Comic books are mediums that cultivate passionate and devoted followers for infinite reasons. Great characters, beautiful artwork, addictive storylines, the list goes on and on. But there is at least one cliché that comic books have become infamous for: the impermanence of death.
When a character dies, you can bet that he or she will eventually return sooner or later. At this point, almost every major character has died at some point, only to be resurrected. The saying used to be, “The only people who stay dead in comics are Bucky (Captain America’s old WWII partner), Jason Todd (Batman’s Robin from the ‘80s), and Uncle Ben (Spider-Man’s deceased uncle).” This has also been applied to Batman and Superman’s parents and Gwen Stacy. Well, that rule has since been broken over and over.
Bucky is alive and well. So is Jason Todd. Writers have even toyed with the idea of Uncle Ben and the Waynes being alive in some form or another over the years. Some of these seemed like cardinal sins at the time, but given great stories and enough time, their resurrections can actually be for the better. Specifically, Bucky’s resurrection has resulted in fantastic storylines.
But not Uncle Ben. Keep him dead.
The idea of death in comic books has created many jaded readers over the years. Most often, when a character dies, most fans don’t let the story impact them emotionally, since they believe the hero or villain will be back in no time. And usually they’re right.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to appreciate the story development for what it is. These are monthly publications, with some character appearing in multiple books every month. Why would a character with a huge following be killed off permanently? The comics, death is more like a new stage of life, rather than an end to it. So let’s appreciate it for what it is, while still acknowledging its pitfalls.
The History of Death
Heroes and villains alike have been dying in comic books since they were created. In fact, superheroes were a lot more kill crazy in the ‘30s and ‘40s, before companies decided to make them non-lethal and family friendly. During the ‘80s, more characters died, such as Jason Todd, reflecting a focus on dark and gritty storytelling. But resurrection mania didn’t really start until the 1990s.
Specifically, “The Death of Superman” sparked the craze. Highly publicized and leading to huge sales, the Man of Steel died in battle with the monstrous Doomsday in what innocent readers believed to be a permanent loss. The ensuing months of comics revolved around four heroes who looked to replace Superman. But only a few months later, the hero was revealed to be alive and well, having healed from his seemingly fatal injuries and now back with a long curly hairdo and a darker attitude. The ‘90s!
Of course, the return was met with emotions ranging from relief to outrage. After all, DC Comics really sold this as the true, permanent death of the Man of Steel. And who would know better? Heroes and villains weren’t really killed and resurrected much at all prior to the story. But things were about to change.
Comic writers and editors decided that killing off a character was a great way to boost sales and reinvigorate books, so a tidal wave of deaths was unleashed. And it really hasn’t stopped since. Typically, comic book publishers will announce the impending death of a big character (smaller ones are typically surprises) in order to drum up excitement and interest, leading to big sales for the death issue. In the aftermath, the character will be mourned and remembered in some manner. However, his or her comic book will often not be cancelled, but will carry on in some manner. After all, the comic now has a lot more people interested in it. So why would you end it?
If the dead character was the star of the book, he or she has to be replaced in some manner. Most often, someone else can assume his or her identity. Certain heroes are legacy characters, with the identity being passed down from generation to generation, such as The Flash, while others have a group identity, like the thousands of members in The Green Lantern Corps.
However, the biggest deaths are of the characters who have been around for decades and have no history of replacement. The identities of Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man, and more are directly tied to a single person. Killing that person and sticking someone else in the costume is a tricky balance. If done wrong, devoted fans may grow increasingly dissatisfied with the story until they quit. But if done right, it makes for all new stories, since the new person behind the mask should have a different personality than the original hero.
Of course, this is only until the character inevitably returns.
Common Means of Resurrection
In general, a character is either resurrected in a long-term plan set by the writer who killed him or her, such as Grant Morrison’s time travel story with Batman, or as a way of undoing what someone else had done years prior. There are a few common ways that writers bring back characters. Some of these are definitely better than others.
Often, when the character is truly dead, and I mean dead-dead, there has to be some sort of mystical or science fiction resurrection that is just as big as the death. If a character goes out big, he or she has to come back really big! And since the resurrection itself is predictable, its means should not be.
Dead characters have been returned to life as a zombie, resurrected as a villain, saved via time travel, cloned into a new body, or otherwise restored for a greater purpose. There may be limited number of categories, but there are countless opportunities to do something new and with a compelling story.
Grant Morrison’s resurrection of Bruce Wayne may be one of the strongest examples of how to bring back a supposedly dead character. Soon after his supposed death, Wayne is shown to not be dead, but trapped millennia in the past, but his return did not happen for quite a while. Dick Grayson and Bruce’s son Damian became the new Dynamic Duo, leading to more than a year of great stories unlike anything done with Bruce. When Bruce returns, it is an intricate story of time travel and destiny, tying into dozens of previous stories as well as what was happening in present day stories at the time. Batman’s resurrection was a well-planned event, not just a sudden twist thrown in when readers demanded his return to the series.
Maybe the most common method? The character was never dead in the first place! These are usually the dumbest. Either the body that was found wasn’t really the character, the death was faked, or they only passed out from injuries but looked dead. Depending on how many years, in real time, it has been since the death, the excuse can slightly change. Typically, these sorts of do-overs are done by writers who didn’t kill off the character and want him or her to come back for the story they have in mind. It’s quick, it’s uncomplicated, and it often lacks creativity.
You Can’t Keep a Good Villain Down
Every great hero needs classic villains. And while most heroes don’t kill, it gets tiring seeing the bad guy simply locked up behind bars after being beaten time and time again. So if they don’t get arrested, escape, or win (yeah right), they have to die. But if you get rid of a good villain forever, who is going to challenge the hero properly? They have to come back eventually. And hopefully it’s worth it.
Some villains, like The Joker, are prone to supposed deaths. Many of his stories have ended with him falling off a cliff or into a smokestack or whatever chasm is nearby, disappearing and presumed dead. But everyone knows he will come back some day. Others, like The Red Skull and Doctor Doom, have died in desperate battle with heroes, only to cheat death through magic, scientific means, or fortunate mistake.
A great comic book villain is a well of great stories. Once he or she has dried up, sideline him or her and wait until something good can come along again. A death and resurrection may just be the ticket to revitalization.
Click here for Part 2, where I resurrect this entry! I look at the effect of death on story quality and review some of comics’ most famous deaths and resurrections.