Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dead Reckoning

So I’m watching Supernatural’s mid-season finale the other night and whoa, they went and offed a semi-regular without warning. I was mildly surprised. Everybody on that show dies eventually, including the main characters. Sam and Dean between them must have croaked at least a dozen times by now. They’ve both been to Heaven and Hell and come back. Their angel buddy Castiel dies a lot too. Mostly he seemed to explode, for some reason. That divine flatulence must be hell on the angelic digestive system.

What’s different about this latest victim is, I don’t think he’ll be back. That’s another thing about the show. Characters die and come back, unless they’re female. Women don’t fare well on Supernatural. Nobody wants some whiny, clingy bitch coming between the boys. (Gay relationships, especially involving popular angels like Cas and Gabriel, are not only okay, they’re encouraged. But that’s a whole other blog).

This got me thinking about comic books, and how often even the top-tier heroes seem to buy the farm these days. Remember some years back, when DC killed Superman? It made national headlines. They brought him back, of course. No way the company would permanently off their biggest cash cow. Since then Batman, Captain America, the Human Torch, and countless B-listers have bitten the dust, only to have triumphant returns as soon as sales slack off.

Except for the women. They stay dead. Do a Google search for “women in refrigerators.” It’s fascinating reading, and also a topic for another blog.

All this death and resurrection flying around in our popular entertainment makes me wonder: does a dramatic, cinematic death even matter any more? Is death as a plot device, well, dead?

Done right, it can really make for a powerful story. Remember Star Trek II, when Spock heroically sacrificed himself to save the ship? Not only did it stir the emotions, it tied in to the themes of the story. However, Spock returned in the next movie. I’m not sure which theme that was demonstrating, other than “money talks, so the Vulcan walks.” Nimoy claims he’s retired now. We’ll see.

I got another shock from the Harry Potter books, when Dumbledore took one for the team at the hands of the treacherous Snape. I kept expecting him to make a triumphant return in the final book. Why not? Voldemort was vaporized before the story started, and he came back. Are you telling me Voldemort’s more powerful than Dumbledore? Well, Voldy had taken precautions, so we can say he was better prepared. But Dumbledore stayed dead, which was very noble of him. He was getting tiresome anyway.

The “dead” hero or villain has long been a staple in comic books. The general rule has always been, “if you don’t see a body, they may not be dead.” (See: Gandalf, Lord of the Rings.) Sometimes you do see a body and they come back anyway. Wolverine has regenerated himself from a single drop of blood. Now that’s one hell of a mutant ability.

The point is, like any other plot device, do it too many times and it loses its power. It’s become almost a running gag in the comic book store where I hang out. “Hey, so-and-so died last issue.” “Uh-huh. They’ll be back. Is the new X-Files out yet?” What used to be a rarity is becoming a regular thing. As a result we, the reading/viewing audience, are becoming jaded.

I know why they’re doing this, and not just in comic books. It’s for series/sequel purposes. You can’t have a sequel if the hero, or the beloved secondary character, dies. Nobody wants the ride to end—not the readers, not the moviegoers, and especially not the publishers, writers, or other copyright holders who rely on the proceeds to buy their gas and groceries. At the same time, these characters have been around for decades now. Superman and Batman have been fighting crime since the 1940s. Even the Marvel heroes, the new kids on the block, are in their 50s by now. It gets tough to come up with fresh stories when you’ve got a history that extensive.

So you trot out the death card. Girlfriends, sidekicks, family members, sometimes the hero himself. What you can't kill is the franchise. Otherwise the money stops coming in. So there’s a proper mourning period, and then we find out it wasn’t really Ultraguy who died, it was a robot, or a clone, or he faked his own death to catch the bad guy, or magic was involved. Status reverts to quo, and it’s on to another adventure.

And fandom covers its mouth in a massive yawn.

At this rate, characters who die and stay dead will become the rarity. Spidy’s Uncle Ben is still dead, as far as I know. He’s the exception, the male version of the woman in the refrigerator. Aunt May, on the other hand, has teetered on the brink of expiration since the 1960s, and she’s still kicking. Nobody believes she’s going to really die. Imagine if they killed her off and didn’t bring her back. That would make national headlines too. Or at least get us talking in the comic store.

It makes me kind of glad I never really pursued my interest in comic book writing. I like to kill my characters. Sometimes it’s shock value, sometimes the story demands it, sometimes I just don’t like them. I don’t bring them back, either. I kill somebody, they’re gone. I like having the freedom to off whoever I feel like whacking at that particular moment. I don’t want to be told I have to bring him back because the fans are in an uproar and the company’s going to lose revenue. Yeah? And when Mommy and Daddy go to their just reward, what are you gonna do then? Bitch to God? That only works on Supernatural. Those guys have excellent agents.

So here’s to Game of Thrones. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard about the big slaughter scene. I’m assuming major characters get what’s coming to them. I don’t have Showtime and I haven’t read the book. Somebody let me know when the major characters come back.


Serena Shay said...

Ah, too true, Pat. The death card is way over used these days. I can't speak to comics but you see it a lot in TV. I'm to the point where I don't believe it until several seasons go by and still no return.

I still hold out a glimmer of hope that Bobby will have a miraculous return. Yeah, I like the old bugger. ;)

I was surprised by this weeks Supernatural death, but more surprised by Cas' move. I didn't know he had it in him, but I'm glad he did!

Pat C. said...

Yeah! He's an angel again! Yay! And according to the previews, he'll be back in the trenchcoat. Now let's hope he doesn't blow up.

Serena Shay said... kidding, keep it together Cas! Literally!! ;)

Savanna Kougar said...

Death in fiction... you've brilliantly addressed the issue, Pat.

Death in life on Earth is a kicker, too, because there's a lot of folks these days who legally die, as in declared dead by the doc... then, they rise like the phoenix, and it's all documented. The famous book by Raymond Moody brought this to prominence in the public's mind.

So, if real folks can rise again, why not characters?

'Course, I like the bad guys/gals to stay dead... or, at least, in a hell realm they can't escape from.

AND I AM DAMN TIRED OF THE WOMEN BUYING IT!!!!!!!!!!!!! Which is why I will never write that crap.

Pat C. said...

Oops ... I need to confess. I fridged a woman in one of my books -- specifically, Belonging. Wally became a slayer after a vampire kidnapped his girlfriend and killed their infant son. Turns out she wasn't dead (first law of comic books: if you don't see a body ... ) but he and I didn't know that when I wrote the scene. Her return in the sequel surprised me as much as it did him.

And the entire premise of Supernatural is based on a fridged woman: the boys' mother gets killed by a demon in the first ten minutes of the pilot.

Savanna Kougar said...

I'm not saying NEVER kill off the woman... but I grew up on that TV drama fare... and vowed as a kid I WOULD NEVER put up with that as an adult. Which is probably why I've instinctively stayed away from Supernatural... I would have quit watching anyway, once that pattern developed. Hey, at least in BUFFY, the girls, the slayers won in the end! Only one reason I adore that show.

Savanna Kougar said...

I mean, why should women be disempowered by death, or dying all the time?

Pat C. said...

Because it's mostly men writing these things.

I always used to get ticked by the fight scenes where the woman just stood there while the men fought (suppose the bad guy wins? What happens to her then?) or the whiny bitch who begged the hero, "Don't go off and save the world! Stay here with me!" I'd have been, "You go start the car. I need to hit the bathroom and get my purse and then I'll be right out."

Savanna Kougar said...

Yeah, which is *one* reason I've always been on the side of romance novels as written by women... even though, I disagree with some of the ideas about being a woman, and the wimp-behaviors... even so, I just got really tired of men authors at some point -- no matter how brilliant their writing.