The comic book world was abuzz this week with the news that Damian Wayne, the fourth Robin, was going to die in the upcoming Batman Incorporated #8. I didn’t bother posting a spoiler alert because once something appears in the New York Post the cat is kind of out of the bag. What fascinates me is not that DC would decide to kill off a major character, but that the death of any comic book character rates as news at all. Arguably Robin is a very well-known character (even though it isn’t the Robin everyone knows) so I can understand the interest when a newspaper has the headline “Robin to die in Batman Comics” or something similar. But really, how can comic book web sites even be thinking that this is news anymore?
Death in comic books has become such an over-used plot device that it is now devoid of any meaning. Almost every major character has been “killed” at one point or another. While useful in that the character is removed from the public eye, the non-permanent nature of death in comic books happens with such laughable regularity that further strain is added to our suspension of disbelief.
I don’t even need to work hard to come up with a list of undead superheroes. Over the past two decades more characters that have died and come back to life than I can easily remember. Here’s off the top of my head:
Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Robin, Hal Jordan, Sinestro, Barry Allen, Dr. Octopus, Captain America, Thanos, Green Goblin, Sabretooth, Professor X, Colossus, Johnny Storm, Electra, Mysterio, Green Arrow, Galactus, Adam Warlock, Thor, et cetera, et cetera.
Obviously death is used far too often for it to have an impact. Now I am okay conceptually with a reader not being too worried about characters dying. After all there are many aspects of stories which we as an audience take for granted. We don’t think Bond is going to die, for example. We know he is going to win so we are just trying to see how it happens. So as readers we can look at comic book deaths and not be too worried; we know the characters will come back. But the characters should be concerned. Sooner or later it is going to be hard for the characters themselves to care. When Thor dies for the umpteenth time won’t the rest of the Avengers just wait for a couple of months instead of cleaning out his room in the Mansion?
In our world it isn’t really believable that a man can fly, or shoot lasers out of his eyes, or grow to a 7 foot giant made up of gamma-irradiated muscle mass, but in the Marvel Universe these are regular, normal occurrences so we can believe them. The characters aren’t amazed that someone can fly so we don’t need to be and can use our suspension of disbelief to enjoy the action that drives the tale. But part of what makes a hero a hero is that death is a real possibility in their line of work. They have been granted powers beyond that of normal people and so risk their lives to use their gifts for good. A noble sentiment that is somewhat tarnished if a character knows that they’ll just come back in 8 months to help sales.
I’m being facetious of course. Only She-Hulk and Deadpool would know that they are comic book characters (I hope that joke plays to the crowd) but my original point stands: comic book deaths and the inevitable return happen so often that logically even the characters themselves would find it hard to care.
Recent buzz has also mentioned that Marvel is going to kill off Wolverine as part of the fall out from the Age of Ultron story. Really? Really Marvel? We are supposed to believe that you are going to kill off one of your most popular characters, and at a time when he has a movie coming out? The thought of this being a permanent change for Earth 616 is absurd and I can’t believe that any comic book fan would take it seriously.
So if we can’t take deaths seriously and they lose dramatic impact the draw has to be how the character dies and not simply that a death occurs. There needs to be a recognition that death is not a fixed state but rather one in constant flux. And comic book characters should not be too concerned with dying because they know that eventually they come back after being shot through time, or fighting through hell, or having a bath in a pit of rejuvenating goo. Death is full of possibilities.
I haven’t read my issue of Batman Inc. #8 so I can’t comment on that side of the story… yet.
But death in comics doesn’t bother me. Some deaths have shocked me, like Hawkeye’s death in Avengers Disassembled or Recondo’s death before G.I. Joe before the IDW reboot. But then there’s that anticipation of the eventual return of that character. If done well, it can be great.
I have the belief, that in comics anything can happen. I mainly read super hero stories, so it’s not that far of a stretch to believe that stories that involve gods and super human, it can be possible for someone to come back from the grave.
I’d heard that Marvel had a rule that only 2 characters couldn’t come back from the dead. One was Bucky, the other Uncle Ben. Ed Brubaker did an amazing job, bringing Bucky back to life. Not only did he create the great Winter Soldier character, but Buck made a pretty damn good Captain America too.
Imagine if Uncle Ben came back to life too. How “mind-blowing” would that be? Uncle Ben walks in to see May married to Jay. It would be epic. And don’t say it isn’t possible. Peter is dead right now and he has talked to his Uncle Ben. So if Peter can come back, there has to be a way for Uncle Ben to come back (… and possibly be killed again?)
I’m really glad you wrote this article, because this issue bothers me…a lot.
Ink: Alter Egos Exposed did a great episode on the issue of death in comics. My only criticism (and something I found telling) was that none of the writers/creators mentioned the impact of death has to the reader on a whole. That is, if a super hero can die and come back from death, then where’s the drama? Why should I bother reading? What situation will my Hero get in that he can’t possibly get out of? (The answer is none) Mr. Campbell, I disagree with your statement that, ‘anything can happen’. The problem is that, in super hero comics, everything DOES happen. It’s a problem and it breeds cynicism like a bad yeast infection.
I took a break from comics in ’06 for two reasons, one was the price difference between US and CAN comics when our dollar was above parity, second was when Spiderman revealed his identity to the world. I want to say I hated it but I didn’t. I just didn’t care. I knew it wasn’t going to last. The ‘HOW’ and the ‘WHY’ have lost meaning in comics. Ironically it seems the only suspense left in super hero comics is asking, ‘How long is so and so going to stay dead? How long is this ‘dramatic’ change going to last?’ (in all fairness Spiderman’s known identity lasted longer than I thought it would…) and is that really what you want from your audience?
Ultimately the audience wants to suspend their disbelief. All fiction does it and it’s so much fun when it’s memorable, (seriously, when was the last time that you heard anyone say ‘the AT-AT attack on Hoth was so ridiculous’. I’m willing to bet you haven’t, but when you think about it, the opening battle in Empire Strikes Back fails on so many levels – but it’s still fun to watch and it’s one of my favourite film scenes). But for obvious reasons, death is the only constant in every other medium that’s rarely crossed. Can you imagine if at the end of Return of the Jedi Obi Wan comes back, with no explaination at all, and stops the Emperor? How about if Malcolm avenges his death by killing Macbeth himself instead of Macduff battling him in the final act. There’s a reason why you rarely see it in other mediums…IT’S F%#KING STUPID. Granted, horror villains do make a return from the dead, but in most cases there’s a supernatural explaination – and when there isn’t, a la Friday the 13th part 6, it’s eye rollingly bad (can anyone remember how Jason comes back in that one? And the rare occasion that a protagonist returns from the dead, i.e. Gandalf, it’s often a ‘my work here is not done’ tone, again, it can be attributed as a supernatural explaination), but even in the case of supernatural ressurections, it really isn’t that much of a stretch. Most people know of, or have a belief system that allows them to understand the concept of, ‘there’s more going on here than meets the eye’, and can look past those rare times when death and ressurection occurs in other mediums, but in comics, it’s just cheap and lazy. The tone is simply, ‘we need to drive sales’ and it’s obvious.
It’s gotten so bad that even D-list characters are killed and brought back. I still have no idea how Alpha Flight were brought back, but hey, there they are! Even characters that were killed off nicely aren’t sacred. I don’t care what anyone says, Kraven is not alive.
I love the idea of Super Heroes as mythology. I love imagining them as Greek Gods and Heroes, but even Achillies had a weakness (it was his heel…spoiler) and when people died, they stayed dead. Coming back from the dead was incomprehensible. It was a feat accomplished by only the greatest of beings. The problem with comparing them to mythology is that in most cultures, the mortality of immortal gods was never really called into question – off the top of my head, Herakles is the only immortal protagonist I can think of whose exploits were followed. Stories about Zeus, and Hera, and Hermes, and Aries, and Hades and etc. were about how they meddled in mortal affairs, not ‘don’t step in that puddle Zeus, you may get electrocuted’. The ancients knew they were immortal, the gods had nothing to fear. The drama created when stories were told about the gods were usually related to power struggles, which is still relevant today. And although the theme of power struggles exist in comics, the threat of death is always looming for the protagonist…why? They’re all pretty much immortal.
It’s almost gotten to the point where keeping Uncle Ben dead seems silly in the grand scheme of the comic universe, and that’s not a good thing. Can Marvel and DC create a story that even they can’t write themselves out of? I’m thinking, no.
Good article. Thanks for writing it.
Anyone know who the first Super Hero who was killed and brought back to life was? Captain America doesn’t count. I believe Alfred was killed in the ’50’s, but I wouldn’t count him a Super Hero.
^ I think you mean, “if DUNCAN comes back and avenges…” Malcolm of course is his eldest son, and he never dies in the play.
Anyway…the analogy to Shakespeare or movies isn’t perfect, because no other medium or genre (that I can think of) has quite the same serial nature as comics…except maybe soap operas. Macbeth plays for about 2 hours and is done. TV shows run for maybe 7 or 8 years, if they’re fairly successful. But some of the most popular comic characters have been around for almost 80 years, over which time HUNDREDS of creators may work on a title, all with different and perhaps conflicting ideas about who should live or die.
So I don’t see any solution to the problem of superheroes who are “deathless” (or “meaningful-deathless”). As corporate-owned entities whose stories span decades and, in a few cases, have generated billions of dollars, these guys are never going to stay dead.
The odd member of the supporting cast may “stay dead” (e.g. Gwen Stacy), but then again…just because Gerry Conway killed her off in 1973, what’s to stop some current or future Spidey writer, someone who wasn’t born then — who maybe isn’t even born yet — from saying, “Naw, I’d prefer that she be alive”. Oh wait, they did that with the Green Goblin. And Aunt May. And about 5,000 other characters.
Unless they get one guy to write a character forever — and make him promise to *never change his mind* — then “dead” characters are always going to be coming back. It’s just sad that it happens so often, because (A) death becomes trivial or even meaningless, and (B) it seems more and more like lazy, unimaginative storytelling on the part of the creators.
I actually meant Banquo, but regardless, the point I was making was that you don’t see resurrection in other mediums because its absurd. Now it’s funny that you brought up serialization because it made me think of soap operas. Do modern soap operas resurrect characters anymore? I don’t watch them so I don’t know. But let me ask you this Thor, does the fact that it’s even possible that a writer can bring back Gwen Stacy okay with you? I heard that apparently there’s a rule that Gwen Stacy and Uncle Ben can never be resurrected, but you know what, I don’t buy it. Not in the slightest. If there’s a buck that can be made I’m sure they’ve, at minimum, thought about doing it. Everything else has been done, would it really matter if they did this? In the grand scheme of things, it seems silly that they haven’t been resurrected. Just about everyone else has…
That’s in a nutshell what my point was. Marvel/DC paint themselves in a corner, and then give the finger to the readers when they need to get out of it. But its not just that, it’s the inevitable lack of suspense this ultimately creates for all story lines. Again, I’ll admit that I am cynical, but I sometimes believe that Marvel has a plan B\backout plan for every significant decision they make. When they planned to reveal Parker’s identity I’m sure they had an idea about backing out of it in case it didn’t go over well. I have no proof, but that’s where resurrection has taken me, and I don’t like it. Comics should be fun, not frustrating.
*on a side note, personslly I think that’s the real reason why Walking Dead is so popular. It’s so much fun reading about characters and genuinely not know what’s going to happen to them. That seems to be the one praise people give whenever I meet a fan. And go figure, the entire comic is about resurrection. How ironic.
Yeah, I’ve heard the legend of such a rule too (Bucky, Gwen, Uncle Ben, or some combination of the three “cannot be resurrected”). But I think you’re right; that “rule” actually illustrates my point: because…WHO made the rule? WHEN? Marvel has had at least a half dozen editors-in-chief since Gwen was killed. I don’t think anyone in charge there now really feels they need to follow the policies set down, say, by Jim Shooter. There probably isn’t a single employee of Marvel now who worked there in Stan Lee’s “Bullpen” days. I forget how many times the company has been sold since Martin Goodman got rid of it (come to think of which, that was right around the time Gwen was killed, wasn’t it? Give or take a couple years). So even if such a rule exists, what’s to say it couldn’t be reversed or just plain ignored by a new boss?
So far though, rule or not, most writers seem to have realized that those three dead supporting characters contribute fundamentally to who and what Spidey and Cap are now, so it would be UTTERLY STUPID to try to bring them back to life, no matter how clever a magical / sci-fi / time-travel scenario could be concocted. But I don’t think it “could never” happen just because it’d be a stupid idea. The screenwriters of Spider-Man 3 DIDN’T realize that the burglar Peter allows to escape MUST BE the guy who kills Uncle Ben. If they can do something that idiotic, I’d put nothing past them.
Thanks for the feedback Nelson. The rule was that the only people who stay dead were “Bucky, Uncle Ben, or Jason Todd”. I think that some of this discussion points to the fact that stories really aren’t meant to go on for 80 years with nothing changing. People lament reboots but at least it creates a new starting point.
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