When the Dead Don’t Stay Dead in Comics

captainamerica-deadMarch 7th, 2007. A date that will live in comics infamy. The day that America lost its heart and soul. Captain America, after surrendering at the end of the superhero Civil War, walked up the steps of a New York Courthouse and was gunned down in a massive conspiracy orchestrated by his original nemesis, the Red Skull.

It made national mainstream news. The death of a comic book hero was covered by everyone from Yahoo’s front page to the Daily Show and from ABC News to CNN. For a moment in time, a nation mourned the death of a fictional character. Eventually, people got back to their everyday lives.

Many quickly forgot as they brushed off the death of a fictional character. Others took longer to recover because an ideal, the embodiment of their nation, a symbol they had looked up to for as long as they could remember, was gone. What might have made it easier for them was the cliche’ that characters don’t really stay dead in comics.

With a few exceptions (Most likely because the deaths have been so recent), this holds true. Two of the best examples of this are DC’s death of Superman and Marvel’s death of Jean Grey. The former made national news in the 1990’s and had everyone catching the collector’s bug and clamoring for the comic. Issues which priced at $1.25 were bought in by the caseload only to be resold for $50 to $100 an issue.

Batman_Death_In_The_Family_TPB_coverSpecial editions were made with a bleeding red Superman symbol on a black shrink wrap bag containing buttons, newspaper clippings, stamps, cards and a memorial armband. In the end, he was brought back as all devout fans expected. Yet within a year, new “supermen” were reappearing in the DC world which would ultimately lead to Clark Kent’s return as the Man of Steel.

This resurrection ended up leading to various other DC resurrections including Hal Jordon, Donna Troy and the Green Arrow. Marvel’s Jean Grey has made herself infamous by being killed, or thought to have been killed, so many times. Between her original “death”, the trial and death of Jean Grey during the “Dark Phoenix” Saga, and her most recent death during Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men, she has earned her place as one of the dying-est characters in comics.

Though still currently dead, there was a close call with Matt Fraction’s current run of Uncanny X-Men as Cyclop’s ex-wife Madelyne Prior almost completed a plot to resurrect herself in to Jean’s body. Still, no one really believes Jean Grey can stay dead for too long. During Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men, Cyclops tells Agent Brand of S.W.O.R.D. that “Jean Grey is dead.” Brand’s retort? “Yeah. That’ll last.”

And it’s not just Jean who has earned this reputation as shown in Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. where one of the characters comments on the thought dead “New Mutant” Magik, “So what? The X-Men come back to life more than Jesus.” This was proved to be true as Magik has returned to the world of the living.

For a time, one important piece of comics canon was the phrase: “No one in comics stays dead except for Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” So far, this rule has been broken by two of the three as both Bucky and Jason Todd have returned to their respective worlds. Bucky was apparently not killed in the explosion that had been thought to have ended both his and the original Captain America’s lives at the end of World War II.

In fact, Bucky now wears Captain America’s mantle as he attempts to fill the role that Steve Rogers left to him. Jason Todd was actually killed by the Joker in the “Death in the Family” story arc. However, six months later, Jason was resurrected as a result of Superboy-Prime altering their reality. Most recently, Jason had apparently fallen to his death at the end of the “Battle for the Cowl” in a fight with Dick Grayson as he attempted to take on the role of Batman for himself.

The only one not brought back fully is Uncle Ben of Spider-Man fame, though there was a close call when an Uncle Ben was seen in the pages of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. In the end, though, it was revealed to be an Uncle Ben from an alternate reality. With all these characters coming back from the dead, should we be surprised that Steve Rogers is coming back? No. It comes down to simple business.

Flash_Rebirth_VariantIn 2011, Marvel is going to launch a Captain America movie franchise. If people enjoy the movie enough to make them want to purchase a Captain America comic book only to find that Bucky was under the mask and not Steve, it’d be confusing and would probably lead to fewer sales to new readers. The same can be said about DC. Will Bruce Wayne stay dead? Almost certainly not. What happens when the next iteration of the Batman movie series comes out and a new reader opens up a comic and finds Dick Grayson, a character never mentioned in the new franchise, is Batman?

The big question here is if death in comics still has a purpose or if it just doesn’t mean anything anymore. Like most subjective questions, it all comes down to execution. If the death was done well and made you more emotionally invested in the character, it had its desired effect and has meaning. It got buzz and made people notice that something important had happened. When this doesn’t happen, the problem often comes from how and when the resurrection takes place.

The biggest complaint since the return of Steve Rogers was announced is the short time, just over two years, between his death and resurrection. No one complained about the return of the Flash after 23 years following one of the most noble deaths a hero could have. They didn’t revolt over his death being in vain. If anything, people have clamored for Geoff John’s tale to bring the silver age hero back.

But as seen in the past, if the right creative team tackles this story, it can be done right. Some people forget that Ed Brubaker was the one who brought Bucky Barnes, one of the three untouchable deaths, back to life. Fourty-five issues later in the series, no one is hung up on Bucky being brought back.

If anything, people are looking for Bucky to remain Captain America longer. Hopefully, Brubaker is able to accomplish the same result with the return of Steve Rogers as Captain America when the comic hits store shelves in July.

  • armbanden
    August 5, 2013 at 9:58 pm

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