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There are two constants in this world: death & taxes. And because no one wants to watch the X-Men note their deductibles in a double-sized gate-fold covered extravaganza, we see a lot of death in comics. Much like origin stories, deaths are a reward to read because we are witness to moments of change and a new beginning in an old, familiar life.
By now I take it for granted that everyone knows who Spider-Man is. Pop culture has evolved in such a way that people can recognize a lot of obscure heroes that we normally reserved for the True Believer. But that doesn’t mean people know everything and, like I said, people are excited to be there when it first happened, or even just when the last thing happened.
Ratings go up when the last episode of a television show airs. No one ever asks me at my comic shop for the most recent volume of the Walking Dead when they are inspired by the new TV show, they want the first volume even though it will recap some information they’ve already seen. Marvel’s Point One program could be that entry point for curious readers who at least know the basics, but want to have that thrill of being there when it first happened, whatever that may be.
Then what? Yeah, we all want to be there when Peter slings his first web or when the puny Banner transforms into the brutish Hulk for the first time, but there’s always more to that story than just its beginning. You can’t just string a bunch of events together, over and over, starting something and never finishing it. Stories that highlight this brave new start have to go on after that moment and never be the same again. If you use a death to highlight a moment in your story, things simply can’t return to normal the next issue. These beginnings and endings have to matter for the reader to be enticed to the next issue. Sure, Stacy X died in an issue of the most recent incarnation of the New Warriors, but that death meant nothing to the greater comics stories at large, no one important took it to heart and most likely she’ll come back as a zombie or a movie cameo, and that moment will be empty.
Two books came out this week in a double whammy of mourning, teaching me at least a little about how to do these beginnings and endings right. I’d like to give these two issues a toast, to the future of these characters and the undiscovered country that awaits them both.
(WARNING: Hey everybody, people died in comics! If you don’t know who these people are or haven’t caught up on the Fantastic Four or Amazing Spider-Man, please go do so. These are pretty phenomenal books right now, and they will win you over with excellent storytelling and astounding artwork. If you already know who lives and dies, read on and let’s discover some country. Read on!)
Looking at Fantastic Four #588 first because it’s alphabetical, and I still file Amazing Spider-Man under “Spider-Man” and not “Amazing,” we find ourselves staring at the end of an era. The last issue of the Fantastic Four has been printed, and we say goodbye to the most familiar incarnation of Marvel’s first family. Okay, it’s hard to say the above with a straight face because of how many times the roster has changed, family members have left or died or become the Fantastic Five or what have you. The idea of ending such a historical book seems pretty ludicrous, but really, let’s put aside some doubt and pretend that this is all permanent. Hickman and Dragotta weigh you down with this possible eventuality in a mostly silent issue full of dark, over-inked eyes haunting you from panel to panel. Each member of the Fantastic Four, from the kids and Susan to Avengers like Thor and Hulk, even their villains like Namor and Doctor Doom just seem crushed through heavy artwork and the lack of words to ease your through this loss. There are no words, just the empty absence of of a loved one. Each member of the family changes in this issue, they grow a little darker, get a little harder, either in focus or determination until by the end of things, the reader is grateful for the surprise twist at the end. It seems family might bring them together once more.
Personally speaking, there hasn’t been as good a memorial issue as this since the Death of Betty Banner in Incredible Hulk #467, where what had happened in the last issue forced a scar in the book that they really still haven’t recovered from. I know Betty Banner is technically alive as the Red She-Hulk, but her marriage to Bruce Banner and the life she had before will never come again. The Fantastic Four seem so shaken and burdened by this tragedy, it’s almost like they can’t live in this house anymore, metaphorically speaking. They need to reinvent themselves because the world they lived in just doesn’t exist without Johnny Storm anymore. Seeing Nathaniel Richards at the end of the book is such a relief because this means we won’t sink in this misery, but adventure on.
Heck, the Spider-Man and Franklin story is worth the price of the book alone, and it’s a relatively short backup feature. Both of them, in a way, are still young men who lost their uncles and secretly could have stopped the tragedy from happening. Through a very heart-warming and real exchange, Peter explains to Franklin that the bad memories of a loved one’s death eventually fade while the happier ones always remain. Even if you could have stopped the event from happening, you should still love yourself and others because that’s what those who loved you would have wanted. Yeah, my version’s a little corny and Hickman tells it better than I ever could, but it was a beautiful end to a very important book. That Fantastic Four are literally changing the world around them to escape the empty hole Johnny Storm had left behind.
I really wonder if Dan Slott and Jonathan Hickman passed notes in the back of class because Amazing Spider-Man #655 is the perfect dish to go with the the loss of the Fantastic Four. Both of them star a very stark and saddened funeral. Both of them are as silent as they need to be. Both have eyes that tug on your heart as you turn pages. But where the Fantastic Four turn to look at the world around them, Peter Parker’s journal is internal as nightmares from his past stalk him in his dreams. I will go out, buy a hat and then doff it to Marcos Martin, who brings art work that seems to curl around your brain and bring so much to the inner turmoil of Peter Parker. He’s taken on this horrible fun house reflection his the tragedies of his past, almost all of which revolve around someone’s death. He runs the gamut of super-hero folly, from the innocents who die in his wake, those who fall from his inactivity, those he can’t even remember anymore and the villains that don’t stop no matter how many times death takes them. How other heroes slaughter rather carelessly and what that does to Uncle Ben’s legacy should he take on the burden of being executioner himself. It’s surreal and gorgeous, so well thought out and debated that by the end of the book, Peter wakes to don his costume once more and declares to himself and New York City itself that no one will die on his watch again.
It’s very Gone with the Wind and I, for one, truly believe the convictions of the words. I’m not sure how he’s going to do that, considering someone is rather carelessly murdered on the next page, but I know that he’s going to make this work. The death of Marla Jameson will forever leave an imprint on Peter Parker, and this issue will be a turning point in the character of Spider-Man. The loss of a loved one caused him to turn inwards and change himself to fit the absence their death had left in his life.
True Believers, this will not be another “The Other.” This will not be “the Death of Reed Richards.” Ed Brubaker I think showed modern audiences jaded by over-hype and ’90s sensationalism that you can murder a major character, bury him and then, when the time is right, resurrect him and still leave the lasting imprint his death was supposed to represent. There can be a bold new direction for a character that can change the way you really look at them while still respecting what came before. Dan Slott and Jonathan Hickman can hit that same strength of storytelling and outwardly and inwardly bring us the best of what the Undiscovered Country has to offer.