The Culture Beat

April 3, 2011

Oh, Comic Book Death, Where is Thy Sting?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Alex @ 8:51 pm

Marvel Comics seems to be changing its name to Murder Inc., since it announced in February that it planned to kill a major character every quarter. That would mean that following the death of the Human Torch in a recent issue of Fantastic Four, we would see another demise in three months or so, just in time to get gullible comic book readers to buy “collector’s items” and drive up the quarterly earnings. Marvel, in their comics’ house ads have been touting the death of Spider-Man, that is the Spider-Man from Marvel’s Ultimate universe (rather than the original Spidey in the Marvel Universe–got it?). So, who will be next? And who cares?

Apparently, Marvel believes these regularly scheduled character assassinations will keep comic book fans jerking like dead laboratory frogs touched with electrical prods–reflexively jumping at the chance to see a character die and how that will affect survivors. This surprises me because I thought there was widespread cynicism about such stunts based on years of offing popular characters only to see them return in a year or three–since the X-Men’s classic Dark Phoenix saga of the 70s’ featuring Jean Grey’s truly shocking and moving death and eventual resurrection (like a phoenix, right?), no corpse is safely interred in the Marvel Universe. Of course competitor DC Comics has done plenty of its own recyling with Superman dying in the early 90s and Batman’s apparent death and return over the last two years. But to make a death a policy like Marvel’s seems to take all the shock out of what should be a dramatic moment. A few years ago, Captain America made real news when he was shot down on the courthouse steps (he came back last year) but it was completely unexpected and thus dramatically powerful. But Johnny Storm’s, er, fiery death was anticipated for months when Marvel began flogging the coming demise of one of the Fantastic Four.

And just imagine the legal and financial complications in the Marvel universe after life insurance payments have been disbursed to beneficiaries and heirs have received their inheritance of a downed superhero’s legacy and said hero or heroine returns from the grave requiring the services of ace lawyer Matt Murdock, (aka Daredevil, who to my knowledge hasn’t died yet) to straighten out the mess.

But really, does Marvel really think that death is a winning strategy if fans can now expect that with each changing season will come yet another dirt nap for a downed do-gooder? The original impact of death in superhero comic used to be its rarity and seeming finality–it was one situation out of which the hero couldn’t triumph. When Spider-Man lost his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, while battling the Green Goblin in the 70s, the tragedy was real and permanent. Of course, when Superman died battling Doomsday, no one really believed Big Blue was gone, but just seeing him die and the effect on the world without a Superman, was, because of its rarity, a plot device one should not overuse. Regularly planned death, with expected eventual resurrections now feel phony and contrived. We don’t suffer with the survivors because they feel like puppets manipulated by calculating marketing executives rather than well-told tales of passion and poignancy. The Human Torch’s death scene felt flat–death by numbers. If Marvel’s strategy proves lucrative over 2011 it will tell us a lot about the fans–they’ll buy just about anything.

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