Anyone who’s read comic books for long enough can tell you that dying in the comics is about as serious as getting mono. It’s inconvenient and it’ll definitely keep you out of action for a while – maybe even months. But at some point you’ll be back on your feet, no more the worse for wear.
The death of a major comics character has become something of a cliche, a cheap trick used to sell books and hopefully refresh the character without doing any actual character development. Death in comics is actually beginning to be a boring non-consequence, a plot device whose overuse highlights the inherent unsustainability of trying to maintain an ongoing story and character for, in some cases, 70+ years.
As in all things, though, there is an exception and it is, oddly enough, in one of the oldest characters in comic-dom – the recent death of the Dark Knight himself.
For those of you who don’t know, Batman (well, Bruce Wayne more specifically) recently disappeared from the DC Universe, though the cause of his death seems a little muddled – he’s either been killed in a helicopter explosion after an encounter with the Black Hand or killed by Darkseid’s Omega Sanction at the end of the Final Crisis or sent back in time by said Omega Sanction or turned into a small, furtive newt-like creature. Okay, I made that last one up, but regardless, it’s all very confusing.
The fuzzy details notwithstanding, one thing is clear – Gotham City is now without its Bruce Wayne and, in typical comic-book, publicity-stunt style, there have been a whole host of special issues, cross-overs and new title launches to commemorate the occasion.
What’s not typical about this particular comic book death, though, is that – despite the fact that nobody has any business believing that this is more than a temporary set-back for the Dark Knight – Batman’s death is proving to be fertile source material for the development of one of comics’ most interesting characters: Dick Grayson.
Grayson – the original Robin – is interesting because he’s one of the few characters in comics who has experienced genuine character growth, rather than simply being batted around (hi-oh!) by tangential side-plots meant to sell a few comics before returning neatly to the status quo. After starting his comic life as Robin, Batman’s trusty Boy Wonder side-kick, Grayson eventually left the Batcave and Gotham to pursue his own crime-fighting career as Nightwing, stalwart defender of the city of Bludhaven (Gotham’s neighbour across the river).
Contrary to comic-dom’s SOP, the change has stuck to this day, and many writers of both Batman and Nightwing stories have mined the development for rich source material, as Grayson tries to establish himself as a crime-fighter in his own right, occasionally languishing in the shadow of his mentor, and as Batman attempts to find and train a new protege (with, so far, only marginal success).
With Batman’s recent “Death”, Grayson has put his activities as Nightwing on hold and has taken up the cape and cowl, attempting to fill the shoes of the original caped crusader (and do so seamlessly enough that Gotham’s cadre of supervillainy doesn’t catch on that Batman was ever killed in the first place).
Grayson’s new role has allowed some of DC’s better bat-writers – specifically, Grant Morrison (Batman & Robin) and Judd Winnick (Batman) to do some genuine character exploration into both Grayson and Bruce Wayne, as Dick grieves the loss of his friend, struggles with filling the Batman’s shoes and tries to manage the latest, and possibly most incorrigible incarnation of Robin, Bruce Wayne’s Shadow-League-trained son, Damian.
Unable to master either Batman’s voice or his style – in one particularly astutely constructed scene, he complains to Alfred about having to wear a cape again, one of the first accoutrements he shed upon leaving the Batcave – and is forced to both examine and adapt the Batman identity in order to be comfortable in his own skin, effective as a crime fighter, and worthy to fill the role of his mentor.
Leave it to Grant Morrison (We3, All-Star Superman), who seems to be the man in charge of this whole Bat-evolution (having penned both Final Crisis and the Batman story arc that culminated in Wayne’s death, and who continues the story in Batman & Robin) to pull off this kind of soft-restart of the character in a way that breathes life into the franchise without making a much-overused gimmick too… well, gimmicky. He already did it once with the (New) X-Men in the early ’00s and it looks like he may be on track to do it again with the Dark Knight.
So while it lacks the fanfare and media attention of the death of the Man of Steel in the ’90s or the recent demise of Captain America, the death of Batman may be one instance of a comic writer actually having the skill to do comic death right. If I wasn’t before, this would have made me a huge Grant Morrison fan – and I look forward to seeing how the rest of this story plays out.