Death in Comics: Featured

My oh my, when it comes to death in comics, we are a bloodthirsty bunch, aren’t we?

Scan message boards and social media before and during a big crossover event or an important single title arc. You will not doubt bear witness to those crying out for murder! “The Three Characters I Think Will Die in CRISIS ON A PLETHORA OF EARTHS.” “Who Do You Think Will Die in HIDDEN CONFLICT?” Or most dark and disconcerting, “Who I Think Should Die In MUTANTS MUTANTS EVERYWHERE!”

To be fair, though, it is not just fans. Writers, artists, and editors consistently seek to sell us the next big thing by promising death. Back when IDENTITY CRISIS came out, I can remember Brad Meltzer mentioning one anecdote over and over. In a multitude of interviews, he recalled how DC handed him a list of characters he could feel free to kill in his story.

Granted, it was a murder mystery. However, he was not the last person to relay such a tale. Time and again, the head writer on a big storyline mentions something similar. It rarely is presented as “this character’s death was necessary.” Instead it’s more like, “You’ll never believe who, or how many, they let me kill!” The deaths are rarely inciting events or climaxes; they are just there for color.

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Now, it seems like big stories and promised carnage go together like steak and eggs. It has even bled over into adaptations of comics. One of the most common complaints about the MCU is that not enough characters have been killed.

I’ve grown tired of it. It is a bizarre “cart-before-the-horse” approach to event writing. It is a dumb, simplistic way to establish stakes.

So I’m being the change I want in the world. Here’s my guide to doing death in comics right.

Death in Comics: Superman
THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN: death in comics done well. (Courtesy of DC Comics)

RULE #1: Does This Story Really Need Someone to Die?

Too often it feels like a storyline has started with the idea someone will die and then works backward from there. This is backward. Develop the story and see if a moment that needs death manifests itself.

As noted above, IDENTITY CRISIS is a murder mystery. No murder, no story. That one is a sort of a no-brainer.

A story does not have to be a murder mystery to feature a comic death, though. Looking way back to FINAL NIGHT, someone needed to restart the sun. DC also felt like it needed to redeem Hal Jordan to get out from underneath H.E.A.T.’s relentless “bring back Hal, Kyle sucks” nonsense. These two elements together led to a heroic sacrifice for Jordan. It was a convenient solution to some existing problems.

It was also an elegant and logical one. Jordan, in becoming Parallax, had become obsessed with fixing things. He started by trying to “fix” the decimated Coast City. Next came ZERO HOUR and his desire to remake the timeline “right.” Jordan sacrificing himself to reignite the sun reflected his state of mind and mission at the time AND redeemed him.

On the other hand, you have the death of Pantha in INFINITE CRISIS. Superboy Prime punches her head off because…? I mean, the reason is to show he’s formidable but, if he had just knocked her out, it would prove the same. Pantha and Superboy share no significant connection. She had not been presented as an important figure at any point during INFINITE CRISIS up until that point. She existed just to be a prop being thrown at Prime so CRISIS could have a body count.

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RULE 1A: That Said, The Reason for The Story Can Just Be the Character’s Death

If the entire point of your story is that a character will die in it, that’s ok. These stories can be cynical and cash-grabby—DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL being a notable exception—but so are lots of ways comics try to goose sales. When done right, the story revolves around the death and exists to show us the character’s demise. THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN or THE DEATH OF WOLVERINE may not have been the height of art. Still, no one can claim that either treats the character deaths as meaningless throwaway moments.

Death in Comics: Wasp and Blob
Blob eats Wasp’s flesh moments before getting eaten himself in ULTIMATUM: death in comics done poorly. (Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

RULE 2: Death in Comics Should Be Tragic

Too often, especially during events, we see the deaths of characters whom only a few fans care about. These characters have not had a solo title in years. The team they were long associated with no longer exists or has not had them as a member for years.

These are bad deaths. They mean nothing to all but a few readers. Their deaths leave the universes they are departing from fundamentally unchanged. Nothing about their deaths creates disruption or sends ripples.

It may seem paradoxical, but you should only kill characters that still have proverbial choice in them. There should be a sense of loss for not only the characters in the comics but for the readers as well. Just as in real life, where death means unfinished events and unrealized potential, so to should it be in comics.

Killing a character with nothing left that no one cares about is empty violence. Killing a character who still has vibrancy carries disappointment with it. I don’t think comics should be consistent bummer factories, of course. But if you are setting out to end a character’s life, a little bit of bummer-ness is called for.

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RULE 3: Death in Comics Should Be Rare

The more often characters die in comics, the less it means. Killing two characters in a year is bound to get you more dramatic fallout than killing two dozen. It just stands to reason. The more you utilize any storytelling trope in a short period of time, the less effective it becomes.

The same can be said within a story arc as well. A massacre, with some inevitable exceptions, is more likely to give a reader heavy eyelids than it is to get their hearts racing.

Take ULTIMATUM. Please

*pause for laughter*

But seriously folks. ULTIMATUM is a tale that literally drips with blood. Characters die by cannibalism, decapitation, natural disaster, and more. It is lurid garbage that is still so bland that I can’t say it is delighting in its own murderous excess. The effect, besides being gross, means that none of the deaths make an impact.

The aforementioned INFINITE CRISIS runs into this as well. The more bodies you pile up on a panel, the more you indicate to your readers that this is a quantity, not a quality, thing. Why should the readers care when the creators so obviously do not?

Death in Comics: Pantha plus Wildebeest and Red Star
Pantha’s (and others’) death in INFINITE CRISIS: death in comics done poorly. (Courtesy of DC Comics)

RULE 4: Death in Comics Should Have Ramifications

Comic book deaths don’t have to have two-year-long stories anticipating their return like FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND and REIGN OF THE SUPERMEN. Not every book after has to feature someone openly weeping over their teammate’s death. Some tears, however? Some anguish? If a creator doesn’t plan to dig into the death’s dramatic potential, what was the point of doing it in the first place?

When Jason Todd died, Batman grew increasingly violent and erratic. Hal Jordan’s sacrifice in FINAL NIGHT led to his redemption in the eyes of many heroes.

It can be as simple as  Wolverine reminiscing about the time he and Nightcrawler moved a piano or Mister Fantastic isolating himself in his lab after The Thing died. Or as massive as new legislation that could redefine the nature of being a costumed hero as in CIVIL WAR.

Again, death echoes in our lives in ways big and small. It only makes sense that death in comics do the same. As with some of the above examples, if the characters on the page don’t seem to care about their fallen comrades, how can we be expected to be invested in it either?

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RULE 5: Death in Comics Doesn’t Have to Be Permanent, But It Shouldn’t Be a Revolving Door Either

I don’t necessarily care that almost no one in comics stays dead. It is a feature, not a bug, of the superhero genre at this point. There is no reason to pretend otherwise.

However, even acknowledging that, the cycle of death and resurrection can be too much at times. I’m not sure I have this exactly correct, but I think that over the course of two years readers saw Cyclops die and come back twice. Honestly, it might have been more like a year-and-a-half.

I don’t have a rule for how long a character should stay dead before they return and I wouldn’t really support one. There should be some amount of time though. Bring characters back too soon, too often, or both, and you lose a large part of what makes arcs involving death useful and important storytelling tools.

Death in Comics: Captain Marvel
THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL: death in comics done well. (Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

RULE 5A: Phoenix Can Always Come Back and No One Should Be Mad At That

Her name is literally Phoenix. I know she has all kinds of mind-based powers, but, really, her mutant power is resurrection.

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RULE 6: When Reversing a Death, Take As Much, If Not More, Time Figuring Out How To Bring Them Back

The resurrections that gain favor with fans come in the midst of popular and critically acclaimed stories. Even Bucky Barnes—BUCKY BARNES!—was embraced because the arc in CAPTAIN AMERICA was interesting and well-realized. Moreover, once he was back, Marvel continued his story in a way that demonstrated it was worth bringing him back. Over at DC, Hal Jordan is a very similar tale, albeit one with a protagonist who barely went away and people never stopped missing.

On the other hand, Barry Allen’s return was greeted with plenty of resistance and his often-delayed REBIRTH series is generally considered mediocre or worse. A stroll around the internet reveals that while the FLASH book is well-regarded, many people still have not embraced Allen. Moreover, they continue to point out that many of the stories that the FLASH title has told could have easily been about Wally West with very few tweaks.

Not to pick on Cyclops again, but old Slim has experienced a similar indifference to his return. His is less a case of “why did you bring him back?” though. Instead, people are more wondering, “Why bring him back without fixing what was wrong with him before he left?” Fans did/do want Cyclops to be alive again, but they are done with Summers as the new Magneto. Readers have yet to embrace his resurrection because he’s not a character to reinvest in, from their perspective.

Death in Comics: Hal
Hal Jordan reignites the sun in FINAL NIGHT: death in comics done well. (Courtesy of DC Comics)

Rule 7: Pay Attention to the Politics

I know no one wants to hear this. “As long as it is a good story, who cares?” Well the answer is a lot of people. Plus, like or not, certain kinds of victims have ended up in the crosshairs multiple times. There’s a reason the expression “Women in Refrigerators” is a thing. There’s a reason that the black man always dying first in horror movies is a cliché. It happens so often people have noticed.

As for the idea that a good story is all that matters, well, telling the same story over and over isn’t a good story. That’s boring and repetitive.

That’s not to say women can never die in comics, or that minority characters can never be victims. It’s just that creators have to be thoughtful about it. There is no reason Black Goliath needed to be the one who died in CIVIL WAR at the cyborg clone Thor’s hands. There just isn’t. If someone needed to die to prove how dangerous the character who would eventually be called Ragnarok was, there were any number of characters who could have done so. A little-seen African American hero is a bad choice. It violates this rule and, in practice, also violates my rules #2 and 4.Thus, any dividends the death might have played were derailed by the politics of it immediately and kept off the tracks by other creators never making the death matter in the universe.

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RULE 8: Death in Comics is Not a Shortcut to Stakes

Here is an incomplete list of stakes I have cared about in various pop culture items that do not involve death. The birth of a child. A lost relationship. A new job acquired. Trying to get back documents before they get you in trouble. Finding a formula before your business rival does. Winning a competition.

All of these command attention and involve me. None of them rais the specter of death.

There is no reason the same cannot be true of superhero comics and, in fact, it has been. Think of all your favorite moments in comics. How many of them involved the threat of death? I bet several but not at all.

How many actually involved someone dying? I’d put money that very few of them did.

The fact is, especially these days, the death of a character tends to feel cheap or unearned to readers more often than not. The well has been dredged too often and the water has run rancid. A heroic save or a heartfelt moment is far more compelling.

A beloved hero or a villain we love to hate dying should be a tool in the comic book storytelling box. It should not be the only tool. If we want comics to continue to tell excellent stories, it cannot be the only tool.

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