Superheroes, Death & Dying

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In January 2005, A. David Lewis launched phase one of Ever-Ending Battle, a massive project that intends to look at the potential interaction between the comic book superhero genre and American perceptions and reactions to Death and Dying. The Mortal Coils and Lone and Level Sands creator delivers some groundbreaking research with his EEB—the way in which superhero comics may or may not influence our perception of death, in the field of psychology known as Thanatology, is a previously unstudied topic.

“Given the regularity with which characters die and are resurrected in comics, it struck me that Thanatological principles in the ‘superhero universe’ may not only be very different from our own, but could in fact be affecting them regardless,” Lewis said. “Vice versa, our perceptions and even fears could be creating that strange, ‘nobody ever dies’ scenario as well.”

For Ever-Ending Battle, the writer and Georgetown academic needed to collect a considerable amount of information about people’s opinion about death and dying, which he largely did through an anonymous questionnaire open to the public at the website of the International Comic Arts Association. Even though the project may very well shed some light on how comic books – or at least the superhero genre – really have an influence on our daily behaviour, Lewis did not start out with great expectations.

He hopes to find out though what exactly makes death and dying such weird phenomena in superhero stories today: “Something is making mortality in the superhero comics strange, whether it is the need for escapism, an industry-based protection of characters, or whether it’s just fiction's ability to do whatever it wants,” Lewis continued. “So, I don't know what to expect. However, I am starting with the readers and looking to see if the average comic book reader—if there is such a thing—has as random a relationship to Thanatological concerns as your average reader or spectator of any other medium or genre.”

A key factor in the set-up of the EEB research is the cultural background of most of the project’s test subjects. The large majority are Americans, which is fitting, since superheroes are a very US invention. What makes Americans interesting in this study is that, in general, they are considered to be a population with a very specific relationship with mortality: they live in ‘death-denial,’ for better or for worse. According to modern discussions in the field of ethics and anthropology, Americans, and more largely, Westerners, fear death. But paradoxically, they will applaud those who face death yet also turn away from those who are dying.

Both as a comic book aficionado and creator, Lewis is interested a great deal in what death has on the medium and vice versa. “There's a good quote by Walter Benjamin that I not only included in a recent Library of Babble column here at Broken Frontier but in my own Mortal Coils comic,” he points out. “It says, ‘Death is the sanction of everything the story-teller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.’ I truly believe that—death is the building-block of any story. And, while I'm not a personally morbid guy in the least, I do like to consider myself a storyteller, either telling a story creatively or telling a ‘story’ of sorts academically. Death is a fundamental to the storyteller (if not to all people!) and, as such, I think it is worth a great deal of investigation.”

On March 24, Lewis discussed the initial results of the first EEB phase at the Popular Culture/American Culture Association panel "Comic Art & Comics IV: The Quick and the Dead: Death, Revenge, and the Undead" held at the Marriott Hotel & Marina in San Diego, CA. As other research—mainly involving television and movies—has pointed out, certain popular media truly do have an influence on people’s behaviour. Action movies and news broadcasts of bombings, wars and terrorist attacks, for example, make people less and less sensitive for death in real life each time they are exposed to or deliberately choose to watch them. Early results of the EEB have shown that superhero comics may indeed have a similar impact on its readers.

“Based on what I've seen so far from the data—this is all coming from very preliminary numbers—it could be that initially some amount of superhero comic reading increases one's sensitivity,” Lewis discovered. “If you just read a few issues of Spider-Man or Batman, your thoughts on death, dying, and mourning increase. But, you read more and more superhero comics, both in quantity and in frequency, that begins to drop off. I'm not suggesting that it desensitizes someone or makes them indifferent to death. However, it might have the effect of making one less anxious about it.”

The fact that there's a slight increase at first and a major drop-off later appears to be working the same way as when people get to see footage of 9/11 or last year's Tsunami: at first, they’re shocked, but afterwards, they can watch the footage like any other news item while having dinner. Lewis is quick to point to point to, what he calls “the problem of causality.”
Assuming causality may be right, but Lewis thinks it’s appropriate to remain cautious at this point: “So far, I cannot say whether comics cause this or whether people with less anxiety about death simply read more superhero comics. It remains to be seen whether this is a cause of an effect. Regardless, the initial analysis does show that arcing relationship: minimal to moderate exposure to superhero comics increases one's focus on death, but then there is a major drop-off as the readership is identified as being greatly exposed to the medium.”

The questionnaire on the ICAA website has brought in slightly over 200 responses thus far, a nice starting point for the Ever-Ending Battle research to be representative for the population of comic book readers it has studied. “Two-hundred certainly a great starting point,” Lewis confirms. “With at least 75% of these people being avid superhero comic book readers, it does give the pilot study viability. I can feel relatively confident that the results are suggesting something true and not just coincidence.”

The initial questionnaire indeed is just a pilot, as it has pointed Lewis to a few flaws which he knew there would be. “For a more scientific study, which I hope to follow with either this summer or fall, there would need to be a control group, there would need to be a controlled setting, and there would need to be verifiable input, i.e. certainty that the responder wasn't making stuff up for a laugh,” Lewis explains. “On the whole, though, given the EEB thus far solely exists on the internet, I consider the pilot and its results a success... which only emphasizes the need to take it further.

“The next phase will have to go out and find participants, not just allow semi-random people to find it. (I say "semi-" since many results came from certain websites or message boards where the questionnaire was announced.) But you already have a biased sample of those people who not only have the Internet, not only are Internet-savvy enough to fill out a questionnaire, but also are motivated enough to take part without incentive.

“Second, a major oversight of the initial questionnaire was the failure to determine the level of education. In addition to age, recent loss, sexual preference, and religious background, education is a major variable in one's own relationship to death. Military service was also an unrecorded factor as well. However, even with those flaws or oversights, there was still valuable data here, which led to the following analyses:

1. As one's exposure to superhero comics increases, one's anxiety/thought about other people's death and dying first increases, then actually decreases.
2. As one's exposure to superhero comics increases, one's anxiety/thought about either their own dying or other people's dying first increases, then actually decreases...
3. As one's exposure to superhero comics increases, if they have no personal recent loss in their own lives, one's anxiety/thought about all death and dying first increases, then actually decreases. This does not hold true for those who have experienced recent loss, however.

These are really interesting effects, and they set up some great hypothesis to be more deeply explored with future iterations of the questionnaire.”

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For Lewis, looking at superhero comics in particular is interesting, because in US comics, it is undoubtedly the genre with the most history to it. “Superheroes are a finite sample,” he points out. “That is, I can define the genre as beginning in 1938 and having certain properties: There has to be some sort of costume, there has to be some sort of power or ability, there has to be some sort of name or moniker. By doing this, I can be slightly more scientific and precise in what population I'm looking at. Also, to a certain degree, the genre becomes defined by whoever reads it. I never ask anybody, "Do you read the following type of comic" and then list the properties; I just ask, "Do you read superhero comics?" and let the participant define that for themselves.

“Secondly, the biggest subjective element to the Ever-Ending Battle thus far is my proposition that there is more death in comics than ever before or, in any case, more concern with death. Largely, I think that holds up, what with Identity Crisis, Countdown, Avengers: Disassembled, New X-Men, etc. I don't claim death was absent before—in fact, 1986 would have been another key moment to address this issue--but, over the last 20 years, superhero comics have become positively neurotic about it.

“Lastly, the superhero genre, by and large, is a genre where death and mourning are practically written into its genetic code: the death of Krypton as the origin of Superman, the death of the Waynes as the origin of Batman, the death of Uncle Ben (not to mention the missing Parkers) as the origin of Spider-Man, etc. I'm not surprised the genre has come to this neurotic point with mortality. What more surprised about is that few others have noticed it publicly or have sought to study it in some way.”

As Lewis stated, the way superheroes have dealt with death and mortality lately is rather different from past eras, or if you will, Ages. In the Golden Age, for instance, comic books were a comment on the Depression and the ensuing World War II, a decade in which death and dying were much more part of daily life and could not be denied as easily as today.
Yet, comic books would not fully embrace mortality until the Silver Age, with its more realistic and down-to-earth characters and tragic origins.
While Batman pretty much stands out as a Golden Age character whose origins are closely rooted in death, it is not until the creation of other classic characters like the Fantastic Four and, more in particular, Spider-Man that comic book readers began to realise that with great power indeed came great responsibility.

In the Silver Age, mortality truly was something tragic. Nowadays though, one can wonder whether superheroes still have to be concerned with death when they know Superman, Jean Grey and Piotr Rasputin have all survived seemingly bleak ordeals.

With that in mind, Lewis openly wonders whether superhero societies should not function in ways that are thanatologically distinct from our own. “If the Punisher knows people can be resurrected, why is he still killing criminals? If Spider-Man knows there's a Heaven, why does he still feel guilty for Uncle Ben?” he questions.

“The Death of Superman—and perhaps the Infinity Gauntlet and, before that, the Death of Captain Marvel—started to make this part of the superheroes' thoughts and discussions. Recently, [things have developed to the point that] in an acclaimed mini series like Identity Crisis, you have a resurrected Green Arrow investigating the murder of Sue Dibney by talking with an (un)dead Hal Jordan as the Spectre about when he’s ‘coming back.’”

How recent comic books have chosen to deal with mortality can definitely be considered as bizarre when holding in mind that realism is the storytelling mode comic fans in general seem to be most fond of. Have things gotten to the point where superheroes dying over and over again comes across as silly if a character’s death and the grieving process of those left behind does not have a long term consequence?

Lewis says: “I think it is having a greater effect on superhero storytelling than on the characters themselves. It's starting to become -- like the spandex and the alter ego -- a convention that readers have come to expect, if not accept. The only other genres I can think of off the top of my head with Resurrection as a set convention are tales of vampires and tales of Christ (and Lazarus). Therefore, if an effect is taking place, it's taking place on the level of expectation and narrative design. I do not think, though, that it's necessarily a good thing.

“There's so much that's already fantastic built into superhero tales,” he continues. “There's a great ‘suspension of disbelief’ required in reading them, but that's also true of many other fine reading traditions, so there's no reason to fault them along those lines. However, when you come to something as elemental as the permanence of Death, I think you begin to walk a line between what is still relatable to someone's life and what is truly off the map. Some off-the-map-stuff—like Promethea or even The Invisibles—is still good reading and can still manage to create a relationship with the reader. I wonder and, to a degree, worry about the rest, the more average stuff, and how it'll fare in a world where death doesn't matter. Or barely matters.

“I'm not saying realism is a must. I'm only saying that having alterable death as part of a convention for superheroes rather than an intermittent occurrence could start to hurt the genre and limit it. It is possible, though, that that's what readers want from superheroes—they may not want the real rules of death to apply.”

The second phase of A. David Lewis’ Ever-Ending Battle project will hopefully launch in time for this year’s convention season. A newer, more encompassing questionnaire, as well as a series of studies, will be released towards the end of the year. People interested in the EEB can find out more at http://www.everendingbattle.com. Lewis is also still collecting data through the initial questionnaire on the ICAA website.

- Frederik Hautain

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