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Comicscape - June 30, 2004

Death's Revolving Door And How It Leeches Away Dramatic Effect

By Tony Whitt     June 30, 2004


The classic cover to UNCANNY X-MEN #137, the last stand of Cyclops and Phoenix on the surface of the moon.
© Marvel Comics


OPINION:



Before I embark on this column, I want to indulge in a bit of CYA: the ideas herein are not all that original, nor are they all my own. Firstly, I am not the first (nor will I be the last) comics critic to note that death is a far more mutable concept in comics than in just about any other medium well, except sci-fi and horror movies, perhaps. Secondly, this subject has been written on much more extensively by a commentator whose name I do not know but whose writings I have long admired on a web site called The Quarter Bin. I have no idea to this day who this individual is, but he (or she) has written essays on many of those characters who have come back from the dead under the rubric "The Revolving Door of Death" (a paraphrase, I understand, from Mark Waid) and lemme tell ya, boys and girls, this is the sort of writing I want to do when I grow up. So, that's the inspiration for this week's column though I hope I'll be adding something new (and arguable) to what has already been contributed by this excellent writer.



Since writing my glowing review of IDENTITY CRISIS #1,

AMAZING FANTASY #1.

I've been reading a lot of reviews by other comics critics who were anywhere from somewhat less impressed than I was to thoroughly disgusted by the whole affair. (I trust you know by now that Sue Dibney, the wife of the Elongated Man, was brutally murdered by an as-yet undisclosed villain, and that she was carrying Ralph's child at the time. If you didn't know that...well, now you do. Sorry.) One wrote that the revelation of Sue's pregnancy was little more than manipulation to make us feel more strongly about this character's death than we might have before. There's also been speculation out there that, had it been a hero who died instead of the loved one of a hero, it would have had a more profound impact.



Even though I liked the book, I have to somewhat agree with the first point, but I must totally disagree with the first. Ever since Proty gave his life to bring Lightning Lad back from the dead way back in 1963 (and possibly even before that), we've become inured to the notion that heroes never die they just take hiatuses. This isn't true of all heroes, of course, since we're probably never going to see an actual return of Bucky Barnes (and thank God for that), nor will Mar-Vell rejoin the living any time soon (despite any guest appearances he might make in the latest incarnation of CAPTAIN MARVEL). But it's happened often enough, and to some characters frequently enough, that were a hero to die, we'd have no cause to grieve we know that they'd be back somehow, someday. Sue Dibney, on the other hand, is enough of a minor character that we have every cause to believe that she (and her unborn child) will stay dead.



And yet, because of the effect those other non-deaths such as Superman, Jean Grey, Green Arrow (and soon, the Hal Jordan Green Lantern), Hawkman, and so on, we're also not that likely to care all that much about Sue's passing, either. We're pretty blasť about the concept of a hero dying, and that has a knock-on effect on how we view the deaths of minor characters, as well. Death has ceased to have as much of an emotional effect as it had before (whenever that "before" was), and thus the recent spate of deaths and rebirths aren't nearly so effective as they could (or should) have been.



Let's take Hal Jordan, for instance. I know, I know, he doesn't really count as "dead" because he's the Spectre (for the moment), but what other criteria for death do we have in a comics universe where death is but a doorway that swings both ways? When Hal died as a redeemed villain rather than as an esteemed hero, there was enough sufficient and never-ending uproar from long-time fans that we should have known Hal's demise was never destined to last. Even his "promotion" to the role of Spectre wasn't enough for many, suggesting that unless Hal Jordan was returned to the role of Green Lantern, than neither was worth a green apple (no pun intended). I still don't know the mechanics of precisely how Geoff Johns plans to return Hal Jordan to us, but I do know that, even for those who have argued for his return all these years, it's not going to have nearly the amount of emotional impact it would have had if death were as immutable a concept in the comics world as it is in our own.



The same goes for the recent re-demise of Jean Grey.

Cover to IDENTITY CRISIS #1.

No matter how beautifully done Grant Morrison managed to make Jean's second descent into the Underworld, it ultimately has about as much emotional impact as, say, hearing that Chris Kirkpatrick of N-Sync is going back to wearing dreadlocks. It feels less like the send-off of a popular character who, as we all know had a far more affecting send-off years ago, before it was screwed up, too and more like a plot device specifically designed to allow Scott Summers and Emma Frost to hook up long enough for Jean to re-return from the grave and catch them in the act. Granted, now that Joss Whedon holds the reins on that particular book, such a return might hold far more interest for us than it did before but that doesn't mean we don't still think of her return as inevitable as Dubya stumbling over long words in speeches.



Another recent character death that of Harbinger in the otherwise excellent SUPERMAN/BATMAN series had even less of an impact, and not just because the character was so minor as to be almost invisible to the naked eye. I believe Jeph Loeb could kill off even an annoying character like Lobo and make us weep bitterly at the loss, but only if we had the ability to feel it as a loss in the first place. And we wouldn't. In Harbinger's case, the pendulum could swing either way: either she could be brought back eventually, in which case her death has as little effect as any other death we've ever seen; or she could stay dead, which would affect us little one way or the other but which would give the Powers That Be even more justification to keep that revolving door of death spinning. Imagine the response the next time a major character bites the bullet and then spits it back out: "So what if we killed Wonder Woman and brought her back? Harbinger's still dead, isn't she? Jason Todd's still dead, isn't he? Barry Allen's still dead, isn't he?"



And speaking of dead characters who stay dead, let's talk about Barry Allen and other "unreviveables" for a moment. It's all well and good to kill a character off with the idea of leaving him dead, but it's another thing altogether to kill that character off and have him keep coming back for guest appearances from beyond the grave. I'm most likely getting the amount of times Barry's returned to say something or other wrong, but it doesn't it feel like he's been back an awful lot? His last return in FLASH #200 at very least had the merit of leading to some surprisingly major changes in Wally West's life but it also allowed him to drop the first hint that Hal would be coming back, and those "surprisingly major changes" were soon unsurprisingly undone, anyway. Barry's death during the CRISIS was a major event, but it becomes less and less so every single time he returns to impart some knowledge like the royal Dane addressing Hamlet from the grave.



Supergirl's recent "return" in SUPERMAN/BATMAN was no

Is this the death of Aunt May? Gullible, ain't ya? Cover to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #400.

big surprise, either, given that she's already made a similar "return" in the Peter David series of the same name. And didn't we all think she would, anyway? The impact of her death in the CRISIS was every bit as great as that of Barry Allen, but that dramatic effect has been diminished in the years since by the idea that, since she never "existed," anyway, she could be brought back into the DCU with a minimum of fuss and virtually no continuity reshuffling. I'm just as glad as any to see her with us, even sans Supergirl outfit (that means clothed in other outfits, not naked, you sick little monkeys), but the effect is diminished because of the event's inevitability. Characters simply don't stay dead, especially if they're heroes.



And now it looks

The classic cover to UNCANNY X-MEN #137, the last stand of Cyclops and Phoenix on the surface of the moon.

like there might be precedent to bring even Sue Dibney and other secondary characters back, if it's up to J. Michael Straczynski and the crew on the other side of the carpet at Marvel or should I say "even more"? The latest issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN features Peter Parker getting what appears to be a delayed letter from the long-departed Gwen Stacy, until he checks the postmark and discovers it was sent not very long ago. While part of us may be thinking, "Oh, wow, JMS might be bringing Gwen back," the other part is thinking, "Oh, god, not this again." The last time we got a return of Gwen Stacy, we also got all that clone crap. As great a writer as JMS is, even he couldn't redeem the madness that was the Clone Saga provided that's the direction he's going in. Either way, it still doesn't have as much an impact dramatically as it could or should because it's what we've come to expect.



We've even already seen a hero's spouse killed in a horrific way by a supervillain and then brought back to life. Remember how Professor Zoom killed Iris Allen by vibrating his fingers into her skull and scrambling her grey matter in FLASH #275? When I read that story as a nine-year old in 1979, it had impact. By the time I found out later that Iris, having been born in the 30th century, had been "saved" because she couldn't die before she was actually born (don't ask), I'd come back to comics just after Superman had been revived and the whole Hal Jordan-Parallax debacle had gone down. In other words, I was neither surprised nor shocked instead, it was all I could do to hold back a yawn.



Thus, because we'd had such a long history of characters cheating death, it's hard to really feel the same sense of

Cover to NEW X-MEN #150.

loss over Sue Dibney that we would over, say, an acquaintance in the real world. To some, that's a given Sue Dibney is, after all, a fictional character, and we'd never expect to feel as strongly about such a character's demise as we would that of someone we knew. But tell those few people who hadn't heard the rumors that Spock would be returning from the grave when they saw the end of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN that they shouldn't feel so strongly over a fictional character, and that "given" loses some of its axiomatic strength. We identify with these characters, or else we wouldn't keep reading comics. We also care what happens to them up to a point. But even with the higher element of "risk" we've been told that IDENTITY CRISIS will introduce into the DC Universe, it's hard to imagine it'll make us feel any stronger about any character's deaths especially as we've never been allowed to feel all that strongly about them before.



I'm sure that others will disagree with me, or that even those who agree will have their own take on the issue, so send your ideas about Death's revolving door to me via the web site contact address here or to me directly. And remember, if you should happen to make reference to a title of a comic series please use CAPS when giving the title. I do the HTML coding on this column every week, and having the titles in caps already makes my life much easier. Finally, as always, don't forget our discussion boards! I honestly don't know what I'm writing about next week, but if you have any ideas, let me know! Now, here are the titles you can expect on the shelves today:




THIS WEEK:



Marvel

Matt Wagner's cover to BATMAN #629.

offers some kid-friendly well, teen-friendly fare this week as they ship out the MARY JANE 2 hardcover novel for $14.99 and launch AMAZING FANTASY #1 with a brand-new character called...Spider-Girl?! Hey, wait a minute...



Or, if you've got younger kids who you don't want to confuse with the fact there's now two Spider-Girls, you can buy them the KIDS' WB! JAM PACKED ACTION! VOL 1 (dang, that's a lot of exclamation marks) for $7.99, or go with the truly action-packed TEEN TITANS GO! #8. The older ones might just be interested in the ELFQUEST: THE GRAND QUEST-VOL 3 trade paperback for $9.95, too if they can ever get it away from you, that is.



Also more appropriate for adults than children (but only just) is Dark Horse's STEVE RUDE: THE MOTH #3. Just don't let it near your sweaters.



Wildstorm fans will be shelling out the bucks this week and not just to buy back Micah Wright's good reputation to grab Kurt Busiek's ARROWSMITH: SO SMART IN THEIR FINE UNIFORMS trade paperback for $14.95; the PLANETARY VOL 3: LEAVING THE 20TH CENTURY hardcover for $24.95, which covers #s 13-18 of the series; and the appropriately named SLEEPER SEASON TWO #1 (Of 12). Appropriate as in television series start up every year with "seasons," and this is no less than film in comics form. Seriously.



Meanwhile there's trouble brewing for the team in AVENGERS/THUNDERBOLTS #5 (Of 6) (and no, I don't mean between Busiek and Nicieza, silly people), while the AVENGERS VOL 4: LIONHEART OF AVALON trade paperback for $11.99 is trouble.



After having a quiet discussion with the "old" Robin last week in the eponymous series, Cassandra gets to work with the new one in BATGIRL #53. (Sure, people get all worked

Cover to JLA #100.

up over Kyle Rayner "stealing" Hal Jordan's ring, but do they give a toss about poor Tim Drake? Heck, no.) In the meantime, the Bat himself deals with his own fears in BATMAN #629, though not by choice; BATMAN: HARLEY & IVY #3 (Of 3) sees the Dire Duo's partnership come to an end (like I'm giving anything away there); and CATWOMAN: NINE LIVES OF A FELINE FATALE, released to coincide with the movie that has nothing to do with this character, features nine different stories (and nine different versions!) of everyone's favorite feline female for $14.95. (Dang, that's a lot of f's...!)



A new story arc featuring drag queens, porn stars, and afros begins in CAPER #9 (Of 12). (It is Judd Winick, after all...)



John Byrne's up to his old tricks in DOOM PATROL #1. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to DC...



Image presents Eric Shanower's version of the Trojan War in the AGE OF BRONZE VOL 2: SACRIFICE hardcover for $29.95...in black and white?? For thirty bucks, I'd want color, artistic integrity or no artistic integrity, and Eisner Award be damned! Of course, if you want color, there's always Ron Marz's THE DARKNESS: VOL. II #12 and if features dragons! Green ones! Whoo hoo!



Speaking of Ron Marz and green things and people, GREEN LANTERN #178 features both, as Kyle faces his most dangerous foe, a lady called Fatality. Well, aren't they all, when it comes right down to it? (Uh-oh, there goes my female readership...)



There's something concerning a lost Himalayan temple this week in IRON FIST #4. Go figure.



Meanwhile, in a transparent ploy to get people to read it, RICHARD DRAGON #2 features Nightwing. Oh, ok, I know, that was unfair...I know you read every single thing Chuck Dixon writes.



Tony's still in the midst of a mission for his boss yes, that guy to recover documents from Avengers Mansion in IRON MAN #85. Surely Bush could've gotten them under the Patriot ACT or something?



In a

Cover to ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #8.

ground-breaking and expensive! - JLA #100, we witness the return of the Elite, a group ready to show the JLA how it should really be done. "It" must mean selling issues after the mess Claremont and Byrne left behind. Anyway, it's $3.50, so make sure to plan skipping your lunch at Subway tomorrow.



Frank Castle continues his battle against two rival gangs in Hell's Kitchen in THE PUNISHER #8. And Daredevil hasn't shown up yet? I should start taking bets for when he does...



Keith Champagne begins his run on THE LEGION with issue #34, in which the Weaponers of the anti-matter universe Qward abduct Wildfire as they're the only ones who can, really.



POWERLESS #1 (Of 6) is based on the premise that the heroes of the Marvel Universe would still have been heroes if they hadn't gotten the powers that made them superheroes. Yup, it's a Marvel Elseworlds story either that, or the return of WHAT IF, which would be just as welcome, I say.



Vertigo offers only two treats this week, but boy are they something! MIDNIGHT MASS: HERE THERE BE MONSTERS comes to an end with #6 (Of 6), and ON THE ROAD TO PERDITION-BOOK 3: DETOUR is available for the unbelievably low price of $7.95. But only if you skip Subway two days this week. Jared may be able to afford comics and eating at Subway every day, but he has a spokesman's contract and has to make silly commercials. You don't.



Deep breath, Spider-fans! In SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #16 we get the conclusion of the singularly confusing "Royal Flush" two-parter featuring Cap, which (surprise!) is part of the lead-up to "Avengers: Disassembled"; those of you who just can't bear the thought of standing in line tonight at the movies can cheat with the SPIDER-MAN 2 MOVIE ADAPTATION for $3.50; the SPIDER-MAN: DEATH OF GWEN STACY trade paperback for $12.99 reminds us what could have happened in the first movie and didn't; and SPIDER-MAN/DOCTOR OCTOPUS: YEAR ONE #2 (Of 5) shows us just how much people can muck up a character when they attempt to ascribe all his current badness to previous psychoses. (Obviously I read it. Obviously I didn't like it. Mini-review ended.)



Look, if all the changes in the Superman titles confuses you that much, pick up the SUPERMAN: SECRET FILES 2004 for $4.95. I sure as hell can't help you.



The

The CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS claimed its share of casualties, including the then Supergirl, Superman's cousin Kara.

team continues its teething pains in ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #8 nothing compared to the pains Victor Van Damme must be experiencing, I'll bet while in ULTIMATE X-MEN #48, the answer to the mystery of all those mutant deaths is revealed. Look, ma no Y: THE LAST MAN jokes this time!



And finally, while the ultimate buddy movie turned comic continues in WOLVERINE/PUNISHER #4 (Of 5), the Avengers and X-Statix continue to pummel each other in X-STATIX #24. If only Doop has waited a few more months to go to pieces, the Avengers would have gone to pieces, too, and the team wouldn't have to go through all this...Oh, well...



And if you're just sick of comics this week, go see FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Even if you're Republican. Especially if you're Republican. Later!




Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think by e-mailing us here!

Comicscape is our weekly Comics column.


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