Ah yes, death. The final answer. The culmination of a gripping battle or a long march. A powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal, meant to create SHOCK and DRAMA. For surely all will be touched by the loss of their loved one, the legacy and memories they leave behind, and all the emotions that come with it.
And then there’s comic book deaths.
As part of my usual target audience, you’re more than likely familiar with the concept. A character ‘dies’ only to come back to life later, sometimes to joyful celebration and other times to rolled eyes. And of course, you know the various ways this happens: clones, robot doubles, magic, time travel, bad/mad science, fight with Death itself, it was a dream, reality gets mixed up, the works. And of course, the classic “The fans/profits demanded it.”
There are plenty of articles to discuss this particular trope’s merits and faults, both from a literary and in-universe perspective, but I won’t be going into those. Instead, I’ll do my best to present the usual ways this plays out, and hopefully give you some fun and some tips about writing along the way. Because really, discipline aside, it IS important to have fun with writing.
Comic book deaths started out as shocking twists to raise the stakes and create drama, and then acquired a reputation for being meaningless once those characters came back. It was one thing when the death was clearly a temporary problem to solve (“We have to retrieve Blue Beetle’s soul from the Phantom Zone and his body from Gorilla City and get Etrigan to stick the two together!”), but another entirely when it was shown as FINAL and then promptly reversed. And not just backstory characters like Uncle Ben, no. I’m talking about the prominent and highly marketable members of the main cast.
That being said, I’d like to add that it’s not always about lazy decisions, appeasing fans, or the desire to boost sales. While there are certainly lots of factors in what goes on behind the scenes, I’d still like to point out some important facts about writers who actually care about doing their job:
- The death, when it happens, IS meant to be meaningful for the story. Whether it actually is is another matter entirely, but a ‘for real’ dramatic death IS played seriously for everyone even when there are hints it’s not permanent.
- If the death is undone, if it’s not a knee-jerk reaction to backlash, it’s often actually part of a larger plot. It could have been there from the start, or worked out behind the scenes later, but it’s there.
- In fairness, lately they have treated death a lot more seriously, taking YEARS to revive a character as opposed to months. You can actually see this in X-Men, formerly one of the most prominent examples: Jean Grey has stayed dead, and a long time passed before Colossus or Nightcrawler came back from death. They may still joke about it, have them appear in the afterlife, or bring in alternate universe versions, but yeah, when someone dies it tends to stick for much longer.
With that small intro and my gentle reminders, let’s get into the types of Comic Book deaths out there and what we can do with them!
Level 1: Merely A Temporary Setback
Right, this is the proto-death in the old days. Characters ‘died’ but weren’t in any real danger because it was an open-and-shut problem of the week to solve, like being sent into the Phantom/Negative Zone, or having your soul locked into a statue. What would happen then is a lot of people would assume the character was dead, but the character’s teams or they themselves would actually be working to get out of this ‘practically dead’ situation. These were less like deaths and more like adventures because after all, you gotta keep the character alive if you wanna keep selling stories.
And while people have grown jaded with open-and-shut deaths knowing they HAD to be solved or crave longer story arcs with more emotional weight, I wouldn’t be so quick to underestimate these types of comic book deaths if you wanted to write them. At their base level, of course, they’re a fun way to quickly showcase different ways to ‘die’ in a setting, as well as for writers to come up with resourceful solutions (terms and conditions apply, readers may not consider it resourceful). But besides that, they’re also a way to, surprisingly, show off the FEELINGS of your characters.
True, in the old days, they treated it as something deathly serious. And in modern times especially, they grew as savvy as readers with a lot of them going “Are you suuuuuure they’re dead?” But either reaction is a fine thing to show, along with the determination to find a solution. Even if it’s plain to the reader with hindsight that it’s bound to be solved, you can get a feel for what your cast thinks and feels without having to bench a character for a prolonged period of time.
Like that time in Justice League when Flash beat up Luthor/Brainiac so fast he nearly became one with the Speed Force, only for his friends to (pseudobabble voice) sense his telepathic signature and home in on it, drawing him out from it with the power of friendship! Sure, you knew Flash was gonna be alright deep down, but it was a tense moment that showed what they could do and what they WOULD do for him. Yes, even Batman, that paranoid guy with trust issues.
Level 2: We’ll Never Forget You, But You’ll Be Back Anyways
Ah, now we’re going with the first evolution of comic book deaths. This is when the death is treated as something significant, and they actually go through with it…for awhile, anyways. When they started out, they were heavy decisions which shocked a lot of people. They were used to team rosters getting changed, but never outright killing off a character. And in fairness, in some cases, the death stuck for quite awhile if they had a successor like in the case of Green Lantern and the Flash. Or, if they were coming back later like Iron Man, then it was a way to more properly introduce a newcomer to the scene.
Like the death of Superman, or that time Iron Man ‘passed away’ and left everything to War Machine (actually he was alive…and in perfect hibernation), these were the earliest comic book deaths treated not just as a single adventure, but an entire story arc, and death WAS the climax that would shake the story world. Unlike the early tales which they could laugh about and forget, this was meant to be something major. In fact, jokes about it aside, Jean Grey’s death IS generally held as one of those “Oh shit we will never forget it” moments, both on its own and in the minds of the characters. And ironically, Gandalf the Grey/White is another example; despite coming back next movie/story arc, his death was a major blow to the characters at the time.
This form of comic book death is actually the most common and is still in use, the main difference being that it has been refined over the years to address the issues of the various resurrections cheapening the loss. For one thing, just as the length of the stories between this level and the last got longer, so did the period of time the character spent actually dead. If you’re thinking of using death as a dramatic technique but intend to bring your character back (or at least want to leave that possibility open), this is the blueprint you’ll be using. But how should that be addressed? Do you treat the death as final with no signs of returns until much later when it crosses your mind? Or do you foreshadow it, weaving in plot elements throughout your story as the clues behind not just the death but return of your character, like a subplot about how the character is preparing a means to come back? And are you going to treat it as a serious matter, or are your characters savvy about comic book deaths and actually pretty doubtful about the whole thing?
That’s just the how, though. And as fun as that is, don’t forget that those are afterthoughts. The meat of the story should always be the death or sacrifice of the character, and that should always have a major effect on the world. Even if it’s a genre where people are aware of how quickly or easily it can be reversed, always treat it with the seriousness it deserves.
Level 3 (or 1.5): Pulling Out Old Action Figures
Bonus round, electric boogaloo! And actually, this is the perfect time to bring it up. See, the golden rule of comic book deaths was this: “Nobody dies forever except Bucky, Uncle Ben, and Jason Todd.” Makes sense, right? Those were THE major deaths that were keystones in their franchises, the parts of the mythos you should keep in the ground. And of that holy trinity, only one has stayed dead (unless there’s a Herald of Galactus Uncle Ben I’m unaware of). Hm. Maybe they should say “Uncle Ben and the Waynes” because even Krypton has rogue Kryptonians popping out of the woodwork. But while backstory characters are near-sacred, old, forgotten cast members have actually seen a renaissance in recent times.
Mechanically, it’s really no different than from the modern comic book death: There is a loss, and then the character comes back. But the main difference is this: It’s for characters that were LONG dead. Technically, this also means bringing back ‘missing’ or ‘forgotten’ characters, like if you brought back Robin’s Aunt Harriet even though she hadn’t actually died. But for the sake of staying on topic, we’ll keep this focused on the dead folks of the Golden Age.
Before, Comic Book Deaths were restricted to the MAIN cast, the most marketable characters of the time, the ones from everyone’s memory. But as the comics industry grew, the potential for stories meant that new characters were created…and old ones were revisited, much like how Bucky was brought back by a fan who loved him and became a Marvel writer. And in fact, in this case, you could argue that the Revival Story is even more significant than the initial death. This is for the guys who were part of the mythos but never made the transition, giving them a chance to have a fresh start and perhaps even a better role than ever. Because Bucky was alright as Cap Junior, but came into his own as the Winter Soldier. And Jason Todd (the Robin nobody liked until that punk kid Damian Wayne showed up) was always an ass, but made for the perfect Red Hood anti-hero.
I actually also dub it 1.5 because of one major example: Captain America. He was a Golden Age propaganda boy, and his first ‘reappearance’ was an impostor dressed as him with Marvel asking readers to write in if they would love a REAL return. But of course, this was for a MAJOR character. The only catch for this style of resurrection? You’ll need to have an established franchise with tons of oldies to choose from. And when handling it, you need to be really respectful of the legacy they have. Cap had all the Future Sidekicks who’d follow when he awoke to the future, and Batman had all the Robins, so you needed to really look at the relationship and see how you wanted to explore and reinvent it while honouring it.
Reviving The Conclusion
So there you have it. A quick guide to Comic Book Deaths, how they work, and how you could make use of them. But it’s probably still helpful to give some more general, overall advice for making your deaths and resurrections meaningful, like so:
- Make your intentions clear from the start. In a genre where people are familiar with what to expect, a level of honesty can stop you from shooting yourself in the foot. Is it a single episode, a major arc, or part of a much larger plot? Is it a comical farce, a simple adventure, or a dramatic saga?
- Pace it well at all times. Whether it’s in the death itself (and the stories that follow) or in how much time passes until the person is brought back, you need to sync that with what sort of story this was meant to be. Based on how you presented this death, and if you plan to reverse it, is it meant to be something that sticks for a good long while, or is it a tragedy that your characters will seek to right IMMEDIATELY?
- Plan ahead. Nothing wrong with suggesting a character return as a potential story (whether within the death story or years down the line), but you still need to find a way to make it fit in. Figure out how you want to foreshadow it, how you want to structure their return. Fit in teasers and foreshadowing at the right times, and do your best to make both the death and the revival be meaningful and satisfying, rather than cheap and disposable. It helps if the character was beloved (or people loved to hate them), but you can also dare to bring back someone hated to find a way to handle or fix their reputation.
- Accept that everyone’s heard of it before. Whether in comic books, Disney, or D&D, everyone’s familiar with the idea of death being a temporary setback, as well as the ways they’re brought back. You can’t please everyone, so just do what you like while trying to do it as best as you can.
And there you have it! Comic book deaths! One might wonder why a blog about writing well would bring up something considered kitzchy, hack moves. Well, that’s easy: because we love characters, because we love creativity, and because we love fun.
People are attached to characters, and rather than trying to pretend I’m some pseudo-intellectual ranting at comic book storytelling techniques, I’m just going to admit “I really, really like Nightcrawler, and I LOVE that he’s alive again.”
And you may call it a hack move, but I’m here to show that there’s more to it than “Now they’re back.” If anything, I’m here to show that in recent times, they have DELIBERATELY made it more than that. They’re working to do it better.
And finally: C’mon. Are you seriously going to tell me you aren’t into really bad, fantastical science fiction and adventures? That you honestly don’t want to read a story where the Flash runs so fast he opens a portal to Apokolips where Batman mind-punches Darkseid into releasing Superman from the Phantom Zone? Or where the X-Men are SENT TO HELL and the spirit of Nightcrawler LEADS THEM AGAINST DEMON PIRATES? Does EVERYTHING have to be about Oscar-bait, life-is-miserable, SJW-pandering, critically-acclaimed-by-every-left-wing-site-pretending-to-be-about-nerd-culture?
I say thee NAY! I say we ACCEPT our history, EMBRACE the power of fun, and ENJOY ourselves! Because when we do that with clear hearts and minds, much like with the Winter Soldier, we can learn how to do it better.