From Green Arrow to Colossus to Jean Grey to Superman himself, no hero is safe from death’s sting — or from some sort of deus ex machina to bring them back. It’s become almost cliche that once a character dies in a comic book, fans will start counting down or even placing bets about when they’ll return. Sometimes it could be in the very next issue, or in some cases — like with the recent rebirth of Barry Allen — it could be decades later. Dead, it seems, never really means dead, except in the cases of Phoenix and Bucky. Cough cough.
So if the destination is inevitable, it’s the journey that makes it fun. So here are six ways comic book characters can break death’s grip and swim back across the River Styx:
1. That wasn’t really me: This is a bit of a classic that recently came back in a big way. Using this method, a comic will establish that a character wasn’t really dead because someone else died in their place — usually some sort of shape shifter.
Two classic examples of this are Professor X and Jean Grey. Way back in the 1968 version of X-Men #42, Professor X was killed by a villain named Grotesk; 17 issues later, it was revealed that the Professor X who died wasn’t the real one. It was — surprise! — a shape shifter, a former villain named the Changeling who had taken Xavier’s place while he went off to prepare for a fight against the Z’Nox. Even back then, Xavier was pulling fast ones over on Cyclops and company.
And then there’s Jean Grey, who apparently died in Uncanny X-Men #137. As it turned out, though, a cosmic being called the Phoenix force had replaced Jean Grey and left her at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, and it was this cosmic entity who died in that classic issue. So Jean Grey was never really the Phoenix and could return to the team without the stain if having killed a solar system’s worth of aliens.
And of course, there’s the most recent example, Secret Invasion, where Elektra and Mockingbird are returned to Earth after being replaced years before by Skrulls.
2. That isn’t really me: So sometimes heroes come back for real, and sometimes it’s all just a villainous ruse. The hero pops back up again with a story about how they survived a near-death experience, much to the the joy of their family and friends, then wait for an opportune moment to reveal — Mwahahahaha!!!! — it was all a ruse to get close to them.
Back in issue 12 of the original Alpha Flight series, team leader James MacDonald appeared to die right in front of his wife, Heather, after they fought evil businessman Jerry Jaxon and his evil version of Omega Flight. About a year later, MacDonald returns with a story about being accidentally teleported to one of Jupiter’s moons instead of dying, where an alien race saved him. Turns out, though, that this isn’t James at all — it’s the robotic Delphine Courtney, who was Jaxon’s assistant, and she wants revenge.
Interestingly enough, James eventually does return to Alpha Flight for real, with the same back story Courtney used to trick Alpha Flight, in an “only in comic books” moment. Poor Heather — she’d endure countless deaths and rebirths by her husband over the years.
3. That’s me, just not the real me: What’s easier than coming up with some sort of convoluted back story to explain why a character is back from the dead? Bringing in an alternate reality or time-displaced version of that character.
Blink may have died in her first appearance in the 616, but she’s had quite the career bouncing around reality with the Exiles. And Captain Marvel may have succumbed to cancer, but that doesn’t mean someone can’t pluck him out of the time stream earlier in his career and bring him into the present day (although this turned out to be a ruse; see #2 above).
4. Friends in high places: This is the comic book equivalent of hitting the cosmic reset button — a being of immense power decides for some reason to mess with reality, and whether intended or not, the result is that once-dead characters are brought back to life.
In some cases, it’s simply because they want to fix some great wrong perpetrated by another cosmic being — like in the case of The Infinity Gauntlet mini-series, where Adam Warlock brings back to life everyone Thanos had killed. In other cases, it’s for more selfish reasons, like when Parallax brought Oliver Queen back to life in The Final Night mini-series. Or it could be just an afterthought, a result of some bigger reality switch, like when Hawkeye came back at the end of House of M. My favorite example, though, would have to be Animal Man #26, where the writer himself, Grant Morrison, stepped into the book and gave Buddy his family back. Now that’s having friends in high places.
5. To Hell and back: I think I like this one the best because it has its roots in Greek mythology, when Hercules traveled to Hades to save Alcetis. Using this method, a character dies, and someone back in the land of the living just isn’t standing for it — so they storm the gates of the underworld to bring them back, or trick someone into doing it for them. I’m not sure of the mechanics of it all … I mean, once you leave the underworld, are you considered to be alive again (and thus you’ll end up dying at some point down the road), or are you still dead and just on a vacation of sorts? I guess it doesn’t matter, as in either case, you’re no longer in the land of the dead.
Back in 2000, a Hawkeye-led Thunderbolts stormed the underworld to save the soul of Mockingbird, Hawkeye’s dead wife (who incidentally later turns up at the end of Secret Invasion; see #1 above). Instead of Mockingbird, though, the Thunderbolts end up being tricked by Damian Hellstrom into bringing back Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat … who remains alive and well in the Marvel Universe.
6. It’s my super power: This is an easy but fun one … why kill off a superhero who can only die once when you could just create a superhero whose gimmick is to die over and over again? It can be played as serious (see: Hawkman and Hawkgirl) or played for laughs (see: Mr. Immortal). In any case, it makes the “why” a whole lot easier when you decide to bring them back.
So what are some of your favorite comic book returns?
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