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Monday, July 5, 2010

The point of pointless deaths in superhero comics

Death in comics is a fickle and complicated thing. For the readers few things can stir up as much emotion, for better or worse, as the death of a character. One of those few things is when a character is revived. You see, for comic book fans it is a well-known fact that comic book characters, especially in superhero comics, rarely stay dead. That's what happens when there are multiple writers, all of which have different opinions and ideas in regards to character deaths and revivals.

These constant revivings of characters that have had poignant or heroic death scenes can make said death scenes seem, to be brutally honest, pointless a lot of the time. However, it doesn't have to be that way. Both deaths and revivals can indeed evoke positive feelings in the reader. It all really depends, as basically everything in the industry, on the quality of the overall story. A poorly written death scene can agaitate the reader because a character that they liked just died and they didn't get the respect that they deserve. In these cases a return to life for the character is often desired. Reversely, a great death scene that honours the character and shows them at their best will often leave the readers with a bitter-sweet satisfaction that the character gave it their all and looked awesome while doing it. Those are generally the cases when a revival will feel like it cheapens the death scene in question.

There are any number of different examples in regards to this subject and as a particular death in comics have made me consider these issues a bit more than usual. So I decided to post some of my thoughts and findings here to see if I could discern whether there is a point to killing off characters anymore or if it's just a tedious excercise of writers trying to go for cheap drama.

But first I'd like to point out that there are characters in comics that actually do stay dead once they've left this state of life. For example, if somebody dies as a part of the hero's origin story they will usually be immune to getting revived, traditional examples include Spider-man's uncle Ben and Batman's parents. Then there are the rare characters that died way after the origin story and actually stayed dead. Before going to those that went to death's realm and back allow me to talk about those that that remain dead after their death scenes, whether they were good or bad. First up is quite the possibly the most awesome death scene I've ever read.

Skurge the Executioner was, despite the incredibly badass name, a B or C-list Thor villain. The kind of guy that was usually the dumb muscle more than anything. At a point when he feels unusally down he joins Thor for a rescue mission into Niffelheim. Skurge gets tricked and used and shamed in front of hundreds of his fellow warriors. To make up for it Skurge stands in front of a bridge that the heroes have to cross while pledging that he will protect them from the undead army hunting the heroes. We get the following scene.

The narration reads as follows: They sing no songs in Hel, nor do they celebrate heroes. For silent is that dismal realm and cheerless. But the story of the Gjallerbru and the god that defended it is whispered across the nine worlds and when a new arrival asks about the one to whom even Hela bows her head the answer is always the same. He stood alone at Gjallerbru. And that answer is enough.

After that scene Skurge actually stays dead and it's understandable why that is. He was a fairly unspectacular character so there's probably little appeal in bringing him back when it would be fairly easy to create a similar new character. Not just that, but Skurge's death scene was quite possibly the coolest thing that ever happened to the character. But it wasn't just an awesome death scene that is remembered to this day, It served as a trigger for character evolution in the godess the Skurge loved but was spurned by and in death Skurge acted as a heroic example that Thor could see as an example when he almost lost his way. In short, an awesome death scene that actually meant something in the longer run.

Another heroic death scene that seems to have stuck can be viewed in the case of Rex-splode from the Image comic Invincible written by Rober Kirkman, who more or less writes EVERYTHING that happens in the Invincible universe, meaning that it's unlikely that some other writer will have a chance to much his work up. In the series' 60th issue Rex sacrificed himself to save his injured teammates from an over-powering opponent. Prior to this Rex had been something of an annoying jerk, cheated on his girlfriend among other things. But after some character development he'd begun to be less of douchebag. Then he died. Unlike Skurge who evolved more as a character in death more than he'd probably ever do in life there were still more stories to tell with Rex. This is an example of that bitter-sweet feeling I mentioned before. The fans of the character want to see more of him but at least he went out like a hero. But because Rex died like that it become more poignant. The readers will not only miss the character but the stories with him that won't be told because he's no longer there, making the scene and aftermatch all the more powerful. A revival would take away a lot, if not all of that power.

A more famous example of a character that's still dead would be when Spider-man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy was killed by Green Goblin. Gwen has remained dead for quite a few number of reasons. The impact of her death rocked not only Spider-man's personal universe but actually ended the Silver Age of Comic Books. Before this event it was completely unthinkable that a hero's girlfriend could actually be killed by a villain. But when Gwen died a lot of doors opened up for grimer and grittier stories. In short, she became a symbol for a step forward in the entire industry, whether that was good or bad is up to each individual.

However, the reasons for killing Gwen weren't exactly that noble. The creators just didn't know what to with her and thought that her relationship with Peter Parker was leading down an unfitting route for the character, namely happiness. There was also the idea that by killing Gwen they would more reafirm the root of tragedy that they considered vital to Spider-man's character. In short, Gwen Stacy was killed mainly to evoke an emotional reaction from Spider-man making her an early Woman in a refriegerator. It's pretty certain that Gwen will never come back due to the importance her death had and it is certainly a well-written tragic story. But I can't help but think that the character deserved more than to be tossed aside like that.

So that's one heroic death and one tragic death. Next up is the very satisfying death of one Alexander Luthor, at least it's satisfying to me. Alex is a Luthor from another dimension and acted as one of the main villains in a large DC comics crossover event. During this event Alex became repsonsible for the deaths of entire worlds and generally being an arrogant prick. During the epic final battle Alex manages to sneak away from the heroes and begins planning his next move. In an alleyway he is intercepted by the only two villains he didn't allow to work with him. Lex Luthor and the Joker. The Joker disfigures and brutally kills Alex, though the killing happens off-screen it was later confirmed that Alex was killed.

Like I said, for me it was a satisfying death scene. Not only was it well-executed, pun not intended, and completely in-character for basically all villains involved. It was nice to see a horrible villain like Alexander get what's coming to him. It also made sense storywise. Alexander was extremely dangerous, even by comic book villain standards, and if he wasn't dealt with it wouldn't have been believable. But here's the thing, while some people may have appreciated that Alex was dealt with in this way others probably didn't see it that way. It's risk that writers run whenever they kill a character. Not everybody is going to appreciate that a character is killed, even if the scene is well-written (though that is of course relative). So this is a case where a revival could be appreciated by at least part of the audience. Luckily Alex is the kind of character that could plausibly be revived.

Now while, revival would work for Alexander it isn't entirely necessary since the scene worked (again, it's relative). There are other cases where revival is desired because the death scene was poorly written. This is the case with Ares, whom died in the recent Marvel comics event Siege.

Ares is a character that had seen an increase in popularity in recent years after having been reimagined in a mini-series written by Michael Oeming that turned the character into an anti-hero instead of the run of the mill villain he used to be. During Siege one thing leads to another and Ares ends up in a confrontation with the insanely powerful and insanely insane hero the Sentry. They duke it out or a bit before Sentry rips Ares apart in a two-page spread, and it is one very bloody display.

There are so many things that I dislike about this death scene. Chief among them are the intentions behind the scene. It's clearly intended to shock the readers and to be honest that is never a good excuse to kill a character. Another reason for Ares death was, and this mentioned by the author himself, was to make Sentry seem like a bigger threat when his inevitable confrontation with Thor would occur. Considering that Marvel have spent the ten years since Sentry was introduced to shove it down the readers throat how powerful Sentry is, hinting to links with the Judeo-Christian God and having him overpower the nigh-omnipotent Molecule Man, there really wasn't any need to reinforce Sentry's strength like that. And even if the fight between the two was really necessary then why not just have Sentry give Ares a bloody non-leathal beating. It would achieve basically the same thing without the drawback of needlessly killing a popular character in eye-rolling fashion. There hasn't even been any real follow-up to the event and the events of the story weren't actually affected by Ares dying. It's poorly concieved and pointless death scenes like this one that makes revivals seem necessary.

Revivals themselves can also vary greatly between instances. Saddly enough the differences nowadays often seem to be limited in how predictable the revival will be written. When a character dies readers automatically begin counting down until that character is revived. In some cases it's justified since it's part of a grander story. This was the case when Superman and Captain America died.

Big name characters never truly stay dead and considering that both Superman and Captain America were big enough for their deaths to be feature in various mainstream media outlets one can tell how big both of these guys were. So naturally their return was inevitable. The question wasn't whether or not they would return to life. It was how and when they would return, and whether the stories would be any good. Now, I haven't actually read the stories where either of the returns so I can't really comment on whether they're good or not. I have read that Captain America's story involves space-time travelling and Superman's has something to do with a "regeneration matrix". Standard superhero comic stuff. But the important thing in both these cases is that there were stories planned behind both deaths and new things came out of them.

In Superman's case four new characters were created and at least three of them are still relevant to this day. Besides that there quite a bit of story threads that came out of Superman's return to life, like how it affected Superman's relationship with Lois Lane and the fall of the superhero Green Lantern (Hal Jordan). When Captain America died there was a long storyline concerning who would take his place and how it affected those close to him. Now that he's come back Steve Rogers no longer bears the title but is in a new position of power to aid the superhero community. In short, both these stories had plans behind them instead of just big shocker events. It's interesting to note that Superman's death was the ending to the storyline that built up to the death scene with the following stories dealing with the aftermatch. Captain America's death on the other hand was just the beginning of the storyline that dealt with his death.

In any case, there were plans with the events that would take place after these two deaths and how they would be revived and there was aftermatch material in both instances. So while the revivals may have been predictable to various degrees at the very least the writers realised that and planned ahead. I appreciate that.

Another death that would predictably be undone is the case with Thanos the mad titan. It happened during the excellent Annihilation storyline and the death scene in question is an interesting one. For those who don't know, Thanos is cosmic tyrant turned anti-villain who has romantic feelings for Death herself. Right before his demise Thanos tries to destroy a weapon that could threaten the universe. Unfortunately things happen, trying to avoid spoiling things too much, and Thanos is killed before he has a chance to do so. The interesting part here is that Thanos doesn't have a chance to make any real resistance and goes down without too much of a fight. But the scene is still so well written with Thanos seeing his beloved smiling at him as he is killed. There's a sense of dignity to it and even though it wasn't a display of ultimate badassitude it felt satisfying. This was also sort of an fitting end for Thanos as he happily embraced his fate and was joined with his beloved abstract concept. It was rather clear that the writer, Keith Giffin, intended this to be a sort of send off for Thanos. And if Thanos never returned to life that would be ok.

However, Thanos is a cosmic character and they are rarely bound to the same universal laws as earthbound characters so it would make a bit more sense if he were to return to life. There's also the fact that Thanos is really popular among fans so it was only inevitable that he would return to the living. In short, the fans expect Thanos to come back to life but since he's not as popular as Cap or Supes there's just a little more surprising when it happens. Also, because of who he is fans where pretty much expecting that any reason for Thanos to be seperated from his love would be a pretty big event kind of deal. Lo and behold, Thanos has recently returned and the cricumstances surrounding it are so big that they're an integral part of an event that bears Thanos' name in its title. The writers wanted to use Thanos earlier but they knew that the death scene was so good that whatever the storyline that brought him back was it needed to be organic and big. In short, while it wasn't planned from the beginning Thanos' death scene became an important ingredient in another story arc down the line and proper respect was shown to both the character and the death scene in question. A lot of work was put into the death scene and the revival and that is basically all we can ask for.

Not all revivals will get the same amount of work put into them. An example comes from Annihilation, and remains one of the few big blemishes to the series, and one of the mini-series that lead up to the event. In the mini's last issue the alien villain Kl'rt the Super-skrull gets a heroic death on par with Skurge's as he learns what it means to be a hero. It was one of the highlight moments of the entire Annihilation saga. Then, a few months later in real life, he is revived by accident as two cosmic powered entities slam into each other nearby his corpse. Even Kl'rt and the narrator are baffled by this turn of events. Then it's just accepted and never spoken of again. This is the kind of annoying resurrection that makes one wonder why anybody actually bothers to write a dramatic death scene if just going to be undone like that, especially so soon. What really bugs me is that after the death scene there was a touching tribute to Kl'rt as his people celebrated him as a hero 20 years later with his lover telling the story of his death. Not only Kl'rt alive again but his lover has since been killed and there're no signs of her being reconstructed, she was a cybernetic creature.

I should point out that Kl'rt getting revived wasn't entirely unwanted. He's an interesting character with cool powers and the mini-series had given him some well-deserved character development. But if he was going to return I would've have liked there to be more effort put behind it.

There are several more resurrections that could I could bring up, like the laughably amount of times Jean Grey dies and comes back or the recent DC event that deals with this very subject and ends with loads of formerly dead characters coming back to life. Hell, here's a list of characters that have cheated death just of the top of my head. Baron Helmut Zemo, Magneto, Barry Allen, May Parker, Superboy, Doomsday, Quasar, Atom-Eve, Dupli-Kate, Norman Osborn, Harry Osborn, Lex Luthor, Mysterio and many more.

But this post has gotten a little long so I'll end with the story that got me thinking about all of this. The death of Lian Harper.

Lian was the daughter of the DC characters superhero Roy Harper, also known as Speedy/Arsenal/Red Arrow, and the mercenary Chesire, lots of family tension there. Because Chesire opted for being a mercenary she left Lian with Roy making him one of the few single parents in the superhero buisness, both in Marvel and DC. Now, I won't beat around the bush here. I freaking love this character. Not only is she a rarity among superhero children in that she didn't have any powers and she was never manipulated into growing up at an accelrated rate or anything like that. But she was also freaking awesome and always stole any scene she was in.

For a little kid she was smart, funny, capable (this is a kid that got out of a villain's hold by snapping one of his fingers) and incredibly insightful. She could see when her father was hurting and help him. Before she was able to pronounce the letter R she could make neat little observations regarding the leadership of the Justice League. She knew all about her father's occupation and never blamed him for sometimes putting it before, for example, playtime with her. She got close to several of Roy's colleagues had some great interaction with them all. Lastly, she had this wonderful innocence that made everything about adorable and a joy to read. She also had an artistic streak that was brought in several instances.

For Roy she became a reason to fight, to survive and to never kill. He evolved as a character because of her and as I said, got a unique position among superheroes that affected him no matter what situation he ended up. No matter what he did Lian would be there. But not as a burden. Roy's always had several baby-sitters ready to take care of Lian whenever duty called. The interaction between Roy and Lian was always poignant, amusing or just cute. Roy Harper became a better hero and a more diverse character because of his daughter. And then I haven't even touched upon the complex relationship between Lian, Roy and Chesire, who once committed genocide.

Then DC decided that she would be killed in the mini-series Justice League: Cry for Justice. Lian Harper died at the ripe age of ten when an entire city collapsed around her and she was caught in the rubble all alone. One can't help but feel that the whole thing happened to get a shock reaction out of the readers who didn't expect that they would kill someone as innocent as Lian. Again, shock value is the shittiest reason ever to kill a character. Not only that but the fact that they killed a character that is so important to one of their heroes says how much thought went into this. As a further demonstration of the piss-poor follow-up to Lian's death we have Roy's reaction. The trauma of Lian's death has led Roy into becoming a Punisher style anti-hero out looking for revenge against crime in general, and the hallucination of a partly decayed Lian is urging him on in his violence.

Now, I can understand that losing Lian has sort of shattered Roy mind. But it could really be handled better than this. This is just a desecration against everything good that Lian represented. And the worst part is that I don't think that Lian will ever come back. Because as awesome as she was Lian was only a supporting character. Those don't come back as often as regular heroes. Especially not from a death as simple as having a building fall down on them. Not only that, but DC has apparently made up the rule that all deaths must not stick as a part of the ending for the Blackest Night event. So a great character lost for the shitty reason of shock valune, the follow up has been downright disgusting and there's little chance for her to be returned. Things like this make me happy that I'm mainly a Marvel fan, not that they're much better though.

So what can one say about death in comics? Is it really pointless because of resurrections? It would probably seem that way to most people. But really, since a long time ago resurrection has become a part of superhero comics, whether we like it or not. They can be the cause of great joy and great frustration among the readers by bringing back beloved characters and/or nullifying significant death scenes.

It doesn't have to make the death scenes, the good death scenes, pointless. Those scenes can still have the same power as before and still be significant to the character. We as readers just have to hope that the resurrection will be written with respect for the death scene and match it in quality, if it was good, or completely make us forget the death scene, if it was shit. It's all up to the writers and the quality of their work.

Personally I'd take an annoying resurrection over a pointless death motivated by shock value any day.

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