Let’s talk death.
My grandmother died a few weeks ago. Over the last few few years she’d been lost in a fog of dementia, so to me her passing felt more like a release for her than a tragic injustice. However, my family and I, as we had done when my grandfather had died three years earlier, were forced to once again cope with our own mortality. We had to set aside our many diversions and focus our attention back to that ugly truth that follows us everywhere while we do everything we can not to look at it.
Humans spend their lives trying to forget that one day their self-awareness will come to an end. For many artists, coping with this truth has lead to a brilliant repertoire that lived on long after they were gone. This is why after the week of my grandmother’s passing, my idea for a column was to compile a list of comic books that deal with death and bring solace to those in morning.
It seemed like a fine idea at first. I remember that a few days after my grandfather died, the professor in my screenwriting class brought in “American Beauty.” I remember not previously thinking much of the film, but upon watching it in the context of having recently lost a loved one, I was profoundly moved.
Through art, we are able to confront and overcome our grief and our fear of death. My favorite film director, Woody Allen, has consistently used his fear of death to create some of the most poignant and beautiful works of art that I know of. Seeing how artists are able to deal with death helps to remind us that we are not alone in our fears, and it helps us to reconnect with each other on a human level. It reminds us that in this chaotic universe of noise and fire and pain, all we really have is each other.
But comic books don’t serve this function. On Nov. 23, Marvel released a comic book called Fantastic Four #600, in which Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, returned from his apparent death, an event that occurred only 10 months prior. His death was widely believed to be yet another cheap storytelling gimmick, a way for Marvel to sell more books as the status quo on one of their most important titles was drastically changed and then reversed back to normal. There was so much “he’s not really dead” buzz around his death that I honestly think the most shocking thing about this story would be if anyone actually believed it to be a permanent change.
As any casual reader of comic books could tell you, the Torch isn’t the only superhero to brush off death like a bit of dirt on his shoulder. In addition to Johnny Storm, Marvel this year also deep-sixed Captain America (Bucky Barnes) and Spider-Man (Ultimate Peter Parker). Cap’s death was dropped as soon as the “Fear Itself” crossover event that caused it had ended, making it the second time that the character has returned from the dead as well as the second time a Captain America has shuffled back on his mortal coil. While Ultimate Spider-Man’s death has yet to be reversed (at the rate Bendis writes, it could be in the cards but we won’t see it happen for about 6 or 7 years), his death was handled boringly enough to suggest that it could have been done with the knowledge that it would only be temporary.
Over at Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, nearly everyone has taken at least one dirt nap. Batman died, but it was only a trip through time while his supposed corpse was revealed to be that of a clone. Superman died in the 90s but it was only a hibernation period for his body to heal and prepare a properly kick ass mullet. Flash is back from the dead. Green Lantern is back from the dead. The second Robin is back from the dead. Superboy is back from the dead. Martian Manhunter is alive again. The JLA is mainly comprised of zombies at this point. It’s ludicrous. No one takes it seriously anymore.
I know we can easily give it a pass and say that these are fictional characters and if we want these stories to continue for another 40 or 50 years, we have to eventually set everything back to the way it was. We can even get kinda deep with it and say that the superhero represents the qualities in us that are eternal, and can triumph over anything, even death. Or we can just be straight up about the whole thing and say, “look these are kids’ stories, no one dies in kids’ stories. Go watch Schindler’s List if you need to be all bummed out about death and stuff.”
Those are all fine ways to rationalize these stories, but to me that is selling comics short. My whole life my favorite medium has been sequential art (sequart, if you will… a term I just thought of just now completely on my own…), and I have always gone to comics first when I needed to be uplifted or inspired. If these characters are constantly playing hopscotch with their own grave, it cheapens just about everything they do after that. If they don’t have anything to fear, then it’s hard for me to care about them. If they’re going to experience loss, I want to see them experience real loss, the way Spider-Man did decades ago when he lost Gwen Stacy, and I want to see them face their fear and beat it.
Making death meaningless to them just makes them significantly less meaningful as characters. And while it might allow Marvel and DC a chance to make a few more bucks that month, the credibility that these characters lose can never be bought back.
So I don’t have a “best of” list for comics that help you morn. Go watch American Beauty, go watch Stardust Memories. Listen to some Radiohead. When it comes to this most universal, most fundamental of all fears, the superheroes have failed us.