What does it mean to us? To some it calls up feelings of loss, remorse, and sometimes dread. Occasionally, readers get that feeling in the pit their stomach — that feeling that leads to a yearning for better times. For others, however, the death of a beloved hero is meaningless. Why? Because we know they are coming back, so what does it matter?
This is the exact issue that Secret Avengers #15 deals with. When Black Widow barges in on a tabloid paper getting ready to print their big story that there is evidence that Captain America may not really be dead, things get ugly—and philosophical — real fast. The discussion centers on the minimization of tragedy. But what is scribe Nick Spencer really discussing in this book?
Is he asking readers to care about Bucky’s death? Is he asking Marvel to respect the reader? Is he showcasing Natasha’s relationship with the current Captain America, or is it just a book where the reader can see that the death of this character has caused some ripples in the Marvel Universe as a whole?
I submit that Mr. Spencer is explaining the true meaning of the ultimate demise of the super hero.
As I read through the issue, I was enthralled at what I was being told. At first, the players that worked for the paper expressed the unimportance of the story going to print, only that it brought more readership to the medium.
Then Natasha, the Black Widow, informed me that the deaths of superheroes matter because they die protecting others; because they were selfless with the only thing that really matters — their lives.
The counter to this argument is that super heroes aren’t “human”. The employees insist that when their loved ones die, that’s it. There is no more. No chance of coming back; not like heroes. Meaning that the feelings of sorrow and normal emotion are more difficult to evoke because of the lack of possible empathy. How can the common man feel sad for those that exist beyond the gulf of mortality?
I stopped reading at this point, trying to review the differing interpretations and opinions being presented to me. I tried to decipher which view Mr. Spencer held, which one the reader was supposed to sympathize with, and which one the comics industry tries to promote the most. Was this really Nick Spencer’s commentary on the super hero comics industry? And if so, how would pointing out that the constant death and resurrection of our beloved heroes cheapens the stories be good for Marvel — or any publishing company?
I read on.
Natasha explains how the possibility of overcoming the fear that innately accompanies resurrection brings more heroism to the character. But again, that seemed to me like a small consolation for those who aren’t fortunate enough to return from that undiscovered country. How difficult is it to turn back and fight knowing that next time, there could be no return; that the next time could be even more painful or gruesome than the first? The mere fact that our heroes don the capes, masks, cowls, hoods, and tights once more is what defines them as heroes.
Yet, it also serves to further alienates them from humanity.
I was not convinced of Mr. Spencer’s argument. He had successfully taken me out of the story to a level of commentary, and then subsequently thrust me back in without concern for the flow of his own tale. I kept reading.
Then I found it. Hidden in the final pages, panels, and words, I found the true message being conveyed. Nick Spencer crafted this layered tale to give the reader multiple levels of common ground to meet the majority opinion on the subject. And then he took it one step further.
Wrapped in the conflicting views of the death of a hero lies the definition of that hero. The reason why our heroes die, the reason why our heroes return, the reason why our hopes are for the ultimate success and life eternal of our ageless combatants is because of the ultimate villain: death.
Death transcends comics.
Death transcends any medium of storytelling because death is real. When we read comics, the protagonist fights the unrealistic antagonist, the hyperbole of intolerance and injustice—the exaggeration of evil. But when the protagonist is confronted with Death, the story becomes more real than the reader can conceive. Because Death is dealt with on a meta level as well as an in-continuity level, the reader inherently becomes further drawn into or put off by the story. No one stays apathetic.
Our heroes face death and win. Our heroes face death and lose. But when our heroes return somehow after losing, that’s when the reader wins. Although this tactic can have an adverse effect on the story or character, the reason why death maintains its impact on us is simply because humanity longs for a hero that can beat the Ultimate Villain.
So wherever you stand on the issue of superheroes returning from the grave, next time evaluate the story based on your own mortality, your own hopes, and your own shortcomings. And pray that humanity can someday find that true Super Hero.