To readers, comic book superheroes are metaphorical avatars of virtue; larger-than-life embodiments of identifiable and desirable traits. To people in comic book universes, however, superheroes are the last and best line of defense when it comes to preventing their premature deaths. But there are so many threats in comic book worlds and heroes are only human (unless they’re not) so unfortunately, innocent bystanders are occasionally caught in the crossfire, something that both Captain America: Civil War and, to a lesser extent, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice address in their respective movie universes.
Sometimes, civilian deaths are played up for emotional drama, leaving whoever was responsible for the passing to be haunted by their actions. A civilian close to a comic’s protagonist who dies, can turn a story on its head or completely change the attitude of a main character. Other times, artists like to splatter blood and gore across the page in hyper-gritty explosions of brutality that rival Mortal Kombat finishers in terms of excessive violence. And once in a while, it’s a combination of both, which can make a more compelling and heartbreaking story. Just a warning: There be blood in these waters. Those with weak stomachs shouldn’t sail them.
15. ROBIN (THE BOYS)
Garth Ennis’s violent and raunchy comic about a world of corporate heroes taken down by a colorful group of government mercenaries received critical praise and the respect of readers for its stellar writing and art, but also for its playfully macabre atmosphere. The tone of the entire series was set in the opening pages of the first issue where series protagonist Hughie “Wee” Campbell and his girlfriend Robin share a tender moment of affection.
Immediately afterwards, Robin is crushed against a wall by a supervillain, leaving Hughie holding her severed and bloody arms in shock. His despondent and horrified expression as well as the dark colors used convey the true weight and brutality of this loss. It’s this innocent death that motivates Hughie to join the titular group and drives the narrative and tone of the entire series.
14. THE 600 (CIVIL WAR)
Though readers of Marvel’s Civil War event didn’t see the visuals of some 600 innocent souls perishing in Nitro’s explosion, the full impact of their deaths are felt in every page of the series. It is this event that serves as a catalyst for the superhero schism that gives the series its name and changed the landscape of the Marvel Universe. The only image given of the deaths themselves are haunting to say the least.
A sole, page-wide panel showing a group of children silhouetted by the explosion gives eerie tribute to brutal real-world attacks as Nitro’s rage shreds away their lives. Characters are reminded throughout the title’s run that approximately 60 kids were killed in Stamford, CN, driving home the full devastation of this mass slaughter.
13. GWEN STACY (SPIDER-MAN)
Spider-Man’s whole ethos as a hero is that with great power comes great responsibility. These words handed down to him by his departed Uncle Ben took on an entirely new meaning in Amazing Spider-Man #121 when Peter accidentally killed his girlfriend Gwen Stacy. When Green Goblin tossed her off a bridge, Spider-Man tried to save her with his webbing. As it stuck to her leg, her neck visibly snaps backwards with onomatopoeic emphasis.
Though Gwen’s death was horrible to witness, the real brutality came through the ironic remolding of Peter’s mantra. Her death was caused by his great powers and was, unequivocally, his responsibility. This innocent death is so iconic, it is widely regarded as not only the end of Gwen’s life but the end of the Silver Age of comics, with previously campy and fun styles being abandoned for harsher storytelling.
12. GLENN (THE WALKING DEAD)
It’s hard to say if there are any real civilians in Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead. The post-apocalyptic world makes it clear that nobody is safe and anybody can die at any time. However, some characters felt above mortality, as if they were so likable that they’d earned a ‘get out of dying free’ card. Glenn was one such character.
Introduced early in the series, the plucky scavenger had his own story lurking underneath the main narrative which endeared him to readers. His death at the hands of central villain Negan was as crushing emotionally as it was physically. The smiling psychopath battered Glenn’s skull in with a barbed-wire wrapped baseball bat. The black-and-white aesthetic of the comic help to make each blow feel as solid to the reader as they do to poor Glenn.
11. ARTHUR CURRY JR. (DEATH OF A PRINCE)
The brutality of Aquababy’s death comes predominantly from the fact that he’s a baby, for goodness sake. As the story goes, Aquaman’s nemesis Black Manta had the infant trapped in a bubble of unbreathable air in order to force Aquaman and Aqualad into a death match. Ultimately, Aquaman is able to spare Aqualad and stop Manta, but is too late to save his son.
The bloodless image of a broken and emotionally shattered Arthur Curry cradling the suffocated body of his infant child is more harrowing than many gore images in comics. At this point in comic book history, dark and edgy content was becoming more and more normal, but the visual of Aquaman’s innocent child being killed on the page was too disturbing for many readers.
10. SUE DIBNY (IDENTITY CRISIS)
Poor Sue Dibny had to put up with a lot from comic book writers during the Identity Crisis event. The loving wife and constant companion of the Elongated Man, Ralph Dibny, Sue put the entire crisis into motion when she was accidentally killed by the crazed Jean Loring, wife of the Atom. To cover her tracks, Jean burned Sue’s body.
While investigating her disappearance, Ralph discovers that Sue had been sexually assaulted by the villain Dr. Light and the whole incident had been magically wiped from everyone’s mind. Crushed by his wife’s pain and demise, Ralph finds her remains and breaks down, letting his rubber powers go loose as he mourns her. Sue’s accidental murder is horrific enough, but the reveal of her assault makes every smile she’d been drawn take on a whole new meaning.
9. SARAH ESSEN GORDON (NO MAN’S LAND)
Sarah Essen Gordon was a cop for most of her run in the Batman comics but was a liaison between the GCPD and the mayor’s office, technically a civilian, at the time of her death. The “No Man’s Land” storyline ended with The Joker accumulating kidnapped infants and toddlers in the basement of the abandoned GCPD building. Sarah is the first person to find him, but he forces her to choose between saving a baby and killing him.
Sarah, of course, chooses the baby and readers were left with the image of toddlers crawling over her corpse after The Joker puts a bullet in her head. The death itself is horrific but the most shocking part of her demise is perhaps the reaction of her killer. For the first and only time, The Joker delivers a killing joke but doesn’t get the last laugh, walking away with a disappointed scowl.
8. ALEXANDRA DEWITT (GREEN LANTERN)
Alexandra DeWitt is perhaps most well known as the origin of the phrase ‘women in refrigerators.’ As easy as it is to dismiss this particular civilian death as a write off considering that Alexandra hadn’t been around that long and her role as Green Lantern Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend hadn’t been fully fleshed out. But the sheer brutality of her death earns her a place on this list.
She isn’t just strangled by Major Force while her boyfriend is out, her body is ripped apart and eviscerated in order to fit all of it in the refrigerator. When Kyle finds her mangled cadaver, her limbs are lit blue by the fridge light. The only red on the page is to indicate Kyle’s rage-filled and shattered mind, inviting readers to imagine the gore of Alexandra’s twisted and destroyed body as vividly as they wish.
7. CUSTER’S CONGREGATION (PREACHER)
Preacher is a comic that thrives on comically excessive violence and sex. From depicting the scion of Christ as an inbred mutant to the graphic mass slaughter of an angelic host, there are no taboos Preacher seems unwilling to approach. This tone of ultraviolence was set early on in issue #1, where mere moments after being introduced to the series’s main protagonists, the eponymous preacher Rev. Jesse Custer is possessed by an ambiguous spirit who causes the entire church around him to explode.
His entire congregation is killed instantly and the comic has no problem vividly depicting their skin melting off their bones in the presence of a theological entity. Later in the same issue, their charred skeletons are seen lying in the rubble of the collapsed building, gleefully grinning at the characters and the readers as the series begins.
6. THOMAS & MARTHA WAYNE (BATMAN)
It’s easy to downplay the tragedy of Batman’s origin considering how overexposed it’s become in the media. It’s been covered repeatedly in comics, films, and video games to the point where the innate brutality of a child watching their parents get gunned down at point blank range is often downplayed or outright ignored to focus on Batman’s angst. But the emotional and psychological scars that cause Bruce Wayne to don a silly bat-themed getup and run over rooftops was inspired by this one act of random and heinous violence.
Perhaps the best visual depiction of the Wayne’s murders comes from the pages of Batman: Earth One where the comic’s detailed penciling perfectly captures their sprawled bodies and shocked expressions. Despite being one of the most famous superhero origins in history, the true impact of Thomas and Martha’s deaths was the brutal scars they left on Bruce’s psyche.
5. KRYPTON (SUPERMAN)
Similarly to the death of the Waynes, the wholesale destruction of an entire planetary ecosystem, a highly-developed culture, and an entire race of sentient beings is often taken for granted by comic book readers. The loss of Superman’s homeworld serves more as a narrative mechanic, a catalyst that causes him to be brought to Earth and eventually become the Man of Steel.
However, consider the plight of the average Kryptonian who one day witnesses their planet begin to crumble around them and then are suddenly disintegrated by the exploding core. Their horrific demises are only outdone by those who foresaw the apocalyptic event, such as Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van, but could do nothing to prevent their planet’s destruction. The brutality and abruptness of Krypton’s death may be what allowed Superman to become the DC powerhouse he is today, but the vast loss of life is also what he most regrets.
4. THE FIVE WOMEN (FROM HELL)
A masterpiece from one of the most prolific and respected comic writers of all time, From Hell is a re-imagining of a Jack the Ripper conspiracy theory told by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. The comic follows William Gull as he systematically kills five women to cover up a royal controversy and to appease his own murderous desires. The lack of color pairs with a crass, stylized aesthetic to make the vicious killings of Mary Kelly, Catherine Eddowes, Polly Nichols, Liz Stride, and Annie Chapman seem all the gorier.
Their grisly death scenes are shown to be the sadistic experiments of a madman, but the art direction gives it a crude, rudimentary look that emphasizes each slice and hack as an individual blow to a death gong. Enforcing the gruesome visuals are Gull’s narrations which gradually become more insane and self-righteous, providing a disgusting commentary on his brutal actions.
3. KAREN PAGE (DAREDEVIL)
Karen Page had an absolute roller coaster of a life, ranging from being a high-profile lawyer’s assistant to being a heroin addict. However, whatever digressions she had were redeemed by her gruesome death. Falsely believing she is HIV-positive, Karen tracks down ex-boyfriend Daredevil to tell him. She finds him in a church where he is trying to protect a baby from the assassin Bullseye.
At one point in the fight, Bullseye throws Daredevil’s own club at the hero and Karen intercepts the blunt instrument with her chest. The red and black silhouette as the club is driven through her heart makes it one of the subtly goriest deaths in mainstream comics. A following panel showing Karen closing her eyes for the last time gives readers a devastating close-up of her final moment.
2. UNCLE BEN (SPIDER-MAN)
It’s said that nobody in comics stays dead except for the Waynes and Uncle Ben. Even Krypton got a chance at a do-over. But the logic for why none of them have been resurrected is simple: their deaths were so impactful to their respective heroic family members that to discount their brutal passing would undermine that hero’s pathos. This is doubly true in the case of Peter Parker as his Uncle Ben’s death was ultimately his fault.
Earlier on the day of Ben’s murder, Peter had an opportunity to stop a thief but chose not to for various reasons in various continuities. When he learned Uncle Ben’s killer was the same thief and his inaction had directly lead to his father-figure’s death, Peter truly took Ben’s mantra to heart for the first time, spurred by the brutal realization that his actions have consequences.
1. ARCHIE ANDREWS (LIFE OF ARCHIE)
Since 1941, Archie Andrews has been the quintessential symbol of cornball Americana and purist pulp conventions. Even more so than Superman, he was representative of the white picket fence era of American history, marked by naive social simplicity and bluegrass, suburban culture. In 2014, after 72 years of publication, Archie died of a gunshot wound after shielding his friend from the attack.
The death itself is not particularly vicious or gory, but the image of Archie Andrews, the only comic character more ‘gee golly’ than silver-age Robin, lying dead on the floor cradled by his loved ones is more shocking and viscerally destructive than most violent comic deaths. To see the iconic embodiment of simple citizenship brought down by the sheer randomness and ambiguity of life is perhaps the most brutal wake-up call of all.
Have another human death we may have missed? Let us know by hitting up the comments section!
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