As we all know, death in comics is seldom permanent, and only a few of the characters on this list actually stayed dead. But all of these deaths had power and impact, and that’s what makes them worthy of inclusion on our list.
by Christopher Power
In an era of comic book characters that enter and exit the realms of the afterlife like a revolving door, you would think that comic book deaths would lose all meaning. While many do, and some seem contrived, or worthy of eye-rolling groans, there are those that still resonate with readers. For me, and for many readers, the death of Nightcrawler in the recent “Second Coming” story was by far the most devastating, and appropriate, death in the current era of comics.
The reason for this is that the story rang true to the character. Kurt Wagner has always been defined by faith. Be it faith in his teammates, faith in the dream of Professor Xavier or faith in the almighty. As a result, when his death involved a leap of faith, both literally and figuratively, to save the mutant messiah Hope, it was all too appropriate that this be his last act. Kurt did what he did best – in the face of undeniable odds, his faith carried him home one last time.
It is perhaps a combination of a number of things that made the death so powerful. Primarily, it was the writing that made it so strong. The scenes leading up demonstrated what a core part of the team Nightcrawler had been, and how important he was too his friends, including toughened Logan. Then there were small bits of dialogue explaining why Kurt was there, and how important he thought the child Hope was to the mutant race. Finally, there was the actual scene where Kurt pushed himself to his limits, uttered an all too appropriate prayer, and teleported far beyond what he should have been able to do.
Perhaps that is why it resonated so much with myself and others. Kurt died a hero – doing everything he could to save the day. If only more heroes in our comics acted the same way.
by Samuel Salama Cohén
When the doors to Avengers Mansion weren’t open to everyone with superpowers or just the willingness to fight evil forces, that Lee-Kirby creation, the so-called Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, used to be more than a team.
They weren’t a family (like the Fantastic Four), or loners like Daredevil, Dr. Strange and Spider-Man. No, they were much more. They were close friends, who shared their most difficult moments with one another, as well as those (brief) happy ones.
And, like it happens with each and every community of friends, eventually it had to welcome a new member; a really strange, cold and controversial one.
The Vision was born clouded in all kinds of mysteries, as this Thomas-Buscema homage to a Silver Age hero did not know his true origin until a decade after that unforgettable Avengers #57″.
I wonder if any of this was on Avengers scribe Brian Bendis as he decided to brutally destroy one Avengers icon, the Vision.
Was he aware of the impact of She-Hulk ripping the android in half? Did he understand that, if he didn’t have a plan to bring him back, with his first story he was destroying one the greatest Marvel couples – Scarlet Witch and the Vision- and the hopes of Avengers fans everywhere in the level of his future run on the title?
I don’t know what Bendis or his editors were thinking then, but I do know that, six years later, and with something like ten new commercial additions to the roster, the Vision, the android icon who showed us that even he could cry, is still dead.
With this absence, that with the current course of things in the MU may well be more than temporary, Marvel has lost hundreds of great story opportunities; and all because of a cruel ending -being literally torn apart by sheer and brute strength – all because creative character writing was ending as cheap, shock-value stories, with meaningless and careless-written deaths started to take their place in the room.
8. Betty Ross
by Samuel Salama Cohén
After a twelve year run on The Incredible Hulk, that featured lots of twists, Hulks of all colors and sizes, and the introduction of new characters to the Hulk family, Peter David (PAD for his fans) said goodbye. With a bang.
During those twelve years, from 1986 to 1998, Betty Ross and Bruce Banner had travelled a difficult road, with the one being apart from the other; but ironically, on Hulk #466, the fatidic issue, Bruce and Betty being together at last proved to be the cause of her death.
I really suffered with this death, and the way it was masterfully handled throughout the issue and David’s last, issue #467, featuring a future Rick Jones narrating the chaos that came right after Betty’s death, with Banner’s failed multiple suicide attempts, and all the heroes showing up for Betty’s funeral.
The circumstances surrounding the death of one of the greatest female supporting characters in Marvel Comics (editorial differences with the title’s current writer) may have forced Betty’s departure from Hulk’s life…or maybe not, and this was PAD’s plan all along.
However, that’s just gossip. The truth is that this was a shocking death, caused by prolonged exposure to gamma radiation. The truth is that Adam Kubert, with Mark Farmer on inks, penciled a quiet and beautiful cover, with the Hulk holding a dying Betty in his hands, and an issue to be remembered.
And if you don’t believe me, do yourself a big favor and get ahold of these tearful issues, where you will see a desperate Thunderbolt Ross working side by side with a shaken Banner.
You will see tears falling down, cries born out of despair…all for nothing.
Sure, this story’s heart was discredited by Marvel editorial with their next moves, where they basically erased the Hulk that Peter David had so carefully build.
To me, however, this death remains as one of the most beautiful and shocking tales that have ever closed a run. Hulk #466 and #467 are two of the most inspired issues to come out of Marvel in the ’90s.
7. Kraven the Hunter
by Samuel Salama Cohén
The story of the death of Kraven the Hunter is something out of the ordinary.
First of all, it does something that few writers had excelled at, which is br
inging the animalistic nature of humans into play in a mainstream title, with no restraints at all, as both Spider-Man and Kraven play a very old game, prey and hunter dancing a dangerous song.
The spider and its hunter nature play a big role in this extremely visual story, which narrates the ultimate way to end with a very dangerous foe, as well as the many aspects that coexist inside us, awaiting a shock to be the personality that takes over the rest.
I have read many deaths in comics, many that could be called classic, and this one is not on that list. Instead of being classic, this death is impressively alive, bursting with energy until the very last moment.
Team-ups can certainly leave a mark on readers, and if brief, the J.M. DeMatteis-Mike Zeck one was one for the ages.
Never had Kraven been so personal, violent and mad with avenging his family’s honor as on this tale, and never had the darkness grabbed Spider-Man with such strength and such cold arms.
This a story that left me thinking…what is there for someone who has based his life upon fulfilling a legacy and realizes that he has completely failed in doing so, because his nemesis, without understanding his true motives, always stood in his way?
What is left to do after the punches are thrown and victory is complete?
Is not really a dissatisfaction to let life go on even as old scores are settled and the soul rests quiet for the first time?
And shouldn’t living the land of the living have some meaning, some significance?
Shouldn’t one end this life the way it began, with blood and pain?
Some of these dark thoughts may have crossed Kraven’s mind as he, patiently and calmly, reached for his rifle to finish a journey that had been going on for too long.
With honor on his heart, Kraven had said goodbye to the annoying and insignificant existence, now that, at long last, the darkness and incomprehension that had filled his life had stop hunting him.
As I said, Kraven’s death might not be a classic, but it reaches incredible heights on the impact-o-meter. I was astonished when I read it and I believe that it’s one thoroughly crafted goodbye tale for a classic villain.
And, after all is said and done, after reading “Kraven’s Last Hunt”, I wished dead would mean dead in this world of comics that we adore. At least for once.
6. Alexandra DeWitt
by Chris Murman
Yeah, I know. Kyle’s my favorite. I don’t hide it, so obviously the death of his first girlfriend would rank up pretty high on my list. Alexandra DeWitt isn’t the most glamorous or high profile death DC has ever published. Most likely, she wouldn’t even be remembered in the first 20 deaths you thought of. It could be an even higher number if you want me to be honest.
What this death does have, however, is impact. For sure it had a lasting impression on me. As a senior in high school, I wasn’t necessarily fragile emotionally by what I was reading on printed page. I was, however, fairly new in the realm of steady girlfriends. I remember thinking to myself, “what if my girlfriend was stuffed in a refrigerator by a deranged, super-powered psycho?”
That stuck with me for a while. It certainly stuck with Kyle for a while. The pure emotion that flowed from him through his ring first got me to thinking about the emotional spectrum and how being a Green Lantern is being about more than a stoic space cop with a ring. It was about taking the emotions that came with life and using them for good. Everyone’s been guilty of letting emotion get in the way of doing good in life. To let your emotion be an agent of change for the better, though, is heroic. We got to see that from Kyle in the aftermath of Alex’s death.
Also, I got a certain satisfaction from seeing Kyle burn a hole in the supposed invulnerable Major Force. Hell, it still gets my blood boiling whenever DC decides to roll him out every once in a while.”
by Ray C. Tate
When the Anti-Monitor threatens to kill her cousin, Supergirl becomes the hurricane. She rips through the Anti-Monitor’s indestructible armor as if it were rice paper. With every blow, she swamps her Kryptonian cells in lethal anti-energy. Supergirl does not care. She will not see her cousin harmed, especially by filth like the Anti-Monitor. Supergirl died well. She died as she lived. She died as Superman’s secret weapon. She died a hero.
What if Supergirl survived The Crisis of Infinite Earths? DC reintroduced every super-hero that lived through the Crisis. Past importance and history were irrelevant. In this scenario, John Byrne allowed a Last Daughter as well as a Last Son of Krypton.
Given the part Supergirl played in the mythology, he logically would have debuted Supergirl in Man of Steel. After all, Lucy Lane, a fifth tier character, rated inclusion. Batman and Robin once were the only two humans that knew Supergirl existed. That wouldn’t be feasible in the post-Crisis.
Superman and Batman were not friends. Fortunately, Supergirl as Superman’s Secret Weapon concept never would have flown post-Crisis. Supergirl would have introduced herself to the world.
Perhaps, Batman would have treated Supergirl more warmly. Her ebullience might have been infectious, and he might have respected her Kryptonian intellect. There’s even the strong possibility in this hypothetical that Supergirl and Batman might have been in the same league.
Supergirl was an honorary member of the Justice League. With no Wonder Woman or Superman in the post-Crisis history of the League, Supergirl would have been a logical replacement. In Action Comics,Byrne established that Batman served in the original Justice League. It’s conceivable that post-Crisis, Batman and Supergirl would have fought side by side on the team. She might have defied the President’s order and found herself among The Legends group. Supergirl abided human law, but unlike Superman, Kara was Kryptonian first.
With Supergirl fully integrated in a post-Crisis DCU, other elements might have changed. Power Girl might have benefited. Her origin might have been streamlined to something more palatable than Arion’s-granddaughter-sent-to-the-future-with-false-memories-of-being-Superman’s-cousin. Perhaps, she would have been introduced as Kara’s clone ala’ Timm. It wouldn’t matter. Anything would have been better.
The Legion of Super-Heroes might have been more sensible. Byrne might have preferred Superman not be a Superboy, but he might have seen the benefits in the Legion recruiting Supergirl. Byrne never would have needed to create his pocket universe. A renewed youthful post-Crisis Legion simply would have been inspired by Supergirl. We might have avoided The Zero Hour as a bonus.
The ease in which DC disposed of Batgirl was at least partly due to Supergirl’s absence. DC retired Batgirl
to set her up for the kill, but if Supergirl existed, perhaps DC wouldn’t have even considered green-lighting The Killing Joke. Perhaps, they would have kept Batgirl to preserve the duality of the World’s Finest.
Supergirl and Batgirl were best friends. Babs and Kara would have been best friends in the post-Crisis as well. Given her partnership with Supergirl, Batgirl never would have thought to retire. Supergirl would have been present to talk Babs out of any funk.
Even if the events in The Killing Joke did occur, permanence wouldn’t be likely. The Powers at DC couldn’t have convincingly held such a position with a post-Crisis Supergirl ensconced in the new DCU. Supergirl would have used every means possible to help her friend. She wouldn’t even need a Purple Ray or magic. Supergirl could literally become the finest spinal surgeon overnight and arrive at insights that would take generations of humans to formulate.
What was the impact of Supergirl’s death? Her death helped forge the post-Crisis DCU. More’s the pity.
4. Barry Allen
by Jason Sacks
What we all forget is just how boring Barry was.
Before Barry Allen was killed off in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, in 1985, he had suffered a long period of precipitous decline. Long gone were the glory days of the classic era that John Broome and Carmine Infantino had created some 25 years previously, glory days of the Rogue’s Gallery, gimmicky plots (the Flash turned into a puppet!), and gorgeous artwork.
Sure, Infantino had returned to the comic in 1981 and had briefly revived the character’s flagging fortunes. But the glory of Infantino’s return had floundered on the specter of a long, slow and sad decline, eventually crashing and burning with the interminable “Trial of the Flash.”
By the time of the Crisis, Barry was an afterthought in the DC Universe, a character who was not despised as much as he was irrelevant and unimportant in comparison with his peers. The world seemed to have passed the Scarlet Speedster by – ironically the world very slowly moved away from the Fastest Man Alive.
So it took a storyline like the Crisis to remind us why Barry was important. In the hands of a master artisan like Marv Wolfman, we were able to rediscover the core of Barry Allen, the deep and essential Midwestern goodness of a man who once wore bow-ties under a crew-cut head.
Because our hero never hesitated when he found he had to sacrifice himself to save the universe. The Anti-Monitor had an anti-matter gun that would have destroyed all life in the omniverse. Only one man had the speed and emotional strength to do what needed to be done. The man was a Hero, with a capital H. And his words say it all:
I know what’s going to happen to me if I’m successful. But I have no choice. More than mylife is at stake. Everything that’s ever mattered to me… everything that’s ever been important… the lives of everyone on Earth and throughout the universe… in the present, and in the future… that’s what I’m fighting for now! But I can’t give in to the pain. Have to keep running, faster than I ever have before… Funny how your mind wanders when… when you’re so close to death you can smell it coming. Mom and dad, you can’t hear me, but I love you so much. Iris… apart for so long… together for so short a time… remember me, Iris. Remember how much I cared. Fiona… Wally… Dexter… Ralph… Sue… Hal… all the people I loved. Lord, it hurts so much. Forgive me for leaving you like I did… Understand why… Please understand why.
Seldom has a hero had a more heroic end. Seldom has a man been given such a great chance to leave the world in his finest moment, in a moment that shows him in all his greatness. In that one moment, all the dullness and drift and dreariness of the man evaporated. He became once again the great and transcendent hero. Barry Allen once again became a relevant hero.
3. Captain Marvel
by Dave Wallace
Very few deaths in comics happen for a good reason. Fewer stick for more than a couple of years. And fewer still are well-written stories that encourage readers to truly empathise with their characters, conveying the depth of emotion, the sense of tragedy and the cold feeling of injustice that accompany such a frightening and unknowable concept as death.
Jim Starlin’s The Death of Captain Marvel, published in 1982 as the first of Marvel’s imprint of original graphic novels, succeeds in all of these categories. The plot mechanics of how Mar-Vell meets his end might seem generic at first, but they turn out to be far more grounded and scary than most superhero stories, as Starlin uses Mar-Vell’s exposure to a deadly gas during a supervillain battle to give the character a life-threatening condition that we will all immediately understand: Cancer.
By applying the real-world concept of cancer to the story, Starlin makes his tale instantly relatable whilst also emphasising the inevitability of Mar-Vell’s eventual death. Whilst in most superhero comics you would expect the hero to somehow defeat the odds and overcome his illness, the finality of the condition — combined with the title of the story — make it pretty clear that this isn’t going to be about how Mar-Vell escapes death. Instead, it’s about how he begins to understand it, eventually comes to terms with it, and ultimately embraces it.
Starlin’s writing is deft enough that he never overplays the emotions of his characters, instead keeping events decidedly grounded and un-melodramatic. As more and more of the Marvel Universe’s inhabitants learn about Mar-Vell’s condition, they find themselves unable to do anything about it — except, that is, help Captain Marvel (and each other) prepare for the inevitable. In taking such an approach to the story, Starlin captures perfectly the unkind realities that will be familiar to anyone who has ever known someone who’s dying of cancer.
But it’s towards the end at the book that things get really emotional. As the many heroes of the Marvel Universe gather and pay their last respects (some violently emotional; some stoic and gracious) to Mar-Vell as he lies on his deathbed, Starlin suddenly plunges us into what initially seems to be an epic cosmic battle with Mar-Vell’s enemy, Thanos — but which quickly reveals itself to be a metaphorical exploration of the hero’s final moments.
As Mar-Vell realizes that the Thanos he is battling is no more than an illusion representing his final attempts to hold on to life — and ultimately resigns himself to meet Death, whom he realises he no longer fears — only readers with a heart of stone will find themselves without ‘something in thei
But as the final pages play out and the story draws to a close, Starlin somehow manages to inject some positivity and hopefulness into the story, reminding us that death is in the end just another part of life, and that none of us can truly know what lies beyond that final boundary.
“Is that all there is to it?” asks Captain Marvel after Death delivers her kiss. “I expected more”.
“There is more”, replies Thanos. “It awaits us. Take her hand. She will lead us on our journey. She will show us that this is not the end… only the beginning!”
Marvel has over the years teased readers with a return of Mar-Vell, but to date the company has never made the mistake of resurrecting the character and violating such a perfect ‘final story’. Perhaps they recognise that the power of The Death of Captain Marvel doesn’t come from the shock value of Mar-Vell’s death, the in-continuity consequences of his demise, or the potential for new replacements: instead, it comes from the fact that it’s a perfectly-crafted, well-judged and tenderly-written story in its own right, and one that simply doesn’t deserve any kind of postscript.
by Maxwell Yezpitelok
Okay, wise guy: so you knew he was coming back, and you knew none of the four impostors was the real one, and you thought the fight with Doomsday was long and boring, and you still think Doomsday is a lame character… But you still remember where you were when you heard Superman was dead, or at the very least what the general feeling was back then. Superman’s death appeared in every major newspaper and TV station in the world, back when it was a big deal for a comic to do that (these days, if Aquaman changes his costume they’ll do a filler article on it at the LA Times blog).
Me, I was in 3rd grade and I heard other kids talking about it in school: they said Superman was being replaced by four guys, each from a different race. I thought they were talking about a new movie – I didn’t even know they had Superman comics back then, and sometimes I think I might’ve never found out if the guy hadn’t been punched to death. When I finally got to read some Superman comics, I became convinced that each one of the four Supermen was the real deal. I didn’t care if that made no sense.
Everything seemed possible back then, at least for the general audience if not the already-jaded comic fandom. I remember seeing a guy on a public access show excitedly talking about how Batman had faked his death and gone underground to train a group of followers. Holy crap, I thought, I’m living in the future! Heroes were getting crippled, replaced, or turning evil (or all three), and meanwhile people were buying millions of copies of everything that came out, convinced they could make a fortune.
Somewhere in the mid-90’s the bubble burst and the world went back to normal, but it’s still fun to remember what it was like to live in a time when you could believe a Superman could die.
1. Gwen Stacy
by Samuel Salama Cohén
To the uncanny ’70s comics’ charm contributed many factors: fun and character-developing stories, original tales with multitude of characters playing important roles out of their own magazines, the robust development of the concepts whose seeds had been planted during the earlier decade…but the most important factor of them all was the writers’ unpredictability and easiness to come up with new and daring concepts, revolutionary ideas that may change the course of the storyline all of a sudden.
In this amazing decade (studied by Jason Sacks in his recent Top Ten Comics From the’ 70s article), an almost teenage writer named Gerry Conway was given the reigns of Peter Parker’s misfortunes (and Spider-Man’s adventures, of course). He was only 19 years old when he wrote Amazing Spider-Man #127, a story destined to change the course of the most iconic super-hero of Marvel’s stable of characters.
What he decided to do, after asking the top chiefs, is still part of Marvel’s rich history, and has remained undone by all the writers that have worked on the title until today.
Because, yes, Peter Parker had bad luck, or was almost as misunderstood in his costumed identity as his “pal” the Hulk, but at least he had a love. Yes, not just some silly crush, but one of those loves that are so strong and beautiful that is capable of overcoming any of the adversities that life could ever throw at you.
Yes. Peter had Gwen, and Gwen had Peter. They both knew their love was destined to be something important, something that could not be rushed, instead having to be carefully protected, and taken care of.
Gwen Stacy’s love story with Peter Parker personified the innocence, and was a great example of the beauty of the early seventies, where under all those “cracks!” and “booms!” and goofy super-villains, there was a layer of romanticism that in the end was at the very core of every story.
Therefore, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”, and the following issue, which would conclude the story arc and introduce a new level of depth to the Spider-Man mythos; remains Gerry Conway and Gil Kane’s (not to forget embellisher John Romita, the ultimate Spidey artist) team-up, as they conjured a magic that had hardly been seen until then, and opened the door to a new and unexplored era: a dark and gritty one, where playing super-hero proved to have lasting and dire consequences.
As it could not have been other way, the nemesis on this fateful issue was none other than Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the maniacal Green Goblin, whose fragile psyche had been slowly breaking, since after a confrontation with Spider-Man he started suffering selective amnesia that made him forget Spider-Man’s secret identity.
His vengeance, as he suddenly remembered everything (every defeat, every moment of shame which Peter Parker, as Spider-Man, had made him suffer) was instantaneous and typical of an egomaniacal assassin: taking away from Peter the thing he loved the most.
That night Gwen Stacy died over the East River was a sad one.
Beautiful, tender, happy and recently left without a father, Gwen was synonym of everything good in the Marvel Universe; and now, after her neck snapped in a freefall tragically stopped by one of Spider-Man’s webs, she was dead.
And the innocence was no more.