It's not a big secret that I'm a huge fan of Robert Kirkman, whom you may know from his work on the extremely popular and exceptionally good The Walking Dead. Although The Walking Dead is Kirkman's most popular work, by far, I contend that his best work is in his superhero comic, Invincible.
I've talked before about how different comic book writers handle the problem of "death" and tension in their books. See, if the name of your book is Batman, then whenever Batman gets into a fight with a villian, you are not worried at all that he's going to be killed. There is zero tension in a fight between Batman and a villain, because even if you're not sure how it's going to end, you know the hero won't meet his or her end at that point. So, to create tension, different writers have crafted different strategies.
Dan Slott, for example, tends to focus on peripheral damage and death for Spider-Man. You know that Spider-Man isn't going to die in a fight, but one of his allies might (and have). You also know that Spider-Man is probably going to win any fight that he's win, but there may be a cost associated with that win. He might lose credibility or standing in his business or personal life. Just recently, he was able to win a year-long fight with Octavius, but lost Mary Jane's affections and friendship in the process, and that is where the tension is born.
Rick Remender takes a different approach, where death is treated as being a very temporary and obvious state of being, but how the characters get to that death and the consequences afterwards are what matters. Remender has no problem killing off major characters all the time, and once even the entire Earth. Death is treated so frivolously that I barely bat an eyelash when Rogue gets burned alive or whatever. However, what makes it interesting and full of tension is seeing how the characters get to that point. When Rogue died, she had just made the decision to try and kill The Scarlet Witch. The physical results of that action (her death) may be temporary, but the psychological affects on both the characters and their relationship is permanent. It's hard to forget that your teammate wanted to sneak up behind you and snap your neck. Remender has so many examples of this in his stories, but I'll give you just one more: When Wolverine was forced to kill his son Daken. Again, Daken gets resurrected not even a year later, but the affect that it has on Wolverine, forced to drown his own son, was permanent.
Robert Kirkman takes a third approach, which, if you've read any of his books or seen The Walking Dead TV show, involves a lot of people dying when you least expect it. Characters, even main ones, will be killed off, permanently, with little to no warning and often at times when it makes no sense narrative-wise. I don't want to get too deep into The Walking Dead, because I'm not sure how far along the TV show is, but characters that you think are crucial to the story, characters that make you think, "Oh, this story is about this character" will get killed. Characters will be mid-conversation about how they're getting ready to advance the plot, and then they get shot. Characters that have been around forever and seem like a mainstay will get killed off somewhat randomly. It's more Game of Thrones than Game of Thrones is. It keeps the reader's attention at all times and creates an atmosphere of constant tension.
But Kirkman, like Remender, is not satisfied to simply tell a story about people. Both writers set out to start a conversation about certain topics, and neither are trying to force a specific viewpoint. I'll use Remender as an example because I'm just a bit of paperwork away from legally marrying Uncanny X-Force. The issue at stake is whether preemptive murder is justifiable in the face of greater evil, and boy oh boy does Remender dance across the line of pros and cons. It starts with a soldier being mind-controlled about to set off a nuke, who gets killed by the X-Men. Then, the young child reincarnation of Apocalypse gets killed. Both these deaths are condemned by the characters, before it gets revealed that one of the team members re-reincarnates Apocalypse with the goal of raising him as a hero and not, ya know, Apocalypse. This is widely regarded as a reckless and dumb move by the people who previously thought it was awful to kill the child. Then they travel to a future where all punishment is carried out preemptively, so that sucks. Then we have to kill preemptively to save the universe. Then we have to kill our friend preemptively. It goes back and forth and presents so many different angles on the same premise, without ever declaring -- through the characters or the author -- which side is correct. At one point do you draw the line between justifiable murder and unnecessary punishment?
Kirkman does a similar thing with his own stories, but ties it in with his ideas about comic book death. Remember that Remender treats death frivolously, and so he can afford to jump back and forth across a topic, to examine all sides of it. If the child Apocalypse gets killed, we can talk about how bad that is, until he gets resurrected, and we can talk about how bad that is. Kirkman, on the other hand, is forced to get stuck on one side of an issue, because all the relevant characters get killed off. Tomorrow we'll look at what this means to his story-telling technique.