META: City of the Faceless

Andrew Perron pwerdna at
Mon Dec 14 12:34:50 PST 2009

Let me put my point bluntly: Killing a large, homogenized group of
people is usually a bad storytelling tactic.

The ne plus ultra of this technique in comic books is _Crisis on
Infinite Earths_.  A literally infinite number of people are killed,
which serves two storytelling purposes: To build up the threat of the
Anti-Monitor and to "clear the decks" of DC's multiverse.
(Incidentally, the supposed infiniteness of this has always bothered
me. If it takes a finite amount of time to destroy a universe, and the
Anti-Monitor's been doing it for a finite amount of time, doesn't that
mean only a finite number of universes could've been destroyed?)

The thing is, those lost this way don't really affect us, even though
there are trillions of them.  There's little attempt to establish
empathy; only a few characters represent the actually-sacrificed
Earths, and they each get only a few lines.

The issue is similar to killing off obscure characters to achieve
impact, except instead of killing one D-lister, it's killing a
thousand J-listers or a million Q-listers.  Either way, it runs smack
into the fact that death doesn't automatically provoke an emotional
reaction; you have to care about those who have died, and it's far
more difficult to make us care about a million people than about one,
especially if it's obvious that the writer doesn't care.

Of course, there's a way to overcome this, and that's to actually
evoke empathy.  If you make the city or country or world feel real,
then we can achieve some emotional connection to them, and if
something happens to them, we feel it.

However, this runs into the opposite problem, one that the death of a
D-lister has as well - if you care about the character, surely you're
not going to be happy if they die!  This was (one of) the problem(s)
people had with Countdown to Infinite Crisis; it was shown how
intelligent, resourceful and heroic Ted Kord was... right before the
got a bullet through the head. (Indeed, the feedback from this may
have been what sank the otherwise-excellent Jamie Reyes Blue Beetle

Therefore, you have to put the death and destruction in a story where
it's dramatically appropriate.  This is a difficult line to walk, and
far more so when you're talking about a place or a people than when
you're talking about an individual character.  Having a mentor die so
that a hero can both move out of his shadow and have a purpose driving
him is a standard storytelling element, but how do you extend that to
a city, a country or a planet without having it feel like you're
shooting mosquitoes with a bazooka?

Thus, while killing off a group *can* be used well, it's very, very
difficult, and, in my opinion, should be avoided in all except the
most appropriate circumstances.

Note: This post wasn't inspired by any recent story on RACC; rather, I
was reading posts from back in early 2008 and Tom Russell tossed off a
statement in the middle of a review: "The whole Entire City/Country
Destroyed By Great Evil trope is another one I'm not too found of, but
I think I'll save that discussion for another time." Since he hadn't
and it was something I had Opinions on, I decided I would.

Andrew "NO .SIG MAN" "Juan" Perron, Opinions(tm)!

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