There's no denying that the American comic industry has a fixation on death right now. Perhaps it's a phase, or perhaps it's merely a sign of trajectory, but either way, death's the thing of the moment. The better part of the past two months has been spent watching the Joker threaten Batman's "family" with death, and if Marvel's killing of Peter Parker and Avengers Arena haven't convinced you of their fixation, perhaps the promotions for the upcoming Age of Ultron have.
It's intriguing to watch community reactions to events such as these. There seem to be two voices at odds with one another. One laments killing as a tasteless and unnecessary travesty against fans. The other laments the absence of death as a mockery of real risk and an undermining factor in the potential power of the medium. It's hard to tell who is angrier: those who are sick of deaths not lasting, or those who are sick of deaths, period.
The problem is, death makes no sense in comics, at least as far as DC and Marvel are concerned. It comes across as arbitrary or gimmicky because nothing else in comics follows a realistic or inevitable path. Characters are ageless and immortal, and the only way for them to die is for a writer to actively decide to kill them. Batman has existed since the 1930s. Bruce Wayne should be dead by now, not because he's been involved in a ton of horribly dangerous situations, but because he should be a senior citizen with no bones left and probably a great deal of other medical problems to boot. But Bruce hasn't really aged much in the almost 80 years over which he has "lived."
The failure to age characters is of course nothing new. But I wonder if we've considered the implications. Why are we clamoring for our characters to die from supervillains or events -- in the name of "realism" -- but we otherwise want them to just be perpetually young and fit? It seems to me that if arthritis or cancer aren't real threats to our heroes, nothing else has a right to be either.
This compulsion to kill for change's sake manifests with nasty variations. One of the most common is a kind of inexplicable bloodlust, which demands the deaths of characters perceived as "unnecessary" or "getting in the way." It's remarkable how quickly a character is thrown under the bus because his or her superpowers resemble those of another character, as if there were some logic to a mutation only manifesting one time ever, or as if two characters with the same mutation must necessarily be redundant. I wonder whether the same people view identical twins in real life with disdain, and say to themselves, "gee, we only need one of them, why doesn't someone just off the other one?"
There is a sort of epidemic of failure to understand nuances in characters or even appreciate them as entities beyond their appearance or abilities. Fans of the characters, like friends of the less popular twin, are told that the character they like is irrelevant because, say, someone else has elemental powers or metal claws. Genetics are the key to whether a character holds interest; if you share genetic makeup with anyone else, then you don't deserve to live.
Death, of course, isn't the only casualty of agelessness. Because we expect to see our characters on the front lines from decade to decade, they're not allowed to truly develop towards any trajectory. The most glaring issue is relationships: even ones with thirty, forty, fifty years of progress seem not to have gone anywhere. Relationships which have a semblance of stability are seen as threats to the characters' development; husbands and wives are perceived as anathema to intrigue. Two conflicting voices drive the vehicle of comic book evolution, one saying "we must always have change, to avoid stagnation" and another which says "we cannot go down the same road for too long, for that, too, leads to stagnation." The effect is a car stuck pulling u-turns and crisscrossing a map, so fixated on the idea that the journey outshines destination that the very idea of having a destination, let alone valuing one, seems to have been thrown out the window like so much litter, hundreds of miles back.
In a crude way, it makes sense: if you're perpetually twenty-five, you feel as if you could live forever. Because, of course, you can. The realistic compulsion to maybe start taking it easier, to settle down, to retire the spandex and propagate a future generation of heroes… None of that exists if characters don't age. In fact, if a character does marry and have children, those children stand a chance of eventually being the same age as the hero. This awkwardness could be avoided by simply having your heroes age; instead, it's "solved" by killing off young heroes before the question achieves proper prominence in the comic-reading consciousness.
People love to complain about new characters. They consider them at best uninteresting, at worst redundant. And even with the best of writers, the redundancy can be seen as a legitimate concern when all the original heroes are still just as vital and prominent as they've ever been. Very few characters are given a chance to rise to prominence. It's an absurd situation, really, as it precludes any history. What would American politics look like if people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were still alive, youthful, and active in politics? Would there be any progress? Would people even care?
Comics provide us with an unnatural situation in which the voices and faces of generations past still intrude on today's issues. These indisputable legends command attention wherever they arrive, and the result is that no one new has a chance at the spotlight. There's an element of horror to it, the immortals crushing generation after generation of hopeful heroes. Why does this happen? Why do people want it to happen? I honestly don't know.
Coincidence has given us torch handoffs in the past. Multiple characters have worn the cowl and been called Batman, and their tenures can, in an abstract way, be considered; but Bruce Wayne's run vastly outlasts anyone else's. Isn't that unfortunate? Wouldn't it be more interesting if we could look back over seventy-five years and compare a variety of Batmen (and women?) with their own distinct styles and personalities? Wouldn't it be better if we could look at the "original" X-Men through proper historical lenses, as if looking at a history book at forefathers, and compare them to the current generation, rather than simply differentiate between current X-Men which were created recently and current X-Men which were also originals?
I understand favoritism and enjoying characters, but the unreal nature of the system seems to me to do a lot more harm than good. It necessitates massive, deadly events to effect a visible change on a universe which real history has never depended upon because it changes organically. And even the most brutal "changes" are mocked for their temporariness; certain characters' returns are deemed inevitable. So we say we wish deaths were permanent, but what we really mean is we wish deaths were realistic -- occurring with or without external stimulus, and properly bringing closure to one character's arc to make way for the zenith of a new one's.
Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm crazy for suggesting it'd be okay if favorite characters got old and died (like favorite people). Maybe I'm crazy for proposing a world in which Batman changes names, if not as frequently as presidents, then at least as frequently as supreme court justices. Maybe I'm crazy for thinking that character death is inane and trite if murder-by-author is the only cause of death that's actually accepted in the entire artistic medium.
I'd like to think I have a point. But then again, wouldn't we all…
Thanks for reading.