There’s a sickness in my stomach I’ve been carrying a while, an unpleasant acid feeling that bothers me when I’ve been reading or reading about comics lately. And I guess it’s time for me to cough it up and see what the hell is burning a hole inside.
People who are better fans than I are troubled by the editorial and creative direction at DC and Marvel, the two biggest comics publishers. You can read their pieces and see what they think is wrong. I’ve kept my head down reading my own preferred peripheral comics—comics outside the event horizon of company-wide crossovers. I figured I could wait out the rash of killings, rapes and general unpleasantness as I have waited out takes on Batman I didn’t like. I thought it would stay contained. I thought I was safe, that it was all part of the normal cycle of comics. But somehow the unpleasantness reached me with the death of Monsieur Mallah and the Brain.
I bought some issues of Salvation Run, miniseries in which earth’s supervillains are exiled to another planet. I like stories about supervillains all in it together, but I stopped reading after one of my favorite villainous duos, Monsieur Mallah, the superintelligent gay gorilla, and his beloved Brain, a disembodied human brain, were murdered by Gorilla Grodd.
I didn’t stop reading because they were killed, though that would’ve annoyed me by itself. Death is an overused plot device in comics and Monsieur Mallah and the Brain die a storyline that has all the marks of reducing the number of gorilla supervillains and displaying how hardcore villains really are. No, this killing has a nasty resonance, what with Grodd taunting a pleading Brain while using him to bludgeon a pleading Mallah to death. Grodd might murder Monsieur Mallah for being an “abomination”–meaning perhaps an ape who fraternizes with humans or an ape who’s been experimented on by humans. But it doesn’t matter all that much because there’s another reason someone would shout “Abomination!” while killing lovers and it’s one that knocks the narrative out of the world of fictional hates and fictional prejudices into the real hate crimes of this one. Their murder looks like one kind of hate crime badly disguised as another, and that resonance doesn’t seem contained or under control at all.
Other superhero deaths have irritated me. It might be absurd, and Monsieur Mallah and the Brain are on the absurd side of comics, but Mallah’s death upset me, and not in the good way I associate with comics like The Secret Six I didn’t write about it at the time because I wasn’t really sure how I felt about my feelings, at least until I read an article by Chris Sims at Comics Alliance.
Sims writes about superhero deaths, event-driven comics and DC’s 2009 crossover, Blackest Night, and its follow up, Brightest Day. Blackest Night is supposed to rectify a problem—that superhero deaths are rendered meaningless if those superheroes return. DC’s solution is to resurrect almost everyone. The dead come back and freak everyone out with their nasty-minded, rotting selves, then there’s a big fight and the DC universe starts over with the new line up in Brightest Day.
But, as Sims writes, there’s a bigger problem beyond whether resurrection or injudicious killing undermines a death’s impact. DC has a tradition of a superhero mantle passed on to a disciple, protege or guy located by power ring. Many fans love this sense of history in the DC universe. They love the progression, for example, from Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick mentoring Silver Age Flash Barry Allen, who sacrifices himself to save the world and is replaced by former Kid Flash, Wally West. Except, the dead keep coming back, including, for example, Barry Allen. And Sims notes now DC is dropping newer characters in favor of older legacy characters, who bore the title in an earlier era. Some “new” heroes have been active for over 20 years and are being pushed aside in favor of their predecessors. And many of the characters being displaced are capes of color because DC attempted to diversify by having women and men of color take up empty or emptied legacies. I agree with Sims that this means that, in the end, this makes for a very white, male, anglo and straight DC universe. And almost as if to prove Sims’ point, shortly after the article was posted, the new Atom, Ryan Choi was not only replaced by old Atom Ray Palmer, but, in Brightest Day he was killed and his body returned in a matchbox. Yes, a matchbox.
There’s something wrong, a -fecta of some sort (choose your own ordinal number) combining the vectors of nostalgia, continuity, the demand for novelty as well as the market, conflicts between creative teams, and the demographics of readers, creators and editorial boards. In the past, creators would ignore characters they had no interest in using. Now there’s a reckoning going on in DC and it seems all the peripheral characters, who are often the non-white, non-straight, non-male characters are at risk.
The effects are unintentional, but that only makes it worse as they blindly create something ugly, something that makes me feel a little sick.