Death of a Devil

'I'm melting!' - Death of the Blue Devil

At the outset I should probably say that I am not entirely against the notion of meaningless death in comic books. It serves its purpose given the right time, place, artistic intentions, and execution. But it is difficult for me to understand how this story slipped by Archie Goodwin, STARMAN's editor at the time. And I have to wonder, were resurrections not so commonplace in superhero comics, would this story have ever seen print? Or would the time have been taken to publish something much more compellingly told?

By the time STARMAN No. 38 hit the stands, the Blue Devil had been so roughly treated at the hands of writers since his 1980s heyday under Cohn & Mishkin, that killing him off probably seemed inevitable to DC's editorial staff--at least one member of which (no naming names), as I understand it, never liked the character in the first place. But that doesn't quite acquit James Robinson of writing a bad story around it. This was a wrong-headed plot from start to finish, constructed on the notion that an entire group of heroes could almost randomly be obliterated to bump up the threat level of a third-rate villain, with no consequences and without comic book readers hardly noticing. (Skeptics who think that nobody besides me did notice can hold their tongues.)

Even read in a vacuum, this is a particularly weak effort on Robinson's part, and I say this as a fan. Particularly weak was it relative to much of the other work he did on this very same title, which, amongst many comics fans, is regarded as one of the somewhat unsung classics of the 1990s. STARMAN No. 38 would be most accurately described as "contrived". In order to be sold on the competency of the Mist, whom Robinson was gradually building up to be a completely ruthless sociopath consumed by her devotion to bringing about the utter emotional and physical devastation of Jack Knight, one has to be sold on the idea that anybody could be this competent short of the Mad Thinker, or even perhaps a Clock King type character--obsessive compulsive criminals who reduce villainy to an improbably exact science (Holy run-on sentences, Batman!). Hell, even the Mad Thinker has often been thwarted by human unpredictability. But Mist's plan comes off without a hitch despite the fact that being uncannily attuned to human behavior was not her shtick. And more to the point, it's not even that great a plan to begin with! She takes so many moves to be made by the heroes for granted, and her preparation is so preposterously elaborate, that one wonders at the end if the whole thing was not simply a fantasy through and through meant to entertain her infant child.

Every step of the way rings false, "cleverness" at the expense of believability. That, regardless of coaching from the master of disguise known as Nobody, the Mist could successfully impersonate Ice Maiden for an entire week without anybody being the wiser; that Crimson Fox would chit-chat long enough with her would-be murderer to allow the mists to poison her; that Mist could surreptitiously "apply a veneer" in the museum to a completely glass room to make it indistinguishable from stone; that Amazing Man would allow his entire body to turn to glass and not reach for his materials pouch to turn into something more convenient; that she could replace the plumbing to the museum's sprinkler system with a "holy water" feed; that the Blue Devil would be so angry that he'd set the museum ablaze with his hellfire and then make no attempt to escape the holy water sprinklers; that the Mist was sure that holy water would have any effect whatsoever on the Blue Devil, let alone a devastating one; that she knew the Blue Devil's hellfire would not penetrate her mists; that Firestorm would not return before she could escape; do I need to go on? It's entirely too pat. One could excuse or explain these barriers to believability, but it doesn't quite answer my earlier question: how did this get past editorial in such a form? (Yes, I'm looking right at you, Chuck Kim and Archie Goodwin!) In an issue that was almost certainly going to be scrutinized for flaws by all discriminating readers--not just those who are fans of the executed characters--how did such obvious flaws make their way in? And in a less subjective sense, what does any of this have to do with Starman? Please note that Jack Knight appears nowhere within the pages of this issue. Nor is the first-time or casual reader given reason to be convinced that any of these characters' deaths will influence or disturb in any way the eponymous protagonist. The story is ostensibly only concerned with characterizing this villain. And there's a lot of waste involved for a simple character piece. Three perfectly good heroes are tossed out like chaff with no thought of consolation for or respect given to the fans. Some have called this story mean-spirited. I won't go that far. I simply call it poorly-written.

I would also mention that I detest the characterization of the Blue Devil in STARMAN No. 38. His appeal was always that, though he did heroic things, he never considered himself a hero. While it isn't thoroughly implausible that he would eventually choose to join a team of superheroes, that he would be so concerned about his team's prestige or regret not having become part of the "big hero world" earlier, seems off. In a way I can respect what Robinson was attempting to do here, making the Blue Devil into a more civic-minded, mature human being, even if it doesn't fit with what we know. If all of the characters exhibit some amount of personal growth just before their deaths, it could theoretically manage to crank up the bleakness of the ending by a few notches and provide the story with more emotional resonance and impact. In theory. Communism works in theory. While the blame for Dan's change in demeanor can hardly be placed at Robinson's feet--Robinson was working with what writers since Mark Waid had made of the character--I do blame him for so heavy-handedly forcing stilted, manipulative dialogue into the mouths of the Justice League members. This completely cheapens his attempt to create emotional depth. Amazing Man has some interesting things to say about black heroes in America, but the rest is questionable to put it nicely. I'm willing to cut Robinson some slack here owing to the restrictions of having to tell this story in a single issue.

I'm not going to cry about it. At least my hero got to come back to life. But I'm not about to let anybody involved off the hook, either. If you will permit me to transition into my fanboy mode, there ain't no way Blue Devil's gonna go down that easy. This is a guy who doesn't give up no matter what gets thrown at him. He's a scrapper to the core. But the way the words and the art depict him here, he pretty much rolls over and dies without much of a fight at all.

'I'll be back.'

No hero's death.

No going out in a blaze of glory.

No fond farewell.

Just mindless murder and the end of a hero whose wildcard-like unpredictability always helped him find a way to win.

Played like a sucka.

Second opinions? Send me your thoughts. I'd be happy to post them.

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