[7 January 2014]
It’s no secret that death is a revolving door in comics. It tends to bring out the kind of cynicism that would disgust even the most ardent of hipsters while enraging fans like an army of trolls with Navy SEAL training. A major character dies and they come back within a few months or a few years. It’s almost as predictable as the tides. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone who understands how hard it is to create iconic characters. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby set the bar pretty high. Why else would Disney pay $4 billion to bring Marvel into their magical kingdom? But that doesn’t mean that stories involving character death can’t resonate.
Uncanny Avengers #14 is a case study in how to tell a story involving character deaths in both the right way and the frustrating way. Rick Remender has shown in his run in Uncanny X-Force that he’s willing to use death as a major driving force in the narrative. However, he always made sure that the narrative had the right emotional impact. He understands that while death may be the ultimate endpoint in real life, it is more like a paid hiatus for characters in comic books. For some, it’s an extended absence that’s meant to have a long-term impact, like the death of Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man. For others, it’s more like a trip to Tahiti and Agent Coulson himself would probably attest that this is the more preferable option.
But death isn’t the only driving force in Uncanny Avengers #14. This issue is just the next in what has become a prolonged struggle that began back in Rick Remender’s run in Uncanny X-Force. The Apocalypse Twins are akin to that incriminating photo that no politician on the campaign trail wants to see leaked just weeks before an election. They are a direct result of crimes committed by both X-Force and Kang the Conqueror. Although if it were an episode of Law and Order, X-Force would carry the most guilt because all Kang did was exploit their crimes to commit some of his own. Now those crimes have come back to torment the both of them and now they’re trying to undo them. But unlike retracting a story on a blog, there’s no delete button.
Kang’s efforts at undoing his mistake with the Apocalypse Twins are largely a secondary part of the story, if not outright glossed over. The strength of the story is the way in which Wolverine and the X-men faction of the Uncanny Avengers attempt to undo their mistake. While for Kang it may be more of an annoyance on the level of cold sore, for the X-men it’s a struggle where emotions are running high and anger is leading the pack. It all centers around the Scarlett Witch and the vital role she plays in the Apocalypse Twins’ plans as well as the role she has played in the X-men’s struggles since House of M. Like Oprah, she has evoked compassion and hatred of the worst kind. Now it finally boils over in a way that is thick with emotion and heavy in irony.
This is where the extreme dichotomy in character death comes in. The X-men don’t know of the Scarlett Witch’s ulterior motives. As far as they’re concerned, she’s helping the Apocalypse Twins with a nod and a smile. Since she has already brought the entire mutant race to the brink of extinction once before, they have no reason to give her the benefit of the doubt. But over the past few issues and even within this issue, the Scarlett Witch makes it clear that path to redemption is paved with heavy emotions and a touch of deceit. She even shares some of those emotions with Wonder Man along the way. Despite her past crimes, she’s actually the easiest person to root for in the story. She’s like the Chicago Cubs in that it has been so long since she has had a meaningful victory.
Conversely, Rogue has been the Scarlett Witch’s biggest critic since Uncanny Avengers began. She doesn’t just blame her for the events of House of M. She treats her like a rabid dog that nobody had the guts to put down when they had the chance. But unlike the Scarlett Witch, Rogue’s attitude hasn’t really been supplemented by any emotions of her own. She is basically a blunt instrument that looks good in a skin-tight uniform. Whereas Wolverine and Sunfire had moments of vulnerability where they had to overcome their personal demons, Rogue is just the hammer they’re using to fix a rusty nail. So when Rogue is the one who confronts the Scarlett Witch before she can put her plan into action, it has only half the necessary impact.
That’s not to say that half isn’t compelling. The death themes apply to more than just Rogue and the Scarlett Witch. Other characters like Wolverine and Wonder Man are affected. It also marks the culmination of a powerful bitterness between two characters that have been butting heads since the beginning of the series. The problem is, only the Scarlett Witch made people actually care about her struggle. Rogue just came off as the personification of all the hatred that had been directed at the Scarlett Witch since House of M. She might as well have been a crash test dummy in spandex. It seemed every other character had a chance to have a moment where they went through some growth as a character. For Rogue, it seemed like she was just the odd superhero out.
The strength of any story that involves death is the ability to have an emotional impact. With the Scarlett Witch and Wonder Man, there was definitely an impact. With Rogue, the only emotion that could possibly be evoked is frustration. Many events in the past have failed because characters were callously killed off for the sake of shocking and upsetting people. And unlike recent issues of Uncanny Avengers, the narrative isn’t as well-organized or concise. It was as if this issue was made solely to create the circumstances necessary for a death theme. In an era where death is a revolving door, that shock is now more of an annoyance. Uncanny Avengers #14 attempts to maximize the impact of death in this convoluted era of comics. However, it only partially succeeds.