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The Cycle of Death and Resurrection in Superheroes

Wherein I draw another comparison to pro wrestling.

   Even a second-stringer like Captain Marvel's best-known story is about his death.
 Even a second-stringer like Captain Marvel's best-known story is about his death.

With a promo for the DEATH OF SPIDER-MAN on the cover of PREVIEWS and the Source hinting at a revisit of the DEATH OF SUPERMAN, it’s clear that death is in the air. 

Think about it, all the major heroes - - Batman, Thor, Green Lantern, Iron Man, Flash, Aquaman - - have gone through major “death and rebirth” story-lines  recently. G-Man has noted that death has been striking the X-books, in particular (who misses Nightcrawler and Cable already?) and he's curious if it's just about stunts to grab attention. It might be. This is a genre about sensationalism and you can't get more sensationalist than threatening (and making good on threats of) a hero's life.

I was still “lil’ Tommy P” when the DEATH OF SUPERMAN first rolled out in the 90s and, at the time, it felt like no other comics-borne event could ever make as big a wave on pop culture. It was like dropping a mountain in the ocean. A telling anecdote from my own experience is that I remember seeing comics related to the event getting auctioned on some channel (the name escapes me) and the auctioneers were talking about how some people had even cried when they found out Supes died. Wooo... I don't think even Chewbacca's death in that STAR WARS novel got as dramatic a reaction.  Then again, I’ve talked to guys who were comic store managers at the time and they've said that all the fans knew Supes' death was going to get reversed - - the return was even solicited in PREVIEWS at the same time the death itself hit the stands! It was the mainstream who was duped; which is basically what happened again with Cap's death. == TEASER ==

   It's a lot like the time the Undertaker
 It's a lot like the time the Undertaker "died" at Summer Slam.
Clearly, when it comes to this kind of thing, some of the audience is savvy about deaths and some aren't. It reminds me a bit of the divisions between "marks" and "smarks." Many compare superhero comics to pro-wrestling and, as a fan of both, I think the comparison's apt. For those of you who aren’t as familiar with rasslin’ slang (who don’t know your red masks from your cheap heat) a mark's a viewer who totally falls for the show's theatrics. He's the one who thinks the storyline's "real." A "smark," (smart mark) is fan who knows wrestling's fake, but goes along with the act anyway. Similarly, seasoned comics fans know all-too-well that dead heroes return, but realize it's still fun to play along. 

Furthering the comparison, there's a division between "shoot" and "kayfabe." Shoot is reality. That’s when the wrestlers are actually hitting eachother or speaking out of character. Kayfabe is the storyline as presented. But the lines often blur. Say Hulk Hogan gets a black eye during a jet ski accident. He’s got to explain the shiner on TV. Hence, he cooks up a fake story about how he got jumped by the Million Dollar Man’s goons prior to the show. Similarly, if a wrestler needs some time off, the storyline will have him get injured or “retired” when he’s really just on vacation. With a little imagination, I can’t help thinking of these deaths as being equivalent to that. Spidey’s been fighting bad guys for years and years. When he needs to go take a break in the Bahamas, he “dies” and returns only after he's properly rested.

   A chart makes everything legitimate.
 A chart makes everything legitimate.
On a loftier note, I'll invoke Joseph Campbell. When you’re dealing with stories about characters who throw punches, swing swords and fire guns on a weekly basis, violence is pretty much the underlaid constant. Hell, it’s the underlying theme of heroic adventure in general. Look at Campbell’s famous and oft-referenced “monomyth” cycle and you’ll notice that the "Abyss" dealing with “death and rebirth” is a pretty big spoke on the wheel.  Hal Jordan dying and coming back to life is probably as instrnsic to his hero’s journey as the “beginning of transformation” threshold he crosses upon receiving his power ring.    And that the fact that this chart's a cycle shouldn't be lost on anybody.
With all that in mind, I don't think these deaths are much of an anomaly. If there's a threat of audiences growing tired of them, then there has to be a risk of them getting tried of summer crossovers and sidekicks eventually getting promoted. That's part of the experience and part of the fun - - even if you can see the outcome before has even appeared.

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of  HYBRID BASTARDS! & UNIMAGINABLE . Order them on Amazon here & here.  Follow Tom on Twitter: @tompinchuk