Death is a funny thing in the Big 2 books because of its lack of permanence. I have spoken before on the subject. Specifically I had discussed that Marvel/DC’s disregard for death and utilizing it as a cheap attempt to garner sympathy, too many characters are seen as “throwaway” (usually characters that are young adults). More importantly, one can use an aversion to a predictable death to create good character pathos. Today’s discussion on death will be less about when to use but more on how the Big 2 implements death, including such aspects as motive, character rationale and narrative cohesion.
On July 13, 2016, Marvel Comics released two issues that each had a death in them that also utilized flashback in their own ways. One of these failed miserably to resonate emotionally, while the other succeeded.
So let’s talk about Civil War II #3 and The Vision #9. Naturally, there are going to be spoilers from here on out.
Civil War II, written by Brian Michael Bendis, pencils by David Marquez (w/ Olivier Coipel assist) and colored by Justin Ponsor, has been, at best, divisive. It centers around a newly awakened Inhuman with the ability to predict the future at a near-perfect accuracy. So, the question is whether to use this Inhuman to predict future disasters/crime and prevent them or let the future happen and see whether the predictions come true (supposedly, Bendis hasn’t exactly given Tony Stark a motivation aside from his friend dying). This comes to a head with issue #3 as the heroes received a vision of Bruce Banner, the Hulk, killing them. So, they go to Bruce to try and prevent this.
Now, for those not up to speed: Bruce Banner has not been the Hulk for quite a while. In fact, in the pages of Totally Awesome Hulk, it was confirmed that Bruce was cured of his Gamma-induced ragey greenness while his successor, Amadeus Cho, has been heroing it up. I only mention this to such a degree because, as I’ll discuss later, the reasons as to why the death in Civil War II #3 happen completely contradict the story in Totally Awesome Hulk much to its own detriment.
Anyways, the situation gets more and more tense until it finally snaps, not leading to a brawl but to Bruce Banner getting an arrow to the head, causing death (complete with single tear sexy cry from his now dead body). Despite the murder weapon, we have a page or two of “who did it” before it is revealed to be the dastardly Paste Pot Pete! Obviously joking, it’s Clint Barton. Hawkeye murders his friend and comrade then and there. The big question isn’t so much who did as to why Clint did it.
And here the use of flashbacks isn’t to provide a look into the mind of Clint Barton, but rather to justify this plot development. Turns out, Bruce asked Clint to kill him if it ever seemed like he’d Hulk out again (giving Clint a special arrowhead to do it because if guns won’t work than the weapon guns made obsolete centuries ago would). There is no emotion in this, just a flimsy way to deliver exposition, which is a problem prevalent through this issue.
In the beginning of the issue, a good portion of the cast serve as talking heads to regurgitate the plot up to this point (in spite of the recap page) and we are exposited Clint’s motivation but we never really do see how it affects him. This combined with Banner’s exposition of how he’s prevented becoming the Hulk (despite the aforementioned contradictions with another book in the line), it’s a giant miasma of telling us rather than showing.
In fact, everything else surrounding this is trying to justify it in some way. From the other witnesses on the stand such as Hank McCoy, Tony Stark and Carol Danvers to the laughable back and forth of “We’re supposed to be protecting, defending, Avenging!” and “Accountability!” Also, I’m not a law guy, but I’m pretty sure Matt Murdock being the prosecutor is a major conflict of interest. It all rings hollow.
The Big 2 have eroded the impact of death to the point where they feel you don’t require aspects such as motive or narrative coherency. It allows them to just throw away characters deemed “not important” or cynically put a major character on the bench until the next movie. Let’s face it: Bruce Banner will be back. We know this. But it’s the “why” he dies and the attempts to create emotional resonance that Marvel regards as optional aspects. In fact, perhaps the biggest impact this could have is that Brian Bendis arguably gave Clint his “Hank Pym” moment all in the name of “Hey! Remember Civil War? Give us your money!” Being this—let’s face it—lazy with how you kill off beloved characters is just disgraceful to not only the readers who had to shell out $5 for the comic, but to creators who actually could write good death scenes.
Now that I have gotten that stinky plague-rat out of the way, let’s talk about The Vision #9, which handled the death of a child with a lot more thought put into it.
The Vision—written by Tom King, pencils by Gabriel Walta, and colors by Jordie Bellaire—has been a very depressing book (in a good way). It’s about Vision literally creating a family and trying to have that idyllic life in the suburbs with everything going horrifyingly, murderously wrong. While spying on the Vision Family for the concerned Avengers, Victor Mancha, former member of the Runaways and technically the brother of the Vision (both having been created by Ultron) is caught surprised by Vin, Vision’s son. This leads to Victor overreacting and using his electromagnetic capabilities to try and restrain Vin. Except the result is much more grim: Victor misjudges the strength of his powers and essentially fries Vin’s circuitry, killing him.
Through the use of flashback, King establishes that, over the years the Victor has been a teen hero, he has been using Vibranium (the famous Wakandan metal that created Captain America’s shield) as a coping mechanism to deal with constantly being in battles against potentially world-ending threats. It is very clear that King is drawing a parallel to soldiers enduring Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and, even further, some of them turning to drugs to help deal with the emotional strain. The flashbacks are used to examine Victor’s mental state. It shows how much the constant fighting impacts the psyche of someone, especially someone as young as Victor.
The flashbacks are not used to justify Victor’s overreaction that does, painfully, kill Vin. It is used to create an emotional tether, something that can be used to sympathize with Victor even if it doesn’t excuse the action that happens. To be honest, it is a development that leaves me immensely conflicted. It is a heavily, raw written topic (helped further by Walta/Bellaire’s harrowing depictions of both Victor and the terrified Vin) that uses all its combined elements that contribute to someone’s death as the result of character-driven actions, not actions to move a plot.
The issue ends with a heartbreaking scene of all the characters left broken from this event: the Vision cradling his dead son while Victor lies in a fetal position completely shellshocked. The conflict for me is, as a fan of Runaways and Victor Mancha in particular, the retcon here makes me a bit uneasy. That said, the benefit this retcon gets as opposed to Civil War II is that it doesn’t contradict stories that are currently going on.
At the end of it all, the big difference in the deaths between Civil War II #3 and The Vision #9 is in the execution. The death in Civil War II is used to further a plot line of dividing the heroes. The Vision is used to advance characters and create empathy while also making the reader ask questions. Civil War II wants to be this big morally arresting story, but The Vision is doing it on a much smaller scale without resorting to cheap tactics. It isn’t just enough to explain to your audience why this had to happen, you have to engage. Connect with your audience. That is what makes the knife really hurt when you slide it in.