Friday, February 4, 2011

On Comic Book Death

1. Secret Origins

The death of a character in superhero comics is not a new phenomenon. It is also not a particularly novel one. Batman’s origin story is inherently tied to the murder of his parents, just as Spiderman’s origin is tied to the death of his uncle. The death of a major superhero is more recent, with the death of Superman being probably the most iconic (though not the first) example. Given the endless episodic nature of superhero comics, it is not surprising, and indeed probably necessary from a storytelling prospective, that characters occasionally die. Indeed, death in comic books is treated very similarly from death in other forms of episodic media, namely soap operas. And similar to in soap operas, the death of major characters in comics is due to one thing… sales.

2. Superman, Green Lantern, and Refrigerators

Superman #75 depicting the death of Superman sold six million copies. Granted this occurred during a major boom in sales, but when compared to the top-selling comics of the last few years, which sell between 100 and 200 thousand copies, this is a gigantic amount. Especially when you consider that these comics also featured the deaths of major characters!

Its a cliché to see the death of a major character advertised on the cover of a comic in an attempt to increase sales. What could be a major dramatic turning point for the comic is instead made into a cheap sales ploy. I’m bothered by this not because I don’t want any death in my superhero comics because its usually just an excuse for poor writing.

In comics parlance, the phrase “women in the refrigerator” has come to refer to the brutal killing of a (almost always female) character in a superhero comic that serves no other purpose than to motivate the actions of the (almost always male) superhero. I think the phrase is somewhat problematic, but when you examine the sheer number of times that situation has occurred in superhero comics it demonstrates a systemic problem. Not so much that comics are overtly misogynistic (though that’s a debate worth having) but that writing in comics is generally motivated by sales rather than creativity. Death is used as a crutch, motivating poorly conceived plots, while spiking sales. As shown by the Death of Superman and countless other storylines (including recent massive crossover events from both DC and Marvel) death leads to better sales than pretty much anything else.

3. The Human Torch vs. Cynicism

I’m not trying to say that no characters should die in comics, I’m really not. In all honesty, I think the recent “death” of the Human Torch is a rather powerful moment that’ll lead to some interesting stories. Same goes for the “deaths” of other major and minor characters including The Sandman, The Blue Beetle, even Batman. I’m just tired of seeing it used as a writing crutch. Sales matter and death causes a spike in sales, but when you use the same plot device over and over it becomes diluted. This is especially true in comics, where only Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, among every character who has ever died, has remained unresurrected. If the story calls for it, I’m for killing off a major or minor character. However, in almost every case the reason for character’s death has to do with sales, not the narrative. And really that sort of cheapens the whole enterprise.

4. Bad Writing Really Annoys Me

Unfortunately the sales-motivated killing of major and minor characters will probably only increase as the market for comics decreases. With comic readers becoming increasingly jaded about every aspect of the business the spike that comes from killing off a character will decrease. It already has, the Death of Batman last year didn’t even sell 200 thousand copies. Will this mean that the writing in comics will begin to be motivated by the needs of the narrative rather than the sales department? Probably not. It just means that writers (and sales departments) will need to find a new crutch to lean on.

...And I’ll probably spend all night writing about whatever that is too.

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