Saturday, September 6, 2008

Three funerals

My friends, on this mournful occasion, let us begin with a spoiler warning. This post contains spoilers regarding DC's Final Crisis (August 2008), Top Ten, JLA: American Dreams, and the film Stranger Than Fiction.

Still here? All right, Final Crisis: the Martian Manhunter is dead, and issue two gives us this glimpse of his funeral on Mars:
A solemn scene from Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones. Superman says: "J'onn J'onzz was my friend. Always there, always strong, always reliable... He was someone I could confide in. Someone who understood what it was like to lose a world and find another. We'll all miss him. And pray for a resurrection."

"Pray for a resurrection" is strikingly traditional (though Superman was raised by Methodists, after all), but there's a touch of humor about it. It acknowledges that we the readers know that superheroes, like soap opera characters, frequently die, but rarely stay dead for long - Superman being the most prominent example. The implication here is that the superheroes know it, too, adding an odd twist of realism and gravity to the proceedings.

In Top Ten, Alan Moore put a more openly humourous spin on the idea (art by Gene Ha):

The late superhero in this case is Girl One, an android. The Top Ten multiverse is one where pretty much everyone is a superhero and Moore gets a lot of mileage from subtle and not-too-subtle twists on the concept. (Like the exterminator who unwittingly provokes a cosmic continuity-altering Infinite Crisis crossover war between mice and cats... But I digress.) In this context the characters are even more aware of the superhero tropes they live by.

Grant Morrison's run on the Justice League of America predated both of these stories. Here's Superman (during his ill-advised electrical phase) at the funeral of Metamorpho the Element Man:

This is the most frank expression of the theme and includes an interesting twist at the end. Does Superman (and Morrison?) wish that fallen superheroes really could rest in peace? Do they always have to be recycled to drive up nostalgia-induced sales? Witness the current hype surrounding the return of Barry Allen, who's been mostly dead since 1985.

A less cynical interpretation of superhero resurections might go something like this. The eulogy for Girl One also included mention of her "giving of her life so that others might live." Superman says of Metamorpho, "In the end, he gave his life to save his friends." The film Stranger Than Fiction involves a doomed fictional character who gets a second chance at life. His creator muses: "But if the man does know he's going to die and dies anyway, dies willingly, knowing he could stop it, then, I mean, isn't that the type of man you want to keep alive?" Over at SF Gospel, Gabriel's commentary on the movie read, in part:

It's unsurprising for a movie about the ways in which authors manipulate their character's lives to compare the writer to God. What's more interesting here is the messianic tone that this approach then lends to the character in question. Here God, the third person omniscient narrator, can't see the point in needlessly killing his favorite character, so he gives him a second chance. It's an aesthetic theology of the resurrection—Jesus as the character who was too darned nice to have a sad ending. It's also a critique of Vonnegutian authorial cruelty in which the author toys with fictional lives simply because he can. The characters, fictional or otherwise, are in some way alive and worthy of respect—and of a happy ending.

The same might be said of most noble, self-sacrificing superheroes. Of course, maybe the world can do without Metamorpho the Element Man. But once an artist has put enough work into a character, and fans have grown sufficiently attached to him, death becomes just a temporary trauma.

And I do hope the Martian Manhunter returns to us someday.


D. G. D. Davidson said...

It's also a critique of Vonnegutian authorial cruelty in which the author toys with fictional lives simply because he can. The characters, fictional or otherwise, are in some way alive and worthy of respect—and of a happy ending.

An intriguing idea. Does everyone realize that this goes completely against the prevailing wisdom regarding good writing? That the author should give his characters as many problems as possible? Should hurt, torture his characters? And why is the author supposed to do this? For the reader's entertainment, obviously. Writing, according to the prevailing view, is sadistic business.

Viagra said...

It is interesting to see the way this superheroes see death as a part of their lives, and how they also expect to come back fro the dead... either that means in a new comic adventure or the afterlife