Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A few thoughts about death

Astonishing X-Men #4

Mashenka, I never knew it was possible
To live, and grieve so much

(Nikolay Gumilyov)

For three months, it looked like the X-Men finally had a writer who could succeed Chris Claremont. Joss Whedon's writing was so controlled and elegant, so clearly superior to the host of X-Writers who have come and gone these last ten years. And then, midway through issue #4, my heart fell beaten to the floor as Whedon unveiled his first big idea.

He had chosen to resurrect Colossus, an X-Man whose main achievements had been to speak cod-Russian, be official group punchbag (Cyclops or Storm can't take one in the face from Juggernaut), have a morally suspect affair with an underage Kitty Pryde, and to be insufferably maudlin.

Colossus wasn't a good character. He didn't appear in classic storylines: his anger looked simulated, his naivety like stupidity and his affection that of a dumb, ugly animal. A succession of writers grappled with him, but none were inspired and Colossus' contradictory and reprehensible actions eventually turned him into an object of embarrassment. He died when Scott Lobdell had the masterstroke of simultaneously ditching both him and another overlong annoyance, the Legacy Virus. I don't think it was well done, but it was done, and goodbye.

And then the brightest new writer on the street comes along and brings him back in his fourth comic book. Resurrection is an insipid, ailing cliche which has become the stomping home ground of work-a-day hacks, but it wasn't tiredness or talentlessness which brought this on. He had the entire panoply of characters in the X-Universe, but Whedon went straight for the discredited, deceased one. What is going on here?

Now perhaps you treat your mortality with equanimity, appreciating the fullness of your days and calming accepting the inevitability of your predestined end. In which I envy you, and congratulate you on your Zen-like transcendence.

Not me, though - death has me waking up at three in the morning, witless with grief, foreboding and panic. Knowledge of inescapable death casts a faint, sickly shadow over everything in the world. Death is a vile, hateful monster, who's going to come and take every single thing from me. Either he takes it from me quickly, or he takes my loved ones first and then takes me anyway. And then there's bereavement, a sticky, claustrophic mess of loss and pain and unresolved love which smothers you like a mental illness.

Colossus: if only...

Go take a look at the Iliad, or Wuthering Heights, or Slaughterhouse Five or even Harry Potter. Death is there, stepping through the pages, framing and contrasting the characters, because it's powerful and uncontrollable and demands to be confronted. Death makes great literature, because it's unremittingly awful but it's there in every one of us and we have to deal with it.

And what have we, the comic book world, done with death? Adam Warlock - back. Jean Grey - back. Magneto - back. Donna Troy - back. Betsy Braddock - back. Aunt May, for goodness' sake - back.

Every character, no matter how few their fans, how feeble their achievements, how little they can inspire, must be brought back from beyond. And what about Bucky? The symbol of sacrifice and loss in the Second World War is (apparently) returning. Normally, I wouldn't comment on a book I haven't read, but this is just outrageous. What was the thought process behind this rank idea? Are the real dead of D-Day coming back too? Stalingrad? Auschwitz? Didn't think so. Any resurrection is bad; the resurrection of such a symbolic and resonant character is shameful.

And what happens when they do come back? Look at Jean Grey: a perennial dullard turned by Claremont and Byrne into a wild and insane force of nature, she committed suicide in a superb, portentious story. She got brought back, and then vegetated as a passionless automaton for ten years before Grant Morrison gave her the merciful one-two. Now she's kicked it again, but they still release a Phoenix mini-series. What are we doing?

We talk about deceased characters being "rested", like they're not corpses but underperforming midfielders. We have internet polls where you can say which character you'd like to see brought back from the grave. And, hey presto, a few months later there they are! Death has become an inconvenience, a momentary break. As Kitty says, "You have to know that if you're a clone or a robot or a ghost or an alternative universe thingie..." Exactly. What Whedon is recognising in the act of pointless resurrection is that we, the readers, no longer make even a pretence of suspending our disbelief. He knows it's grossly overused and so must know that this resurrection can't touch us, but he ploughs ahead anyway. Why?

I think we, readers and creators, have become like children. We want what we can't have. And the only thing in comics that we really can't have is the dead. So we clamour for their return, failing to remember the ones that returned and were forever discredited. And the powers-that-be, like indulgent sweetshop owners, reach for the big jar at the back and give us as much as we want till we sick up the whole lot.

And in all of this, death, real death, still comes looking for us. But we've allowed our chosen form of literature to render itself impotent to tell us anything about it. What can the X-Men teach us about death, these people who are in and out of the abyss like trampolining gravediggers?

Comic books can't tell us how death is, or what it means, or how to deal with it, because it doesn't exist there any longer. The reason why these resurrections have to stop is because of the cumulative damage they have caused to our art form.

So if you're thinking of creating a "Who should they bring back?" poll, remember to include an "Absolutely fucking nobody" option, and I'll be sure to vote.


Blogger Phillip said...

A-fucking-men, brother.

1:51 pm  
Blogger Psychbloke said...

Damn that's a good post. Comics are like comfort food. Sometimes we want something easy, something unchallenging, something familiar. We want the best bits back again - We don't want to get to know new people - we want those cuddly old guys back again. I guess this is why Dukes of Hazzard and Bewitched are at the cinema this summer. But you're right, resurrection is a one off trick that has been devalued.
As for Colossus and Phoenix - Marx said history repeats itself - once as tragedy, then as farce.....

8:41 pm  
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