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Comic Polity: The Death of Super Heroes

Comic Booked Retail 08/29/2011 Features, ZDONOTUSE

The death of a super hero.

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’sThe Death of Super Heroes 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.

The Death of Super Heroes

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.

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About The Author

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  1. Andy Kirby 08/29/2011 at 9:39 am

    Weigh in! Agree/Disagree? What opinion do you agree with?

  2. R. B. LeMoyne 08/29/2011 at 10:48 am

    Wow, excellent story, and you relay it so well! I've often struggled with accepting the "Jean Grey Syndrome" in comics, because you know that a character will never stay dead. But it's not about how long it'll take to resurrect a fan-favorite character, it's about the moment, the sacrifice, the heroism of seeing someone put their life on the line for the greater good. It's about the characters who knew and loved the dead hero, their reactions to that sacrifice and how they deal with it. And it's about the reader, who is also left with dealing with the loss in their own way.

    Death may not be as final in comics, but it's rarely treated with apathy on anyone's part.

    • Andy Kirby 08/29/2011 at 3:28 pm

      Well, said. I would tend to agree.

    • Nick C 08/29/2011 at 4:42 pm

      To an extent, it is about how long they stay dead.

      While I agree that it's ultimately "the moment" the counts, a too-soon resurrection cheapens even the greatest of moments. For example, Marvel is apparently bringing Cable back in the near future. I'd have to double check the dates, but the character had barely been dead for a year (if that long) when that announcement was made. Now I've never been a particular fan of Cable, but that just utterly cheapens his death.

      Compare that with Jean Grey, who has been dead for something like six or seven years (this time) or even Bruce Wayne and Steve Rodgers (approximately two years each). While we all know none of these deaths will stick, they are truly pointless if they don't somehow impact the book, preferably in the long term (relatively long term, anyway). And let's not kid ourselves, the longer these characters stay dead, the greater the impact, not just of their death but of their eventual resurrection. If, for example, Gwen Stacy had somehow been resurrected in the 1970s it wouldn't have been nearly as big a deal to the fans as it would if it were done today. By the same token, Norman Osborn's return was one of the biggest "WHAT THE $#*&!?!" moments of the entire Clone Saga, at least for me. And that was due in no small part to the fact that he had been dead for twenty years!

  3. Seth Jacob 08/29/2011 at 2:07 pm

    Very interesting article. It makes me want to pick up the comic, sounds like a clever commentary that Nick Spencer is making.

  4. Aaron James 08/29/2011 at 2:35 pm

    Well-written and very philosophical. I definitely enjoyed your article, Mr. Kirby! Now I want to pick up SA #15 to see for myself! haha But, very well done. Spencer seems to be a very very deep writer, heavy on thought-provoking vignettes of society. I can appreciate that and I definitely appreciate your point of view on the subject! I would tend to agree with your take.
    Keep ’em coming! I’ll keep reading!

    BTW, can’t wait to dig in to issue (34, is it??) of the M6Podcast!

    • Andy Kirby 08/29/2011 at 3:29 pm

      @Aaron, thanks for the kind words. I think you know where I’m coming from on this one (reading between the lines and all that jazz!)

  5. axekek 08/29/2011 at 4:03 pm

    I thought it was just the popularity of the old character minus the popularity of the new new character divided by 100. Thats why characters like Ted Kord and original Mr. TERRIFIC have low chance of returing because new characters are more popular the previous and why Wally West lasted so much longer to the point that he and Barry swapped old and new.

    • Andy Kirby 08/29/2011 at 4:46 pm

      Mathematically, I can't disagree. But when you are talking about heroes that have been killed and raised many times, the monotony needs an explanation……but looking at it from the publisher's perspective: $$$$$

      • Axekek 08/31/2011 at 6:06 am

        yes money is looked at as a varible (Thats why Ryan Choi died and then due to backlash came back for relaunch, even though mathmatecally Ray Palmer should have replaced him)

  6. James Victor Von Hal 08/29/2011 at 11:13 pm

    Excellent article sir!

    For me, I don't mind when they kill off a hero, especially if it's done in an epic manner. The only part I don't like is when they use a weak plot device to bring the character back. How many Skrull agents are there lurking around in the world?

    • Andy Kirby 09/03/2011 at 11:38 am

      Unfortunately, your point is, although good, ultimately subjective. One man's weak plot device is another's height of entertainment.

      To agree with you, there has to be some sort of metric for differentiating a good plot device from a poor one. Thoughts on what these criteria could be?

  7. Eric Scroggs 08/30/2011 at 4:48 am

    To me, the death of a superhero is meant to remind us of how much we love the character when he or she finally comes back. I think that’s the whole point, by now. And, as you mentioned, the $$$$. lol

    • Andy Kirby 09/03/2011 at 11:36 am

      you may be right, though I find it sad that the readers' reactions to death is how we gauge the impact of a specific character on the entire industry.

  8. Eric Davidson 08/31/2011 at 5:33 am

    Hits the nail on the head. Death IS the ultimate super-villain. Reviving super-heroes after a loss is similar to getting another life in a video game.

    The reason fans go ballistic about the return of heroes is that they are more invested in the stories and consequences within those stories than they are with video games. Re-viving super-heroes after death tampers with the reader's own suspension of disbelief.

    • Andy Kirby 09/03/2011 at 11:35 am

      I would say that the act of a Super Hero Dying itself actually tampers with the suspension of the reader's disbelief, as it takes the reader out of the story by putting an all-too-realistic element into a fictional story.

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