Comic book death
In the comic book fan community, the apparent death and subsequent return of a long-running character is often called a comic-book death. While death is a serious subject, a comic-book death is generally not taken seriously and is rarely permanent or meaningful. Commenting on the impact and role of comic book character deaths, writer Geoff Johns said:
Death in superhero comics is cyclical in its nature, and that's for a lot of reasons, whether they are story reasons, copyright reasons, or fan reasons.
A common expression regarding comic book death was once "The only people who stay dead in comics are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben," referring to the seminal importance of those characters' deaths to Captain America, Batman, and Spider-Man respectively. However, after the former two were brought back in 2005, the phrase was changed to only recognize Uncle Ben.
Some comic book writers have killed off characters to gather publicity or to create dramatic tension. In other instances, a writer kills off a character for whom he/she did not particularly care, but upon their leaving the title, another writer who liked this character brings them back. More often, however, the publishing house intends to permanently kill off a long-running character, but fan pressure or creative decisions push the company to resurrect the character. Still other characters remain permanently dead, but are replaced by characters who assume their personas (such as Wally West taking over for Barry Allen as The Flash), so the death does not cause a genuine break in character continuity. At other times, a character dies and stays dead simply because his or her story is over.
The term "comic book death" is usually not applied to characters such as DC's Solomon Grundy and Resurrection Man or Marvel's Mr. Immortal, who have the ability to come back to life as an established character trait or power; rather it is usually applied when one would normally expect death to be permanent but the character is later resurrected through a plot device not previously established.
The majority of comic-book deaths are due to premature deaths such as being killed in action. The so-called floating timeline of the major comic book universes generally precludes the death of most characters from age-related causes. This holds true even for supporting non-superhero characters such as Aunt May who is consistently depicted at being of an advanced age and has had at least two comic book "deaths" in the course of the Spider-Man comics run.
Although several comic-book deaths are well-known, the two best-known are the 1980 "death" of Jean Grey in Marvel's Dark Phoenix Saga and that of Superman in DC's highly publicized 1993 Death of Superman storyline. There is one major distinction between the two, however—whereas it was never intended that Superman's death be permanent, and that he would return to life at the conclusion of the story, Jean's passing was intended to be permanent, as the editor Jim Shooter felt that would be the only satisfactory outcome given that she had committed mass murder. Despite this, the story was retconned a few years later to facilitate Jean's return.
In more recent history, the death of Captain America made real-world headlines in early 2007 when he met his apparent end, but Steve Rogers returned in Captain America: Reborn in late 2009. Also, the death of the Flash (Barry Allen) shocked readers, as he is considered the start of the Silver Age, but he would remain dead from 1985 until 2008. The deaths of the Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) and Ultimate Spider-Man have also shocked audiences, as have several others.
In DC Comics' Batman: RIP storyline, Batman was apparently killed. It was revealed that he had survived, only for him to disappear into the timestream in the Final Crisis storyline. Dick Grayson took on the mantle of Batman, and Batman came back to the present in the "Return of Bruce Wayne" storyline, published about a year and a half after "Final Crisis".
Because death in comics is so often temporary, readers rarely take the death of a character seriously—when someone dies, the reader feels very little sense of loss, and simply left wondering how long it will be before they return to life. This, in turn, has led to a common piece of comic shop wisdom: "No one stays dead except Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben" referring to Captain America's sidekick (retconned dead since 1964), Batman's second Robin (dead since 1988), and Spider-Man's uncle (dead since 1962), respectively. This long-held tenet was finally broken in 2005, when Jason Todd returned to life and Bucky Barnes was reported to have survived the accident that seemingly killed him, remaining in the shadows for decades. Ironically, Barnes apparently died again in 2011 after a short tenure as Captain America, only to be revived by Nick Fury's Infinity Formula.
Comic book characters themselves have often made comments about the frequency of resurrections, notably Charles Xavier who commented "in mutant heaven there are no pearly gates, but instead revolving doors.". Also, when Siryn was made aware of her father's death, she refused to mourn him, giddily claiming that since her father has died as an X-Man, he was likely going to be soon resurrected, shocking her friends.
Comic book deaths have been parodied by Peter Milligan in X-Statix, in which all the characters had died by the end of the series. In X-Statix Presents Dead Girl, it is further parodied. A group of dead villains want to return to life claiming "it happens all the time". Dr. Strange says that a character will be "promoted" to life if enough people want her alive.
In Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men #6, Emma Frost states that "Jean Grey is dead" only to have Agent Brand respond with a sarcastic "Yeah, that'll last". Similarly, in the Endangered Species series, Dark Beast says on being told that Jean and Nate Grey are dead, "Well, yes, but with that family, I've found it's best to get frequent updates. Exactly how dead, at this moment in time?"
In Captain America: Reborn #2, Norman Osborn is surprised to discover that the new Captain America is the presumably dead Bucky, and says "But then, we all die once or twice, right?" Osborn himself had died in the late 70s, but was shown in flashback after his reappearance in the 90s to have returned to life shortly thereafter and spent the next twenty years worth of real time (which was depicted as being only about five years within the Spider-Man titles due to the floating timeline used by many superhero comics) moving behind the scenes in an attempt to avenge himself on Peter Parker.
In Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., two of the characters are talking about the X-Men member Magik. One of them comments that she is dead and the other replies "Like that matters. X-Men come back more than Jesus."
Comic book death has been also parodied by Mr. Immortal of the Great Lakes Avengers, a mutant whose power is to resurrect from the dead. Consequently, he is killed and revived in almost all appearances. The concept was further parodied by Dan Slott's 2005 GLA miniseries, in which one member dies in every issue.
The Simpsons also parodied comic book deaths in the episode "Radioactive Man" in which Milhouse mentions an issue of Radioactive Man in which the eponymous character and his sidekick Fallout Boy die on every page.
The animated special, Robot Chicken DC Comics Special 2: Villains in Paradise, parodied this in the segment, Comic Book Deaths, where Batman, attending the Green Arrow's funeral, complains about constant deaths and rebirths and states that every superhero gathered at the funeral has, at some point, died and been resurrected. By the end of the story, even Green Arrow is present among the gathered superheroes.
Outside comic books
The return of a character previously thought dead is certainly not limited to comic books. An early and famous example is the return of Sherlock Holmes after his supposed demise in his battle with Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Final Problem. A later literary example is the apparent assassination of James Bond at the end of Ian Fleming's From Russia With Love; Bond's survival was left unclear in the book, but the assassination was shown to fail in the film version.
Daytime and prime-time soap operas are notorious for comic book deaths; famously, an entire season of Dallas was retconned into one character's dream so that a character who had been dead throughout that season could return.
In the manga/anime Dragon Ball, the main character Son Goku is killed off without the possibility of being revived by the Dragon Balls, only to have a Kaioshin give his life to him seven years later. Though, in Dragon Ball most of the characters that were killed (Son Gohan, Piccolo, Vegeta, etc.) were revived in the same arc they died in or the next (Yamcha being killed in the Saiyan arc then revived after the final battle in the Freeza arc and The Earth's population (killed in Majin Buu Arc) and indirectly Vegeta (sacrifices himself in the Majin Buu Arc) revived in the same arc).
The death of Buffy Summers at the end of season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was followed by her resurrection by a magical ritual at the start of season 6. The character has also been clinically dead, but revived, on two occasions.
Numerous characters in Doctor Who have reappeared after their apparent death; most notably, Rory Williams was sucked into a "crack" in space and his entire history was negated, he was then replicated as an Auton with Rory's memory, spent 1908 years guarding the Pandorica, then was recreated as human again as part of the destruction and recreation of the universe.
The television show Supernatural has an incredible knack for bringing back dead characters, especially the main trio. Aside from Dean Winchester's iconic season 3 death, and season 4 resurrection, perhaps the most notable example of this is the angel Castiel's death at the beginning of season 7, and resurrection as an amnesiac in a later episode because of fanbase demand.
Optimus Prime first died in The Transformers: The Movie, which bridged the second and third seasons of the Generation One cartoon series, only to be returned to something resembling life early on in the third season as a kind of 'robotic zombie' by the Quintessons in the third season episode Dark Awakening, and was resurrected fully in the two part season 3 finale The Return of Optimus Prime. Rebroadcasts of both the film and Dark Awakening made specific mention of the fact that Prime would be resurrected. Prime has since then died and been resurrected in virtually every incarnation of Transformers.
Godzilla has officially resurrected from death (or something approximating it) twice. The first was in Godzilla 1985, in which the creature appears to die from exposure to Cadmium, though one scientist in the film claims Godzilla is not dead, but suffering from a near-death state due to the shock of cadmium being used to quell the radioactive energy that powers him, only to revive when struck by lightning. The second time appears in the 1993 film Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, released in the United States as Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II featuring a re-imagining of the Mechagodzilla character, in which the Japanese construct a robotic double of Godzilla and destroy a secondary brain within Godzilla's body which appears to bring about Godzilla's demise, only for the Heisei era version of Rodan to sacrifice its own life to restore Godzilla's life and further evolve the creature's powers.
A common way to reformulate the death of a character is to create a retcon stating that the death scene did take place as seen, but something else took place as well, preventing the character from actually dying. Usually it is a severe near-death injury or situation (for example, an explosion), from which the character is saved (off-panel, detailed in the subsequent retcon) by his powers[N 1] or skills, by good luck, or by the help of someone else. The death scene may also be a character's deliberate plot that simulates his own death or that of someone else for a certain purpose. In these cases, the death scene may have been staged, or it may have been an illusion of some kind. In other cases, the events took place as originally depicted, but instead of dying the character may be revealed to have been in a coma. This premise is often misused for injuries and illnesses that do not involve head trauma, the primary trigger for coma. Additionally, coma is often misrepresented as allowing a character to instantly resume their lives without the lengthy recovery time needed in reality (although the powers of the individual in question may help their recovery). Variations on this theme include suspended animation and cryogenic suspension, both of which are also used with varying degrees of scientific implausibility, and other types of metamorphosis created for the fictional universe. In more extreme examples, the consciousness of the character may be transferred to another body, human or otherwise.
Another way, in line with the mentioned one, is when a character dies but it is later revealed that it wasn't the real character who died, but someone else posing as him, such as a clone, impostor or shape-shifter.[N 2] However, once comic book death became a standard, the trick was also used in another way: a character dies and returns, but the impostor ends up becoming the returned character, meaning that the original one remained dead all the time.[N 3]
Other characters experience real deaths, but some cosmic or magical being makes them resurrect, either intentionally or unintentionally. Those kinds of resurrection may be intended to be either permanent or last only for a single story involving such a being. In those last cases the character may be resurrected as a zombie (for example: the Blackest Night arc in DC Comics, or the Necrosha arc in Marvel Comics) or harmed in some other way. Such beings may also have access to some afterlife where the soul of the character fled after dying (such as fictional variations of Heaven or Hell), and have some limited interaction with the character even while keeping him dead. Time travel,[N 4] reality manipulation or other narrative tricks may also be used to undo big changes in the fictional universe (such as the death of characters) by setting them out of continuity and restoring things to a previous point.
A less controversial solution is to make a dead character remain dead, and have a similar one assume his super-hero or super-villain identity and replace him as a successor. Sometimes this even leads to the creation of complete successive timelines of people assuming the role, such as Wally West assuming the role of the Flash after the death of Barry Allen (who was later resurrected).
The death of characters may also be circumvented by editorial means beyond storyline. Rebooted timelines or recreations of characters in a different fictional universe may introduce dead characters as new, as they belong to the publishing house all the time regardless of their fictional status. Other specific stories may be conceived as not being canon from the start, so that the writers have creative freedom to kill major characters or perform radical changes as they see fit for the narrative, with such changes taking place only in that work and not in the main fictional universe. It can also happen that a writer uses a dead character by mistake, out of ignorance that the character was dead. In this case, the use of that character would become a continuity error until a proper explanation to fix it is given.
- IGN Geoff Johns: Inside Blackest Night
- James R. Fleming, Review of Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, Winter 2006.
- Captain America, RIP, para. 5, Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2007
- Brian Cronin (March 29, 2007). "Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed # 96". Comic Book Resources.
- "The Dark Phoenix Tapes", Phoenix: The Untold Story #1 (April 1984)
- Ginocchio, Mark. "10 Amazing Storylines Derailed by Editorial Politics". What Culture. Retrieved 13 May 2014.
- Fear Itself #3
- Fear Itself #7.1
- X-Factor #70
- X-Factor #7
- Dallas: Return to Camelot (1) - TV.com
- "Spock dies — but wait! He'll be back!". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press. 1982-06-03. pp. 1D. Retrieved May 3, 2011.
- The Green Goblin killed himself by accident shortly after killing Gwen Stacy. He returned during the Clone saga, where it was stated that his powers allowed him to heal
- Mockingbird was killed by Mephisto at the West Coast Avengers title, but the Secret Invasion storyline returned the character, stating that the dead Mockingbird was a skrull posing as her.
- Gwen Stacy returned a pair of years after her death, but it was later revealed that the returned Gwen was actually a clone of the original, created by the Jackal
- Charles Xavier was killed by Legion in the past, which started the Age of Apocalypse storyline. At the end of it Bishop returns to the past and prevents the death of Xavier, which restored continuity.