Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

Death in Comic Books

kent grave stones

Emma Frost: Jean Grey is dead.

Agent Brand: Yeah that’ll last.

Astonishing X-Men: 6 by Joss Whedon

I was running errands while listening to NPR in my car yesterday and there was this guy being interviewed, what he was saying was that deaths in movies where having less effect on people than back in the old days. He added this was a general trend but it was especially true in comic book/super hero movies. He said the reason was that it was less emotional was there’s now so many ‘fake out deaths’ where the audience is led to believe someone died and they are back in action a few scenes later. That got me thinking.

Now anytime you discuss death scenes in movies you are going to be discussing spoilers. So just be forewarned. He gave an example of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in Thor: Dark World, who goes down in battle, scored by hyper dramatic music only to return in the last reel disguised as his adopted father Odin. Or Agent Phil Culson whose death brings the Avengers together, but he gets to be resurrected in his own TV show. And just how many times did Nick Fury fake his death in Winter Solider? Another good example is in the new Trek movie where Kirk stays dead for like five minutes.

And to a degree he’s got a point. When a main charterer gets shot halfway through a movie and I still think he or she has some screen time left, I begin going…Wait for it…wait for it…Wait for it.Then finally the character gasps, shoots up and reveals they were wearing a bullet proof vest the whole time. Compare this with death scenes like Sargent Elias’ in Platoon, after he is left by his men to be killed by the Vietcong, or when Roy Batty ran out of time in Blade Runner, or even the scene that caused thousands of childhood nightmares, the death of Bambi’s mother. It’s easy to see the guys point, these death is temporary scenes defiantly don’t have the emotional impact of those classic scenes.

srg elais

OK, maybe this was a bit overwrought, but it was emotional.

There may be a valid point in the fact this is more prevalent in comic book movies. “Comic book death’ is the trope name for a story where someone dies and then eventually comes back. Twenty years ago it was not uncommon to hear in a comic book store the following conventional wisdom. “The only people who stay dead in comics, are  Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben,” now however out of these three iconic characters only Peter Parker’s uncle stayed dead. There have been a few ‘real’ deaths in the four color universe, and these have more impact because the characters stayed dead. Bruce Wayne’s parents, set the whole Bat Man story in motion. Spider Man accidentally killed his girlfriend Gwen Stacy when he tried to save her is part of Peter Parker’s psyche. And the scene where Rorschach yells at Doctor Manhattan “Do it!” Before the near godly super makes him explode still gives me shivers.


The epitome of comic book deaths took place in 1992, with the death of Superman. Killed by Doomsday Superman was able to stop the behemoth, but he was fatally wounded and died in the arms of his long time love Louis Lane. Even mainstream news agencies ran the news of Clark Kent’s death at the hands of the alien Juggernaut. In my local comic book store they had to limit the sale of that issue, in black Mylar bags, to ten per person. I don’t think anyone believed that a cash cow like supes would stay dead. This would open the door for even more diseased DC characters to return to earth.

death of superman

RIP Superman

This trope is occasionally played with, like Nick Spencer gleefully does this in his Morning Glories. It has characters reappearing after their death. (Your guess is as good as mine as to how this happens but I think it has to do with pull characters form other dimensional timelines) In one story arch a character gets so mad upon hearing that his father wrote him out of his will, he stabs his old man to death. Only to have the door open and another version of his father walks in and helps him dispose of his own body. As far as I am concerned that is how you keep a trope fresh and new.

abe and ike

You call this covering up my death, i will show you how to over my death up!

A cool twist was also done in Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country. Though a comic book this one is grounded in the real world of espionage and not superheroes so when a character dies they die. The last few story arcs deal with a major character being killed off in a raid against a terrorist base. Also in the middle of the series a major character suddenly dies in his sleep. He was a healthy ex-solider, so the team suspects fowl play bust there is no evidence and he was on a routine surveillance mission. The reader’ never finds out how he died because the characters never do. Both his team and the readers are left with the devastating knowledge an otherwise healthy man, who had survived many combat missions just stopped living for no apparent reason.


It’s dangerous being a spy.

Death is often used in many origin stories. Thomas and Martha Wayne, Drax the Destroyer’s family, Uncle Ben, and even Bambi’s mom, stir the protagonist to a quest for super fueled justice. What Bambi, with his super jumps and oversized antlers, isn’t a superhero? This is even mocked in Mike Millar’s Kick Ass, when Dave’s mother dies because of a cerebral hemorrhage rather than an act of violence. Characters who are only used in origin stories almost never come back other than in flash backs and occasional alternative dimensional romps.

Death is defiantly a legitimate subject for a story, comic book or otherwise. And coming back from death can be too, but the fact remains that it is just over used in comic books, and this trend seems to have bled into comic book movies and other movies too. Part of it is because we go to movies as well as read comic books to escape from the depressing aspects of real life. In reality we don’t have heroes in spandex to save us from our troubles. We willingly put away part of pour disbelief to immerse us in a superheroes world, our reward is a fantastic setting were death as well as evil can be overcome. But has triumphing over the grave been so played out that not only is it cliché on screen death has become blasé?

TV shows are a bit different. When I was a child and I would wig out because I thought that my favorite charterer on a TV show would get bumped off my parents would calmly explain “They don’t kill off main characters.” Well I couldn’t say that with complete certainty to my children. Not only is killing off a protagonist a ratings boost it is often a  jump the shark moment, it also happens when an actor is leaving TV for a career in the silver screen. With the rise of ensemble shows from Law and Order, Trek, NCIS et al, it is just a conclusion that by season five one or more of the original cast members is going to be killed off.

This can be done for shock value or to move the plot along. Tommy Meryln’s death at the end of season one of Arrow, inspired Oliver’s choice to go from killer vigilante to hero, as well as Laurel’s drug and drinking problem. Now I have only seen halfway through season two so if he comes back from the dead like his father, then I think it may undermined the drama that his death caused. Also Agents of Shield, used the whole, “Uh…Didn’t Coulson die in the Avengers” thing to its advantage. Where Clark Gregg’s character wasn’t even aware he had been killed and brought back by alien super science.

But back to the revolving door death in comic book movies, is it going to last? Probably not. Here is why. Just like a TV series actors in franchise movies move on. You can go the James Bond, or Bat Man route and get another actor, or you can retire or kill off the character and try to move on with another.

It has been recently announced that Captain America III, will be Civil War. In the comic books Cap was killed by a sniper (he did get better) at the end of Civil War. The shield was picked up by Bucky Barnes, the ex-Winter Solider. Chris Evans who plays Steve Rogers, has a contract for three more films, Sebastian Stan, who plays Bucky has a contract for six. It doesn’t take a math genius to guess, that just like in the comics, Bucky or maybe Falcon, will take up the shield. But would audiences still watch the franchise after Steve Rogers’ demise?


Is this the future of Marvel U, captain America?

Also when thinking about the future fatality of existing line up of Marvel Universe characters, remember who is charge here. Joss Whedon is the most prolific mass murder of fictional charterers in our era, look at all the beloved characters he has killed off, Wash, Shepard Book, Tara, Joyce Summers, Jonathan, Jenny Calendar, Doyle, Winifred ‘Fred” Berkle, Wesley, Cordelia Chase, Kendra even Buffy and Spike (though they did come back) He is like the killer DM who gets off on killing player’s characters. Since this trend continued in the movie Serenity, I suspect that it won’t stop with the Marvel U.

So is this a good thing? It is more to the point a thing. It like death is real thing. Thorough in no way am I saying that the death or non-death of comic book characters is on the level of real human being, Artist will use death as a metaphor, such as Anne Rice writing Interview with a Vampire to seal with the death of her daughter, swimmer in Jaws being embodied in small island politics. But just as writers will imbue death with their own feelings, and concerns, audiences will continue to react when their emotional buttons are pushed only time will say how it affects us as a people.


32 comments on “Death in Comic Books

  1. robbinsrealm
    October 30, 2014

    Very Interesting choice for a blog.

  2. aaforringer
    October 30, 2014

    I think one of the stronger indications that a character will not come back from Death is if they are seen as a parental figure, Uncle Ben, Shepard Book and Joyce Summers leap to mind as how this rule applies.

    Because in the scheme of things that is how life is supposed to be, a child, if nature runs its course, should bury their parents, sad, but true.

    • davekheath
      October 30, 2014

      Very good point, Often the mentor figure dies when he or she is no longer needed.

      Though Gandalf comes back, and I think the LotR is better for that one.

  3. Reenie
    October 31, 2014

    Whedon always makes it VERY clear that it was Kevin Feige who orchestrated Coulson’s death, not him. Apparently when it was handed down to him, he said, “I can’t do it again, they’re going to hate me.”

    Also, Whedon’s body count is positively adorable when held up next to George R.R. Martin…but he’s a special case.

    • aaforringer
      October 31, 2014

      I can forgive Joss for a lot of things, but I still hold it against him for killing Wash.

      • Reenie
        October 31, 2014

        Fred and Cordie are the unforgivables for me.

      • davekheath
        October 31, 2014

        Yeah those hurt.

  4. aaforringer
    October 31, 2014

    Yeah but he cheated with both of them; Cordy came back and wrapped things up heck she set things back on course, and a little bit of Fred was still around.

    • davekheath
      October 31, 2014

      Doyle was the hard one because the actor died too later on.

  5. Loki
    October 31, 2014

    Nice post! I think this is a natural issue as franchises become more and more omni-present and you need popular characters to stick around for later films. Not really anything to be done about it — and in my opinion, when someone actually does kill someone for keeps, it should be all the more shocking to the audience, which could end up being a positive thing. Because this is really just a smaller segment of a much bigger issue — people being increasingly sophisticated consumers of stories, and being able to intuitively predict and expect plot moves and twists in a way the average movie-goer wouldn’t fifty years ago. As long as we don’t have some world-wide cataclysm that puts us back to the days of oral story telling, that trend is only getting stronger, and surprising the consumer will get harder and harder. With death scenes (real and fake both) as with anything else.

    Just one tiny observation — Rogers won’t die in “Civil War”, ’cause as you say, Evans has three films left on his contract. Avengers 2 + Cap 3 = 2 films. So he might very well die and hand the costume off to Bucky (likely) or the Falcon (less likely), and it might very well be a result of events in “Civil War”, but it’ll not actually happen until part 1 of “Avengers: Infinity Wars” — if you go by his contract.

    This is assuming he doesn’t appear in “Ant-Man” in a major part, the only MCU film coming between Avengers 2 and Cap 3, but I think that’s a fairly safe bet.

    • davekheath
      November 16, 2014

      Sorry I replied to this but it got lost in cyberspace. And you are exactly right. Barring they buy out Evan’s contract. I think that Civil War will be what leads to his death.

  6. rmcarlysle
    October 31, 2014

    Thhis really was a very thought-provoking post ~ thank you!

  7. J.Gi Federizo
    November 3, 2014

    It’s like when a major character dies, I want to yawn. “Ho-hummm…Next, please.”

  8. gypsypritzeh
    November 10, 2014

    I think George R. Martin may have Joss Wheedon beat on the killing off of beloved fictional characters.

    • davekheath
      November 11, 2014

      That may be true. I am the only geek I know that doesn’t watch GoT’s not due to lack of interest just lack of time. Come to think of it Martian’s Superheor effort Wild card had a pretty high body count.

      • gypsypritzeh
        November 11, 2014

        I’ve read the books and the show does a surprising good job of staying true to them. In fact, sometimes the show is better. Like G.R.M. realizes in hindsight that certainly scenes would have played out better if THIS happened or THAT was said. Too late for the books but he can make it happen in the show. As for the killing, hes consistent. Unlike Walking Dead where the characters develope differently on screen than in the comics (oh excuse me, graphic novels) and producers kill them off or allow them to continue living according to their popularity. In fact they all admitted that none wanted to be responsible for killing off Darryl. There would be death threats. And the show might not survive as a whole.

      • Loki
        November 11, 2014

        I cannot comment on the Walking Dead since I’ve yet to find the time for neither comics nor TV adaptation there, but I agree that the GoT show does an admirable job of staying close to the novels overall. Digression from the main topic here ahead, I’m going off on a tangent:

        They’ve of course made a couple of changes that bother me (when the changes mess with the logic of the plot) and some omissions I think are too bad, but on the flip side they’ve also introduced new material that I find improve on things. Ironically, I find I often like the show better when it diverges a bit more from the books, as it has in the last two seasons. The bad changes and omissions stick less out like sore thumbs that way, and they have more freedom to make the new takes on things work in their own right.

        I wonder how I’d like the show if I didn’t automatically compare it to some of my favourite books of all time, though. I like “Game of Thrones” quite a lot as it is, but there is a certain level of intensity missing that puts it far away from truly numbering among my favourite TV shows. Perhaps if I’d not been reading and re-reading the books for years, I’d be more taken in by the TV version. Now I’m constantly stuck going either “yes! That was just as awesome in the books” or “sigh. That was good, but not as good as it could have been if they’d done like so and so” whenever the scenes aren’t completely made up from scratch. Which, I guess, again explains why I prefer the show now in the later seasons where it diverges a lot from the books rather than get it aaaalmost right. If it’s 75% true to the books, I’m pleased at it honouring the core stuff and excited about the new 25%. If it’s 95% true to the books, I just end up feeling annoyed at how much better it could have been if they made it 100% instead.

      • davekheath
        November 11, 2014

        Very rarely do I find a visual media that lives up to the original print media.

    • Loki
      November 11, 2014

      Actually, most TV shows with any amount of grit or realism do these days. Whedon’s never killed off all that many (I suppose it might have been considered many for network TV ~15 years ago, but not by today’s standards), he’s mainly famous for killing characters because he’s so good at making it hurt when he does. Quality over quantity, so to speak.

      Martin’s pretty great at that, too, though, and he has the quality going as well. You usually care when someone dies in those books.

      • davekheath
        November 11, 2014

        Then there was Rodebberry and his Red Shirts but they weren’t main characters.

      • Loki
        November 11, 2014

        Indeed. That’s actually a decent point: It’s probably not the volume of TV deaths that is increasing over the past 20-30 years, but rather the volume of TV deaths that make an impression on the audience and/or concern central characters. Roddenberry killed off redshirts, Whedon killed off sidekicks, and “Game of Thrones” kills of the main stars.

  9. Loki
    November 11, 2014

    Urgh, I just saw how that read. I meant “actually a decent point” because you seemed like you were joking but were still making solid sense, not because I was trying to be passive-aggressive. The point was excellent.

    • davekheath
      November 11, 2014

      LOL no problem I knew exactly what you meant. When I was 8 or so Star Trek freaked me out. It was a combination of the death of Red Shirts, who some how I would get emotionally connected with and the music.

      My parents would always tell me that they wouldn’t kill off the main charterer and that would calm me down. I figured I would use that in my bag of tricks as a parent. I did once and it worked. The next week some show (I forgot which one) had an add that said next week we will kill off one of these people, and ran the main cast members pictures, so I decided never to say that to my children again.

      • Loki
        November 11, 2014

        Huh. That’s an awful ad to run, though. Takes the entire excitement factor out of it and just turns it into a predictable stunt. It’ll be, what, five minutes into an episode like that before you know exactly who’s going to end up dead. :\

      • davekheath
        November 11, 2014

        I consider it a “Jump the shark” move.

      • Loki
        November 11, 2014

        Not a phrase I usually approve of, but it’s undeniably fitting there, yup.

  10. Very Bangled
    January 23, 2015

    It’s interesting that you bring up Arrow because when Tommy died I literally said to outloud myself “Nah, he’s not dead.” This is not a spoiler, by the way, it’s just a reflection on how accustomed I am to seeing a character “die” but not really die.

    • davekheath
      January 24, 2015

      Exactly and when they do die for real it is WHAM!

      • Very Bangled
        January 24, 2015

        I was thinking about Joss Whedon more and he does both kill off main characters and resurrect the ones he killed off. He kind of straddles a line. But he doesn’t make any deaths easy, and nobody suffers more for them than his characters and us.

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