But today, Marvel Comics went several steps farther. In a piece in the New York Daily News written by a reporter "embedded" in an editorial retreat, not only did Marvel reveal that they will kill a major character in the Civil War II storyline coming this spring, but they also pulled the curtain back on the planning behind it, and in doing so, they showed an alarming amount of disregard for fans who are vested in these characters and this universe ("all-new and all-different" as it is)
The concept behind Civil War II is actually a very good one and seems like a worthy successor to the original Civil War (which I love and have written about quite a bit). As the article reveals:
“A mysterious new Marvel character comes to the attention of the world, one who has the power to calculate the outcome of future events with a high degree of accuracy,” according to the synopsis. “This predictive power divides the Marvel heroes on how best to capitalize on this aggregated information, with Captain Marvel leading the charge to profile future crimes and attacks before they occur, and Iron Man adopting the position that the punishment cannot come before the crime.”
That's a fantastic premise and, like the original Civil War, a very timely one. (Most importantly, I could write a lot about it!) It's interesting to ponder how they'll get futurist Tony Stark to reject a technocratic method of crimefighting, but that's what complex characters are for.
As the story unfolds this new seer predicts the hero in question will be the cause of a major incident of destruction in three days, requiring the other good guys to make a tough call. The writer just hasn’t figured what or how bad that cataclysm will be.
The article goes on to describe the process behind deciding which hero will cause the destruction and which will take that hero's life for it. After both Spider-Man and the Human Torch were proposed to be the inciting factor, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso and Civil War II writer Brian Michael Bendis found the perfect candidate. As the article says:
After hours of occasionally heated debate, Bendis and Alonso reveal they had a eureka moment during a 10-minute break and came up with the perfect superhero to sacrifice and an even better candidate to murder him. The answer actually gets a loud ovation from the crowd.
"A loud ovation." I'll just leave that there.
In terms of the process itself, none of this comes as a surprise to anyone who reads not only modern superhero comics but also the massive amount of news and leaks in the comics press (enough to choke Galactus after a cleanse). But it is unbelievable that Marvel Comics would be so brazen about revealing that this is how they make decisions, and with what glee they agree to kill a major character.
What sort of message was Marvel hoping to send with this article? "Look how cool we are, no one is safe, we can kill anybody anytime?" This isn't Game of Thrones, where most characters seem to have invented simply to die on another character's sword. If we're to take "major character" literally, then this will be a character that many fans around the world are vested in. That fans cosplay. That kids roleplay with action figures, video games, or such a towel tied around their necks. And that people like me write books about, mainly to inspire other people to read the comics and learn moral lessons from them.
(If anyone wonders why I write about superheroes themselves and their adventures, rather than the people who create the characters and the stories, as many traditional comics scholars do, this is one reason.)
Listen, I'm not naive. I've been reading comics a long time, and as I said before I'm glued to the comics news sites. By now I have a pretty good idea how these decisions are made. But to see one of the Big Two comics companies announce in a major newspaper to a wide readership how they make a decision to kill a major character, essentially bragging about how they do it... it's disturbing, to say the least.
I don't even have that much of a problem with how the decision itself was made, or why. Such a major death will certainly motivate the story, and they seem to have gone to some lengths to find a character whose death would fit the story. (Compare to Dan Didio's plans to kill Nightwing in DC Comics' Infinite Crisis... just because.) I would have liked a less obvious motivation, but these days, it's par for the course. (More on that later.)
But why would they reveal their thinking months before the storyline even starts? Duh, to get clicks and eyes, of course, but it seems like overkill: too much and too early. More generally, though, why would they let everyone know that they made the decision this way instead of maintaining the fiction that "the story dictates that this was the character who had to die"? The truth often comes out after a storyline is completed, and they make great little tidbits of trivia for diehard fans, like a "making of" featurette on a DVD. At that point, the story has had whatever impact it will have, and behind-the-scenes features are a nice little bonus for the fans without affecting how they read the story the first time. But to give these details out months before the story starts weakens any legitimate emotional weight the story might have had. Maybe it's just me, but I want to enjoy the story as a story before I know how and why it was made the way it was.
And this doesn't even touch on the question of whether using character deaths as a promotional selling point for comics is in good taste given recent events in the real world. That barn door has been open for a long time, but it would be nice if someone actually tried to close it. There are many brilliant creators in comics today, and don't tell me they can't find another way to motivate a story other than death.
Representatives of both the Big Two comics companies like to say how superheroes comprise our modern mythology. However, that also makes the Big Two the stewards of that mythology and the characters that ground it, and stewardship implies responsibility. Create characters, change characters, kill characters... they're all fine if done well, but please do so with a little more respect for those who want to revel in the mythology. Let us enjoy the show without telling us ahead of time where the strings are.