By Chris Buchner
In Captain America vol. 5 #25, the star-spangled title character was gunned down by an assassin and reportedly killed. This event has had the comic community split, one half in mourning or shock over the loss of one of Marvel’s oldest characters and the other convinced that one day Cap will return. That return is part of the concept of the comic book death.
Not only limited to but mostly utilized by comics (the most famous non-comic example being television’s Dallas when Bobby Ewing was resurrected an entire season after he died), comic book death is when a character is killed off only to be resurrected again at a later time with some kind of explanation. However, that’s not to be confused with the concept of a legacy character; a different character who adopts the same identity of a dead character; a recent example being former Gotham Police Officer Renee Montoya becoming the new Question in DC’s 52.
Two of the most famous comic book deaths are Dark Phoenix/Jean Grey and Superman. When Dark Phoenix was killed, it was always intended to be permanent. Somewhere down the line the decision was changed to have Jean Grey alive and well and Phoenix a separate entity that replaced her. Much like her codename, Phoenix, Jean would be killed and resurrected multiple times. Superman, however, was always intended to return, his death just an over-hyped gimmick to boost sales.
Some common instances for a return include:
-A character who died off-panel could never truly be confirmed to be dead. Magneto during “The Collective” arc of New Avengers was supposedly killed when a helicopter he was being taken away in was destroyed. However, Marvel has made plans known of his eventual return to comics.
-A character who died on-panel found some cover, was somehow removed from the situation at the last instant, or posses an unknown ability to withstand death. In the “Death of Superman” storyline, Superman clearly dies in Lois’ arms after fighting Doomsday for several issues. His return was later explained by stating his alien physiology made it possible for him to enter a hibernation-like state. It’s also been revealed that even though he can eventually die, his normal lifespan may last for centuries.
-The character who died was either a clone or impostor. Aside from Dark Phoenix, Spider-Man’s Aunt May who died in the heralded Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #400 was revealed to be a genetically modified actress paid by Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. The real May was being held on the Osborn estate where Spidey would rescue her during the “Gathering of Five” storyline.
-Resurrection either intentionally or by accident through mystical or scientific means. During the recent "Infinite Crisis" storyline, Superboy Prime’s punches that alter reality, Jason Todd, the second Robin ruthlessly killed by the Joker (at the bequest of fans through a phone-in vote) in the story "A Death In The Family", is revived and escapes the confines of his coffin until events lead him to become the Red Hood and later a second Nightwing.
-A disruption in the time/space continuum that either brings the character into the present from the past, future or alternate reality. Marvel’s Captain Marvel contracted cancer and died in the first Marvel graphic novel The Death of Captain Marvel. A few decades later, Civil War: The Return finds Captain Marvel running the inter-dimensional super human prison as a warden, something plucking him out of the past just before his cancer started to effect him and dumping him in the present.
-They just got better. Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin, was impaled by his goblin glider when Spider-Man ducked it’s remote controlled attack in Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #122. Over 20 years later, Osborn returned to the spider titles during the “Revelations” storyline sporting a scar on his chest and reports of a new healing factor through the goblin formula, and that all his time was spent on a tropical island somewhere recuperating and plotting.
So what causes comic book death? There are many elements. One way is a writer on a particular title dislikes a character so severely, rather than write them out during their tenure they kill them off. Once that writer is replaced by another who happened to like that character, they’ll work at bringing them back somehow. Another way is a company decides to kill off one of their characters, but a large fan response causes them to reverse that decision. At times there are also continuity errors, where a writer will try to use an obscure character without realizing they’re dead. Or it’s just a big creative decision to give an old character a new lease on life.
Comic book death does more harm than good sometimes. While yes, it keeps favorite characters around, it ends up taking away all fear for them. Many readers are able to connect with the plights of the characters they spend so much time reading. Comic book death happens so often, that all fear or caring fades because they know no matter what happens their character will return one day. Sure, they’ll still be annoyed that they die and they have to wait, but in the back of their mind they’ll know. Also, whenever a character is given a send-off in a poignant and touching story, that story effectively becomes worthless leaving readers feeling cheated they expended so much emotion on it.
Comic book death can lead to interesting resurrection stories, make no doubt about that. When a creative and passable explanation is given, the return can be overlooked and appreciated. But, when used too much readers become jaded. When it comes to death in comic books, the only original direction left is to actually keep a character dead. However, so long as a deceased character has loud fans or an idea comes along to bring them back, they will find themselves revived. Good thing? Bad thing? That’s something the reader will have to decide.