Friday, July 8, 2011

From Noble Death to Lazy Execution

Editor's Note: Today Matt Linkous finishes Wednesday's DeathJerked article with a look how death in comics encourages bad stories. - Jim

Why is this whole cycle of death in comics bad? Because it promotes lazy storytelling. Got a sales slump? No problem. Just kill a hero in hastily conceived death scene to bump up sales! It doesn't have to be this way. The transition from Barry Allen to Wally West, let Wally step into the role and grow from a teen sidekick into a great hero in his own right. As that was one of the first great deaths in comics, it was well planned and sat well with readers for generations. The imagery of Barry withering into a skeleton may have been a bit much, but it had impact.

On the flip side, the transition from Hal Jordan to Kyle Rayner, was a bit rockier. Getting into Kyle's story involved swallowing the bitter pill of your favorite Green Lantern becoming a psycho super villain who offed members of the Green Lantern Corp, which itself had now been taken completely out of the equation. To bring Hal back, we had to find out that he wasn't really responsible for that because he was possessed by a big yellow spacebug the whole time.

Even to enjoy Jaime Reyes as Blue Beetle you have to accept Max Lord's character being completely changed into a murderous villain who'd shoot Ted Kord, in the face, on camera. The reasons for death (and by extension, the planning and writing of them) have become weaker and weaker. Most recently, we've seen  examples of this with the Wasp losing control of her powers and blowing up, (How's that work exactly?) and Captain America getting shot coming down courthouse stairs. (Because no one has ever thought to draw a gun on Captain America in close quarters before.)

Is it really that difficult to come up with more elegant solutions for writing out old characters? A good writer should always have a way to let the previous incarnation return that doesn't call for yanking them out of the great beyond in some absurd, convoluted fashion. Yet, more often than is necessary, retcons and revamps are built on flimsy plot contrivances like Punching the wall of reality or saying "It's magic, we can do anything..."

Speaking as the kind of guy that did not want to see Steve Rogers killed off, I think I can say most fans of a classic superhero character don't have a real desire to take someone else's hero away from them. Especially not in this age when such deaths are seen as the vulgar money grabs they are. Also, we all know the heroes will eventually return, so what other reason is there for such badly written stories than to goose sales for a month or two?

If nothing else, if it is decided by editorial that a superhero icon must be retired, then at the very least write that hero out with dignity and respect in a way that speaks to everything that character meant to readers. In other words, make it a proper passing of the torch that ushers in the new hero's era. The publisher has to actually commit to the change. This would be far better, I think, than resorting to the vicious cycle of publishers effectively saying, "These ain't your daddy's comics no more! ... no, wait, come back, we're sorry."

That ultimately just results in jerking around both old and new fans alike.

Have a great weekend,

- Matt


Trey said...

I think fans bear much of the blame. If the comic book reading public stopped being gimmick deaths or gimmicks of other sorts, companies would stop doing them. The hardcore pool of fans still in comics seem to prefer "buy and bitch" to "not buy" though.

Reno said...

When I was a kid, I liked Flash and green Lantern, they had very cool powers. But when I reached high school and college, I found Barry and Hal to be one-dimensional and boring. I was sad to see them both die, but their replacements (Wally and Kyle) were much better character-wise. Was it a product of the times Barry and Hal were written in? I'd have to say no, since re-reading the revived Barry and Hal, I still found them to be quite one-dimensional and bland(especially Hal).

I guess what I'm saying is that if the deaths of characters pave the way to much better iterations of them, then comics creators and companies should just leave well enough alone.

JimShelley said...

@Trey - I think there is actually a larger contingent who "don't buy and bitch" based on emails I get. However, apparently enough fans fit your category to keep sales from taking a cliff dive when things changes.

@Reno - What I'm wondering is why can't the companies just have both versions at the same time? Back in the 70's we had both Hal Jordan and a young John Stewart and everybody was happy. I don't think it's necessary to kill one version to introduce a new one.

MattComix said...

^ Well they're kind of doing that now in GL where you have Hal, Kyle, Guy, and John as all active GL's. Though I do think this has the problem of diluting the whole Green Lantern of Sector 2814 thing.

The immediate modern editorial answer would be to have them slaughtered with only one remaining to angst about it in a 35 part crossover. But as I said in my article surely there are more elegant ways to write these guys out that are respectful to the characters themselves and wouldn't involve gore tactics, cheap stunts, and making death a revolving door.

JP Cote said...

I was reading DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore and I started to ask myself, what makes people think of Alan Moore as a great writer? Now, I love his original works such as Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Tom Strong is pretty good. Looking specifically at his DC stuff though what hits me is just the level of violence and the prominence of death in his stories compared to the time period they were written in. As an example, "The Killing Joke" has such a level of violence to it I wonder if it is more shock value than a good story. In the Vigilante story, the bad guy is murdered by having the front tires of a car rip him apart while the parking break is on. In "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" (non-canonical of course but still) the deaths come fast and furious. These are but a couple of examples from a major award winning writer. So where does his work sit in the context of these discussions? Is it important, influential writing or just a guy taking advantage of the times and using the shock value of violence and sex to advance or improve what would otherwise be great ideas but mediocre storytelling? Noble, ground breaking work or lazy writing?

MattComix said...

@JP Cote. "Noble, ground breaking work or lazy writing?"

Moore has more genuine chops as writer than many who have followed trying to ride his beard, but I'd call lazy writing. It's easy to tear superheroes down or point and say they aren't realistic. It's easy to take your colorful childhood icons and basically make a horror movie out of them.

I remember reading that Joe Quesada came up to Alan Moore at a con gushing about how what Marvel was doing was being modeled on Watchmen to which more responded "..why?"

So in fairness I think at the end of the day Moore never intended anything he did with DC to be a style-guide/holy gospel for the entire industry.

cash_gorman said...

I think Moore is often a good writer, but is hampered by his desire to bring in various sexual issues combined with meta-fictional fixations in almost everything he writes, many times to the detriments of the stories. LoEG has been completely derailed by it to the point it's practically a caricature of Moore's style, I actually checked the credits to see if 1910 was written by him, it was so weak. I found even at the time his "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" to be very derivative and cliched, in keeping with many "final issues" or "episodes" where everything and the status quo changes just because the writers no longer have to worry about the next issue or episode following.

For all the violence of The Killing Joke, what makes it work is that it's ultimately about Commissioner Gordon. The Joker is trying to justify himself by breaking Gordon, only Gordon doesn't break. He's put through about the worst that can happen to him, and he doesn't break, he doesn't seek to kill the Joker, to become a monster.

But, I think Moore has gotten away from the humanity of the characters, and many of the following writers only saw the fetishes, sex lives and violent aspects of his work and thought that's what made it genius. So today's comics are a lot more adult, but a lot less sophisticated and mature.


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