Writing my own superhero short story has got me thinking about comics again. Last time I was writing about gay superheroes. This time I’m writing about dead ones. Or, more specifically, dead-but-not-really ones.
It’s hard to think of a superhero that hasn’t died at some point. Superman, Batman, Wolverine, Captain America, the Hulk. Death comes for everyone. However if you put on spandex and rough up a thug or two, death isn’t the handicap it used to be. It doesn’t screw up your career like it used to. So it doesn’t take long for a hero to shake off death like a bad case of the flu.
Because so many heroes have died this is in no way a comprehensive list. Rather, this is a guide to the greatest deaths, both in terms of their impact and how good I thought they were.
Also: major spoiler alert!
Perhaps the best known superhero death, and certainly the first to die in such a sensationalised and well-marketed way. Faced with an unstoppable foe, Doomsday, Superman spends issues hitting it with things until they both kill each other with a simultaneous punch.
That’s right. Superman was punched to death. No kryptonite. No special scheme from Lex Luthor. Just a really good hit to the jaw.
Of course DC had no intention of leaving him dead. They did leave him in the ground for a few issues, though, which led to the far superior Funeral For A Friend storyline in which Supes’ fellow heroes and the world at large try to deal with the loss of such an icon. But Superman had to come back. In fact, the Death of Superman storyline only came about because the writers had, in fact, been planning to write the wedding between Clark Kent and Lois Lane. But Warner Bros. (which owns DC) asked them to put that on hold until their TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman reached its wedding episode too.
So because they couldn’t marry Superman, they killed him instead.
The Jason Todd iteration. Poor Jason was the unloved replacement for Dick Grayson. Comic readers never warmed to him, so he was offed by a combination of a crowbar-wielding-Joker and a public poll. Yes, bloodthirsty readers could vote on whether Jason would survive or not.
Jason stayed dead for many years and served as a motivating sense of guilt to Batman; he erected Jason’s costume in the Batcave as a reminder. When Jason reappeared out of the blue he did so as a villain, the Red Hood, resulting in a great detective story as Batman tries to learn if it really is Jason and to come to terms with the resurrection of the Robin he’d failed. Writer Judd Winick didn’t explain how Jason returned in that storyline and it was better for it.
Especially as it was later explained by Superboy punching the walls of reality.
Yeah. I know.
Before Superman woke up from his dirt nap, a number of impostors took his place including Hank Henshaw, a Cyborg Superman. This Cyborg Superman destroys Hal Jordan’s hometown of Coast City, sending him mad with grief. Jordan declares himself Parallax and kills many other Green Lanterns before sacrificing himself to save Earth.
What made Jordan’s death interesting is not that Parallax was retconned as a space parasite, but that Jordan was made into the new Spectre whilst dead. The Spectre is DC’s God-appointed spirit of vengeance, and forcing Jordan’s ghost into the role led to some great storylines about sin, vengeance, penance and redemption. It made the revolving door of death itself a story.
Perhaps the most interesting comic book death of late. Norman Osborne, Marvel villain Green Goblin, was made head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and wanted the knowledge of superhero secret identities that Iron Man held. So, to keep the knowledge from Osborne, Iron Man systematically deleted his own mind. Tony Stark ends up brain dead on life support in a hospital bed.
Except he made a back-up of his own brain.
It was a nice little spin on the I’m-dead-oh-wait-I’m-not story. It sat well within the world of Iron Man, sitting on the cusp of possible technology. And the back-up was restored to Tony’s chest unit, so he’s still technically brain dead. All of his thoughts are housed in a computer in his chest. It even controls his autonomous functions like blinking and breathing.
Perhaps the original and the ultimate. Jean Grey was/is a member of the X-Men, who was exposed to cosmic radiation that greatly amplified her powers and made her Dark Phoenix. Exhausted after a battle and a long journey, she drained the energy of a star to energise herself, killing billions on an orbiting planet. Stricken with grief and scared by her destructive impulses as Dark Phoenix, she committed suicide.
It was not originally intended that Jean Grey would die; she was meant to be depowered and placed into the X-Men’s custody. But editor Jim Shooter argued that a character who had killed billions couldn’t be let off so lightly. Although main characters were not killed as a rule, the creative team suggested Jean Grey sacrifice herself. Shooter agreed, but stated that she could not come back unless she could be absolved of her crimes somehow.
So Grey was originally a permanent death. Until Kurt Busiek suggested Dark Phoenix simply looked like Jean Grey; the real X-Man was in suspended animation under a lake.
So good they did it twice. Marvel killed off Peter Parker in the Ultimate universe, where he not only took a bullet for Captain America but then went on to defeat a monstrous Green Goblin. He has been replaced by Miles Morales, who has different powers but still goes by the name Spider-man. As “dead is dead” is supposedly the rule in the Ultimate universe, Peter hasn’t come back.
But, just months after killing him once, Marvel did it again. This time a dying Doctor Octopus does a mind swap and Peter dies in Doc Ock’s broken body. Old Doc has a change of heart, though, and suddenly decides to be a good guy after all. Peter stuck around in Doc’s subconscious for a while (don’t ask me how that works) and, though Peter’s now supposed to be gone for good, I’m pretty sure that Doc’s just keeping old Spidey’s seat warm.
It’s easy to critique the professionals, so I’ve written a superhero story of my own. It’s called The Homeless Hero and it will be out at the end of the month. If you sign up to my newsletter I’ll send you a code so you can get it for free!
Who do you think the greatest comic book death is? Leave a comment and let me know.