It is an unfortunate and universally acknowledged truth that everyone has to, at some point, breath their last and leave this world for whatever lies beyond mortality. That’s why fiction exists, to serve as a creative distraction from the impending call of the void which waits with perpetual patience for you to answer. And one of the most innocent and appreciable forms of fiction is the art of the cartoon, the concept of animating characters and stories that represent grander, more esoteric ideals which can be used to enrich this experience called life.
Separately, death and cartoons typically operate as they are supposed to, the existentially terrorize and entertain respectively. Together, death and cartoons have been known to create some of the most heart-wrenching, devastating moments in all of fictional history. Sometimes, these crushing moments are on shows meant for young children, who probably don’t need to be reminded of the brevity of life. Nevertheless, animators and writers have insisted on educating kids about mortality using the model of ‘if their heroes can die, what chance do they have?’ These deaths have helped to shape many a childhood, dating back to the golden age of animated shows to the modern cartoon renaissance.
15 CLAUDUS (THUNDERCATS)
Surprisingly, there were virtually no deaths in the original 1985 ThunderCats show. So the 2011 reboot decided that was the first thing it had to change. Lion-O’s father Claudus took on a much bigger role in the series, being a formal and stern parental figure who helped shape his son’s identity as a prince and warrior. During a siege on his city, he does his kingly duty and defends it from the frontlines, where he defends his friend Panthro who promptly impales him from behind.
Turns out Panthro had been Mumm-Ra, the central protagonist of the series. Before he passes, Claudus makes sure that Lion-O and his adopted brother Tygra know how proud their king and father is of them. Despite the issues he had with his biological son, it was made clear just how impactful this loss was on Lion-O and, by proxy, the audience.
14 JET (AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER)
Despite being a show centered around a century-long war between elemental warriors, Avatar: The Last Airbender always seemed too innocent and optimistic to actually depict a character’s death. When it did, it didn’t do so onscreen. The vigilante Jet had been through a lot, including betrayal, paranoia, and brainwashing, and his heroic alignment wasn’t always as straight as an arrow, but his end was pretty gruesome by the show’s standards.
After helping the Gaang uncover a conspiracy in the city of Ba Sing Se, Jet met his end in a fight against the mastermind Long Feng. Feng escapes, leaving a weakened Jet to insist the Gaang go after the villain and assure them that he’ll be fine. As the team leaves, Toph rather unnecessarily informs them that he was lying. As Jet’s friend Smellerbee weeps at his side, his dutiful comrade Longshot readies his bow, preparing to end Jet’s suffering.
13 OPTIMUS PRIME (TRANSFORMERS)
Well it had to be on this list somewhere. For the entirety of the first Transformers cartoon, Optimus Prime was the deep-voiced father-figure all kids wanted, a firm but non-threatening demigod who had all the answers. He was so popular, he could only be killed in a movie. The death of Optimus at the end of the first act of Transformers: The Movie, after sustaining mortal wounds in one last battle with Megatron, let the audience know how high the stakes were.
Set to a dream-like score, Optimus hands off the glittering Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus before croaking off in the most devastatingly slow way possible. The impact this death had on fans of the series was incalculable. For many, it was the first time they realized that people as close and important as their parents could be gone in an instant.
12 MAUDE FLANDERS (THE SIMPSONS)
Arguably no other cartoon encapsulates the medium as a whole better than The Simpsons. As such, it was depressing but also reaffirming to see the show handle its first major death angle. After an accident involving a racetrack, a T-shirt cannon and Homer Simpson, Maude Flanders, wife of Homer’s “hi-diddily-ho” neighbor Ned, falls to her death in a parking lot. Maude was the very definition of a supporting character, but the impact of her passing was more in how Ned reacted to it.
The fundamentally religious man briefly lost his faith and fell into an appropriately deep funk. If viewers didn’t mourn Maude, they had to at least sympathize with a character who had lost his love and wouldn’t get her back. It was so emotionally swelling that its almost irrelevant that the entire angle was done because Maude’s voice actress, Maggie Roswell, got into a pay dispute with producers.
11 DUKE (G.I. JOE)
Okay, okay, fine. Yes, technically Duke didn’t actually die in G.I. Joe: The Movie. He was stabbed through the heart with a snake-javelin and somehow he went into a coma instead of shuffling off the mortal coil. But the only indication there is that he was comatose and not just dead was a dubbed-over line from an off-screen character which was added last minute. Turns out kids were so traumatized by the death of Optimus Prime in Transformers: The Movie that the studio didn’t want to risk doing it to them all over again with Duke.
Still, that didn’t change his ‘death’ scene all that much. Taking a spear to the heart for his brother, Duke pleads with Falcon to be a better soldier before wheezing out one last feeble “Yo Joe” and closing his eyes for the last time. The last time in the movie, anyway.
10 BRIAN (FAMILY GUY)
Family Guy, Seth Macfarlane’s magnum opus and controversial television show on the Fox network has always dodged around some very valid criticism which has ranged from offensiveness to simply being unfunny. However, in 2013 Seth proved that his show had earned more than its critics gave it credit for by killing off one of the only voices of semi-reason, the family dog Brian.
The actual death is particularly ugly, with Brian being graphically run over by a car while he plays in the street with Stewie. Brian is then shown on a veterinary table, his broken and bloodied body kept alive only long enough to say goodbye and thank you to the Griffins. His death devastated the family, the fanbase, and coincidentally the show’s ratings, which took a plummet after his replacement, a dog version of an Italian stereotype, failed to appease the viewers.
9 THE DOOM PATROL (BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD)
Batman: The Brave and the Bold was a self-described “love letter to the Silver Age of comics” that employed all manner of nonsensical gags and gimmicks to endear itself to viewers. But it got chillingly serious in the episode “The Last Patrol!” wherein Batman helps to reform the defunct team, consisting of Chief, Robotman, Negative Man and Elasti-Girl. Their split came after their involvement in a botched hostage crisis got an innocent civilian killed.
Shortly after their reluctant reunion, the Patrol is captured by their nemesis, General Zahl, who forces them to make an impossible choice: kill themselves or an island with only 14 inhabitants. With their every move being broadcast to the world, the Patrol unanimously decide to be heroes one last time. The island they save is renamed in their honor and both their world and the viewers were left inspired by their sacrifice.
8 SEYMOUR (FUTURAMA)
No list of ‘saddest cartoon moments’ is complete without at least a passing reference to “Jurassic Bark.” In this heartbreaking Futurama episode, time-displaced delivery boy Fry discovers to fossilized remains of his dog Seymour. After 20 minutes of hijinx trying to get the remains back, Fry decides at the last minute not to revive his deceased dog with 30th century technology. His decision was made when he learned Seymour had lived for years after his disappearance and Fry believed his old pal had spent the rest of his time in peace without him.
However, an emotional flashback at the end of the episode reveals that Seymour hadn’t lived out his days in peace. Instead, he’d sat everyday outside Fry’s workplace, waiting patiently for his friend to come back to him. The episode ends with an old and feeble Seymour finally laying down to rest. Cue tears.
7 WALLY WEST (YOUNG JUSTICE)
Young Justice quickly proved itself to be a worthy addition to the hallowed DC cartoon family, with its well-written characters and spectacular voice cast creating a believable and entertaining team dynamic. And the heart and soul of that team was Wally West aka Kid Flash, the team’s comedian and science genius in residence. By the end of the series, Wally had retired, was going to college and was living with his girlfriend.
Also by the end of the series, alien invaders called the Reach were trying to destroy Earth with magnetic disruptors. Wally is called back into his costume out of necessity. When the last disruptor goes off at the North Pole, Wally tries to use his powers to reverse its effects. Though he succeeds, he is wiped out existence as a result. This was one of the last scenes of the series and left fans with a bittersweet ending.
6 THE 3RD HOKAGE (NARUTO)
A surprisingly violent anime for children, Naruto established early in the series that, despite the over-the-top characters and humorous tones, death was a constant and harsh truth in the world of magic ninjas. But while a few characters had been killed before, no death made this concept so abruptly relevant as that of the 3rd Hokage, the wizened sage who oversaw the village.
He died in spectacular fashion at the hands of his old student and series antagonist Orochimaru after giving viewers their first taste of “Kage-level combat,” intense and amazing action sequences that the show would eventually become known for. The vicious battle ended with the Hokage taking a sword through the chest and sacrificing his soul to the Grim Reaper to take out his former pupil. His last sight was a vision of his enemy as an innocent child, an image that reverberated through the audience’s hearts.
5 CHEF (SOUTH PARK)
South Park, for the few uninitiated, is the type of show that can have a running joke where one of the characters constantly dies but nobody seems to question his constant resurrections. For years, viewers watched Kenny be killed in increasingly creative fashion, which gave the impression that death wasn’t a big deal for the quiet little mountain town. But one death that did stick was that of the fan-favorite Chef, voiced by the late, great Isaac Hayes.
In 2006, Hayes, a scientologist, quit the show due to an episode mocking the religion. In response, showrunners Matt Stone and Trey Parker killed off the Chef character by having him shot, stabbed, burned, and thrown off a cliff. Despite the ridiculously gory death, Chef’s passing was legitimately sad as he’d been a beloved staple of the series since 1997. Hayes himself unfortunately died from a stroke in 2008.
4 BIG HENRY (GRAVITY FALLS)
It speaks utter volumes as to just how good a show Gravity Falls was that it made people legitimately upset about the death of a character they’d met only minutes ago. In the episode “The Golf War,” series protagonists Dipper and Mabel discover that Gravity Falls’ putt-putt course are actually inhabited by Lilliputtians, a race of sentient sports equipment who maintain and feud over the various holes.
One of these creatures is Big Henry, a massive and stoic Lilliputtian who towers among the others. When a ball reaches his hole, a gas leak prevents his fellow workers from doing their duty and delivering it through a tunnel. Henry volunteers, despite the protests of a young child, and valiantly pushes the ball down the poisonous tunnel singlehandedly. As he passes out from the gas, he takes out a hand-drawn picture the child gave him and shares a tear with the audience.
3 99 (STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS)
Death was a pretty common occurrence in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. White-suited clones dropped like flies and even the odd Jedi found themselves in unwinnable fights. But perhaps the most meaningful and heartbreaking death in the series was that of 99, a deformed clone trooper who was deemed unfit for battle and relegated to janitorial duty in the clone facilities of Kamino. He made infrequent appearances where he served as a mentor to new clones, urging them to be grateful for their lives and their talents.
During the invasion of Kamino, 99 aided in the defensive effort by delivering ammunition for the other troopers. Taking the opportunity to finally fulfill his purpose, he died heroically while trying to fetch backup rounds, taking multiple blaster shots before finally falling. Captain Rex, the show’s primary clone character, gave 99 his due and recognized the fallen soldier as “one of us.”
2 POPS (REGULAR SHOW)
Regular Show is about as wild and crazy as television can get, despite its unassuming name. Though it’s mostly about a pair of slacker park workers, the series finale unleashed an epic battle between the happy-go-lucky Pops, a near-omnipotent native of Lilliland, and his literal opposite Anti-Pop.
The two were fated to have an intense clash that would ‘reboot’ time and continue a cycle of existence until their next battle, but with his friends and their power at his back, Pops decides to throw himself and Anti-Pop into the sun, ending the cycle and letting the rest of the characters move on with their lives. The death of the show’s only real benevolent character would have ended the cartoon on a sour tone, but the very last scene of the series assured fans that Pop was in heaven, happily watching tapes of his favorite program: Regular Show.
1 TERRA (TEEN TITANS)
Teen Titans is often credited with being one of the best cartoons based on comics. One of its defining characteristics was a fantastic adaptation of the famous "Judas Contract" storyline from the comics it was based on. Terra had already been introduced as an unstable geopath with a cute attraction to team jester Beast Boy who betrayed the Titans to their archvillain Slade. After helping him seemingly destroy the team, Terra starts to reconsider her choices and, when the Titans inevitably return, she turns on him.
Unfortunately, in doing so she accidentally opens up an underground volcano that could destroy the city. Terra sacrifices herself to save the titans and seal the lava away, turning herself to stone in the process. She may have been a traitor, but the loss of her potential redemption was what viewers mourned.
Which of these moments broke you the most? Let us know in the comments!