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Friday at the Funeral

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday at the Funeral

I don’t really get all the furor over Captain America. It’s not like this is something new. Hell, the first issue I ever bought of Cap’s book it turned out to be a recap issue where Iron Man was musing about his poor dead friend. (Ah, if we’d known then how things would play out…)

The whole issue was a memorial. I was one angry and upset eight-year-old, let me tell you. I’d just decided to try out this Captain America book based on a Cap reprint in Marvel’s Greatest and it was, what, over? The guy’s dead? What the hell?

Then, of course, the following month it turns out he’s fine. It was all a scam to restore Steve Rogers’ secret identity. (In fact, the album issue I’d bought was a hasty fill-in from Jack Kirby because Steranko flaked out on his deadline — Cap was never meant to stay dead for an entire month.)

Today, of course, it’s different. These days Steve Rogers will stay dead probably for a year or two, just so we’ll all know they Really Mean It. Yawn. Pull the other one, guys.

You know what’s really annoying? This isn’t even the first time I’ve been irked enough about this to write about it. Because of Julie coming home from the hospital yesterday (doing very well, thanks for asking) I’ve kind of had my hands full, so we’re going reprint this week. Here’s the column I did about Event Death comics from about six years ago; only about fifteen people saw it when it appeared then, so I’m putting it up again today.

The depressing part? You can change out the names and it reads like I wrote it yesterday. The only thing that I’d change would be to update the list of the deceased, several of whom have since gotten better… and I think I’d spend a little more time trying to figure out the morbid streak that we fans seem to have that makes the Event Death such a successful sales tactic. THAT’s the part I really just don’t get. Anyway, here it is.

***

I’ve been reading comics a long time; over thirty years. I’ve seen the trends come and go — hot artists, hot writers, new characters, new styles. In fact, I’m such a fossil that I’ve even seen the everything-old-is-new-again cycle once or twice.

But there’s one gimmick that really upsets me, especially since it seems popular enough these days that Marvel and DC keep DOING it: killing off major characters in stories. I honestly don’t get it. To me it seems… well, vaguely creepy.

For a long time there was no death in superhero comics at all, any more than there was in any other kind of series-character fiction. The rare exceptions during the 60’s were the Legion’s Ferro Lad over at DC, and Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes at Marvel. Those two were IT.

Julius Schwartz experimented with killing off Alfred in the Batman books, but he was back so quickly most people didn’t know he was gone. Everyone else, even villains dying in fiery explosions and so forth, eventually got better. There were lots of tease covers implying that the hero was dead or dying — the Flash, for some reason, had an inordinate number of these, often unintentionally hilarious–

— but it always turned out fine in the end.

The first real crack in the dam appeared at Marvel in the early 70’s when Gerry Conway killed off Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man. I remember reading that story when I was eleven or twelve years old, and it really disturbed me. It was a harsh, scary, urban take on Spider-Man, and coming off the Lee-Romita reprints in Marvel Tales that I had been reading before, it was like having the rug jerked out from under me. It wasn’t a kid’s story, but it had shown up in my kid’s comic. I felt betrayed. This sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in Spider-Man.

I didn’t have the ability to articulate it then, but I think my main complaint was that this story wasn’t FUN. And fun was the reason I read superhero comics in the first place. Spider-Man had always been a strip about triumph despite great personal sacrifice, about counting the moral victory above the trappings of personal success. Peter Parker was a loser in his personal life, but the idea that it was DELIBERATE, that it was a sacrifice he was WILLING to make for the greater good, was a great hook for all of us put-upon, tormented nerds. Shake it off, keep your eye on the ball, and eventually it’ll all work out — the important parts, anyway, and it doesn’t matter what other people think of you in the meantime.

But Gwen’s death was a betrayal of that. It was the first time that Spider-Man had done everything right — and STILL failed. The story was nihilistic, almost. Do everything right and still good people die for no reason. That was just a little too adult and cynical a message for my eleven-year-old brain. I didn’t pick up an issue of the Amazing Spider-Man book for about five years after that. I stayed with the Lee-Romita reprints. They were safe.

Interestingly, the Marvel readers of that time, I’ve discovered, mostly agreed with me. They howled with dismay at Gwen’s passing and demanded she be brought back somehow. (Conway obliged, in a story that Marvel collected in TPB not too long ago under the title ‘Clone Genesis,’ a story that, as it happens, laid the groundwork for an even bigger misstep in Spider-Man’s history, but I’m not going to get into that now.) The point is, we didn’t see ‘event deaths’ in comics for quite a while afterward. Readers didn’t like them.

What changed that, I think, was in the early 80’s when the character of Jean Grey was killed in X-Men. And what made it different wasn’t the story itself, which still holds up today — it was easily as wrenching an experience for the X-fans of the time as Gwen’s death had been for me a decade before, and they howled just as loudly in protest. (Eventually, Jean was brought back too, in a move that I personally, just as an interested onlooker, still think was a mistake. But I’m not getting into that either.)

No, the difference this time was the comics market itself. Readership had been continuing to shrink since the glory days of the 50’s and 60’s, and there was serious talk all through the 70’s and early 80’s about comics dying off for good. (Superheroes, I mean. Newsstand comics.) So anything that amped up sales was a Good Thing.

And Jean Grey’s death had given the X-Men comic a sales spike that, in those troubled times, was hard to ignore. Add that to the fact that X-Men was the success that everyone wanted to emulate at the time anyway, and the message the Phoenix saga gave everyone wasn’t “Make the reader care enough about your characters that a death matters,” it was, “Death sells. Big.”

Now, it’s twenty years later, and the body count is approaching triple digits. Big names like the Oliver Queen Green Arrow, the Barry Allen Flash, the original Supergirl, and literally dozens of second-tier, day-player supertypes like Marvel’s Captain Marvel, Guy Gardner, Wonder Man, Vigilante, Raven and Jericho from the new Teen Titans, Hawk and Dove, three or four different JSA’ers, a couple of Starmen, a couple of Manhunters… all killed off. I can’t keep track. It’s a bloodbath. Some of those stories might even have been good, but I am willing to bet that these various deaths were the starting point of each, and not the other way around. “Sales are mushy. We need something to get some buzz on the book. Kill somebody.”

And the most upsetting thing is that none of it counts. There’s no impact at all. These characters are now the equivalent of cannon fodder. Kill ’em, bring ’em back. Or not. Possibly this trend reached its nadir when the much ballyhooed death of Superman came upon us complete with black armbands and little cardboard coffins available at your retailer (and we KNEW he was coming back, so what was the point?)

Though my personal vote for lowest point was when DC offered its 1-800-KILL-ROBIN promotion, a Batman story that featured an ending where A) Robin lived or B) Robin died, and readers voted. How good is a story where you get to VOTE on how it ends, for Christ’s sake? How engaging is that? How dramatically valid?

And naturally, death won. Robin died. Though I find some cold comfort in the fact that the vote was at least CLOSE, and that DC has created a new Robin character since, the ugly truth remains that the readers of today seem to want this stuff. It still sells. Most recently, the conclusion of DC’s Batman epic “No Man’s Land” featured the completely gratuitous death of the commissioner’s wife, Sarah Essen, and the current Superman saga, “Our Worlds At War,” has rather gleefully whacked Queen Hippolyta, Guy Gardner and Aquaman. No word on whether these deaths are going to stick either.

Look, all you editorial and marketing types, you’re missing the point. The real lesson of the death of Jean Grey back in the glory days of the X-Men WASN’T that it was a big event that sold a lot of books. It was that readers get invested in these characters. We want to spend time with them month after month. That’s why newsstand comics have hung in there, it’s the serial format that keeps them alive. But you can’t build character loyalty with characters who are being killed off right and left, especially when it’s even money whether or not that death is going to “count.” What that builds isn’t reader loyalty, but reader cynicism. The comics community is being turned into the same kind of jaded citizenry that populated Nero’s Rome, calling for bigger and more spectacular deaths to sate their bloodthirsty appetites. The sales spikes you get from these ‘events’ are short-term, the same kind of quick-fix sales strategy that gave us multiple covers and holograms. That editorial gimmick burned out and this one will too — but this particular gimmick is going to do a lot more lasting damage to the readership, because when readers stop caring, they stop READING. Is that really a sound marketing idea for a medium where the reader base is so tiny to begin with?

There’s only one way to build real reader loyalty. Quit looking for the event and look for the STORY. Readers will show up for a good story. We’ve seen this proven a number of times in recent years, with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and James Robinson’s Starman, and others. It’s not like it can’t be done.

There’s a market trend I wish somebody’d latch on to. A good story with characters we can care about. Wow, what a concept.

***

And there you have it. Back next time with all-new stuff, I promise.

See you next week.

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