Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Death of Jean DeWolff

Yesterday, in a large pile of books at my local comic shop's 50%-off sale, I picked up the trade of Peter David's classic Spider-Man story "The Death of Jean DeWolff," in which the author includes some comments on his reasons for doing the story.

For those who don't know, the story revolves around the brutal murder of police Captain Jean DeWolff, who, unlike most of New York, actually liked Spider-Man. Other murders, including a judge friend of Daredevil's and a black minister appear to be by the same person. Spider-Man and Daredevil independently try to find and catch the murderer.

I came into Spider-Man in the early 90s (not counting the "Marvel Tales Featuring Classic Spider-Man" issues I bought throughout the late 80s). Peter's parents had just come back from the dead, Carnage had just been introduced, and Sal Buscema was making everyone look sharp and blocky. I never knew Jean DeWolff, and I had only heard the title of the story until just recently.

So, a character who was becoming a fixture in Spider-Man gets killed in the opening sequence of the story, leading to the revelation that the murderer was actually another apparent hero, a police officer, which drives Spider-Man into a spiral of guilt, self-doubt, and anger (after all, this *is* what happens to people who actually care about Spider-Man, isn't it? Violent death?). He lashes out at the murderer and at Daredevil, nearly going back several times on his vow not to kill, nearly standing by as mob justice took hold of the murderer.

At the end of the book, David had this to say:
"We killed off a character who had a lot of potential. Readers couldn't fathom why we did that. 'Why kill off a character with whom you could have done so much?' we were asked over and over again. Ah, but where is the dramatic impact in killing off someone with no potential? Someone who the readers are sick of? There's no drama in that, no sense of 'It might have been.' Death should be a tragedy, not a relief. Perhaps in a world where moviegoers laugh at innocent teens being slaughtered by masked madmen, that's been forgotten."

Jean DeWolff died in her sleep, killed by a crazed fellow officer. Both were heroes at one point or another. This is often considered one of Spider-Man's greatest stories, despite the fact that Jean DeWolff was a good character, despite the fact that she could have been a fantastic supporting cast member and even a romantic interest for Spider-Man, despite the ramifications this had on Spider-Man's psyche and life.

No, not despite. Because of.

Death *should* be a tragedy. Superheroes are typically born out of some tragic death--Superman from the death of Krypton, Batman from the death of his parents, Spider-Man from the death of Uncle Ben, Hal Jordan by the death of Abin Sur, etc. etc.
Would anyone weep over the death of Jar-Jar Binks? If Snapper Carr had bit the big one in 1965, who would have shed a tear? When the Spider-Clone was laid to rest, who was at the funeral? Characters who deserve to die do not induce tragedy.

I think folks can see where this is going. The Death of Jean DeWolff killed off a beloved character with decades of story potential ahead of her. It's generally regarded as one of Spider-Man's greatest stories, and a fine work by a young Peter David. How will we look back on the tragic deaths of Infinite Crisis?

Blue Beetle didn't deserve to die, because of this, his death was a tragedy. Now, the test is whether or not the tragedy was worth it. Most good stories, particularly superhero stories, have a fundamental element of sacrifice and loss. It's a dangerous game, and it shouldn't just be F-listers and background characters who pay that price. IC still has a way to go to spin Beetle's death into a worthwhile venture, but I hold out hope that perhaps Beetle will get to chill in superhero Valhalla with Jean DeWolff and Gwen Stacy and all the other characters who died for the greater good of a good story.

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