When in doubt, kill your heroes

Probably by now you’ve seen DC’s new gambit to make you care about buying comics: Neil Gaiman is going to write a Batman story called “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” (Eagle-eyed comics fans will spot the reference to the titularly similar Alan Moore comic, which, yes, is intentional.) This story is set to pub as a kind of tribute after “Batman–R.I.P.” comes out. That would be the story in which they’re going to kill Batman.

I don’t know about you, but there’s a little six-year-old inside of me saying: But… but… You can’t kill Batman! Waaaah!

And the sad truth is: that’s exactly what DC is counting on. 

This is, by far, not the first time a major comics company has “killed” a superhero for a publicity stunt. The recent death of Captain America caused an especial uproar. How that translated to sales, I couldn’t say, but the frequency with which DC and Marvel are willing to kill their heroes in order to drive up the consumer awareness of that particular line is a bit shocking to me. I mean: aren’t these supposed to be superheroes? Why should they get killed because some editor says they need the publicity? Surely Batman can take DC’s editorial staff!

Okay, my glamorous daydreams of Batman crashing heroically through a windowpane two blocks from my office aside, it sure seems fishy to me that a hero’s narrative–even those of heroes owned by a corporation, not by a writer–can be altered because of a company’s marketing and publicity concepts. But that’s exactly what DC has done, over and over, and they wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t working. 

But as a fan, it rings hollow to me. DC is the same company that yanked Minx off the shelves less than two years after it launched (with much disagreement about whose fault it was), and is planning to cancel the wonderful gateway comic Blue Beetle, one of the most original superhero reimaginings the line has launched in years. (More comments here.) With so much shuffling going on behind the scenes, further puppetry leaves a bitter taste in my mouth: do these events and cancellations really help sales enough to be worth it? Shouldn’t DC be able to sustain a line without gimmicky “deaths” like this? I don’t know. I do know that these forced narrative shifts make me less interested in these stories, because the results feel less like comics than giant shiny advertisements for a property.

I’m not saying killing, or implying the impending death of, superheroes is bad or uninteresting. In fact, one of the best superhero comics on the market right now is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman (yes, I spoiled you a tiny bit). But the implied impending doom isn’t forced on the story; on the contrary, Morrison generated the idea himself after DC gave him free rein, because this story won’t be in the canon. And the results are spectacular.

But DC won’t take its own punches. As I said, Morrison’s brilliant story won’t “count”: even if he does kill Superman, you can’t kill Superman. You can’t kill a billions-of-dollars franchise, not even if it’s the best, most satisfying ending to the story. It’s a false death, like the Hero of the aptly named Much Ado About Nothing: she can’t be dead, because then the story isn’t funny. The fans won’t like it.

So DC pulls its stunts, gets all of us six-year-olds scared, and kills Batman. And just you wait: in a few months, Batman will be back on his feet, right as rain. His death will be written out of the canon, or reversed by some miraculous event, or simply put down to being greatly exaggerated. Then he’ll be back in Gotham’s skies, immune to all but the craftiest of villains and fastest of bullets–and, of course, the harsh red pencil of the editor. And I’ll still be left here wondering: if we told the whole story, what really would happen to the caped crusader?

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