January 31st, 2011, 10:03 am

In Comics, Death Is What You Make It

So, if you haven't heard the comic book news, the Human Torch has been snuffed out. In Fantastic Four #587, Johnny Storm goes out in a literal blaze of glory saving his family from the big bad beasties which dwell in the Negative Zone. Marvel, of course, drenched the event in so much publicity the major media had no choice but to cover it (the House of Ideas even ran press releases the day before the issues were released.)

For an event like this, the question every fan (and many non-fans) ask is "When's he gonna come back?" Comic book deaths are notoriously non-permanent. But for us comic book writers, that's really not the meat of the matter. The question is not "When" or even "How" - instead the most important question is what happens between "Now" and "Then".

To illustrate this point, I submit the strange cases of Captain America and Batman. To catch up your non-comic book fans, both characters have died over the last couple of years - and no, you didn't miss anything - because both characters have since returned to life. While the circumstances of their demise are important, the real heart of the matter is always the same - how their loved ones move in.

"Captain America" illustrated this principle the best. After Captain America was assassinated by his enemies, his friends launch an all-out search for his assassins. The main cast includes Cap's ex-sidekick Bucky, his old partner Falcon, and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Sharon Carter (who unwittingly played a role in his assassination). For almost several months, the comic book "Captain America" plays out without its title character, and instead focuses on the implication of his death. Eventually, Captain America does return - in the form of Bucky, who takes over the mantle.

As you can expect, yes, Steve Rogers returns, having been inexplicably sent to another dimension with a dead Captain America in his place to throw everyone off. (If you think this plot is impossibly convoluted, wait until you see it used a second time.) However, here's the cool thing - Steve Rogers doesn't become Captain America like nothing ever happened. Instead, he retains his normal identity and leads a secret team of Avengers on spy missions - leaving his protege as Captain America.

With Batman, however, things are a bit more dicey. One again, Batman is supposedly killed - this time by Darkseid's Zeta beams. Like the fall of Alexander the Great, everything Batman has built is threatened by in-fighting over his mantle. When the smoke clears, Batman's first Robin, Dick Grayson, assumes the mantle, while Bruce Wayne's illegitimate son Damian Wayne (the grandson of Ra's al Ghul) becoming Robin. Jason Todd, Batman's troubled protege, becomes Grayson's arch-nemeis, the Red Hood, while the youngest Robin - Tim Drake - strikes out on his own in search for clues Bruce Wayne may be alive, with his one-time girlfriend Spoiler becoming the new Batgirl.

But Batman's dead, right? All that was left of him was a charred skeleton. Well, no, once again, Batman has somehow switched places with a conveniently placed corpse - and sent back to the beginning of human existence. After a time-spanning mini-series, Bruce Wayne returns. He then publicly announces he has been "funding" Batman from the beginning (which is, I suppose, technically true) and then launches "Batman Inc." - a corporate anti-crime initiative funding Batman-like vigilantes across the globe.

The "Batman Inc." storyline is more recent, and hasn't really played out to its fullest yet - but it does miss marks for biting off more than it can chew. Now there are two Batmen - Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson - and possibly more on the way. Worst, everything leading up to this seems to be either filler or prologue. Unlike Captain America, readers knew Batman would be back one way or the other since an issue after his death, making his return more or less an inevitability.

So where does all of this leave the Human Torch? Well, hopefully, not still in another dimension (which, given his Negative Zone death, might just be the case). The original numbering of "Fantastic Four" is coming to an end next month (though not for the first time), leaving the team in considerable limbo. What happens when the Fantastic Four loses one of its own? Are they the Fantastic Three? Does the team even exist? And more important, does the family?

The two examples both are similar in two regards. First, they put their emphasis on what comes after the superhero's death instead of what just leads up to it. Hopefully, the writers of the soon-to-be-titled "FF" has something in mind to keep our cosmic-irradiated heroes down a dynamic path. But second, the creative teams of both "Captain America" and "Batman" were able to control how their characters returned to the fold. It might seem cynical, but it's also practical - doing so allowed them to maintain their character development without having it erased when a new creative team unceremoniously brought the character back.

Hopefully, Johnny Storm's death is, like the examples above, more of a means to grow their characters as opposed to a cheap media ploy. It could go either way at this point, but I, like many other comic fans, are anxious to see just where Marvel's First Family go now that the flame has been put out.

(That's it for this Monday's rant. Tune in for more concept art on Wednesday and don't forget tomorrow is the deadline for the Blue Yonder Death Knell contest!)

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