On Monday I discussed the birth of death and resurrection in comic books (which you can read here), the tools that writers use for these plot developments, and the differences between hero and villain deaths.
Today, I examine the effects these deaths have had on comic stories and look at some of the most infamous deaths and rebirths ever found in a comic.
Tired Cliché or Vital Storytelling Aspect?
So with so many deaths and rebirths, the question must be asked: should death in comic books be put on hiatus?
Well, to do so would immediately reduce the stakes. But that doesn’t mean death isn’t cliché at times. Like any old trope, death in a story is an important aspect that needs to be handled with care. Specifically, the death of a long-running and consistently popular character or death in a series that has lasted for decades can be tricky to pull off well.
The problem is that most decades-old comics have been through cycles of death and rebirth, both literal and figurative, countless times.
However, new series and stories set in fresh universes have a chance to break free of the stigma associated with death in comic books. Depending on how it is approached and the tone that informs a story, these deaths can be an extremely fresh take on this storytelling medium, but they still may fall flat on their faces.
Take, for example, Ultimate Marvel comic books. This is an alternate universe that has its own line of comics solely dedicated to it. In this universe, classic characters are started from scratch, stories can take a far different shape than the originals, and death is far more permanent than what is found in the mainstream Marvel Universe. However, creators actually seem far more obsessed with killing off heroes, making sure they never return.
After more than a decade of the comics being written in the universe, dead heroes include: Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America, Thor, The Punisher, Black Widow, Red Skull, The Wasp, Daredevil, and Loki. Some of these have been handled well, such as Spider-Man’s death while saving his loved ones and the creation of his replacement in Miles Morales. But quite a few others have been terrible. In fact, it seems as though most deaths in the Ultimate Universe have been met with hatred by fans.
Why? Because it doesn’t matter that this is a “new” universe. A character like Wolverine still has the defining aspects of the hero, even if his history is different, and that makes fans adore him. So when you kill him off, especially when it is for good, it hurts. The Ultimate Universe may seem like a brand new world, but its characters and stories are still firmly planted in decades of stories and deep emotional connections to readers.
On the other hand, there are countless unique comic stories that exist within their own tiny world, unrelated to anything else put on the market by the publisher. And more than ever, modern comics are experiencing a boom in these small, creator-controlled stories.
A series like The Walking Dead predicates much of its drama on the fact that any character can die, and at any time. It’s a high stakes book that balances character with action, and death is a vital part of both. There are also countless miniseries found in comics, with no aspirations to go beyond a limited number of issues. So if the story and tone dictates it, death is a major component of the series. These are more along the lines of a movie, rather than a TV show, so there is no need to think about whether these characters will still be pulling in customers 10 years from now.
If I listed every time a comic book character died and was brought back to life, I’d be live updating this list for the next week. I don’t have time for that, so here are some of the best examples of this crazy cliché.
Superman – The most famous comic book death? Killed in battle with the monstrous Doomsday.
Resurrection – He was never truly dead. Instead, being in a death-like hibernation for months restored him to life. Dumb.
Captain America – Shot to death by a brainwashed Sharon Carter.
Resurrection – Those were magic bullets! He was imprisoned in time, only to return and escape the Red Skull’s mind control. A good story, but a clumsy deus ex machina.
Professor X – Killed more times than John Travolta’s career: Fatally infected by a Brood alien embryo, then has his mind transferred into a clone body. Suffers a heart attack in battle, but then healed by aliens. Accidentally killed in the past by his time traveling son, which is then reversed by a time traveling Bishop. Accidentally shot in the head by Bishop, then healed by bad guys who tried to exploit him. Finally killed by a Phoenix-possessed Cyclops. Let’s hope this one sticks.
Jason Todd – Beaten with a crowbar and blown up by The Joker in the death that may have killed the last bit of comics innocence in the ’80s.
Resurrection – Let’s just stick with him brought back to life in one of Ra’s al Ghul’s Lazurus Pits. The other version (involving Superboy punching the fabric of reality) is incomprehensible.
Resurrection – Reborn in a cloned body. He’s a cosmic bug, so the cycle of death and rebirth works more naturally with this character.
Norman Osborn – Impaled through the chest on his own glider while trying to kill Spider-Man.
Resurrection – His Goblin Serum gave him extensive healing powers, keeping him from dying. Osborn was dead for decades, but his return has made him a consistent presence in the many years since his return.
Bucky Barnes – Killed in a plane explosion, which flings Captain America into the ocean, freezing him for decades.
Resurrection – Survived the explosion and healed by Russian agents, who replaced his arm with a mechanical one, brainwashed him, and used him as an assassin between stints in suspended animation. A real sacred cow of dead characters, his rebirth as The Winter Soldier was a high wire act pulled off superbly by writer Ed Brubaker.
Colossus – Died sacrificing himself as a test subject to cure the fatal mutant-targeting disease known as the Legacy Virus.
Resurrection – Restored to life by doctors. Alien doctors! For once, Joss Whedon decided to bring a character back to life, instead of putting him in the ground. That monster.
Resurrection – Never truly dead! The beams transported him through time, causing him to live numerous lives through the ages until he returned to the present. The charred body was a dead clone. Ludicrous, but it made for a great story.
Phoenix – Commits suicide to prevent future destruction due to losing her mind.
Resurrection – Never was the true Jean Grey, who was kept in a cocoon at the bottom of the ocean by the entity that took her place. She later died anyway. Her death is an iconic event in X-Men history. Her rebirth? Not so much.
The Flash (Barry Allen) – Has the life drain out of him while destroying the gigantic Anti-Monitor’s anti-matter cannon to save the universe.
Resurrection – Escapes the Speed Force, the plane of existence that gives all super-speedsters their power. Barry has since become one main Flash again, supplanting his replacement Wally West, who is still many fans favorite incarnation.
Hawkeye – Sacrifices himself to blow up an invading Kree spaceship.
Resurrection – Restored to life when all of reality is altered by the Scarlet Witch. Now stars in one of the most acclaimed series currently being published. A good call in the long run.
Spider-Man – Kinda, sorta killed. A dying Dr. Octopus swaps minds with him, having Peter die in his broken body while he lives on in the new identity of the Superior Spider-Man.
Resurrection – Turns out, Peter’s consciousness still lives on in the background of his possessed body! Right now, the true Spidey isn’t fully back yet, but he’s coming!
The Red Skull – Originally thought dead in a WWII battle, he returns in modern times thanks to magically extending his life. He’s died multiple times due to old age, injuries, assassination, and a backfiring Cosmic Cube. But he’s been brought back through the Cosmic Cube, cloning Captain America’s body for his own mind, and transferring his soul into another brain. Most recently, he was resurrected as a backup clone created by the original Skull.
What Does Death Mean Now?
Whether it is death, plot twists, archetypes, or any other aspect of storytelling, what’s most important is that a writer keeps his or her story fresh and impactful. Overuse any of these, and you run the risk of sucking the gravitas right out of your tale. Comic books are published on a weekly basis. If there is any medium that runs the risk of overusing storytelling tropes and burning out readers, its comics.
But is there any other life event that elicits as much emotion as death? Maybe childbirth and marriage, but you can’t stuff those in every comic book. Death makes life precious. Sure, these are 2-D fictional characters draped in multicolor spandex, but they are alive in the hearts and minds of fans. Their death should be felt. While this may result in outrage and countless angry online message board comments, it’s a sign of connection and meaning.
And in any story, that’s a precious commodity.