If you read as many comic books as we do (you probably don’t), you know that death in the superhero world is sort of a revolving door. In a fictional universe filled with super-scientists, magicians, and assorted cosmic forces, coming back from the other side can be pulled off any number of ways.
That doesn’t stop writers from snuffing characters off in the service of cheap drama – Marvel’s recent Civil War II saw Bruce Banner take the dirt nap and it’s possible that Tony Stark will do the same. On the DC side, we just saw Superman die again, but thankfully there’s an older one from an alternate universe running around. Boy, this stuff sounds weird when you type it out.
We decided to raid the longbox and bring out eleven four-color fatalities that actually meant something. These deaths packed a dramatic punch and, for the most part, didn’t get immediately reversed.
1. Captain Marvel
The first original graphic novel published by Marvel Comics, Jim Starlin’s 1982 The Death Of Captain Marvel delivered exactly what it said on the cover. Kree soldier Mar-Vell had been on Earth for a bit, fighting crime and developing a “cosmic awareness” that put him in tune with the vibrations of creation, when he found out that an experimental nerve gas had given him cancer. Captain Marvel’s death wasn’t in the throes of battle, or saving the universe from a powerful threat. It was quiet, personal and unstoppable. The story even brought long-time nemesis Thanos to Mar-Vell’s side to help him through to the other side. He’s shown up in the afterlife a time or two but also been impersonated by a Skrull in the land of the living.
2. Gwen Stacy
One of the things we depend on in superhero fiction is that the hero always saves the damsel in distress. How many times has Superman stopped Lois Lane from becoming an inquisitive smear on the pavement? But in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #121, we learned that in the Marvel universe, things aren’t that cut and dried. When the nefarious Green Goblin hurled Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy from atop the George Washington Bridge, the web-spinner shot out a line to catch her before she hit the water. He did, but the whiplash from the sudden stop snapped Gwen’s neck, killing her instantly. This epic tragedy shocked readers and sent the already morose Spider-Man into a deep depression.
The 1980s were an era of real experimentation in the comic book world, with moral gray areas creeping into even the most innocent books. New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez was a great example, taking a group of former sidekicks and transforming them into one of DC’s hottest properties. One of the newer additions to the team was earth-bending Tara Markov, known as Terra. In the pages of the classic “Judas Contract” storyline, Terra reveals that she’s been betraying the team to the villainous Deathstroke. Insane with rage, she pulls down a massive complex on top of herself and the team. The Titans survive, but poor damaged Terra is crushed to death. The intense emotions around the character were unprecedented, and the storyline still stands as one of the Titans’ best.
4. Jason Todd
If there’s one thing we know about comic book fans, it’s that they can be real bastards. So when DC Comics put the fate of Jason Todd, the second Robin, in their hands, they should have seen the writing on the wall. In 1988, the Joker bludgeoned him insensate with a crowbar and then set a bomb that killed him. Batman’s emotional state after losing a partner defined his character for the next few decades, making him unwilling to take on a new Robin for some time. Jason Todd would be brought back by the Lazarus Pit in 2005 as the Red Hood, working both with and against Batman. His resurrection was one of the best-handled in comics, as the brutality of his death truly changed him as a character and opened the door for lots of interesting stories.
Matt Murdock has the world’s worst luck with women, but college girlfriend slash ninja assassin Elektra Natchios got the worst of it. Created by Frank Miller during his landmark run on Daredevil she was a morally conflicted character who served as a perfect romantic foil to the hero. Unfortunately, she got in a little over her head while battling Bullseye to become the Kingpin’s chief assassin. The killer with the perfect aim stabbed Elektra through the heart with her own sai, shockingly ending her life. She died in Daredevil’s arms. Eventually, the character was brought back by ninja clan the Hand, pissing off Miller who claims Marvel promised they wouldn’t revive her.
There are few pieces of comic art more iconic than George Perez’s cover for Crisis On Infinite Earths #7, which shows Superman cradling his cousin Kara Zor-El’s corpse in his arms. Crisis was the company’s first major crossover, and as the Anti-Monitor worked to delete the multiverse, stakes were high. Supergirl perished while trying to destroy the villain’s solar energy converter, and once the multiple universes were folded into one never existed at all. Of course, because this is comics Kara eventually came back to take up the Supergirl mantle once more.
7. Arthur Curry Jr.
Aquaman has long been a hero that DC has tried to make work in any way they can. One attempt to increase fan interest in the Lord of the Sea was made in the 1970s when his child, Arthur Curry Jr (sometimes known as Aquababy) was brutally murdered by his longtime nemesis Black Manta. Trapped in a sphere of air, which he could not breathe, the water-dwelling tot was suffocated and died in his father’s arms. This formed a wedge between Aquaman and Mera and set the hero off on a journey of revenge that consumed him for a few years.
Chris Claremont’s epic run on the X-Men set the tone for every writer to follow. He was a master at long, complex storylines that had real repercussions for Marvel’s merry band of mutants. Jean Grey, the team’s longest-serving female character, had been taken over by a cosmic force known as the Phoenix, which led her to commit unforgivable crimes on a planetary scale. Although she was freed from its influence, the alien Shi’ar didn’t forgive her that easily and demanded a trial by combat to determine her fate. She could have destroyed them all, but in a moment of control sacrificed herself, committing suicide to save her teammates. Sure, it wasn’t Jean that died – it was actually Phoenix, occupying a duplicate of her body – but the sacrifice was earth-shattering.
9. Agent 355
In a post-apocalyptic world where only one man is left alive, losing a single woman shouldn’t feel like a shot to the heart. But it’s a testament to the emotional mastery of Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man that the loss of Agent 355 hurts as bad as it does. Assigned by the government’s Culper Ring to keep tabs on Yorick, the titular Last Man, 355 slowly develops real feelings for our protagonist over the course of the book’s run. Unfortunately, just as those feelings are about to come to a boil, she’s sniped through the head by Israeli commando Alter. The world of Y was one where death always seemed around the corner, but taking a major character off the page so suddenly was a real shock to the system.
10. Blue Beetle
The Infinite Crisis era of recent DC history isn’t remembered all too fondly by fans, as the company seemed to want to pull out all the stops to make their universe as grim and miserable as possible. One of the most shocking ways they did so is by having mind-controlling villain Maxwell Lord pop a cap into the dome of Ted Kord, the beloved Blue Beetle. As half of a laughs-oriented 90s partnership with Booster Gold, Beetle had been one of the company’s most beloved comic relief characters, a slightly chubby genius inventor who shouldn’t be on the front lines fighting crime but did it anyways because he was a good person. Seeing him dead on the floor to kick off a massive, unwanted crossover made fans apoplectic, even after Wonder Woman killed Lord on live TV.
11. Uncle Ben
While “the death of a relative” is a pretty bulletproof way to ratchet up the drama for a superhero, none have lasted quite like Ben Parker. Spider-Man’s uncle was introduced and disposed of in the same issue, the hero’s first appearance, but he was around long enough to teach a hell of a lesson. When the newly empowered Spidey refused to catch a fleeing crook, asking “what’s in it for me,” that lowlife went on to shoot Ben Parker in cold blood. When Spider-Man realized that his own inaction led to his uncle’s death, he was set on the path to self-sacrificing heroism that he’s been on ever since. We’ve seen an alternate universe Ben Parker once or twice, but in the main continuity, he’s stayed dead since the 60s.