Why I Didn’t Care That Spider-Man Died
Originally I sat down with the intention of knocking together a review of the ‘Death of Spider-Man’ story arc that has taken place across the pages of ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ and ‘The Ultimates’. Instead I’m going to voice a gripe I’ve had with mainstream comics for some time.
The problem is thus: one of the most beloved icons in pop-culture just got beaten to death in front of his family and friends. As they wept I shrugged indifference, and my lack of care is entirely the fault of comic writers.
Not that it was a poorly written story, far from it. Brian Michael Bendis is one of the best writers currently working, seamlessly blending traditional comic book elements with modern sensibilities and themes. This particular story marks a massive 160-issue run with this character and brings together many popular characters and concepts. The writer of this singular plot thread is not to blame for the reader’s cold response to this event, but comic writers in general.
Over the 50+ years these characters have been in circulation they’ve accumulated an extensive backstory of events, cross-overs and alternate timelines which has produced a rich and confusing archive. The ‘Ultimate’ line that this story was featured in was an attempt to reboot the franchises, erasing their muddled histories and starting fresh, but it wasn’t long before they started doing the same things that lead to the need for a reboot. Parallel dimensions, alternate futures, clones and robot decoys all started turning up with alarming frequency. Worst of all – the dead characters started turning up alive.
Not in the fun way, when they start craving brains, but in the pointless way. Several characters, such as Professor X, Magneto, The Beast, Captain America, Hulk and Gwen Stacey had all met the reaper before reappearing in later issues with paltry excuses as to how and, after an initial shock, reintegrated into their respective teams without any further mention of the fact that they’re supposed to be six feet under. If you look at the wider comic universe you’ll find the number of heroes who’ve been killed and returned outnumber those who haven’t at a rate of at least 5:1. Superman, Flash, Iron Man, Green Lantern, Thor, two Robins and almost all the X-Men…even the almighty Batman himself now has the chance to find out just how many had attended his funeral.
Dramatic tension is what makes a story memorable, and putting a popular protagonist at risk is going to make things exciting. Killing your lead is a strong statement about the nature of the world they live in, and the sacrifices they make to save their loved ones and the world. When they turn up alive, whether through misunderstanding or reincarnation, it diminishes the meaning of their demise. And when comic writers pull this routine with the frequency that other writers start new pages it becomes completely meaningless.
Whilst the rest of the ‘Ultimate’ lines got more and more silly and eventually brought to an end (I’m directly blaming you, Jeff Leobb) ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ remained a beacon of quality and entertainment, mainly due to Bendis’ writing style. It’s one of only two ongoing comics I still read, so after ten plus years of solid character work you’d think that having him beaten to death on his front lawn surrounded by family and friends would generate more than the energy to close the book and put it back on the shelf. But instead it was a non-event. He’ll most likely be back in the next year or two and if not they’ll be another big, pointless superhero death to read about tomorrow. Hell, Nick Fury was gunned down a few pages earlier and he came back the next issue.
I’d much rather the writers let dead heroes lie. I doubt ‘Watchmen’ would benefit from bringing The Comedian back for a twist ending, or Rorschach for a sequel (which Warner Brothers are working on). If they can’t let the fallen stay dead, then at least stop killing them all the time.