Earlier today, as a part of this month’s A to Z Challenge, I wrote a post about Doomsday, the creature/being that killed Superman in the now classic Death of Superman storyline of the early 1990s. In response to that post, our blogging friend T asked why people always die and come back to life in comics.
This is a subject I’m sure countless geeks have tackled over the years. Because T is right… It happens ALL. THE. TIME. And this post isn’t going to have any in-depth research to back anything up. It’s just going to my opinion based on my observations after reading comic books for a good majority of my life.
Aside from Superman, who may have started the trend of death and rebirth, off the top of my head we have…
- Green Arrow (Oliver Queen)
- The Flash (Barry Allen)
- Green Lantern (Hal Jordan)
- Captain America (Steve Rogers)
- Spider-Man (Peter Parker)
- Wonder Woman (Diana Prince)
- Robin (Jason Todd)
- Batman (Bruce Wayne)
- Supergirl (Kara Zor-El)
For the casual reader, those civilian names may not mean a whole lot. But it kind of becomes important when we get into why these characters died and who stepped in to take their place. Also, looking at that list, I realize that the Flash was probably the first one to kick this off.
It isn’t just death that gets used as a trope to shake things up. Some heroes give up their identities because they become disillusioned or they lose their powers. But someone is usually there to step in and take over the mantle of superhero. And that’s basically why writers dip into that well… to shake things up.
Superman’s been fighting for truth, justice, and the American way since 1938. So toward the end of 1992, DC Comics decided to kill him off and introduce four new Supermen into the mix. And then the real Superman returned.
Green Arrow was killed off at some point in the late 90s (I think… not much of a Green Arrow reader). So his estranged son, Connor Hawke took on the title. And then the real Green Arrow returned.
The Flash sacrificed himself fighting the Anti-Monitor during DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, making room for Wally West, the former Kid Flash, to takeover as the Flash. Wally West held that title by himself for more than 20 years. And then the real Flash returned.
I could go on and on with the examples, but I won’t.
The point is, the hero we’ve all known and cheered for all these years has gotten boring. So it’s time to bring in someone else. Time to make Sam or Bucky the new Captain America. Time to make Artemis (another Amazon) the new Wonder Woman. Time to have Doc Ock take over Peter Parker’s body and become the Superior Spider-Man.
All of these changes are intended to grab headlines on the right websites. Because, ultimately, these changes are stunts to see what they will do to sales figures at the local comic shop. If I remember correctly, these changes to the status quo do lead to an increase in sales. But it’s usually a temporary bump.
Because, inevitably, the audience wants what’s familiar. They want to know that Superman is Clark Kent. They want to know that Captain America is Steve Rogers.
This is why Bruce Wayne has been Batman non-stop for more than 80 years.
Speaking for DC Comics, with which I’m much more familiar, they have tried a number of times over the years to pass on a superhero’s legacy to a new generation. This has led to a number of legacy characters…
I mentioned Wally West before, who was “my” Flash growing up. Barry Allen was long gone by the time I picked up an issue of The Flash. But when Barry returned from the dead in the mid-2000s, Wally certainly couldn’t go back to being Kid Flash. So that meant that there was more than one Flash.
While the Green Lantern is a part of a galactic team known as the Green Lantern Corps with thousands of space cops across the universe, there are no less than seven Green Lanterns from Earth that are currently active.
And let’s pause a moment to take in the fact that there have been five kids to wear the Robin costume. Yeah… Five. Dick Grayson was the first and, somehow, he managed to grow up in a universe filled with ageless characters. Once he moved on from being Batman’s sidekick, he took on the role of Nightwing. This allowed Jason Todd to become the second Robin. The Joker killed Jason (but he, of course, came back some time later) and Tim Drake took over the title. And Tim was “my” Robin in the 90s, but he took a temporary break. So his girlfriend, Stephanie Brown (AKA Spoiler) took over, leading to her own temporary death. These days, Bruce Wayne’s son, Damien, is the current Robin.
So they try to have it both ways. They want time to progress and, in doing so, they bring in new characters to stir the pot. But then a few months or even years later, they decide they need to backtrack and restore the status quo. But they don’t get rid of those characters that came along in the meantime. Sometimes they become background noise that clutters up the multiverse. Sometimes they’re forgotten for years at a time.
There’s no real fix to this. Though I do think it would be interesting if comics took a chance on letting their characters age in real time. Doing that would probably mean Bruce Wayne would have retired or been killed as Batman roughly 10 years into the gig. Superman could probably keep going and going because who knows how Kryptonians really age under a yellow sun. And then what happens when deaths occur and they actually stick?
Truth is, heroes die and come back from the dead because people are resistant to change. We really like it when familiar characters maintain the status quo.