Top 5 Deaths in Superhero comics
- by ReuBen DeBord, 5 September 2015
Death and superhero comics go hand in hand. Comicbook characters have always been dying, but it wasn’t until Gwen Stacy died (oops, spoilers!) in 1973 that it became a BIG DEAL. Following this, it was like everyone working in comics wanted to capture that same lightning in a bottle. What started as a way to prevent Spider-Man from settling down became the fatal death knell of any and all superhero characters who would die in the decades to follow. And there have been a ton of characters who have died over the years in comics. Not all of the deaths were good deaths, though.
In the comic industry’s collective efforts to capture that “holy wow, they did that?”, some of the deaths that happened were pretty silly, or resulted in fans asking “who cares?” or they were cheap tricks to get people talking about a series after it had fallen into a slump. So I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 best deaths in superhero comics. These are the ones that are, in my humble, the least silly, cheap, or insignificant.
From "Superman" #75
Superman is so low on this list because his death was a cheap stunt. Long story short, the creators working on the Superman books got Superman and Lois Lane engaged in the 1990 storyline Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite, and by 1992, they were ready to have those crazy kids tie the knot. But the higher ups told them “no,” not until Lois and Clark get married in the TV show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. And since that series hadn’t even started yet, and it’d be a few seasons still before they got married, the people working on the comics had to stall. And Jerry Ordway, who would notoriously say “let’s kill him!” at all of the staff meetings, was listened to, and they did just that.
So if The Death of Superman was just a stalling tactic until the creators could tell the story they actually wanted to tell, why is it on this list at all? Because of the aftermath, that’s why! I’ve always said if a big huge “event” in comics is terrible, that can still be okay IF it paves the way for new and interesting stories. Case in point, Zero Hour: Crisis in Time may not be remembered very fondly, but it shook up the Legion of Superheroes comics, and allowed for James Robinson’s Starman to exist. This is relevant in the Death of Superman because, although the event itself was pretty bad, it did allow for some new additions to the Superman mythos. Immediately following the Reign of the Supermen, you had 2 new characters kicking around, Superboy and Steel, both interesting characters in their own right (Steel even joined the Justice League a few years later!), who led their own solo series’ for several years, respectively. And the character of the Cyborg Superman was still popping up every now and then, despite his apparent death in Reign of the Supermen. So even though this death wasn’t very good, the aftermath certainly was.
From "Crisis on Infinite Earths" #8
I love Marv Wolfman and George Perez. I want to have both of their babies. In fact, any of you Mad Scientists out there can arrange for me to have one child where both of those men are the father, I’d like that a lot. Call me. Anyway, even though these men worked on some amazing comics separately, and worked on some amazing comics together, Crisis on Infinite Earths isn’t one of those amazing comics. Sure, it’s historically significant (a big reason is that it killed off Supergirl and the Flash!), but if you go back and read it, it’s basically 12 issues of “we have all of these characters living on separate worlds, and we want them all on the same world.” It’s paced extremely awkwardly, and there’s very little story there. And yet, the Flash is on this list, and like the Death of Superman, it’s because of what followed the Death.
I never liked Barry Allen. In the 1950s and 60s, all the members of the Justice League sounded basically the same. They all sounded like Ward Cleaver. But in the 70s, Denny O’Neil started to give them all more distinctive voices. Except for the Flash (and Hal Jordan, who we also hate, but that’s another article altogether). Even up into the 80s, Barry Allen was still a cardboard cutout. So again, you might be asking, why is his death on this list if you hated him so much? Because I DO like Wally West, Barry’s sidekick who filled his shoes after Barry died in Crisis. Unlike Barry, Wally had personality. He had an actual character. And his promotion from “one of the kids” to being an A-Lister and eventual Justice League member meant that any of the junior heroes could one day ascend to a higher plane of existence, like Wally did.
Barry’s death is so important to me because, reading comics as a youngster, Wally was my Flash. It didn’t stick, though. Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns both brought Barry back in 2008. Part of the reason this death ranks so low is that Barry’s resurrection pushed a more interesting character out of the spotlight, and with the event of DC Comics rebooting everything in 2011, Wally West was completely erased, and when he was brought back, he was an entirely different character with a different attitude, backstory and personality. Thanks, Barry.
From "Adventure Comics" #353
Even though I hate Barry Allen, I won’t sit here and tell you that Ferro Lad, barely a member of the Legion of Superheroes, is a better character than him. But I do think Ferro Lad has a better death, for a few reasons. One, remember how I said the Death of Gwen Stacy really kicked off this whole death thing? That is true, but characters did die once in a blue moon even before that, such as Ferro Lad in 1967. This was way before characters were killed off so often you could set your watch by it. So in that regards, it’s definitely a significant death. But also, in the story where he sacrificed himself, he died fighting the Sun Eater.
This plot was later reused in a smallish event called Final Night in the 1990s. This was another story where a character sacrificed their life so the world could live. And even though all of 4 people have heard of this story, I really love it! That might surprise you if you know anything about the story and you know anything about me, but it’s really good! And we would never have had it if Ferro Lad hadn’t died! He gave his life so we could have a good story! That alone means he’s worth putting on this list! (and I’ve always loved the Legion of Superheroes, so that gives him points as well)
Retroactively, True Believer! In "Avengers" #4!
Who was that teen sidekick for the iconic superhero from the 1940s who died and was considered a sacred cow that couldn’t be brought back from the dead, and was then brought back in the mid-00s as a villain? (I’m doing a bit, here. I could be talking about Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s sidekick, or Jason Todd, the second Robin for Batman.) The only real difference between these two is that people actually wanted Jason to die, whereas only one man pulled the trigger on Bucky (Stan Lee, you psychopath) But since these two are so similar in how they were brought back, why is Bucky on this list and not Jason?
Because Bucky was the poster boy for “don’t you DARE bring that character back to life!” for some 40 years. His death was something of a motivator for Cap being such a mellow drama queen. And despite his death STAYING a death being an unspoken rule, Ed Brubaker broke that rule, and it worked. On paper, this might seem like it was a cheap stunt to get people talking about a comic people weren’t paying attention to, but it also felt like a story Brubaker wanted to tell. And possibly the biggest reason Bucky is on this list and not Jason is that, after Bucky was brought back, it felt like the people bringing him back knew what to do with him.
With Jason, after his revival, it felt like THAT was the only story Judd Winnick wanted to tell. So we had a character who was pretty powerful as a dead man, who was now back, with nothing to do. It’s really painful watching the writers of the mid-00s try to find SOMETHING for Jason Todd to do after his resurrection. That wasn’t a problem with Bucky, though. For a few years, it felt like Bucky had a very clear direction his character was going in. Replace his fallen mentor, be a hero like he wanted. Of course, it was another resurrection that kinda messed all of that up, when Steve Rogers came back and eventually took over his old mantle again. So like Jason Todd after his revival, Bucky’s kinda been going around with no direction over the last few years. But that wasn’t the case when he was brought back.
From "The Death of Captain Marvel" graphic novel
As far as I know, Captain Marvel, or Mar-Vell of the Kree Empire, is the only superhero who died and has stayed dead, even 30 years later! This may be for a lot of reasons. His whole shtick, at first, was that he was an alien spy falling in love with the planet he was spying on. Once that was gone, he was kinda just another superhero. So after he was killed off, was there any reason to bring him back? That, coupled with the fact that Carol Danvers, one of the supporting ladies of his solo series, was transformed into her own hero before and after his death, and has even become more of an icon since he died: first under a slew of aliases, like Binary, Warbird, Nemesis and Ms Marvel, but in the last several years, she’s usurped oh captain her captain’s old title and become Captain Marvel. And while I wasn’t around when the first Captain died, it does seem people are invested enough in this Captain that they don’t NEED the old one to come back.
But just because there’s no story reason to bring him back, doesn’t make the good Captain’s death any less significant, which you’ll recall, is one of the factors I’m using to rank these deaths. And Captain Marvel’s Death is noteworthy not only because it hasn’t been undone, but also because he didn’t die at the hands of an arch nemesis, or even saving the world, like some of the names on this list. He died of cancer. In comics, that’s a pretty mundane death. But in the real world, it’s a very real thing that still kills today. Maybe that, more than his place in the Marvel Universe being filled after his death, is the reason he hasn’t been brought back. Because it might feel like a slap in the face to people who have lost loved ones to cancer (that’s not to say the management at Marvel Comics are incapable of being insensitive, but maybe in this one instant, they thought about the feelings they might hurt if they did bring back Captain Marvel). For whatever reason he has remained dead, that’s why I put him at the top of this list. Who knows, maybe in the next 10 years, he’ll be brought back and it’ll be like Bucky Barnes, where the story trumps the need to keep him dead, and it’ll be awesome. Or maybe it’ll be like Barry Allen, where everyone loses a character they love when he’s brought back. Who knows?
So that’s my list. What did you guys think? Agree? Disagree? Who did I leave off that you think I should have mentioned? I’d love to have your feedback, and in the meantime, I’ll see you guys in a month, with some entirely different article!