by Roger Ash
Death in mainstream superhero comics has always been a bit of a bugaboo. While killing a character can have a big emotional impact, anyone who’s been reading comics for even a short time knows full well that the dead character can, and more than likely will, be up and about just as good as new in the near future. If the readership knows this, why do writers rely on death so heavily?
Spoiler Warning. While I’m going to write about deaths that happened years ago, I’m also going to be commenting on events of the past couple months. If you aren’t up to date on your comics reading, proceed at your own risk.
When I talk about characters coming back from the dead, by and large I’m talking about Marvel and DC comics. This makes sense since these are company owned characters. When a creative team changes, management changes, or there’s a movie or TV show set to star a character who’s currently dead, it’s not really that surprising when a character comes back to life. The new team want to put their mark on the characters and you simply can’t have a movie about a character who’s dead in the comics. You’d lose lots of money in potential merchandising. Granted, there are a number of minor characters who’ve stayed dead, but very few major characters have. The original Invisible Kid from the Legion of Super-Heroes, Gwen Stacy (unless she’s come back and no one told me), and Mar-Vell, also known as Captain Marvel, are a few of the exceptions to the rule.
While there have been others who’ve taken the name Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell has remained deceased. He died in a very moving story by Jim Starlin that was done as the first volume in a line of original graphic novels Marvel produced back in the 1980s. He didn’t pass in some astounding super-heroic slobberknocker; he was defeated by cancer. The realness of his death and the reaction of his friends made this story very powerful and meaningful to me when I first read it. And the fact that he has remained dead has kept this story as emotionally charged as when I first read it. But not all stories have retained that impact.
I was (and am) a big fan of the Chris Claremont/John Byrne run on X-Men. Their versions of the characters are still how I think of them today. When Jean Grey/Phoenix was killed in X-Men #137, it was a devastating story. One of my favorite characters was dead and gone. Or so I thought. It wasn’t all that long after that story that Jean Grey was back, now as a member of X-Factor. While I still enjoy the original story, it lost a good deal of its emotional impact when Jean returned. I think that was my first exposure to the impermanence of death in the superhero universe. It really has become a cliché that death is not lasting for the superhero set.
When I heard the big public outcry over the “deaths” of Superman, Captain America, and the Human Torch, it surprised me until I realized that non-comic readers don’t get that this won’t last. Superman and Cap are back running around as good as new. Johnny Storm isn’t back yet, but he will be eventually. After all, to go with another cliché, we’ve never seen his body. Also, he’s a member of the Fantastic Four so if Disney (who owns Marvel) wants him to come back for some reason, he will. Things may work differently for deaths in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, but as long as the character is still alive in the Marvel Universe, that’s more than likely the important thing.
Deaths used to be reserved for big events, such as the death of the Barry Allen Flash and Supergirl in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Today, when everything seems to be an event, death has become commonplace. There was a death in Fear Itself #3 that was (I think) supposed to be a big deal yet it was practically overlooked. I read two Flashpoint tie-in books this past weekend and a well known character died in each one of them. And Marvel has recently made some noise with the death of Ultimate Spider-Man. And how certain characters have died has created controversy as well (and rightfully so, with Sue Dibny being a prime example).
Death has become so commonplace in DC and Marvel comics right now that even the stories that are well told (such as the death of Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four) lose the majority of their impact. Throw in the fact that we know the majority of these characters will be back and you’ve removed all emotion from death. So here’s my advice for those thinking of killing off a character. DON’T. Knock it the heck off. It’s time to give death a rest. There are ways to make a story exciting and intense without killing somebody. Killing a character is easy. Try something new. Surprise the readers. In this day and age where everything pops up on the internet moments after it happens, surprise is difficult as hell. But it’s also what makes for a good and memorable story.
Now, go read a comic!
Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.