Occasionally I’ll pick up a copy of Wizard magazine when I stop at Sheetz to get a sub or something to drink. This month’s issue lists the 50 greatest comic book deaths. I don’t have much to say about the list itself, but it got me thinking about how pointless the death of a major character has become in many genres of fiction, in film, on television, especially in comics. Is there ever any point to killing off a character when it’s a foregone conclusion he or she will be resurrected at some point and things will go on as though the original death never even happened?
Of the top ten characters on Wizard’s greatest deaths list, seven were characters in an ongoing monthly series (the other three — Kid Miracleman, Rorschach, and the Invisible Man from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — all starred in limited series). Of those seven, three are still dead: Milo Garret (100 Bullets), Ben Parker, and Barry Allen. The other four — Jean Grey, Elektra, Jason Todd and Superman — have all been resurrected; a few have since died and been brought back a second time. With grittier crime-centered books like Azzarello and Risso’s 100 Bullets, it’s still possible to present a credible character death, but in superhero titles death has gone from the inescapable and irreversible fate that awaits us all to more of an afternoon nap.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The Harry Potter series is about as fantastic as fantasy fiction gets, and yet when J.K. Rowling kills someone they tend to stay dead. (Dumbledore talking through a portrait seems like a bit of a cheat, but then again the school has ghosts that live there full-time, so why should I complain now?) On television Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were pretty good about killing off characters and leaving them that way; when the writers of Angel killed off Fred in season 5, they even went the extra mile of having someone explicitly explain in a later episode that even Fred’s soul had been obliterated, so she ain’t never comin’ back.
In superhero comics, though, the meaningful death is practically extinct. In the last few years DC and Marvel have even brought back Jason Todd and Bucky, two characters who once defined the concept of killing off a character in a meaningful way. “Only Bucky stays dead” used to be the cliché. Not anymore. Sure, the death of Jason Todd resulted from a gimmick fan poll, and if a few hundred people had called the other number he might still be jumping through the pages of Batman and Detective Comics in short pants and elf boots, but once they went through with it at least the creators of the Batman titles made Jason’s death a meaningful event. It affected Batman’s character for years afterward, pushed his rivalry with the Joker over the edge, and lent resonance to the stories told about Tim Drake as the third Robin that wouldn’t have been there had Jason not been offed in such a horrific and memorable way. I don’t see how anyone could argue that Batman wasn’t improved by the death of Jason and its aftermath. Why anyone with any love for the character would even entertain the notion of bringing him back, let alone go through with it, is beyond me.
Death isn’t used in superhero comics to tell stories anymore; it’s used to sell issues. Was there a person alive in 1993 who really expected Superman to stay dead? The fact that all four of his monthly titles did not immediately cease publication should have been a clue. And let’s look at where Supes stands now, 14 years later. He’s alive, he exactly the same as he was before the death storyline — even the long hair he had immediately following his return was cut after a few years — both new titles launched out of the death, Superboy and Steel, are long since cancelled, and with the exception of the marriage of Clark and Lois, which had nothing to do with the death/return story anyway, everything after the death of Superman is exactly as it was before. The story made national headlines, raised protests from the clueless citizens of Metropolis, Illinois, and sold millions of issues for DC Comics, and now it is completely irrelevant.
I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t have brought Superman back. I’m saying they never should have killed him in the first place. It wasn’t a story, it was a stunt. That’s what mainstream superhero comics have come to, a series of stunts. And now the stunts only build to bigger stunts, as with he overhyped (and apparently never-ending) progression from Identity Crisis to Infinite Crisis to One Year Later to 52 to Countdown to fuck knows what else.
Writers and editors who bring back dead characters miss the point that the deaths of members of the supporting cast of a series can help to define the hero. The death of Bucky was real to Captain America, it affected him, it gave him a tragedy that drove him. The death of Jason Todd meant something to Batman, gave him dimension, gave him something to regret, something to be haunted by. If you want to bring back Jason Todd, might as well go all the way and bring back Thomas and Martha Wayne, too. I mean, I’m sure you could tell some great stories if they weren’t dead, so that justifies it, right? Come to think of it, it’s been a long time since the murder of Uncle Ben, too — isn’t it about time Spidey had him back?
Killing a major character and leaving him or her dead takes two things that are in short supply in popular fiction: courage and creativity. If you knock off a major character, especially a popular one, you’ve got two problems to deal with. First, fans will be pissed off. Jason Todd was a decidedly unpopular Robin, yet some fans lost their fucking minds when he was killed off. They’ll get over it. The second and more pressing problem is that now you’ve got to tell stories without that character, which can be tricky if she or he was an important member of the cast. Star Trek: The Next Generation chugged right along after the death of Tasha Yar, who was instantly replaced. Not so for the original Trek crew after the death of Spock in Star Trek II, who needed an entire movie just to undo that ending and get the green-blooded son of a bitch back on the bridge. Had Spock remained dead, the writers of the subsequent films in the Star Trek series, assuming there would have been any, might have had to find things for some of the other cast members to do besides sit at fake computer consoles and bark exposition.
Assuming hell froze over and I wound up editor-in-chief of a major comics publisher, the first order of business would be to inform the editors of every title that they had one year — twelve issues — to bring back any dead characters that they deem necessary for their ongoing stories (since undoubtedly a few characters would have been offed with the intention to bring them back later on). After that year, all deaths are permanent. Write a story where a character dies and that fucker stays dead. If there’s one complaint I can make about virtually every superhero comic published today, it’s that they are too far divorced from reality to carry much resonance with an audience. Here’s an easy way to repair that, at least somewhat. Superman can still fly and deflect bullets, Spider-Man can still traverse Manhattan via web-line, Galactus can still swallow worlds, but they will reflect at least this much of reality: the dead stay dead. That’ll be a start.