Why do people even bother reading comic books any more?
Did you know that comic-book authors are on the cutting edge of theoretical physics? I realized this when I read today that Marvel is killing off its most iconic superhero, Spider-Man. Only not in its main “universe.” In an “alternate universe.”
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Let me explain as best I can — I’ve never had much of a grasp of physics, and now I don’t know that I understand comics very well, either, but here goes:
In an upcoming issue of Marvel’s Ultimate Comics, Spider-Man dies heroically in a titanic battle with the Green Goblin. Killing off Peter Parker, a Marvel mainstay since the early 1960s, traumatized writer Brian Michael Bendis.
“I went upstairs to my wife, and I go, ‘I am so embarrassed. I think I’ve literally been crying for 45 minutes,’” Bendis told the Guardian. “I’ve had real things happen in my life I didn’t cry about, and yet I’m crying about this.”
Oh, boo-freakin’-hoo. Cry me a river. The death of Spider-Man could be an incredibly brave and meaningful narrative decision, raising a comic book hero to the mythic level of Theseus or Jason or Oedipus — if he was actually going to die.
But no, this is exactly like the previous “deaths” of Superman and Batman — seemingly invincible heroes seemingly killed off in dramatic fashion, only to be revived with lame explanations, or in “reboots,” new lines of comic narrative that start the story over from the beginning.
Because over here in the main Spidey universe, found in the “Amazing Spider-Man” line, Peter Parker is going about his business none the wiser, slinging webs, wooing Mary Jane, getting yelled at by J. Jonah Jameson, battling exotic bad guys.
Theoretical physicists can no doubt appreciate the whole thing. After all, they are now promoting the idea of the existence of a possibly infinite number of parallel universes, where possibly everything that could have happened did happen.
In one universe you’re already dead, killed in that bike accident when you were six, while in another you’re dating Olivia Wilde and starting at point guard for the NBA champion Miami Heat (definitely not this universe).
The science underpinning multiple-universe theory is so far over my head I can’t touch the bottom of it, not even on tippy-toe. But I do understand that it is based not on direct observation, or on any testable hypothesis.
It arises from the fact that once physicists account for all the measurable mass and energy in the universe, they have a lot of numbers left over. The only way they can reconcile the equations is by spilling the calculations over into another universe. And another. And….
Like any modern, reasonably well-educated person, I don’t want to seem like an anti-intellectual ignoramous. But this strikes me as suspiciously similar to counting the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.
It puts a new spin on Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.” I’ve always thought that meant sufficiently advanced science would seem like magic to someone who didn’t understand it. But now I see that it may also mean that any sufficiently advanced science will actually become magic.
Physicists exploring alternate universes might well think it’s just dandy to kill off Spider-Man in one line of comics, while keeping him unscathed in another. But in the universe where I reside, where narrative means something and an implicit compact exists between writer and reader — that’s cheating.
Not only is it playing false with reader expectation to kill off a character like Spider-Man (except not really, wink-wink!), it dilutes the identification power of the character and it subtly lessens readers’ willingness to trust the writer, and therefore to suspend belief.
As one anonymous commentor at the Guardian site says, “Welcome to the world of super hero comics, where death is just a publicity stunt.”
Again I ask: Why do people bother reading comic books any more?