Death can be a valuable tool for any storyteller. The finality of death can help a storyteller shift even the most upbeat of stories into the depths of drama, and force a conclusion a character’s story. The consequences of the death can change those around the deceased, from friends to enemies. It can also bring about a more spiritual shift to a story, especially for those storytellers who believe in reincarnation or rebirth stories. And as with any powerful tool, in the hands of the inexperienced it can be diminished and the deaths made almost pointless if the potential of that death is not harnessed.
It was the apparent death of Tohya Miho over at Megatokyo that led me to start delving on this matter. Looking into this death, I’m left scratching my head and wondering as to the point of the death of such a potent character. There is much we’ve yet to learn of the girl, and so much potential that was just now starting to blossom that leaves me to wonder as to what purpose her death would bring. For that matter, her death is in doubt even with the final scene with Sonoda Meimi’s “disturbance in the Force” moment.
As Fred Gallagher starts up his traditional Omake at the end of the chapter, it is doubtful that readers will know for several months as to the actual fate of a character so many fans love, and so many others love to hate. The question on if her death will be squandered or not will no doubt remain up in the air for at least half a year at least, depending on when and how the others learn of Tohya’s demise, and what form that death may take.
Megatokyo is not alone in killing off main characters. Maritza Campos’ own epic comic College Roomies from Hell dove off the deep end a couple years ago when April Sommers drove a knife into the gut of the man she loved and couldn’t have, Mike Green. This was perhaps among the most potent deaths I’ve seen in a comic in that the primary motivator of the comic was cut down by one of their own. For all that Mike would often play the role of antagonist for Roger and Dave, and later for April (and even on occasion for his girlfriend Marsha), he was also the glue that held the cast together and that motivated them when they needed to get moving.
Further, by using April to kill Mike, it started the process of breaking the Roomies apart. While I’ve not read the comic since soon after Mike’s death (once I realized I no longer cared about the characters and had no interest in the plot), my contacts among Campos’ readership have told me of how the cast is fracturing, with Marsha apparently dying as well as she tried to kill Mike’s killer, Roger falling under the spell of a former antagonist of Dave’s, and Dave and Margaret likewise going their own separate ways. Indeed, even the Dave/Blue relationship was seriously strained because of Mike’s death.
In terms of the effect of Mike’s death, Campos has played her cards masterfully. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if this will be revealed as good storytelling or of a failure in theme; the community that the six roommates had formed was to me the keystone of the comic. Without that keystone, and without Mike to hold things together, and the comic risks falling apart under its own weight. Ultimately, whether Mike’s death will be the masterstroke in storytelling or the straw that broke the comic’s back will be left for future readers to decide.
Another comic that used death in changing at least one character was found in Sluggy Freelance with the death of the Dimension of Lame’s Zoe. At the time I felt that Zoe2′s death was a bit of a cop-out, and that there were some tremendous storytelling possibilities that were terminated by taking the easy route out. Indeed, early into the That Which Redeems storyline I suspected that Zoe2 was not going to live through to the end of the story. And this is a threat that any character death brings about, and one that I foresee with the death of MT’s Tohya Miho.
The very nature of death ends story potential. While there are ways around this endgame, the use of these “cheats” end up diminishing the impact of the character death. This can be found with mainstream comics; the death of Superman at the hands of Doomsday was a powerful and potent situation. The actual killing of what is unquestionably the most powerful of comic’s heroes was noticed even by a blase mainstream media. This death wasn’t even diminished much by the Reign of the Supermen storyline as each “Superman” had a level of doubt as to their true nature… and indeed none of them ended up being the genuine thing.
But once Superman was brought back, it was child’s play to try and kill him again. The death and rebirth of Superman ended up diminishing the entire genre… and turned it into just another gimmick. The impermanent nature of superhero (and supervillain) death in comics has turned it into a bit of a joke. If (or should I say when?) a hero dies, it’s a mere matter of time before that hero is brought back, whether through having faked his or her death, being an alternative dimensional counterpart, the use of magic or miracles, or even just appearing with no explanation given. Nor is this the venue of superheroes and super-villains alone; I could count the number of important non-heroic characters who didn’t return from the dead in some way, shape, or form on one hand. (And don’t get me started on Aunt May Parker. Please don’t.)
So, was Zoe2 an important, character-changing moment, or a squandered possibility? Well, it did change Torg for over a year. For a while he would have nothing to do with his dimension’s Zoe, no doubt fearing that he would cause her own death somehow (and that death has been foreshadowed by Pete Abrams on numerous occasions). Considering that Torg is mostly recovered from Zoe2′s death, I’m left to call this a squandered opportunity and a pointless death.
Of course, death need not be permanent. Comic book heroes don’t stay dead even if you fill their mouths full of salt, sew their lips shut, and chop off their heads before removing and burning their hearts. Likewise, Shannon Garrity used death on her characters like a clown-hammer, used both for comedic and storytelling value and later for dramatic purposes. The initial death of Dave Davenport (who eventually would be revealed as the primary protagonist of Narbonic) was primarily comedic in nature, allowing Garrity to glimpse into her cartoon vision of Hell before bringing Dave back as a zombie (and eventually just cloning him back to life). It was done for laughs and it worked quite well for this.
It would be in the final year of Narbonic that we would be given a less comedic glimpse into death in Garrity’s comic opus. The rise of a primary antagonist against Helen Narbon and crew would bring about the deaths of not only the antagonist (who I am not naming so not to spoil for those people who’ve not yet read the entire series), but also on one of the servants of Helen’s chief rival, Dr. Lupin Madblood.
But these two deaths were cheapened much like the deaths of characters in superhero comics in that they were temporary and in essence served little purpose (except perhaps in the antagonist’s “death” to show this character’s utter power in that blowing that character’s brains out didn’t put a stop to the antagonist’s plans). In these later instances, death served not as a breaking of the mold and more to add to the atmosphere of hopelessness in facing down the final antagonist… and to also diminish the consequences of what had happened. Everything was okay at the end, and all was forgiven. So then, what was the point?
Part 2 of this article will look at the concept of Death as an object of renewal in storylines and of a method of motivating the characters. We will also take a glimpse at a few comics that used death ineffectually and how and why this is so.