Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On a week of Death, part 2 - Fictional

In amongst the real-world sadness of the past couple of days, several comics were released today that dealt with death as well, two about the reactions of loved ones, one an actual death, or more correctly a confirmation of what readers assumed from events two weeks hence.

Dan Slott and Marcos Martin presented a heart-rending memorial to a character the general public has never heard of in Amazing Spider-Man #655. In the previous issue, J. Jonah Jameson's wife Marla was killed in an attack by the Spider-Slayers, creatures who, in the various years hence, she helped design, and JJJ helped finance. This issue dealt with the ways various characters dealt with said passing.

The first 11 pages of the 32-page story are silent, and utterly gripping. It's not just a case of not hearing what people are saying, it's people not speaking, too shaken by events to do anything but shuffle mutely through their day and the communal sadness of the funeral of a friend. Considering the emotion portrayed in the pages, I'll lay odds that even sans dialogue, the script for them is as long as the rest of the book.

The remainder of the issue is a massive dream sequence, courtesy the guilt-besotted subconscious of one Peter Parker. He sees and talks with all the people who he is directly and indirectly responsible for the death of, from Uncle Ben , right up to Marla. Some were killed as he faught, some in revenge by villains, and one he killed himself. They all demand their moment with him, some asking for explanation, some just marching by, reminding him of his actions.

The issue ends with Peter making a vow to himself, one that also serves as the title to the two-part story - "No One Dies". It's a moving promise, but tragically, one that can almost never be kept. Peter has spent his life taking the weight of his misdeeds (real and imagined) onto his shoulders - this decision, all but doomed to eventual failure, is going to shatter him, and send him to a place that will spawn great literature.

Dan's writing has been stellar as far back as his Arkham Asylum mini for DC - losing him to Marvel stands as one of DC's biggest business missteps in recent history. As good as he's been on She-Hulk, Thing, et al, he seems almost genetically bred to write this title. He once posted a picture of his refrigerator - under a series of upcoming covers stand the words "YOU GET TO WRITE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN" emblazoned in multicolored alphabet magnets. The sheer joy that oozes from his pores as he writes this book shows on the page. This issue has no joy, of course, but his deep knowledge of the character shows as he includes mentions and cameos of characters that you were convinced you were the only one who remembered them. I saw Tim Hammond, AKA "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man", for pete's sake.

They are going to have to pry this book from Dan's withered and arthritic hands, and I'll be there with a stick to smack the people who try it.

In the years since the great unpleasantness that was One More Day, one artist has risen from nowhere to be the most stunning creator Marvel has. He is Dan's favorite collaborator Marcos Martin, and he doesn't just handle the art on this issue, he makes it his bitch. Already sporting a thin line and sparse design that demands positive comparisons to Steve Ditko, he piles on layout tricks that defy description. Cinematic and moody camera angles and in-page tryptyches to denote passages of time challenge other creators to keep up. A double page spread of an Inception-style spiraling midtown, centered at the Flatiron building, is at once staggering and still ultimately readable. You will draw Norbert one day, Mr. Martin. This I swear.

One More Day will never be forgotten. Brand New Day Almost got it forgiven. Big Time, the plot arc Dan has been writing now that he's the sole writer on the book, is good enough to let it be put on the shelf and not brought up anymore. Spider-Man is joyous, broad and the most fun it has been in years.

While Spider-Man is experiencing a rebirth, modern Marvel's first title experienced and ending this week. Fantastic Four ends its run (insert cynical eyebrow raise here) with an issue dealing with the MU's communal reaction to the death of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in the previous issue.

Now as I've said before, death in comics is at best, fleeting. With Johnny's demise, now ALL FOUR MEMBERS of the Fantastic Four have now died, at least one more than once, and all have come back hale and hearty, save (so far) for Johnny. He died (allegedly) in the Negative Zone, an extradimensional space where the laws of physics are scarcely suggestions. There's no body - first rule of comic-book death; no body, no death. The only real purpose for a character to die in comics, honestly, is to provide a good story. And Jonathan Hickman has done so.

Like in Spider-Man, the issue is silent, tho in this case it's the entire story, save for the last panel. Unlike Spider-Man, the reactions are not all sullen and quiet. Valeria Richards declares (via a to-do list on a blackboard) the aim of her organization of savants is to kill Annihilus. Reed apparently tries to with the help of the Ultimate Nullifier (Though one could argue this was a dream sequence). Ben Grimm has a cathartic episode with the help of Thor and the Hulk, and Franklin Richards has a heart-to-heart with Spider-Man in a backup story where they remember their respective uncles, both of whom they feel they could have saved, has they only acted.

It's a good issue, albeit with (IMHO) somewhat weak and decidedly muddy art. Hickman has done a great deal to get the FF back to its "Cosmic" level, where it belongs. The issue sets up a number of plot threads that will be picked up in the new title, FF (Future Foundation) starting next month. But in honesty, like the deaths of so many tentpole characters in the past, I have no belief it will stand. I have no doubt Hickman will tell great stories, ones that may not deal with Johnny's return at all. But ultimately, they will bring him back with great pomp and circumstance, re-lauch the Fantastic Four title, and return us to the first-position at which we feel the most confortable. There's just too much money on the table from licensing, movie rights, etc, for any major changes to take place.

It's the desire to return to square one that annoys me the most with the third major comic book death this week, the confirmation of the passing of Jaime Reyes, the new Blue Beetle in Justice League: Generation Lost. After the headshot max Lord gave him last issue (a thematic bookend to the one he gave to Ted Kord in Countdown to Infinite Crisis), Reyes was declared DOA on the last page of the latest issue, surprising no one.

Reyes was met with the most vehement opposition of a new character since Kyle Reyner replaced Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. In both cases, the fans saw the change as a deliberate attempt to generate hype for a new character at the expense of the old, at the cost of the original's entire fanbase. The fact that Jaime was Hispanic was seen as insult to injury by (too damn) many, claiming it was just another attempt to "cram another minorty character down our throats".

I am a huge Ted Kord fan. But I'm honest enough to know why they killed him off. He was burnable. He had his fans, but ultimately, little enough had been done with lately that he could be used as a plot point to spark a big new story. Unlike what they did with Martian Manhunter in Final Crisis or even Bart Allen in the final issue of his run of the Flash book, they did so with no plan to bring Ted back, or indeed, any desire to.

But a couple of very strange things happened. First off, the new Blue Beetle was really really good. The first few issues co-written by Keith Giffen were good, but when he left and John Rogers took the reins, it kicked into high gear. Several issues (especially an issue-long fight with Typhoon, who will forever be known in my head as "The Giant Naked Bad Man") stood as the best issues of their moth of release. Second, Ted Kord started getting a LOT more respect. In the Blue Beetle book, in Booster Gold, and elsewhere across the DCU, writers started doing stories about how Ted was not the BWAH-HAH-HAH guy we got used to in JLI, but a solid detective, a great adventurer, and generally deserving of far more respect by both the hero and reader community. He got more ink after he died than in easily the last five years previous. Death was the best thing to happen to him.

But the hardcore Tedfen wouldn't give in. They stubbornly refused to sample the title, regardless of the fact that in many cases, it was exactly the kind of fun lightheated entertainment they were demanding more of from DC.

DC responded by doing an end-run. They made Jaime a featured character on the new Batman: The Brave and the Bold series, exposing him to more people than any issue of any DC issue could. But even there they gave tribute to Ted, featuring him in a couple stories, voiced by Wil Wheaton. The Beetle action figures regularly sold out faster than others in the assortments - Jaime was a breakout star. He's going to be featured on Smallville soon, along with Booster Gold.

But the petulant comics fans kept on whining. And regardless of the number of fans he's collected in the past few years, they chose to take him out in the same fashion )and pose) as Ted, as a sort of apology. And in both cases, the death served to show what a badass Max lord was.

Now again, I don't expect this to last. Specifically, I don't think it'll last more than a couple weeks. (Jaime shows up in an upcoming issue of Supergirl, so that's a pretty big clue, or a really clumsy mistake). But what infuriates me is that there are thousands of people reading the last two issues, pumping their fists in the air and saying "YEEESSSSSsss!!!!"

I invite those people to line up and kiss my pudgy ass.

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