The Hulk. Captain America. Superman. Batman. Green Lantern. Hawkeye.
These are just a handful of comic book superheroes that have died. But all of them, nearly without exception, are back and better than ever. Death, as a concept, is a major tragic occurrence in people’s lives, but in comics, it’s become — well, rather meaningless. Whether it’s due to the repetitive nature of death as a plot point, or just a casual dismissal, it’s clear that death in comics no longer has the effect that it once did. Plus, even when characters do die, death tends to be more of a condition, rather than permanence.
Let’s face it: the magic is gone. Whether it’s the surprise death in “Civil War II” #1, or surprise death in “Civil War II” #3, or the surprise death foreshadowing in “Civil War” #5, recent fictional deaths haven’t had the impact of years past. In fact, they’re starting to become rather meaningless. In order to delve into the reasons why death has lost its impact in superhero comics, it seems prudent to explore 10 of the major reasons, in no particular order, that comic book death isn’t the emotionally resonant occurrence it used to be.
10. Its repetitive nature has made it a trope
Look, we’re all aware that death has to happen in a universe full of powers and catastrophic events every summer in every comic book universe. But the use of death as a plot point has made it more than just a regular occurrence, it’s made it a trope. Look at the difference in the reaction to something like Gwen Stacy’s death at the hands of the Green Goblin in “Amazing Spider-Man,” or Barry Allen dying during “Crisis on Infinite Earths” — deaths that nobody saw coming at the time — to the modern day “event” comics all containing major deaths: Superboy in “Infinite Crisis.” Captain America in “Civil War.” Hawkeye in “Avengers Disassembled.” Batman in “Final Crisis.” Ares in “Siege.” Hulk in “Civil War II.” Professor X in “Avengers vs. X-Men.” Wolverine in “Death of Wolverine” (okay, maybe that’s a bad example). Everybody in “Secret Wars.”
Readers expect death as a part of any major comic book story. They see it coming a mile away, because history has taught them that it’s part of the event structure. Summer comes along, somebody dies. Whether it’s a major or minor character, somebody’s going to end up dead.
Admittedly, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s happened enough times to earn trope status, so the expectation of it happening completely weakens the moment when it comes. Peter Milligan and Mike Allred explored this trope pretty well with the character of Dead Girl in their excellent “X-Statix” run.
9. More often than not, it’s played for shock and twist rather than to drive the story
Possibly the biggest offender of this particular point was “Ultimatum,” the major Ultimate Universe event that killed off 35 major characters in particularly gruesome ways. (Ultimate Blob ate The Wasp, only to have his head bitten off by Hank Pym. Gross.) The entire point of “Ultimatum” seemed to be to kill off as many characters as possible to clean house.
While “Ultimatum” is definitely the biggest offender of shock and twist, just look at “Identity Crisis” where Firestorm died with two panels of lead-up, or even Hawkeye’s death in “Avengers Disassembled.” Both of those deaths were pretty incidental, seemingly meant to give gravitas to a single issue where there may not otherwise have been. Not to mention the many, many, many deaths in “Blackest Night” where characters were turned into Black Lantern zombies — I’m looking at you, Tempest.
Even something like Batman’s death in “Final Crisis” was played more for shock than it was for the purpose of the story. The image of a Batman skeleton in Superman’s arms was a decent twist at the end of the issue, but how much was it really needed to finish out that story?
Playing the death card as a cliffhanger or twist can cheapen the occurrence as a whole, especially when it’s used so often.
8. The surprise is spoiled by fans or the publisher.
The world of comics is an odd one, and in order to better explain this point, there needs to be a crash course on the direct market.
The direct market of comics is structured such that publishers are advertising their comics nearly two months ahead of when they actually hit stores. Since stores need better information as to why they should order big on certain issues, publishers will often promote single events or issues that have major deaths in them well ahead of when they’re actually solicited. The biggest offenders are series that are actually titled with “Death of…” — “Death of Wolverine,” “The Death of Spider-Man,” “Death of Superman” — that actually tell you which character is going to die ahead of time.
Even if the publicity machine of publishers doesn’t spoil the surprise of the death, there’s a decent chance that fans or overzealous retailers might. The “death” of Peter Parker in “Amazing Spider-Man” #700 was spoiled weeks before its release, as was the death of the Human Torch in “Fantastic Four” #587.
We’re lucky enough to live in an age where information is incredibly accessible, but the downside is that most information will then spread like wildfire across social media. There are no secrets any more, and whether a major death gets spoiled by the publisher or fans, the advance notice only exacerbates the problem of death becoming meaningless in comics.
7. When death does drive the plot, it does so to start heroes fighting
Two words: “Civil War.”
The entire jumping-off point for one of Marvel’s best-remembered limited series in history was the New Warriors being indirectly responsible for the death of their team, and a school bus full of children in Stamford, CT. As impactful as that was, take a look at the other major events that became death-fueled superhero slugfests. “Identity Crisis” began with Sue Dibny’s death. “Blackest Night” was all about dead superheroes fighting live superheroes. “World War Hulk” with the death of an entire planet. “Civil War II” with the death of War Machine.
The “Civil War” effect has been used countless times in comics, and the use of death as a jumping-off point to cause conflict between superheroes has become pretty commonplace. A corollary is that death tends to end the conflict of a huge battle, or becomes the driving force to end the conflict. “Secret Invasion” used this with the “death” of The Wasp, “Final Crisis” used it with Batman, and the list goes on.
6. Major characters are immediately replaced by a stand-in
Superhero comics are all about legacy, so it makes sense that other heroes would want to carry on the names and roles of those who have passed on — but does it have to be so immediate? When Captain America died, he was immediately replaced by Bucky Barnes. When Superman died, he was replaced by Superboy and Steel. Dick Grayson replaced Batman. Old Man Logan and X-23 replaced Wolverine. And therein lies the major problem.
Batman, Superman, Wolverine, Captain America — the idea that these are more roles or jobs than they are characters has been brought up more than once throughout history, but they’re not just roles. The identity of the person behind the mask is just as important as the mask itself, and instantly replacing these characters with a stand-in (in many ways) cheapens their death. It’s just a different way of cheating death that feels shoe-horned in to keep long-running comics titles running even longer.
5. Death is an actual person in superhero universes
As a concept, death is pretty heavy. It’s been explored in a number of different contexts in fiction, but superhero comics is one of the only places where it’s truly and consistently depicted in a walking, talking humanoid form.
Take Death from Neil Gaiman’s popular “Sandman” series. She’s got a whole personality that’s completely different than the grim reaper: she’s cheery, down-to-earth, pleasant and kind. She’s basically just a human with omnipotence. Humanizing death as a concept into Death as a character helps to make the entire concept a little more palatable, but it also takes away the gravitas of it. Marvel’s Death is a little closer to that original grim reaper concept, but for goodness sake — Thanos and Deadpool both have crushes on her!
While humanizing death doesn’t cheapen the concept as a whole, it does make it far more palatable than if it were a massive mystery. It’s great for those that might be coping with death in their real lives, and there’s nothing wrong with it in fiction. However, in comic book universes, where death is completely commonplace, giving characters a figure to complain to, or something that they can actually confront — an entity that might have a conscience or change their minds about taking someone before their time — that makes death as a concept less meaningful. Actually being able to (in some cases) successfully bargain for a stay of execution from Death herself definitely makes it seem like life is a currency you can just keep spending.
4. Hell and the afterlife are actual places in comics
As a corollary, Hell, and other various forms of the afterlife; are actual places in superhero comics. Readers can see them, characters can interact with them even if they’re not actually dead. Thus, the afterlife is a place that can be escaped.
This is a super important reason why death doesn’t really mean anything in comics. Readers can tell that these characters are still doing well (or in Hell’s case, not so well) in the afterlife. They see that there are ways to escape it. The afterlife is a concept that goes well beyond superhero comics and modern fiction. The idea that one could “escape” the afterlife is perhaps most popularly known from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice — where Orpheus journeyed to the underworld to rescue his dead love, and was nearly successful. But here’s the kicker: he wasn’t. At the last second, he messed up and she was whisked back to the underworld never to be seen again.
The lesson there was that death is pretty much inescapable. Sometimes you just have to accept that it happens. Not so much in comics, though. Wolverine actually escaped Hell after killing the devil. “X-Statix: Dead Girl” was actually about Dead Girl going to hell to break out a bunch of dead Marvel characters. If you can actually break people out of Hell, what’s the point of having it in the first place?
3. Minor characters are treated like disposable income
Honestly, the biggest offender of this particular point is “The Walking Dead.” How many characters have come and gone during the course of that series’ 100-plus issues? Way too many. The whole “no character is safe” thing works well — until you realize that you’re not nearly as attached to characters as you used to be, and when they eventually do die, it’s expected.
While superhero comics don’t necessarily have this problem, it’s gotten pretty close in recent years. In the lead-up to the latest “Amazing Spider-Man” event, “Dead No More,” Electro just got killed (and then immediately replaced by a female version of the character), while the latest “Suicide Squad” series killed off Captain Boomerang.
Each time a character dies, the impact is lessened. Superhero comics are a long way removed from “Civil War,” when the entire New Warriors team died, or Bill Foster died to the lightning bolt of a Thor clone. (And at that point, death was still pretty commonplace.) Minor or less popular characters are killed off so frequently that readers aren’t surprised when one of them dies — either on or off panel. Remember when Exodus died in “Uncanny X-Men” #25? (That’s probably because he was immediately resurrected due to the magic of time travel. But that’s another point further down.)
2. Characters all exist in other media, meaning even if they’re dead in one place, they’re alive in another
Comic book movie and television adaptations are becoming more and more commonplace, so it’s no wonder that there are a ton of characters running around in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Arrowverse, and the DC Films universe. Beyond that, there’s the Marvel Animated Universes, the DC Animated Universes, and more. There’s a lot of popular media out there, and it’s all different from the comics.
All of the most popular characters exist in other incredibly lucrative media. Captain America became an old man, and was basically put out to pasture? No problem! Here’s Chris Evans stopping a helicopter with just his muscles! Hank Pym gave up his life to stop Ultron? No worries, here’s Michael Douglas in a tank. Captain Boomerang got atomized by Zod? It’s cool, go watch “Suicide Sqaud.”
In a world where there’s a ridiculous cornucopia of comic book media, if people don’t like that a character’s dead in one place, they can just go to another. Meaning that the character is actually just still alive to them.
1. No comic book character ever stays dead
Instead of putting an impassioned conclusion here, I’m just going to list all the major characters that have died and then been resurrected in a single paragraph.
Captain America, Aquaman, Superman, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, Mockingbird, Captain Marvel, Bart Allen, Batman, Booster Gold, Captain Atom, Barry Allen, Captain Boomerang, Captain Atom, Damian Wayne, Donna Troy, Hal Jordan, Guy Gardner, Human Torch, Iron Man, Iron Fist, Hawkgirl, Hawkman, Ice, Iris West Allen, Jade, Jason Todd, Cypher, Daken, Doctor Doom, Jericho, Star-Lord, Stryfe, Thanos, Thor, Ultron, Vision, Kilowog, Lex Luthor, Martian Manhunter, Mystique, Nick Fury, Nightcrawler, Punisher, Maxwell Lord, Metamorpho, Sinestro, Spoiler, Superboy, Abomination, Scott Lang, Ares, Banshee, Betty Ross, Goliath, Brother Voodoo, Bucky, Bullseye, Cable, Carnage, Colossus, Doctor Octopus, Drax, Elektra, Fantomex, Forge, Gorgon, Green Goblin, Havok, Hawkeye, Hellcat, Hercules, Hobgoblin, Jack of Hearts, Kang the Conqueror, Karnak, Kraven the Hunter, Legion, Loki, Firestorm, Oliver Queen, Madelyne Pryor, Magik, Mary Jane Watson, Reed Richards, Mister Sinister, Quasar, Rhino, Rogue, Sabretooth, Scarlet Witch, Sharon Carter, Spider-Man, Wasp, Wonder Man.
And that’s only a partial list.
<i>Does death matter in comics? Sound off in the comments!</i>
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