Wolverine is going to die later this year.
How do I know this? It’s not because I’m clairvoyant, or possess Batman-level detective skills. It’s because Marvel Comics announced that a miniseries is coming out this September, one which is conspicuously titled “Death of Wolverine.”
So the cat has been prematurely let out of the bag, and we all know what’s going to happen several months before the comic hits the shelves — but this is no surprise. Because in the comic book world, there’s cash in producing corpses. And when a character is about to bite the dust, it’s standard operating procedure to let everyone know well in advance.
Leaking news of this magnitude seems counter-intuitive, so why do it? After all, giving away the death of a character is a spoiler of epic proportions, and robs the reader of a truly surprising, potentially game-changing twist in a story. In movies, television and novels, the death of a character is a closely guarded secret that is virtually never revealed in advance, but comics have routinely gone in the complete opposite direction. One reason for this might be that comic books still cater to a niche audience, selling only a finite number of copies to a dedicated core fanbase — except for when a well-known character is on the chopping block. When you tell the Associated Press or USA Today that an iconic superhero is going to die, their ears perk up. If lives are on the line, a comic suddenly takes on a whole new dimension of importance, and merits worldwide coverage.
This tactic does lead to a bump in sales, though not so much in recent years as it has historically. “The Death of Superman” reportedly sold millions in 1993, but two decades later — with the marketplace admittedly in a very different place — offing a comic book icon doesn’t pack nearly the same punch at the cash register.
“Ultimate Spider-Man #160” received mainstream coverage for its June 2011 issue (billed and advertised as “The Death of Spider-Man”), though few were worried that the web-slinger was in any real danger of permanently disappearing from the shelves. While that story did kill off the Ultimate version of Peter Parker — a death Marvel has stuck to — the character still appears in his “classic form” in multiple comics released each month.
Still, the issue managed to take the No. 1 slot on the sales charts that month with more than 159,000 issues ordered — a significant boost over the title’s regular sales figures, but hardly staggering numbers considering the widespread coverage. In December of 2012, “Amazing Spider-Man #700” featured another death of Spider-Man (giving rise to “The Superior Spider-Man”) which brought in a robust 200,966 sales — all the more impressive given the whopping $7.99 price tag — though again, the numbers were not necessarily earth-shaking considering the magnitude of the event. (When Peter Parker made his official return more than a year later in “Amazing Spider-Man” #1, a $5.99 comic, its estimated initial orders topped 500,000 copies. An omen of things to come for Wolverine, perhaps?)
In contrast, recent titles that hold significance to comic book fans — but weren’t pandering to the mainstream by promising the death of a superhero — have produced even more impressive sales figures. “The Walking Dead #115” (an issue without a body count) moved 310,584 units last October, making it the top-selling comic of 2013. And “Justice League of America #1,” “Superman Unchained #1,” “Infinity #1” and “Guardians of the Galaxy #1” each sold more than 200,000 copies in 2013.
This raises the all-important question: what’s more powerful in terms of attracting and fostering new comic book fans? Is it broadcasting spoilers to the mainstream media? I doubt many Entertainment Weekly subscribers are going to suddenly become lifelong comic enthusiasts after skimming Logan’s premature obituary. True fandom is built from the ground up; when someone tells their friend that a book, movie or comic is simply too good to ignore, and that it deserves their attention.
Take two of the hottest properties in sci-fi/fantasy: “The Walking Dead” and “A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones.” Multi-million selling comic books and novels, respectively (and, of course, two of the most-watched shows on television), they’ve never gone out of their way to announce character deaths in advance, and when someone dies, the deceased remain firmly planted in the ground. It creates a sense of tension where the reader can’t help but continually wonder, “Who’s next?” as they nervously leaf through each page. That excitement translates to discussion, which in no small part contributes to both franchises’ longevity, and their ability to reel in new fans.
Death isn’t a gimmick in “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” — it’s a terrifying inevitability for even the most beloved characters. If Marvel and DC would start to establish similar parameters in their most prominent story arcs, the payoff could be more loyal fans, and the emergence of new ones.
Had Wolverine’s death been kept a secret, and had he died at the end of a story arc without Marvel shouting it to the press half a year in advance, I can only imagine the reaction from the comic book community.
Sure, initial sales would not be as high as they might have been without the advance coverage, but the shockwaves would have reverberated though out comic book fandom, resulting in second and third printings, more trade paperbacks and digital copies being ordered, and possibly even a boost in sales for subsequent issues. And we all know that in the Marvel and DC universes, being dead rarely results in a prolonged absence, but if Wolverine’s dirt nap lasts longer than a couple months, it could potentially start to re-establish readers’ trust in the Big Two when it comes to the death of their heroes.
So should announcing deaths in advance continue the way it has? The tactic has long grown stale, the motives are transparent, and the returns are diminishing. And even though it provides a short-term spike in sales, angering and alienating the hardcore fans in an attempt to attract casual ones can be a monumental mistake — and cost long-term buzz that could have otherwise led to a healthier, more loyal core audience.