Death Panels: Does Mortality Matter in Superhero Comics?
Last week's Uncanny Avengers, by Rick Remender and Steve McNiven, killed off a whole bunch of characters. The last issue of Avengers Arena, by Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker, came out the same day with that book's final death tally. It was a good day for funeral directors in the Marvel universe.
The deaths in these two titles ran the gamut from newly minted minor characters seemingly created just so they could die to major Marvel heroes with substantial fanbases and decades of history. Does that distinction matter in a genre that takes such a light view of death?
Spoilers for Uncanny Avengers and Avengers Arena follow.
Avengers Arena was a controversial book because it was premised on death. It was explicitly a superhero version of Battle Royale, which pitted sixteen young heroes against each other in a tournament to the death. From the outset, Hopeless and Walker sought to establish that the entire cast was expendable.
Audience response was predictably intense even before the first issue came out. Fans of Avengers Academy and Runaways (which provided a chunk of the cast) expressed their displeasure in clear terms, threatening boycotts, demanding cancellation, saying they would walk away from Marvel forever if their favorite characters bit the big one.
Two characters died in the first two issues -- Mettle, a character with fans from Avengers Academy, and Red Raven, an obscurity who enjoyed less than half a dozen appearances in twenty years. Mettle heroically sacrificed himself to underline the idea that anyone could die. Red Raven died stupidly and accidentally, a redshirt, to cement the impression that death could come easy.
That turned out not to be the case, and Hopeless and Walker seemed almost as sentimental and protective of their characters as the audience that reflexively rejected the book. For most of the eighteen issue run the death tally didn't get above five characters. When the last issue ended there were still only five confirmed deaths out of a cast of sixteen. That's not nothing, but it's far from the bloodbath readers were primed to expect.
Of those five deaths, only two were significant. One was Mettle, and the other was Juston Seyfert, who had starred in his own short-lived 2003 series (and follow-up mini-series), Sentinel. Red Raven was too minor to really matter, and Kid Briton and Nara were new creations with no existence outside the book that killed them.
Two other characters probably died -- Apex and Reptil -- but their bodies were never seen. In superhero comics that means they can show up again in a future story without explanation. They're as good as not dead.
Two other characters did die -- they were crossed off on the book's title page death tally -- and came back. Nico Minoru of Runaways and Chris Powell, Darkhawk, were both counted out before miraculously returning from the dead. The book about death itself underscored the point that death is not permanent in superhero fiction.
We know this. It doesn't matter how final the death appears to be. The joke used to be that only Bucky, Jason Todd and Uncle Ben stay dead, but Bucky and Jason are now alive and starring in their own titles. Uncle Ben's resurrection would undercut the inciting incident of Spider-Man's entire heroic career, but we can't rule out the possibility if an editor decided it was worth it for a short-term publicity boost.
Sometimes writers really seem to want a death to stick. Jeph Loeb tried to write the final fight between Wolverine and Sabretooth in 2007's Wolverine #55, going so far as to have Sabretooth decapitated with a sword that prevented his healing factor kicking in. The character later appeared dead in hell. Science brought the character back anyway, and he's appeared as a villain in at least three recent titles.
The Avenger Mockingbird also once appeared in the afterlife, only for it to emerge that she had never died at all. Nightcrawler died and went to heaven, so the Amazing X-Men team have gone to heaven to get him back. Jean Grey has died more than most, and in theory she's still dead, but there's a version of her running around in All-New X-Men. Colossus was cremated after he died, but that didn't prevent his return. (The burned body was a duplicate, of course.)
A character could be so completely destroyed that the Living Tribunal itself signs an affidavit confirming the character's demise, and so long as another writer cares about that character enough to want them back, the character will come back. There's always a parallel universe, a miracle technology, a cosmic intervention, a reality reset, a dark bargain, or time travel to bring the dead back to life. If none of those work, well, maybe the person who died was a clone, or a robot, or a shapeshifter, or a really well paid and extraordinarily talented actress.
Which brings us to Uncanny Avengers. Last week's issue #14 saw the brutal death of Scarlet Witch at Rogue's hands (well, claws), the ionic dissipation of Wonder Man (death-ish), and Rogue's vaporization at the end of Grim Reaper's scythe.
There's no coming back from that, right?
Except it's Rogue, so there's no not coming back from that. Rogue is simply too popular, and if readers love a character, you can be sure that writers, artists and editors love her too, and they're the ones that get to decide if she stays dead.
Realistically, Rogue's death probably won't even last to the end of the current Uncanny Avengers storyline. It's already a story about time travel and resurrection, and Rogue's destruction was so absolute, so emphatic, so dead-means-dead, that it reads like a dare to the reader, as if Rick Remender is telling the audience, believe that she's dead, because he already knows how he's going to bring her back. Death is a dramatic device that establishes the stakes; Rogue and Scarlet Witch will stay dead if the heroes don't win the day. (Possibly by sacrificing someone more expendable to Marvel, like Sunfire.)
Death in fiction is always a dramatic device, but in superhero comics it's a particularly reversible one. That is how we as readers should understand it. We know that major characters will always come back, but we have to accept that the characters themselves cannot be sure of it. Thus death in superhero fiction has lower stakes than in many other genres (or in real life), but within the confines of any given story it's still an ending. That's its contextual value. It takes a character off the board. Death is not death, but a metaphor for loss, a vehicle for grief and anger that propels other characters to the finish line.
That, of course, is the core of "fridging", the idea that a supporting character's brutal death is only a device to motivate the hero. The trope too often manifests in the death of female love interests of straight male heroes, and is named for Alex DeWitt, a girlfriend of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner whose corpse was stuffed in a refrigerator. She has appeared post-mortem, yet remains dead.
The fridging trope is troubling because it gives the impression that women are disposable auxiliaries to male heroes -- and these are the characters that seem to stay dead. We could change the old adage about Bucky, Jason Todd and Uncle Ben to say that everyone comes back except Alex DeWitt, Moira MacTaggart and Gwen Stacy. And also Karen Page, Vesper Fairchild, Mariko Yashida, Sue Dibny, Lori Lemaris, Peggy Carter, Jezebel Jet, Candy Southern, et cetera.
Any of these characters might still come back, of course. Yet conscientious writers should avoid perpetuating the idea that women like these are dispensable, because walking back a death is easy; walking back the stigma that women are less valuable than men is much tougher to do.
The deaths of Rogue and Scarlet Witch don't qualify as fridging deaths, to my mind -- not only because they will inevitably be undone, but because these are established characters in their own right. They died as a dramatic beat in their own stories, not in service to someone else's story.
The certainty that they'll come back doesn't mean that their deaths weren't dramatic, just that the drama should be understood in the context of the medium -- not as death, but as a tragic pause. Those characters are absent, and fans won't get to read about them next month. That's the price of death - and if you love those characters, the price is high enough.
Perhaps that's why the knowledge that a character as significant as Rogue can't really die does not stop readers from fretting about it. Willing suspension of disbelief plays its part; there are readers who genuinely believe that Peter Parker is dead forever and Otto Octavius has permanently replaced him as Spider-Man.
Spider-Man will come back, just as Captain America and Superman did before him, and Marvel knew that when they killed him. Even Mettle will return at some point. Dennis Hopeless may or may not have a plan for it, but you can be sure some writer out there cares enough to make it happen.
From a writer's perspective, death is a narrative beat. From a reader's perspective, death is character cancellation. No matter how many times death in superhero comics is undone, death still has value as both of those things. That's why it still works, and that's why it will always work. Death is a compelling story. And it's much preferable at that distance.