Western Comics and Matters of Death

For the second time, let’s discuss Western comics. This time, I won’t be talking about IDW but the big two, Marvel and DC. These companies have both had some incredibly talented writers: Simone, Claremont, Gaiman, etc… They’ve also both had their share of crappy writers: Miller, Bendis, Lobdell and so on. There are a few things that they’ve also failed at pretty consistently, regardless of the quality of the writer. To be specific, the subjects of ageing and death.

Ageing is something we all do. It’s just a part of reality. In comics, they generally avoid the subject. Marvel’s heroes don’t seem to age at all and DC’s may or may not age depending on the character. Which really renders characters like Vandal Savage and Ra’s Al Ghul kind of pointless since their shtick is that they’ve halted their ageing, but so has everyone else, apparently.

With some characters, you could argue that this makes sense. Maybe it’s an alien like Silver Surfer or Starfire or an android like Vision or Red Tornado or maybe it’s a character with a magical origin like Wonder Woman or Roma. However, a lot of these characters are supposed to be regular humans or have super powers that have nothing to do with ageing. So, how is it that they can remain active and the same basic age for decades?

Basically, it all comes down to one thing. Neither company has the ovarian/ testicular fortitude to let their characters grow old because if they actually let age be a factor they’d reach a point where they had to deal with the consequences and come up with new heroes.

So, why and how should they tackle this subject? The why is simple. Because it leads to more compelling stories. One of those things that comes with age is personal growth and development. If a character never ages, they’re also going to keep repeating the same mistakes and get stuck at the same point in their life. Look at the mess that got made with Spider-man in the aftermath of One More Day. He’s not the only example, either, a lot of comic characters get the same basic story arcs and always return to the status quo, never growing or developing or, if they do, returning to the way they were shortly after. Furthermore, this is a good, natural source of drama. Think about what it would be like for those few characters who don’t really age to watch as their loved ones grow older around them and, eventually, die. You could have some really touching and provocative stories about that. A third reason is that it allows the writers to actually show some creativity instead of continuously writing the same established characters. Which would infuse both universes with some much-needed fresh titles.

How should they do it? Well, here’s what I would suggest. First off, establish a time line. You really don’t want to have the universe’s time scale coincide with ours completely but, at the same time, you wouldn’t want your comics’ time to be really slow-moving. So, I would suggest that four months of issues equally a month of comic time would be about right. Once you’ve got that figured out, keep track of your characters’ ages and stick to that scale. You probably don’t want to have all your characters start the same age since that would be a right mess when the time came for them to retire.

Let’s move on to our happy discussion on death. One of the big problems with the modern super hero comic industry is that death is really cheap. It’s cheap in the sense that major characters can get over it faster than you can beat a cold and it’s cheap in the sense that it gets used as a crass tactic to make the stakes seem higher in horrible event comics or as a marketing gimmick.

This one also comes down to a lack of fortitude on the companies’ parts. They want to throw in some death because it gets attention, but they also want to risk losing any major characters. Consequently, you get a right mess where a character dies, everyone acts like it’s a big deal and then they come back after a fairly short amount of time so that they can die again later and repeat the process. In the process, death loses both meaning and tension.

That’s perhaps, the biggest reason to make death permanent in comics. As it is, the main response to a character dying isn’t any type of grief or sense of loss for the reader, it’s curiosity over when they’ll come back and what flimsy justification is going to be employed for it. Maybe it was really Xorn’s twin brother, Xorn, pretending to be Magneto pretending to be Xorn. Not even joking, that one happened. Another compelling reason is that giving death permanence would discourage shitty writers from killing off characters cheaply, and shitty editorial staffs from letting it happen. Death should not just be a cheap shock tactic or a way to show that the antagonist is totally serious this time. Treating it as such is just bad writing.

Let’s move into a bit of how it should be used besides just, it needs to be permanent. First off, character deaths should be handled with respect to that character and their legacy. Trust me, most fans will be able to handle it if it’s done well. Let’s talk about ambiguity. If you want to leave an opening for a character to survive you just have to take a lesson from the Silver Age. Have the character fall out of a plane or into a whirlpool but don’t show what happens to them. Leave the possibility that they may have survived. Now, in order for this to have actual tension there are going to have to be cases where they don’t. There’s no tension otherwise. For that matter, you could have one character disguise as another but actually foreshadow it and give the readers hints so that it doesn’t come across as an ass-pull that came after the fact.

If a super hero comic company would actually use both ageing and death as natural, expected parts of the universe, it would lead to better stories, stronger characters and a consistent influx of fresh characters, both legacy and brand new. Which is why I find it disappointing that it’s really not done.

Agree? Disagree? Have your own ideas on the subject? Go ahead and leave a comment.

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