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Nick Barone

Graphic Novel

Abstract             For my paper topic, I want to talk a little about a phenomenon known as "comic book death."  In mainstream monthly comic books, the concept of death being a person's final fate has sort of disappeared, as characters are killed off and brought back to life with regularity.  In general, many have said this cycle of death and rebirth undermines the seriousness of death.  Some fans love it, some fans hate it.  With this paper, I plan to track the history of comic book death and explain to some extent why it occurs, be it fan influence or other reasons.  In my explanation, I plan to draw in examples from other Media to identify why this phenomenon seems to occur mainly in comic books.  I will analyze the differing roles that death plays in monthly comics, in one-shot graphic novels, in television, films and novels.  My basic theory is "the longer a form of literature spans, the more likely it is a killed-off character will have their death reversed."  There are other factors to consider, such as whether or not the literary piece already includes supernatural elements---how closely the fictional world resembles our world, etc.

            I plan to draw on a variety of sources, including the death issues from various super hero comics.  I also plan to include Watchmen and Fun Home as examples of how these "one-shot" graphic novels with definite endings avoid the phenomenon of comic book death.  I hope to show how events that occur in monthly comics are influenced by balancing long term monetary goals with short term sales boosts. Here is skeleton outline of what I've figured out so far- Mainstream Monthly Comic Books: Death is used by several writers to either boost short term sales or even to generate hype and restore interest in characters fans seem to have lost interest in.  In this way, death becomes less pivotal to plot and more a device to sell comics. Comic book death has generally lost emotional impact.  Is this simply because fans expect comic book characters to return to life or could there be other factors involved?  Are the deaths poorly executed?  The only deaths that seem to last involve tertiary characters whose deaths seem "powerful."  They either die in a noble way or cause a change in another, more prominent character. In short, a good hero never dies for good. Another big difference- In monthly comic books, it is difficult to determine who the main character of a fictional universe is.  In DC Comics, is it Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash?  Since each book series features a different main character, the fictional world is full of protagonists, so it becomes much more difficult to know who is expendable for the long term.  In other words, it would be very difficult to have an ongoing Superman comic if you killed off Superman and never brought him back to life.  In other literary works where the supernatural doesn't exist, there is no option for resurrection and so the writers have to be much more careful when killing a character off, especially if they plan to extend the series past a "one-shot".  For example, it would have been very difficult to make Rocky IV if he had died in Rocky II. Graphic Novels, Novels and Films: Character death is generally permanent.  These forms allow you to take in the full emotional importance of death.  In pieces that take the form of a memoir or first person narrative, it even helps you to understand how one person's experience with death can uniquely affect their life.

In some cases, barely knowing these characters, or only being exposed to them for a short period of time allows us less attachment, so that we can better accept their deaths. TV Shows:  While they can be very long-lived, they are typically created with some knowledge that they will end.  Characters can die for numerous reasons, and like comic book deaths, these reasons are not always driven by the plot.  Sometimes actors leave shows for whatever reason, so writers will kill them off.  Sometimes characters that aren't particularly popular get killed off in an effort to please fans (this happens with comics as well).

            I hope to better define or at least put in motion a model of why this odd death phenomenon is particular to comic books. In doing so, I will also acknowledge the role the comic book fan community plays in this.  When do we transform from readers to fans?  Is there something about being a fan that makes us not want to let our heroes die?  Do we pick our favorites like we pick football teams and not want to see them lose, or do we see a piece of ourselves in our favorite characters, ones we identify strongly with and do we then not want to see a piece of ourselves die? This part is going to be harder to prove with concrete evidence, since it will be based on fan opinions expressed across various comic book message boards (and interviews with known comic fans), but I still think seeing some of the reactions made by the fan community can be very telling.

            Does having a long lasting series allow for a new type of "consumer feedback" driven literature?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?  Is it always a good thing to give people what they want or is it sometimes better to force people to deal with tragedy and get over it? Are we losing a vast array of expressed human emotion by eliminating the importance of death in a form of literature? Does that matter in a setting where people can fly?  These are just some of the questions I hope to raise and explore in my paper, as I investigate how death has transformed in the comic book community.

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3 Comments

  1. Very cool topic.  Since you seem to have the comic book/fandom angles covered, I'll try to widen the frame a little -- particularly when it comes to the issue of why this phenomenon occurs.  Although you don't reference soap operas, they're one other cultural form where characters routinely depart from this world and then return; sometimes another actor appears to take over that role, with a weird voice-over announcing the change.  So I think you'd want to ponder serial forms in general -- did any 19th-century serialized novels bring back a popular character who had died?  As to the fandoms, it seems only too clear that sometimes "comic book death" is called upon to bump up the drama (cf. a TV show with declining ratings): death as a franchise shakeup/turnaround/makeover/downsizing.  One notorious example is the death of the "new" Robin back in the 1980s, where fans were voting by phone whether to let him live or not.  Wow!  Suddenly this sounds like a precursor to reality TV shows, where contestants are routinely eliminated, frequently by fan voting.  That industry is built upon identification, empathy, going to the phones to keep your favorite from getting the axe.  In fact, that's where I was going with all of this, in a way -- rather than looking at CBD in an isolated way, I think it has something to say about "the value of a life" in the last 50 years or so -- the cultural logic of disposable products, "outsourcing," downsizing, compassion fatigue.  Maybe we don't feel a death so keenly as we once did, or are being taught not to?  The extreme version of this is in video games, right? -- where players have multiple lives, gain new ones, etc.  Wish I could toss out a few CBDs for the cause, but you seem to have that dimension well in hand.  Really looking forward to seeing where you go with this project....

  2. Unknown User (anb2)

    Interesting topic, and I must agree, one that I find frustrating to grapple with as a comic book fan myself.

    First off, I will make the same offer I made to Bridget, that of materials:  I have a DVD of "Superman: Doomsday" which is essentially a cartoon version of the 1980's story arc "The Death of Superman" which obviously wasn't really a death, if anything it was a marketing move, as it sold many comics and allowed the universe to introduce four new superpowered characters, including Bizarro and yes, Steel, which went on to become a moving starring Shaquille O'Neal.  I offer this if you would like to check it out.

    I also offer DVDs of the television series Heroes, which is notorious for killing characters off and bringing them back again.  In fact, it got so absurd that they killed off Ali Larter's character Niki, only to have her come back the next season as Tracy, Niki's long lost twin sister, who is a completely different person with completely different powers.  (They actually built in a fail-safe: Niki and Tracy were actually triplets, so if Tracy's story gets stale they can kill her off too and bring back Ali Larter one more time...I think that this speaks to Cooper's ideas on soap operas.)

    Anyway, all my offers aside, one area I might like to see your paper to touch on is the concept of reincarnation.  Does that play any role in all of this stuff?  When a character dies and comes back, are they still the same character?  I think you need to consider that possibility as well: the multidimensiolity of characters.  Especially because some of these characters are appearing in story arcs that are parallel.  How many Superman's are there?

  3. Interesting topic! I wonder how things are different between characters that are supposed to be the same person brought back to life versus someone picking up the mantle of a fallen/retired character (such as Robin of Batman and Robin or the several different iterations of the Flash.) It would also be interesting to get into "retconning", since the major long-standing, iconic characters (Superman, Batman, Fantastic Four, etc) have had many different authors and even alternate timelines and universes - someone who died in one story arc may get picked up by another author. That character may get a "haha, I was just kidding!" treatment, or it may be a major plot point (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 1 versus the end of season 5 through season 6 - season one's death leads to the introduction of a few other characters, but season 5's death and season 6's dealing with it fuels a whole season for angsty characters.) I have seasons 1 and 2 of Buffy (unfortunately, I've borrowed the rest from friends and therefore can't lend them out.)