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Death, Superheroes, And Comics On The Web

Spoiler warning

As anyone who has a TV, listens to the radio, or reads Websnark knows, Captain America is dead. At least for a little while. Comic death, especially super hero comic death, is a bit more negotiable than the genuine article. See Superman. Or Hal Jordan. Or even Reed Richards and Colossus.

This is less true in webcomics.

Sure the Tycho and Gabe kill each other regularly over at Penny Arcade, and that's pretty mutable, but in other comics, especially ones with dramatic arcs, death is a bit more final. It is unlikely Davan's mom is going to come back from the grave. Johnny Saturn is dead when he is introduced to us. Alternate world Zoey is pretty dead too. Seigfried is still dead, if still kicking about hell. Deaths in webcomics are usually supported by the fandom, and critically well thought off. They have meaning. There are fans of superhero comics, on the other hand, that would have them emulate comics on the web, or stay away from hero death altogether.

A good portion of the fandom is really upset about killing off the Cap, and some of that is just fan mourning. After all, when your hero gets killed, or even does something stupid, you get upset. People felt this way about Seigfried or the dog from For Better or for Worse too.

But other people have pretty much accused Marvel of pimping out their properties for a cheap short term buck at the cost of their legacies. I don't think that's fair. Yes, Marvel is hoping to cash in on this event, and yes I am sure the timing at the end of Civil War was as much about commerce as it was about dramatic effect (though I do think it was dramatic). A bigger reason things like this happen is that there are real weaknesses in the superhero genre itself, and those weakness force these kind of events to occur. As I see it, superhero comics fail to have meaningful deaths because they are are not creator owned/controlled, they have continuity shackles, and they started out as childrens pop culture artifacts, causing them to suffer with the growth of audience sophistication.

Creator ownership means that the creator of a character or set of characters are at the mercy not of a corporate bottom line, or a rotating set of editors, or a rogue hot writer, but just one man, the man that birthed them. When a creator kills off one of his babies, he has a damn good reason. When a guest writer kills someone off, it may just be for excitements sake, or becasuse he wantsa to explore something entirely foriegn to what the creator envisioned. And then the next guy may decide he wants to change it back. Or the owners may not care about vision but rather want to shake things up. In any event, most webcomics are creator owned, and most superhero comics are not. So death is going to be different. And less permanent.

The second and deeper problem is that superheros really exist in their core as an entertainment for children and young adults, and not just all children and young adults but mass audiences of children and young adults living in the 1930's to 1960's. That audience is gone. The people who read them are adults now, and the children and young adults who could read them are more sophisticated than and have more options than the kids they were originally written to target. This means that the sort of stories that they used to tell, even if fondly remembered by many long time readers, just aren't going to hold up. Adults without the light of nostalgia won't be interested. Kids will read manga that targets there interests. Superhero comics stories have to change. Become more sophisticated. And the truth is the with their extensive, long running continuity, fan investment, and grinding pamphlet a month pace sophistication there is going to be meaningless deaths. The comics can't get away from it. With a fixed set of characters with pretty much immutable personalities, their are few stories that can be covered. And story arcs that appear to have import are going to have a premium because the audience needs the sophistication. Story arcs that involve death or other appearance of serious change come at the top there. And in the long run it won't help because its not sophistication, but a veneer of sophistication.

As for solutions, I am not really sure. It is easy to see how superhero comics are one way with regards to death and webcomics (or really all independant comics) another, but implementing changes to give them webcomic's flexibility would be hard. Comic companies would have to be willing to give writers longer positions and editors more control, and share holders less. They would have to ease up on the contiuty demands that force ridiculous rebirths, and allow more one shot comic series involving the heros. And they would need to learn to reengage the youth market. And that means changing characters that the companies can't afford to change in the short run. I am not sure those things can happen. But don't blame Marvel for killing Captain America. It's the nature of the beast.

I agree with that too. Dee

I agree with that too. Dee G.A.A.K: Groovy Ass Alien Kreatures It's like The Goonies meets The Invaders from Mars. Updates on Mondays.

G.A.A.K: Groovy Ass Alien Kreatures It's like The Goonies meets The Invaders from Mars. Updates on Mondays.

TheDeeMan wrote:The worse

[quote=TheDeeMan]The worse thing that happened to comics is that it's elder statesmen, the Stan Lee's, etc, of the comic world left and were replaced by guys with "wouldn't it be cool if..." mentality. [/quote]I have a slightly different take on that. I think there have always been creators who worked with a "Wouldn't it be cool if ..." mentality.

What's changed is the fact that the stories created in that vein used to be slotted into an "Imaginary Tales" category. It was clear that they weren't supposed to effect whatever passed for continuity in those days. Today, apart from the occasional "Elseworlds" event, it's become the norm to try to shoe-horn everything into continuity, no matter how absurd, disruptive or out of character.

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

The only real meaningful

Fabricari's picture

The only real meaningful comic book death that I can recall is that of Cerebus. And there seemed to be very little hype from that moment in comic book history.


Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

It's a hell of a time for him to go....

what now toons's picture
Captain America, dead at 66. Co creator Joe Simon ( Jack Kirby co creator ) was quoted "It's a hell of a time for him to go. We really need him now,"
I am very impressed that the storyline deals with loosing our freedoms since 9-11, and Captain America's true to character, revulsions to this attack on our civil liberties. Wow. The Marvel house of Ideas has gained my respect again.
Yes we all know that super hero deaths are not permanent, clones, or a myriad of other resurrections are possible, but this super hero death is profound in the face of this new American Century, that has the PINAC group out to change it and the world. Make Mine Marvel.
I devoted this weeks cartoon to Cap, see it at my website.

Cartoons with a progressive edge

Cartoons with a progressive edge

Thank you, Scott. That has

Thank you, Scott. That has been the main problem with comics since the guys who made us want to read and create comics were surplanted by guys who'd read those same comics along with us, got the chance to create them, and tried to leave as big a mark on them as the guys who'd created them. Oh, excuse me, I forget to add--AND THEN THEY FUCKED UP THE COMICS WE ALL KNEW AND LOVED!!! More time is spent in comics now trying to undo what some idiot thinking he's the comic version of Tarentino did to a character or series. The worse thing that happened to comics is that it's elder statesmen, the Stan Lee's, etc, of the comic world left and were replaced by guys with "wouldn't it be cool if..." mentality. Dee G.A.A.K: Groovy Ass Alien Kreatures It's like The Goonies meets The Invaders from Mars. Updates on Mondays.

G.A.A.K: Groovy Ass Alien Kreatures It's like The Goonies meets The Invaders from Mars. Updates on Mondays.

Something not really

Scott Reed's picture

Something not really mentioned in all this, back 'in the day' some of the super hero comics were written by one writer, for years on end. I think that might be an important consideration, since these days it seems that titles change hands quite a lot, which might account for the sensationalistic approach. Every writer wants to impact these iconic characters, putting their personal stamp on them, 'forever changing their lives' etc. And then the next writer comes along a few issues later...

Good article, by the way.


Scott Reed

Scott Reedhttp://www.websbestcomics.comhttp://www.theovermancomic.com 

I do think this is part of the problem.

Erg's picture

It goes in line with the whole corporate ownership thing, that and the rise of celebrity creators.

Superhero comics aren't just for kids

Linda Howard Valentine's picture

I am sick of meaningless superhero uses and abuses as well, but I disagree vehemently that superhero comics en masse are only for kids and young adults. Making that kind of a broad generalization does a tremendous disservice to all the greats that are out there. When I look around my comics shop, I see a lot of themes that appeal to older adults as well -- you just have to look past the front shelf of Marvel to find them. There are a lot of superhero comics out there that aren't business as usual.

  • Captain America and Thor have long been two of my least-favorite superheroes of all time; yet I really love the way they re-envisioned them for The Ultimates.
  • Kurt Busiek's Astro City continues to be an amazing take on superheroes. I've given copies of all the AC graphic novel collections away to more adult friends than I can count. In one of the recent comics, the superhero Silver Agent (a clear reference to the "Silver Age" of comics) get arrested and found guilty of homicide, and sentenced to death. We know there will be no marvelous returns for him; earlier episodes have occasionally shown a statue to him in a park, with the words "To our eternal shame."
  • J. Michael Straczinski's Rising Stars is another wonderful superhero arc, executed with his usual style and skill. He takes an old standby of an origin - strange light comes to earth, giving people superpowers - and makes it new, interesting, and breathtaking.
  • Alan Moore's Top Ten superhero cop drama is also clever and fun to read. (I won't vouch for the episodes after he stopped writing them, however). One of the most poignant episodes takes place when Peregrine comforts two supers who have been fatally injured in a teleportation accident - hardly just kid stuff.
  • Just four years ago Jeff Loeb helped bring us Hush which, while not quite as awesome as his earlier The Long Halloween, was still very well done, with broad mass appeal and a very nice take on Batman.

It is true -- all of these comics take death more seriously than the overhyped death of Superman or even this more recent death. But they are out there. And this isn't to say that people don't come back from the dead in them; but when it happens, it's been scripted out for many issues ahead of time, which is why it feels real and not like a cheap trick.

It would be nice for the majors (X-Men in particular has been guilty of this) to wake up and stop feeding us the same tired plots, though. But there's hope; it's easy to turn it around with a little thought and skill. Superman's many incarnations have long felt trite to me in the series where he stars. But one cameo episode in Hitman #39 put him back on a pedestal in my eyes while making him infinitely more human at the same time.

I think you were missing my point.

Erg's picture

What I was saying, and you can feel free to disagree with me, is that superhero comics have historically, right up until around shortly after I was born (I am 24) been targetted to children. The trouble comics have now is that comics fans what to read the things as adults as they remember tham as children, and that just ain't gonna work because children aren't the same and the adults remembering aren't the same any more. And also because there is a limit to what you can explore in the superhero genre, period. And thanks to the plethora of monthlies in the genre, that limit is reached regularly. I don't think its easy to turen it around. The comics you mentioned were all concieved of with fresh characters, no continuity, and for adults. Regular Marvel and DC stand by's don't have that luxury. And I don't think the Ultimates, which is bogged down with old characters, works.


That said, I love Astro City and kinda like Rising Stars. I thought Hush was to rushed, I despise the Ultimates with fanboyish passion (honestly I have no great love for Millar in general), and have yet to read Top Ten because I am, well, not a big time print comics guy.

Another issue, in my mind...

Erg's picture

Is that there are just oo many superhero titles. Too many period, and too many for each character. This intense competition for a shrinking readership just feeds into the need for dramatic gestures and quickly uses up potential storylines for somewhat limited characters.

I liked what comic book

Joey Manley's picture

I liked what comic book writer Steven Grant said on this subject on the Engine:

"If you drop a lab rat into a cage with a piece of electrified cheese, eventually the rat with stop going for the cheese. Dropped in the same cage, the comics fan will not only never stop going for the cheese, he will eventually start getting pissed off if he doesn’t get the shock."


Brad Hawkins's picture

You know, I guess it shows how jaded I've become about the whole comic-book-death thing: I went to the comic shop, saw the latest issue of Cap, saw they'd put a sign on the shelf saying "Limit one per person," thought that was a little odd, bought the issue, and read it. Didn't think twice about the fact that Cap was shot and apparently killed. That's because I've been reading comics a long time, and know full well that the operative word is always "apparently."

The only thing that surprised me was finding this nonsense on news sites. A fictional character has been killed in a medium well-known for bringing back characters who are killed. This is news?

I'm thinking they must have

I'm thinking they must have been having a really slow news cycle.

I think half the issues of Spider-Man I own the audience is led to think that he's dead either at the beginning or by the end of the issue.

Well, it's everywhere now

It's seems spoiling is inevitable as it just hit the front page of the New York Times.

Changed it.

Erg's picture

Now there is a spoiler warning. Again I am sorry. Not exactly an auspicious start to my writing here at comixpedia. I will do my best to avoid such gaffe's in the future.

I am really sorry.

Erg's picture

I screwed that up. I should have put in a spoiler warning. You have my sincerest apologies.

Thanks for spoiling it for me.

Gordon McAlpin's picture

I don't listen to the radio or watch TV at my day job, I never read Websnark, and I've been avoiding all of the "Spoiler Warning" news items at comics news sites all day so that I could BUY THE COMIC BOOK AFTER WORK AND ACTUALLY READ IT, and then I get it blown for me here?

You couldn't have put it after the "read more"?

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