Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Death Be Not Proud..Of Your Bump In Sales

Ha! Ha! Ha! I, the great and powerful DAVE-EL, shall not be defeated! Here in my fortress that I have named inexplicably I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You, I am invincible! I am woman! Wait, scratch that last part. I am INVINCI---

Egad! You're still alive? But HOW? I saw you fall into the volcano! Your robot double? Curse you! I'll get you next time for sure!

The cat and mouse games of life and death in the world of comic book super heroes...there's nothing quite like it in other fictions except for soap operas. The serialized nature of comic book story telling requires a heightened sense of suspense to keep us readers coming back for more and nothing works better to generate that excitement that the idea that the players in our dramas of gaudy costumes and incredible powers may well be in serious danger. Serious mortal danger!

But we know deep down that these colorful heroes and villains who strut and fret their 20 odd pages of adventure are not going to die. Cynically, we understand companies see these characters as assets to be leveraged which means when the Joker falls in the ice depths of Gotham River this month, he's sure to dry himself off and try another insane scheme another day.

Still creators dance close to the edge to bring some degree of doubt and uncertainty over the fate of our heroes and their foes, ratcheting up the suspense that maybe, just maybe, this could be serious? Maybe today, Batman's luck runs out or Dr. Doom has met his final, er, doom!

There are ways to have your death and avoid it too in comics.

The old "It wasn't what it looked like" scenario. It was a dummy, a decoy, a robot, an impostor who went to meet his or her maker.

Playing the classic "there was no body" card. Surely nothing could survive that nuclear explosion! Well, there's no body so all bets are off.

Employing the "it only seemed like he was dead" trick. You see, he only was in a death-like trance. (Conveniently, no one takes time to embalm and bury the poor bastard.)

But as these tricks and more were employed so frequently with a comic reading, genre savvy audience, these tricks have become less effective. The big "Oh no! ______ is dead!" fails to elicit the desired response with the reader when the first thought is, "Yeah, right."

So comics turned more frequently to the "daring" concept of actually killing somebody. Now one way to employ that strategy without severely limiting your story options is to pick the most obscure member of your cast. When Paul Levitz took over writing Legion of Super Heroes the first time, he had the daring idea of killing...go on, guess who....

Oh my God! They're gonna kill SUPERBOY?!

When I read this issue at the tender young age of none of your damn business, I was still quite naïve about a lot of things but not this one.

And guess what? Do I need to alert to spoilers. Hell no! If you've never read this issue and you're only vaguely aware of the Legion, you know this answer by just looking at that cover.

It's the dude on the left in the green suit. He's called Chemical King. He controls...chemicals and other...chemical related shit. It's not going to be the dudes in the back ("Death can't see us back here! Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!") It's not going to be the only woman on the cover. (You might think otherwise given the mortality rate of women characters in comics. But this was the 1970's. Unless you were Gwen Stacy or Martha Wayne, you're probably OK.) And HELL to the NO, it's not Superboy. The dude left by elimination looks generic; the "C" on his belt may well stand for "Cannon Fodder".

But the thing is, ultimately, one of those guys DIED and has stayed dead. Sad but true, there was no outpouring of grief and the gnashing of teeth to demand the return of Cannon Fodder...excuse me, Chemical King

So this gives the writer an out: a chance to interject real drama, real threat into the proceedings with a truly deadly outcome without upsetting the status quo. (There were no scenes in later issues of Legion where someone said, "You know who would be really helpful here? Chemical King.")

If I hadn't know better, I would've almost thought CK was created just for the purpose of being killed. Although that too has occurred.

X-Men proved its bona fides as ALL NEW and ALL DIFFERENT by killing off a member of the new team on their 2nd mission. But really, who can't see Thunderbird's death coming...
(Wait, spoilers? Oh the hell with it!)

Who doesn't see Thunderbird's death coming a mile away? Notice whose face is NOT in that little round bubble thingy next to the X-Men logo. If you take the time to read the story inside, Thunderbird is only lacking the words "I'm going to die by the end of this issue" embroidered on the back of his costume. He was whiny and ill tempered and his power set was both redundant and unimpressive. He was created especially to be killed. The reader is thinking, "If Thunderbird isn't dead by the end of this issue, I'm going to crawl into this comic somehow and shoot the bastard myself."

But eventually exclaiming "One of these heroes WILL DIE!" loses its power when all you have to do is look at the cover and dope out who has the most generic outfit, the lamest power or hasn't been in many issues lately but is all of a sudden on the cover.

So it's time to pull out the big guns: ANYONE CAN DIE!

And in the mid-1980's, the standard was set for this approach with this comic book project: Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Whole worlds were dying and the very landscape of the DC Universe was changing in new and different ways. But nothing really brought home just how serious this all was like these two issues. 

Crisis#7 saw the death of Supergirl who had heralded Superman's entry into the Silver Age. And in Crisis#8, we saw the end of the Flash who first appeared in Showcase#4 in the first shockwave that revived the dead or dying ideal of the comic book super hero. Both heroes to the end, valiantly giving their very lives so that others would live. This was as real as it could get, folks.

Of course, with the Flash, there was always a back door: there was no body. That Barry Allen stayed dead for as long as he did was extraordinary.

But it does pose quite the dilemma for a writer charged with bringing back a character who was last seen dying in a blaze of glory but was determined to be most sincerely dead?

That's where death in comics began to go wrong.

And this is where I'll pick up....later.

Counting Down To Infinity