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Guest Post: Made Mortal

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

It was the biggest comic book event of all time, and it started as a joke. 

According to the writing team and a mini-documentary that accompanied the recent animated release Superman: Doomsday, one of the writers suggested, “Let’s just kill [him].” Of course, no one took this seriously. At least not at first, not until a major decline in sales of Superman titles did the idea move from jest into print, changing the comic industry forever.

In the documentary Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, DC Comics editor Mike Carlin recalled the motivation for the killing off an icon, “The world was taking Superman for granted.” And so the writers, with the publisher's blessing, decided to show us all what a world without Superman would be like. 

The decision payed off for DC right away; Superman: Doomsday sold faster than a speeding bullet. Gaining immediate media attention, the incident helped to sell not only the Superman and Justice League comic books, but boosted sales for all of DC's titles. Fans needed to experience the reactions of each DC Comics hero to the death of Superman.

Something else also happened: there were limitless possibilities for comic book writers. The implied message was “Anything goes!” There were no more limitations. If DC could kill off the biggest name in fiction, then nothing was sacred.

The effect would soon be apparent. Soon other heroes became as mortal as the Man of Tomorrow. Hal Jordan, the most popular Green Lantern, would not only meet his own death but embark on a killing spree against his very own Corps and the Guardian who oversaw it. Bane would cripple Batman, prompting a new version updated for the nineties with armor and little moral regard for the welfare of criminals. The comic book universe descended into something much more... real.

Where comics were once a haven for children to dream about adventure and heroic feats, an evolution began where the world in which the heroes and superheroes lived is no long devoid of danger. Where once the Joker was content with kidnapping and practical jokes, he soon became a deranged mass murderer. Spouses and sidekicks could die. Icons were no longer safe. An entirely new universe opened up. 

To be fair, Superman’s death was not the first in the superhero world. In 1973, the Green Goblin killed Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Batman’s second incarnation of Robin, Jason Todd, died in 1988 at the behest to fans. One of the original X-men, Jean Grey, has died and returned a dozen times as the Phoenix or Madeline Prior or the Goblin Queen or Marvel Girl and so on. Of course, due to the character’s lack of appeal, or the belief that their roles in their respective worlds were becoming redundant, their deaths could not have the same effect as Superman's.

It was inevitable that the comic book industry would change. As the men and women who read the original more innocent incarnations of these heroes who foiled inept bank robbers or saved cats from trees became knowledgeable adults, the genre was bound to change. Using the classic archetypes they grew up with, these adults took their heroes and pressed them with difficult and complex dilemmas yet to be seen and realized. An attempt to make superheroes identifiable and their adventures more visceral. Batman is now a brooding and mentally scarred billionaire, Superman a lonely alien with no true home, and the Green Lantern a former marine now with the duty to protect the galaxy.

The super hero realm now involves death, rape, and massive universal events. The stories are more real, the heroes more human, but lost is the innocent wonder they initially gave us. The story arcs, now riddled with moral ambiguity also contain violent acts no longer appropriate for the same age range to which comics originally appealed, perhaps reflecting a change in the target audience or perhaps reflecting the evolution of medium in general. While as an adult, I enjoy the new and complex story arcs facing my heroes, I long for simpler times.

two comments

Personally, and when we start our other website I’ll explain this more, comics shouldn’t kill their main characters. They shouldn’t unmask them, or make them president. These are serialized stories, and I want certain elements to remain the same each time I watch/read them.

Take Spiderman. If I read a spiderman book, I want 1) funny quips. 2) suspense and action. 3) A little something to leave home with.

Unfortunately, most comic’s priorities are the opposite. Sucks.

The problem is that these are fluid and everlasting characters. Which also means they are ever changing. The Spider-man you know and love may not be the same as the older generation or the younger generation. That the problem with the never ending comicbook universe.