Monday, September 19, 2011

Comic-book grieving

Okay, it’s time to admit it. I’m a little bit in mourning for a comic-book character.

I’ve blogged before about how much I’ve enjoyed Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, especially what he’s done with Cap’s World War II sidekick, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, who came back as the brainwashed Soviet assassin Winter Soldier, then got his personality back and plowed through a metric ton of angst before Captain America got shot and Bucky took up the shield in his place. This sounds like an incredibly bad story, but it was amazing, despite being stretched out over several years. In fact, the way it was stretched out was doubly amazing, at least to me—I’m still studying those trade paperbacks and taking notes on how the story is plotted out. It never got boring. This comic was at the very bottom of my monthly pile (the place reserved for the most anticipated comic of the month—I read worst-to-best) for six or seven years straight. That’s almost unheard of. The only other character who’s achieved that is Daredevil, who’s been my favorite superhero since I was 12. (Of course, Bucky’s case was helped by the fact that Daredevil’s adventures started to suck just as Bucky’s were getting good.)

And as everyone in comicdom knows, Bucky was brutally killed off in this summer’s Marvel Comics crossover event, Fear Itself, written by Matt Fraction (and a legacy of the work of former editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, about whom more here). His not-really-a-nemesis Sin (he once asked her in the middle of a fight, “Have you ever killed anyone who knew what they were doing, or just innocent bystanders?”) got her hands on some supernatural evil, ripped off Bucky’s bionic arm, and beat him to death with it. Voilá. Instant angst. Crossover achieved.

So here’s what the five stages of grief sound like inside my head when I find out one of my favorite characters has been killed off in what amounts to a publicity stunt:

1. Denial: “Oh, come on, it’s a summer crossover. They’ll bring him back in a hot jiffy. None of these things ever has a lasting effect on continuity.”

2. Anger: “I hate these stupid crossovers! They killed off a great character just to make themselves look badass, and his story was a million times better than any dumb event book! This is about the movie, isn’t it? They think nobody’ll buy their comics if Steve isn’t back in the costume! C’mon, Bucky was already out of the suit by the end of the ‘Gulag’ storyline! They’re picking on Bucky because he’s not a big name! It’s not fair!”

3. Bargaining: “Okay, I’ll outline a way to bring him back from the dead and keep it on file for the inevitable day Marvel’s stupid enough to offer me a comic-book run because they think I’m Joss Whedon or Michael Chabon. That’ll fix it.”

4. Depression: “Crap. He’s dead. It’s gonna be five or ten  years before anyone’s allowed to bring him back. This sucks beyond all words. I hate my life.”

5. Acceptance: “That’s it. It’s time to blog.”

Heh. Yeah, you guys are part of my therapy. But I have to admit, I was surprised at the strength of my reaction—especially to a comic book that I didn’t actually buy or read, since (as I’ve mentioned before) I avoid big crossover storylines if I can. I’m usually pretty good about dealing with character death, especially in genres like comics where it’s famously temporary. I’m sure it’s made worse at the moment by the fact that bringing this character back from the dead isn’t like bringing Captain America himself back; it undermines the stupid mega-story without creating the sales boost associated with the return of a big-name character. Steve Rogers was selling comics for more than 60 years before he was killed off; his death made the news around the world. Bucky, by contrast, had only managed to be interesting for the last six years or so, and his fans are mostly new to the party (and not well-represented among Marvel Comics’ editorial staff). He’s probably not coming back any time soon.

I’m sure part of my response has to do with the way my life has gone for the past few years. While I usually try to keep my personal life out of this blog—at least, the non-happy parts, and believe me, there are non-happy parts—it’s not going to surprise anyone if I say that things haven’t exactly gone to plan. The crash of the American economy and a perfect storm of family problems have ensured that I am stuck in a personal situation that can politely be called toxic. I was one of those high-scoring, insufferably clever kids in school, and I’ve always had a knack for doing the highly improbable, but I’ve been stringing together part-time gigs for so long since graduation that I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to start this “life” thing everyone used to talk about. I never had a really strong plan for my life, partly because I have a medical condition that could kill me in the next 30 seconds (or let me live a hundred years, so don’t freak out too much), but I did rather expect that I’d have things a bit together by now, if I lived this long. Job. Home. Maybe a dog; there was always a dog in the picture somehow, even though I’ve never been able to have a dog. Heck, everyone I know is surprised that I don’t at least have a publishing contract by this point, and the fact that I’m bootstrapping myself via Pocket Coyote is no substitute for having a galley copy you can show your grandfather before Alzheimer’s eradicates his ability to recognize you.

And I have always sought solace in fiction.

When I was twelve years old and terrified that I would go blind, I dove into Daredevil comics, which reassured me that I could get by even without sight. When I was fourteen and ostracized in school, I read Edmond Hamilton’s Starwolf and felt better because somebody else understood what it was like to be an alien among your own kind. When I was eighteen and worried about how I’d survive outside of high school, I watched the first Spider-Man movie over and over because it showed Peter Parker doing just that. And just as I was finishing up college and going through grad school and discovering that the world I’d always been promised had dissolved, that I was going to spend the rest of my life fighting for any tiny scrap of success—a part-time or contract gig, a brief respite from verbal abuse, a couple of hours watching someone else’s dog—there was James Buchanan Barnes, thrust all unwilling into the twenty-first century, saddled with a legacy that threatened to crush him, and somehow managing to bear up under the weight of it all. And if he could do it, I could do it.

I think that’s why I like grown-up sidekicks better than the heroes who trained them, honestly. I know more about what it’s like to live in someone’s shadow than I do about creating my own legacy. I prefer Nightwing to Batman, because Nightwing has to work twice as hard for half Batman’s recognition—and he can still laugh about it. Much as I have enjoyed Steve Rogers’ adventures for the decade-plus I’ve been reading them, I’ve enjoyed James Barnes’ adventures much more. I never identified with the characters, really—the comic-book gender gap is just too wide—but they became a sort of good-luck charm. On a really bad day, I could glance at my bookshelf and remind myself that at least I wasn’t trying to punch a giant robot spider into submission … and when I finished working the day’s miracle of economy or death-defying feat of toleration, there might be another story with which to reward myself.

No more stories now, unless someone does something very clever. The monthly Captain America title has been renamed Captain America and Bucky and is running a flashback storyline about World War II, but I don’t trust it to last.

It’s got the back of my brain humming, though. There are pieces floating around back there, about badass former sidekicks and characters dropped into times and places where they don’t belong. Some of it will end up in Trevor, I’m sure, but the rest—who knows? I’ve turned bad endings of good stories into my own new tales before this. There’s a lot here. Maybe something I can use. A final gift, of sorts, from a character I’ve lived with for a while. Maybe I can make something that will become someone else’s good-luck charm.

But I’m still going to have to give Matt Fraction and Joe Quesada a resounding boot to the head … 


  1. He'll be back in February with a new ongoing series. FYI

  2. Yeah, I know. I'm quite excited about it. I should probably take this post down, huh?