When The Fantastic Four becomes Three: Learning about life when death isn’t real

Today Marvel Comics released Fantastic Four #587 which continued the story that began some 50 years ago with four people whose life was changed forever by a gamma radiation blast in space which changed them into the comic book heroes known as The Fantastic Four.  Yet issue #587 is a game changer of sorts.  Over two years in the making, the storyline for the Fantastic Four has come to an end with the death of Johnny Storm (The Human Torch), the brother of Sue Storm (The Invisible Girl) and brother-in-law of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and BFF of Ben Grimm (The Thing).  Death is something that is not uncommon in the world of comic book superheroes, even the most overtly messianic superhero Kal El – better known as Superman – has died.  Yet death in pop culture is rarely death as we who live in the so-called real world experience it.  In an interview on CNN, Marvel Editor-in-chief Tom Brevoort didn’t even deny that the possibility of rebirth stands over the newly deceased Human Torch:

“It’s very easy to develop cynicism about the stories we tell,” Brevoort added. “The only way to combat and conquer it is to have a story that touches on the humanness of people that has emotional resonance and truth to it. The fact of death is something every human being can relate to. I would argue that a well-told story of a character’s demise is not necessarily undone by them coming back later.”

In pop culture there is always this playfulness with the life cycle given the fantastical way in which life can be expanded beyond the limits of mere mortality – people change into superheroes, learn to become wizards, transport through time and space, and meet talking animals on the other sides of wardrobes.  So battles occur, people die, and death takes for some but not all and not for all time.  We cheer when our hero leaps up and saves the day in the darkest hour as we munch our popcorn.  Then we blink at the light of day as we leave the movie theater and get into our car and have to face a world that is seemingly random, often painful, and rarely just in regard to who dies and who lives.  And when people die… they stay dead.  But life does go on, and we remember those who have passed from this mortal coil, living from our memories and continuing their life as a legacy of our own.

So will the Human Torch appear again in some distant new comic book?

It is pretty likely.

Does the knowledge of this cheapen the death scene in issue #587?

Yup.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I love comic books, anime, manga and think that, along with the character Elijah Price/Mr. Glass from M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable, that they are indeed telling stories – albeit fantastical – that are more ‘true’ than we care to realize.  But the comic nature of death is not something that I can believe in anymore.  Yes, as a Christian I belief in a life that extends beyond the temporal but this everlasting-ness of life is also rooted in the death and life around us everyday.  Death is a very serious thing and an ugly thing.  There is no rhyme nor reason to it.  It is indeed a release from pain and suffering, but it is also a loss of life pure and simple – it is a loss of loved ones, of beauty we behold everyday, the stillness of water on a clear lake, the sound of children’s laughter and the feel of morning sun on your face.  It is as Hamlet mused ‘the final frontier’.

 

So… what do you think?

Does the promise of rebirth in comics help us expect a rebirth as well and therefore take away ‘death’s sting?’  Or does this pop culture cheapening of death distract us from the reality of death?

 

7 Comments

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  1. Interesting. I’m not enough of a comic fan to know all the various death and rebirth plot threads, but I remember how cartoons like GI Joe, with the complete lack of death contrasted with Robotech, and how eye opening it was to see a cartoon that had a mature take on the humanity and mortality of it’s characters. I felt much more respected as a young viewer by Robotech than by GI Joe.

  2. Brutally honest cut at the fictional reality of comic books, but a necessary one. It does cheapen death. For children who grow up on superhero stories, they may be experiencing a serious emotional contrast later in life. In my case, I was hit very hard by Optimus Prime dying in the 1986 Transformers the Movie. He came back in some form to be a part of the experience of his replacement, but nobody can beat Optimus Prime. I think mourning a lost fictional character is something that is a valuable participation in reality. I’m on your team on this one.

  3. As an avid reader of the FF since I paid for my first issue in the Minnesota airport at age 13 – that’s 18 years ago (it was issue 362 that guest-starred Spider-Man, and it was the first superhero comic I ever bought, and I’ve bought it every month since) I’m rather interested in the storyline — as evidenced above. Because of this, I simply roll my eyes at all the fuss that is made by superheroes’ deaths by people that used to read comics, but don’t anymore. Sales for the comic dropped so severely in the 90s that it was in danger in being canceled. Did it make headlines then?

    That’s a side comment. How can people learn about death when someone comes to life? That’s an interesting question from a Christian. You seem to assume that any of us actually know about death, empirically. I don’t think we do. I don’t think that Crime and Punishment, or CNN tells us any more about death than FF 587.The Human Torch (or Superman, or Batman, or Captain America, or Superboy, or The Flash, or Green Lantern, or Jean Grey) dying isn’t as interesting as the ways writers find to make them come back. It isn’t a lesson about death, it’s an exploration of life — what is it that makes us alive? What makes us US? If I die and a clone takes my place, is that me? If that clone has my soul, is it me? If it has my brain but not my soul? These are questions that good SF (and FF is undeniably good SF) asks.

    Therefore, I think that it is entirely appropriate for superheroes to explore these questions in this way. Or else one may as well ask how we are expected to learn about particle physics when Cyclops fires lasers out of his eyes. It’s not about that.

  4. Comic book death means absolutely nothing. Actually, less than nothing. Batman died a little while back while sacrificing himself to save our reality. He came back a couple months ago. Captain America was killed by a brainwashed ex-girlfriend about two years back. He came back a couple months ago too. Each member of the Fantastic Four has “died” at one time or another except good ‘ol Johnny. Many people weren’t surprised it was him that got offed because, well, it was his turn to die.

    Oh, and you know how stepped up to be Captain America while the real Captain America was deceased? Bucky. Cap’s sidekick who got blown up back in WWII. He actually managed to stay dead over 60 years before coming back. I guess he was REALLY dead. How this relates to the question at hand I don’t really know, I was just showing off my comic geek cred.

    I’d like to think that people can and do separate the real death from the fantastical. I know these iconic characters are going to come back from the get go. Marketing and upcoming movie tie-ins demand it. But a real person with a real story who has touched your life or the lives of others in some way has a different feeling.

    I’m thinking of the 14-year old Lynnwood boy who recently committed suicide by jumping into I-5 from an overpass. I didn’t know him at all but his death and his story touched me a lot more than Johnny Storm, a character who I’ve “known” for probably 30 years. Real vs. imaginary. I certainly hope people understand the difference.

  5. I think people do know the difference. Otherwise we should be worried about what playing Super Mario Bros has taught about to a young generation — that you can die by being stepped on by a turtle, and a few seconds later you can mysteriously come back from the dead. Or how zombie movies cheapen the idea of the finality of death. There are people who take issue with such things, but I hope none of them are here…

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