Ok, I've been a little slow with the content on this thing, so now I'm going to geek out on comics here for a minute. It never ceases to amaze me how well comic books these days deal with difficult issues, in particular death and mourning. As someone who views comics as a serious, valid medium for confronting any number of major social concerns, I'm still really surprised, even moved, when I read something with a genuine, articulate insight into the human condition.
This week, while the mainstream media was paying all kinds of attention to a rather lackluster issue of Captain America in which the title character is killed (we'll see how long that lasts), I discovered three other titles dealing with death and loss with much more depth and intelligence. Two of them came from two of my favorite comics, 52 and the Incredible Hulk, and one came from a title I've generally been reading for it's goofiness, Punisher War Journal, which made the impact of the current issue all the more surprising and impressive.
52 #44 features turning points in two of the series ongoing storylines. One of them follows Black Adam, a former supervillain turned leader of a small Middle Eastern country, Kahndaq. During the course of the series, Adam has found peace through the love of a new wife, Isis, and a family they have formed with her brother, Osiris, and his talking crocodile monster friend, Sobek. It's always kind of cool when we get to see a comic book character go through changes, since by the nature of commercial media, characters serialized over long periods of time are only allowed to change so much alot of the time, for fear of straying to far from what made them popular in the first place. It's all the more interesting when we get to see major changes occurring for a villainous character, since they are so often sketched much more broadly and with less in-depth characterization than heroics characters are. It's also rare that we get to see such a nuanced portrayal of a Middle Eastern political leader these days, so the Black Adam storyline has been an especially compelling one. In the past few issues his story has turned especially tragic, and this comes to a head in issue 44, where he loses both Isis and Osirus, and discovers that Sobek is actually an agent of Intergang who has been sent to Khandaq to destroy it. Ultimately, we see Black Adam revert emotionally to the kind of rage that compelled him as a villain. What struck me while reading this is how good a job the writing team of 52 (Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid and my favorite comics writer, Grant Morrison) have done in making these characters feel very human, so that all of the aforementioned elements add up to create a real emotional impact when we experience Black Adam's loss, and how we can sympathize with his rage, although one imagines it can only lead to further death and destruction.
Also in 52 #44 we see another death-related storyline come to a turning point, as Renee Montoya struggles with the decision to become the new Question, the former alter ego of her friend Vic Sage, who a few issues earlier had died of lung cancer. Again, we're encountering a very emotionally complex and sympathetic story about mourning and loss, and witnessing characters who are having very human reactions to the death of a loved one. Initially, like a number of characters in 52, Montoya struggled with the notion of death in and of itself, believing she could find a way to beat Sage's cancer, which ultimately led to his dying in her arms on a snowy Tibetan mountaintop (another of 52's evocative, moving moments of death and loss). Now that she is coming to terms with the loss of her friend, she must deal with the appropriate way to remember the dead, as she becomes essentially a living tribute by adopting the Question's costume to continue solving the mystery that brought her together with him in the first place.
The Incredible Hulk #104 follows a similarly tragic trajectory as 52's Black Adam story, although perhaps to an even greater end as the Hulk is more established character with years of history and character development behind him. There's something genuinely beautiful about the Hulk/Bruce Banner, he's a man and a monster, his own worst enemy, unable to trust his own emotions, equal parts genius and brute. Writer Greg Pak's "Planet Hulk" storyline has proved to be a defining one, as we have seen the monstrous side of the Hulk make some kind of peace with the humanity at the core of his being. In "Planet Hulk", Hulk is exiled from Earth, presumably to be deposited on a lifeless yet livable planet where he will no longer be a threat to humanity and finally live out his dream of being alone. True to comic book form, however, he winds up on another world, where at first he becomes a slave, then a revolutionary and finally the leader and peacemaker of the once war-torn, dictator-ruled planet.
Issue #104 finds the Hulk at as much peace as we have ever really seen him. He's liberated the planet and assumed the role of benevolent leader, and has also established something of a family unit around himself, including a wife who is pregnant with his child. It's all pretty heartwarming stuff, especially for a character as typically angst-ridden as the Hulk. So often on Earth he's been represented as an agent of pure rage and destruction. Now, not only has he found a way to reconcile humanity with strength, but he's brought new life, freedom and peace to those around him. It all comes to an end in #104, however, when the spaceship that exiled him from Earth is accidentally exploded, unleashing an atom bomb sized blast and presumably killing many/most/all of Hulk's new surrogate family.
The tragedy of the explosion, a loaded image in and of itself in post-9/11 comics, is made all the more poignant by the depth with which the Hulk's growth from tortured man-monster to his current state has been depicted throughout Pak's "Planet Hulk" storyline.
Finally, there's Punisher War Journal #4. This is a series I never expected to take that seriously. The Punisher, a heavily armed 'Nam-vet vigilante who kills criminals, really isn't my kind of character. He's got that creepy reactionary right-wing libertarian Michigan Militia vibe. The new War Journal series has been pretty inoffensive so far, mostly playing off the contrast between a violent character like the Punisher and more idealistic, left-leaning superheroes like Captain America and Spider-Man, to some fairly interesting effect. Still, at the core, it's a series about a character I don't really agree or identify with, which can be fairly limiting.Punisher War Journal #4, written by Matt Fraction, is something entirely different, however, combining social and cultural commentary with self-reflexive self-critique. The story revolves around the funeral of Stilt-Man, a classic Marvel villain killed by the Punisher in an earlier issue of the series. A group of old school Marvel villains (including the Armadillo, the Rhino, the Prowler, the Chameleon, Dragon Man, the Shocker and a counterfeit Doombot) gathers in a seedy Manhattan bar to mourn the loss of their colleague and friend. Members of the party get drunk and trade memories, flirt with the deceased's widow (Princess Python), and briefly degenerate into bar brawling before being interrupted by Spider-Man, dropping by to pay his respects. Ultimately, the group discovers that the bartender who has been serving them all night was in fact the Punisher, who has poisoned them all and seals the deal by blowing up the bar.
The story works on three levels. First, there is a rather poignant take on mourning and loss, and the ways in which people react to them. "Loss. Absence," goes the opening narration," Our pain can define us if we let it. So that's why we mourn. It's a celebration of loss. We embrace the darkness and merge with it. We join with it. We become it. Otherwise, that darkness consumes us..." This sentiment is reflected in the the mourner's reactions, which combine sadness with humor, warmth, anger...We are allowed to witness these characters reacting to their grief at the loss of a friend, and the confrontation with their own mortality brought upon by their proximity to the death. "We do anything we can to maintain a human connection. To remind ourselves we're alive."
At the same time, these characters are mourning not only the loss of a peer, but of their role in a changing and increasingly complex world. Post 9/11, these villains, basically small-time crooks in funny costumes, realize that they have become ineffectual remnants of a more innocent, naive era, "Back in the day, we all were huge. We were colossal. We were terrors. It was a game. Nobody ever really got hurt. It was all sweetness and light. And bank heists. Bust mostly sweetness and light...We get drunk, and it turns into telling war stories. Which, in light of recent events, didn't sound so bad. In fact, they seem positively vaudevillian, to tell you the truth. Quaint. Wacky. In our day, it wasn't this life-or-death stuff you hear about now. We knew how to have a good time. And we knew how to laugh at ourselves." The point is reiterated by Spider-Man as he breaks up the mourners' drunken brawl. Upon leaving, the hero reminds them,"Be careful, okay? The world's not...it's not so fun anymore. I don't want to go any more of these (funerals)." To underscore the idea even further, it's not until after Spider-Man leaves that the villains realize that they had a lone hero in their midst and not only didn't do anything about it, but let him lecture them.
The emphasis on changing refers to the "real world", of course, and the harsh realities and changing perspectives people have been confronted with living in the post-9/11, Iraq War era. It also refers to the changing landscape of the comic book world, which has reacted via tonal and thematic shifts to the post 9/11 era with depth and breadth few other media have dared venture. The colorful hero and villain confrontations of the days of Stilt-Man have given way to stories like "Civil War", in which Marvel's heroes divided and fought one another over civil liberties issues.
Finally, there is the story's final reversal, the Punisher's murder of the mourners at the funeral. Given that the entirety of the pages preceding this final act of violence were devoted to the humanization of the costumed villains, the killing becomes of harsh reminder of the same changing social values dealt with elsewhere in the issue. The Punisher is presumably doing the "heroic" thing, ridding the world of a large group of "evil doers." And yet there's nothing at all heroic in his actions. He's killing a group of people we have come to empathize with, a group represented as real human beings despite their criminal status. He's killing them at their most vulnerable, when they are in mourning (and also drunk), when even do-gooder Spider-Man takes pity on them. Finally, he kills them in the most cowardly way possible, from a distance with explosives, and after he has already poisoned them.
This final scene makes explicit what the rest of the story has suggested about the changing world. One could draw parallels between the Punisher's actions and any number of real world political situations happening in the world today, particularly US policy towards Iraq (attacking without direct provocation, dehumanization/villification of the enemy, bombings) adding another level of depth and meaning to an already rather moving story about mourning and loss.