Death impacts us comic book readers in many ways. When done right, it can touch us deeply and create comic book moments that are recalled for years. Barry Allen's race to stop the anti-matter cannon, knowing what it will do to him if he does. Rorshack's challenge to Dr. Manhattan to go ahead and kill him. The Pre-Crisis Supergirl's murder by the Anti-Monitor. Terra's mad suicide in "The Judas Contract." And let's not forget the tragic deaths of the Waynes and the Kryptonians, both essential to the backgrounds of DC's cornerstone figures.
Even less pivotal characters can make for great comic book stories when they die. "Who Killed Myndi Mayer?" in Wonder Woman #20 is a monumental story, exploring the life of an up-til-then unlikeable character. And the deaths of two much-derided characters, Vibe and Steel, in the final issues of the old Justice League of America (#s 258-261, to be precise), allowed them to go out with more depth than they were allowed in the entire rest of the series!
BUT the concept of death in comic books has a few problems. It's over-used, it's too often "temporary" and sometimes it is mis-used by a ham-handed writer who wants to go for a "big moment" but does it all wrong.
In response to the many, many characters who have been resurrected over the years and the readers who claimed this was getting trite, DC editorial has tried to make death more permanent since the Crisis in 1985. Of course, one only has to look at the success ratio of the characters killed off in Crisis to see that most of them have come back as well. From Chemo to Starman, most of them have returned in one way or another. Nonetheless, the "rule" is that characters killed off will remain dead.
The Flash (Barry Allen) gave his life to save the entire planet, and his death was done so well that bringing him back would diminish that story. Thus, he will never come back. Period.
Aside from him…most character deaths have been for the purpose of shocking the reader, establishing the serious threat of the villain or, in the case of female characters, providing motivation for the male superhero who loves her. The heroes who have died for good reason and with a great send-off since 1985 are:
That's about it. And the last two will almost certainly be back. So, who are all the rest, and why did they die?
Shocking the reader/Establishing villainy
I'm grouping these together because they're often the same purpose.
Ice, Jericho, Blue Devil, Amazing Man, Crimson Fox (both of them), Hourman, Atom, Dr. Mid-Nite and others were all thrown on the Dramatic Moment altar. The writer needed something to shock the reader and got the okay to kill someone off.
In the penultimate issue of the "Judgment Day" arc in the Justice League titles (Justice League Task Force #14), Ice leads the Justice League's charge against the Overmaster, who incinerates her with a gesture. This is followed in Justice League International #66 with a small editorial by Ruben Diaz explaining what they hoped to achieve and why they felt justified in killing Ice: "…who she was provided us with a character whose death would have a major impact on our heroes and fans. Ask yourself, if it had been a less developed character like Maya or Amazing Man who was killed, would anyone have given a squat?" (Um, YEAH…if it had been a well-written death! By the way, I think any story that is followed by an editorial trying to justify what they did is not a successful story.) This death of a very favorite character just to provide shock did indeed have an impact on the heroes. Namely, it reduced Beatriz de Costa to being 1/2 of "Fire and Nobody" and it killed off Guy Gardner's girlfriend when he wasn't even around to react to the news. Ice had been badly treated of late, but killing her off seemed to take some of the fun out of the Justice League. Writer Mark Waid, who had been so influential in making her a great character (such as the Justice League Quarterly story in which she cured Professor Ivo's sickness), now admits that killing her off was a mistake.
So why can't she be rejuvenated, considering she was a goddess? No reason I can think of…except the editorial attempt to keep death permanent in the DCU!
Jericho of the New Titans was killed off during the "Titans Hunt" (IIRC) when he was possessed and threatened his teammates. His father, Deathstroke, sees that his son cannot be returned to normal and thus runs the boy through with his staff. Another death which occurred on the last page in order to shock the reader (although many Titans fans have told me that his character wasn't enjoyable anymore and they were glad to see him go).
The three JSA members were killed off in Zero Hour because they weren't considered the "biggies" of the JSA and were thus expendable in order to establish the threat of the villain, Extant.
The other three, Amazing Man, Blue Devil and Crimson Fox, were given to James Robinson when he requested some minor Justice League characters to kill off in Starman in order to establish the villainy of The Mist. (Blue Devil has just returned in the pages of Day of Judgment.) This one had fans screaming protestations months before the actual issue came out, as it was not only another case of death for the sake of shocking the fans but it made the characters look like fools right before they died. Crimson Fox, whose instincts make up most of her power, doesn't even notice when Mist cuts her throat. A bullet, despite the bad science involved (a bullet could not shatter glass as thick as a human body), supposedly shatters Amazing Man and Blue Devil goes into a rage and sets off the sprinkler system filled with holy water. This is supposed to make The Mist look cunning and deadly, but given the many variables involved in order to pull off this scheme it's not very believable. To add insult to injury, the worst character of all the ones given to Robinson, Ice Maiden, isn't even killed off.
Of course, the biggest case of "shock the reader/establish villainy" deaths were during Emerald Twilight. The Green Lantern Corps is maimed/killed, Sinestro is murdered, the weaponless Kilowog is murdered, and all-but-one of the Guardians of the Galaxy sacrifice their lives to stop Hal Jordan from seizing the Emerald Power and running amok. All of this is to establish how bad Hal Jordan has become.
These are the most notable deaths, I should mention. There are, no doubt, many, many others.
Killing women to make men feel bad
This category is overflowing, I'm sorry to say. Given the large male readership of superhero comics and the majority of male superhero characters, female characters are often killed in order to give the male superhero a large dose of angst. Men have a natural urge to protect their mates (whether by marriage or possessing only "significant other" status, the connection is the same). Thus, the death of such a mate provides an "I should have done more to protect her" axe which can be ground to provoke sympathy for him at any later date.
Think I'm full of it? Here's just a sampling:
There's one final category of deaths in comic books:
When people really don't like a character and have made their opinion known, it comes time to do away with them. When a character has become a pain in the butt (the post-Crisis Jason Todd) or is too offensive to an ethnic group (Vibe), the editors decide to put the readers out of their misery. Villains like the Angle Man and the Ten-Eyed Man fall into this category.
A bunch of the New Blood characters will be in this category sometime soon. We can hope.
All characters are DC Comics
This column is © 1999 by Michael Hutchison.
All artwork is © 1999 by their respective artists.