The Lessons of Comicbook Loss

Matthew Derman

When it comes to character death, it’s necessary to split the discussion into two parts: mainstream superhero books and everything else.

Because of their month in, month out production and narrative serialization, comicbooks are uniquely suited to teach their fans about dealing with loss. Characters die, often with advance warning but sometimes without. Titles are canceled constantly. Creative teams leave a book or publisher without always getting to finish the tales they were trying to tell. These are all very different kinds of loss from very different sources, but dealing with them is a regular part of any comic reader’s experience. We have to roll with the punches without letting them knock us down, because if we were defeated every time a beloved character, book, or creator went away, there’d be no time in between to enjoy the stuff that’s still coming out. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be affected when something we love is taken from us, merely that surviving as a comicbook fan requires the ability to cope with such losses. And learning how to cope can and will help us handle real-world loss as well, because in comics like in life, the end of any one thing is not the end of everything.

When it comes to character death, it’s necessary to split the discussion into two parts: mainstream superhero books and everything else. Because death in a Marvel or DC cape comic is not the same as it is in any other series, since both publishers’ respective universes now have innumerable examples of characters who have died and come back (some of them on multiple occasions). Death has become a temporary condition in those worlds, just another seemingly insurmountable obstacle for the super-people to eventually overcome. For the most part, I agree with folks who see this as a problem. Having death be so impermanent lessens its powers, because it’s hard to really feel the loss of someone who we know is going to return sooner or later. No matter how well-done a character’s demise is at the time, their inevitable rebirth dilutes the effect. It’s more like having your best friend in high school go on a family vacation for the summer: life’s not as much fun without them around, but knowing they’ll be home once their trip is over takes away much of the sting of their departure.

Nevertheless, friends and fans alike will miss any character during their absence. And when the fallen hero (or villain) does return, they’re often not quite the same as they were when they left. They behave unlike their former selves due to new circumstances in their fictional worlds, different creators bringing them back than those who killed them, and/or experiences they had in the afterlife (or wherever their consciousness was housed). So even when we the fans get back the person we lost, some part of them is gone forever, perhaps even our favorite part. It’s not as big a loss as if they’d stayed dead, but it’s still something we must find a way to absorb, process, and move past in one direction or another. Either we decide that this new version is acceptably similar and adjust our expectations accordingly, or it rings so untrue that we walk away, in which case it’s no different than if the character had died for good. One way or the other, these deaths and rebirths force us to reevaluate our feelings about the things we read, to zero in on what we like about our heroes and what we want out of them. Which is not entirely unlike the permanent deaths of characters in other series.

To be fair, there are sometimes deaths that last forever even in a Big Two superhero series, it’s just less common there than it is in books that operate outside of those continuity-heavy (and superpower-saturated) universes. When a character dies in a series where we know it’s going to stick, the emotional toll can be nearly as devastating as when it happens in real life. Perhaps it’s not the healthiest thing in the world, but fans get seriously invested in the characters we love, and even a well-written death can be a tough pill to swallow if the victim is someone to whom we felt particularly close or attached. However, because the comics themselves typically keep going even after someone has died, the reader isn’t forced to suffer alone. We get to see the reactions of the deceased character’s friends, foes, relatives, and the other people who populate their world.

In ongoing series especially, there is an opportunity to observe the rest of the cast’s grieving processes over long periods of time, sometimes even years. How do their dynamics change, or their worldviews? Are they able to recover from the loss, and if so, what do they do to get there? While we’re going through our own complex internal responses to losing someone, the other characters’ mental and emotional states are available to us for study and comparison. We can see whose feelings most closely align with our own, and then look to them as a model of how to move on, how to accept the loss and live with it. Inversely, when we notice characters who are handling it badly, they act as warnings of how not to be. By paying attention to the fictional survivors dealing with death in their realities, we not only learn how to better approach it within the comics we love, but in our own lives as well. The lessons we to be gained from watching those characters who can take it and those who can’t will be applicable to real-world situations, too. They’re made-up examples of legitimate strategies for overcoming loss.

Speaking of events in our own world, as opposed to those that exist inside the comicbooks, I would argue that, while not always as emotionally taxing, the more frustrating losses for readers are title cancelations. Because while character death is meant to be in service of the story (not always the case, but in theory that’s the purpose) a book ending prematurely will often cut the story short, change it entirely, or force it to end too hurriedly. None of these are ever in the narrative’s best interest, but they happen all the time anyway, because of external circumstances that cause someone somewhere to decide that they’re in the publisher’s best interest. That’s fair enough--comics are a business like any other, and the people who work in the industry have got to do what they think is right to keep the ball rolling. From a fan’s perspective, though, this means having to give up or lose out on stories we’d already latched onto, and these losses come with an aggravating feeling of powerlessness that nobody wants to experience.

Unlike with character deaths, there’s less of a built-in support system to help us muddle through the agony of a series getting the axe. With no book left to read, where would such assistance be located? For that, luckily, there are now bountiful external options. Online forums provide the same opportunities to witness how others manage their sadness, with the added value of them being real people. Then again, Internet conversation isn’t always of the highest caliber, so in the long run, we have to find solace in the books that last, or at the very least reach the point of natural completion. Beyond that, of course, are new comics to be sorted through in search of something to replace what’s gone. Ultimately finding a new great series to fill the void left by the last one can be as rewarding as the cancelation was painful. We find characters, publishers, genres, and creators we trust, and come to appreciate what’s there in favor of pining over what’s absent. Again, a skill that will prove useful elsewhere.

Creative team changes or departures stir up a lot of the same feelings as title cancelations, the sense that the books as we know them are shifting too suddenly. And many of the same things can be used to help soften the blow. Other fans will sympathize with our longing in the immediate aftermath, and the creators in question will inevitably have new projects down the line. Discovering a writer or artist whose work is consistently satisfying makes the end of their time working on any given series less difficult. As long as the people themselves are out there creating, we still have access to the true sources and targets of our love: comicbooks that are worth reading, that improve our lives and make us better. This is the most important sliver of wisdom to be taken from comic-related loss, that people are more important than things. We should cherish the things we love, but also be willing and able to part with them so long as the people we love stick around.

The common thread running through all these of problems is that their solutions lie in our connections to others, be it the characters, our fellow fans, or those responsible for producing the comics we revere. Following comics devotedly will always involve wrestling with these issues, and therefore anyone who sticks with it will necessarily find ways to cope with the bad to get back to the good. Therein lies the wonder of fandom, that it teaches endurance, creates community, and makes us even more appreciative not just through its highest moments, but its lowest, too. Commiserating is just as good as celebrating, and saying goodbye becomes a motivation to move forward instead of falling down.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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