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Death in Comic Books: Part 2

July 22, 2011

Where did this phenomenon known as “comic book death” begin? Well, whether or not there were other instances before, the first real example of comic book deaths was the Dark Phoenix Saga, the first chapter of Chris Claremont’s tour de force as X-Men scribe, which was subsequently reversed in the middle of John Byrne’s famous Fantastic Four run in time for the launch of the first volume of X-Factor. Jean Grey had become the Phoenix and later the Dark Phoenix during the aptly-titled storyline due to the full awakening of her psychic abilities and manipulation by the Hellfire Club. After she destroyed an entire star, dooming the inhabitants of the nearby solar system, Jean Grey realized what she had done and sacrificed herself to save Cyclops and the rest of the X-Men from the judgment of the Shi’ar. Years later, the Fantastic Four discovered Jean Grey, hibernating within a cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay. The Jean Grey who had sacrificed herself years before had been the Phoenix itself, a great cosmic being whose true nature would be elaborated upon by many future writers, that created a copy of Jean Grey’s body and allowed Jean to recover within the cocoon.

Chris Claremont had originally intended for Jean to die in this storyline. Her revival was a retcon invented by Kurt Busiek and later used by Byrne, Bob Layton, and Roger Stern to bring Jean back for X-Factor. However, this opened the door for similar stories to bring back other deceased characters, particularly those who had died under confusing, unclear circumstances (i.e. falling off a cliff, but the body was never found). The first major death of a character who was planned to come back shortly later by the writer of the original storyline was in the Death of Superman by Dan Jurgens. The entire saga, which explored Superman’s impact and legacy, was intended to end with Superman’s return, which it indeed did. This opened up DC’s “revolving door,” a problem which led to numerous characters, including Wonder Woman, Donna Troy, Animal Man, Green Arrow, Superboy, Ice, Kid Flash, Green Lantern, and ultimately the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, dying and subsequently returning to life. Geoff Johns played with dealing with this issue in the last major Teen Titans arc before Infinite Crisis, which saw about half of the team deal with the new Brother Blood, who had used Kid Eternity to keep the door between life and death open. Johns ultimately explained these resurrections as caused by Nekron, a being who was the sentience of the chaos and nothingness that existed in the universe before the beginning of life, trying to get a hold on this plane to return everything to darkness. Now I won’t get into the fact that the absence of life is different from death, but Johns claimed that this would put an end to DC’s revolving door, even though the event ultimately saw twelve characters revived from death at its end (though Deadman did die again by the end of Brightest Day).

Marvel has never dealt with this issue openly, and it is arguably a bigger offender than DC, particularly with the X-Men. Jean Grey, Magneto, Professor Xavier, and Apocalypse have died and come back many times, and Wolverine’s healing schtick is such that he’s probably actually died on hundreds of occasions. In concert with DC, Marvel also completely defied the old adage that nobody stays dead in comics but Uncle Ben, Jason Todd, and Bucky Barnes when Marvel revived Bucky in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run and Judd Winick revived Jason in his Batman run. Brubaker even took this one step further, killing the original Cap, Steve Rogers, and resurrecting him within two years, then allowing Matt Fraction to kill Bucky in the pages of Fear Itself within the last couple of months. The constant deaths and resurrections have caused such cynicism from the fans that few actually expect that the three biggest recent Marvel deaths, Bucky, Nightcrawler, and the Human Torch, will stick for very long, particularly since the last of those three died in an unseen, ambiguous manner typical of comic book deaths. Even the characters themselves poke fun at this practice, as many X-Men and supporting cast members openly acknowledge how few of them actually tend to stay dead.

So what does all of this actually mean for comic books? A breakdown in the believability of storylines, which I will examine in my next post.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2011 2:54 pm

    >>However, this opened the door for similar stories to bring back other deceased characters, particularly those who had died under confusing, unclear circumstances (i.e. falling off a cliff, but the body was never found).>>

    That door was already open — Marvel villains had notably been coming back from apparent death over and over again for decades. Her revival was in fact a modification of earlier such stories where the person who died turn out to not be who it appeared to be, as when Professor Xavier’s death was undone by having it turn out to be the Changeling who had died.

    • artofwar11 permalink
      July 22, 2011 11:51 pm

      A fair point. It just seems to me that Jean’s revival was the highest profile one thus far because of who she was, how it was done, and what she was being brought back from.

      As for villains, to me, that depends on the way they died. If we counted every single time the Joker fell off a cliff or what have you, it’d be even more. But I don’t entirely count those because the writers probably didn’t intend for the Joker to be dead, and that’s an all-too-common mechanic for dealing with villains. I mean more concrete deaths, like Magneto/Xorn at the end of Grant Morrison’s run or Dr. Doom’s death during Mark Waid’s run. Even ones where the tone was more serious, but the death was still ambiguous, like Johnny Storm’s just recently or, on the villain side, Apocalypse at the end of Peter Milligan’s run on X-Men (though no one took up that thread).

      You’re absolutely right about pointing all those out, though, particularly with Xavier and Changeling, so thank you for correcting me.

      And not to gush or anything (totally am going to, though), but you are one of my absolute personal favorite writers. Your run on Avengers, including Avengers Forever, is my personal standard for how to write the Avengers well. It’s an honor to have you commenting on my blog.

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