Tuesday, June 16, 2009

'Ere, 'e says 'e's not dead!

He was being led down the courthouse steps in handcuffs. A hero to the nation for longer than most Americans had been alive, he was now a prisoner. All that was certain in his future was his day in court, and then, most likely, prison. He knew this, but, like the soldier that he was, he vowed to face the future fighting.

That future was suddenly shattered by the report of a high powered rifle. The prisoner fell, his life bleeding out at the feet of his captors. There was nothing anyone could do.

Captain America, the Living Legend of World War II, the Sentinel of Liberty, was dead.

And across the country, millions of comics fans rolled their eyes and said: "Yeah, right!"

Sure enough, two years later, the cynics have been proven right. Cap is back as of this week. Apparently for superheroes there's little to no difference between death and an extended sabbatical.

I'm sorry, but both Marvel and DC have drawn from this particular well too often for me to care anymore. Too many characters, major and minor, have gotten up from their dirt naps, brushed themselves off, and continued business as usual. It's past the point where nobody but the entirely uninitiated (like, say, the staff at The New York Times, who wrote Cap a nice obituary) can take a character's death seriously, especially if said character had a fetish for Spandex and liked to hit people.

Whether shot, stabbed (Elektra), blown to bits (Green Arrow), run down to a skeleton (the Silver Age Flash), or blasted with lethal energies (Supergirl, Jean Grey), and no matter how long they have been dead (Captain America's sidekick, Bucky, dead since World War II and one of the few characters defined in the Marvel Universe as being absolutely, definitively dead... isn't), sooner or later they're carrying on like nothing had happened.

It's actually gotten to the point where the characters themselves, heroes and villains alike, recognize that the Reaper is a round-trip local ride rather than a one-way express. In Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis miniseries, he plays with this a bit, as three villains at an underworld gathering discuss the passing of one of the white hats:

VILLAIN 1: Your'e sure Troia's dead?

VILLAIN 2: Dead.

VILLAIN 3: She'll be back...

Elsewhere in the room is a formerly-deceased time-traveling villain who claims to be a version of himself who slipped away a few seconds before he was killed. The headache you're experiencing now is a normal side effect of exposure to time-travel-related plot points. Just shake it off.

After the courthouse assassination, there's an entire issue of Wolverine working out his denial of Cap's death by infiltrating the secure facility where his body is being held to determine if he's morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead.

And of course, he is. That's actually part of the problem. Cap's death was so transparently a marketing strategy, meant to boost sales as Marvel paved the way for his eventual return, that it was impossible to take his demise seriously. No amount of histrionics over his departure from this mortal coil can obscure the fact that he has a guaranteed return ticket.

Really, it just needs to stop.

As a plot device it's become blunted and stale. There's no sense of tragedy (though the publishers treating us like we'll fall for this chestnut again is pretty tragic in its own way), and the drama of the moment is retarded by the fact that we know it just won't stick.

So the publishers have two options: One is to reserve killing a character for when they know they can deal with the actual consequences of keeping him or her dead. I don't think they can help themselves at this point, though. It's become a compulsive behavior to stand them back up after an appropriate mourning period.

The other is to just take it off the table. Stop killing the characters. It doesn't mean anything anymore and we're tired of it.

Case in point: Guess who's dead, right this very second, in the DC Universe?


You think he's going to stay that way?

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