To Kill or Not to Kill?
Comic book death is not just a trope, it is a running joke among fans. Characters get killed in one issue only to be resurrected two issues later or when sales go down. Worse, next year, expect more deaths and resurrections.
Nobody stays dead in comics. Nobody.
Once upon a time (the 1990s) comic book fans joked only three people stay dead in comics: Bucky Barnes, the Jason Todd Robin, and Uncle Ben. The joke is on us now. Both Bucky and Jason are back, and it seems a matter of when until Uncle Ben returns.
Should comic book authors kill characters? Should they stop killing them, especially if it is not permanent? In fact, should death in comics be permanent?
When I wrote my top ten list of things comic book fans hate about the comic industry, I almost included comic book deaths. I did not since it sort of has become acceptable, with fans understanding ‘death today, alive tomorrow’ was the norm.
Still, death loses meaning when it gets retconned.
As a fan, I hate it. Either let dead characters stay dead or bring them back once (just once) if you must and let them stay dead if they die again. Otherwise, there is no drama.
Moreover, fans have become numb to the whole “buy this issue, a major character will be killed” hype to the point it is not the sure seller it was. We can only suspend disbelief so much and be fooled so many times.
Even worse, the more the writers fool us, the more we lose interest and trust as readers.
In fairness, the comic book industry has many problems, and killing off major characters is not among the main ones. Still, it remains a contentious issue.
Fans are emotionally invested with certain characters (more to lifetime collectors) and killing them off is like killing a beloved friend.
Can the comic book death trope be fixed?
To Stay or Not Stay Dead?
There are diverse opinions on this matter and, to reinforce how bipolar we comic book fans are, I will agree with both sides. Contradiction? Hear me out.
Some characters are meant to stay dead because their deaths were character-defining and further the plot. For instance, Gwen Stacy and Uncle Ben‘s deaths defined Spiderman‘s grief and motivation to be a superhero.
Similarly, without Jor-El and Lara‘s deaths, there is no Superman. Likewise with Thomas and Martha Wayne‘s. If Batman’s parents were alive, there would be no Batman.
Conversely, plotwise, there is no sense in resurrecting the original Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel, one of the most powerful alien heroes in the Marvel Universe, dying of cancer was a defining moment. Moreover, it showed not even superheroes are immune to cancer.
Hence resurrecting Captain Marvel would cheapen his death.
I personally hated when Barry Allen was resurrected because his sacrifice in the original Crisis in Infinite Earths to defeat the Anti-Monitor was one of the best moments ever in comic book history. Wally West taking the mantle from his uncle and becoming the first superhero sidekick in succeeding his mentor was also groundbreaking.
Therefore resurrecting Barry was a bad idea. Especially since the fans accepted Wally as the new Flash.
What about Jason Todd and Bucky Barnes? Neither character was popular, to begin with. The fans infamously voted (by calling a phone line) to kill the second Robin.
However, notice both characters took on new identities and become anti-heroes. The fans hated Jason and Bucky because they were never interesting characters. Jason too much of a brat and Bucky too bland.
Yet, as Red Hood and Winter Soldier not only were they better characters, they also became a thorn on their respective mentors but also a reminder of their biggest failures.
And how come everyone returns back from a violent death without trauma or PTSD? Comic book logic sucks.
What to Do About Comic Book Deaths?
Is the comic book death trope going away? Are fans tired of it? No, and, it is complicated.
As long as there are sales to be made and headlines that conduct to sales, comic book deaths are not going away. Comic book writer Geoff Johns called them cyclical. The problem with cyclical is that it becomes predictable and predictable storytelling is boring.
Is the real problem comic book deaths or the frequency of them? Done once it is interesting. Twice it is derivative and barely tolerable. After the tenth time death loses meaning. There is no shock value.
How many times is Marvel going to kill Jean Grey or Professor X only to resurrect them?
Granted, when it is done correctly, the death of a character raises the stakes, changes the status quo, and generates interest.
Indeed, the story turns more epic. Except resurrecting the character, particularly too soon takes away from those benefits.
I am not arguing against not killing characters, especially when it is relevant to the story. Instead, I am advocating to make it permanent, or at least, make it last a while. Will fans love Jason Todd and Bucky Barnes’s new identities if they would have resurrected them too soon?
Red Hood showed up 17 years after Robin’s death in Death in the Family (1988) and Winter Soldier showed up 60 years after Bucky’s death. Enough time to miss both of them.
Sometimes having a new character take over a fallen hero’s identity is not a bad thing.
The new Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes), the new Invisible Kid (Jacques Foccart), the Tim Drake Robin, and the new Spiderman (Miles Morales) were not only popular but allowed DC and Marvel to cast minorities as the heroes.
Likewise, the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern and the Wally West Flash were so incredibly popular, there was no need to resurrect Hal and Barry.
In effect, new heroes trying to live up to a character’s legacy is such an interesting plot, I am surprised it is not used more often.
Personally, I do not believe in resurrecting characters once they are dead is cheap. If they must do it, why not bring the same character but from a parallel universe and with a different personality? Maybe make them evil, or different.
With so many epic comic book deaths like Elektra, Karen Page (note: never date Daredevil), the original deaths of Marvel Girl and Robin II, the death of Captain America, etc., we should let dead characters rest in peace.
However, if they ever bring the original Captain Marvel back from the dead, I am out. His death by cancer remains to this date the best comic book death ever. Please, let him stay dead. Besides, Carol Danvers is carrying the name now and not doing such a bad job.
Reader, what is your favorite comic book death ever? Which character should remain dead? Which character would you like them to bring back?