Comic book death

Death in superhero comics is cyclical in its nature, and that’s for a lot of reasons, whether they are story reasons, copyright reasons, or fan reasons. But death doesn’t exist the same way it does in our world, and thank God for that. I wish death existed in our world as it does in comics.” —Geoff Johns

So, today I’m taking a break from writing about graphic design and, instead, focusing on my second passion: comics. Last Wednesday marked the return of Marvel’s Human Torch after his apparent death in Fantastic Four #587 (January 2011) only to be resurrected less than a year later in issue 600. Death in comics has never been viewed as what you would call “permanent.” It’s rare that once a character is killed off they actually stay dead, and we’ve especially learned not to expect it. This phenomenon of demise and subsequent return is what comic fans have collectively come to call “comic book death.” And whereas it used to be customary that writers provide proper grieving time for our favorite, newly-deceased characters in the off-chance that they might actually not be coming back, the waiting time till resurrection continues to grow shorter and shorter as seen by the Torch’s 10 month hiatus.

Marvel Comics announced last February that they planned to kill off a major character each quarter, with the first two being lack-luster. No one was fooled by the already deceased Human Torch—we never actually saw him die, abandoned to face off against the Negative Zone army alone; his death was only implied—and Spider-Man followed in the second quarter of 2011. But that one didn’t count either. It was actually the Ultimate universe version of Spider-Man, Marvel’s out-of-continuity alternate universe where everyone’s just a little edgier. In quarter three they killed off (for the second time each, mind you) both James “Bucky” Barnes, who took up the mantle of Captain America after his death a few years ago, who has also returned, freeing up the opportunity to be Captain America once more; and Thor, recently responsible for the rebirth of his half-brother Loki who died in one company-wide event or another earlier this year. It sounds a little convoluted, but that’s not the half of it.

Death is cheap in the world of comic books, and ever since the shocking and heroic death of the X-Men’s Jean Grey (yay!) in 1980 (see the classic Dark Phoenix Saga) and return just a few years later (boo!) there has been widespread cynicism regarding publishers’ inability to let super hero corpses rest peacefully. Publisher’s plural? That’s right, DC! You’re just as guilty, beginning with the ultimate merchandising rip-off death of Superman in the 1990s and leading up to the death of Batman in 2009, and year-long road to return in 2010. But the worst payoff to-date is likely the Human Torch. Hell, we were told months in advance that we would be losing one of the Fantastic Four throughout the lead-up storyline “Three,” and when the time finally came we only said to ourselves, “No big deal. He’ll be back.”

For a long time, one common truth was regarded amongst comic fans: “The only people who stay dead are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” Now Uncle Ben (not the guy on the rice box; uncle of Peter Parker) is the lone character in that phrase not to be resurrected. Apparently, Marvel no longer sees the need to surprise us with our character deaths, since we expect their return anyway, and has just decided to tell us when and how many characters they’ll be offing each year. Whereas character deaths were once a gimmick to boost sales, it seems that this cyclical nature of death in comics has spawned a “whatever” attitude with publishers. In response to the Human Torch’s return, hosted a poll titled Does Death In Comic Books Mean ANYTHING At All Any More? And the answer: No. Nearly 85% of respondents agreed that “it’s been done so many time we all know they’ll be back sooner or later.” If you’re a comic book character, then luck you!

The death of Gwen Stacy had a lasting impression that is rarely seen in comics today

But if death has become pointless to the readers, then why should writers even bother? Originally, the rarity of a character’s death in comics provided a finality and impacted not only the characters but the readers. It was a dynamic element that surprised us, knowing there was a situation where our favorite heroes weren’t triumphant. And after Marvel brought back Bucky, and DC revived Jason Todd (the second Robin), there are few characters in mainstream comics who’s deaths have had a significant and lasting impact. The first, and most important, would be Spider-Man’s uncle Ben, whose death was crucial to Spider-Man’s origin story and the shaping of the character’s motivations. The same can be said for the death of Daredevil’s father Jack Murdock and the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents; both when each hero was only a child and distinctly important to the character’s development. Likely one of the only situations, if not currently the only, where a character’s death is sealed.

When Spider-Man lost his original girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, in an early battle against the Green Goblin in the 1970s, her loss was permanent and tragic. But when Superman died fighting Doomsday in the 1990s, no one believed that he was really gone for good; too many years of gimmicky character revival had already taught us our lesson. We no longer suffer with the deceased or the grieving in our favorite comics. Death has obviously become an overused plot device, and hopefully publishers will keep this in mind moving forward with their regularly planned deaths and resurrections. If you’re a comic book character with even a limited amount of super powers, then don’t be afraid. Fight as many losing battles as you like and enjoy your salty foods, cause you’ll be back, especially if magic was somehow responsible for your death or your sales figures are low.


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