Banner Art by Alex Ross
So, we sit at the end of Civil War II, and I can think of no better recent story that depicts the problems with how death is handled in comic books than it.
I have banged against Civil War II quite a bit. Do realize that I do not hate this story. It had some interesting ideas and made some decisions that could have resulted in an excellent crossover. However, it made some fatal missteps on the path to greatness that resulted in a mediocrity.
Among these missteps was how it handled death in the midst of the chaos of the in-fighting over Ulysses and his abilities. It is far from the only story to mishandle the concept of death, but it is the starting point from which we are going to analyze the idea.
Let’s begin with the death of War Machine at the hands of Thanos. Colonel James Rhodes’ head seems to have been put on the chopping block due to his connection to both Captain Marvel and Iron Man. However, his death really seemed quite meaningless.
In reality people die all the time for no reason. It’s a part of how unforgiving the real world is and the entropy of the universe. However, in fiction, especially high-fantasy sci-fi marketed towards a mass audience, we expect some kind of meaning to the events that transpire, especially death. War Machine’s death just frankly seemed random and nothing beyond a plot device to catalyze the oncoming strife between Carol Danvers and Tony Stark. At best, he had a “soldier’s death” in the line of duty. Even then, why Thanos? As far as I know, this is the first time Rhodey has ever met the Mad Titan. Why was it not someone with a grudge against Rhodey or, his closest friend, Tony Stark? Why not Mandarin, the Crimson Dynamo, Detroit Steel, or even Ezekiel Stane?
This death only bears relevance in relation to Captain Marvel and Iron Man, not War Machine himself. That does no justice to the long history of James Rhodes in Marvel Comics. As a result, the death of the great War Machine just seemed…empty, and it didn’t really evoke any strong emotions from me or many others from what I understand. Not to mention…these are mainstream comics, and he’ll probably be back within five years. However, that’s a conversation for later in the article.
Next, there was the death Doctor Robert Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk himself. This worked a lot better than the death of Rhodey, but it was not without its issues. I have nothing wrong with the Ulysses prediction, or even Hawkeye and his Deus Ex Gamma arrow doing the job. My problem was the breakneck pace at which it all went down. Thanks to Amadeus Cho taking over the Hulk title, we hadn’t really gotten to see Bruce Banner in a while. He hadn’t shown up in Civil War II at all prior to his death scene. So, here we have one of Marvel’s most iconic heroes showing up for the first time in a quite a while just to be abruptly assassinated by one of his friends.
You can argue the prior rising tension of Civil War II or the history of the Hulk built up to this, but it really didn’t at all. It really felt like, “Oh look, there’s Bruce Banner. Oh, well he’s dead.” Bringing him back for a longer portion of the story and having the other heroes hunt him may have been a better way to go about this. As it is, it just felt emotionally manipulative, and it didn’t really get me to feel anything despite my own love for the Incredible Hulk.
Then there was the “death” of Robert da Costa, aka Sunspot. This was clearly a lack of communication or agreement across creative teams, and this had less than no weight because he immediately reappeared in Al Ewing’s New Avengers alive and sorta well.
This is of course far from the first time Marvel has posed deaths that evoke no reaction out of the audience. Thor’s death at the end of Fear Itself was one of the most arbitrary things in the history of storytelling, and it was obviously going to be undone very soon. Hell, I think they were already advertising for future stories with Thor in them around the end of that story. Sabretooth’s death was one of the coolest Wolverine stories I have ever read. However, I struggle to look at that tale in the same light ever since they decided to do a “sequel” to it in which we figure out that was a clone of Victor Creed. Eric O’Grady’s death in Rick Remender’s Secret Avengers was so abrupt that it barely garnered any notice on my part.
When I think of Marvel deaths that “worked” I think of Steve Rogers and Bill Foster during the original Civil War, Hawkeye, Vision, and Scott Lang during Avengers: Disassembled, and, believe it or not, Professor Xavier during Avengers vs. X-Men. They were all adequately built up too, and they bore meaning. Bill Foster’s death showed how far the first Superhero Civil War had gotten. Steve Rogers’ death was “the death of the dream.” Hawkeye’s death was the archer making one last stupidly heroic move. Scott Lang’s death was him falling to his own perpetual guilt. The Vision’s demise was the result of his then-deranged lover.
The Wasps’ death during Secret Invasion was really cool too, but I will say it didn’t have such a significant meaning beyond one last betrayal by a Hank Pym stand-in. That’s a pretty depressing meaning to take from it, especially as someone who does rather like crazy old Hank Pym.
I was never a fan of the Sentry, but I will say his demise during Siege was pretty epic and represented Bob falling to his own mania.
It’s worth mentioning is that all of these deaths but three have been undone in the years since. Hawkeye and the Vision were back almost immediately. Steve Rogers took a full year at least, and Scott Lang and the Wasp took significantly longer. Surprisingly, Professor X has not made a return yet. I don’t think anyone expected Bill Foster aka Black Goliath to come back, and that’s a shame, because I think he’s really cool. Do you have a Black Goliath figure? I do. It’s freaking awesome. He was briefly replaced by his nephew in an Avengers Annual during the Bendis era though.
Bucky Barnes’ fall during Fear Itself was actually pretty good too, but it was undone so quickly that I struggle to count it as a “real death”
I will say that I did not read the recent deaths of Wolverine, Hank Pym, Hercules, or Stature so I can’t really vouch for or criticize them, and the same goes for other X-Men deaths Kitty Pryde, Banshee, Colossus, and Nightcrawler. Of course, all of those have been undone as well with the exception of Logan, Pym, and the Banshee. However, Pym is Ultron now, and we have Old Man Logan walking around. So, those two deaths have stuck at a little bit of a stretch
None of this is to say that DC is innocent of this of course. The death and resurrection of Damian Wayne seems so very convoluted, and, on a side note, why could he not just be the actual offspring of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul? Why were there all the cloning shenanigans? It would have made things so much simpler.
The real crime of the death and resurrection of Damian Wayne is that it squandered a real chance for DC to make a change and stop the cycle of death and rebirth that has made the concept of death so cheap in mainstream comic books. With the New 52 relauch, we could have had death become more permanent. Not indefinitely permanent, but it could have borne a little more weight. That has since been followed up by the abrupt death and return of the White-formerly-Green Lantern Kyle Rayner.
They had handled death pretty well in the past, specifically the dramatic but convoluted deaths of Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. The deaths of Oliver Queen and Jason Todd were pretty good too. Of course, all of these characters came back even before the New 52. The death of the Blue Beetle was a pretty dramatic thing too.
Oh yeah, by the way, many of you probably already know this, but DC is the patient zero for all of this crap.
The Death of Superman was a dramatic and heavily advertised event for DC Comics in the 1990’s. It was an epic thing; Superman battling Doomsday on his own after the beast struck down the entirety of the Justice League. Then, the unthinkable happens, and the Man of Tomorrow dies at the hands of the monster Doomsday. It was a massive success in terms of sales, and it shocked readers everywhere. It even made the news. It also brought about the less successful, Reign of the Superman, introducing characters such as Steel, Superboy (then known as the Metropolis Kid), Cyborg Superman, and Eradicator. Of those four, three are still remotely relevant. I personally like Steel a great deal.
About a year later, however, it was “revealed” that Kal-El was only beaten into a deep coma and helped to survive by the robots in his Fortress of Solitude. He came back to stop the tyranny of Cyborg Superman and Eradicator, and he became the defender of Metropolis and all of Earth once more.
This started the trend of death and resurrection that we’ve been talking about, and the damage it dealt to comic book narratives has never been undone. I can’t really buy big comic book deaths anymore. I just can’t bring myself to believe that they will be worth anything in the long run with the exception of minor characters or ones that have outlived their popularity (see the Sentry and my beloved Kaine the Scarlet Spider).
It doesn’t help that these deaths aren’t really shocks anymore either. They advertise these deaths, and the comic book news sites broadcast them for all to here. You don’t get to live the deaths as they happen. You almost always know it before hand and then just wait for it to play out.
Now, I do realize that one of the appeals of Marvel and DC comic books is the consistent present of characters and the means of being able to read stories about your favorite heroes and villains regularly. I do realize that none of these characters should stay dead forever, with few examples like Captain Mar-Vell due to his legacy with Carol Danvers, Kamala Khan, and others.
However, the way death is currently handled is not the best way of doing so. Honestly, I’m not sure what the best means of handling death in this medium is. I am willing to admit to my own limitations here. It is a messy idea, but it’s one that needs to be used better than it is here.
Death is something we are obsessed with due to our self-awareness of our own mortality. In fiction, death is very important. It helps us feel deeper emotions, ponder the meanings of events and our own morale codes, and it helps narratives play out in the manner which they were intended. Mainstream comic books have hobbled themselves by removing it as a genuine possibility, and they’ve cheapened the concept by using it to minutely enhance the value of a comic to a great portion of the reader base who want to see the next big death in comic books. Death means a great deal to us as a species. It should mean just as much in our writing and culture.