The slow death of superhero deaths

Here we go again. A major news outlet has enthusiastically run the exclusive story that a major comic book character dies in a comic released today. Superhero deaths and their inevitable resurrections have been a staple of comics for decades thanks to the sales bump they tend to get from press coverage. But the giddy acceptance of superhero deaths is starting to crack.

Since the heady days of "The Death of Superman," mainstream news has loved a dying superhero icon. In 1992, Superman's death was such a big deal, newspapers were writing hand-wringing editorials about what it could mean for the state of America. Right from the start, DC Comics only guaranteed he would be dead until March 1993, but somehow that got lost in the din of cultural symbolism and frenzied collectability. People really thought he was dead, even if they sensed it was financially the stupidest thing DC could do. Needless to say, Superman came back. And ever since, it seems Marvel and DC have been chasing that same media buzz by (temporarily) killing off their marquee characters, whether it be Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man or even the Human Torch. But with each passing media blitz, an interesting thing is happening: Mainstream outlets are beginning to become just as jaded about superhero deaths as we longtime readers are.

When Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley insisted to The New York Times in 2007 that Captain America Steve Roger is "very dead right now,” those last two words didn't go unnoticed. "Still, these are comic books, where characters have a history of dying and returning," noted the newspaper of record.

Four years later, the New York Daily News couldn't get halfway through its coverage of the Human Torch's death before cynically pointing out, "Fans can also be optimistic that The Human Torch will eventually return. Comics have a long history of killing off heroes -- victims of either a good story or a good sales ploy. Captain America came back two and a half years after his demise and Superman didn't slow down much after his much ballyhooed death in 1993." A CNN story, with quotes from writer Jonathan Hickman and editor Tom Brevoort, seemed to presume the character's return was a foregone conclusion (which of course it was). "I would argue that a well-told story of a character's demise is not necessarily undone by them coming back later," Brevoort said at the time, essentially confirming what many assumed.

The latest superhero death coverage features a direct quote from the writer of the story admitting, "You can never say never in a comic book" on whether the death is permanent."

So if everyone gets that superhero deaths are a joke, why do we all keep playing along? Because fortunately (or unfortunately) for sales-stunt strategies, there really are a segment of readers that actually fall for it. I kid you not, a comic book retailer bet a friend of mine money that the Human Torch was dead for good right after the release of Fantastic Four #587. This is a comic shop owner who is surrounded by hundreds of comic books for hours every day! I think my friend has just about burned through the credit from that wager. To be fair, this retailer is newer to comics. And newer readers, that rare breed, are probably the only people who fall for this before joining the rest of us jaded old fogies. And of course it gets the attention of collectors betting on a good eBay turnaround, and rubberneckers curious to see what all of the fuss is about. That latter group may make a halfhearted attempt at trying to buy the issue but will probably never return.

But it seems like the rate of those getting progressively more savvy and/or cynical might be outstripping those subsets. There may actually come a time when both the mainstream press and their audiences just don't feel like playing along anymore. The trope of superhero deaths will probably never go away (although I hold out hope for the end of cheap returns). But might we one day see the end of superhero deaths as media stunts?

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