Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Character Death in Comics

FAIR WARNING: There will be Spoilers below dealing with the Batman and Captain America histories. So if you're waaaaaay behind in your reading of those titles and don't want to have anything ruined, you'd best just skip this post.

I mentioned in my last post (and in my post about how I plan to use Batman in my MSH setting) that I'm not a fan of DC's decision to bring Jason Todd back from the dead and that I found Marvel's handling of the Winter Solider to be much better, yet still annoying. I wanted to touch on that some more.

My first real superhero comic was Crisis on Infinite Earths #7. It was the issue in which Supergirl dies in Superman's arms after the might of the heroes of the DCU storm the Anti-Monitor's fortress. Up until that point the closest I came to superhero comics was He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I was still reading a lot of Disney comics back then also. I knew about Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk and alot of other heroes thanks to Saturday morning cartoons, but I never asked mom or dad or grandma to buy me an issue until I saw that iconic cover.

I took one look at that cover and thought "Wow! I've gotta read that!" It still stands as my all time favorite single issue. I read it and re-read it over and over. Even though I was hopping into the middle of an important storyline in the DCU (at that time) and didn't have a clue who most of the characters were, I didn't care. Supergirl's sacrifice. Her dying in her cousin's arms. The memorials held by the other heroes on the various other Earths. It damn near brought the 8 year old me to tears. That issue set me on the path to a lifetime love of comics. A death story did that.

Cut to three years later and what I consider to be two of the best Batman storylines ever were released: The Killing Joke and A Death in the Family. The Killing Joke featured the paralyzation of Barbara Gordon, AKA Batgirl at the time, and set her down the road to becoming Oracle, an overall better character than she ever was as Batgirl. However, in A Death in the Family, Jason Todd is brutally murdered by the Joker. His death dealt a far worse blow to Batman than any cleverly conceived deathtrap ever could. He was overcome with guilt at the loss of a boy that was not just a comrade, but in many ways a son to the Dark Knight. It made an otherwise lackluster character into a cornerstone of the Batman mythos.

Then in 2005, DC just had to bring him back from the dead. Now there's a new guy in town who is nearly as good as Batman and Nightwing, only he's willing to use guns and kill the bad guys! In one fell swoop they erased the weight and meaning of Jason Todd's death. A death that still carried weight nearly 20 years after it happened. Especially in the DCU with their near constant retconning and rebooting of the universe, that was a big deal.

So why do I make sure a big deal about DC bringing back Jason Todd, but not with Marvel bringing back Bucky? Both were rather goofy characters. Jason Todd was introduced to Batman readers when he was boosting the tires of the Batmobile for crying out loud! Bucky was a rather lame sidekick in a time when just about every hero was facing certain danger with a young boy at his side...yes, that also deserves a "for crying out loud" as well. In all honesty, I really think it has a lot of do with not having much of a connection at all with the original Bucky. I knew who he was through references in modern Captain America books, but the original was hokey, like a lot of comics back in that day. Ed Brubaker, who returned Bucky to life, wrote a great storyline to reintroduce Bucky into the Marvel Universe and updated his "death" from 1940's sensibilities to something more modern. None of the weight of Bucky's loss was destroyed. It actually added something to the Captain America mythos rather than just adding another angsty anti-hero to the rosters.

Bringing characters back to life has always annoyed me a bit. It can be done right and can further a storyline without diminishing the hero's initial sacrifice, but oftentimes it just feels lazy and that the writers have run out of ideas. Jean Grey of the X-Men has died and been reborn more times than a soap opera starlet, but it at least makes some sense thanks to her connection to the Phoenix Force. These near-constant deaths have left their mark on the flame-haired mutant, and have actually added to the character. Character deaths should mean something. The Death of Superman was a great moment, but they brought him back before the body could even get cold. Sure, he's a cornerstone of the DCU and one of major pop icons of the last century, so there wasn't any way that DC was going to leave Kal-El dead, but he was barely dead long enough for the tears to dry off of Lois' blouse before returning. It took what was, what should have been, a high-water mark for DC and tarnished it for the blatant money grab that it so obviously was. 

I've ran many super-hero campaigns over the years, and I've seen my share of character death. Most were ignoble deaths due to stupidity or simple bad luck, but some were great moments in my gaming history. I'd never dream of returning one of those heroes back from the dead...well, I shouldn't say never, but I'd never return a hero as an angsty anti-hero unless he already was an angsty anti-hero that is...It would take what was a great moment, one of those rare times when a game had the right combination of players that were fully invested in their characters and the story and their great roleplaying, and then flush it all away because I couldn't find some other comic book cliche to exploit for that night's adventure.


Chris said...

Bringing characters back to life has always annoyed me a bit.

Me too. And it isn't just limited to comic books. I remember one of the best episodes ever of Magnum P.I., for example, was (what was supposed to be) the final episode of the series, where Magnum dies. The worst episode ever -- bar none -- is the one after that, where he was brought back to life to start one more season. I'm still annoyed by that some 20 years later, every time I watch a re-run.

Giles Kiser said...

I remember that. My dad watched the show religiously and figured that was the end and was surprised to see when it came back for another season. He was happy the one show he really watched was still on, but it confused the heck out of for a while.

My mom, however watched Dallas until the whole "Nope, Bobby's not dead and this entire season was just a dream!!!" nonsense. She yelled "WHAT?!?" at the TV and then promptly swore off the show.

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