As a (supposedly) lightweight medium, over the years comic books have managed to provide us with a safe space to look at some very difficult aspects of human existence. One of our most fundamental fears is death, the fear of our own and of the loss of people we love. It is tough to say which is the worst or most complicated to confront, but suffice to say that dealing with death isn’t really at the top of the list of accepted smalltalk. It is a difficult experience to broach or express, and exploring the broad range of experiences of death isn’t something we generally choose to discuss or share in our daily life. But within comic books, the mourning ritual has been dealt with in some very personal, evocative stories, often providing us with unexpected opportunities to meditate on loss and impermanence. In the instances below, (picked at random out of the many comic book funerals which have touched me), there are three very different depictions of the fall-out of loss, from the very intimate moments of mourning to the actions which spur change and growth.
Uncanny X-Men #138
Elegy for Jean Grey (aka Marvel Girl, aka Phoenix, aka Dark Phoenix)
Despite the conflict surrounding the decision to let Jean Grey kill herself for her act of genocide committed as Dark Phoenix, or the ridiculous levels of retcon which have caused her to be reborn and die so often that it no longer has any meaning, when it actually happened for the first time, it felt incredibly real and absolutely final. At the time when I was buying the comic book in the UK, the Uncanny X-Men was only available to me in an oversized, black and white reprint. This format meant that the funeral issue “Elegy” following Grey’s death had that much more impact, since the featureless black clothing of the attendees and the stark, cold, white sky swamped the page, dominating the story with a brutal austerity. Unfortunately those comic books are still stashed in the UK so I can’t show you those pages, but as you can see from this opening page (right), the impact is there even with the addition of a bold red sky to warm it up. Over the years, buying the back issues, I’ve found the contrast quite amazing. The color makes the stories seem so much warmer overall and less shocking, as if the color lends them a humanity which they might otherwise miss. Personally I loved the way Bryrne and Austin’s clean, harsh black inks look in isolation, and as this was the first funeral I experienced (albeit fictionally), it provided better preparation for the real thing later on. That absence of color and shock of harsh contrasts might have been an accidental coincidence of that particular comic book, but it is exactly that feeling which characterizes real loss and mourning.
Final Crisis: Requiem
The Funeral of J’onn J’onnz (aka Martian Manhunter)
While it wasn’t a permanent death (as is, unfortunately, the norm amongst caped, crime-fighting superheroes), the fact that the epic Final Crisis crossover event comic book allocated an entire issue to the funeral of the Martian Manhunter had tremendous impact. Writer Tomasi’s obvious affection and understanding of the character shone through on every page of the comic, and in amongst the upheaval of Final Crisis, that issue of calm reflection by the people J’onn J’onzz knew and loved stood out. Watching them each mourn in their own way and pay homage to a dear lost friend was a powerful thing to share with the world. His strong, grounded presence was felt in the lives of those he left behind and it was a rare thing to see a superhero comic book acknowledging the importance of loss. Visiting each bereaved character in turn, we share their love and the gift of friendship they shared. This acknowledgment of the importance of J’onnz to them is a very tangible, realistic kind of immortality.
V for Vendetta
The funeral of V
One the marvelous aspects of V for Vendetta as a comic book (rather than as a film) is the true anonymity of the character of “V”. Gender, accent, and age are unknown, there is a real possibility that V could be anyone, any sort of a person from any place. With the death of V, it is clear that his protege Evey will follow in the same footsteps, taking on the mantle and the mission of V. In a book with so much death and destruction, V’s grandly British version of a Viking funeral is representative of all the aspects of human rebellion and instigation which characterized V’s life. The flower-laden train carriage slides into the tunnel and disappears from view, with Evey (and us) mourning the ending of one life and simultaneously knowing that the explosion of this train will free multitudes. By exploding the seat of power in Downing Street, the old limitation that has gone before is a death which (like V’s) creates a space for the new. It is a potent metaphor and a very tangible representation of the rebirth which can only come through death. It is a beautiful culmination to Evey’s journey, and a powerful reminder of the necessity of death and new growth. V’s death robs the unknown of an intrinsic fear and gives Evey the courage required to keep moving towards the future. For the story and for the characters, death is not the destination at the end of a journey (or the culmination of the book) but simply another stop on the line.