Comic book creators have a daunting task before them when they stare into the void of a blank page. Since the stories they wish to tell cannot exist within the rules of “our” world, they’re tasked with creating a world ex nihilo — out of nothing — and then populating that imagined world with dozens, hundreds, thousands of lives. And where there is life, there will be death.
In some comic book worlds, Death takes the form of an imposing menace, a looming evil that stalks its prey. Other times Death is more in line with the welcoming friend of whom Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me.” Still other times, Death simply wanders around getting drunk on strychnine while a deranged man in a giant carrot mask shouts dadaist spoken word punk music. That’s just comics.
15. MARVEL’S DEATH
Born alongside the universe and its Cosmic Entities, with powers concurrent to those of the massive Eternity, Death would become a crucial component to many massive Marvel events, an object of intense adoration for both the Mad Titan Thanos and the Merc With A Mouth, Wade Wilson. When readers first met Death, however, she was already allied with Thanos in the final pages of 1973’s “Captain Marvel” #26, written by Jim Starlin.
Those who’ve explored those unwieldy cosmic sagas of late-century Marvel know Starlin would incorporate Death heavily into the many Infinity events that would unfold, including a hugely pivotal role in “Infinity War,” wherein her apathy towards the amorous Thanos is the catalyst for all the chaos that ensued. Since then, Death has drifted throughout the major events of the Marvel universe, from love affairs with both Deadpool and the Death-God Walker to stowing away in the body of Marlo Jones, the wife of Captain Marvel’s former alter-ego Rick Jones, dying herself only to be revived. She ultimately comforted Wolverine as he neared the end of his own very long lifetime. What began as a two-page cameo by a hooded figure has now become an indelible force in the Marvel Universe.
14. DEATH FROM CEREBUS
“Cerebus” is the “Ulysses” of comic books, where both titles often evoke comments like, “I’ve never gotten around to it, but I’ve heard its good,” “It’s just so long” and “I heard the guy who wrote it is into some weird stuff.” Now, these are all accurate assessments, but contained within the 300 issues of Dave Sim’s historic run is also the most fascinating evolution in tone in the history of the comic book medium, so it’s certainly worth cracking the spine of those infamous “Cerebus” phonebooks.
When Cerebus began its run as a “Conan the Barbarian” spoof, the lives that populated Tarim were all fantasy tropes, as was the hooded Death, first seen in “Cerebus” #4, which also introduced series regular Elrod. In his debut issue, Death was a mischief maker, setting up Elrod and Cerebus for deadly combat in retribution for a slight. As Cerebus progressed, however, through stints as Prime Minister and Pope, and as creator Sim began to experiment more frequently with both psychedelic drugs and self-invented religious concepts of “male light” and “female void,” Death shifted to a more metaphysical, ethereal presence ever out of the grasp of the titular aardvark who craved its ultimate release.
13. THE BLACK RACER
While their counterpart Marvel may hold up a single “death” for all their worlds and realms, DC’s wide array of realities, lifeforms and mythologies have yielded many forms of personified death, including Jack Kirby’s The Black Racer. Originating as part of the colossal mythos of Kirby’s “Fourth World,” the original Black Racer took physical form in the body of Sgt. Willie Walker, who had been previously paralyzed in the Vietnam War.
Astride a pair of black skis and adorned in armor not unlike a medieval knight, The Black Racer’s role was to function as both Grim Reaper and Charon, hunting down New Gods at the moment of their demise and ferrying them to Hadis, the underworld of Fourth World. Black Racer’s look would get revamped by Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones in “Final Crisis” to give him a more modern, less cumbersome appearance. After the timeline-changing Flashpoint, Black Racer reemerged in the New 52, being fused with the Flash by the Anti-Monitor in order to defeat Darkseid. What the future holds for Black Racer post-Rebirth is yet to be seen.
12. DEATHFACE GINNY
“He raised Her a Reaper of Vengeance, a Hunter of men who have sinned. If you done been wronged, say Her name, sing this song…” The Daughter of Death can be summoned with a song, according to Fox and Sissy, two traveling bards in the old West in Kelly Sue De Connick and Emma Rios’ magical Western “Pretty Deadly.” In the world of “Pretty Deadly,” there may be one entity known as Death, but the tasks typically ascribed to him in most mythology are actually undertaken by a group of Reapers, each of whom is devoted to a particular type of death, including the Reaper of Courage, the Reaper of War and the aforementioned Reaper of Vengeance, Deathface Ginny.
Her demeanor a mix of The Man With No Name and Beatrix Kiddo, Deathface Ginny is the rebellious daughter of Death himself: a cowboy with a horse skull head desperate to regain control of his child. Instead, Ginny rides on the wind, summoned through a song by those in need; silent, violent and, well, pretty damned deadly.
11. DEATH OF EARTH-2
Debuting in the weekly series “Earth-2: World’s End,” this incarnation of Death was one of the four Furies of Apokolips. Originally a simple martian mother whom illness rendered too frail to nurse a child, she was manipulated by Darkseid to become the Fury of Death when he offered to make her the mother of his child, Deathspawn.
She wrought havoc on Atlantis, killing its inhabitants and bringing them all back under her control. Later, she fought alongside Pestilence and K’li, the Fury of War, against the Avatars of Grey (Solomon Grundy) and White (Sam Zhao) before they recruited Helena Wayne to serve as the Fury of Famine. While the other Furies were all roundly defeated by the united Avatars, Death tried valiantly to protect the life of the yet unborn Deathspawn, who would repay the favor by absorbing her life force, launching himself from out of her body and rendering her a mere pile of dust.
10. DEATH THE KID
Our second “depiction of Death that is also a child of Death” entry on this list hails from the other side of the world, the Japanese manga “Soul Eater.” In “Soul Eater,” Death runs a university known as the Death Weapon Meister Academy, wherein students are either Meisters, which are a mix of warriors and reapers, or Death Weapons, students who can take on the form of weapons to be wielded by the aforementioned Meisters. Their goal is to defeat the forces of evil and collect 99 human souls, and one witch soul, in order to craft the suitable Death Scythe and earn the favor of the headmaster, Death himself.
One of the students hoping to curry Death’s favor is his own son, known as Death the Kid. One of the more empathetic and humble students at the Academy, and possessing great skill, his hard work and diligence is often undone by his crippling OCD, which has gone so far as to cause Death the Kid to refuse to fight the fearsome Wrath of the Pharaoh because the foe’s appearance was asymmetrical.
9. THE FLAMING CARROT
Thus far on our list, Death has tangled with Mad Titans, fathered children and hunted down the souls of gods. But only in the pages of Bob Burden’s “The Flaming Carrot” does Death, well, just get drunk, in “The Flaming Carrot” #2, which is appropriately titled “Death Gets Drunk.”
For those unfamiliar with Burden’s absurdist superhero, it’s not that the plot of “The Flaming Carrot” is hard to make sense of so much as it intentionally hardly makes sense. Storylines are abandoned or revived on a whim, the timeline is consistently shifting, the titular hero’s dialogue is stilted and almost Dadaist, and the entire town uses the invented exclamation “Ut!” It is in this crime-riddled town that Death visits for what is essentially a bar crawl, while being pursued by gangsters whose attempts to kill him only make him drunker. Throughout his four issue arc, Death would go on to befriend the Flaming Carrot, who is in the midst of playing matchmaker between a homeless man skilled at a “dead bird dance” and an inflatable love doll. Death shows Carrot his powers for both flight and shrinking. Strangely, or perhaps predictably in this context, Death shows no powers that actually pertain to his titular job.
In the wake of “Infinite Crisis,” DC decided to hurl every title forward by a year in an event called, what else, “One Year Later.” If that wasn’t insanely ambitious enough, they’d fill in that gap year with a weekly series entitled “52” that elucidated the absence while tying up loose ends leftover from previous events, primarily the pivotal “Identity Crisis.”
Part of “52” revolves around a cabal of scientists led by Chang Tzu known as the Science Squad, who create their own Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, including the monstrous Azraeuz as Death. Created for the sole purpose of laying waste to Black Adams’ kingdom of Kahndaq, Azraeuz does just that, and with relish, slaughtering both Isis and Osiris, Adams’ wife and her brother. Hungry for revenge, Black Adam squares off against Azraeuz in the fictional middle eastern country of Bialya, and their fight remains one of the absolute highlights of the massive “52” undertaking.
In 2004, Marjane Satrapi published the graphic novel “Chicken With Plums,” a semi-sequel to her hugely successful graphic memoir “Persepolis.” The book tells the story of Nasser Ali Khan, an uncle of Satrapi and well respected musician in his community, whose prized tar (a long-necked guitar-like instrument common in the Iran region) is destroyed. After several failed attempts to find a suitable replacement, Nasser gives up. Not just on his search, however, but on life itself, lying in bed for eight straight days, waiting for death.
The book’s chapters each focus on one of those days, the sixth of which brings with it the arrival of Azrael, the angel of Death in the Hebrew and Muslim faiths. Yet, Azrael does not take Nasser that night, telling him he only wished to meet him after Nasser had been calling on him so often. He relays to Khan a parable about an Indian man in the time of King Solomon, and assures him that only God knows when a man’s time has come. Nasser’s attempts to bargain with Azrael fail, and he’s left alone once more, assured he won’t be waiting long to see Azrael again.
6. BLACK FLASH
Originally an invention of Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and Ron Wagner in the pages of “The Flash” #138, Black Flash came into new prominence when he was featured on the second season of the hit CW show, “The Flash.” Black Flash is very much like the aforementioned Black Racer, enough that Wally West once suspected that they were one in the same. In fact, Black Flash is another specialized aspect of death, a creature of the Speed Force, appearing just before a speedster’s death. Though the mantle has been assumed at times by both Barry Allen and Professor Zoom, the original Black Flash had no alias, no alter ego, but was merely a soulless force of the inevitable.
Most notably, Black Flash once came to claim Wally West, instead dragging his love Linda Park into the Speed Force. In order to defeat Black Flash, Wally raced him to the very end of time itself. As the end of all time renders the very idea of death purposeless, the Black Flash simply ceased to exist.
In “Captain Atom” #42, it is posited that Death in the DC universe takes on many forms, each representing a different idea of mortality. The Black Racer, it’s suggested, represents “death as an inevitability,” while the nefarious Nekron represents “Death as the Ultimate Opponent.” Of course, there’s another form of death they mention, by a certain Portchester-born Brit, but we’ll get to her later.
Nekron, ruler of the Dead Zone, has had run-ins with several DC heroes since his first appearance in “Tales of the Green Lantern Corps” #2 in 1981, but his most notable appearance came in 2009 with the Lantern Corps-centric crossover event, “Blackest Night.” The oft-derided story saw the death and revival of seemingly every hero in the DC universe, from Superman to Green Arrow; it was all manipulated by Nekron in order to have sleeper agents lying dormant on Earth, waiting for his commands through the power of the Black Lantern. Typically sidelined in secondary titles, “Blackest Night” gave Nekron the spotlight, and he proved a menacing and formidable force.
4. JUDGE DEATH
If you’re only familiar with Judge Dredd through the fundamentally flawed Sylvester Stallone film or its underrated reboot starring Karl Urban, then you’re missing out on perhaps the most gloriously garish character in the entire series, Judge Death. With a look that fits a heavy metal album as easily as the pages of “2000 AD,” which indeed earned him a spot on metal band Anthrax’s tour merchandise, Judge Death is to Judge Dredd what Venom is to Spider-Man: an insatiable, unstoppable dark mirror image of the hero with an instantly iconic aesthetic.
Becoming a judge to appease his bloodlust with immunity, Sidney De’ath decides in his madness that life itself is a crime, since only the living commit crimes. Through black magic, Sidney becomes Judge Death, leader of the Dark Judges, and lays waste to his world, becoming defacto ruler of the newly dubbed “Deadworld.” Virtually indestructible, with the ability to leap to a new body when his host body is destroyed, Judge Death thrives on striking fear into the hearts of his prey, which explains why he bonded so well with Scarecrow in the crossover comic “Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham.”
“Death Note” is perhaps the most successful manga in living memory, spawning a hugely popular anime, several film adaptations, a stage musical and even an upcoming Netflix series. And while that success is undoubtedly largely indebted to the philosophical query at the heart of its story, it also fills its cast with instantly engaging, if sometimes enigmatic characters, perhaps most memorable and iconic of which is the lumbering shinigami with the grin of a shark, Ryuk.
Imagine a petulant child with the power over Death itself, and you get Ryuk, the catalyst for the events in “Death Note.” For no reason other than his own entertainment, he drops a Death Note into the human world in the hopes someone finds it and wreaks havoc. When it winds up in the hands of young Light Yagami, Ryuk befriends him, almost like a Jimmy Cricket of Death, providing guidance, and lingering until Light’s last breath.
2. THE SAINT OF KILLERS
Garth Ennis’ “Preacher” contained a wide array of unique and memorable characters, but none more so than the ruthless Saint of Killers. Originally a mortal Confederate soldier with a bloody past in the vein of Ethan Edwards from “The Searchers,” the unnamed Saint started a family, who were all struck down with illness. When a gang of bandits delayed the delivery of the medicine that could have saved them, the Saint hunted every last one down and brutally played them, dying in the process.
In Hell, where all emotion is meant to leave the soul, the Saint’s heart was so cold with hatred, it literally froze Hell over. Seeing this, the Angel of Death offered to hand his mantle to the newly dubbed Saint of Killers, allowing him to return to Earth with divine Walker Colt pistols to collect the souls that died by violence. The Saint, of course, finds a loophole, collecting every soul in the town of Ratwater, who all died violently by his own hand. As such, the angels put him in a deep slumber, only to be awoken in an extreme emergency, like, say, if a Texas preacher was abruptly imbued with the voice of God.
1. DEATH OF THE ENDLESS
Without doubt, this is the definitive comic book Death. The breakout star of Neil Gaiman’s game-changing “Sandman” series, and the secret crush of every comic shop dweller of the ’90s, Death drew as much from classic mythology and theology as she did the aesthetics of the decade in which she was drawn.
The optimistic sister of the dreary, pensive Dream, Death is seen to the reader as a manic pixie dream girl for the Hot Topic crowd, but appears to those she comes to collect as whatever image would comfort the good or frighten the wicked in their final moments, much like the Islamic idea of Azrail, the angel of Death. She is a kind, compassionate and plucky Death, going so far as to become a mortal once a century to remind herself of the meaning of life itself. Her look and demeanor proved so popular, she starred in several of her own spinoffs including “Death: The High Cost of Living” and the AIDS-Prevention One-Shot “Death Talks About Life.” She even had a sneaky crossover into Marvel comics in “The Incredible Hulk” #418, where she gave Marlo Chandler a brush as a wedding gift. Turns out she kills the pun game, too.
Which personification of Death is your favorite in comics? Kill it in the comments!