Comic Book Deaths and When They Mattered

It’s been a while since I’ve dove into comic book theory, but an article on io9 got me thinking about it.  As usual, it was mostly because there was extensive discussion in the comments of the X-Men and the poster child for deaths that don’t matter, Jean Grey.

For background, Jean Grey was the X-Men’s token female team member from its inception in 1963, and the perennial love interest of both Cyclops and Angel before she finally settled on the straight white guy who wasn’t fabulously wealthy (a nod towards class equality if there ever was one).  She was in the same mold as the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl; Jean was the caretaker of the group of boys who were crackerjack at saving the day, but hopelessly incompetent when it came to real world responsibilities.

Enter Chris Claremont in 1975 with the X-Men’s reboot as an international dream team with an eye towards taking this second-rate Stan Lee creation and turning them into a modern day allegory for the discrimination and othering of everyone who isn’t a straight white male (written by a straight white male!).  At the time of the roster change, the only member of the previous iteration of the team (which, if I haven’t said it often enough, consisted entirely of white kids from New York who, if they weren’t actually affluent, could pass for it with the help of their middle-aged, wealthy mentor) who stayed on was Cyclops, because Cyclops has always had issues with living his own life.  That didn’t last very long, because Chris Claremont, being a radical feminist who was a trailblazer in his heyday, thought the team needed not just one but two female members, and so brought back Jean Grey with a new codename and revamped image as the sexy liberated woman of the 1970s.

Jean Grey in 1963. (Image credit: http://www.comicvine.com/images/1300-690174)

Jean Grey’s introduction as Phoenix in 1976. (Image credit: http://www.comicvine.com/the-x-men-101-like-a-phoenix-from-the-ashes/4000-16800/)

Of course, this reinvention of the character began what eventually turned into what’s pretty much the hallmark story of the X-Men: the Dark Phoenix Saga.  Jean saves the team from certain death and in the process gains access to near-omnipotent cosmic forces.  As these things usually go, the power drives Jean insane and she commits genocide, wiping out an entire solar system complete with an alien civilization.  To the credit of Marvel’s editor at the time, Jim Shooter, the murder of an entire civilization by one of the company’s heroes was treated as something so horrific that there had to be serious consequences for the character.

So they killed her.

And it was spectacular.

The emotional effects of this event were felt by the team for years afterward.  Cyclops became even more of an emotional wreck, Kitty Pryde, then the team novice (and still only 13) was terrified by the fact that she could get killed doing superhero work, and everyone else felt the very real, deep loss of a close friend.  It was the height of Claremont’s run, and a lot of his stories carried some solid weight because they had this tragic backdrop with authentically damaged characters.

I never got to read the series that way.

See, my introduction to the X-Men was through the ’90s cartoon with the catchy theme song and the Jim Lee-inspired designs and the big honking character introductions that told you everyone’s codename except for Jean Grey, who was always just ‘Jean Grey’.  The Phoenix was nowhere in sight in that iteration of the franchise until much later when they did a five-part episode condensing and retelling the Phoenix Saga from the beginning of Jean getting Phoenix powers to the very end with her going crazy and trying to eat suns.  Of course, this was a ’90s cartoon, so Jean didn’t do anything nearly as horrific as what originally happened in the comics, and at the end she didn’t die, instead just giving up the Phoenix Force and going back to being regular old Jean Grey (yes, superhero logic is absurd when you can refer to the team telekinetic as being ‘regular old’).

For me, even though I’ve read through pretty much everything in the X-Men comics from Giant-Sized X-Men #1 forward (I’m stalled out in the aftermath of Avengers Vs. X-Men), I’ve grown up in a world where comic book deaths are a punchline (and an article on Wikipedia!).  Characters in long-running series die and come back all the time, and the exit of a beloved character is usually met with a shrug of “they’ll be back in a year or two.”  So Jean’s original death, where she died young and as a consequence of a multitude of forces that were really beyond her control, was tragic, but even as I read it for myself, it was tainted with the idea that she’d be back.  I knew about her future as Marvel’s eternal joke, the character that wouldn’t die, the phoenix who does exactly what phoenixes do, but because of the transparency of creator motivations can’t get any decent treatment or a dignified end.

As I understand it, the original Jean Grey is currently an avatar for the Phoenix as some sort of cosmic deity who resides in the White Hot Room (or something).  She doesn’t have much involvement in the day-to-day life of the X-Men, though she does make an obligatory appearance during major events just to remind everyone that she can’t stay dead (and Marvel can keep her character rights).  There’s a young version of Jean apparently running around despising what her older self represents (that idea sounds promising to me, even though a younger version of Jean, if in appearance but not name, has been a recycled story two or three times in the series’s history).  That’s all well and good, but I’m kind of sad that I have all that later history gumming up what was a really good story with some meaningful character drama when it first ran.

In one sense I suppose it doesn’t matter that comic book deaths as a trope exist because the original story is still fantastic, and taken as a contained work it still has all that depth and impact for the characters in the immediacy of that story.  It’s only the long view of storytelling trends within the medium that cheapen each instance (and the preponderance of bad, meaningless deaths in superhero comics).

I don’t know how you resolve a situation like this one.  Like pretty much all popular culture, superhero stories are cyclical, and tropes emerge as we get more and more familiar with the conventions of the genre.  Comic book deaths happen, and we let our cynicism at the motivations behind this storytelling model diminish how we engage with what happens to these characters.  We know, intrinsically, that death is a subject with great import, especially since we’re all bound by it and we know that for this world it’s quite irreversible.  That dissonance between how we treat death in reality and how we treat it in fiction grates us because we can’t resolve it.  I think the best we can do is acknowledge that our metanarratives (the stories we’re telling above what’s written on the page) are going to have baggage that isn’t always going to be conducive to enjoying the actual narrative.

The challenge is figuring out when to let that baggage go and when to hold tight to it so we can try to make our stories better in a meaningful way.

What do you think?  Do you have a particular character death that irks you because of the larger context surrounding it?

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