Death as Inspiration in Comics
In mainstream comic books the phenomenon of death is both laughable and engaging. We know that our heroes will never truly die. They will come back bigger and better. Often times they return more popular than before like Green Arrow, Flash, Green Lantern and Elektra. The only true death in the comic industry is that which surrounds a hero’s origin. We are all familiar with the murders of Batman’s parents and Spider-Man’s uncle. If these characters do not stay dead, the fundamental nature of these two iconic heroes would be altered for the worse.
Death serves as the greatest motivator for revenge. In the comic world it can serve as the basis of a traditional origin story for heroes and villains alike. Occasionally death can transcend the conventions of vengeance and elevate a hero beyond the primal desire for revenge and into a positive mode of inspiration.
Death has been a collaborator in creating comic book characters since the dawn of the medium. Superman, arguably the first super hero, is the last son of a dead planet and all its inhabitants. It is Superman’s birthright to honor Krypton by being the greatest hero the world has ever known. As a foil to the big blue boy scout is DC’s Dark Knight, Batman. Batman’s origin is born of death itself. Orphaned by a common criminal, Bruce Wayne grows up to become a hero motivated by justice, not vengeance. The World’s Finest heroes are both inspired by death in different ways.
Spider-Man is given his powers by chance, an accident. His sense of character and moral compass come from his Uncle Ben. Uncle Ben’s death provides a driving force into how Spider-Man leads his life. Witnessing one’s family gunned down before your eyes would cripple most of us. It sent Frank Castle into a world of darkness and revenge that he has not left. The Punisher uses death as fuel for his fiery vengeance. Punisher and Spider-Man have clashed ever since The Amazing Spider-Man # 129. Although they both want the streets of New York safe, they certainly have opposing styles of crime fighting and view the most tragic moments of their life as inspiration to improve the life of others.
Spider-Man and His Amazing Inspiration
The death of Uncle Ben was a necessary step for Stan Lee to take. When Peter Parker was given his powers he did what most of us would do, he tried to make money with his new skills to impress a girl. Peter was like many teenage boys trying to get used to their changing bodies. He pushed himself to his physical limits and capitalized on his new self. Peter Parker became the Spider-Man we know today after his Uncle Ben’s murder and the most famous phrase in Marvel Comics was written; “With great power there must also come — great responsibility”. Spider-Man wanted revenge for his uncle’s death as many of us would understand. It wasn’t until he was at the door of vengeance that his uncle’s memory and Stan Lee’s inspired words began to resonate. Peter realized at that moment that he will rise above the criminals. He must make the world a better place, not just safer.
It is Ben and May Parker’s wish for Peter to become a great man. He very easily could have been the rebellious teen and exploited his powers for self gain but the death of Ben Parker propelled him into becoming a super hero. Peter feels an obligation to become the man his surrogate parents hoped he’d be. Spider-Man is a morally sound hero. He does not cross the line with criminals. He is a model of restraint and responsibility.
The death of Uncle Ben weighs heavily on Peter and continues to drive Spider-Man to not just stop crime but represent the common New Yorker. As iconic as the “Thwipp” of his web shooters is the awe-inspiring response he elicits from the crowded streets as he swings by. He has become a role model and inspires others toward greatness. Not everyone needs a death in the family or super powers to become a better person. Some just need a role model to look up to, as Peter needed Uncle Ben.
Punisher as a Vessel of Vengeance
Fittingly in Amazing Spider-Man # 129 Marvel Comics introduced us to the original anti-hero, The Punisher. Frank Castle is a Vietnam veteran with extensive military training. After he and his family were witnesses to a mob hit in Central Park, the Costa Family gunned down Frank, his wife and two children. Frank survived and vowed revenge when the police could not do anything to help him. Frank Castle became the Punisher to force criminals to pay for their crimes, most often with their lives.
The death of Frank Castle’s family did not inspire him to become a hero. Castle did not become a hero to make the streets safe. He became the Punisher to kill those that make the streets unsafe. Being a hero was never his real intent. Frank Castle was a hero in Vietnam. He was one of the first characters in Marvel that came from a military background since Nick Fury and Captain America. That common military background is where their similarities end. When the police would not help him bring his family’s murderers to justice he decided to take up the mantle of The Punisher to exact vengeance. Frank Castle, former Vietnam hero and family man is now a man obsessed with revenge. He is no longer a war hero or role model. He is a symbol of vengeance.
The true hero uses death as inspiration to become a better person. The path of vengeance perpetuates the very problems and crimes these heroes attempt to stop. Punisher uses death as a way to level the playing field and rid the streets of crime. He is content to take on the role of the anti-hero. His drive for vengeance sustains the cycle of violence that surrounds him. In contrast, Batman uses death as a way to honor his parents memories. He patrols the streets to make sure these violent crimes will not happen again, by the criminals hands or his own.
Batman: Born from Death
Bruce Wayne is the son of billionaire philanthropists Thomas and Martha Wayne. He led a life full of hope and had the world at his fingertips as an 8 year-old boy. As he was leaving the theater one night with his parents, his world came crashing down. He witnessed the murder of his parents. Young Bruce saw his father defend his family and die a hero. Bruce was left orphaned and hopeless. The tragedy of witnessing the death of ones parents is unimaginable. Bruce Wayne had the motivation to become an iconic villain for DC Comics. Rather than focusing on the emotional torment that surrounds death like feeling powerless, abandonment, weakness, fear, or vengeance Bruce focuses his life on honoring his parents death by ridding the streets of criminals like Joe Chill. He wanted to make sure there would never be another 8 year-old Bruce Wayne left alone and frightened on the streets of Gotham. Bruce Wayne grew up to become The Caped Crusader known as Batman.
Thankfully Bruce Wayne did not spiral out of control into a world driven solely by vengeance. Yes he is vengeful, however, early on Wayne realized that he had a greater purpose in life than mere vengeance. The death of his parents could have impaired that boy but it served as the defining moment in his story. Rather than lead a life of revenge, like The Punisher, Bruce Wayne transforms himself into The Dark Knight.
The last act of his father motivated Bruce. Thomas Wayne, the heroic protector put himself between the assailant and his family. The death of his parents inspires Bruce Wayne to fight the common criminal, to instill fear into them and fill the citizens of Gotham with feelings of hope and relief. They will not suffer the fate of Gotham’s First Family, the Wayne’s. Gotham has a protector that has transcends the emotional scarring of death and has evolved into a symbol of inspiration, honoring his family’s death by giving up his own life to keep Gotham safe.
The Death and Resurrection of Heroes
Death is a peculiar concept in Comic Books. The comic philosophy is that the only story better than a character’s death is a characters return. In 1992 DC comics did the unthinkable. They gave us The Death of Superman.
Ending with Superman # 75, which shipped in a black bag, adorned with a bleeding S and included a black armband, we saw the death of Superman by the hands of Doomsday. I remember rushing home and reading that issue on my couch. I felt like I was losing a part of my childhood. DC struck publishing gold with this comic. Superman # 75 sold out its 2.5-3 million copy print run before the week ended. In my local comic shop I remember being offered $50.00 for my unopened copy the following week (Yes, I bought 2). Media and news reports worldwide covered Superman’s death. The story was a critical and fiscal success. The focus shifted away from Marvel’s X-Men titles and Superman was all the rage. Unfortunately the rumblings of Superman’s return began to come to the surface and the “value” of Superman # 75 plummeted, as did the mainstream audience’s new appreciation of DC Comics innovative approach to their universe.
In what now symbolizes the beginning of the dark ages of the comic industry Adventures of Superman # 500 marked the return of Superman and fittingly shipped in a white bag with the iconic Superman “S” emblazoned on the front. Not only were comic fans let down by a whopping 6 months of DC’s commitment to the death of Superman but also all of our copies of Superman # 75 were now worthless. The value of this historic storyline was now insignificant. I still love the story and if you’d like to read it, check out your local comic shops dollar bins.
The death and triumphant return of Superman ushered in a new era of resurrections in DC Comics. Green Arrow, Flash (Barry Allen), Hal Jordan, Batman and others all capitalized on the back from the dead storyline. This story model continues to lessen the impact of a hero’s death.
With the apparent murder of Captain America at the end of Marvel’s Civil War readers were left with mixed feelings. We knew he would come back, so the impact of his death lost some of its validity. In Captain America’s death The Winter Soldier found inspiration to take up his old friends mantle. The new Captain America makes for a decent story arc but it felt more like reading an adventure story of a lame duck president. Knowing a hero will return has made their possible deaths irrelevant.
Death as an Origin
The prominent deaths that are permanent in comic books are typically within a hero’s origin story. These serve as the driving force of the hero for his/her career. This drive can manifest as vengeance as in The Punisher or it can become a greater motivation and shape the moral future of a hero like Batman or Spider-Man. Death is the basis of origin stories for some of our greatest heroes. They rise above the simple motive of revenge and become a symbol of inspiration to readers. They honor the dead by living a life their fallen family members would be proud of. Batman lives on the edge of vengeance and justice. The memory of his parents keeps him grounded in preserving life not taking it. Spider-Man seems to lead a carefree life, however the tragic death of his Uncle Ben has propelled him into being a true hero, not a selfish opportunist. If death is a collaborator in creating a super hero it becomes a part of that hero. Death becomes a part of that hero’s origin that propels them to greatness.
A super hero’s origin story can be quite tragic as in Batman and Spider-Man. It is a great feat for both of these young men to become heroes and not lead a life of vengeance and violence like The Punisher. Turning the worst moments of their lives into a source of inspiration was the driving force in creating Spider-Man and Batman.
There are very few characters that have remained dead in comics. Each year that list gets smaller. The death and re-birth of super heroes is just another storyline. A storyline that reminds us why we read comics. We look for escapism and fantasy. We read super hero books because they inspire us. They show us an idealized representation of our imagination. They rise above death and believe death cannot stop them. The comic industry is giving us exactly what we need, inspiration. We now know that our heroes will never die. They will live on in print and on the screen for eternity.
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