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Cronin Theory of Comics – The Erasure Point of Comic Book Grief

For whatever reason, I got to thinking about the death of a cool Batman supporting cast member, Sarah Essen, the second wife of Commissioner James Gordon. Introduced in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Essen returned to the books during Alan Grant’s great Batman run (very clever idea on Grant’s part) and ultimately married Gordon. She was then killed by the Joker at the end of No Man’s Land. Her death, as you might imagine, was quite traumatic. However, she basically has now been erased from Batman history, in that the last time I recall her even being mentioned was about four years ago. That got me to thinking of another cool Batman supporting cast member who was killed off – Stephanie “Spoiler” Brown. She, too, has basically been erased from Batman history (although Robin occasionally mentions here). This made me come up with what I call “The Erasure Point of Comic Book Grief.”

Essentially, the concept is this – there is only a certain amount of grief that a character can suffer before it just overwhelms the entire basis of the character. Therefore, to avoid this, writers will just simply choose to erase the effects of a particular character’s death.

To wit, Commissioner Gordon’s main point of grief is that the Joker crippled (and perhaps tortured – I do not know what the current stance is on that point) his daughter, Barbara (Batgirl/Oracle) Gordon.

His wife ALSO being murdered by the Joker is just way too much, and as such, it just doesn’t get referred to, because doing so would just be overwhelming Gordon with grief.

In the late 80s, after Jason Todd was killed, Batman basically went a bit nuts – that a child in his charge was murdered, it was too much for him to handle. So, later, when a SECOND child in his charge, Stephanie Brown (who was Robin for a short period in time), was murdered, Batman would, theoretically, REALLY lose it, right? You can’t go nuts over ONE kid dying, then be okay when a SECOND kid dies, right?

But since no one wants to write a nutso Batman, they just have erased the memory of Stephanie Brown from Batman’s history. He just DOESN’T react to her death. No real reason, he just doesn’t.

Peter Parker constantly laments the deaths of Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy, but note that he almost never reflects upon the death of his best friend, Harry Osborn, right? That’s because even a character as built upon grief as Peter Parker can’t spend THAT much time grieving, so Harry is basically erased from his history.

It really makes you wonder, though, what the point of killing off good characters like Sarah Essen and Stephanie Brown are, if their deaths end up not even really having any effect upon those close to them?


Why is it so hard to make a good, likable character yet at the same time so easy to just snuff one out to validate a hollow story ?

I wish Peter Parker would forget about Gwen Stacy (or mention her less). I’m 25, and she died before I was born.

2.Elijah Fly said …

I wish Peter Parker would forget about Gwen Stacy (or mention her less). I’m 25, and she died before I was born.

Yo’re 25 and you still read comics books?!?

In Spider-Man world, Gwen’s death was five, six years ago?

Spider-Man has lamented Harry’s death, but it has been a while. His character is fairly robust, though, and can handle the grief in a way others cannot. Spider-Man can stand there and list off everyone he’s known who died, and somehow it just makes him seem more powerful. Somehow the fact that he doesn’t usually mention those other people doesn’t mean he doesn’t remember them, it’s more like IN-character, IN-world, he has gone through so much that he cannot think about it all the time.

I dunno. I think the reason they’re not mentioned is because their deaths were just cheap ploys, not meant to affect the characters in the story, but the fans.

That, and Didio obviously hated Stephanie Brown and wanted her as gone as possible.

Well now I know who Spoiler is.

Glenn Simpson

July 23, 2007 at 9:52 am

I think that they are just moving on with their lives, like real people ought to.

Bruce and Steph were never all that close, so I’m not surprised that he didn’t go batty over her demise.

How Tim still manages to get out of bed is beyond me, though. In the past two years, DC time, he’s lost his on-again/off-again girlfriend, his father, and his two best friends (plus a couple other Teen Titans teammates). He should be in shambles, a walking wreck. Yet, he’s doing just fine in his own title, even going so far as to buy Bruce a Father’s Day present (which was pure schmaltz). I could understand if Tim was throwing himself into work or some other distraction, but he’s not. He’s moseying along like nothing has happened.

Maybe October’s issue, which promises to push Robin “dangerously close to the edge,” will finally see him breakdown after losing so much. Or, maybe it’ll be a standard story by a fill-in writer.

Andrew Collins

July 23, 2007 at 12:39 pm

Why do they forget? Superboy Punch. Or Zatanna Mindwipe. That’s the answer I’ll go with.

I’ve always hated that ending to No Mans Land. If you’re going to run with something so extreme – plugging his wife – then you simply cannot lose your nerve and have Gordon refrain from shooting Joker at the end.

All that moralising and hand wringing and “its what makes us better than them” etc etc.

Yawn. hey idiot, he JUST SHOT YOUR WIFE.

Like anybody would have honestly cared if he plugged him. The limits of plausible storytelling were reached for me with that one.

Well, the charge that sexism is behind the erasure of some of those deaths, Stephanie Brown in particular, has been levied. I’m actually inclined to give it credence the more i think about it.

Another reason why Essen’s and Spoiler’s deaths have been mostly forgotten is that immediate subsequent stories of their grievers have had superceding tragedies. Rucka, who wrote Essen’s death in NML, used it as a cause for Gordon’s retirement at the end of OFFICER DOWN only a few months later. However, the events of OD were so directly personal to Gordon that they took precedence over Essen; subsequent Gordon stories in GOTHAM CENTRAL or BoPs had to come up with a shorthand for his retirement circumstances, and “he was [what happened in OD]” was much simpler than “the pressure of NML, the death of his wife, and [what happened in OD].” By the time he returned OYL, Gordon’s story had become “he was retired, but now he’s back,” and so Essen’s death had fallen too far down the list of Gordon Events for it to matter much anymore.

Spoiler got hit by an even bigger truck. Batman hardly knew her before recruiting her as Robin, and only then he was just using her as a pawn against Tim. So there was no real relationship like there was between Bruce and Jason. Bats did pay grieving-lip-service to her in WAR CRIMES, but that got overshadowed by what happened with Leslie, whom Bruce did have a strong relationship with. Meanwhile, at the time when Tim naturally would have grieved Stephanie, his dad died, so Tim had to deal with that instead. And then OYL came, with its “look forward, not back” theme, and Bruce’s adoption of Tim became the big deal. Basically, Spoiler’s death got drowned out by the noise.

Not that any of that is an excuse for the Erasure. Sarah’s death was the climax of Batman’s biggest event, so I don’t care what Rucka was planning to do next, the Bat-office should have allowed for “impact time” before throwing something else at Gordon. Stephanie’s death was the climax of Batman’s second-biggest event; if Willingham didn’t have enough time to address it in ROBIN, then do a one-shot or something. I mean, Spoiler was a major — perhaps even THE major — supporting player in ROBIN for almost ten years; her death should have gotten SOME play.

But I do agree in principle with the Erasure Point, at least at DC. Because of their flexible continuity, there’s more leeway to try big life-changing events in a “see if it sticks” fashion. Batman, for instance, basically existed on “murdered parents, adopted ward, and Batgirl” for 40 years before Dick’s departure for college/Titans and Babs retirement added some wrinkles. Then Jason was added as a second Robin and killed off, leading to Bruce’s “rage years” and Tim’s introduction. KILLING JOKE was mixed in. Harvey Dent/Two-Face’s early impact was inserted. But then the crossover years came and Batman started being weighed down by change and tragedy. Will WAR GAMES/CRIMES/IDENTITY CRISIS be referenced in years to come as “Batman history?” Doubt it, and nor should they. MURDERER/FUGITIVE was quickly forgotten. Sasha Bordeaux’s tenure only comes up on her end, not his. NML has no modern impact. Gotham is probably back to being a 19th Century city, the ravages of CONTAGION/CATACLYSM and the New Gotham rebuild swept aside. And now that Azrael is dead (and does anyone remember him anymore?), even the Fall/Quest/End Saga is being lost to time. And you know what? I’m fine with all that. I love NML, but I understand why it can’t be written in stone without turning Batman’s relatively relatable history into a fantastical depress-o-rama; I can still appreciate the story for what it was at the time. Nowadays, I’d say we’re back to the last really important event in Batman’s life being Dick’s return to the fold (in a generic fashion not tied into KNIGHTFALL) — hell, it’s become iffy whether Jason’s death has any impact anymore — and I don’t think that’s really a bad thing at all.

But I’m less agreeable to Erasure Points at Marvel. Because of its strict continuity, life-changing events are meant to be permanent. Going to the Spidey example, there’s a continuitous throughline to his life from 1961 until about 1993. Origin, dating Gwen, friends with Harry, high-school graduation, living on his own, college years, the Stacys’ deaths, Norman’s death, college graduation, Hobgoblin, Black Costume and Venom, post-grad years, Jean DeWolff, marrying MJ, Carnage, Kraven’s Last Hunt, Harry as Goblin, and whatever else I’m forgetting. Every time you pick up a Spidey comic, you’re reading a part of his life. And then Peter’s “parents” return, starting a snowball of Erasure Points that continues non-stop for 15 years. Suddenly, the “every Spidey comic is a part of his life” prospect not only isn’t expected, it’s downright improbable. Today, Spider-Man and Batman operate on pretty much the same continuity-only-if-it-sticks engine, which is fine for DC but runs totally antithetical to the whole point of the Marvel Universe. Personally, I think at this point Marvel should swallow the bullet and treat 1991 as the Erasure Point for the entire Universe. But even if they don’t, they need to stop writing stories that are so obviously going to be ignored in three months, or else they’ll lose their audience. Kinda hard to be a Marvel Zombie if even Marvel itself isn’t blindly devoted to the stories you read.

For me the most egregious example was when Jubilee, after having her parents, love interest and best friend all die pointlessly, getting kidnapped and tortured by Bastion, getting crucified by a bunch of religious freaks, and finding a long-lost aunt only to have her blow up, loses her powers on M-Day and responds: “Well, I finally know what it’s like to lose something important to you.”

But if I wasn’t such an X-Men fanboy there would probably be far worse examples.

A couple of points:

1. Gordon did shoot the Joker at the end of NML… in the knee caps. Theoretically, the Joker was never supposed to be able to walk again unaided, but of course, it didn’t turn out that way.

2. Knightfall was referenced in the last couple issue of Morrison’s Batman.

I think Corsair is the next candidate for the grief about his death being erased. Hepzibah is a D-lister who will go to Limbo most likely soon, no one seems to want to do anything with Havok other than have him sleep and/or whine about Polaris and how he’s inferior to his older brother, and Cyclops has already Cable and Jean, two more popular characters, to grieve about. Banshee too is pretty much forgotten already.

“1. Gordon did shoot the Joker at the end of NML… in the knee caps.”

Yeah, but that sucks. If (by shooting Joker in the kneecaps) he already lost the will to abide by the law / do the right thing / all that other preachy moralising nonsense the good guys have been left with while the bad guys have developed a knack for killing and raping everyone in sight, then why would he stop at the kneecaps? It’s bullet in the head time!

Good guy comic book logic. It sucks.

I just don’t understand why the publishers think we NEED the ‘sliding 5 year window’ of estabilished continuity.
What is WRONG with characters existing previously to 5 to 7 years ago? It is especially a problem anytime WWII characters get brought into a story. What are they going to do, say that WWII happened in 1965?

Black Canary was originally THE Black Canary from Earth-2. They decided to slide history some to make her younger, so she had to become the daughter of the original Black Canary.
So we know the original was active in WWII. Even given the whole ‘unexplained events kept the JSA young’ stuff…
Are we actually expected to belive that the current Black Canary (who is about 30?) is supposed to be the daughter of someone who was in her 20’s in WWII?
I’m telling you, it won’t be long before they start saying she is the GRANDDAUGHTER of the original Black Canary!

I would rather see characters age in real-time. If a character was 15 when he was created in 1963, then that character should be 58 today! Does that make Spider-Man an old man? Sure. Guess what…PEOPLE GET OLD. Deal with it. Doesn’t that open the door to characters getting married, having children and us getting stories about those new characters instead? There is already a book about his daughter, so why not have it actually IN continuity? What’s the real difference? (Quality of that title aside)
Let’s see Bruce retire to the cave and Dick finally put on the Bat-ears for REAL. He’s earned it. Give it to him.
somewhere in Texas

Gordon really should mention his wife’s death as often as he mentions his daughter’s injury. No arguments there.

But Batman was less broken up about Steph than Jason because he wasn’t as close to her, and because he’d already been hardened to the vagaries of the job by Jason’s death. Also, he was pretty bummed out about it, and he did sort of act a little different, like the stress was getting to him, particularly in Bat-family titles like Catwoman and (well it used to be Bat-family) Birds of Prey.

Spider-Man’s just a stupid character. He sucks. He always did. Screw him.

“But I do agree in principle with the Erasure Point, at least at DC. Because of their flexible continuity”–Oh bush! Marvel is WAY worse about “flexible” continuity than DC ever has been.

The problem with expecting characters to age at the same rate that the readers do is that the setting doesn’t really age at the same rate.

Any given 4-month, 28-issue crossover can happen in a span of a couple of days for the characters. Any given 12 issues of any given title can take place over the course of a week or so.

Where things get wierd is where the setting makes a real-world reference. Something like WWII, 9-11, Vietnam, or any given presidential administration dates the story, forcing the reader to wonder what year it is in the story. Technology does this as well to a lesser extent (us sci-fi fans are more than capable of enjoying a 1950s era movie set in 2010 where people do not have cell phones or PDAs.)

IMHO, expecting a character to age along with the reader forces the character to experience one month’s worth of events per issue (except for multi-tile people like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. in which case it is still a week’s worth of events per issue.) You figure that a good fight scene takes up 1/3 of the page count, and you’ve got precious little space for story, characterization, etc.

It is the same for certain TV shows. People gave MASH a hard time because the series outlasted the war when transmission dates are compared to the conflict. But, if you watch MASH in syndication, every episode being a day rather than every season being a year, it makes more sense.

Go back and re-read some of the old 80s Marvel and 90s DC books and I belive you’ll find that the entire decade of publications takes place in about a year or so of character time. Some exceptions exist (how many times did Kitty Pryde celebrate her 15th birthday?), but for the most part, one issue picks up either the same day as the previous one, or shortly thereafter.

This is why the One Year Later event was so highly published. I think that the last time a significant number of months was “skipped” like that was when DP7 skipped 7 months to catch up to the mandated 13-issues = one year continuity of the New Universe books (a rule that only lasted the one year).


I would rather see characters age in real-time. If a character was 15 when he was created in 1963, then that character should be 58 today! Does that make Spider-Man an old man? Sure. Guess what…PEOPLE GET OLD. Deal with it. Doesn’t that open the door to characters getting married, having children and us getting stories about those new characters instead? There is already a book about his daughter, so why not have it actually IN continuity? What’s the real difference?

I am of two minds about this.

Prior to COIE, DC had a pretty good device for handling the aging issue. When the Earth 1 characters hit old age, they could transition to another generation. If that didn’t work they, then they could ‘retire’ that Earth like Earth 2 and start fresh with, say, Earth 0. That way, Earth 1 could have a continuity that ran from “The New Frontier” to “Kingdom Come” AND you could read new stories about a twentysomething Clark Kent that conformed roughly to “Smallville”, or “Superman Returns”.

For a while, it seemed like Marvel might go that direction with its Ultimate line. Just leave the 616 universe continuity alone, acknowledge that Peter Parker was a teenager in the early ’60s. Let him be in his fifties and tell THOSE stories. If you want the adventures of a swinging bachelor, then you always have the other universe.

This article takes on an amusingly ironic tone when one considers that most of those dead characters mentioned (specifically Jason Todd, Stephanie Brown, and Harry Osborne) are all alive and well in current continuity. It’s a very good point though, overall.

I have always followed Thenodrins reasoning on comic time passing in real time. Especially given that many adventures carry over several issues. That would mean that even though Batman is assumed to be out fighting the darkness every night he only actually solves around 5 cases a year. Worlds greatest detective my @$$! How did he ever run the mob out of gotham at that rate? Batman could easily retire and the GCPD would barely notice his absence. Your standard police officer handles a lot more than that. Heck Barney Fife handles more than that in a year.


June 14, 2012 at 10:56 pm

The flip-side of the “one issue cannot equal one month” timeline premise is that we as readers cannot assume that we are literally seeing every single day of the character’s lives.

There are absolutely days (and possibly even weeks) at a time when the X-Men were doing nothing other than hanging out and playing baseball games in the backyard while the New Mutants studied. Batman may go out every night to fight criminals, but 99% of the time he’s just going to be repetitively beating up minor thugs so we’re not going to see every single night of his patrol.

The BIG events (ie, the ones we get to see in the comic) almost have to be taking place with moderate stretches of down-time between, if only because constant action with no breaks would eventually burn-out and kill almost every comic character. Like Batman in the Knightfall storyline, where he ultimately winds up broken and borderline crazy (or moreso than usual). Time almost certainly passes between story arcs (unless it’s explicitly stated that it doesn’t, like if one character mentions the events of the previous arc as having happened “yesterday” or so).

So sure, 12 issues might not equal 12 months worth of in-universe time, but that’s balanced out by the fact that it has to be more than just a few days worth of time as well. Meaning that, while in-universe comic time almost certainly moves slower, it should still move faster than “the oldest storyline happened about 7 years ago”. 50 straight years worth of stories should probably be at least 15 years or so, if not more. Peter Parker SHOULD be in his 30’s. The first gen X-Men SHOULD be pushing 40.

And Jesus, Franklin Richards should almost be an adult by now, unless it’s canon that he uses his powers to stay forever young.

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