Secret Avengers #15 sets its sights incredibly high. Nick Spencer and Scot Eaton here deliver the first comic book I can think of that actually tries to make an emotional argument in favor of the constant life-and-death merry-go-round of superheroes from the Big Two. Yes, DC’s Infinite Crisis flippantly explained away 20 years of characters coming back to life by having Superboy punch the walls of the universe, but this is a different beast entirely. Spencer and Eaton are shooting for our hearts. They want us to feel why we should care about fictional characters who die, even when their resurrection might be mere months away.
Here’s the story: somewhere, at some point in Marvel’s massive Fear Itself crossover (I don’t know where, I’m not following it), the last hero to be called Captain America, aka Bucky Barnes, got murdered. In Secret Avengers #15, his ex-lover Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow (I totally missed that coupling) pays an angry visit to a TMZ-style celebrity gossip website claiming that Captain America’s still alive. She and the four staffers there share their reactions to life and death in a universe where costumed characters seem to revive themselves all the time.
Before I proceed, I have to say that I respect what Spencer and Eaton are trying to do here. Secret Avengers #15 absolutely stands out as a unique and special issue, one that demands attention be paid to it, which is kind of funny considering the creative team behind it basically came on-board to do four fill-in issues as a stopgap between runs from Ed Brubaker and Warren Ellis. Overall I’ve really enjoyed Spencer and Eaton’s work on the book; in particular, I think #12.1 and #13 were among the best issues so far in its year-and-a-half run. I’m sad to see this team go, especially since I’ve never been a big fan of Warren Ellis, though the strong (if mostly unexploited) concept at this book’s core ensures my continued readership.
Now, all that said… I found Secret Avengers #15 disgusting. It’s a well-crafted comic; clearly Nick Spencer knows how to write, and Scot Eaton’s a solid artist. The problem here is that the philosophy this book argues for is so far off-base that I actually feel insulted as a reader and as a human being. In a ploy to make readers feel as though they should care about the latest sales-raising gimmicky character death, this book’s creators lay out an argument which I’m going to recreate as honestly as possible below. I’m doing this so you can follow along with my reasoning, and so you can see how I’ve interpreted this book’s thought process. I could be wrong, so feel free to disagree with me if you feel that’s the case.
Black Widow: You’re harming national security by claiming Captain America’s still alive.
(To the book’s credit, this is presented as a clear front for Black Widow’s emotional issues.)
Male Staffer #1: There’s a fair chance he’ll come back to life, so who cares?
Black Widow: “He was a real person.”
Female Staffer: Real people don’t get to come back to life. My grandfather died of cancer, and “he doesn’t get healed, or cloned, or have his consciousness moved someplace else. He’s just dead.” Superheroes don’t play by “real people rules.”
(The staffer makes a fair point, and probably the most logical one. Now her fellow journalist jumps into the game.)
Male Staffer #2: If you come back to life six months after you die, what does death matter?
Black Widow: You still have to feel what it’s like to die. It’s traumatic.
(This is, all things considered, a pretty weak response. Obviously death is traumatic — that’s likely the case whether or not you resurrect, so wouldn’t it be better to resurrect than not? After this point, the staffers change their tactics to go after Black Widow personally.)
Male Staffer #1 & Female Staffer: Let’s talk about those left behind. It’s hard to have sympathy for people whose loved ones might resurrect at any moment.
Black Widow: But what if those people come back after you’ve moved on? You can’t get any closure knowing that might happen.
(Black Widow literally says, when a staffer tells her her loved ones might come back, “you say that like it’s a good thing.” This seems to end the conversation with the staffers, and then the website’s boss comes in to deliver the giant moral.)
Boss: Superheroes are greater than humans, and their sacrifice is greater, not just because of the traumatic life-and-death cycle they endure, but because they are heroes and they must inspire us.
(Like some deus ex machine from a freshman philosophy paper, this website’s editor comes in to save the day by letting us all know that superheroes feel this tremendous weight on their shoulders, a weight only increased by the shaky nature of their lifespan. Out of respect to Black Widow (spoiler alert) she deletes the story about Captain America and both characters go on their merry way.)
I realize it may seem like I’m presenting the above synopsis in a flip manner, but I assure you that’s as accurate a portrayal of it as I can summarize. The book raises a number of excellent points, grounded in the real world, about why people shouldn’t care that much when superheroes die (as many Marvel readers don’t), and then it instantly dispels them by saying, essentially, “they’re superheroes and they’re cool so it’s okay.” I don’t know anyone personally who has died from cancer, but I feel like if I did I’d be screaming at this book. How dare they trivialize a very real tragedy to make some point about fictional characters who live and die only to sell overpriced pamphlets of paper? It’s totally wrongheaded and insulting.
See, Secret Avengers #15 has this story completely backwards. The best comic book stories that keep their foot in the real world (All-Star Superman or Action Comics #800 for starters) do so by using fictional heroes to build up true humanity. Superman inspires us, and we are better because of it, both within the world of DC Comics and outside of it. In Nick Spencer’s world, we’re lessened by these heroes. We can’t possibly know the tragedy of their lives and deaths, because obviously being able to be resurrected by the Phoenix Force is much more traumatic to Scott Summers than, I don’t know, some real person who actually loses someone to fucking cancer.
Maybe that speaks to the core philosophical differences between the Marvel and DC universes, or maybe it’s just an example of this book being poorly conceived, but seriously, are we supposed to buy this as anything more than cheap justification for a lame-ass sales stunt that only happened so Marvel could put Steve Rogers back in the Captain America suit in time for his movie?
The more I think about this issue the angrier I get, so I’m going to leave this piece where I began it. I fully believe that Nick Spencer and Scot Eaton are talented comic book creators. For whatever reason, they miss the point so completely with this issue that it actually ends up making me feel worse as a human being, the exact opposite about what these fictional stories should do, and indeed what one of the characters in this very issue says they do. I have no idea how this book got made, but I hope to never read another one like it again.
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more