O Death, Where is Thy Sting?
This isn’t what I’d planned to write about this week. I have a piece on editorially-driven comics vs. creator-driven comics almost finished. But with all the buzz about the character death in this week’s “Fantastic Four,” this seemed like an opportune time to get on my soapbox about death in comics.
If you don’t know by now which character died in this week’s “FF,” I’m not going to spoil it here. Seems like a lot of people had guessed the identity of the character even before the Tuesday release, pointing out that the character is the only member of the Fantastic Four who hadn’t died before. Think about that. In a book with four main characters, three of them had already died at least once and come back.
This isn’t a critique of the “Fantastic Four” issue. I haven’t even read it yet. The death strikes me as a component in a larger storyline, much like the death of Captain America (and the prior, once-unthinkable resurrection of Bucky) served a larger narrative. I’m not against death in superhero comics, by any means. What I have a problem with is the impermanence of death in superhero comics, the effortlessness with which the stone is rolled back from the tomb and our heroes emerge unscathed.
That doesn’t mean that good stories can’t be told around the death and virtually inevitable return of a central character. (And if you think the current FF dirt-napper won’t return at some point — especially with a movie franchise to reboot — I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.) But the proliferation of comic-book deaths has transformed the highest possible storytelling stakes into something commonplace. Worse, into something cliche.
Certainly the death of a major character is an evergreen sales device. Just like a wedding on a soap opera (do they still televise soap operas?) generates ratings, bumping off a hero generates sales. It also generates coverage in the mainstream media, which generally doesn’t give a shit about what happens in any comic (unless a gay character shows up in Riverdale or Gotham). I’d argue that it risks branding comics as a one-trick “see who dies next” pony to the general audience, but even that’s not my objection.
My problem is that the Revolving Door of Death devalues the stories we’re telling, by removing the ultimate consequence in those stories. If Romeo and Juliet simply go into the Lazarus Pit and come out to live happily ever after, it’s not quite the same story, is it? “Watchmen” isn’t half as interesting if we find out Everything You Know Is Wrong!, and it was only a Life Model Decoy of the Comedian that got tossed out the window.
As a writer and as a reader, I’m not comfortable with the casual treatment of matters that are, literally, life and death. Stories are reduced to versions of Itchy and Scratchy in which the heroes and villains maim and slaughter one another, only to return unscathed. Meaningless death diminishes the meaning of the lives we chronicle.
Obviously the other side of the argument is that death and resurrection has indeed become commonplace, so why get bent out of shape about it? Why not just shrug and move on, accept it as a trope. At the Martian Manhunter’s funeral in “Final Crisis,” Superman said, “We’ll all miss him. And pray for a resurrection.” I suppose that’s one way to handle it, to not even pretend there’s any permanence, or lasting ramifications. It’s not really death, it’s more like a leave of absence.
In this column two weeks ago, I touched upon writing so that the audience cares about your characters, cares about what happens to them. Presenting death as merely a temporary setback makes the goal that much harder. Why should the audience become emotionally invested if a death isn’t the end, but simply the next chapter, to be followed by another, and another?
Some of this is endemic to writing stories in a shared universe. You don’t have any control over what happens to a character — living or dead — once you walk away. Frank Miller wanted Elektra to stay dead when he wrote and illustrated what he considered her last story, “Elektra Lives Again.” Apparently other people at Marvel didn’t see it that way, so Elektra did live again. And then turned into a Skrull or something.
I understand there are profits to be made and attention to be generated, and yes, even worthy stories to tell. But there’s something about it that feels like a cheat, pretending there are permanent consequences to a temporary condition. So I don’t do it. Any characters I’ve killed off — and there have been a fair number of them — stayed dead at least as long as I was on the title.
In “Witchblade,” Sara Pezzini’s former partner, Jake McCarthy is dead. He’s not coming back. Sara sister, Julie, is dead, executed in “Artifacts #1,” and she’s not coming back either. Julie’s death seemed to generate some real shock from readers if the feedback is any indication. Maybe part of that is the knowledge that dead is dead.
For me, it’s a contract with the reader that basically says, “I’m not cheating you.” I’m saying that if I, as the writer, put you through the emotional wringer of having a character die, I’m going to stick with it. I’m not going to cheapen the moment by invalidating it later on.
Years ago, I read “The Death of Captain Marvel” by Jim Starlin. Pretty effective stuff then, even more resonant to me now, having watched my own father slip away by inches, his once-strong body ravaged by cancer. Captain Marvel’s passing is one of the few comic deaths that’s never been reversed, and I think most people would agree it’s still the most powerful. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Comic-book deaths seem that much more trivial when you’re suddenly confronted with the real thing. Yesterday, my friend and artist Clement Sauve passed away at 33, after a battle with cancer. He was one of the most talented artists I’ve ever had the privilege to work with, but more importantly, he was one of the kindest people I’ve ever come into contact with. There are others who knew him far better than I. We usually saw each other only once a year at San Diego, and always made time for dinner with our editor at Dark Horse, Dave Land. We swapped e-mails and, once in a while, phone calls.
Clem was the artist on the long-gestating “Pantheon City” project, which he and I co-own. It debuted in Dark Horse’s 2007 Free Comic Book Day issue with an eight-page teaser story. It’s easily one of my favorite stories I’ve ever worked on. You can see the story on Dark Horse’s site, starting here.
There’s an added element of tragedy, as the colorist of the “Pantheon City” story was Clem’s friend Stephane Peru, who died of a heart attack in 2008 at the shocking age of 28. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to check out our story, or look up some of Clem’s other work. It’s all spectacular, and ample evidence of a unique talent.
Clem was pulled away from “Pantheon” fairly regularly by offers of design work for toys, film, television and video games, including the current “G.I. Joe: Renegades” series. Those gigs, frankly, paid a lot better than comics, but Clem always made time to squeeze in some “Pantheon” pages when he could. The entire first issue is complete, and part of the second issue is done, as well as four covers and pages of designs. That work is very literally some of the best artwork I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what’s going to happen with “Pantheon City,” and right now that doesn’t seem very important at all.
No words can properly express the loss of someone so young, especially my meager efforts here. I know that I’m fortunate to have known Clem, and even more blessed to have been able to work with him. I also know that I’ll miss him greatly, and spend a long time pissed off at the universe for the unfairness of it all. Please spare a thought for Clem today, and give a hug to the ones you love.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts,” “Witchblade” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image, set to debut in May, 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, ronmarz.com