[UPDATED] Join the Comixverse staffers as they discuss what they personally consider to be the most memorable deaths in comics in our Day of the Dead-themed edition of the Roundtable.
In many parts of the world, the last day of October and the first two days of November are celebrated as holidays devoted to honoring and remembering the dead. In the spirit (ha!) of the occasion, we asked our staffers: Which comic book (or comic book-related) character’s death did you find the most the memorable?
The death of the Flash (Barry Allen) in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 (November, 1985).
Crisis had a lot of deaths and some, like Supergirl’s, were big events, but what struck me about the Flash’s was that it was so quiet, so unsung. It came out of nowhere, really. Supergirl’s was a big heroic moment, but there were witnesses to see it. People knew what she had done. The Flash? His moment was probably even bigger then Supergirl’s and there was no one there. He saved the entire multiverse (what was left of it, anyway) and no one knew.
And he was one of DC’s big guns. Someone that would normally be untouchable. Any other time a big gun would die (and that holds true today as well) there would be a lot of noise about it. This? This happened with no fanfare, not even a cover like Supergirl’s.
Barry Allen died a true hero, sacrificing himself, and no one knew.
The most significant character death for me would be The Death of Superman, which of course occurred as a multi-issue event that began publication in 1992, and culminated in January 1993’s Superman #75. While I don’t particularly feel that the writing stands the test of time, in the eyes of the 13 year-old child who first read these issues this event holds quite a bit of nostalgic importance to me. This youthful ignorance also allowed me to enjoy the story despite the ham-fisted writing that reeked of pure editorial hubris. Seriously, who the funk has the audacity to think they are worthy to kill off an American institution like Superman? Well, apparently based on this 2012 interview, the writing team felt resentfully justified in doing so since Warner Bros. put a hold on their previously-planned Lois and Clark wedding story arc (as a side note I would like to comment that this is an emo crock of butt-hurt monkey crap). Luckily for me at the time, my decidedly unsophisticated taste in comics also permitted me to take a JLA made up of jobbers the likes of Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, Ice, Maxima, Blue Beetle, and Bloodwynd at face value. Really? Superman is getting the ass-whooping of a lifetime and Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, and Green Lantern are just going to crack a cold brewski and watch it transpire on TV? Clearly I hold an entirely different interpretation of the term “Super Friends.”
Regardless of the luster having faded from these issues portraying Superman’s death, the emotional imapct remains fresh in my mind. Seeing Superman’s final moments play out within the panels of Superman #75 was almost surreal to me. See, I grew up having been first introduced to Superman via the Christopher Reeve films, so I think subconsciously on many levels I still see him that way—as a real person. Therefore, witnessing him bleed, suffer, and perish was all the more visceral and saddening to me. The cynicism already deeply ingrained within me correctly surmised that they would bring him back one day, but there was a troubling uncertainty given that DC had the gall and testicular fortitude to say “F*** you kids; we just killed your hero.”
One benefit that “The Death of Superman” had in my eyes is that it preceded and brought about the “Reign of the Supermen“, which I still find to be a fun and entertaining read. It introduced characters that carried on long after its publication- Cyborg Superman, Steel, and Superboy (Connor Kent), and created genuine mystery and excitement surrounding the return of the OG. Coast City was also destroyed as part of this saga, which had long-reaching impact in the DCU as the catalyst for the fall of Hal Jordan. One could even say that DC fans have “The Death of Superman” to thank for many of the major stories and events that happened since.
I really wanted to end off with a joke but am drawing a blank, so I will simply remind you that for a time Lex Luthor had the most amazing fire-red mullet the world has ever seen. He looked like a cross between Danny Bonaduce and Billy Ray Cyrus, and used this powerful tool to convince Supergirl to sleep with him. Remember that the next time you want to clown someone for having “business in the front, party in the back,” for that party could very well involve a Sleep Number bed and Kara Zor-El.
Image-wise, the George Pérez-drawn cover to Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (October, 1985), with Superman carrying the lifeless body of Supergirl, is an iconic one that always stands out to me (it has also been homaged numerous times). [Of course, the cover to Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 was itself inspired by John Byrne’s cover to Uncanny X-Men #136 (August, 1980), one of the later chapters in the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” of which we’ll talk about more below—ed.]
The death of Optimus Prime in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie to me as a child was the most devastating thing. Prime is/was my hero and seeing him die on screen made me cry, as it did many others. Seeing something like that was a shocker, something I never would have expected. Fortunately he was brought back to life later in the series, but I’ll never forget how bad it made me feel. As a side note, that’s why Hasbro decided against their original intent to have Duke die in 1987’s G.I. Joe: The Movie—they got so much negative feedback from kids and their parents for Prime’s death that the producers hastily re-edited the film so that Duke would survive what should have been a mortal wound.
The other memorable death is the “death” of the pre-New 52 DC Universe. I’m not averse to change, but the latest costumes and current story directions are just terrible. The animated web short DC recently released celebrating Superman’s 75th anniversary made me realize this even more. The New 52 Darkseid design is so horrible and Supes just looks so bland. I hope that somewhere, Superboy Prime is out there, ready to retcon punch a wall and make things right again.
There are three “comic book deaths” that readily stand out in my memory, two I read as a child just getting into comics and another a fairly recent one.
The first has to be the death of the crew of the Pequod (with the exception of narrator Ishmael, of course) in Irwin Shapiro and Alex Niño‘s 1972 graphic novel adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (What’s the statute of limitations for spoilers for works written in the 19th century?) As I’d mentioned in the very first of these Roundtable discussions, Shapiro and Niño’s Moby Dick was one of the two earliest comics I remember reading. I’d grown to love the character of Starbuck in the book, while the harpooner Queequeg was my very first exposure to the Badass Native trope in Western fiction and he was one of my favorite characters as a child. I was absolutely gutted when I got to the end of the book. I even felt a little sorry for Captain Ahab. Come to think of it, it was probably the first time I’d seen death portrayed in a comic book.
The second memorable comic book death for me was the death of Jean Grey in The Uncanny X-Men #137 (September, 1980), the penultimate chapter (or ultimate chapter, depending on which version of the trade/hardcover collection you’re reading) in Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s all-time classic “Dark Phoenix Saga” storyline. Yes, yes, by now we all know Kurt Busiek’s “retcon” explanation that it wasn’t actually Jean Grey who sacrificed herself that day and that it was actually a simulacrum created by the Phoenix Force who saved the X-Men by committing suicide and that the real Jean Grey was in a state of suspended animation at the bottom of Jamaica Bay the whole time. But at the time I was reading the story during the mid-1980s, I had absolutely no idea that all this was going on: Even though Jean Grey had just returned in the January 1986 issue of Fantastic Four, this was before the Internet, before Wizard magazine, and to a kid in the Third World reading the late 1970s/early 1980s X-Men comics for the first time, the story was as current—and more importantly, as “real” and revision-proof—as it could be. Jean was the heart, soul, and the conscience of the X-Men, and her death, to me, was like Starbuck dying all over again.
It’s worth noting that originally, Jean Grey wasn’t supposed to die at the end of the Dark Phoenix Saga, but editor Jim Shooter was so appalled by the idea that Jean Grey would suffer no real lasting repercussions for the planetary genocide she committed as the Dark Phoenix that he insisted that co-plotters Chris Claremont and John Byrne engineer some serious consequences for her actions. As he recalled in his blog in 2011:
Chris, X-Men editor Jim Salicrup and I went to lunch at the Ultimate Lotus, a Chinese restaurant that happened to be in the same building as Marvel (575 Madison Avenue) to discuss a new story arc for the X-Men. Freewheeling, I pointed out that while Marvel had many heroes who started out as villains–the Black Widow, Hawkeye, several others–we’d never had a hero who went bad. I suggested that Chris evolve Phoenix into a villain, permanently and irrevocably, the new “Doctor Doom” for the X-Men. Salicrup and Chris liked the idea and Chris began work on what eventually became the “Dark Phoenix” saga.
When I read the X-Men [printer’s proofs] that included the scene in which Phoenix destroyed a Shi’ar starship, killing hundreds, and an inhabited planet, killing billions, curious, I asked Jim Salicrup to show me whatever else was done on the storyline. Because Claremont and Byrne were very efficient, on time and professional, the next several issues were well along. The climactic issue was still in the plot stage, I think. I think Byrne had not yet begun to pencil it. At any rate, I discovered that Chris (and John) had backed down from the idea of Phoenix becoming the X-Men’s Doctor Doom. The plot indicated that Phoenix would somehow be mind-wiped and let go. Back to living at the Mansion, hanging around with Storm and company, sitting at the same table for lunch, etc.
That, to me, would be like taking the German army away from from Hitler and letting him go back to governing Germany.
Did I have a “moral” issue with that? Yes. More than that, it was a character issue. Would Storm sit comfortably at a dinner table with someone who had killed billions as if nothing had ever happened? Nah.
I told Chris that the ending proposed in his plot didn’t work. It wasn’t workable with the characters, and in fact was a totally lame cop-out, storywise. I demanded a different ending. Chris—enraged—asked me just what that might be. I suggested that Phoenix be sent to some super-security interstellar prison as punishment for her crimes. Chris said that the X-Men would never stop trying to rescue (?!) her and that the story would become a loop. I said that then he should come up with an ending.
The next morning, Chris stormed into my office and said that there was only one answer–they’d have to kill Phoenix. I said fine. I don’t think he expected me to say that, since killing characters just wasn’t done in those days. Chris waffled a bit, but then I became insistent! She’s dying. That’s it.
Chris left my office, obviously found a phone somewhere and, a few minutes later, I got a call from John that started with him asking me if I was insane.
I insisted on the “solution.” It was done—brilliantly, if reluctantly—by Chris and John. And that’s was the issue that propelled the X-Men to the top for, what, two decades?
For all the talk these days about how editorial micromanagement and interference is hurting the comics industry, I think this is a good example of a case where an editor’s strong-handed suggestions to creative resulted in a much more effective and emotionally resonant work.
The third comic book death that really sticks out in my memory is the death of Carrie in The Crow: Curare #1 (June, 2013) by The Crow creator James O’Barr and artist Antoine Dodé, although she technically doesn’t die in the issue nor is her death shown in a flashback sequence: The character is already dead when she is introduced to readers. The effect of the preteen’s grisly murder on the personal life and career of investigating detective Joe Salk really underlines the impact of her death on those around her, though, and I actually felt outraged and even a little physically ill while reading the medical examiner’s account of how she died. I actually had to turn off the computer (I was reading a digital review copy provided by IDW) and busy myself with something else for a while. I’m not a squeamish guy—I routinely had to deal with the dying, the recently deceased, and their families in the course of my post-secondary education and training—so I find it utterly strange that a fictional character’s death would have had such a powerful effect on me (and while I did enjoy the original Crow miniseries, I’m not exactly what one would call a fan of the property or someone overly familiar with or fond of O’Barr’s work), but whatever the reason for my reaction to the comic, it stands as one of the most affecting comics experiences I’ve had in recent years.
Two other memorable comic book deaths:
- Pride of Baghdad: I’m not going to spoil this for those of you who haven’t read it, but if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean.
- Valerie’s death in V for Vendetta: This really should have been my top choice, but I wasn’t sure if it was her death that had the greatest impact on me or if it was the account of her tragic life and her defiance in love in the “Valerie’s letter” sequence in the book. I still get misty-eyed recalling her letter all these years later after first reading the book. The recreation of the sequence, barring the lame attempt to contemporize the historical setting, is really the high point of the V for Vendetta film adaptation (which I think missed the whole point of the comic, but that’s neither here nor there as far as this Roundtable discussion goes).