Thursday, January 27, 2011

Culture Shock 01.27.11: Death isn't really even trying anymore

Ever since "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" proved you couldn't keep an iconic sci-fi/fantasy character down, death has pretty much been a revolving door.

So, I wasn't too upset when The Associated Press spoiled the week's big superhero news by revealing — a day before the comic book hit the shelves — which member of the Fantastic Four was fated to die this week.

Spoilers: The Human Torch has flamed out.

OK, it wasn't too big a surprise, anyway. It was his turn. By my count, every other member of the Fantastic Four has either died or been presumed dead at least once. Most recently, the Thing died only for his teammates to break into heaven and convince God himself — who looks suspiciously like Fantastic Four co-creator Jack Kirby — to bring the Thing back to life.

Johnny Storm's hot-headed alter ego was the only FF member who hadn't yet danced with the Grim Reaper. Now he has. So it goes.

Rest assured, however, that Johnny will be back. They almost always come back, even characters who are supposedly dead for good.

An old joke among comic-book fans is that no one in comics stays dead except Captain America's WWII sidekick Bucky, Batman's second sidekick Jason Todd and Spider-Man's Uncle Ben. At least that was the joke until Bucky and Jason both returned — and the less said about how Jason returned, the better. Only poor Uncle Ben remains a stiff, just to make sure Spider-Man never forgets that with great power comes great responsibility.

Bucky's return was especially fortuitous. He came back just in time to become the new Captain America when the original, Steve Rogers, died.

And not too long after Jason Todd returned, Batman kicked the bucket, too. But everyone still hates Jason — his death two decades ago was a contract hit ordered by readers who called a 900 number — so the original Robin, Dick Grayson, took Bruce Wayne's place instead.

Not that any of that matters, because Steve Rogers and Bruce Wayne are both back from the grave, and currently there are two Captain Americas (although Steve isn't using the name or costume) and two Batmans running around. And that probably means somebody else is going to have to die soon.

This all started in 1992, when DC Comics discovered it could sell a lot of books by somehow convincing people that it was really and truly killing off its flagship character. "The Death of Superman" was a big hit for DC and generated lots of free publicity.

Superman returned a year later, but since then, more characters than I can possibly recall have died and gotten better. Here's a sample:

Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), the Flash (Barry Allen), Kid Flash, Superboy, Wonder Woman, and — from just among the X-Men — Colossus, Cyclops, Psylocke and Magneto.

At least two major X-Men characters, Nightcrawler and Jean Grey, are currently dead. But Jean is the Phoenix, and it's a running joke that she keeps coming back no matter how many times she dies. It's implied right there in her codename. It's her super power. (If only she had the superhuman ability to make the third X-Men movie watchable.)

DC Comics is even in the middle of a miniseries, "Brightest Day," that is specifically about characters who have died and come back: Aquaman, the Martian Manhunter, Hawkman and Hawkgirl, etc. It's really becoming ridiculous, and there are lots of characters I'm leaving out.

It's even spilling over to television. Just a week ago, the proposed Wonder Woman TV series from producer David E. Kelley was dead, having been rejected by every network. This week, it's alive and well at NBC.

So, yeah. The Human Torch died. And that was news — for a day.

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