can’t always be a terribly enviable job. The phrase “you can’t please all the people, all the time” is especially true in comics. No matter what you do, what roster you select, what character you shuffle off to limbo, or who you kill, somebody on a message board somewhere will be calling for your blood. But there might also be a wealth of new readers who dig your Team Z (sorry) work who never read J Force and didn’t really know of X until recently. The breakdown will probably be something like 80% of those fans, but then a really really passionate and dedicated 20% who would just assume see you die for real in X’s place. Who do you cater to? If you’re a good businessman, not to mention a dedicated creator, you bite the bullet and go against the vocal minority.

That’s the harsh reality that we as comic book fans have to accept (though definitely don’t have to like): the story and the industry is bigger than any of us. If the death of our favorite character will lead to good stories, it’s going to happen regardless of us. We may cringe as we read the death story, thinking “…but his powers should have protected him…” but the fact of the matter is that hundreds of other fans won’t bat an eyelash, getting caught up instead of the drama of the death.

So my hat’s off to you Chuck Austen and those writers like him. My hat is off to you because you put the story and the majority of your readers ahead of a good bit of your standing among fans…because there will be backlash, and you know this. My hat is off to creators who are more concerned with creating what they feel to be the bests stories they can, and who aren’t handcuffed by fear of not having everybody like them. In a perfect world, every writer would have the knowledge of every appearance characters they are writing have ever made, and if they decide, for the sake of the story, to kill them off, they make the death believable by continuity standards…but in the world we live in, at the very least give them a memorable send-off, even if it might not synch perfectly with every obscure appearance they’ve ever made (still guys, do a little research and it will save you some nasty e-mails).

All I ask is that if you’re going to kill off a character, any character, do it for a reason. Do it because you’ve got a story to tell. Do it because you intend to leave the character dead and use the event as a catalyst. Don’t pull a JSA massacre or a Cable/Stryfe quicky…write the Death of Superman or Captain Marvel.

And at the same time, my hat is off to you fans who are so passionate that you will reference when X was able to turn to diamond back in the 1998 J Force Annual and thus shouldn’t have been killed by the werewolves (ok, am I being too obvious now?). Even though you may not get your way in the end (or you might, who knows), it is the fact that you have such a love for the character that means a story about their death will mean anything, and that the character means anything at all.

And my fingers are still crossed for Wally next time DC decides they need a Crisis.