Death and Comics
"The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time." - Mark Twain
What is death? An inevitable conclusion? An immutable truth? A faceless reality? This idea, this question, is woven deeply within the tapestry of human evolution. Our species struggles with the looming nature of the idea daily, evoking our desire to survive in passionate rebellion at the idea life may one day end.
So much of what we have become has spawned from the fear of death, the fear of an end. We approach it with such caution during our time upon this plane of existence, and such reverence when that time is complete. We search for answers as to what may follow in the hopes that the answers may assuage the bone-deep fear of not knowing. In all our time walking this planet and vaguely exploring the stars, we have yet to come upon an answer fitting enough to cast aside this terror of the unknown. The best we seem to have come up with is that life should be lived fully, so that when the courier of fate comes to collect, regret lingers not. A noble sentiment to be sure, but one lacking the fortitude needed to eradicate a fear fundamental to our very being.
Is it any wonder then that comic books, the very epitome of supernatural, have essentially removed death from the equation? For many a year comic books played with the idea of humanity, dressing it up under the guise of super powered characters that struggle with the same existential realities as the rest of us. They do this for two reasons: One, while well grounded humans make for an interesting story, we tend to be much more critical of them. When an essentially "normal" character steps out of what we perceive as bounds, we blow the whistle on this character. We site the reasons why this could never happen and slowly begin to disregard further action as nonsense. But, when you dress that character up in a suit and grant them the power of the universe, the idea of "normal" action seemingly goes out the proverbial window.
Two, by removing the constraints of the "normal," the story actually becomes much more simple. When an author leaves out the human necessities, the interactions, the basic responsibilities of citizenship within a state of government, what is left is extremely basic. What is left deals solely with existence and morality. These stripped down characters allow us to view the most fundamental characteristics of humanity played out across epic battles between good and evil.
These two tenets of comic book construction are what make the platform so appealing. We get to see our favorite characters battle themselves over enormous conundrums that the average citizen rarely has the opportunity to face. We read these books with an ever-growing sense of longing that someday we may face a decision leaden with such gravitas.
So, why is it then, that comic books can tackle some of the more monstrous themes of our existence regularly, but they shy away from the permanence of death?
The Cries of Lost Sheep
The first, and perhaps most unfortunate of answers, is that we, as the reader, have a hard time letting go of our favorite characters. For years we read story after story about how our hero battles the forces of evil and comes out triumphant. We have seen him/her stand against insurmountable odds, only to conquer their fear and vanquish every foe. Over the length of these stories we grow extremely attached to these characters.
Comic books are the perfect one-two for these types of obsession, as they combine glimpses into the inner dialogue of the character, much like a novel, but remove the sometimes tedious reading of environment and action by replacing them with vivid imagery. In this nexus of perfection, we feel as though we are in constant conversation with the character. We watch them grow. We participate in their despair and in their glory. Our emotional attachment grows more firm with each passing volume.
I still remember the first time I read The Death Of Superman. I wasn't even that large a fan of Supes, but seeing him obliterated by Doomsday left my jaw firmly unhinged from my face hole. The idea that this morally and physically superior being, this man who saved the planet/universe more times than I could count, this god amongst demi-gods and men, could possibly be beaten so thoroughly escaped my capability for logic and reason. For hours I stared at the frame of Lois holding his limp body, incapable of coming to grips with the death of a god.
In the back of my mind the stages of grief began to set in. I had been reading a lot of Supes at the time, more out of curiosity than genuine interest, and had come to respect him as a character. The down home country boy with a heart of gold was starting to break through my pessimistic wall (he can be quite enchanting when you give him a chance). Then, he's dead. I immediately jumped to denial. There is now way DC would kill off their leader; their shining light to Bruce's darkest night.
Sure enough, it was only a comic book death. In very short time, Supes was packing himself into his outside undies and saving the world again. Why? Well, because we couldn't let him go. The outcry from the community at large combined with a desire for profit is more than enough to revive any character.
Thus, we are given the aforementioned "comic book death." Nowadays, a character dying in a comic book is only a fleetingly somber moment. We may not know how the next author will bring back our beloved hero, but we are certain they will return. If not, a sternly worded forum post is in their near future.
There was a time, not so long ago, that certain characters (of the "main" persuasion) went bravely into the deep abyss and never came back. Bucky, Uncle Ben, Jason Todd, these are just a few that come to mind. Alas, over the past few years, these characters have made a grand return, only to throw a galaxy sized monkey wrench in the ever blossoming madness that is the mind of our current heroes. Sure, there are excellent story arcs that accompany these glorious homecomings (alternate universes, separate timelines, shadowy pasts...you get the idea), but damn if they don't throw me for a loop every time. Seeing both Todd and Bucky return for the first time nearly gave me a heart attack.
Even Uncle Ben came back recently. Uncle freakin' Ben! Granted, it was an alternate version of Uncle Ben and Aunt May has been in her 60's for over 60 years, but seriously, Uncle Ben!
Writing is Hard
"A man who won't die for something is not fit to live." - Martin Luther King Jr.
During the Golden Age of comics and on into the Silver Age, authors and illustrators were popping out characters like third world countries pop out American products. This mass insurgence of grandiose characters that occupied similar spaces went on for quite a while and, as a result, left us with an extremely wide gamut of both heroes and villains. Some have been lost to the passage of time, in large part because they were awful, but most have maintained their story lines, have found themselves nestled safely on a superhero team, or have been rebooted to fit an ever-changing culture of readers. Whatever which way you choose to view it, the comic universe houses a massive population of characters. Herein lies the problem.
We rarely find "new" characters in the comic book realm because they are incredibly difficult to create. You may think you can slap some spangly spandex on a buff human, give them some epic powers, and let them loose upon the universe, but you would be wrong. Crafting an original comic book character requires that you find a new power set, back story, planet of origin, universe to occupy, and then you have to make both the character and the environment LOOK unique. Given the massive universe that exists within the realm, coming up with a entirely unique character and story is extremely difficult.
When viewed through this light, the comic book death, multiple timelines, and alternative universes begin to make a lot of sense. By using these "tricks" of the trade, authors and illustrators can take well grounded characters and tweak their attitudes and appearance to fit a new mold. The return of Bucky and Jason Todd has led to some excellent story arcs.
Against The Tide
"Reality means you live until you die...the real truth is nobody wants reality." - Chuck Palahniuk
I harbor little doubt that the explanations I listed are solidly based on logical, economic, human reasoning, but that can be so boring. It has been my grand experience that even the most logical explanation of human reasoning tends to shelter some primitive motive. In this case, I do believe that comic books rail against the mighty weight of reality. Much like the characters contained within, the comic universe constantly bucks against the idea of our fabricated reality; against the idea that one man or woman can not change the fate of our universe; against the idea that a 9 to 5 can even remotely be considered life; against the idea that reality exists outside of our own fragile minds.
Instead, the comic book fights to maintain our imagination; our fascination with the improbable; our belief that death may not be the last leg of our journey, merely the shifting of gears.