Put the Death Talk to Rest
“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” – Edgar Allan Poe (a comic book fan, apparently)
Ashcan to ashcan, dust jacket to dust jacket, let Logan now find the rest he so desperately earned from appearing in roughly 35 weekly titles. Yes, last week saw the release of The Death of Wolverine #4 and with it comic fans were presented with yet another comic book casualty. Of course his death knell had been rung several months before and that’s where it starts: the cacophony of “You know they’re just going to bring him back, right?” As reliable as the rising sun or the delay of a Jim Lee drawn book, the would-be prophets’ voices cry out and reverberate from message board to comment thread to local comic shop. And of course, the observation is accurate. It is also wholly unnecessary and undercuts the purpose of these “gimmicks”, which is admittedly twofold: one, to draw your attention in order to persuade you to part with the contents of your wallet; and two, to tell a story by temporarily changing the status quo to present new storytelling opportunities. Listen, we KNOW that the hugely popular character that appears in billion dollar films and t-shirts and lunchboxes and coloring books in the dollar section of Target (holla!) is not going to stay dead. Pointing out the painfully obvious takes away from the actual story being told. It feels like the audience at large rarely gets to evaluate the work on its own merits because it’s already been dismissed as inconsequential, an attitude closely tied to only buying books that “matter.” It differs only from that thought pattern by the fact that people actually do buy “death” books in droves, seemingly only to arm themselves with the specifics of the story so as to better denounce its very premise.
To be fair, there was discussion about the quality of the story itself and many an insightful review, but very few could make it through without at least mentioning the inevitable return. Reading the familiar grievances of “he’ll be back” in regards to Wolverine had my eyes rolling and my brain racing. When was the last time a popular character was “killed” that elicited a reaction of genuine emotion beyond that common refrain? Let’s stroll down that blood-speckled memory lane, shall we?
Robin (Damian Wayne)
Killed in Batman Incorporated vol. 2 #8 (2013)
Damian’s death is a little different. In his case, everyone knew that he was going to die so the conversation never really shifted towards his return. Instead it was content to remain focused on the fact that for him, death was inevitable. Which is annoying in its own way, but is a significantly less obnoxious conversation than “why bother killing him, he’s just going to come back.” Overall, the issue itself was mostly praised largely because it was handled by its engineer (and comic book genius) Grant Morrison with a deft hand, incorporating it into the epic saga he started years earlier. And the fans mostly responded without the snark and expressed feelings of actual loss that their bratty Robin was gone. Of course, everyone got real sick of his death real quick when “Requiem” proceeded to crossover into every Bat-book for what seemed like years.
Spider-Man (616 Peter Parker)
Killed in Amazing Spider-Man #700 (2012)
Oh my word, people lost their spider-shit over this death. I think Dan Slott had to lock himself in a bunker. In recent memory this is by far the most “this is stupid, they’re just going to bring him back” -laden of superhero deaths. Because the issue was released after most had become aware of the upcoming Superior Spider-Man and the circumstances under which Peter meets his end, the vitriol from fans overshadowed any critique of how well executed (pun!) that actual story was. And it was…fine. In a lot of ways it did seem like the issue was reverse-engineered from the idea of Ock underneath the mask than it was about saying goodbye to Peter. The ensuing Superior series worked for some and not as much with others who simply could not get past the conceit of the mind swap. But far too much attention was paid to the rejection of the premise and not enough focused on how difficult it is to come up with new ideas for a 50 year-old character, which Dan Slott absolutely accomplished. Yes, Spidey would be back (just in time for the movie, kids!) but the headline here should have been “Slott takes huge risk, does something never before done with beloved character.”
Thor (Thor Odinson)
Fear Itself #7 (2011)
Preeettty sure everyone just ignores this happened because Fear Itself was…uh…hammeringly bad? Seriously, there was zero fan reaction to Thor dying in this series, right? The utterance of “Of course he’s not really dead” was hardly louder than a whisper and said without any snark. There was virtually no substance to ignore outside of Thor’s demise, so it was as though the collected comic consciousness shrugged their shoulders and went “meh.”
Human Torch (Johnny Storm)
Killed in Fantastic Four #587 (2011)
This was a shame because the actual story was pretty darn good and reinforced the basic tenet of what FF is all about: family. Johnny tricked Ben in order to sacrifice himself to save the kids from the impeding horde of the Annihilation Wave. Unfortunately, my impression was that more people were focused on how short-lived the death would be than the actual writing of the issue itself. It probably didn’t help that there was significant marketing leading up to “Three” which riled up everyone into trying to guess which member of Marvel’s first family was going to get the axe. All that build-up was going to lead to disappointment for many. Guys, you had a 25% chance of guessing correctly, sooo…not really too impressive.
Batman (Bruce Wayne)
Killed in…uh…R.I.P? No, wait. Final Crisis #6 (2009) Kinda?
Okay, the whole thing with Batman dying was pretty confusing. Batman didn’t die in the book actually titled R.I.P. which chronologically happened before Final Crisis, but was actually being released alongside Final Crisis where he did die. But not really? It’s easier to go back now and read this portion of Morrison’s opus collected and in order, but at the time it was a perplexing mess. So much so that I don’t think fandom had a chance to even really gripe about it, mainly because no one was even sure where or when Batman was killed. The end result was part of a much larger plan and Morrison fans, to their credit, were very well aware of this. Obviously this was but a crescendo in the ongoing symphony of Grant’s saga, so of course Batman would return; it needn’t have even been said.
Captain America (Steve Rogers)
Killed in Captain America vol. 5, #25 (2007)
Oh, man, here we go. Now this was a big deal, partially attributed to the fact that Marvel didn’t actually let anyone in on this secret until the day before #25 dropped. Bringing up the rear of the red-hot selling Civil War event was Steve Rogers’ death on the steps of City Hall. Much like Morrison’s Batman, this was just another stroke in the massive painting of Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed run. It felt surprising and it felt like it might actually stick, even though we knew it wouldn’t. No one had a chance to crank their smart-ass to 11 prior to seeing Cap bleed out and the tone of Brubaker’s run up to this point didn’t exactly instill a feeling that there would be triumphant heroic return amidst the dark, hard espionage. Steve did return after Bucky (which is a whole different bag of superhero-death related worms) had a great turn at the Star-Spangled wheel, though towards the end of it folks were certainly beginning to vocalize their curiosity for his return.
I’m not sure what this exercise revealed about the nature of shuffling these iconic characters off this mortal coil…fictionally speaking, but that’s what I’ve been thinking about for the past week. Is it possible to write an iconic superhero death anymore? Looking at the above examples, I’m not sure any of them qualify for “iconic” save maybe Captain America. Are the examples above and countless others a waste of time? Is the drudgery of needing to point out the inexorable return of these characters worth the effort? What do we lose sight of when we set our eyes further down the path? The awful din of the internet will never silence, certainly, and publishers need to market their wares, but an iconic killing of a character can still be achieved provided we all remember to not lose sight of why we read these things in the first place: to appreciate the story being told right now.