Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Modest Defense of Death

Well, the latest outrage to hit the comics community is the "death" of the Human Torch, Johnny Storm.

In the latest issue (No. 587) of the Fantastic Four, out today, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, heroically dies in battle.

Death is natural. Death is normal. Given the extraordinary dangers these characters face on a monthly basis, it would be unrealistic for some of them not to die. One of the reasons superhero stories can be so dramatic is that the writers can take the characters right up to the brink of death. It would be unnatural for some of the heroes not to topple off the cliff.

I have no idea if death is more common today than it was in the Silver Age. Certainly in the last few years, some pretty iconic heroes have shuffled off the mortal coil: Batman and Captain America, for starters. In the Silver Age it was mostly the second-stringers that took the dirt nap: Proty, Ferro Lad, Fredrick Foswell, etc. Lightning Lad was arguably the most important character to die, and of course, he didn't stay that way:

This, to me, is the real problem. It's not that characters die; it's that they are resuscitated. I mentioned that Batman died recently; well, not really. To people in the comics universe he appeared to die, but in actuality he went back to the Stone
Age, then jumped forward a few times in a very confusing series called the Return of Bruce Wayne. I don't read Captain America anymore, but I gather Steve Rogers is back as well. And the articles discussing Johnny Storm's demise make it clear that nobody really thinks he's going to be pushing up daisies for long:
Even though you know this death will not be permanent (superheroes almost always return), this is quite the event since the character has been around for 50 years.

If it's unrealistic for comic characters to keep dodging the bullet, how much more unrealistic is it for them to stop the bullet but then be revived? We all know someone who's passed away and been buried; how many of us have later encountered them on the street?

Don't get me wrong; I loved the Lightning Lad story when I first read it. I also was fascinated by the (brief) return of Gwen. But what works once or twice rapidly becomes cliched.

Death and resurrection breeds cynicism. And cynicism is Kryptonite to fantasy.


Anonymous said...

You know, particularly in the Silver Age in Marvel Comic series, it wasn't uncommon for the villain to meet his supposed demise, only to cheat death and come back to raise havoc later on. Dr. Doom was famous for this in the early FF issues.

The best thing about those stories was that Stan and Jack always came up with a plausable explanation.

hobbyfan said...

"Death", in the case of Johnny Storm, and before him, Steve Rogers, is nothing more than another marketing tool to today's creators, especially at Marvel. It's happened so often recently (Rogers, Janet Van Dyne, Storm), such that readers young and old have taken it for granted that the deceased will pull a Lazarus in due course.

With the FF marking 50 years this year, you'd think they'd avoid a swerve like this, but Joe Quesada has become such a publicity mark, even though he's not the Editor In Chief anymore (and never should've been, IMPO), that this a reflex action with him. Shame, shame, shame.

Blaze said...

With villains like Doc Doom, it was always "MIA" rather than dead. He falls off a cliff into a raging sea. A quick search is undertaken. No body is found, but everyone agrees..."No one could have survived that!"

And, of course, they did. But without an actual corpse, the "resurrection" didn't seem so jarring. It was just a lesson to the heroes not to take such things for granted without evidence.

That "Legion" issue with Lightning Lad also preserves the drama of death. LL was killed, but there was no funeral. His allies and friends scoured the universe for possible resurrection techniques immediately. And Proty paid the ultimate price. No cheap return to life!

If they had failed, I'm sure LL would have stayed dead...until the modern age of comics, at least. Nowadays, they've made it an utter, pathetic joke. Their last crumb of dignity disappeared when they brought Bucky back.

(I do not differentiate between the two companies in this regard. The creative minds swap back and forth between the two shops with such regularity, the only difference in the published comics are the colour of the costumes)

Allan said...

Wasn't it later revealed that Lightning Lad had never been resurrected at all -- it had been a shape-changed Proty all along?

A few years ago Jim Starlin did a mini-series called something like "The End", where, at the climax, some cosmic type decreed that from then on death in the Marvel Universe would be permanent. Guess that one soon got retconned, eh?

David said...

Here's the trouble; by now, even the characters in the books must know death is meaningless, if they've been paying attention at all. So all the dramatic story-telling potential of death; the crushing grief, the funeral attended by a who's-who of superheroes, the haunted teammate who refuses to believe it and goes on a quest to bring the deceased back...all of that is gone, used up, spent.

It's a foregone conclusion that Johnny will be back, just like Steve and Bruce and Clark and Ollie and Hal and Barry and Reed and Bucky, and on and on, infinity. We know it, and if so by now should everyone in the fictional universe as well. At most Johnny's death should get a yawn and an eye-roll, then Reed should call up She-Hulk or Thundra on his speed-dial and say, "We've got an opening for a few months, if you're interested."

It was cool when Marvel established there's a "damage control" unit to clean up after superhero battles. Now they should establish a Superhero Temp Agency with a roster of second-stringers waiting for the call to replace the latest A-lister to "die." And forget funerals, just stop by an MU Hallmark store for one of their new line of greeting cards: "Sorry to hear you died. Come back soon."

If you want to put a positive spin on it, think of it as the comic universe's approach to Affirmative Action. Where else would we get new minority and/or female replacements for popular characters who spin off into their own IDs when the original returns?

Ed said...

Allan, you're close. It is (SPOILER)
Proty who dies after first disguising himself as Saturn Girl. He knew that she'd doctored her lightning rod to ensure that she would die for her love t return form death. Proty lured her into a cavern somehow -- the memory's hazy -- and took her spot.

Proty actually dies, but in the spirit of virtually all comic book deaths, is replaced on Chameleon Boy's shoulder by -- drumroll -- Proty II!

Jonathan L. Miller said...

Ed: Actually, Allen is correct. In the Giffen-led LSH series of the '90s, there was an annual that basically took the old fan theory about Proty's life-force really being what's inhabited LL since his "resurrection;" so it's always really been Proty in there. This is all moot now that that version of the Legion seems to be out of continuity.

As for the Human Torch's death, yes, of course it's not going to stick. But that seems to actually be part of the story; in interviews Quesada has pretty much come out and said that Johnny's return was part of the story as originally pitched by Hickman. (Also, it's been fun enough for those who actually like the FF that I've been willing to go with it...)

Ed said...

Jonathan, I never had heard of this wrinkle, as I long ago gave up on trying to keep track of the endless ret-cons of the Silver Age, in particular, of the Legion. More power to your being able to keep all of the various "realities" straight. :)

For 1963, I have to tell you, that story was pretty final and poignant. The cover exuded a stark gravity that has stayed with me all these years.