Giving Death His Due

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold
But with you forever I’ll stay
Were goin out where the sands turnin to gold
Put on your stockins baby, `cause the nights getting cold
And maybe evrything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe evrything that dies someday comes back

– Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

Halloween is coming, and everywhere I look, death seems to haunt popular culture. The undead have ruled supreme over genre fiction for a good while. Some of the hottest shows on television involve bloodsucking monsters. Even the X-men are fighting vampires in the Marvel universe, which tells me that vampires have definitely jumped the zombie were-shark.

With so many dead walking about, I’m starting to think Death hasn’t just taken a holiday. He’s moved to Maui and taken up residence in Margaritaville. Characters keep sneaking back in the door well after they’re properly dead and buried. Zombie apocalypses happen so often in fiction that Hades is close to empty and insurance companies raise your rates if you live near a cemetery.

The idea that death isn’t permanent in comic books has become enough of a cliché that whole crossovers, like DC’s Blackest Night, have been devoted to putting some power back into the Reaper’s hands. The dead walk, talk, and romance the living so often I’m surprised they haven’t unionized under a chant of “What do we want? Brains! When do we want them? Now!”

Heroes have a unique relationship to Death. They cheat him, beat him, often bringing their entire supporting cast along for the ride, at the cost of the story’s impact. When a series reaches a major turning point, or milestone, you need to see a price for the victory. Otherwise, it rings hollow. Heroes can descend to the underworld and return, they’re heroes after all, but doing so is a major effort.

Comics have third stringer death down. When a new creative team takes over a book, one of their first moves often involves killing off the supporting cast to make room for their own creations. Even then, return is always possible, should another writer see the need to bring a dead character back into play. Only the poor redshirts beaming down with Captain Kirk aren’t coming back. Usually nameless and indiscriminate, they’re convenient in their disposability. They stick out, like the sweet girl in the zombie flick, only there to die.

Sometimes heroes don’t return. They lose the fight or their victory is Pyrrhic. The good fall and stay down. Returning becomes the sole province of the villain, such as in Harry Potter, where resurrection is only made possible through black magic and wicked deeds. Great evils often re-arise in fantasy, putting themselves back together after long centuries, and a new group of misfit heroes must sally forth to save the day.

Whether it involves heroes or villains, when the gates to the underworld are a revolving door, it becomes difficult to create a world where death has meaning. The hard part is keeping the balance. I’ve read quite a few books where the stakes of the plot were high, but every hero and side character squeaks through. When you’re reading a series, and this pattern repeats book after book, you start to doubt that anyone can truly die. Fiction is strongest when it reflects reality, and the reality is that we must die. It is one of the incontrovertible truths of our lives, and it should be true for our characters as well.

One thought on “Giving Death His Due

  1. Sean says:

    Such a well-written and keen observation. As a culture we want to avoid death, we ignore our own mortality, we tuck away our sick and dying, we glamorize the undead and wish desperately for their beautiful immortality. I know I have been angry, sad,, frustrated, etc whenever a beloved character dies. John Wayne in The Cowboys, Inspector Morse, others. But their deaths always punctuate the story. Bring the depth of their interactions with the other characters, the readers/watchers, and the loss of that person and how it changes the narratives of the continuing stories is that much more real. When the dead come back, when their death is relegated to, oops, we can fix that, to me, it takes away something from that character. They leave something behind when they come back.

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