Monday, January 24, 2011

A Fantastic Fatality

With the release of Fantastic Four #587 (in stores Tuesday), one of the members of Marvel Comics' First Family will perish in the concluding issue of the storyline titled "Three." I'm pretty sure that Reed Richards has already died before and returned and whoever bites it this time (my bet is on The Human Torch) will probably be back within a year or so but I say this with no sense of cynicism.

Yes, death in comics has been utilized as an attention-grabbing stunt since the famous Death of Superman storyline back in 1992 (an event that Marvel is recalling with FF #587 by shipping the issue in sealed plastic bags with a "3" logo on it, in the same way that Superman #75 originally came packaged in black bags with a blood-red Superman "S") but I say: "what's wrong with grabbing some attention?"

The most common complaint about these high-profile, heavily-hyped deaths is that they never prove to be permanent. Superman eventually returned; Batman recently died and has just come back. The same goes for Captain America. A more dedicated follower of the X-Men franchise could tell you how many times Jean Grey aka Phoenix has been killed and resurrected but I'm guessing the number on that must be creeping towards the double-digits. With all these death-defying comebacks, the gripe is that because these characters don't stay dead that the death is meaningless - that, essentially, the reader has been ripped off. I say that's bullshit. I think that attitude mostly comes from the investor mentality - fans who jump to buy these "death" issues because of the imagined value they think these issues will have only to have the character's return thwart that.

Personally, I enjoy these storylines. The normal rules of mortality don't apply to superheroes and that's part of their appeal. Even the street-level hero Frank Castle aka The Punisher recently died (torn to pieces by Wolverine's sociopathic son Daken) only to be resurrected as a Frankenstein-esque monster (in a truly gonzo arc dubbed, naturally, "Franken-Castle") before becoming whole again.

That's the kind of story that's uniquely suited to the anything-goes world of comics. So why not take advantage of that? Punisher writer Rick Remender really ran with that unlikely plotline and it was a great read from start to finish, taking Frank Castle on a truly wild journey.

FF writer Jonathan Hickman has been weaving a complex run on the book so far and based on that I feel safe in saying that "Three" and its resulting fallout won't be an act of hackery. In comics, it's just the name of the game that a character's death will only be the halfway point of the story.

Even the recently deceased Brother Voodoo won't be gone for good.

Well, actually...that's one death that might stick for awhile.

Sorry, Brother. R.I.P.


Bob Ignizio said...

My big problem with the "death of a hero" storylines is the cynical nature of a lot of them. When you run out of ideas, just kill someone. It's a mindset that is taken to its logical conclusion over at Marvel's Ultimate line, where they seem determined to kill as many of their big names as possible, and permanently, just to show how edgy and unpredictable they are. First most of the X-Men bought it, now they're apparently gearing up to take out Spider-Man.

That said, I agree with you that Hickman's run on Fantastic Four has been superb so far. He brought back a real sense of sci-fi wonder and fun to the title, and that's stayed even as the stories have gotten darker. As someone who doesn't read every comic out there, I also really appreciate that he's kept his run on FF essentially self contained. So for all those reasons, he gets the benefit of the doubt from me.

Jeff Allard said...

I also don't buy every comic out there so when a book is self-contained (or at least reasonably so), I'm all for it. I definitely am intrigued by Hickman's run and I've been liking it even more since Steve Epting has come aboard as the book's artist.

As for the Ultimate line, I'm hoping that Brian Bendis will tell a good story with the upcoming death of Ult. Spidey as he's delivered an exceptionally good (and exceptionally long!) run on the book. But the Ultimatium mini-series where Marvel unleashed mass slaughter on the line was terrible. But it was also masterminded by Jeph Leob, the worst hack in comics, so there you go. I think it all comes down to who's telling the story.

Unknown said...

Ah, I remember the hype that swirled around the death of Robin at the hands of the Joker. That sure made DC a lot of money and put them back in the mainstream media eye but then what?

Personally, I found it much more disturbing what Joker did to Barbara Gordon in THE KILLING JOKE than Robin getting killed.

Jeff Allard said...

It's a tough call as to which is more disturbing - a woman raped and crippled or a boy beat to death with a crowbar. Aren't comics fun?

Personally, I thought both the above-mentioned incidents went a little too far for mainstream comics (the Robin death might've been more unsettling just for the morbid stunt of having readers vote for his death). Killing Joke is, of course, brilliantly written like everything else from Moore but I kind of feel it was beneath his talent. Even Moore himself has expressed regret over it.

As for the (fleeting) publicity that these kind of stories generate, I think it's fair play on the part of comic companies - especially these days when it's harder and harder to compete against other forms of entertainment. Sometimes these stories are what brings new readers in or old readers back to the fold so as long as they're well-written, I think it's all good.

Sarah said...

I remember reading or hearing on a podcast recently that having an investor sort of mentality for comics is what killed comics, at least in the 90s, and one shouldn't bother trying to see them as collectors items anymore. I think Spawn was the given example.

I'm very picky about what superhero comics I pay attention to when I do have money to buy comics with (which hasn't been for months). But just listening to comics-oriented podcasts makes me remember why I don't really keep up much with them. Batman in particular has been in a crazy bizarro journey since his death last year. He's apparently been a caveman, cowboy, pirate, and a noir detective or something. What this will have to do with his current or eventual return, I don't know.

Jeff Allard said...

Don't get me started on the state of Batman comics these days, Sarah! They seem to be selling just fine so they must appeal to somebody but all the nonsense you cited made me swear off the Bat-books altogether. Way too much mysticism, sci-fi, and other fantastical concepts for me. I like my Batman tales to be gritty (well, as gritty as stories about a grown man dressing like a bat can be) and until it gets back to that sensibility, I'm out.

As for FF #587, I've read the issue and give it a thumbs-up. Hickman knows what he's doing on the book and I'm sticking with it as long as he's calling the shots.

Bob Ignizio said...

Jeff, you should check out Detective and the main Batman comic. It's Dick Grayson wearing the cowl, but it's classic, back to basics Batman. Apparently Bruce Wayne is off starting Batman franchises around the world in a couple of new Bat titles, which I refuse to read. I do, however, read J. H. Williams III's 'Batwoman', which has the best art in mainstreams comics, hands down. Also kind of a neat horror vibe just beneath the surface. I think her book starts regular publication in February.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Bob. I'd heard some good things about Detective so maybe I'll check it out. And I'm with you on the disdain for the notion of "Batman, Inc." It flies in the face of Batman being a dark avenger of the night if he's now a global franchise, like the McDonald's of vigiliantism.