COMMENTARY: Fans & Dead Superheroes

I should have restrained myself, but I didn't really want to. I hesitated, but not for long. There was a copy of "Fear Itself" # 3, right there in front of me and I found that I really did want to know. Is Bucky really dead again, or rather, is James Buchanan Barnes properly dead for the very first time? All that moaning about death as an unacceptably crass marketing tool in comics, all that shouting about how jeopardy is endlessly undermined by death's revolving turnstiles, and what am I reduced to? Fanboyness, that's what. A craven, can't-wait-for-the-trade, can't-look-away, please-don't-kill-the-nice-one-armed-moody-superhero, Fanboy.

Yes, I'm ashamed by it.

Death sells, but why does it still sell to us Fans? It's easy to imagine why an unFan might be interested in the "death" of a pop-culture costumed icon, though, of course, the likes of the Winter Soldier would hardly make it onto a list of any such exalted properties. Unfamiliar with the traditions, with the hype, of the superhero comic, the unFan might understandably turn up in a comic store, credit card in hand, believing the advertised "death" of the likes of poor Captain America means that poor Captain America really will stay dead. But the Fan knows better. The Fan is well aware that only the likes of Uncle Ben stay dead, and that that's only true until somebody manages to carry the argument that Benjamin Parker's resurrection would be a really good, capital-generating high concept.

Yet despite the fact that we should know better, Marvel announced that something terrible was going to be inflicted on Bucky in "Fear Itself" # 3, and straight -- straight! -- to the top of the sales charts it went. Since there's hardly anyone left buying the monthlies beyond we lifers, that means that the very folks who're constantly getting all shouty about gratuitous death-events are the same ones effectively ensuring that the Big Two will keep on knocking off and resurrecting characters, over and over and over again. Death, it seems, is simply comic fan catnip, from which we might presume that all the passionate protests fired up from message boards and convention floors and a thousand little blogs are little but the most hypocritically tepid of hot air.

If they kill them, we will come.

Nothing seems to crush the hope that this time, the death of a costumed hero will be as touching and as permanent as it is of lasting importance. Even as I type this, I'm fighting -- and not fighting very effectively -- the urge to order a copy of the last hurrah of the Ultimate Spider-Man. Like a man on a life-saving diet listing out all the cakes he's going to eat when his life's been saved, I'm bemoaning the very thing that I can't seem to stop buying into. Yet by the time I'd come across the sequence in "Ultimatum" where the Blob ate the Wasp and then Giant-Man bit the Blob's head off, I was ready to swear off forever any comic book sold off of the back of any superhero's death. Regardless of whether the fallen protagonist was likely to return from jump-suit Valhalla or not, I'd had my fill of death-porn comics which seemed to say nothing more invigorating and insightful than "Gotcha, sucka!"

But the addict can always make a case for the virtues of their compulsions, so why don't we talk more of the good things about comic book deaths? Characters who never counted for anything much can suddenly be ennobled by a brave, misty-eye-encouraging final sacrifice. Walt Simonson transformed the Executioner from a ho-hum lovelorn and immortal egoist into the indelibly heroic defender of the Bridge of Gjallerbru, standing against the hordes of the undead with not a hope of survival. And death can help creators explore just how important a superhero is to both the everyday and the extraordinary aspects of their world, as Superman's temporary time in the hereafter in the nineties proved, or create lastingly-moving symbols out of never-to-be-forgotten life-transforming losses, such as was once the case with Jason Todd and Bucky Barnes. Death can clear away for awhile the clutter of a long-standing continuity in order to reveal what works and what doesn't, as happened to the Green Lantern Corps under Ron Marz or the Avengers under Brian Michael Bendis. Death can even stand as the welcome evidence of uncertainty in the superheroic worlds, as Grant Morrison had Superman express at the Martian Manhunter's funeral in "Final Crisis," when he delivered an eulogy closing on; "We'll all miss him. And pray for a resurrection." These characters may know that most of their number make it back from the other side, but they can't be sure when it'll happen, and they've no way of knowing how their old friends and comrades and lovers will be marked by their experiences on the other side of the veil.

Even the mind-numbing repetitiveness of one damn dead superhero after another can be transformed into the most entertaining of spectator sports. If ever there was an exacting task for a creator to set themselves, it would be the job of trying to make us care about one more go 'round this rather bleak and clapped-out carousel. Take the ubiquitous death scene itself. We're all aware of the creator's options. There's the character who falls nobly in battle saving their colleagues, as Johnny Storm recently did. There are those who get absurdly wiped from the board without any chance to make a moral point beyond "bad things happen," as occurred with Alpha Flight and about three dozen super-people in "Ultimatum." Most regularly, there's the scene of the dying hero lying in the arms of a weeping lover, surrounded by devastated admirers, bathed in the glory of a last-minute heroic sacrifice and safe in the knowledge that innocents have been saved. In the bear-pit of Fandom, where the audience knows its stuff and the writer's room for maneuver is so limited, the likes of Ed Brubaker, who gave us an assassination of Captain America which was untypically and intriguingly downbeat, can earn enough respect to see them through all the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey magic bullets they'll need to bring their fallen superhero back to life once again.

But there's a difference between playing Devil's Advocate and believing in all that revisionist spiel. And though I intended to end this piece celebrating the conventions of the superheroic death and emphasizing the opportunities which they bring to both fans and creators, I realize now, having typed out all of the above, that none of that really explains why I keep turning at the scene of what's long been a litany of typically insensitive and unnecessary deaths. Because what I'm doing when I pick up a copy of the largely story-less and almost entirely unmoving "Fear Itself" # 3, it now seems to me, is simply turning up with a prayer that the publishers and the editors and the creators don't screw up.

I'm not fascinated by death so much as quietly desperate for the evidence that it might be dealt with in a caring and sensitive and intelligent fashion. It's become a minor-league compulsion, I realize, to stand as an eyewitness as well as a rubbernecker at the passing of old fictional friends, while hoping as I do so that this time, all the exaggerated pathos and "Previews"-headlining calculation will actually count for something. When Brubaker resurrected Bucky Barnes, for example, he did so in such a way that all of the original meaning of the character's supposed death remained. He didn't diminish the superhero genre, he enriched it and, in doing so, he celebrated it. Bucky didn't just become a symbol of the impossibility of staying dead in comics, or of the stupidity of killing off characters in the first place, but rather became a sign that these daft, absurd and yet utterly endearing comic book characters really can be written well and made to count for more than just this month's balance sheet in a corporate ledger. Every Bucky that's put through a death that's significant and touching, or resurrected in a way that intensifies rather than diminishes the meaning of their original passing, stands for the possibility that the superhero book could be something other than such a stupid, money-grubbing, short-sighted business. If care and craft and ambition can take the least appetizing excesses of the modern-era book and make them count for something, then the modern-era book might just survive.

And so, when Brian Michael Bendis assures us that Ultimate Peter Parker is dead, and when he buttresses that statement up with reference to the gold-standard of the never-raised Uncle Ben, there's something of a touch of hope in what's a rather gloomy time for the superhero book where the killing off of characters is concerned. And if I sniffle just a little at Ultimate Peter Parker's sacrifice and miss him just a touch when he's gone, and if his death, and even some eventual rebirth, can be crafted so that it achieves something other than making us all feel a fool for buying into this Spider-Man's death in the first place, then I'll not just be grateful that I've been moved and made to think, I'll also be a little more hopeful about the craft of comic book storytelling, and the future of my old friends in the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade.

Which makes all that business of that great gaping chest wound and the dying Bucky Barnes in "Fear Itself" # 3 feel all the more frustrating and -- dare I say it? -- upsetting. And not for the right reasons either .

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