Monday, December 27, 2010

Three Little Indians

My family likes to forward me news articles relating to comics. This morning I was sent a link to the mainstream media’s coverage of an upcoming death in the Fantastic Four. Apparently Marvel is killing off yet another great character in the hope of driving up sales. While superheroes have been dying and coming back to life since the genre was created, some kind of threshold was crossed with the Death of Superman saga back in the 90s and the latest incarnation of this new level in hero-death was Captain America’s assassination a few years ago. We’ve already read that Spider-Man is getting “killed” this year, and I use scare quotes because, let’s be frank, none of these deaths ever stick. The one that should have stuck, Jim Starlin’s amazing Death of Captain Marvel, got rolled over and grilled by Peter David so, really, nothing’s sacred anymore.

But let’s get to the point of this post and turn our jaded eyes on the Fantastic Four and see if we can predict who will be flying that stolen rocket ship into the sky … permanently.

The Human Torch
When an old man dies it’s sad, but when a young kid dies it’s tragic. This is the only reason why a writer would kill Johnny Storm. Well, that and the possibility that you can’t think of anything else to do with the character. But usually, when you are stuck on what to do with a hero, you just give him new powers or take him in a Bold New Direction. Killing him is a pretty radical step and it’s an admission of failure. “Yeah, Johnny Storm is kind of boring. I don’t know what to do with him. So I’m gonna waste the fucker.” I have more faith in writers. But the truth remains: If Johnny Storm died, few people beyond the Richards family and Peter Parker would much care.
Chance of Death: 1/4

Mister Fantastic
Because Reed is the ostensible leader of the team, a husband and father, he would normally be a prime candidate for death. However, Reed has already “died”, and the last time wasn’t even that long ago. There are a lot of good stories to tell about a Fantastic Four without Reed Richards; the only trouble is that other people have already told them. The story about Sue as a widow, grieving for her husband has been done. The story in which she finally admits that she can love someone else (like Namor!) has been done. The story in which Sue steps up to officially lead the team has been done. They weren’t necessarily done very well, but they were done. So there’s some hunt left in this dog, because a writer might decide that all those other stories about dead Reed sucked, and this time we can do it right, and there might even be something to that, and I would like to read a good version of those stories, but the odds are that Reed is still enjoying death protection from his last dance with this particular girl.
Chance of Death: 2/4

The Thing
Ben Grimm is one of the best characters in the Marvel Universe, and as any reader of Tolkien knows, it’s always the most sympathetic character that gets pasted. If it was otherwise, the death would not be as effective. Ben is an everyman, and when he dies, we see ourselves dying. When everyone lines up to mourn their good friend, what we see is our own fantasy about the aftermath of our own death – a death attended by thousands of crying friends and family who say, “He may have been a little rough around the edges, but he was a good person. The best person we ever met.” Having gone through a long adjustment period in which he got used to being a monstrous freak, the Thing has become one of the most down to earth and normal guys in comics. He is everybody’s best friend. He is the guy who hosts the weekly poker night for superheroes. He wins the vote for “superhero I most want to have a beer with.” Not to mention he’s got a longtime steady girlfriend, a nephew who adores him (and whom he loves more than life itself), a neighborhood who sees him as their personal hero, a rabbi, and a noble self-sacrificing streak. If I were a classicist, I would kill Ben off only after he had finally been returned to normal. He’d probably be “human” for all of about 16 pages before he falls on a bomb or something to save everyone else on the team. But this would be removing his pathos, which is part of what makes him great. In any case, Ben is definitely a likely suspect for this year’s 4-chamber Russian roulette.
Chance of Death: 3/4

The Invisible Woman
As any follower of Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators can tell you, if there is one sure-fire method for building pathos and tragedy in superhero comics, it can be summed up as “Do something awful to the girl.” For this reason alone, the laser targeting system begins to turn on Susan Storm Richards, but to this we can add the fact that Sue is, and pretty much always has been, the lynchpin of this team. It would simply fall apart into a bunch of dysfunctional pieces were she to suddenly absent herself. And this story, too, has been told many times. Reed will become a closeted scientist working feverishly on his next project, going unshaven and progressively more crazy, reverting into the bizarre mash-up of Hank Pym and Mr. Freeze that he always would have been, had he no Susan to lure him back into the real world. Ben, who has always loved Sue, will be completely devastated but will remain the rock (har har) for the rest of the family, especially little Benjamin, who will have lost his mother. Even Johnny will have to grow up; they may even make him “dark and gritty” again. Heaven help us.

The story of a team’s breakup in the wake of the death of its mother figure has been told many times in many books, which is normally a reason to think this time will be otherwise. But the comic industry’s ability to pile pain, torture and death onto its female characters in the name of shock, pathos and tragedy is beyond measure.
Chance of Death: 4/4

If I were a gambling man, the money would be on Sue. But if I were living in the 21st century and I were instead an investment banker, I would securitize Ben just to cover my potential losses. Then, when Johnny Storm gets turned into the Human Doormat by Dr. Doom, I would get a Marvel bailout.


  1. "Do something awful to the girl." One of the most tedious things about the comics industry.