Monday, August 25, 2008

What A Way To Go! Deaths in Comics

In comic books, death is never a permanent thing. We know eventually that hero or villain will probably return, but it's how they died we remember fondly. Let's look at some of the best-written deaths in comic book history. And yes, I know three of them came from the same storyline, but it's not my fault DC did it right for once!

Barry Allen/The Flash
When the cover said "The Final Fate of the Flash", we still didn't believe it. I mean, how many times have you read that before about other heroes? But DC definitely meant it this time.

Barry Allen, the beloved hero who originally began the Silver Age of comics with his creation, remains the greatest Flash of them all in many people's opinions. If you read the old "Flash" comics, you might not understand the attraction, but one of the reasons he's held in such high regard is the way he died.

Supergirl had just died in the previous issue, and she had gone out in a powerful way (see her listing further down the list), so no one was expecting DC to try and top that by killing of another legend in the very next issue. But the Flash, who had been captured by Anti-Monitor early on in the series because he was the one hero who could stop what was coming, finally managed to escape in issue #8 and it was his turn to do his part for the multiverse. Running at top speed to counteract the Anti-Monitor's machine, Barry actually starts to decay and turn to dust. Even though he knows he's dying, he continues his run and manages to warn several heroes of the impending danger (we saw this in the first issue of the series, but didn't understand what it was until issue 8).

To be fair, Barry didn't actually die, but went into the Speed Force (but we didn't know that until years later). Barry has apparently made his return in Final Crisis, but according to this article in NewsARama it'll be next year that Barry Allen fans get the biggest treat. The creative team behind the incredible story Green Lantern: Rebirth have teamed up again for a new miniseries called (originally enough) The Flash: Rebirth.


Don Hall had been a part of the hero duo of "Hawk & Dove" with his brother Hank since the 60's. He was the pacifist to his brother's aggressor character, and they worked well but were never really more than guest-shot or team players after their initial introduction. Then the Crisis on Infinite Earths claimed another victim. Rushing to aid a child from the Shadow Monsters, Dove was hit in the back by one and killed instantly, dying a true hero.

DC took a lot of parting shots as they closed this maxi-series out. Dove's death was relegated to a single page spread and it seems almost a toss-off, but they were able to use it as a pivotal point in the "Armageddon" crossovers later. DC executives claimed that their original intention for the Monarch character was for him to be Captain Atom, but they changed that at the last moment because rumor had already been spread as to Monarch's identity (remember, this was in the days before the Internet, so it was a rare occurrence for plots to be spoiled ahead of time without an editor's ok). Instead, it was revealed to be Hank Hall, and it was the death of both his brother and then his follow-up female Dove partner that drove him over the edge. So in a way, Don's death helped set in motion an entirely new major DC miniseries years later.

Green Arrow
Oliver Queen was a beloved hero. He was that scruffy, loud-mouthed member of the Justice League who wasn't afraid to speak his mind when others did things he didn't agree with. He regularly faced down Hawkman and Batman, for pity's sake! But when times got rough, Ollie was the man to have in your corner. Completely fearless, he faced down the baddies no matter who they were. But what was he most afraid of? We didn't find out until he died.

Ollie was trying to disarm a bomb on a plane, but it trapped his arm in it. Superman was there and ready to try and save him, but the only way he could do it was for GA to lose his arm in the process. Ollie didn't want to go on if he was going to be disabled, so he chose to die instead. Supes stayed with him until the end when the bomb went off and killed Ollie (for a while, at least).

Gwen Stacy
I know it seems cheap to bring her up here, but I had to. Gwen's death was a major turning point in Spider-Man's career, and it eventually led to the (first) death of the Green Goblin, Norman Osborn. GG kidnaps her and takes her to the top of a bridge. Spidey comes to rescue her and they fight it out. In the process, Gwen is knocked off the bridge by the Goblin and Spidey tries to rescue her with a well-placed web shot. By the time he pulls her up, she's dead. This sets Spidey off and we have the awesome showdown that follows.

So why is this non-hero on the list? Because of a little word most of us didn't pay attention to when reading the comic for the first time: "Snap". Spidey catches Gwen, pulls her up, she's dead...we blame it on the Goblin. He even said himself that the fall killed her. But it wasn't until much later that the truth was finally brought out and we learned who really killed Gwen Stacy. We find out later that it was the sudden stop brought on by Spider-Man's web shot that causes her neck to break. Essentially, it means Spider-Man killed Gwen himself! Granted, the fall would have killed her if hadn't done anything, but it added a wellspring of agony for Peter in later years when he realized it.

Gwen has had a clone return, and even two adult children she'd had after a one-night stand with Norman Osborn (the man who eventually had at least partial responsibility in her death), but she's never actually come back. Even that horrible mess of "Brand New Day" has at least had the decency to let her stay dead (for now, at least). This makes her one of the few on the list who remain dead to this day.

Clint Barton was one of those heroes who could never carry their own title, but was always a good team player. It was in the end that Clint finally showed what a team player he really was.

When the "Avengers Disassembled" storyline occurred, a huge battle with the Kree brought on a stray shot that hit Clint's quiver and started all of his explosive arrows building to critical mass. Rather than blow up and kill his friends around him, he grabbed a Kree soldier and forced him to fly them into one of the warships. The resulting explosion took out the ship, and blew Marvel's premiere archer into least for a while.

We didn't really even have time to consider his death. He was back in the "House of M" storyline a few months later, and then showed up afterward in the regular Marvel world.

Clint's now part of the New Avengers as "Ronin", but that doesn't keep him off the list. When the time came for him to make a choice, he chose to die a hero and save his friends.

Superman's cousin, Kara, had the less-than-enviable position of being the second-string "Super". She really was as powerful as Superman, but was relegated by comic history as "close but not good enough".

All that changed in "Crisis on Infinite Earths".

We were still reeling from the deaths of several beloved icons in the maxi-series (and we didn't even know the Flash was next on the hit list!), when all of the sudden we see the cover that told the story. Superman is fighting Anti-Monitor for the fate of the multiverse, but he just can't take him down. Beaten and about to be killed, Kara steps in. This has to rank as one of the coolest hero deaths of all time because we finally see just how tough she really can be. No longer a second-string Superman, Supergirl tears into Anti-Monitor and would have defeated him if she hadn't been distracted by Doctor Light (the hero version) at the last second. Anti-Monitor uses the distraction and shoots her with a power beam that mortally wounds her. He escapes, and Superman manages to get to Kara just before she dies.

This wasn't some sappy death scene. This was powerful stuff. I didn't like how DC was brutally racing through their stable of heroes and slaughtering them left and right in this story, but at least Supergirl got a good send-off. And unlike most of the others on this list, she's stayed dead. Supergirl has returned in several incarnations, but this Kara is gone (for now).

Booster Gold

During the 52 maxi-series, Booster Gold found himself being outdone time and again by a mysterious hero known only as "Supernova". The speculation as to who Supernova really was flew all over the internet, but one thing was certain: he had a grudge against Booster Gold.

Things came to a head in week fifteen of the series when Booster tried to save Metropolis from a monster. Unfortunately, his every action seemed to make things worse. Supernova eventually arrived to save the day and the two of them had it out again. Then a building nuclear reaction in a ship caught both their attentions and Booster was off to save the day. He pulled his forcefield around himself and the ship and flew them up over Metropolis and out of harm's way. As Booster was finally being heralded as the hero at last, the ship exploded. To quell any doubts as to his death, a stunned Supernova flew up and caught his body. It was confirmed through a DNA analysis by Skeets to truly be Michael Carter, and Booster died a hero.

Of course, this is comic books and no one ever truly stays dead except Bucky Bar--never mind. Anyway, Booster showed up later in the series and his faked death set the stage for his own ongoing book. It was a fake out of sorts, but for several long weeks the world (and fans everywhere) thought he was dead.

Captain America

Steve Rogers had led a band of rebel heroes through a messy "Civil War" and brought them to brink of victory before finally doing a complete turnaround and giving up. The anticlimactic ending of "Civil War" killed a story that had been the best thing Marvel had done in years, but they weren't finished yet.

In Captain America #25, the cover again said it all. Of course, by the time the issue came out we'd already seen national news coverage of the comic book hero's upcoming death, so it the "shock and awe" moment wasn't quite what the writers had probably hoped for.

Steve is being led away in cuffs after surrendering, and he sees the red dot of a laser scope. Without hesitation, he dives into the path of the bullet (he'd have felt a little foolish if it had just been some kid with a laser pointer, I'm sure) and takes one to the neck. In the chaos that follows, he's shot again at point-blank range (supposedly by SHIELD agent and former girlfriend Sharon) and soon dies on the courthouse steps.

Steve has yet to return, but this is one death I'm certain they won't let stand. Bringing Bucky back and into the costume was a cool idea, but Steve Rogers is Captain America, plain and simple.


Anonymous said...

I for one hated Captain America's demise. Seemed to scream "editorially mandated" to me. But, I do agree Gwen's death was pretty powerful, mainly because it seemed so real. We have superheroes who refuse to kill no matter what, and that's something not even policemen manage in the real world. Having an accidental death on his hand was really a changing moment, not only for Spiderman, but for comics in general.

Ah, I guess it's just seeing things through the googles of childhood innocence.

Rick said...

I agree with all of these but there are 3 deaths that you left out. One is Captain Stacy who died a few years before his daughter. It was an accident during a battle with Doc Ock but the Captain died a hero saving a child. Later after he was carried away he told Spider-man he knew a long time that he was really Peter Parker.
Two from DC weren't important they were just stupid to me. Sue Dibny and Ted Kord's Blue Beetle. Sue's seemed like it was to just grab headlines and Ted's was just to make way for the new one. They could have kept him alive and made him a mentor to the new one. Maybe they could have gotten better writers to take BB in a new direction with Ted still being the Blue Beetle.

Brian said...

Sounds like you've made a couple of great suggestions for a follow-up post of more great hero deaths, Rick! I hadn't considered Captain Stacy, but you're absolutely right about him. And I think Sue Dibny was just a fake-out by DC because they'd promised some iconic death, and they only delivered a third-tier character's demise (and then threw some more brutality on her character from the past). I think Blue Beetle's death would definitely make the next list as well, but I agree they were stupid to kill him. They spent the last few appearances of the character turning him into this cool and determined hero he hadn't been before, effectively making him a character who could have finally carried a solo series...just before they killed him off.

Rick said...

I just remembered another one. Ronnie Raymond. As Firestorm he was killed in the same maxi-series that Sue Dibny died in. Firestorm had his skin pierced and since he was made of nuclear material he was about to explode. He flew away in time to save those around him but his Ronnie Raymond part died. We have seen more recently that the Professor part lived since he wasn't physically there.

Christina said...

I'm kind of surprised that you didn't mention Jason Todd's death in Batman: A Death In The Family. It's an extremely memorable death for me because it's so violent, and because of the way it affects Bruce and his rivalry with the Joker.

I'm not always a fan of dead characters returning, and Todd's case is one of those instances. I didn't like the Red Hood storyline with him. I think the story would have been more emotionally powerful if he had stayed dead.

C. Lewal said...

Hold the ffff on. Oliver Queen didn't want to have Superman help him because he didn't want to live missing an arm?! Come on. 27 HOURS. Plus, everybody gets a cyborg prosthesis whenever they lose limbs in comics. I mean, Superman could have cauterized the wound and everything. Speedy lost his arm and... oh man, your own pupil trumps you!

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