Characters die in comic books all the time, to a point where it has almost become a necessity to kill of a few heroes a year. Every time we see it in the news we all give a collective ‘sigh’ and brace ourselves for impact. But are we too skeptical when it comes to comic book deaths and where does our skepticism come from? Let’s delve in and find out.
A Growing Problem
Let’s face it, comic book fans are no strangers to death and rebirth. Can you honestly picture an event from the last decade that didn’t involve the death of a pivotal character? Then, within a couple of years, I can guarantee you that the same hero came back in a ‘ground-breaking’ comic that ‘shook the Marvel Universe to its core’. And we probably bought it. And probably complained. For a while, comic books attempted to hide the deaths or at least tried to do it with a degree of subtly. But in more recent years, death has been thrown in our faces like it’s a fundamental aspect of the storytelling world. I haven’t read Death of Wolverine yet but I’m pretty sure I can guess what it entails.
Over the years we Spidey fans have had to deal with our fair share of character deaths, ranging from Uncle Ben to Dr. Kafka. But, fortunately, it looks like the future of Spider-Man is controversy free.
MARVEL ANNOUNCE ‘DEAD NO MORE’, A NEW SPIDER-MAN EVENT SURROUNDING THE RETURN OF A LONG-THOUGHT DEAD CHARACTER.
Okay, it looks like we’re talking about this then.
Back to the Beginning
If we’re going to look at Spider-deaths, our journey must begin where it all started – Amazing Fantasy #15. Uncle Ben’s death holds a strong place in the hearts of many comic book fans due to the impact the character made in such a short appearance. When Peter first got his ‘Amazing’ powers he used them for personal gain, wrestling Crusher Hogan and appearing on TV. But when Uncle Ben dies, Peter’s character is completely redefined. From that moment on, he lives his life by the immortal words “With great power must also come great responsibility.” This death is iconic and no comic book lover would ever raise an issue with it.
As the readers, we did not have enough time to get to know Uncle Ben so his death doesn’t resonate with us emotionally. However his death did have an impact on Peter’s life. It inspired our hero to become the ‘spectacular’ character we’ve come to love (okay, I’ll stop the adjective puns now). Without the death of Uncle Ben there would be no Spider-Man – he is the catalyst for the stories we all know and love. Fans do not take issue with this death because it is such a vital part of what makes Peter who he is. But if we’re really going to get to the bottom of a good death, we cannot look at just one.
Gwen Stacy and Jean DeWolff. At first, that seems like an odd combination. But when I started to think about these two deaths, I realized what made them so great – each one tested Peter to his limits. When Gwen died, Peter entered a mad rage and almost killed the Green Goblin. When DeWolff died, Peter lost control once again and it took the efforts of Daredevil to rein him back in. These deaths pushed Peter to the edge, forcing him to redefine himself once again. He had to relearn the lesson that killing is not the answer. Unlike Uncle Ben, Peter did finally get over the deaths of these two characters. Despite this, losing these two characters still forced Peter to look at what being Spider-Man meant.
So have we solved it then? Is the perfect death one that redefines a character? If so, why do we get so nervous when we hear of a story about a character’s death? To work this out, we have to look at what doesn’t work about a comic book death.
When Death Doesn’t Work
Does anyone remember when MJ was dead?
It was when our favorite redhead died in Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 2) #13 that I began to lose faith in Spider-deaths. It just had no impact. Yes, Peter was sent into a depression after losing yet another loved one but only a year later she returned. After that it took them just two years to get back together and return to being Marvel’s dream couple (good thing that stayed around for a while, right?). Yes, there was ups and downs in between but none of it really had the lasting effect that any pre-mentioned deaths did.
I could go on all day about deaths like this from all corners of the Marvel Universe – deaths that were so temporary they hardened us, turning us into skeptics. But instead I’m going to look at another death that didn’t work; Gwen Stacy. I know what your thinking – no, not that Gwen Stacy. I’m talking about Emma Stone Gwen. Don’t get me wrong, I actually kind of like the two Amazing Spider-Man films but Gwen’s death was severely mishandled.
Do you know how long it was from Gwen’s brutal death to Peter getting over her death? 8 minutes. Seriously. I understand that for Peter it was a much longer time but the audience never truly got that vibe. Instead the mourning period was rushed over so we could have a lackluster shot of Spidey vs the Rhino. There was no lasting impact with her death. She was just gone, Peter was sad for a bit and then he was fine.
I think we’ve solved it then. Deaths are considered bad when they have no lasting impact – whether that comes in the form of a return from the grave or a quick bereavement. So if that is the case, let’s apply it to what we have now.
In December 2012, Peter Parker died and the internet erupted. How dare they kill such an important character? How can Otto Octavius possibly fill the boots of the web-slinger? Is that Doc Ock kissing Mary Jane? But surprisingly, the Superior Spider-Man turned out to be – in my opinion – one of the best Spidey stories ever, truly capturing what makes Peter Parker so great. Then, in April 2014, Peter Parker returned. And everything returned to normal. And it sucked.
Spider-Man had been so drastically changed only for the exact same character to return a year and half later. Nothing had changed – Superior was just a slight bump in the road. Situations had changed but the characters had not. That is what I think is wrong with comic book deaths.
It’s inevitable that the hero is going to come back. It’s inevitable that the huge, ground-breaking change will go away. It’s inevitable that the characters stay the same.
In the end, I don’t think it is change that comic book fans are afraid of. I think what we hate about character deaths is the rebirth – the fact that whatever we think will revolutionize the comics we love will eventually go away and all the characters will return to the point of origin. The characters I mentioned above – Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy and Jean DeWolff – have deaths that we will always remember. Why? Because they stayed dead. Because their deaths have a lasting impact.
Peter came back without maturing, once again dealing with the old ‘Parker luck’. In a few years, Doctor Octopus will be back to robbing banks. Because people will always come back to see the same adventures that we’ve always known.
But that’s just my two cents. Do you think that the worst part of a character death is the rebirth? Or do you have some other ideas? Whatever you think, thanks for taking the time to read my little theory about our fear of comic book death.
P.S. I’m really glad that Uncle Ben, Gwen and Jean have all stayed dead. We wouldn’t want anything to happen there now, would we…?