Greetings from the Odinson,
Since the very beginning, death has played a huge role in the world of comic books. In Action Comics #1, planet Krypton exploded, annihilating an entire race of superior beings. In Detective Comics #27, a young boy’s parents are murdered, sending him on a lifelong crusade for justice. When a teenager by the name of Peter Parker had just acquired his awesome spider-powers in the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15, he learned a harsh lesson about power and responsibility when his beloved uncle was gunned down by a burglar he could have stopped only hours before. For years, after his reawakening in modern times in Avengers #4, Captain America was haunted by the demise of his friend and wartime partner, Bucky Barnes.
When a hero or supporting cast member would meet an untimely end in the pages of your favorite book, it used to mean something. It used to have a real impact. However, death in comic books in recent years has lost all shock value. Every other month now it seems this character or that character is dying. And not for one minute does anyone think that that character is not going to return at some point. I suppose that is the way it has always been.
Some of the most shocking deaths are the ones that really resonate and stick with the reader for years after they happen. In Death of a Prince, Aquaman’s infant son dies because of the nefarious actions of his arch enemy Black Manta. That’s pretty heavy material to digest. Other than Batman’s parents and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, has any other death in the history of comics had such an impact on the pathos of the character’s story as the Death of Gwen Stacy? The hero actually fails to save the life of the woman he loves… Now that’s a tough pill to swallow.
The two most heroic deaths I’ve ever read were deaths of Jean Grey and Barry Allen. In The Dark Phoenix Saga, the cosmic power of the Phoenix threatens to consume the universe. So in order to save everyone and everything, Jean Grey is compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice. Then, in the pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, the Flash sacrifices everything to save planet Earth from certain destruction at the hands of the evil Anti-Monitor. That is what a hero does. He or she will make the ultimate sacrifice if it means a better and brighter tomorrow.
One of the most shocking and terrifying deaths in comics came from one of my most beloved comic book series - Rom. The “villain” named Torpedo (villain is in quotes because the guy’s back story is complicated, to say the least) burst onto the scene in the pages of Daredevil (1964-1998 1st Series) #126-127. But after his demise, former pro football star Brock Jones donned the Torpedo battlesuit and became a super hero. At first he clashed with the Spaceknight protector of Earth but Torpedo and Rom quickly became allies and friends (see Rom #21-22). Torpedo became a resident of Clairton, the small town that served as Rom’s home for most of his stay on Earth, and Brock Jones became one of my favorite supporting cast members of the series. So it should come as no surprise that I was utterly shocked when he met his end in Rom #50. Not only was the ambush that led to Torpedo’s death devastatingly sudden and violent, but it also served notice to the Marvel Universe and the reader that these new versions of the alien Dire Wraiths were going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Another shocking comic book death to my young Odinson senses came in the pages of Alpha Flight (1983-1994 1st Series) #23. The mighty Sasquatch had become possessed by a demonic force and turned on his teammates. In order to save the members of Alpha Flight, Snowbird rips the heart of her inflicted teammate from his chest. Whoa! My eleven-year-old eyes couldn’t believe what they just saw. I had always liked Sasquatch from reading about him in the pages of Uncanny X-Men (1963-2011 1st Series) #121, Marvel Two-in-One Annual #7 and Incredible Hulk (1962-1999 1st series) #272. So to see his untimely demise was startling, especially only one year after Guardian’s own untimely demise in Alpha Flight (1983-1994 1st Series) #12.
Supergirl giving up the ghost in Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 was pretty jarring as well, but nothing could have prepared the world for The Death of Superman. In the pages of Superman #75, the Man of Steel must sacrifice his life to save the world from an unstoppable force of nature known as Doomsday. This single issue captivated the world at large like no comic book death before it, or after (The Death of Captain America came close but more on that in a moment). The media and even people who don’t read comics were pulled in by this event. This monumental occasion yielded positive and negative results. The Positive: The fact that so many people cared, whether they were longtime comic fans or your average citizen, showed just how beloved Superman is and just how imbedded into the pop culture he has become. The Negative: This is the moment in comics history (up until that moment the most significant comic book death) that made death in comic books lose its shock value.
In the nearly twenty years since The Death of Superman, just about every major character has met with an untimely demise. Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, and even Captain America have all given up the ghost. I’m not even going to try and list them all, but this short list of icons doesn’t even include all the other heroes, villains, and supporting cast members that have met their maker since the Man of Tomorrow checked out back in 1993. They’ve all died, and guess what, they’ve all come back. And for those that haven’t, just wait.
Death has become so cheap in the realm of comic books it’s as if the afterlife has a revolving door. And it is this very revolving door concept that has made death in comic books not be as substantial as it used to be. Not for one second, no matter how shocking, (believe me, the death of Steve Rogers was shocking), does anyone believe that the dead character won’t return. Hawkman has died so many times over the years I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he has a vacation home in the Elysium Fields. We saw the Return of Jean Grey only to once again witness her demise in the pages of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. Jason Todd was killed by the Joker in Death in the Family, but recent events have seen him return to the DCU as the anti-hero Red Hood. The ultimate resurrection came in the form of Bucky Barnes coming back to first haunt Captain America as the Winter Soldier, but then succeed his friend as the New Captain America, only to…eh, maybe you should check out Fear Itself #3 if you haven’t already.
The whole point to this article was the recent release of Ultimate Spider-Man #160. This issue, like Superman #75, was released polybagged and across the top of this bag reads “The Death of Spider-Man.” Within the pages of this issue a character meets his end. I was reading an article on line about this issue and the article was preceded by a “Spoiler Alert.” I thought to myself, why is a “spoiler alert” needed when the title of the book is “The Death of Spider-Man.”
A colleague of mine here at Lone Star Comics remarked it isn’t surprising that someone dies in the issue, a real surprise would be if someone did not die. I found that rather funny, and that is what set me off on my rant about death in comic books, especially when it comes to the “Ultimate Universe.” It seems that this pocket dimension only exist so that creative teams can get your favorite characters to say and do shocking things and kill each other in the most grisly and shocking ways possible (the Blob chowing down on the Wasp in Ultimatum was a little much).
If a character is going to be killed off only to be brought back a few years later then what was the point? The destruction of Krypton, the tragedies that befell Bruce Wayne’s parents and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben are poignant deaths in the history of comics that have weight and are in no small part responsible for shaping three men into the greatest comic book super heroes of all time. These deaths mean something and there is nothing cheap or trivial about them. Death is a serious subject matter and it should never be just a punch line to a story or a sales grab. It should mean something and carry with it the weight of finality. The Death of Captain Marvel is a beautiful tribute to a hero dying of cancer. The Death of Gwen Stacy is a tragedy that haunts a good man to this very day.
Maybe I’m just being naive, maybe I’m just a jaded comic fan that has seen so many comic book “deaths” over the years that they don’t shock and surprise me anymore. Maybe that’s why I am so looking forward to the big DCU reboot this fall. The New DCU is about beginnings and not endings. There is a place for death in comics, but maybe I’m just not impressed with the way it’s been handled lately.
This is Odinson bidding thee farewell