I'll be doing some random musings on comics today, and I'm using the Fantastic Four as my example. If you haven't read the latest issue yet, consider yourself fairly warned that spoilers abound below the break.
So last week, the Human Torch perished saving the world in Fantastic Four 587. It was a fine story: Johnny Storm went out a hero, who was faced with an impossible choice and chose to sacrifice himself rather than let anyone else die. The issue was drawn beautifully by Steve Epting, who managed a brilliant two-page spread for the Human Torch's last stand. I expect that when its done, Jonathan Hickman's run is going to be considered a classic in the series.
There's just one real problem with it.
I don't care that the Human Torch is dead.
I should care. Hickman gave me every reason to care, and I'm certain it's only going to get worse for Johnny's family in the next few issues. But... well, every member of the Fantastic Four has been dead at some point. Reed Richards was believed dead for months in the Nineties. The Thing was killed fighting Doctor Doom under Mark Waid. The Invisible Woman came back in time from the future and died (ignoring the fact that the future is almost certain to change). The whole team got killed fighting Onslaught. Even the Richards' daughter, Valeria, was stillborn for years before a reality-rewrite gave her a second chance at life.
Death is a funny thing in comics. In a novel, a character dies and he's dead. Full stop. You might have rules about how to resurrect him in a fantasy book or science fiction, but the expectation is that dead is dead. It lends an instant sense of importance to the event, especially if the writer knows what he's doing.
In a comic book, no matter how convincingly a character dies, even if he's torn limb from limb (and to be clear, we never saw the Human Torch's dead body), some writer a few years down the line will always find a reason to dust him off and bring him back for another go. Long-time readers know this. They expect it. Which means that when a writer decides to kill off a character, he has to work out how to make it matter, even more than a novelist does. When death doesn't matter in a novel, the writer has screwed up. When death matters in a comic book, the writer has excelled.
In Johnny Storm's case, his death's impact is not going to be fully felt this issue. It's going to be felt in the way Ben Grimm reacts to losing his best friend. It's going to be in how Reed and Sue take the news. It's going to be in how the team learns to function without the Human Torch.
Most of all, it's going to be a question of how the characters grow from this event. Reed Richards's death put Sue in charge of the team, and let her grow as a leader in her own right. The death of the Thing set the entire team on a quest to storm the gates of Heaven itself to get him back, leading to some of the more touching and emotional moments in the series. The Invisible Woman's death redefined her daughter Valeria as an interesting character in her own right, and she's been a lynchpin of the series ever since.
The Last Stand of Johnny Storm was a very good comic. In the next few months, we're going to find out if it's a great one.