Alternate Cover #45 - Top 10 Deaths in Comics
Ooh, a new numbering system. How very comics of us. This week, prompted by the massive media attention garnered by the death of Captain America, this very special edition of Alternate Cover attempts to remind our readers that Cap's death isn't the only one to come out of your 4-colour favourites. In what amounts to probably the fastest article ever written on NTS, Seb and I have combined our extensive knowledge of comics and come up with the definitive list of the top ten deaths in comics, guaranteed to both educate and entertain. Now, everyone's got a favourite, so if yours is missing, if you think we've been unjust in our placing, feel free to let us know so that we can have some proper words with you after the show.
The following list contains information about the character, and the comic their death appeared in. Since comics is a fickle business, after each entry, you'll be able to read a "Did it last" entry explaining whether or not the death was undone, and the reasons for that. We've tried to judge each death on its own merits, regardless of how any writer or editor might have screwed it up after the fact. Enjoy.
10. Robin II (Jason Todd)
(Batman #428, 1988)
When it comes to failed experiments in comics history, they don't get much bigger than Jason Todd. No-one at DC seems to want to admit who thought it would be a good idea to have an annoying, whining, bratty street hoodlum as the supposed counterbalance to Batman, but by 1988 they'd had enough. He couldn't just be killed off in a normal fashion, however - oh, no. Instead, DC came up with the Death in the Family event for the Bat titles, and in an unprecedented move, set up a premium rate telephone hotline giving readers the opportunity to vote as to whether or not Jason should survive the Joker's attempt on his life (and that of his recently-found mother, meaning that yes, the title would still have - sort of - held true if he'd been spared). Many claimed that the voting was rigged, and the difference between the 10,000 voters was indeed the tiniest of narrow margins - but it mattered not, Jason was a goner. The fact that he was beaten to a bloody pulp with a crowbar by the Joker and then woke up just narrowly too late to prevent himself from being blown to smithereens by a bomb just made it even sweeter.
Did it last? For almost twenty years, we never thought we'd see the annoying little scrote come back - wasn't the whole point that everyone hated him and his death was a democratic decision? Sadly, DC didn't see it that way, and after Jeph Loeb teased us all during the Hush storyline in 2002, Jason made a full-on return in 2005, as a new version of former Joker alter-ego The Red Hood. Sadly, in his new guise as a violent, murdering vigilante anti-hero, he's just as irritating as he ever was as Robin, and we can only be thankful that the plan to have him permanently replace Dick Grayson as Nightwing was nixed...
9. Starman I (Ted Knight)
(Starman #72, 2000)
James Robinson's 1990s Starman run was a masterpiece pretty much from beginning to end; but it wasn't just the creation of an excellent new character and fine hero in Jack Knight that made it so, but also the respect and reverence that he gave to Knight's father, Ted, the original Starman. Nowhere was this more true than in the decision to give him a true hero's send-off in the book's final storyline, Grand Guignol. Sacrificing himself in truly spectacular fashion, Ted went out the way all heroes should, using his cosmic technology one last time to lift himself, a bomb-riddled building and his lifelong nemesis the Mist out into space to explode far from his beloved Opal City. It was genuinely tear-jerking stuff, but hard to feel angry about - if superheroes as noble as Ted have to be killed off, then the best we readers can hope for is to have it happen the way this one did.
Did it last? Given that Ted was an old, retired hero by the time his death came around, it's hard to see anyone ever wanting to reverse it; and DCU writers have generally been respectful of what Robinson did with Starman, so meddling is unlikely. Plus, of course, he was probably about the only writer to care enough about the character to bring him out of mothballs anyway...
8. Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell)
( Marvel Graphic Novels #1: The Death of Captain Marvel, 1982)
Mar-Vell, the original (Marvel) Captain Marvel was a Kree sentry who eventually began protecting the planet he was assigned to watch over. Gifted with the Nega-Bands and a powerful sense of cosmic awareness, Mar-Vell's powers were formidable and extensive. It came as a surprise to everyone, then, when it emerged that a battle with Nitro some months earlier had exposed him to a nerve gas which had given him a form of cancer. Mutated beyond all treatability by his powers and physiology, the cancer spread despite the attempts of virtually ever major Marvel scientist, mystic and mutant, all of whom gathered to witness his death.
What made Mar-Vell's death so great was the slow, creeping sense of dread as the futility became clear. The classic scenes come hard and fast, Mar-Vell lashing out in anger at how he's finally found something he can't beat, his deceased enemy, Thanos, meeting him at the entrance to the afterlife for one last battle, and of course, the moment where he finally succumbs to the disease. It's about as moving as mainstream superheroics gets.
Did it last? For over 20 years, yes. Mainly due to an old legal judgement concerning the use of a titke with the "Captain Marvel" name, Marvel is obliged to keep it in use, or risk losing it to their biggest competitor, DC. This means that there's always a Captain Marvel title around at some point. Occasionally, it's an "untold tales" of the original, but more usually it's a different character with the same title - Monica Rambaeu, or Carol Danvers, or most recently, Genis and Phyla-Vell, the children of the original. Until last month, when Marvel took the frankly baffling decision of bringing back Mar-Vell, a character their current fanbase largely remembers for being the most popular corpse in the Marvel Universe. The return was badly done, and side-stepped any attempt to deal with the "Death of" story by having him brought to the future from a point before he died. Brilliant death, but quite possibly the most horrendous resurrection in recent memory.
7. Kid Miracleman (Johnny Bates)
(Miracleman #15, 1988)
If there's ever been a more depressing, disturbing and downright shocking comic produced than Miracleman #15, then I don't want to know about it. Alan Moore portrays a rampage across London by the completely amoral, sociopathic and terrifyingly powerful Bates as only he could, as countless thousands of people are murdered and mutilated, while Miracleman and his band of heroes try and stop him. The battle looks lost, until Warpsmith alien Aza Chorn, with his dying breath, manages to teleport a huge girder inside Bates' natural forcefield to pierce through his midriff. The half-page splash of Bates writhing in pain is astonishingly rendered by John Totleben, as he cries out with anguish the one word that can relieve his pain - "Miracleman", the word that transforms him back into his human form. Almost blinded by the scars of battle, and knowing that he had already once made the terrible mistake of allowing the evil alternate personality to live on inside Bates, Miracleman takes the only course of action available to him - cradling the terrified, innocent child and telling him that he's finally found a way to stop Kid Miracleman getting out, he kills him. It's painful, tragic, horrific stuff - but it's also an absolutely staggering piece of work.
Did it last? It lasted for as long as Miracleman did, but since the series has (as yet) never actually made it to Neil Gaiman's planned conclusion, we didn't see Bates return. It is known, however, that the character was likely to make a comeback of some kind in the planned third (and final) chapter of Gaiman's run, The Dark Age. Until the messy rights issues are sorted out (if they ever are), however, we'll never know just how that might have panned out...
6. Edward Hyde
(The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol.2 #6, 2002)
Not to say that Alan Moore writes brilliant deaths, but if Kid Miracleman's was his most disturbing, the Hyde's was probably most affecting. The swansong of Jeckyll's brutish alter-ego - charging the Martian invaders alone in a final act of self-sacrifice we suspect even he doesn't fully understand - somehow manages to hit us deep where it hurts. Strange, really, given that he had only recently raped and murdered the Invisble Man, an amoral coward whose death elicits absolutely no concern, coming as it does, all-too late.
Still, Moore manages to bring the humanity to any character, even one driven by all of Man's negative emotions. Perhaps it's the philosophising. Perhaps it's the feelings he expresses for Mina Harker, even though he doesn't understand them. Perhaps it's simply that he finally makes good on his promise to eat one of the invaders. At the end, Hyde, even though he's all-monster, manages to show us what it's like to be a man. As he succumbs, you can't help wondering what might've been had he lived. A death of possibilities as much as of the character, and that's what elevates it above any other death on LoEG.
Did it last? So far, yes. There's plenty more LoEG to come, but further volumes are set in different time periods, and it's unlikely that a send off like that would be undone. Nothing's impossible in comics, but between Moore's complete creative control and the glacial pace with which LoEG releases come, it's fair to assume that Hyde's death is probably going to stick. Sad, really, because if any character on this list deserves a second chance at living, it's Hyde.
(Superman #75, 1993)
Probably the most famous of comic book deaths - which is hardly surprising since Superman is, of course, the most famous of superheroes. This was one of the first occasions that events inside a comic actually made international news headlines, although even then, it's hard to know if anyone really believed that he'd stay dead for long. It was the height of the speculator boom, and both DC and Marvel were in the habit of shaking things up with their major characters (Batman's Knightfall came shortly afterwards, and Spider-Man's Clone Saga wasn't far behind), relaunching titles, and having "special event" issues that they could barely print as many issues of as the speculators wanted to snap up (Superman #75 came in a sealed black bag containing the comic, a black armband and a "commemorative issue of the Daily Planet"). Many complained that Superman's death itself was cheapened by the fact that a brand new, previously unseen foe, the rampaging monster Doomsday, came along to do it - but it could, perhaps, be argued that if anyone else had been able to kill him, they'd have done so already. While it turned out to be little more than a big slugfest, however, it was well-rendered, and the climactic battle felt sufficiently epic in nature by virtue of issue #75 taking place in a series of splash pages (in fact, if you read the entire arc, the number of panels per page gradually decreases by one, creating a clever sense of "counting down" foreboding). DC also did a good job of going to town on the funeral and subsequent ramifications, and at the very least, it got people buying Superman comics again after a period of disinterest.
Did it last? Look who you're talking about. Of course it didn't. The long-term plan was never to keep Superman dead, it was to whip up interest in a character who'd been faltering in the early-90s boom of gun-toting anti-heroes. As such, the Reign of the Supermen arc brought in four "replacement" Supermen, each demonstrating a facet of the character that people claimed had been lacking (so "The Kryptonian" was a grim vigilante, the clone Superboy was young and "hip", and so on). It was silly, but it was good fun, before the "real" Superman made his triumphant return, thanks to some guff to do with a "Kryptonian birthing matrix" (and, for a bit amusement, spent a couple of issues before regaining his powers dressed in black with a mullet and carrying a gun). Still, he did spend longer dead than he spent in that ridiculous electric blue costume a few years later...
4. Phoenix (Jean Grey)
(Uncanny X-Men #137, 1980)
It's long since become a staple of the comics industry that no matter how definitive the death, no matter how total the confirmation at the time, there's always a way back for any character. After all, we're dealing with fiction. No comic has gone quite as far as having someone stepping out of the shower, but sometimes it goes almost as far. Characters die, come back, die again, ad infinitum. One character embodies this simple fact more than any other. Friends, meet Jean Grey. The only character on this list who could have her OWN Top 10 deaths list.
When the X-Men were relaunched in the 70s, Jean received the biggest overhaul. Her damsel in distress routine gave way to increasing telekinetic power, culminating with her piloting a burning space shuttle back to Earth. Following the crash, she manifested as the Phoenix, an incredibly powerful entity with a will that began to subvert her own. When the Phoenix became corrupt and destroyed a planet full of inhabited creatures, the Shi'ar hunted her down, planning an execution. Jean and Cyclops attempted a trial-by-combat for her freedom, but at the last minute Jean realised the truth about her condition and, with a final declaration of love for Scott, let herself be killed by Shi'ar weapons to prevent the Phoenix from escaping. It was true sacrifice, filled with emotion and drama, and is still widely regarded as an utterly brilliant moment.
Did it last? No. Legendarily not, in fact. Merely 5 years later, it was revealed that it wasn't Jean who died, nor was the Phoenix ever her, but in fact the Phoenix entity posing as Jean. The real Jean Grey was stored in a cocoon beneath the bay the space shuttle crashed into, and in Fantastic Four #286 she was release, alive and well. Jean has since manifested the Phoenix and died repeatedly - appropriate, given the phoenix motif - but no return was as ham-fisted as this, conceived entirely so that a new title, X-Factor, could be launched containing all five original X-Men. But who's responsible for the resurrection itself? Well, it was famously conceived by Kurt Busiek when he was still merely a comics fan. Busiek, now working at Marvel, told his old idea in passing to Avengers writer Roger Stern, who told F4 writer John Byrne, who told Editor Bob Layton, and it made it into the issue. Busiek was reportedly horrified to hear, after publication, that they had actually used it. Jean Grey is currently dead, but only a fool would bet on it staying that way for too long.
3. Captain America (Steve Rogers)
(Captain America #25, 2007)
The blood's barely even dry on this death, and yet already it's clear that this is going to go down in history as one of comics' most important fatalities. A jaded and media-savvy comics-buying public are largely skeptical of any suggestion of permanence - there have been plenty of references to a forthcoming Captain America movie in all the press, for instance - but still, the fact remains that Steve Rogers, the original, 1940s Captain America, is dead.
The ramifications of this are still largely unfolding. Massive media attention has brought the character back to the forefront of public consciousness, where previously he was mainly known for being one of the more enduring examples of the patriotic propaganda that showed up in US pop culture during World War 2. To see Captain America, the apolitical champion of America's constitution, the embodiment of the American Dream - to see him gunned down like plenty of American legends before him, while wearing the flag, and on the steps of the courthouse no less - that's enduring imagery and metaphor which can't fail to hit the right notes with anyone keeping an eye on America's cultural and political situation. That's all of us, by the way.
What you'll hear less on in the media, however, is the specific circumstances behind the murder. For a start, Cap died trying to save one of the same guards who had arrested him following his surrender at the end of Civil War. Secondly, the perpetrator was an agent of the Red Skull, Cap's oldest villain. Cap's death is a microcosm of the struggle he faced every day, and the fact he fought to the last, even after all he'd lost - that's why this is a great death.
Did it last? Well, for the two days since it happened, at least. Joe Quesada, Marvel's current Editor in Chief, and Ed Brubaker, the current writer of Cap, are both excessively cagey about the suggestion that he won't stay dead, preferring only to say words to the effect of "He is currently dead and we know where that story's going." - hardly the most definitive statements, but on the other hand, said with a certain amount of confidence that it's not going to be instantly undone - Brubaker claims to have 2 more years of the Cap title plotted, so it's fair to assume we won't be seeing Steve Rogers back in the saddle for that long at least.
2. Flash II (Barry Allen)
(Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, 1985)
Are there many better ways to go out, as a superhero, than saving the entire universe? Not really, no. You may be surprised to see this one so high, particularly as it was even overshadowed within Crisis by Supergirl's death, but looking at it as it happened, Barry's death is an absolute bona fide classic. It was the quintessential superhero sacrifice, as Barry - in the knowledge that he was the only person that could do so - used his super-speed to destroy the Anti-Monitor's doomsday cannon (and ended those "Superman vs. the Flash" debates for good, to boot). The fact that he died alone without anyone being aware of just how he'd sacrificed himself (and that extended to the readers, as well as his fellow heroes) made it all the more tragic, but this was tempered somewhat by a wonderful expansion of the myth in Secret Origins Annual #2. It transpired that he'd broken the light barrier by racing to catch the tachyon particle that would have fired the cannon, and in doing so, went back in time and became the very lightning bolt that gave him his powers in the first place, giving him the chance to keep experiencing his unique life for eternity. It may have been a bit hokey, but it was a fitting send-off for the hero whose arrival in 1956 heralded the start of the Silver Age of Comics.
Did it last? Right, you're going to have to bear with me on this one. Remember that Crisis was supposed to wipe the DC Universe's slate clean, so technically, technically, no-one should remember it happening. That's all well and good with Supergirl, because she never "existed" post-Crisis. But Barry Allen did - so there still had to be an event that people remember him dying in. So he did die in "the first Crisis" (which is remembered as having happened, but not involving the multiverse), but perhaps not quite in the same way. Confused? You're not alone. Anyway, in terms of present continuity, the circumstances surrounding his death remain muggy at best, which is perhaps why subsequent writers have (sadly) been able to ignore the "lightning bolt" aspect of it, and instead have Barry's "essence" be part of the mysterious Speed Force. His "spirit" has shown up again from time to time, most recently in Infinite Crisis, but given that his sacrifice remains about the biggest that any DC hero has made (he's been described as "the DC universe's first saint") it's unlikely that he'll show up in corporeal form again any time soon, despite the worrying implications of the Flash in the Countdown teaser image having blue eyes...
1. Gwen Stacy
(Amazing Spider-Man #121, 1973)
The Death of Gwen Stacy is, undoubtedly, one of the most important deaths ever to happen in comics. Before Gwen's death, this sort of thing simply didn't happen to Super-Heroes. Gwen's demise at the hands of Norman Osborn, the first Green Goblin, marked the end of the Silver Age of comics, and the gloves came off - Batman was now almost as insane as the Joker, The Punisher, a gun-toting vigilante, became the star of his own series, and Watchmen, Alan Moore's realistic take on Super-Heroes, set the new standard for the genre. The melodrama of the Silver Age gave way to the Grim 'n' Gritty Bronze Age, and you can trace it all back to Gwen Stacy's fatal plunge.
Of course, that proves that the decision worked out for the best, in that it became a cultural landmark, but then you can say as much about New Coke and no-one's calling that a good soft drink. What makes Gwen's death truly iconic is that even without all it means to the industry, it means so much to the character. Spider-Man is undeniably motivated by the death of his Uncle Ben. Peter puts on the mask to ensure that no-one else dies through his inaction. To have Gwen die specifically because he was Spider-Man (Osborn had discovered Peter's identity and attacked Gwen as a result) represents a true failure for the character and a burden that'll stay with him. Peter was even denied any semblance of revenge or justice when Osborn himself apparently died the following issue, impaled by his own glider. The event continues to cast a shadow over every aspect of Spider-Man, from his marriage to his crime-fighting, as something the characters - and readers - aren't going to forget in a hurry.
Did it last? Well...sort of. The legacy of the death was wide and far-reaching, and the character of Gwen is certainly dead. We've seen her soul in heaven, after all. Her clone, however... Currently, at least one clone of Gwen is alive, well, and living a normal life somewhere in the Marvel Universe. She has some but not all of the original's memories, and it's conceivable that one day a writer might get hold of this dangling thread and tie it up. Gwen's chances of a genuine return are about as slim as they get, and yet in a climate where even Captain America's teen sidekick can come back from the dead... well, never say never.
So, that's it. It's interesting to note that even though there's barely an X-Man around who hasn't died, only Phoenix managed to make the list. X-Men die. They get better. It's not even funny anymore. So, questions, comments?