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The Cycle of Death and Resurrection in Superheroes

Wherein I draw another comparison to pro wrestling.

 Even a second-stringer like Captain Marvel's best-known story is about his death.

With a promo for the DEATH OF SPIDER-MAN on the cover of PREVIEWS and the Source hinting at a revisit of the DEATH OF SUPERMAN, it’s clear that death is in the air. 

Think about it, all the major heroes - - Batman, Thor, Green Lantern, Iron Man, Flash, Aquaman - - have gone through major “death and rebirth” story-lines  recently. G-Man has noted that death has been striking the X-books, in particular (who misses Nightcrawler and Cable already?) and he's curious if it's just about stunts to grab attention. It might be. This is a genre about sensationalism and you can't get more sensationalist than threatening (and making good on threats of) a hero's life.

I was still “lil’ Tommy P” when the DEATH OF SUPERMAN first rolled out in the 90s and, at the time, it felt like no other comics-borne event could ever make as big a wave on pop culture. It was like dropping a mountain in the ocean. A telling anecdote from my own experience is that I remember seeing comics related to the event getting auctioned on some channel (the name escapes me) and the auctioneers were talking about how some people had even cried when they found out Supes died. Wooo... I don't think even Chewbacca's death in that STAR WARS novel got as dramatic a reaction.  Then again, I’ve talked to guys who were comic store managers at the time and they've said that all the fans knew Supes' death was going to get reversed - - the return was even solicited in PREVIEWS at the same time the death itself hit the stands! It was the mainstream who was duped; which is basically what happened again with Cap's death. == TEASER ==

 It's a lot like the time the Undertaker "died" at Summer Slam.
Clearly, when it comes to this kind of thing, some of the audience is savvy about deaths and some aren't. It reminds me a bit of the divisions between "marks" and "smarks." Many compare superhero comics to pro-wrestling and, as a fan of both, I think the comparison's apt. For those of you who aren’t as familiar with rasslin’ slang (who don’t know your red masks from your cheap heat) a mark's a viewer who totally falls for the show's theatrics. He's the one who thinks the storyline's "real." A "smark," (smart mark) is fan who knows wrestling's fake, but goes along with the act anyway. Similarly, seasoned comics fans know all-too-well that dead heroes return, but realize it's still fun to play along. 

Furthering the comparison, there's a division between "shoot" and "kayfabe." Shoot is reality. That’s when the wrestlers are actually hitting eachother or speaking out of character. Kayfabe is the storyline as presented. But the lines often blur. Say Hulk Hogan gets a black eye during a jet ski accident. He’s got to explain the shiner on TV. Hence, he cooks up a fake story about how he got jumped by the Million Dollar Man’s goons prior to the show. Similarly, if a wrestler needs some time off, the storyline will have him get injured or “retired” when he’s really just on vacation. With a little imagination, I can’t help thinking of these deaths as being equivalent to that. Spidey’s been fighting bad guys for years and years. When he needs to go take a break in the Bahamas, he “dies” and returns only after he's properly rested.

 A chart makes everything legitimate.
On a loftier note, I'll invoke Joseph Campbell. When you’re dealing with stories about characters who throw punches, swing swords and fire guns on a weekly basis, violence is pretty much the underlaid constant. Hell, it’s the underlying theme of heroic adventure in general. Look at Campbell’s famous and oft-referenced “monomyth” cycle and you’ll notice that the "Abyss" dealing with “death and rebirth” is a pretty big spoke on the wheel.  Hal Jordan dying and coming back to life is probably as instrnsic to his hero’s journey as the “beginning of transformation” threshold he crosses upon receiving his power ring.    And that the fact that this chart's a cycle shouldn't be lost on anybody.
 
With all that in mind, I don't think these deaths are much of an anomaly. If there's a threat of audiences growing tired of them, then there has to be a risk of them getting tried of summer crossovers and sidekicks eventually getting promoted. That's part of the experience and part of the fun - - even if you can see the outcome before has even appeared.

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of  HYBRID BASTARDS! & UNIMAGINABLE . Order them on Amazon here & here.  Follow Tom on Twitter: @tompinchuk

41 Comments
Posted by turoksonofstone

Marks? Smarks? True,very true.

Posted by KRYPTON

Death never really means "Death" in comics. Only a few characters have really stayed dead. For example, DC Comics' Tana Moon.

Edited by RiddlingGambit

The Death of Superman was major, & I was just a kid then, but that's the impression I got. I can't remember any other character death that was as big a deal as Superman's death was. Nowadays when a character dies it only affects the fans/readers of the character. Superman's death was felt beyond the realm of regular comic book readers somehow. I don't think any character's death now will be as big an impact because most readers are confident the character can be resurrected one day. Maybe had Superman stayed dead back in the 90s things would have been different. A lot of people who watch all the Batman movies don't even know he 'died' recently either. Major character deaths are really only followed by regular comic readers now. Even when a character does stay dead they are substituted for someone else who takes up their mantle (The Question, Black Mask). I think most people just see the death of a major character as a cop-out of creativity, a way to quickly sensationalize a struggling series.

Posted by Primmaster64

The Death of Superman is the most famous comic book storyline ever. Heck, I've heard of it before I began to read comics.

Edited by Jordanstine

@Tom Pinchuck:

 

Going by your Comic Book and WWE mathapor:


Death in comic books nowadays is basically like WWE wrestlers just going on a vacation or just rehabilitating off camera, before they make a "surprise" (or not so surprise comeback) at the next Pay Per View event.

Posted by Primmaster64
@RiddlingGambit said:
" The Death of Superman was major, & I was just a kid then, but that's the impression I got. I can't remember any other character death that was as big a deal as Superman's death was. Nowadays when a character dies it only affects the fans/readers of the character. Superman's death was felt beyond the realm of regular comic book readers somehow. I don't think any character's death now will be as big an impact because most readers are confident the character can be resurrected one day. Maybe had Superman stayed dead back in the 90s things would have been different. A lot of people who watch all the Batman movies don't even know he 'died' recently either. Major character deaths are really only followed by regular comic readers now. Even when a character does stay dead they are substituted for someone else who takes up their mantle (The Question, Black Mask). I think most people just see the death of a major character as a cop-out of creativity, a way to quickly sensationalize a struggling series. "
What yousaid its the truth.
Posted by Lovenuggets

Wow...I never knew that I'm glad I read this...very interesting and it opens my mind.

Posted by ArachKnight

In the special features on the Green Lantern DVD they talk about "Blackest Night". Dan Dido mentions that after "Blackest Night" whoever is dead or whoever dies - is dead. No more resurections?
Posted by ld12278

Reminds me why Deadman is a White Lantern.. oh wait, that also reminded me why that still does not make sense...
Posted by The Mighty Monarch

Technically DC only teased the possibility of Doomsday, not necessarily 'another death of Superman.' 
At least, that's how I interpreted it.

Posted by The Mighty Monarch
@KRYPTON said:
" Death never really means "Death" in comics. Only a few characters have really stayed dead. For example, DC Comics' Tana Moon. "
And Ted Kord.
Posted by mbembet

what happened to Maxima???

Posted by Mr.Hulk_Smashin'!

We're studying that chart in Literary Criticism in school, right now! My analysis was on Iron Man.

Posted by Adam Michaels
@ArachKnight:

I'd like to believe that, but when DC gets a new editor and new writers and artists in the future, they'll nullify that by coming up with their own way to bring back someone because they'll have ideas to use that character. 
 
If major superheroes die, the likes of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, etc., we know they will be coming back. Not only are they compelling characters, but they're money. If their deaths were permanent, it would be idiotic of a company to not have Peter Parker around anymore. Horrible business. 
 
What I look for when that happens is how they resurrect the character. Is it original enough to keep me interested? For example, Steve Rogers was "reborn," but he didn't return as Captain America and things didn't go back to the way they were, pretty much making the whole death thing meaningless. He's a different person now. The legend of Cap still continues with Bucky. So that to me is logical since a near-death experience is a life-changing experience for any of us. In the world of comics, a death experience is a life-changing experience. Rogers took a new direction in his life. A perfectly sensible thing a human being would do.  
 
I will say that one thing I like about DC is that the legend of a superhero lives on, even if a specific character dies. A few examples I can give are Flash, Blue Beetle, and Batman. Bruce Wayne "died," but Batman didn't. Dick Grayson took up the mantle. Same with Flash. Barry Allen dies, Wally West becomes the speedster. Ted Kord dies, and Jaime Reyes is the new Beetle.  
 
Even though much of their stories can be too complicated for new readers to get into. I find it cool that the legend of the superhero supercedes a specific character. It's almost like the team coming before any individual player.
Posted by No_name_here
@Jordanstine said:
"

@Tom Pinchuck:

 

Going by your Comic Book and WWE mathapor:


Death in comic books nowadays is basically like WWE wrestlers just going on a vacation or just rehabilitating off camera, before they make a "surprise" (or not so surprise comeback) at the next Pay Per View event.

"
The real question is... what's the superhero equivalent of the chair shot? Or the coal miner's glove match?
Posted by comicbikerscott

comon comics have a alot of death and rescrictions
Posted by Dr. Detfink

Haha. Great write up Tom. Just thinking who would be the Ric Flair of comics?

Posted by No_name_here
@Dr. Detfink said:
" Haha. Great write up Tom. Just thinking who would be the Ric Flair of comics? "
I can't think of too many heroes or villains who bleed and bare their ass as often as him.
Posted by Mercy_
@Tom Pinchuk: Great write up as usual, Tom. :D
Moderator
Edited by NightFang

The dead will never stay dead, lol!!!!

Posted by Aetheldod

This is the reason why I dont read super heroes comics , because nothing is permanent , not even death and they seem to reboot the series too much , which sucks IMO ... Tho I know thats its a business and all , but you can only keep people interested for some time before the things becomes to monotonous or boring , this is what happened to me with Spawn ... by #100 I was fed up of the character so I just stopped reading it ... and I think Hellspawn was the right thing because it really reflected a change in the character , but anyway for some reason I stopped reading it ....

Posted by kapitein_zeppos

Up until Superman's demise, comic book deaths for the heroes were few and far between.  Bad guys usually came back faster than you could say a quick eulogy.
 
In recent years killing off characters has become almost routine and we expect them back sooner or later.  So we do lose the dramatic impact.  Even worse is the reversal of famous comic book deaths like Bucky and Tim Drake and the perpetually looming return of Captain Marvel.
 
The way comics are set up, killing off the title character is not a very good idea if you want to sell more issues.  Perhaps it is time we switched to broader "universe books" that do not focus on a particular character and would allow more leeway with dramatic structures.  Of course there are the fans as well to contend with.  Every character has its fanboys/girls who never take any costume change or dramatic change lightly.  So in the end we balk at how some comics feel more like yet another marketing exercise gimmick.

Posted by marvelunivers_deleteme

Nightcrawler needs to be resserected who's with me

Posted by ranchhand
@KRYPTON : 
You have to relate death to Death Symbolism and Departure. So yeah you're right, death doesn't mean death. See 510 stage hero's journey at 
http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

 
Posted by They Killed Cap!

I hate the abuse of death in comics. I think a select important few need to and have come back the others should stay day.  
 
This even goes for my beloved Sentry.
Posted by TheNightChick

Great Article

Posted by Primmaster64
@marvelunivers: Then...they should have never killed him....its kinda redundant.
Posted by doordoor123

meh.
Posted by daak1212

Certain deaths needed to stay permanent. 
 
Uncle Ben- Driving factor of spiderman 
Steve Rogers- His death was humongeuos impact on mainstream media, it sucks that they brought him back.  Passing the mantle to Bucky and writing those great premier arcs for him to establish him as Cap was awesom until they reversed it and brought back Steve 
Kyle Rayner- How ham handed did they handed this?  He madea  huge sacrifice to save Oa and died and then the next Fing issue he is brought back in a terrible way ( the power of love my ass, more like I cant write a good story for sh*t )
Posted by MannyMAR
@Tom Pinchuk said:
" @Dr. Detfink said:
" Haha. Great write up Tom. Just thinking who would be the Ric Flair of comics? "
I can't think of too many heroes or villains who bleed and bare their ass as often as him. "
I'd say Deadpool, but he's actually more of Mick Foley combined with all of his other crazy personas.
Posted by Dr. Detfink
@Tom Pinchuk:  Maybe Wolverine? Cause Ric's over 100 years old and still wrestles. Also Wolverine has been cut open more times than Cactus Jack and loses his pants more times than one can count.
Posted by evanescencefan91

that's true  I was just thinking about the same thing the other day, like elecktras died like 3 times

Posted by 4Essence

Such a great article yet again, Pinchuck. It's articles like this (very intelligent ones that look beyond the surface of comic books while not dismissing the plain fun of them) and those that the other  very knowledgeable members of CV post that make this my website homepage.  
Thank you.
Posted by J1ml33
@aetheldod said:
" This is the reason why I dont read super heroes comics , because nothing is permanent , not even death and they seem to reboot the series too much , which sucks IMO ... Tho I know thats its a business and all , but you can only keep people interested for some time before the things becomes to monotonous or boring , this is what happened to me with Spawn ... by #100 I was fed up of the character so I just stopped reading it ... and I think Hellspawn was the right thing because it really reflected a change in the character , but anyway for some reason I stopped reading it .... "

@kapitein_zeppos:
just goes to show how meaningless life on our side the printed page truly is . besides when I die I want to go out like this guy here .   
  now that is how I would want to die !  just like this man right here !
Posted by Eyz
@The Mighty Monarch said:
" Technically DC only teased the possibility of Doomsday, not necessarily 'another death of Superman.' At least, that's how I interpreted it. "
I'd prefer to have Doomsday back than the Re-Death of Superman...
 
Anyway, wasn't this just to coincide with the "Death of.." release at DC's digital comics page?
Posted by The Mighty Monarch
@Eyz said:
" @The Mighty Monarch said:
" Technically DC only teased the possibility of Doomsday, not necessarily 'another death of Superman.' At least, that's how I interpreted it. "
I'd prefer to have Doomsday back than the Re-Death of Superman...  Anyway, wasn't this just to coincide with the "Death of.." release at DC's digital comics page? "
I agree, I would rather it be Doomsday than Death2, and that also makes a lot more sense. 
 
That is one theory, but nobody really knows. The entire 'announcement' consists of the bleeding Superman logo and the heading, 'Doomsday Will Reign!' That's it.
Posted by Eyz
@The Mighty Monarch: Like I said I hope it's only to hype the upcoming digital release of Death & Return of Superman.
Posted by The Mighty Monarch
@Eyz said:
" @The Mighty Monarch: Like I said I hope it's only to hype the upcoming digital release of Death & Return of Superman. "
Turns out I was right. Doomsday's coming back in January/February.
Posted by Eyz
@The Mighty Monarch: They revealed it?
Pheeew...I'm relieved^^
I was afraid of another death but was hoping for Doomsday!
Posted by The Mighty Monarch
@Eyz: Yep. He's going to rampage across 5 issues. 
1-The Steel One-Shot in Jamuary 
2-Outsiders #37 
3- Justice League of America #55
4-Superboy #6
5-And the last one they're keeping a mystery for now. 
  
I'm excited. Outsiders is one of my favorite series and the cover for the issue looks totally badass.
Posted by Eyz
@The Mighty Monarch: Yeah, I saw that on the Source/DC's blog.^^
Reported it on my blog too: 
http://eyzmaster.blogspot.com/2010/11/comicnews-reign-of-doomsday.html 
(!Advertisement!)
 
Though that's only the beginning of this new Arc "Reign of Doomsday".
Part 5's not the last, that's the only 4 issues they currently revealed.
I'm guessing a 10-12 issues crossover.