A big death occurred in “Avengers Arena” #10, causing shockwaves which are surely still being felt throughout the relevant hashtags on Tumblr and Twitter. This happens every single time a character dies, so it’s nothing new. And a book like “Avengers Arena” is built on the promise of death, so it’s not particularly shocking that this happened. The only thing that would actually be shocking is if comic book fans focused on the actual craft being executed and not the characters.
I say all of this because “Avengers Arena” is one of the best comics on the stands today. It’s so good that I almost want writer Dennis Hopeless assigned to write every comic book character’s death, because dude knows how to make them all count. And that’s what makes the book, and in particular today’s issue, special.
Before I continue, I do want to emphasize that this piece is spoiler free and does not reveal the plot or identity of today’s big death. I’ll leave that to those hashtags I mentioned earlier. Now, on with my defense of death.
To the people red in the face upset about what happened today, I have to admit that I would have been right there with you had this death happened 10 years ago. 2003 me was angry about every continuity gaffe and revamp; if I had had anyone to talk comics with, you bet they would have told me to shut up about how much I hated Grant Morrison changing the Imperial Guard to the “Superguardians.”
And when it came to death, no one got more upset about it than I did. Maggott’s useless demise in the pages of “Weapon X” disgusted me (you all know how much I love Maggott) and Synch’s death in “Generation X” caused me to stop caring about that entire cast of characters. I took those deaths personally, and I definitely allowed these egregious personal affronts to destroy any shred of enjoyment I got out of comics.
Listen, the one letter I have ever gotten printed in a comic book can be found in 1999’s “Uncanny X-Men” #367. My entire letter criticized the current creative teams for dumbing down and then killing off Toad. Toad. I was angry enough about Toad’s death that I wrote a letter, people. That is insane.
I’ll never forget when Multiple Man died in “X-Factor” #100. I had only been reading Marvel Comics for a little over a year at that point, and had already declared Jamie Madrox my favorite comic book character (that wasn’t a cast member of Fox’s “X-Men” cartoon, an important distinction). That foil-stamped cover, with Havok holding the broken body of Jamie Madrox? The issue itself, where new mystery mutant Haven failed to heal Multiple Man of the Legacy virus? I was 10 years old. It wrecked me. Yes, I did trace my favorite Multiple Man panels and trading cards on notebook paper to assemble a “Best Of Multiple Man” commemorative comic book. People mourn in different ways. If the Internet had existed back then, I might have gotten on Twitter and pleaded with writer J.M. DeMatteis to bring Jamie back… or worse.
But I grew up, and the me of today is thankfully different from the me of yesterday. A character that I love dearly died today, and I’m not upset. I’m sad, yes, but I’m not going to write an angry letter or make a mopey commemorative death piece (which is not what this article is!). There are two reasons for this, and they’re reasons I run through my head every single time I read an angry tweet directed to writers like Dan Slott and Dennis Hopeless who dare do something interesting with their characters.
Deaths tend to overshadow the quality of the actual story. A lot of readers seem unable to separate a character’s demise from the actual content of the story. The issues where Multiple Man and Toad died? Those are probably not great comics. Nightcrawler’s death, though, felt appropriately weighty and important; its still felt today. I fully support readers being upset if a character’s death is done poorly or not done with respect, but it seems like some readers treat death as an inexcusable offense; any story that kills This Character is automatically a horrible story!
But that’s objectively not true, and people feel that way because they aren’t objective. Hopeless, along with series regular artists Kev Walker and Frank Martin, have taken an incredibly thin premise (“Marvel heroes in ‘Hunger Games’!”) and filled it out with some of the most striking and earnest character work being done in comics today. Every death has had a reason, and every death has been necessary for the growth of other characters. This book is not the shock value bloodbath it was pegged as initially; it does have actual stakes and actual peril built into it, two things that are kinda hard to feel when every character in your book stars in a minimum of three other monthly comics.
That’s “Avengers Arena’s” strength, and it’s something that most comics don’t get nowadays. Dan Slott can put Peter Parker through whatever torture he wants; Peter Parker will be Spider-Man again by May 2014 when a certain movie hits theaters. Every movie Avenger is, in a way, too big to kill right now.
And maybe this is too cynical and jaded, but the reason I don’t get upset by character deaths anymore is because I realized that death in comics isn’t like death in real life. It’s not permanent; it’s just another type of story to tell. Yes, a character I loved died today. And oh yeah, I felt it. But I also know that as soon as a movie or a cartoon starring this character is released, however much of a longshot that is, this character will be back. I know that as soon as an A-List writer and artist want to use this character, this character will be back. If you don’t believe me, then you must not be familiar with Star-Lord.
But just because I know comic book death isn’t permanent, and just because I now greet every death with a mental countdown clock until their return, that doesn’t mean that every death is automatically cheap. Jonathan Hickman absolutely devastated me when he killed off Johnny Storm a few years ago, and everyone was fairly certain he’d be back what with a 600th issue just a few months away. But that did not cheapen his death for me. Every emotional beat was so well done, my mind was not on his inevitable return. It wasn’t shocking when he did come back, but that return didn’t undo the great stories I read.
With every single one of the “Avengers Arena” kids, this is their story now. They were not being used, and without this book they would all still be sitting, ignored in their corner of the Marvel U. I’d actually rather see them get a proper send-off than left to gather dust, and this issue was just that.
Human beings go through the pain of absence in many forms, and death is just one of them. Writers have to explore it. They have to use it, and we have to appreciate them when they’re done well. “Avengers Arena” treats death with appropriate weight. But when readers start to get angry about those deaths, I think it’s a strength of the medium that we can take comfort in the fact that these fictional characters could still come back to life. That’s a luxury we don’t get in the real world.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).