Friday, September 25, 2009

Death of a Character, Part 1: The Replacements

Batman's dead. (Okay, probably should have put a spoiler in front of that, but if you read the comics you know this already. On the other hand, if all you know is the movies, it's unlikely this development will affect Christian Bale's next paycheck.) To the best of my knowledge this event hasn't made the kind of headlines that happened when they - in this case the overlords at DC comics - whacked Superman, probably because by now the death of a superhero is almost commonplace. Of course, this is Batman, and easily DC's #2 (or possibly #1 ) headliner, which makes it a major comics event.

This, in combination with a few other things, got me thinking about what happens when you kill off a character. In the case of Batman (and even, from what I remember, Superman) the fans aren't entirely up in arms because it's unlikely to be a permanent state of affairs. Though that's not a sure thing by any means. This is DC, after all, and while of late past dead heroes have been resurrected with alacrity, the original Flash was dead for quite some time. As was the Green Lantern. So Bruce Wayne might be MIA for a while. Or would that be KIA? Guess that depends on how optimistic you want to be on whether he comes back soon.

In the meantime, Batman continues, much as the Superman comics continued after his "death." In Batman's case they've replaced him with Dick Grayson, formerly known as Robin and then Nightwing. I admit to still reading comics, and so far I like what they've done with the storyline. This, of course, is the first option that comes when you kill off a character: you can replace them. With superheroes this works because they all wear masks anyway, and you don't even need to necessarily kill off the first guy (or gal): they can just retire. DC has an entire pantheon of retired characters, for example.

I think in order to make this approach work, you have to do a number of things. For starters, you have to have a role someone can step into in some fashion. With Green Lantern and the Flash, there was someone else to take over the role. Ditto for Batman. Even over at Marvel, when the original Spider-man bowed out (for a bit) they had someone with his powers who could fill the role. Which is another part to it: you have to have someone to fill the role. A third part, and perhaps one of the most important, is how you get rid of the original character.

Batman died fighting evil. Twice, actually, one in a helicopter crash, and then again later on an alien world. Somehow I like the crash better. But it makes sense, because he's never been the kind of character you see retiring in old age. You don't ever see him getting to old age (with the exception of a cartoon done in the mid to late 90's that I thought handled the issue well). With Spider-man, it turned out to be a clone. Yes, there was outrage that the story had been following an "imposter" and the Peter Parker everyone loved wasn't the real deal and hadn't been since a storyline in the 1970's. I was, at first, one of those outraged fans. Then Marvel Comics did this very nice little mini-series about what happened to the now spandex-free Peter Parker.

That mini-series sold me on the new direction. It gave a nice, satisfactory ending to the character that I had grown up reading, and (I thought) gave Peter the life he deserved. I started reading about the replacement, which brought a new set of storylines and perspectives to the character that, I thought, made a nice change. Marvel didn't stick to their guns, in part because I turned out to be in the minority on that one. They eventually brought Peter back (he wasn't the clone after all) in a storyline that was so convoluted it's become one of the hallmarks of what not to do with a character.

(Which raises another issue in killing off a character, that of what to do when you've changed your mind. More on that later.)

Once you've shuffled your primary character off to retirement, or free from their mortal coil, then you bring in the replacement. It can be a chance to take things in a new direction, explore what-ifs that you couldn't do with the original character, or any number of things that couldn't be done with version 1.0. Or it can be a chance for version 2.0 to be essentially version 1.0 but with a new costume or a girlfriend. (Like the Flash, for example. Or Green Lantern, though that loses points for creating one of the worst cliches regarding the mistreatment of women and being a wasted story opportunity. One of the reasons, I think, the original was resurrected.) In that case, it almost seems kind of pointless. What was the point of killing the character in the first place - other than potential shock value for the "death of" story - if he or she is just going to be replaced by a near carbon copy?

Not every character can be replaced, and often times the whole point of dropping an anvil on a character is because it's simply time to move on. In comics this most often happens with characters whose storylines have run dry. (Until the upswelling of outrage from the fans demands a retcon, of course.) In other media, this may a way to serve the needs of a larger story - often when the dying character is of importance, but not the central main character. Or it may be a way to serve the needs of the author, who has simply grown bored with, or is feeling hemmed in by their own creation.

The ones who stay dead will be the subject of Part 2.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

I guess comics are kinda like Soap Operas. They kill people off, but they're never really dead. Characters come back years later. Or sometimes they replace an actor or actress with another but it's never really the same.