Lately, I have been thinking about the impact of death among fictional characters in general and superheroes in particular, especially after the recent events of Countdown to Infinite Crisis. Death and big comic events go together like ice cream and a warm summer day, and it’s no wonder last year’s Identity Crisis mini series started off with the heroes in the DC universe mourning yet another death. I really think creators should stop using death as a literary device or crutch. There is an unwritten law in comics which states nobody ever stays dead, with the exception of Bucky, Captain America’s war partner from the 40s. Cap himself is probably comics’ most brilliant resurrection when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought him back to join the Avengers in the 60s by saying he had been in suspended animation for years after World War II. This led to wonderful fish out of water stories as he adjusted as a “man out of his own time.”
Just like Cap’s death was far from permanent, neither was Superman’s, the first and greatest hero of them all who died in issue #75. Old Blue boy’s death was well chronicled in the media and led to a lot of speculation and to a great novel by Superman scribe Roger Stern. Comic book diehards, used to characters being bumped off regularly weren’t worried about Supes croaking, they just wondered how he was going to come back. I have to give DC props for crafting nice stories about his death and his inevitable return.
Of course, death can be used effectively and many writers have done so at opportune times with maximum impact. The most effective examples include the now legendary death of Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spiderman #121. Spidey’s blonde girlfriend was ruthlessly killed by the Green Goblin in a shocking story in the 70s which actually accentuated the danger heroes faced everyday for the first time. (What, you actually thought that scene with the Goblin and the bridge in the first Spiderman movie was the screenwriter’s original idea?) If the Goblin could kill off Gwen, nobody was safe in Spidey’s world. Not to worry, Gwen came back in the mid 90s, as a friggin’ clone! Not even frail, fragile Aunt May was safe. She died too and came back to life as well.
There have been some notable deaths which were more than the flavor of the month. Consider 1982’s excellent The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel by Jim Starlin; to my knowledge, Captain Marvel was the first superhero to die of cancer. Then there was a story penned by Peter David in Incredible Hulk #420 back in 1994 which dealt with Jim Wilson who wanted a transfusion from the Hulk’s blood so he could cure himself of AIDS. The letters page of that issue includes a poignant collection of essays from comic book creators relating how the disease affected their lives. The death of X-Men team member Jean Grey in Uncanny X-Men #137 (1980) was shocking and well written. It may have been the genesis for Chris Claremont’s masterpiece “Dark Phoenix” saga whose story is rumored to be the basis of the upcoming third X-Men movie.
In an unprecedented stunt, DC comics offered Batman readers a choice back in the late 80s. In the now classic “Death in the Family” storyline, Joker led the second Robin, Jason Todd, into an ambush, and the editors gave readers an 800 number to vote whether he lived or died. At least this time it was the fans who decided the fate of a hero, and the Boy Wonder was killed off. He recently resurfaced more than 12 years later in the pages of Batman as his nemesis “the Red Hood” and his resurrection recently boosted demand for the book.
Back in 1986, in the now classic Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi series, still considered by many the granddaddy of all mega-crossover events in comics, Supergirl and the Flash both died. Of course, they didn’t stay dead, but I guess it was ironic that the Flash was the one to die considering he may have single handedly revived the Superhero genre decades earlier.
In the 50s a psychologist by the name of Frederic Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent in which he hypothesized crime and horror comics were corrupting juveniles into committing crimes. The more things change, the more they stay the same I guess; similar arguments are being made today about video games and violence. In the end, Wertham’s tirade almost did away with comics, especially superheroes which were popular at the time. In September of 1956 under the leadership of editor Julius Schwartz, the Flash was updated with a sleek new red costume and he ushered in the return of the superhero genre (Showcase #4).
A little known character made death fun again in a limited series of his own. It was late summer in 2001. Americans were yet to suffer through the tragedy of 9/11. DC gave Dead Again #1 a cover date of October but as is common in comics, they jumped the gun so it probably came out around early August.
In the first issue of this excellent but underrated 5 issue miniseries, Steve Vance, Leonard Kirk (fresh off a stint in Supergirl) and Rick Burchett (Batman/Huntress: Cry for Blood) pay homage to Crisis On Infinite Earths Marv Wolfman and George Perez’ maxi series about the death of multiple Earths and universes. In Dead Again, Vance masterfully takes elements from Crisis to craft an original story starring Deadman, whose alias as circus trapeze artist Boston Brand is reborn after he is murdered by a thug named the hook.
In issue #1 Deadman is trying to save the Flash from dying again in the Crisis, but what he doesn’t know is that his old enemy, a powerful brujo named Darius Caldera, wants to trap Flash’s soul for his own evil purposes. I’ve always though Deadman was one of DC’s most interesting but underrated characters from back in the day. This entire series is a joy to read, if only because it retells some of the most pivotal events in DC continuity such as the death of Jason Todd in a fresh, original story. Darius Caldera is a powerful adversary and the art by Kirk and Burchett is colorful and beautiful. What’s even more intriguing is the fact the day is saved not by one of DC’s heavy hitters like Superman or Batman (though they both make appearances) but by a little known hero like Deadman who constantly acknowledges throughout the series he is a third stringer at best. Pure fun throughout as Deadman is witness to a different death each issue teleporting from each event a la Quantum Leap. I highly recommend this little known series.
So there you have it, a historical look at death in the world of comics. Buffy died and came back, and her demise was rumored to be inspired by comics. Superman died also and was resurrected, could Blue Beetle be far behind?