Wednesday, February 2, 2011

DC Comics' Most Pointless Deaths...

"...and No More Lonely Nights."

Over in the Gone&Forgotten Tumblr, I’ve started an occasional series of entries entitled “Dan Didio Loves Death” (and its partner tag, “Geoff Johns is Hungry for Blood” ... and also the mostly unrelated "The Bulleteer Doesn't Fly" because THE BULLETEER DOESN'T FLY, PEOPLE), a showcase of the rampant death, destruction and degradation which has typified DC since Didio took over as Executive Editor in 2004.

Most comics have, of course, always invested heavily in violence and destruction in order to create drama – not just superheroes, but also westerns, science fiction, sword and sorcery and also not just anything within the over-arching adventure genre but also often in books whose focus was intended to be biographic, historical, inspirational or comedic. Criticism of this violence is also nothing new, and obviously has had little effect overall on the industry – pre-Didio DC specifically is notorious for the invention of a corpse-stuffed refrigerator which handily and tackily cut the fledgling Green Lantern Kyle Rayner’s supporting cast down by one for a cheap pop and a tragedy-based emotional gravitas awarded to a character who – despite being the high-profile successor to a highly popular predecessor -was effectively a cipher.

Here, cat-slappin' action like you like
it, happy now?
The comics industry was asked to learn a lesson from the uproar and continued distaste over that scene, and DC exercises their subsequent education with more gore and blood and stuffed corpses than you can shake a stick at*.

(* I didn’t do a “shake a dead cat at” joke on purpose, please don’t wreck it for me)

What makes Didio’s tumultuous turn at the helm (and putting aside the argument as to whether he's individually personally responsible for the phenomenon) remarkable is the frequency and haste with which characters are offed, and for such little reason. There’s a philosophy of “putting the toys away” which has helped make DC comics what Neil Gaiman once impressively observed was the largest story ever told by humanity – Didio’s DC seems dedicated to breaking as many of those toys as possible, faster than they can build new ones, and shrinking the potential for new stories with every exploded face.

There are a lot of elements of this open to discussion in terms of story development and narrative theory and the general psychology of conflict and gender and such, so while I could go on at length about this (and do, over at the Tumblr, despite my best intentions) I try not to, as I find that it sort of winds me up – and not in the Secret Wars II way, not in the manner of Kitty Pryde and Wolverine or Captain “Split” Marvel, where the stories are so inspired yet inept or cluelessly enthusiastic or generally enjoyable for how thoroughly they miss the mark.

Three different villains in three different
titles during the same month back in
2009 all made references to wanting to
rape Supergirl. That's not grim-and-gritty,
 that's the sign of a fuckin' problem. 
They don’t wind me up in the way where it’s easy to find the humor in it, but rather they wind me up in a way that disappoints me. It’s a pretty common refrain - among those of us in the last few generations who have reached a respectable similacrum of adulthood - that so-and-so “raped their childhoods”, that because some form of entertainment wasn’t exactly like we remember from our youth, it was therefore a betrayal and is bad, regardless of the fact that a new generation will remember these remakes and reimaginations from their childhoods when they are our ages and obviously it’s all subjective.

I promise you, that isn’t my complaint – I don’t want to read comics which are exactly like the ones I read when I was a kid. For one thing, I’ve already read those, I want something new. For another, I’m an adult now and I’m looking for more emotionally and structurally complex comics. And for yet another reason, most of those comics weren’t very good – if comics in 2001 were exactly like the comics of 1981, I might walk into DC’s Countdown:Arena and let two bigger, meaner versions of me from some grim alternate universes slaughter me off-handed – what would be the point?

I wouldn’t mind the death, destruction and degradation if only it had some purpose in the storyline – I wouldn’t mind a hundred thousand deaths or the massacre of an entire nation (well, I’m in luck!) if it made even one character feel sad for more than a panel.

So, what follows is what I am sure is an incomplete list, but of those which stuck out to me in recent memory of the most meaningless deaths in the DC Universe as of late. Add your own, we could make a list long enough to been seen from space and to have its face punched out through the back of its head by Black Adam.

Meet the new Kryptonians - Dead-El, Deceased-El,
Asphyxiated-El, Blowed Up-El, Knifed In The Gut-El ...
100,000 Kryptonians
The Superman story arc New Krypton brought back the original bottle city of Kandor BUT – in an admittedly unexpected twist – immediately enlarged the city, sparking a culture clash between one hundred thousand newly re-displaced and freshly super-powered Kryptonians and a planet full of normal humans ill-suited to accommodate the unexpected guests.

There’s obviously no limit to the potential of a story which suddenly introduces a metric shit-hiaz*of flying transients – at the very least, you’re bound to see some new heroes and villains and some stunning cultural clashes and investigate a weird and previously unknown world.

But no, the villains were pretty much Zod and Brainiac, the heroes were some Metropolis regulars and the culture was a rigorous caste system with some obvious inequities we readers could stomp our feet and go “boo” at.

Naturally, it’s still pretty remarkable that we were introduced to as many as a dozen assorted new Kryptonian faces out of that 100,000, since the subsequent series were dedicated to blowing up anywhere from a few dozen to a couple hundred at any given moment. And just to make sure that no Kryptonians escaped the devastation, almost all the survivors asphyxiated en masse in space. Boom.

So: 100,000 potential new characters, a year of comics in a multitude of series and the whole point was a bunch of super-corpses in space. Hooray for comics!

(*It’s the only unit of measurement I remember from the original World of Krypton miniseries. It’s liquid. So. That’s grosser)

And for your birthday, we got you ... being royally
screwed over. Make a wish and blow out your wife!
Ralph Dibny
It pains me to have the former Elongated Man on this list, because I have to admit that I was one of many who bought the hype and became emotionally involved with Ralph’s character arc in the ambitious although flawed (yet still underrated) series 52.

A Silver Age staple and superheroic take on The Thin Man, the crime-solving adventures of Ralph and his globetrotting heiress wife Sue are fondly remembered by a lot of comic fans. The serial detective format of the stories didn’t translate into the Bronze Age and beyond, but a lot of writers found purchase in the portrayal of the couple as a bickering, buoyant pair of partnered romantics.

SO BRING ON THE MURDER! Ralph and Sue undergo a trial separation in the form of Sue’s freshly murdered corpse being set ablaze just before she gets the chance to tell him that she’s pregnant. Oh, and it was also Ralph’s birthday, no kidding. And Firehawk stole his wallet. I’m kidding about that. And this too: Superman farted on him also, I guess. Why stop with the misfortune there? We’re only an issue away from retconning a rape for Mrs.Dibny, after all, let’s rub some salt in this shit.

Ralph spent a year in the series 52, and I’ll spare you the many twists and turns and sidetracks which he encountered – like I say, for all its flaws, 52 is a helluva read, so you might owe it to yourself to check it out – but will cut to the chase: In the end, Ralph and Sue are reunited in death and are partnering up once again as … RALPH AND SUE DIBNY, GHOST DETECTIVES!

All’s well that ends well, right? And there even seemed to be some real potential in the premise of a deceased detectives solving supernatural crimes – well, there was, but the Ghost Detectives thing fizzled. Ralph’s and Sue’s next big moment came cackling in the pages of Blackest Night, where they murdered Hawkgirl and Hawkman with maces. C’est la vie.

"Dear Sirs, this letter is to inform you that you are to
have your asses handed to you on the following date ...
The Three Dimwits
The Golden Age Flash was occasionally bedeviled and/or assisted by a trio of comic relief caricatures of the very popular Three Stooges. Going under assorted names – but most frequently under the collective sobriquet “The Three Dimwits” – the characters Blinky, Winky and Noddy were effectively harmless and all but forgotten comic characters.

Since passing the mantle of the Flash on to Barry Allen, Jay Garrick’s comic sidekicks only made a sparse few appearances, the last before their final appearance being all the way back in 2000. In 2009, James Robinson added them to the prodigious body count of his Cry For Justice series, alongside a bunch of gorillas, Global Guardians and other tertiary supporting characters.

The point of their brutal murder seems to have been to give veteran superhero some sort of additional motivation to do good – probably unnecessary since Garrick has been doing the superhero thing for more than seventy years. It’s like deciding in 2011 that television host Guy Fieri needs a reason to look like a shaved, greased ewok – he’s already doing that.

Back in the days of Animal Man, Grant Morrison postulated the existence of a comic book limbo where characters who’d fallen out of publication disappeared, awaiting their calls back up the ranks. It’s slightly funny and slightly embarrassing to imagine Winky, Blinky and Noddy being summoned to Limbo’s county line, being asked to step back into continuity. “You’re needed”, says an authoritative editorial voice, so they step up from Limbo into the hyper-reality of comics … and return less than five seconds later, newly murdered and subsequently re-forgotten…

*sad trombone*

Haha, yes it is.
The All-New Atom
To be fair, I wasn’t all that big a fan of the “all-new” Atom – he resembled the “Same-Old” Atom a little too much for my tastes. The leap from Golden Age Atom and pint-sized pugilist Al Pratt to Silver Age Atom and super-physicist Ray Palmer described a dramatic distinction. Meanwhile, Modern Age Atom Ryan Choi is (like his predecessor) a physicist from Ivy Town who wears a red-and-blue costume and shrinks. Yawnsville. OH BUT HE’S ASIAN I forgot. Worlds of difference.

Still, I didn’t want him brutally beaten and murdered, especially just to give gravitas to Ray Palmer – again, who’s already had character motivation for the last fifty years – and a supervillainess who murders with the heat from her va-jayjay. I’m not even kidding. God, I have a headache.

What makes Ryan Choi’s recent assassination so puzzling is that he’s been a frequent guest on the very popular Batman: Brave and the Bold cartoon, the primary source of media which is turning the current crop of kids into the fans of tomorrow. Just like the movies, television shows and cartoons of my generation’s youth informed our perception of a (Richard Donner-inspired) Superman, (Tim Burton-inspired) Batman and (Super Friends-inspired) Justice League, so too will Brave and the Bold form a lot of kids’ expectations about the comics they’ll be reading in a few years (and hopefully into adulthood).

To that end, they’re going to be a little surprised at their anglo Atom and even moreso that Aquaman is glumly hucking undead sea animals out of the waves…

"Just bein' a good guy, here, sittin' in my
good guy chair ..."
The Nation of Bialya
There is a rumor that, as 52 came to a close, Didio allegedly stuck his hand into the carefully simmering stew and demanded some big “event” storyline. Given the bloodiness of the big event – the plodding World War III - and how it upset the carefully-built house of cards up to that point, I’m comfortable taking that rumor at face value.

Furious at the leadership of the nation of Bialya for personal injuries and an invasion of his home country, Captain Marvel-baddie Black Adam goes on a super-speed murder spree. He manages to rack up an impressive genocidal bodycount of TWO MILLION people inside Bialya’s borders with his own two fists before the super-heroes of the world gather to curtail his afternoon-long indiscretion. That’s what we call focus.

Black Adam’s subsequent punishment was exceptionally mild and, for that matter, short-lived, but what made the storyline intolerable is that, somehow, the character came out of it still treading the line in DC’s decade-long is-he-or-isn’t-he love affair with the question of whether Black Adam is truly a villain or just a good man making very hard decisions.

I can answer that question for them: HE KILLED TWO MILLION PEOPLE. IN AN AFTERNOON. I can barely get my laundry put away in an afternoon, I’m going to have to call anyone who can kill in the seven digits before Judge Judy a go-getter for badness. Which he would be, you know, if all those deaths had a point beyond shock and gore …

Cute kid, right?
They smooshed her under a brick.
Lian Harper
The infant daughter of former Teen Titan Roy Harper and international assassin Chesire (it’s complicated), killed with tens of thousands of others – both showcased and not – in the godawful Cry For Justice.

Ostensibly, Lian Harper was killed so that Roy Harper – a former heroin addict – would have sufficient reason to backslide, lending the character a certain amount of gritty conflict as he struggled against the allure of drugs. Of course, he’d also just had his arm amputated and replaced with some exceptionally uncomfortable, phony baloney robot prosthetic and his mentor had killed a dude and also he’s apparently got erectile dysfunction (Thanks comics. Thanks for letting me know that) and, you know, he’s a professional recently promoted to the pinnacle of a pretty high-stress career where maniacs shoot at you all the time and also one other thing oh yeah he’s a former goddamn heroin addict.

So he had more than his fair share of reasons to pick up the needle once more, and the death of his daughter not only wasn’t really necessary – it was bad writing.

Obviously all of these horrible things happening to Roy Harper in turn are awful, but they also make him a man who has nothing to lose – and, frankly, with that being the case, I don’t see why he shouldn’t shoot up. If Lian Harper were still alive, then we’d have the potential for an interesting story – a man having suffered a crippling injury and struggling with a persistent addiction, but he has so much to live for in the person of his daughter, whom he loves more than life itself. Can our hero battle back his demons for the sake of his daughter and her best interests?

Good stuff there, potentially, but it’s moot now because she’s been smooshed dead. Roy Harper is literally a character with nothing to lose and nothing to live for, so … fuck him. What’s the upshot of him beating his addiction and becoming accustomed to his prosthetic and being able to get his wood up again (THANKS COMICS. THANKS SO FUCKING MUCH FOR THAT)? Narratively speaking, there’s nothing except what will probably be a poorly-received by-the-numbers four-issue miniseries, so that’s just … that’s just great.

That's actually a pretty good fuckin' question.


Adam said...

Thankyou so much for this. Hard to know where this trend started, but the watershed for me was Blue Beetle's seemingly endlessly replayed headshot. And every time they replay it in whatever recap they choose to, isn't the spatter so lovingly rendered, in silhouette or otherwise?

One thing I really enjoyed about the first 25 issues of the Giffen/Rogers/Hamner Blue Beetle series was how they managed to deal with his predecessor's death in a meaningful way without ever delighting in the gore.

Wooly Rupert said...

P.S. that Tumblr image you have of Black Hand offing himself is the exact moment I stopped actively collecting DC books. Good thing i flipped through it in the store or I might have accidentally bought the damn thing.

BillyWitchDoctor said...

Thank you from me as well. I stopped buying DC in the middle of 52, when I realized DC had become Evil Ernie Kills All the Superheroes without the pretense of satire. A group of nobody superheroes was assembled and promptly shredded (which has since become a recurring DC motif), including a buxom lass who was front-and-center in a splash panel, on her knees, screaming (already a recurring DC motif) as her entire head burned to a crisp. Boobs and guts; gore and hardcore misogyny.

And of course it's bled over into Marvel, where the occasional cheap-shot sales-boosting death has also become a mandatory regular event, often with with extra slatherings of grue. Doc Doom ripping a woman's heart out of her torso? YAY COMICS!

Bring this up at /co/ and regulars with tripcodes will all-cap you with SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP TARD because some people get very angry when you criticize their masturbation material.

It's depressing to see this be so popular (not just in comics, of course, the red flows everywhere now) because...well, screw Godwin's Law. Hitler didn't subjugate an innocent Germany with magic; the horror of Nazi Germany came to pass because people became dehumanized and dehumanized others, and then they found a little man who was happy to justify and implement their own brutality and viciousness.

And you know what they say about those who don't learn from history.

Wooly Rupert said...

I think what BillyWitchDoctor is saying is that Dan Didio is Hitler, and I have to agree.

Calamity Jon said...

I feel like I have an obligation to step in if only to suggest that it's probably not necessary to drag the Nazis into this - I mean, feel free to drag the Nazis into this, I just have certain club-rules responsibilities as the site owner to mention that we don't have to. Also, there's no running in the pool area and please return your brandy snifters to the brandy snifter washing bin when you've finished snifting your brandy.

Still, we don't need to invoke the Nazis to point out that it's a very small idea, the idea that life has no value. That it's become de rigeur for B- and C-Listers to bite it explosively and with no lasting narrative reasons - someone still owes me an explanation as to why Damage's character arc ended with an blowed-up heart - is really the sin of small minds.

One of the things which makes reading comics as an adult so frustrating is that, as adults, we've come to the understanding that the ideas in comics are so BIG that the actual physical stories have so much trouble living up to them - in fact, I've just underlined what is basically the thesis for this blog, that the ideas have so much potential and the stories simply cannot live up to them.

DC seems to have found a solution for this problem, specifically by making the ideas smaller. So small, in fact, that as long as a story features a bit of blood, a few explosions and somebody's girlfriend being murdered, it captures the idea completely.

-Your Humble Editor

Wilgus said...

This sort of article is why I continue to avidly recommend this blog to...the two other people in my life that are as into comics as I am. But hey, it needs to be freaking read. If I hear one more "Comics have grown up" speech I'm gonna vomit and then scream and then vomit again. The point is not whether or not comics have 'grown up' it's 'what have they grown up into?' Looks like they've grown up into a sexually frustrated serial killer who lives in his basement and carves up the neighborhood kids. Watchmen was great. We all know it, but it was a story that began and ended with a great deal of emotional and thematic impact. It was not meant to be a paradigm.

If D'kay D'razz can peel off the skin of an innocent suburban American family only to provide J'onn with a (drumroll please) CLUE!!! as to who did it, then Imma gonna gripe like hell. I guess the smell of freshly flayed corpses is a sufficient scent to set ol' greenskin on the trail, but c'mon! this is the kind of event entire films rotate around. That the shockwaves of this heinous crime are felt for as long as it takes to read the one panel where J'onn stands over the rotting bodies and says something to the effect of 'Hmmm...the particularly brutal character of these murders suggests the work of... no! it can't be!' and then just #*@!&ing flies off again kind of puts me in a state of existential terror. Like what's one family more or less? Entire movies rotate around events with half of this emotional heft. Good Lord, Didio you've crafted a disturbing world.

(Cue Plinkett voice here:) And don't gimme no Quentin Tarantino/Coen Brothers/Park Chan Wook-inspired crap. The reason those movies work is because time is actually spent on the ABSENCE of emotion. They don't just move on no questions asked.

Gotta admit though, I liked it when Black Lantern Ralph and Sue maced the Hawkpeople. Thought it set an effective tone for BN and it sufficiently shocked me. Now I know that it only did so because I haven't read enough DC to be sufficiently jaded to all the bloodbathing.

Wooly Rupert said...

I'm chiming in a lot on this one, but superhero comics were such a big part of my childhood, and late childhood and extremely late childhood and now I don't read any. And Didio is a large part of the reason for that. When is someone going to start hero RE-construction?

Mr. Preece said...

The underlying problem with pretty much all modern entertainment is that everything in it exists to communicate an EMOTION.

I'm not sure the creators care if the viewer is responding emotionally or the two are sharing an emotional moment. They just know that people will buy, click, or keep their finger off the remote so long as they content they experience attempts to transmit an emotion. Everything from SpongeBob to the news is scripted, shot, and edited solely to convey or illicit emotion. I am stunned at the utter lack of any real information in the media anymore. Headlines tell bald face lies, articles grossly distort facts, everything is implication and innuendo. But factual? Good luck finding the facts inside all those emotional elements. People often explain (defend) this as an interest in drama. But what is drama? It's just information delivered in an emotionally-structured manner.

Sadly, the emotion involved is not really expected to last beyond the moment. The next moment is equally emotionally charged and often not related to the previous moment. Because it doesn't matter. The consumer only cares that emotion is presented or created, and once anything requiring real thought is presented the consumer moves on to the next provider of emotion. We're devolving--as a society--into what Mirandola referred to as animals: creatures of sensation (but no intelligent thought).

Older fans or fans of older comics understand that Silver Age DC was primarily plot driven stories designed to touch on the reader's sense of wonder. While wonder is an emotion, a sense of wonder is equally intellectual because it elicited rational thought about the content. Marvel surpassed DC, in part at least, because it was "character-drive," which really means it focused on human drama. But Stan Lee also touched on our sense of wonder. The difference today is that comics seem to have abandoned any interest (or hope) in creating a sense of wonder and just going straight to the emotional delivery. Which is why Didio is obsessed with killing characters. It doesn't have to make sense (in fact, that would be a detriment). It just has to create the emotional moment that current consumers prefer.

Didio's greatest sin is that he took away from us the one major superhero universe that reveled in rationalism and converted it into another modern entertainment company--one obsessed with mindless emotional moments.

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