Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pulp Hero Guide to Good Comics 3: Death Be Proud!

I was pontificating on the state of culture, as is my wont, and mainly because I don't have the financial resources to ignore it/create my own, and it occurred to me that the critical loss of subtlety in death within comic book stories is a problem.

Now, for the uninitiated, comic books and the death of characters is nothing new. Some of the pinnacal moments of comic book history revolves around major character deaths, such as Captain Marvel dying of cancer, the Dark Phoenix suicide in UNCANNY X-MEN, the accidental neck-snapping of Gwen Stacy in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, the brutal death of Elektra in DAREDEVIL. These were watershed moments in which readers were given the possibility of death and then had it paid off. Of course, being comics, the characters all returned from the dead, diluting the power of the original story in which they met their fate. This is because the American culture is creatively bankrupt.

However, death in comic books had only begun to get cranked up. As rare as death was in comics prior to the 1980s, all of that went out the window with the adultification of comics. As the older readers stayed on, reading and more importantly influencing the content, comics grew darker, grimmer, more violent and sexualized. Seeing Conan the Barbarian hack some dude's head off in the black and white magazine SAVAGE TALES was a special treat in the 1970s; by 1985, entire worlds were being swallowed in mass extinction by anti-matter in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, by DC Comics.

And the specific character deaths, in that series, of the Flash (Barry Allen) and Supergirl (who cares) were the sobering identifiers for the readers that "comics aren't just for kids!"

I was about 16 when this mentality took hold of comics, and I for one was glad: Now, I reasoned, the rest of the world would read comic books and take them as seriously as I did. Because comic books were important, they were unique, and no one knew it. I didn't know, of course, that "comics aren't just for kids!" meant no one would ever read comic books again except adults. Who knew that was coming? Maybe the talented people working on the comics, like John Byrne, who was a superstar of the 1980s and pretty much saw exactly where superhero comics were heading. I'm sure those that respected and loved the medium were horrified.

Death exists in comic books, but the poignancy of death, like the poignancy of love, is lost beneath the imagery of violence and sex. Two aspects of human existence, by the way, which I have no problem with contextually. Superhero comic books starring Batman and Superman contextually do not need overt violence and sex, and yet their books are rife with it. To an adult, it's just another dumbing down of the overall quality of comic books. To someone looking for a new experience by reading comics, they see nothing but the violence and sex. Who does that draw to comics? Yes, the adult, longtime reader expecting to find violence and sex.

My issue is that violence is not death, in fictional terms...violence in superhero comics should be scaled to the genre...meaning, a hero punches a villain through a wall, but there's no ordinary guy sitting on the other side of that wall who is instantly killed. That is a long-standing "understanding" between the reader and the comic book. Collateral damage in superhero comics is just not done, generally. It isn't necessary to show the shocking loss of life that would occur "in the real world," since the superhero comic is not the real world.

Superhero violence has become more gory and grotesque as the readers have aged...after all, comics are in competition with other media. And death, the natural byproduct of "real" violence, has become cheap as well. The convention of the superhero story no longer has room for "shorthand" of the superhumanly strong superhero "pulling his punches" to keep from killing his weaker opponent. Only by skill and the grace of the gods does the weaker character escape, and yet lost is the drama of survival beneath an avalanche of horror. Bleeding mouths, gored lips, tattered flesh have replaced the old artist shorthand of crosshatches to indicate bruising and the ripped cape.

Comics taught me valuable lessons when I was growing up in the 1970s, one of which involved death. Death was not alien to comic book superheroes, they lost girlfriends and friends and family. It did happen. They lost loved ones because death is a part of living in this world, as immutable and inescapable as the oxygen in our lungs. I was prepared for death by witnessing death in comic books. I believe the power of the Universal Horror Monsters, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man and Dracula, touched on the bizarre character flaw of having died and still...life continuing on. It was a kind of subtle hope to all of us kids who watched those movies, who read the comics. Survival was not impossible, defying death had drawbacks like becoming a blood-thirsty beast or ghoul, and death was never the answer as justice. The hero did not kill because it was the natural thing to do. Humanity is about rising above inherent savagery, at least in superhero fiction, which has always been about the ideals of humanity, the testing of the will of the hero a lesson for all of us. Especially as read and perceived by punk kids like we all were. Death in comics prepared us for death in life, because it was an approximation of death, a lesson about how to behave in the face of the unknown.

So, for my money, comic books are too busy with their preoccupation with violence and sexuality to worry much about death, except to understand death as a byproduct easily solved by the conventions of the comic book...no one ever truly dies in comics. But this is an attitude which has unfortunately colored the ultra-violent acts as well, making them byproducts of an ignorance of ethical behavior. Within the superhero comic book, the questions of the unknown have been replaced by the unethical, which means no one has to "feel" the death, only the gruesome pain of disfigurement and the titillation of the exposed female mammary. Death as byproduct, and an increasingly jaded readership, stands in for the ethics of the audience, and it's a very poor replacement.

No comments: