Monday, September 5, 2011

The Walking Dead: Superheroes, Death and Culture

I recently read Secret Avengers number 15, which is part of the "Fear Itself" storyline.  It deals with the death of Captain America (again), and a tabloid that posts a story saying he is still alive.  It's actually a fairly decent (if somewhat unsatisfying) story that tackles the issue of the death and subsequent resurrection of superheroes and what it means to the people who populate that universe.  While it is a Marvel story, no comic book company that publishes superhero comics is immune to this scenario.  For all of you who don't know the superhero paradigm, it is this: Some die and come back.

Recently I have been engaged in a series of e-mails with a female friend about this very subject, so reading this issue coming off those e-mails made me think that this is a great time to write about it.  And in starting this post I remembered a conversation I had many years ago in Comic Castle (before it became a joke at the other end of town) in Eureka, California.

I was talking to a comic reader who was explaining why he stopped reading superhero comic books.  "The heroes don't stay dead," he said.  This is a serious complaint.

Comic books, like any artistic medium, are flawed.  You have the business aspect of them, which is often at odds with the artistic side of them.  Comic companies create these wonderful, endearing characters who become big money makers for them.  They reach icon status.  Sometimes they are killed in order to boost sales, but are brought back for the same reason.  It's the same thing that drives Coca Cola.  You can change the product, but you can't kill it off.  For the writers of these comic books, this corporate mindset creates a unique set of problems.  As a writer you typically don't own the characters you are writing.  You may want them to grow, but the comic company and a lot of the readers don't want to read that despite what they say.  If, as a writer, you take your story to its natural conclusion, it will often end in the death or retirement of a character.  The story will have finality, as is the case with most stories.  Again, this is at odds with what a comic company and its readership wants ... despite both of them saying they want progression and stories that keep up with the "times."  As a writer, it's a hard line to tow, but many do it.  Some better than others.  And any writer who kills off a character does so with the understanding that the character could be brought back at any time.

There is, however, one other aspect to consider -- cultural.  And this aspect is where the reader who stopped reading Batman and Captain America was caught.

I could understand him not wanting to continue reading the comics because characters he cared about didn't stay dead.  Their deaths meant something to him.  Bringing them back cheapened their deaths.  I think that is perfectly acceptable ... or at least it would've been if he really lived his life this way.

"Aren't you Christian?" I asked.  "Don't you believe in Jesus?  He died and came back."

"That," he explained, "is different.  Comics aren't real life."

No argument there.  I do, however, find it profoundly disturbing that one would apply rules to real life that they won't apply to fiction.  I can see someone taking the rules that apply to fiction and not applying them to real life.  That makes sense.  That's a sane and rational way to go through life.  I love the Star Wars franchise, but I don't think The Force has any bearing on real life.  If, however, I believed that people could move things with their minds but didn't like Star Wars because the concept of The Force seemed ridiculous, it would make me a hypocrite and irrational.  Yet people do this all the time and don't see an issue with it.

There are plenty of people throughout the world who believe Jesus came back to life.  Not only do they believe it, they also live their lives according to it (granted, often only when it is convenient).  Many of those believers are also comic book readers.  (Read the letters pages in back issues of Preacher if you don't believe me.)  Some of those have turned away from comics because the idea of a hero's resurrection somehow offends their sensibilities.  I can't be the only one to see a problem with this.

The opposing forces of capitalism and art are understandable and in many cases excusable.  From acts of capitalism we sometimes get great art.  From works of art there is often money to be made.  The opposing forces of morality versus fiction should be less of a problem, and can be when handled properly.  When you think a concept in fiction is unbelievable but yet live your life and establish your values under that same concept you have a serious problem.  It means you aren't making decisions based on logic, rationality or any sense of seriously defined rules.  I have no issue with people leading a life based on the concepts of religion, but when that person won't accept fiction with the same concepts because it isn't realistic it signifies to me that the person hasn't really thought about what he or she believes.  They haven't examined it, and they surely haven't figured out how it really applies to them in real life.

The idea that superheroes can die and be resurrected will never go away.  Green Arrow.  Captain America.  Bucky.  Superman.  Spider-Man.  The list is endless.  It will never go away because it generates money for publishers and readers, despite what they say, like it.  It is part of the comic book culture.  The idea of Jesus and his story will never go away, either.  It will continue to influence people into the foreseeable future.  I don't expect all followers of Jesus to be fans of comic books.  There are plenty of other viable reasons for comics to lack appeal to them.  I do, however, expect fans of comics who also believe in Jesus to either accept the fact that heroes die and are resurrected or seriously question what they believe when it comes to religion.  If you are one of those people, how do you get through life with such directly opposing views?  You either go through life thoroughly confused, or you haven't given your beliefs more than a few moments of serious thought.  I must admit that the latter is far scarier to me than the former.  Me?  I don't believe in Jesus, but I do enjoy superhero comics.  I know people don't die and get resurrected in real life, but I thoroughly understand the workings of capitalism and the idea that it can make for an engaging story.  The fact that I may have given more thought to my genre fiction than some people have given to their own values and morals scares the crap out of me ... as it should you, too.  If, of course, you're one to think of such things.

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