The Ninjabot

Death in Comics – Good, Bad or Indifferent?

Posted on January 26, 2013 at 10:30 am by Jeff Mueller

So news has leaked out of Marvel Comics that there are plans in the works to kill off Captain Whitebread America once again. This “news”, coupled with last week’s article on Spiderman, got me thinking about the importance (or lack thereof) of death in comics in this day and age. Let me clarify… I am talking about super-hero comics; my semi-coherent ramblings definitely do not apply to books of other genres, as main characters dying in books like The Walking Dead carry a much different weight and tone.

Before we dig into the concept of death in comics we should step back and look at what makes these characters unique. Comic book characters are, for the most part, ageless and immortal by nature; their stories and existence are cyclical, always being refreshed to entertain new readers and fans. These characters in a way defy modern day story telling mechanics as well; while each individual story arc follows the standard three act story structure (Act I – Setup, Act II – Conflict, Act III – Resolution), if you view the entire lifespan of the character as one continuous storyline you see how these characters live in a perpetual Act II, with the origin story representing Act I and with Act III always being somewhere off on the horizon but never actually reached unless it is out of continuity ala stories like The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come or End of Days.

This creates a dilemma of sorts when looking at death in comics, as there are really no other mediums out there that follow that sort of logic.

In the beginning comics were a light-hearted affair and the only people who died in comics were supporting characters in origin stories or in flashbacks (very often off-panel); people like Uncle Ben or Thomas and Martha Wayne. As comics, and their audiences, matured occasionally an ongoing auxiliary character would meet their demise; these were the Gwen Stacys and Iris Allens of the comic-verse. These deaths were very rare, almost always came as a huge shock to the reading audience and were used in a way to drive plot or to provide new motivation for the main characters. Then 1980 rolled around and punched X-men readers right in the babymaker as Chris Claremont concluded his Dark Phoenix storyline with the, at that point in time, unimaginable.

He killed Jean Grey.

Death in Comics - Jean GreyComic book readers nowadays can’t really understand the impact of Uncanny X-Men issue #136, it was truly a “you had to be there” moment. The day that hit the stands there was a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of geeks suddenly cried out in terror. Something terrible had happened. This wasn’t the end of the series, we all knew that moving forward a character that had been a lynch-pin of this series for 17 years would be missing and that we would cope with this loss right alongside our favorite heroes on the page before us. It was heavy stuff!

Thank goodness this was pre-Internet. I can’t imagine the fan backlash that would have flooded chat-rooms and message boards. It would have been pandemonium! Let’s not even think about how many hate-tweets Claremont would have received.

Following this we had a few more major deaths, with Barry Allen (The Flash) dying in 1985 and then more notable Superman in 1993.

What was different about the much reported on death of Superman though was that everyone knew it was a publicity stunt. Arguably it worked for DC Comics as the trivialized and relatively, at that time, unpopular cornerstone hero saw a mass resurgence of interest from the fans and the press alike. Even though everyone knew that eventually the Man of Steel would return, it was still a very novel concept.

A few years prior, in 1988, we also had the death of Robin. Unlike other character deaths, this didn’t really come as a shock and to be honest was probably celebrated more than it was reviled. Jason Todd was the second person to don the mantle of the Boy Wonder and fans for the most part despised him (seriously, people hated his punk ass). So how did DC Comics solve this? With a seriously macabre four issue mini series entitled “Death in the Family” where they gave fans the ability to influence the story through voting whether Jason Todd should live or die via a 900 number. It was genius marketing layered on top of a very mediocre story, which ended with the brutal murder (and intimated rape) of Robin at the hands of the Joker.

Death in Comics - Robin

Dial 1-900-DIE-RBIN

Heavy, heavy stuff for a medium that was still trying to shake its reputation of being only for kids.

Just like when Barry Allen died though, we knew with the death of Jason Todd that another person would step in to take the mantle of the super-hero (Wally West became the Flash for a new generation of readers and Tim Drake stepped in to don the yellow cape and awkward green speedos). We knew that Robin, the character, would live on even though the boy behind the mask was no more. We were still living in a world where super-heroes really don’t die (unless Chris Claremont is writing them).

Then the mid-90s came around; everything got EXTREEEEME #saywithWWEvoice and all hell broke loose. Characters started dying left and right it seemed and since then we have seen the deaths (and subsequent resurrections) of more major characters then we can count; from Captain America to Professor X, from low key deaths of characters like the Wasp to ridiculous, over the top murder-fests like Marvel’s Ultimatum.

When done right, a character’s death can be poignant and telling; very often making way for lesser known or unpopular characters to step into the spotlight and shine on their own.  It also provides writers a chance to examine how surviving characters live in the face of loss and the lasting impact that event has over time. A prime example of this was the death of Captain America, as it tapped into the pulse the public’s conscience and current events at that time providing a great narrative about how dark a place our country would be without one of its most defining symbols. It also allowed for Iron Man to step up and finally come into his own after so many years (this was before Iron Man lit up the silver screen and became a household name).

When done wrong, for shock value or too often, it feels cheap and exploitative. It loses any form of value in the story-telling process. For an example of where comic deaths derail pick any one of Professor X‘s 7 deaths. While some stories were definitely better than others the fact that the same character has died ~seven~ times (Or is it 8? Who can keep track at this point?) shows that there is no real inherent value in the event at all. With some of these characters it has almost become so commonplace it they are like a super-hero version of Kenny from South Park, minus the humorous self-awareness.

I think for me, my issues don’t necessarily lie in the deaths of the characters, rather in their inevitable resurrections. 20 years ago it felt unimaginative and lazy, now it is almost sad; like watching a boxer who should have retired years ago climb into the ring once more… we know the outcome before it starts and it has long since ceased being enjoyable to watch. I feel that if a character dies, they should stay that way! Now I know that ruins the timeless quality of the super-hero that I discussed earlier, but I don’t see why death can’t matter more.  I feel it is fear on the part of the labels to lose the fan-base of any given character; it is easier to just bring back the same character time and time again than it is to invest in creating another, new and engaging, hero that fans will enjoy and begin to follow.

So the Geek Legacy staff wants to know, where do you stand on the whole death in comics issue? Is it compelling storytelling at work? Is it for pure shock value? Has it become predictable? Let us know in the comments below!


Make sure to follow @TheMightyJerd on Twitter for insightful comic book thoughts, incoherent rage fests and retweets!

    • Tyler

      "Then 1980 rolled around and punched X-men readers right in the babymaker as Chris Claremont concluded his Dark Phoenix storyline…"

      I will LOL at this all day hahaha

      Great article, I've been reading comics for decades and I still can't decide how I feel about superhero deaths… sometimes they make me roll my eyes, and other times they… well…. they punch me in the babymaker.

      • I think characters *should* die occasionally… It re-anchors the comic world to reality. I just don't think these characters should come back. I still get angry every time I see Jason Todd's stupid face.

    • Snackbar

      All it would take is for one major character to stay dead and it would add weight back to comic book deaths. Then you would never truly know if they were dead. Keep them dead.

      • Exactly! Claremont stated he had no plans to ever bring Jean Grey back. She was supposed to stay dead.

    • Kstoltz

      Just to play Devil's advocate, it's a comic book universe that has aliens, gods, demons, mutants who can warp reality, clones, and magic…why would we expect anyone to stay dead?

      but yeah, it's a cheap tactic….then again, what printing is Amazing Spiderman #700 on now?

    Sharing the Legacy on Flickr

    See all photos