So I posted a few rules about what I would do if I was tyrant-in-chief of a comic book company. The last rule I left off (and I have others waiting), is about comic book character death. Given the last issue of “FF” I got in the mail, I figured I should expound on why I put that rule in there.
About one year ago, much ado was made of the imminent death of a member of the Fantastic Four. This was a big deal since they are one of Marvel’s flagship comics and have not experienced quite the round robin roster of other superhero teams. The fact that Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman are married, and that the Human Torch is the Invisible Woman’s brother, and the Thing is the children’s honorary uncle, probably help explain why they stay together. Ok, so the Thing did die some time back, but it was very clear that the writers/editors had no intention of letting him stay dead. The rest of the FF went to Heaven to convince the Thing to come back to Earth and then had to ask the Creator (who looked very much like Jack Kirby) to let the Thing come back. But, like I said, it was clear that death wasn’t meant to be permanent. The Fantastic Four title was coming up on issue number 600. To commemorate this milestone, the writers/editors decided to kill one of the members. I suppose this makes sense if you write/edit/sell comic books. Seems like a downer to me. This would also end the run of the Fantastic Four. Well, in the end, Johnny Storm bravely sacrificed himself to save the world from an invasion from the Negative Zone and its tyrant ruler Annilihus. The Avengers showed up just in time to see the Thing crying. It was sad. Thus started a new comic called “FF” for “First family” or “Future Foundation” that involved everyone in the Baxter Building plus Spider-man because what the hell, why not have Spider-man take Johnny’s place? So my subscription switched to FF. Unlike when Ben died, no one seemed inclined to try to find out if Johnny was really dead, or bring him back from the dead. To all appearances, he was meant to be out for awhile. And what happens this past issue? At the end of the comic Johnny Storm walks in safe and sound and quite alive. Now, I believe if given the option Annilihus would rather capture Johnny Storm and torture him because of the number of times the FF thwarted his plans to destroy everything. But bring him back in less than a year? Really?
Here’s the thing – no one likes to see their favorite characters written out of the comics. This is unfortunate in many ways because it leads to weird time distortions (how old is Spider-man after a fifty year run in comics?), makes it hard to pick up new readers (how many panels does it take to recap Wolverine‘s back story?), and in many ways shackles the writers because they have to a) reconcile years of back story and b) makes it difficult for them to introduce new characters free of such histories. I read somewhere Chris Claremont expected to write at least Cyclops out of the X-men comic, presumably to focus on the characters he created and have the freedom to move forward on his story lines. After all, he was brought on to revitalize the title. But people didn’t like it when Jean Grey died, and when the decision was made to resurrect her, all of Claremont’s plans to have Cyclops live happily ever after with Madelyne Pryor were blown out of the water. And we all know how well that turned out (and if you don’t, I’ll post on it soon enough). I’ve lost track of the number of characters who have died and been resurrected. Villains in particular tend to be hard to kill, but good villains are critical to a story. Some heroes and villains have built-in protections against permanent death, and that doesn’t bother me so much since at least there’s some sort of explanation. But Aunt May? Really? She’s an absolutely ordinary human woman and what, eighty years old? I’m amazed at the lengths the writers/editors have gone to in order to keep that old lady alive, down to trading Peter Parker’s marriage to the devil to save her life (a move which I’m sure Aunt May would strongly object to). I’m really glad to see Peter David of “X-factor” highlight this phenomenon in the context of the universe. Sean Cassidy, the original Banshee, is currently dead and his daughter Teresa (Siryn now Banshee) is having a really hard time accepting his death and is still partly convinced it’s only a matter of time before he comes back from death. And given all the people she’s seen die and come back, who can blame her for being messed up about it? Heck, in that same comic title, Strong Guy was just killed and brought back. I wish more writers/editors would handle death better.
Death is not much more than a publicity stunt. And when a character comes back from the dead so soon, it’s a cheap publicity stunt at that. Marvel is not the only company guilty of this. The whole DC “Blackest Night” storyline seemed to me, on some level, to be an easy way to bring back a bunch of characters that had died in the past few years. I think the meta-story of Johnny Storm’s death highlights the truth of “The Tick’s” issue numbers. All of “The Tick” comics are short-run series. I think the highest number Tick issue I ever saw was number 20 (this may have changed; I confess I haven’t read “The Tick” in much too long). The creator said the reason for this was that marketing statistics showed that peak purchasing of a comic occurs of the first twelve or so issues. People are most interested in something they perceive to be new. After that, they start to lose interest in the series. In order to capitalize on that, the creator of “The Tick” only issued short runs. Of course, all those stories were connected and referenced each other, so it wasn’t as though they were completely new continuities. So I think the marketing department at Marvel went to the current editor-in-chief (whom I do not like) and said something to the effect of, “The FF is getting too old. People are intimidated by the high issue numbers. We need to end the series in a dramatic fashion and then reboot it quickly but make sure we’ve got the same characters since this is a flagship comic.” And there you go. Johnny’s rejoined Reed, Sue, and Ben, and now they’re all running around in the new Fantastic Four comic that isn’t burdened by those high issue numbers. Cheap and lame (extra lame in that the Torch’s return was apparently little more than a deus ex machina for the writers to get out of an alien invasion that absolutely no one else in the entire Marvel universe noticed!).
That’s the reason for my rule. Death should only be written if necessary, and not treated like a publicity stunt. Give it some time to resonate so that people don’t feel cheated for getting upset their favorite character died only to have them pop up again a year or so later and no worse for wear. That said, I know it’s going to take time for anything to change in comics regarding death. I know that Jean Grey is coming back from the dead (her tombstone says “She will rise again” for crying out loud) but I have hopes that Sean Cassidy may actually get to rest in peace.