Monday, January 25, 2010
Death and Rebirth in Comics
Anyone who reads comics knows that death is never permanent. From Superman, to Jean Grey, to Collosus, we’ve all seen these characters bite the big one only to return triumphantly from the grave a year or two later (or in the case of Bucky, close to sixty years later). The death of a major comic book hero has always equaled big money. But in the grander scheme of things, I dare to ask if death in comics is really death, or is it instead the “spiritual or superhuman component“ of the hero’s overall journey that Joseph Campbell often refers to in the book The Power of Myth.
The death of a hero in comics is for the most part always physical, and usually results from the hero sacrificing him or herself while performing some sort of courageous act in the midst of battle or in trying to save the life of another. In some cases, it involves preserving an ideal (as was the case of Captain America). When these same characters come back to the land of the living, it’s usually due to the fact that they were never truly dead, but were either in cryogenic stasis, their superhuman bodies either shut down or were in a sort of coma-like/ cocoon status, or they actually evolved to a higher state of consciousness, as was the case of Thor at the end of the Ragnarok story-arc by Michael Oeming. In other cases, the hero actually faces Death and either fights his or her way back to the land of the living or makes a deal with the Grim Reaper to return.
In all the instances above, the examples I’ve given are all part of the journey of the “hero” whether we’re talking about comics or other great works of fiction. Generally the rebirth of a hero involves some sort of spiritual reawakening and could also involve a psychological or physical transformation as well.
While we’ve seen numerous accounts of what happens to the hero after his rebirth in works of literature like The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, the journey of the hero doesn’t quite follow the same path in comics. Usually, there are a few issues devoted to what happened to the hero while “dead” and the changes that have occurred within him or her, but generally these are often swept under the rug or rebooted a couple of months or years later.
Take Jean Grey of the X-Men for example. She’s died and been reborn so many times in comics, that it’s almost become a running gag. After her first “death” in issue #137 of Uncanny X-Men, many readers were shocked that such a major character would be allowed to die. Back in 1983, death in comics was still a relatively rare occurrence. But Marvel editorial wanted to bring Jean back to absolve her of all evil deeds she committed during the famous Dark Phoenix storyline.
After a couple of years of leaving Jean dead, Marvel created a plotline where the Avengers find a strange pod lying on the bottom of Jamaica bay, which they then send to Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four for further investigation. During the investigation, the pod cracks open and Jean emerges, with no memory from her time as Dark Phoenix. After much probing of Jean’s mind, it is discovered that Jean was, in fact, approached by a cosmic psychic entity known as the Phoenix Force. The Phoenix Force copies Jean's physical form and merges with a portion of Jean’s soul/consciousness, while the “real” Jean remains in a coma-like state at the bottom of Jamaica Bay. The Phoenix Force winds up destroying planets and thousands upon thousands of people. Jean is ultimately exonerated of the evil deeds that she committed as Dark Phoenix. She goes on to found X-Factor with her original X-Men teammates. After a couple of issues of adjustment back in the land of the living, Jean is back to her regular superhero ways with little mention of the destruction she caused as Phoenix and later Dark Phoenix.
Perhaps comic book companies feel that readers will ultimately become disinterested with these characters and their higher states of being and awareness. Perhaps they feel that the essence of the character is being lost or perverted.
I, for one think it could add another design to the rich tapestry of these characters and present new trials and tribulations for them. Imagine, a Thor at the end of Ragnarok dying, evolving to a higher state and dealing with cosmic and high-level celestial beings rather than his usual rogues gallery of the Wrecking Crew, the Absorbing Man or the Juggernaut. Why not take a chance and add a new mythological layer to these already established characters?
I know I’d pay money to see that.
Image courtesy of MajorSpoilers.com