Okay, maybe not kill, exactly. Despite the title of a recent series, "Batman RIP", they've been a bit cagey about the actual fate of the Caped Crusader. But it does appear that Bruce Wayne will be removed from the scene, and replaced by his onetime protege, Dick Grayson. So there will be a Batman running around Gotham, because -- after all -- the franchise is huge. Just not the Batman. Whether the original is dead, crippled, comatose, or in another dimension remains to be seen.
Now, let's put this in the context of other superhero deaths. Generally speaking, these guys don't die easily or stay dead for long. At one time or another, many of the biggies have been declared dead, and sometimes replaced: Captain Marvel, Marvel Girl, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Supergirl, the Flash, Robin, even Superman. The absolute track record must belong to Captain America's WWII sidekick, Bucky Barnes, who was dead from 1962 (or, in comics-time, 1945) until just recently, when he returned to replace Cap (who is himself currently dead).
Why kill them off? Two reasons, which should theoretically go together: to sell more comics, and to tell better stories. It must be hard for writers, trying to find new things to do with characters who are fifty or sixty years old, and were never intended to possess much depth. This problem, and this solution, date at least to the day Conan Doyle pushed Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls. And we sympathize, really we do. Captain America, in particular, must have brutalized his various creative teams: Steve Rogers was nothing but a steel jaw and blue eyes, a cipher devoid of personality. We've been reading the series since 1969, and even we don't miss the big lunk.
Yet the fact is that, among dead superheroes, very few stay dead. Holmes certainly didn't. Nor did any of the others we have mentioned so far, except Captain Marvel (who came back, recently, but turned out to be a Skrull. C'est la vie deuxieme.) And why? because, whatever their weaknesses, most of these originals have a certain character which makes them feel right in the complex narrative worlds of comics continuity. So while DC has something like five major characters it has tried to call "Green Lantern," only daredevil fighter jock Hal Jordan has ever actually been convincing.
Not to mention a fan base. Comic fans are a little crazy, and never give up rooting for the return of their favorites. (Exhibit A: Ferro Lad.) Oh, and Batman fans, being an especially vindictive crowd, never stop rooting for the return-to-death of the characters they don't like. (Exhibit B: Jason Todd).
All of which brings us to Batman. On one hand, killing Bruce Wayne is a gutsy move, editorially speaking. It opens up the possibility of some truly interesting stories, about the effect of his death on the people around him: friends, enemies, rivals. But there are two obstacles to this:
- Grant Morrison, the writer assigned to the task, is not up to it. Although full of interesting ideas, including a passion for Silver Age in-jokes, his scripts are almost incomprehensible. As narrative -- as stories -- they just don't flow. Not to mention the second, and bigger issue:
- They've already tried this. Anybody remember "Knightfall," an exceptionally bad storyline in which Batman was crippled by an enemy, and replaced by an even bigger lunatic than himself? Well, we do. And wish we didn't. A new round of the same thing may be less awful, but it can only be a new round of the same thing -- with all the vitality that implies.
So Batman will not rest in peace. They'll "kill" him, and then eventually bring him back. The only questions are how long it will take, and how much damage will be done to the franchise while we wait.