Given the shocking ending of a couple of the more talked about comics of recent days, I thought I’d write up a short article looking at the evolution of “Comic Book Death”. There will obviously be spoilers. Most of the aforementioned spoilers are quite old and quite well-known, but there are the issues that inspired this post. If you aren’t confident which books I’m referring to, you probably don’t know about it (nice job avoiding spoilers though). I think most everyone knows what I’m talking about, but just in case, I’ll keep everything under the cut.

This post was originally part of my Superior Spider-Man #1 review, but I decided that it was long enough to warrant a separate post. With Spiderman’s death a headline in newspapers and all over the internet, I felt that it might be helpful to look at how comics have handled the deaths of significant characters and the desire to resurrect them. And as this article will end, it begins with Spiderman…

In 1973, the Green Goblin kidnapped Spiderman’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. Readers had seen this countless times, Superman was practically defined in the public consciousness by his frequent rescues of Lois Lane, his love interest. But this story ended very differently. Not even satisfied to have one of Spidey’s rogues do the unthinkable, writer Gerry Conway  strongly implied that it was Peter himself who snapped Stacy’s neck, in an attempt to catch her after the Goblin knocked her off the George Washington Bridge. This moment, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, is considered by many to be the beginning of the Bronze Age of Comic Books. Though Bronze Age books were drastically more likely to feature significant deaths than their Silver Age predecessors, the next highlight I want to mention is the event that probably ended the Bronze Age, the Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Feeling that their continuity had grown too wild and needed a trim, DC Comics launched Crisis in 1985 and let it run through most of their books for the entire year. The gargantuan event brought a close to the history of the then current Earth-One continuity as well as setting up a near-complete reboot of the publisher’s books. Though it is generally looked back on favorably, Crisis remains famous as more than a clever way to initiate some editorial house cleaning largely because of two famous moments, both deaths. The first is the death of Supergirl, still endlessly parodied on covers today. The other, and for our purposes the more important one, was the heroic sacrifice of the first hero of the Silver Age, Barry Allen, the Flash.

Because DC didn’t want to completely start over, partially because of high-selling titles like the New Teen Titans, DC’s best defense against Marvel’s X-Men books, they had to move forward from there without Barry Allen and, as a result, Wally West, the former Kid Flash, came out of retirement to carry on the cause of his mentor, becoming a fan favorite character and, with Nightwing, solidifying the transition into the next era of comic books.

This era is not definitively named. Many consider it to be the Modern Age of Comics, but as we move further and further away the desire to refer to the present as the Modern Age tests this. Others consider it the Dark Age of Comics defined by gritty reimaginings of many heroes in stories like Knightfall and books like X-Force. Given the difficulty of defining what era we’re in now effectively and the increasing likelihood that we have moved on from that one, I think I side with those who consider Crisis the beginning of the Iron Age of Comics, and it’s one such Iron Age story that is of paramount importance to this discussion: The Death of Superman.

In 1993, issues between DC’s editors and the creators of the Lois and Clark television series led the publisher to kill Superman. The event drew media attention and stores were swarmed by people seeking to have at least one copy of the famous black-bagged issue, many just looking to sell it later. While things like this and the launch of Jim Lee’s X-Men eventually lead to the bursting of the comics bubble, no one can deny the impact it had.

The problem was that he was coming back. You can see it in the language we use to discuss it; even though DC has tried to frame it as a trilogy of The Death and Return of Superman, that return part is not mentioned half so often as the death. People felt cheated when Kal-El awoke from his restorative coma months later (though many were just worried about the value of their polybagged ‘investments’). The massive sales lead other characters to be removed from the spotlight, only to return (including Batman, Green Lantern, Spiderman, and Wolverine). At the same time, comic book deaths increased, frequently to the dismay of fans and frequently to be undone (also to the dismay of many fans). It wasn’t enough to show a hero in an unwinnable situation on the cover anymore. The new questions were will they die and for how long. The mid 2000s even saw two of the ‘trinity’ of untouchable dead comic book characters, Jason Todd and Bucky, return from the dead, leaving fans to wonder when Uncle Ben would return.

The whole situation came to a head in late 2008, when Grant Morrison released Final Crisis, the last of a number of events designed to relive the glory days of 1985. The unofficial fourth untouchable was raised when Barry Allen returned. Some consider this to mark of the end of the Iron Age, though I’m not sure. Final Crisis can be viewed as an important marker of comics time, an overhyped event symbolic of a dangerous game played throughout this last era, or simply as what happens when you lace cocaine with the ashes of Jack Kirby. Regardless of your opinion, it was an important turning point for comic death. Even the return of the legendary Flash was overwhelmed by the death of Batman. The Internet flared with fury and people hid their sadness under the masks of trolls and cries of ‘it will never last’ (note: some people were actual trolls and cynics).

But for all its trippy genre-bending and bizarre storytelling, Final Crisis was most revolutionary for its ending, which revealed that Bruce Wayne would return…in Thunderball. (Not really.)

This simple act of admitting that this new status quo was not to be permanent changed the discussion around comic book death. Together with Blackest Night, DC (sort of) solved many of the problems surrounding death in the superhero genre, working to use it more carefully and more honestly.

Marvel quickly caught on, using the death of Thor to drive sales while building a story around his return and use that to drive sales for the fledgling Journey into Mystery.

And so too has Dan Slott used this strategy in Spiderman. With the revelation that some part of Peter Parker remains in his body, it seems that Dan Slott has paved the way for Peter’s return to the red and blue, and that’s huge. I’ve heard a lot of people say that they won’t be following The Superior Spider-Man, either out of distaste at Slott’s handing of the character or in solidarity with Peter Parker. Slott even received death threats after the ending to Amazing Spider-Man #700 was leaked! Real death threats! Over a comic book!

(By the way, if you’re ever sitting at home…I don’t know…watching the Big Bang Theory, or something, and you think to yourself, ‘why do people think that geeks and nerds are so weird, we’re pretty well acclimated at this point?’ THIS! You are why comic book geeks are still considered fringe despite the fact that a venn diagram representing the groups who attended the  highest grossing film of all time is a circle labeled ‘people who could reasonably be called fans of superheroes by the time the credits roll’ and ‘people who think Chris Hemsworth is attractive in this movie‘. Rant over.)

Where was I? Oh yes, people quitting Spider-Man. The point is that a lot of people at least claimed that they would not support a Spiderman story that wasn’t about Peter Parker, but Slott has revealed that in a slightly different way, this one is. I think it’s already clear how great the advantage of revealing Peter’s continued existence is. But consider also that it creates more storytelling opportunities. Whether they follow in DC’s footsteps and have Peter’s quest to come home spin into another book or mini-series or simply add the dynamic to later issues of The Superior Spider-Man, Marvel has expanded the range of the current Spiderman story.

As a counter argument, consider my favorite comic hero, Jean-Paul Valley, better known as Azrael. Jean-Paul was hand selected by Bruce Wayne to take over as Batman after he was paralyzed by Bane. This story, Knightfall, was a response to perceived criticism that the main continuity Batman wasn’t tough enough for the modern comics environment after seeing Frank Miller’s take on the character. Azrael was created, seeded into Batman’s inner circle, and chosen to replace Bruce to show that the grittier, more violent characters weren’t an example of what Batman should be.

But whether it was because the perception of discontent was not as accurate as the editors thought, or because the event droned on through multiple titles, or even just because comic fans aren’t always good with change, by the time the writers were beginning to make the case that Bruce Wayne was a superior Batman, the fans were tearing the letter columns apart demanding an end to the experiment. Though Denny O’Neill wrote an ending sympathetic to Azrael and then took on the daunting task of rehabilitating him in a 100-issue-long series that I adore, many fans were simply not interested and the general reaction to the character is disdain even to this day.

Part of what made the fan-reaction so vicious was that DC did everything in its power to treat Jean-Paul as the real Batman, when really he was a deconstruction of “Dark Age” thinking. The fear that Bruce might not return, or that silence on the issue might convince DC to delay his return lead to huge swaths of the Batman fandom, just beginning to connect over the internet, to rise up in anger. Though DC did present a story about Bruce Wayne during this period, it was not the triumphant tale of his return to crime-fighting but a strange story with a bizarre deus-ex-machina ending.

So have we reached the perfect solution to the problem of Comic Book Death? Probably not, but I think that the concept is more viable and more acceptable than ever before. Though the clear differentiation between comic book ‘ages’ has broken down since the late 80s, many believe that the end of the Crisis era and the New 52 reboot, may one day be markers of the start of a new age. How this new epoch of comics time will be remembered, particularly in regards to death, we cannot say, but we’ll be there to find out.

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