Not that it’s topical or anything, but –

January 15th, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

Know what sucks about character death?

Everything.  Every little thing.

It sucks that a character’s death will interrupt the stories of seven different comics with little scenes of mourning.

It sucks that no matter how unloved the character, a distinct part of the internet will get into a tizzy about it.

It sucks that if it’s a major character you know with one-hundred percent certainty that they will be back and you’ll have to see the internet either de-tizzied or re-tizzied and the each of those comics will have little scenes of de-mourning that interrupt another story.

It sucks that if it’s a semi-major character they won’t come back, and you get the loss of all the stories and throw-away lines that that character would have supplied (and characters that never make it to the big time, but are fun enough to frequently guest star tend to be the spice of comic books).  Plus the tizzying and the scenes.

It sucks that if it’s a minor character, people will forget that they died and bring them back to be re-killed in a new battle in a few years, like they’re stuck in some hideous four-color Valhalla.  And don’t think that no one having heard of the character since the sixties will exempt anyone from the tizzies and the scenes.  I say this as a tizzier myself.  We notice everything.

What sucks most, though, is that it seems required during every event as a substitute for actually changing anything.  As soon as the last issue of every major, cross-over-laden, universe-changing event hits the shops, the next major, cross-over-laden, universe-changing event is in the works.  It has a kind of Zen appeal to it, like the Tibetan sand-mandalas that monks spend days making, only to destroy shortly after they complete their task.  Unfortunately, when it comes to comics (and everything else), I’m not much like a Tibetan monk.  I’m more like a impatient mover, arms trembling, face red, holding up one end of a couch and shouting ‘God DAMNIT make up your mind!  Why would you put the universe in that configuration if you’re just going to change it?  No, I’m not trying to put it over by the piano again!  There’s no room and it’ll be too loud.’

It also sucks that you know you’re always going to get an homage to that classic Perez Superman-holding-Supergirl’s-body image, only with nastier looking corpses every time.

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26 comments to “Not that it’s topical or anything, but –”

  1. I had an argument with a mate of mine about death in comic books a while ago after an episode of Heroes I think.

    I was annoyed about it, since I figured most fandom would see it as the cheap stunt it was and greet the inevitable ressurection with a kind of jaded boredom.

    He argued that the point was not wether or not the dead character would return, but how the other characters acted in it’s absence (like Superman, Sherklock Holme) Or failing that it’s the explaination of how the death is undone that becomes the plot point (from the opposite end of the spectrum, Superboy’s punch brings Jason Todd to life, or Claire’s blood ressurrecting people.)

    If this has been brought on by the example I think it has then I’d point out that the Author in question is a bit too knowing to throw something that gratuitous in there without an out. Especially not since he spent the start of the issue introducing a potential Deus Ex Machina that’s been foreshadowed throughout the story.

  2. did anyone eat it in WWH?

  3. @Paul Wilson: “Sherklock Holme”

    Urk. I should not comment on blogs before my third coffee. At least.

  4. Sherlock Holmes is a bit different – and may be the character that started this all, back in the 1800s – because ACD *intended* for the death to be permanent. He wanted to end the series and write other stuff, and the combination of the popularity of the stories and the level that *he* got involved with the characters meant that he felt like his life was being taken over by the series.

    So he decided to “kill off his aggresive muse”, so to speak, and in the process, retconned a supervillainous opponent for his heroes, first off – supergenius Moriarty first appears out of nowhere in The Final Problem, but we are *told* there that he was involved in lots of other past mysteries, pulling the strings from behind the scenes, to make him a worthy nemesis!

    Then, of course, after a few years hiatus ACD was ready – and the public still more than willing – to go back to channeling Holmes via Watson, so he had to undo the Reichenbach Falls. Which he does in a pretty plausible way, imo. The thing is, there is much angst at this reveal – and then it’s over and back to the adventures, in this case taking out Moriarty’s revengeful henchman Col. Moran – and yet, this fake-your-own-death thing continues to hang over and affect the relationships of the main characters in subsequent stories. It’s not a reset button.

    And Professor Moriarty never comes back from the dead, either.

  5. What sucks most, though, is that it seems required during every event as a substitute for actually changing anything. As soon as the last issue of every major, cross-over-laden, universe-changing event hits the shops, the next major, cross-over-laden, universe-changing event is in the works.

    This may be a larger problem, which should be addressed in depth itself, of which character-death as a Shocking Twist to push audience buttons is just one particularly galling meme – not just comics, but all serial stories seem to be prone to this temptation…they don’t just jump the shark, they become a Series Of Shark-Jumping Events and nothing else. (“Tune in next week, folks, as Our Heroes jump over SIX sharks! –Did we say SIX? Make that SIXTY sharks! –Heck, why not SIX-HUNDRED SHARKS With lasers on their heads! and on FIRE!”)

    Actual drama – which is always a combination of characters intersecting with plot – goes out the window for “sensation” and “thrills” – which become meaningless because you can’t a) care about the people any more, since b) none of it matters any more. (“But…but…what if we make them ALIEN sharks? How about if we make them PREHISTORIC ROBOT ALIEN sharks? Wait, come back here–!”)

  6. @bellatrys: The danger is judging a story that isn’t fully done on an event in it’s penultimate chapter.

    To refer back to This Week’s Big Death (henceforth TWBD), I honestly doubt that we’re supposed to take it at face value. Despite the artistic echoes of Supergirl in CoIE, I honestly don’t believe that TWBD is of the same order.

    TWBD feels like a cliffhanger, nothing more. I’ll wait for the ending to see if I’m right or not, and what the effects of the cliffhanger are on the story.

    Although seeing someone’s obvious corpse and calling it a cliffhanger may indicate how jaded I have become by this particular trick. Still, they pulled the same stunt with Booster Gold!

  7. @mack: Miek died!

  8. @Endless Mike: No he didn’t!


  9. I have a draft blog post that I started around the time of either Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day or Identity Crisis and never finished. The basic idea I was going for was this:

    1. Killing a character “permanently” (i.e. when it’s not a fake-out and you don’t already have a resurrection planned) in a shared universe is a problem because it cuts off potential future stories using that character.

    2. Every time you resurrect a character in a shared universe, you diminish the impact of death in future stories for everyone in that universe just a little bit more. Not only do the readers stop caring, but the characters should.

  10. Kelson: Didn’t Banshee’s daughter have that exact reaction to the news that her father was dead? “Meh, he’s an X-man; they die and come back all the time.”

  11. Kelson: About point 1. Isn’t that kind of the point? Like, the same could be said about anyone who dies on the real world?

  12. I’m sick of character death because it’s such an overused plot idea. It just seems *lazy*. Want to create some drama? Throw in a wedding, pregnancy, or character death, and boom, you’re done.

    I would love to see drama generated from different plot ideas that you don’t see as often. Never mind a character dying – I want to see what happens if that character is diagnosed with a chronic illness. Or gets evicted. Or any other number of big-shakeup-potential plot developments that can be just as dramatic as character death if they’re handled right.

  13. @Paul Wilson: See, for me no matter how well other characters react, I would rather have the character still be alive. Unless they’re a villain. I’m okay with killing off villains. They’re mean.

    @mack: Granted, I’m a DC girl, but didn’t an entire planet of Hulks eat it in WWH?

    @bellatrys: I believe that ACD got his first run in with the early version of internet tizziers after he did that, too. Didn’t he get booed in public and receive death threats?

    Well, I’d like prehistoric robot alien sharks, (and I’ll raise you a ‘zombie,’) but I’m not a fan of Big Events. Still, I can see why they do it. Small, non-sensational books tend to get ignored and don’t sell as well as the event books, sadly.

    @Kelson: Mmm. There is a ‘diminishing returns’ aspect to frequent character death, especially when followed by resurrection.

    @Kitty: That would be interesting. A Big Life Change, or even an ongoing feud.

  14. I believe that ACD got his first run in with the early version of internet tizziers after he did that, too. Didn’t he get booed in public and receive death threats?

    I’m not sure how personal the negativity got – I’m not an expert on ACD, just a longtime fan who’s read some of the meta – but the thing that got me about The Final Problem was reading about the fans who put on mourning and wore it around in public. Not a metaphor! Black armbands for the guys, veils for the ladies and streamers on hats for everyone. Which is not the *craziest* fannish thing up to that point, mind you: after The Sorrows of Young Werther came out and became THE text for emo European teens of the late 18th century, there were ZOMG!Think of the Children! declamations against Goethe after some of said emo teens not only took to dressing exactly like the “hero” of the book, but went on to kill themselves in a suicide staged exactly like that *of* the protagonist (sorry for the unavoidable spoiler.)

    Well, I’d like prehistoric robot alien sharks, (and I’ll raise you a ‘zombie,’) but I’m not a fan of Big Events. Still, I can see why they do it. Small, non-sensational books tend to get ignored and don’t sell as well as the event books, sadly.

    The problem however seems to be that they don’t see the big picture – yes, the event books sell well – but sales overall are declining, and more and more people talk about being pushed away by these big events. It reminds me, very much, of this store I used to work at, now out of business, which kept propping up their declining sales with – which they blamed entirely on the competition, and NOT AT ALL on the facts that the store was dirty, disorganized (due to the owner’s faith that constant shuffling of stock around would magically generate Sales! instead of leaving customers frustrated and clerks too), often out of stock of important things (and nobody could find them if we did have them) and never advertised except for what I’m getting to – these enormous 50% off sales, which generated a huge amount of traffic and cash for the short term, but did not translate into any long-term customers, (because if they came back, well, we either didn’t have X or couldn’t find X and it was grungy and badly lit) or even large profits, given the huge discounts – every few weeks they ate more of their seed corn (I had at least one paycheck bounce, during that half-year) and yanno, it really wasn’t all the fault of the existence of their competitors, no matter what my bosses thought.

    The thing was, that there had been no competition for almost twenty years, locally. So they’d been able to profit while providing shitty service, since there was no alternative. When they *had* to compete at last, they had no idea how to do it – except by huge sales events that cut deeper into the quick each time…

    Here endeth the lesson.

  15. @Jaap!: I’m looking at it in terms of story possibilities rather than from an in-universe context. The point I’m trying to make is that when you kill a character in a shared universe, it affects more than just what you’re writing at the moment. You have to think in terms of “Well, what if a year from now someone comes in with an absolutely fantastic Elongated Man story?” I hope I’m wrong, but I get the impression that many writers at DC and Marvel don’t concern themselves with the effect that removing a character will have down the road, or assume that if someone really wants to tell that story with dead character A, they can always just retcon them back into existence.

    It’s different in a single work, where what you write only affects your own story.

  16. Kelson, I’ve got the distinct impression that many writers at the Big Two – and likewise many *editors* too – don’t even concern themselves with what’s going on in other books currently in process (let alone past/future issues) that are supposedly taking place in the same universe. I mean, heck, Jeph Loeb is the obvious punchline, but he’s hardly the only one. And I remember the defense of a number of squiffy things happening in ways that really looked even worse when they all happened in adjacent months (or even the same one) was “Well we just weren’t paying attention” – which, silly me, is what I thought the whole editoring job was about.

  17. @Esther Inglis-Arkell: I thought that was in the end of Planet Hulk. Same thing, I guess.

    Either way, no one with potential stories really died. Not even Skaar.

  18. @Esther Inglis-Arkell: I get ya, I really do, but given the manner of the death this time, and the target I’m about 90% sure it’s a fake-out. He’ll be removed from the stage for a time, but I don’t think he’s “dead”.

  19. @bellatrys: Good point!

  20. When Legion of 3 Worlds was announced, I guessed that they would kill a bitch. Guess who was right? Me.

    Anyway, I hate to derail things, but this is your most recent blog post Esther, and I was wondering, are you a Legion fan? I just got into them myself, having read the Great Darkness Saga and that 1,050 Years of the Future trade and assorted issues. Was The Lightning Saga any good? Also, everytime I see Lightning Lord I say “What a dick!” and I have no idea why, he just strikes me as a huge dick.

  21. @Paul Wilson: Yeah. There was no way they’re taking him out forever, but if that’s the case, why death? Why not ouchies? Why not a coma? Amnesia would be kind of cool. Evil twin? Possessed by dead parents? While in a coma? With an evil twin? Let’s get soapy.

    @bellatrys: Well, if DC goes out of business, I call the Bats. And the Arrows. Also the Birds. And the Beetles.

    Okay, I’ll just leave the Green Lanterns for whoever wants them.

  22. @Esther Inglis-Arkell: Same reason they had to show Steve Roger’s gross corpse at one point. Partially cheap shock value, but they have to show him removed from the stage in a manner that’s going to make it difficult to bring him back.

    Now they’re committed to replacing him for a time, they can’t show him hovering around recuperating or incarcerated since people will never accept a replacement whilst he’s still around.

  23. and you get the loss of all the stories…

    THIS, btw, I forgot to note, is the key to the whole problem imo. Not just for the minor characters, but for the major ones – you lose their future stories and personality interactions, so what do you do? Well, bring ’em back! But how? Do you just go back and tell stories about what happened *before* X was killed off? Or do you bring them back? And if you bring them back, how do you do it so it doesn’t seem a) Improbable, b) stupid (this isn’t X, it’s X’s identical twin Y!), c) stupider (everybody just happened to miss all the evidence of X’s survival) or mostly and especially d) cheap?

    And when you killed them off in the first place as a stunt to generate cheap emotional tension – aka ‘bathos’ for us Sophisticated Iv’ry Tower litcrit types – this makes it even more likely to be a problem – and the resulting retcons to be even more poorly thought out and executed (what ARE the real emotional and plot-intrigue results going to be if So-and-so-back-from-the-dead is really A Clone?)

    When it’s planned from the start – either the character death, or the chara death-and-return – and is thus organic and critical to the development of other characters and the storyline (the youthful protagonists’ beloved Mentor must be removed from the scene so that they can develop on their own – in Prydain the not-really-dead-after-all is plausible and works without being cheap, while in Star Wars (1977) it would have really been horrible if Ben’s “If you strike me down” &c had been literal instead of metaphorical and he’d reappeared to shoot down Vader’s TIE fighter with Force Lightning) it is a good thing.

    But unfortunately it’s usually an ill-planned bathos-generator, which is why it’s turned into such a groan-inducing source of jokes about “Revolving Doors in the Afterlife”.

  24. You know, I can think of some that work, but I think the obligatory nature of it in some comics takes away from the specialness. Plus we as comic fans are driven and encouraged to identify with these characters a bit more than in the average narrative form (the whole power fantasy bit), so when a plotline with Big Deaths is promised we just wait and hope that it’s not our guy’s turn and grit our teeth through it, instead of being dazzled by the artistry with which it’s pulled off.

  25. But Batman’s not dead, he’s just taking a break after being world shatteringly awesome

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