Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Reflections on the Revolving Door of Death 3: RIP Johnny Storm, Camelot Hero

Death of the Human Torch, in FF #587 released January 25, 2011. Fantastic Four vol. 3 #587.

I no longer read the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man regularly, but it looks like no one in the comic book industry is stepping back from the Revolving Door of Death any time soon. Both Marvel and DC have claimed they are shutting the door, that is, they will keep killing characters, but that resurrections of characters that have been killed off will stop. But death still sells, and money talks louder than integrity in story-telling. Editorial 'dead means dead' declarations are merely attempts to reinvest an overused trope with meaning. The whole point of using death as a narrative device is that it supposedly adds a tone of momentousness to a story. Yet with the recurrent use of the device, the emotional weight of death has diminished.  And no one seems to understand that when they kill off a hero, they kill the values he represents; they attack the ideals that his powers symbolize.

A death story like the one that appeared this week in Fantastic Four #587 sparks nostalgia over the dead character among those who have not followed that character for years. When I read the Fantastic Four decades ago, Johnny Storm was my favourite member of the FF. He's one of several young male heroes who debuted in the early-to-mid 1960s whose powers and behaviour were unconventional compared to the likes of Superman, Captain Marvel and Captain America. I've always had a soft spot for these characters from the late Silver Age: The Human Torch (1961), Spider-Man (1962), Cyclops and Iceman (1963), Ironman (1963), Daredevil (1964) and Beast Boy (The Changeling) (1965). They are all, in their own ways, fallible, yet they still have the gloss of confidence, a gutsy heroism.

In their origins, these are bridge characters, retaining some values from the preceding aftermath of World War II - but they anticipate the social upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s. Thus, they reflect some of the moral absolutes of the war (arguably the source of their courage). But their brand of heroism equally incorporates the lingering ambiguities of the Korean War, as well as the rebellious attitudes of the Angry Young Men and the Beat Generation.

Oil Portrait of John F. Kennedy. Official portrait, painted posthumously by Aaron Shikler (1970).

These are Kennedy-Camelot-era heroes, the last superheroes developed before the social revolutions of the late 1960s changed everything.   Not that anyone had this history in mind this week when the Human Torch was killed off. Attitudes have changed. The death of Johnny Storm is considered a mere breather on the way to making the FF title more marketable. Over at Comicbookmovie.com, Bob Gough commented on Johnny Storm's demise:
So if we discount the hype, all that matters for fans who have been through so many of these dramatic demises that we’ve become numb to them is the story. Is it a good death? Do the other characters react well? Do villains gloat appropriately? What are the collateral consequences (even if we know those consequences will be short-lived)? How about the resurrection? Is it handled well? Is the character brought back with any improvements or enhancements? ... [Death] doesn't really matter as long as you make it entertaining.
That is a cynical comment, if you consider that Johnny Storm was a hero conceived during America's heady time in Camelot. This was a period during which the hope that had grown after the Second World War was lost, when John F. Kennedy, himself a handsome young hero, was assassinated.

John F. Kennedy 1961 Inaugural Address. Video Source: Youtube.

Ironically, Camelot's 60th anniversary just passed by a few days ago:
President John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address 50 years ago – on Jan. 20, 1961. Most people remember that it was during this speech that he spoke the stirring words: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

Until this day, Kennedy’s words remain an iconic American speech and the above words are ones that most Americans know by heart. ... Caroline Kennedy, his adult daughter, told The Associated Press on Thursday [January 20] that she has been thinking over her father's oft-quoted inaugural speech, when he proclaimed that Americans “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Kennedy Assassination 1963 footage. Video Source: Youtube.

Death only serves narrative purposes of high drama if it retains its seriousness, its connection to death in reality. Rather than facing this fact, this incontrovertible link between fact and fiction, there have been other angles taken to allow publishers to over-indulge in the use of death tropes, while simultaneously raising the bar to make death stories retain their power. At DC, the 1992 death of Superman is possibly the most famous example of 'anyone can die'; the rape and death of Sue Dibny and the death of Lian Harper are examples of female and immature characters who were stuffed into the fridge.

These gambits are futile as marketing ploys because they tamper with the readers' willing suspension of disbelief. DC's editors might argue to the contrary, and point to fan groups like Bring Back Lian Harper (sites here and here), whose members took the death of this last character very seriously. DC might say the purpose was served - the death hit home; the story was 'still powerful.' This strange Doublethink might not please the fan group, who are protesting the overuse of the death trope, not seeking to serve as poster children for how well the death trope still works.

If DC's editors were to point to a fan group like Bring Back Lian Harper as unwitting and unwilling examples of the success of their formula, they would be wrong. This intensification of the trope by killing vulnerable or normally 'off-limits' characters to reinstate the trope's significance (while conveniently opening up even darker new story-telling opportunities) provokes more anger and cynicism in the readership. As one fan (here) wrote: "Killing off Lian Harper just makes me sick. It's one of the most despicable things I've ever seen in comics." As far as the fans are concerned, they feel the publisher is manipulating them for money - not telling powerful heroic stories. I expect some Fantastic Four fans viewed Marvel similarly this week (as here).

There is something more happening here than marketing. This debate between 'making things mean something again' and 'exploiting things that meant something' has no obvious answer. It is a general problem that exists way beyond the comic book industry and its fandom. In the new Millennium, the moral compass is off. Cynicism guts our oldest values and strips them of meaning. Possibly this is due to overexposure through entertainment media. Maybe globalization is rewriting all cultural frames of reference. Whatever the reasons, our grasp of the power embedded in our biggest ideas is slipping away. This phenomenon is creating a crisis inside our culture. To give them their due, Marvel and DC have reflected that: the condition of their superheroes, who once embodied stable ideals and powers, now face a state of continual destabilization, a creeping helplessness that keeps leading to defeat and death.

All Marvel and DC Comics stories, characters and the distinctive likenesses thereof are respectively Trademarks & Copyright © Marvel Comics and © DC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Read all my posts on the Revolving Door of Death.

Read all my posts on comics.

No comments:

Post a Comment