Marvel Comics' current company-wide crossover is called Age of Ultron. The premise, conceived by writer Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Bryan Hitch, is a sort of post-apocalyptic super-hero tale. Ultron, a megalomaniacal artificial intelligence bent on global domination, finally succeeds in obliterating civilization after countless attempts; as the story begins, Ultron has already won and the few survivors are regrouping underground as a resistance movement. As superhero crossovers go, it's a surprisingly inert story - all of the important stuff happens before issue #1 even begins, leaving the actual page space devoted to arguments between the remaining heroes (including Captain America, Iron Man and Spider-Man) about what should be done to win their war against this evil robot overlord.
As in any war, there are casualties; when we join the events of Age of Ultron heavy-hitters like Thor have already kicked the bucket, and later in the series we watch others, like (SPOILER ALERT) She-Hulk and Luke Cage, die. Frankly, I feel silly even using a spoiler alert in conjunction with a superhero's death, because comic book superheroes never die, even when they do. Show me a costumed crime fighter, I'll show you an immortal - even if that costumed crime fighter supposedly has no super-powers.
Take Batman, whose only gifts are his genius intellect and his world-class fighting abilities. When he got bumped off during DC Comics' Final Crisis, he only stayed dead for a little over a year, before he returned to the land of the living in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. At the end of Marvel's Civil War, Captain America, who's basically just a regular guy with augmented strength, was assassinated by a sniper. He stayed dead a relatively long time as these things go, about two years, before making his reemergence in the mini-series Captain America: Reborn.
As comics run out of new characters to kill, they've started re-killing old ones. Cap's pal Thor, one of the supposed victims of Ultron's rampage in Age of Ultron, last died just eighteen months ago in the pages of another recent crossover, Fear Itself. If you think he won't be back, alive and well and slamming people in the face with his hammer by the time his new movie hits theaters in November, I've got some swampland in Latveria I want to sell you.
It might seem a little silly on the outside looking in, but make no mistake: in comics, death sells. These major life events (which have, in recent years, also included the deaths and/or rebirths of The Flash, The Human Torch, Bucky, Robin, Ant-Man, Professor X and Spider-Man - whom I discussed in depth in my last column) get mainstream media attention, driving new and lapsed readers to pick up the comics, possibly as (rather foolish) investments. They may not do much to boost the overall financial health of the comic book industry, and they might be exasperating their readership with one quickly negated stunt after another, but there's no denying their positive short-term impact on sales.
There's another reason for all these comic book reincarnations though, and it's one that never really dawned on me until just a few weeks ago, when I finished reading a book called Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, a very entertaining and insightful history of the company by Sean Howe. He traces Marvel's roots from its humble origins as the brainchild of pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman to cog in the Walt Disney Company monolith, and he explains how it became of the most dominant forces in international pop culture. I've read a lot of books about the history of comics in general and Marvel in particular and The Untold Story is one of the very best, and highly recommended.
Howe charts the development of crucial characters, and the often tempestuous relationships between their creators and the company that owns them. Bill Everett, Carl Burgos, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Buscema and more worked for Marvel Comics as freelancers - and the characters they invented belonged to Marvel as the result of work-for-hire agreements. Through the years, many of these artists and their estates have fought to reclaim some or all of the rights to their creations. Kirby - who co-created the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the X-Men and many more - and his estate repeatedly sued Marvel for the return of original artwork and the profits earned from his characters. Just two weeks ago, DC and its parent company Time Warner won a victory in court against the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, when a judge ruled that the rights to the Superboy character belong to Warner Brothers.
The ethics of work-for-hire arrangements that give Robert Downey Jr. $50 million for playing Iron Man and little to nothing to the men who invented the character is a topic for another time. But there's a more practical side to these matters. As early as the 1970s, Howe says, writers and artists for Marvel noted the travails of guys like Kirby, Everett (inventor of Namor, the Sub-Mariner) and Burgos (creator of the original Human Torch), who helped build the company but, because of the unfavorable deals they'd signed, reaped few of the financial rewards. As a result, they were increasingly hesitant to write new characters in their work, because then Marvel would own them and in twenty or thirty years, they'd be the next Burgos or Everett or Kirby.
Sure, Marvel and DC Comics have both had some memorable new characters in the last decade. But it's nothing compared to the astonishing output of the Golden and Silver Ages. And many of the most successful newer characters are simply reconfigured versions of old ones. When I was a kid, there was a new Flash, who took over for the old one when he died (he got better), and a new Green Lantern, who replaced the old one when he went crazy (he got better), and a whole new version of the Teen Titans called Young Justice after the old ones got older. In recent years Wolverine has added both a son and a female clone while the Hulk has added a "Red Hulk" with basically the same powers and a different skin tone. Marvel has also recently brought in a new version of their cosmic powered teen superhero Nova and, through the use of a clever time travel device, brought the very first team of X-Men to squabble with their modern day counterparts.
This, even more than sales numbers, is the real reason death has become such an important but strangely mutable part of comic book storytelling: without new characters to replace them, there's only so much you can do with the old ones except bump 'em off, create temporary stand-ins, then bring 'em back. Marvel and DC's work-for-hire policies have no doubt contributed greatly to both companies' bottom lines over the years. But the new bottom line is this: how long can they keep killing off old characters and bringing them back to life before readers get tired of it?