Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #38, and this week, Rod’s question allows us to reflect on some of my favorite comic books:
What are the saddest or most poignant comic stories I’ve ever read?
Rod points out that he is talking about the legitimately saddest stories, not just sad as in, what a waste that they killed off that character so stupidly, or derailed that character so badly, or ruined the ending of Crisis on Infinite Earths by turning Superboy into a villain, etc. Rather, we’re looking for stuff that really hit home or was touchingly sad.
With a question like this, there is one, obvious story that I think of right away. Can you guess what it is? In my mind, it’s crazy obvious.
The story is called “Beyond the Silent Night”, and it appeared in a little issue called Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, and its cover-dated October 1985. It was Chapter 7 out of 12 of DC’s magnum opus, Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was designed to simplify and streamline DC’s continuity for future creators and consumers, and to tell an epic story in the process. Already to that point, there had been a number of character deaths, but most of them had been relatively minor: the Crime Syndicate of America, Earth 3’s Lex Luthor, the western hero Nighthawk, the 30th century hero Kid Psycho, the World War II heroes known as the Losers, and so on. But then, in #7, we had the first “big one.”
The story involved a really powerful strike force of heros taking the battle to the anti-matter universe to confront the Anti-Monitor, the villain who had been destroying multiple universes and threatening even more.
His current efforts involve using a weapon to merge and thus destroy the last five remaining parallel worlds, so the heroes are facing a ticking clock in their attempts to get through his bizarre living fortress and take him down.
Superman and a new Dr. Light are the first ones to reach him, but the Anti-Monitor gets the drop on them and begins to kill Superman. Hearing her cousin’s cry, Supergirl makes her to him and engages in a furious battle to save Superman and defeat their enemy.
She makes good on her intentions, but the Anti-Monitor proves too powerful and in a moment of distractions, is able to blast Supergirl with a monumental blast of energy. Heavily injured, the Anti-Monitor retreats, and a recovering Superman is able to be with his cousin as she dies.
Crisis on Infinite Earths is not a subtle book. The plot is heavy-handed and there is tons of exposition required. This is all the trade-off for the story’s epic scope, as it features literally hundreds of characters. Writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez genuinely nail this sequence. Supergirl’s heroics are the stuff of legend, as she not only fights for her cousin and waylays the plans of the enemy, but also inspires the morally ambiguous to become a better person.
And the images of her dying, cradled in her cousin’s arms, as he weeps over her, are deeply moving.
And it’s all capped off with one of the greatest covers of all time.
Anyway, that’s the obvious pick, but Rod was not asking for just one story but a few, so I’ll share some others as well.
Actually, there are a few deaths in Crisis on Infinite Earths that I find moving…the original Dove, Aquagirl, and strangely, the Mirror Master. Even more weirdly, the Flash (Barry Allen) is not really one of them. I love the Flash, and I like Barry Allen, but his actual death scene (which comes an issue after Supergirl’s) just never hit me.
But really, the second death story which came to mind when considering this topic (they don’t have to be death stories, but it’s an obvious way to go) is from a bit of an unlikely source, which is Jeff Smith’s Bone. In the beginning of the 7th collected volume of the epic fantasy, there is a six page prologue issue simply titled “Jonathan”.
The story focuses on Jonathan Oaks, a young villager from Barrelhaven who looks up to tavern owner and former royal guardsman, Lucius Down. This short story reveals that Jonathan was severely injured in an attack from the Rat Creatures, one of the series’ main antagonists. We see Jonathan, convalescing from his injures, and speaking to Ted the Bug, another supporting character. Jonathan tearfully worries that Lucius is a traitor (because of something he saw that he misunderstood) but Ted assures him that Lucius is a hero and would never betray them. The reassurance brings tears to Jonathan’s eyes (though he never opens them in the story). Ted asks him if he’s going to be okay, and Jonathan replies, “I will now.”
You don’t really think much of the story as you are reading it, but several issues later, when Lucius is found again he finds out that Jonathan died from his injuries, and suddenly the prologue’s final moments read in a completely different, and all together sadder, way.
A third story that I’ll mention comes from another surprising source: Secret Origins #47, published by DC Comics in 1989, featuring the origins stories of three then-dead Legionnaires. Only one of the stories was impactful to me, and that was “The Unique Properties of Condo Arlik”, which detailed a new origin for one of the most sidelined Legion members ever, Chemical King.
In the story, it is revealed that young Condo Arlik was basically raised in a laboratory tank because of how dangerous his mutant abilities to control chemical reactions could be.
One day, the young adolescent is broken out by Lyle Norg, the Legionnaire Invisible Kid.
Lyle helps him realize that life should be lived in the sun and that his powers should be used for good, and not kept locked away.
Condo goes the Legion academy and eventually joins the team, with Lyle remaining his best friend (a connection only lightly seen in the actual original stories of the 60’s and 70’s.)
One day, Condo discovers that Lyle has died in the line of duty, and the character breaks down, demanding to know where Lyle’s unique properties have gone (the guy see things in chemical terms, as it were).
After that, he grew sullen and depressed, until he gave his own life preventing World War VII (an incident which took place in my now-hometown of Perth, by the way). At the end of the story, it turns out that it’s being narrated by Brainiac 5, who shares how he has been influenced and impacted by Condo Arlik’s “unique properties” by knowing him and being his friend.
Chemical King was rarely a well-used Legionnaire in his original run, but this story by writer Robert Loren Fleming and penciller Chris Sprouse offered a new depth to the character. He was a guy whose upbringing did not lend itself to producing a hero willing to sacrificing himself for others, but the generosity and friendship of the much more confident Invisible Kid has such a profound effect on him that he is able to invest his life for a noble purpose. It was a great and moving little tale.
Speaking of little tales, I’ll mention just one more, which falls more on the “poignant” side of things than it does the “sad”. This is a famous story called “The Nearness of You” by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson. It was issue 0.5 of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, published in 1996.
To understand it, we first must understand Astro City. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, each issue of Astro City would focus on the life of a hero or a villain or a “normal” character connected with Astro City, an American city which was famous for its superheroes and super-powered activity. Though all of these characters were completely original, they often share the same basic archetypes as popular Marvel or DC characters. So you have characters similar to Superman, or Batman, or the Fantastic Four, running around having adventures.
But most of the time, those “typical” adventures would be only a backdrop to more surprising human dramas that the story would actually focus on. If you are a reader familiar with traditional superhero stories from the big two publishers, you quickly recognize the sorts of adventures that are part of the landscape, but you don’t actually need them explained in detail when you are instead focusing on how a hotel doorman gets along in such a city, or how a superhero’s personal assistant manages her boss’ personal schedule, or something like that.
Anyway, The Nearness of You is, like the previous two stories mentioned, is quite short–shorter than a normal issue. In it, a guy called Michael Tenicek is haunted by visions and dreams of a woman he knows in intimate closeness, but whom he has no memory of every meeting; and whom nobody else is aware of either.
He discovers that this woman, Miranda, was once his wife, but that a reality-shaking event similar to Crisis on Infinite Earths resulted in subtle changes to history, one of which prevented Miranda’s grandparents from meeting, and thus making it so Miranda was never born.
Michael’s dreams are upsetting the fabric of reality, and so he is offered a choice. He can’t have his wife back, but he can forget about her completely, or he can continue to remember her but with a sense of peace and understanding about who she is. He chooses the latter, and learns that everyone else who is in his same situation does the same.
It’s a lovely story that makes great use of the series’ concept, and offers a touching comment on topics such as love, memory and grief. Astro City is full of great moments, but this is one of the best.