Death as Inspiration in Comics

Superman consoling Batman
Superman and Batman at the graves of Thomas and Martha Wayne

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

panel from Amazing Fantasy # 15
Amazing Fantasy # 15
Marvel Comics, 1962
Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

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

The Punisher. Poster by Mike Zeck
The Punisher. Illustrated by Mike Zeck.

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

Death of Martha Wayne
The Dark Knight Returns # 1
DC Comics, 1986 – Frank Miller
The infamous depiction of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace as it crashes to the ground upon her 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.

Thomas Wayne stepping in fron of criminal to save his family
Detective Comics # 33
DC Comics, 1939
Written by: Bill Finger & Gardner Fox
Illustrated by: Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff

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.

Superman # 75 in black poly bag
Superman # 75
Dan Jurgens, DC Comics 1993

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.

Adventures of Superman # 500 shipped in white poly bag
Adventures of Superman # 500
Written by Jerry Ordway Illustrated by Tom Grummet
DC Comics 1993

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Jemarc Axinto

    Comic book heroes inability to die for longer than a period of time has always bothered me. For example, a few years ago Marvel killed off the human torch, only to bring him back six months later. The outrage I felt was right up there with the rage everyone had over Superman’s return. Great article!

    • Jamie Tracy

      I understand. Death is more like a sabbatical in comics than anything else.
      Thanks for your help with the editing.

      • Marvel is getting ready to do the same thing with Wolverine this year. Of course Wolverine isn’t going to stay dead, and apparently Marvel’s reasoning for killing off what is arguably their most popular character is apparently an attempt to freshen up the character for readers when he returns.

  2. Dead in super-hero comics, for me, is in the same sphere as wrestling: you’re watching a spectacle with highs and low with broad metaphorical entities, all the while being very aware of the strings being pulled from behind.

  3. Ok Souza

    Great topic! Always found death in comics interesting. Example in Remenders Uncanny X-Force they cut out Fantomex’s heart and then waved his corpse around for a half-dozen issues. ‘Here’s him dead in a chair,’ ‘Here’s him dead, crucified on the wall,’ Here’s the badguy using his corpse as a puppet.’ Not dead until I see the body is pretty common in superhero comics, so Remender showed us the body, over and over again. He’s dead, he said, over and over again, hammering the point home.

  4. I think the new saying should be “Only three people in comics stay dead: Jean-Paul Valley, Gwen Stacey, and Jean DeWolff.”

  5. Love the article!

  6. WillSullivan

    I am interested to see how death will function in these cinematic universes. Marvel is ramping up their big event comic right now “The Death of Wolverine” who *spoilers* is probably going to die. Do you think they will kill off Wolverine at the end of Jackman’s run in the X-men movies? In the Marvel studios universe they have kind of positioned Bucky into a redemption arc in Captain America 2. Could Evan’s America die and Bucky take the mantel after he is gone? I guess what I am asking is will comic book heroes land into more permanent fates in the cinematic universe or will be see cheap tricks like we have throughout the history of comics?

    Spoilers for Days of Future Past

    We did just see three major X-men characters retconned into exist with the end of the time travel line (Jean Grey, Prof X, and Scott Summers). Could this point to a more comic booky way of dealing with the death of the hero?

    • Jamie Tracy

      We’ll revisit this thought in the next couple of years.
      We already saw Marvel Studios wave the resurrection wand in front of Agent Colson and now Nick Fury so we’ll see how it plays out.

  7. Sean Buckley

    In talking about how death can shape an already-established hero, one of DC’s bigger mistakes was bringing back Jason Todd. Before he was resurrected in the ultimate stake-killer, The Lazarus Pit, Bruce considered Jason’s death to be his greatest failure and it greatly shook his view on his mission and how he was going about it. By bringing Jason back, it created this loophole for Bruce. Why worry about anyone, even the teens (and kids) who were Robin, being killed in the line of duty if you can just bring them back? To bring him back as a vigilante was one thing, but then to make him into some sort of mystical super ninja fighting god-like beings? That didn’t help the “it was a good idea to bring Jason back” cause.

  8. Lory Kin

    Here’s a little anecdote. I was an art teacher for a lot of years, and waaay back when they “killed” Captain America, I overheard a discussion between a group of my 12-year-old students arguing over how long it would be before he was brought back. When even 12-year-old children don’t think death matters in your comics, the concept has lost all meaning.

    One can argue that death matters in comics because it’s a metaphor for loss and a knee-jerk gut-punch to readers that lasts just long enough to sell some extra issues before we all realize it doesn’t matter. But to an awful lot of us, that just makes death seem cheap and feckless. A lot of readers who walk away from comics do so because a character was killed off or brought back one too many times. It contributes to a sense that nothing in your stories means anything, so why bother reading them at all? If a company is going to, on the one hand, suggest that every book they publish is “important” to the greater narrative of their universe, and then take actions that so clearly point to the irrelevance of large chunks of story, it undercuts the point of it all.

    Dan DiDio once famously said (in reference to the admittedly not great Amazons Attack storyline) “Did it sell? No? It didn’t happen.” That attitude may sell books in the short-term, but in the long term it leads to malaise, frustration, and sometimes even a sense of betrayal by your readers. It ain’t good business, and it CERTAINLY ain’t good stories.

    • Jamie Tracy

      Dan DiDio has never been a great proponent for continuity.

    • CDK

      I agree that when a hero is brought back, it cheapens that particular death. I would also go further and say it cheapens death itself. If “we now know that our heroes will never die,” what does that say about our relationship to death? One might say that the super-heroes who die and are reborn reflect the attitude of the young and their implicit belief that they too will never die. But is that what one really wants to convey to the young, or anyone, for that matter: that death is not final? That there is the possibility of a reprieve in this world (not, say, in heaven)?

      I’m not knowledgeable enough about this, so I am asking if there has ever been a super-hero who has died and stayed dead?

      • Michael Krebs

        I have recently started to take some interest in comics so I too am not as knowledgeable as some others who have commented. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the point of others stepping up and taking over for the deceased (Bucky was mentioned earlier) is to in fact give us hope that someone must be there to take on the responsibilities of the former hero. Perhaps is says something about the endurance or even the adaptability of humanity. One could even argue that it is the continuous triumph of good over evil.

  9. We have to remember that “Comics should be a place to escape to, not from.” Can’t say there’s a single mainsteam A-lister comic I’d give to a ten year old right now, and there’s very few that one can point to as an example of a “hero” other than the fact that every 2 fights with another superhero they fight a full fledged villain character. I get that there’s people who like splash pages of gore or someone being shot, or of morality that’s two shades of dark gray with the difference just being perspective, but that’s entirely overrun the market now.

    Whatever happened to pulpy fun? Why is it that only writers outside of the big companies are bothering?

    • Deadpool is usually pulpy fun, but it’s not for 10 year olds.

    • Halina Cote

      I echo this sentiment. I grew up in the 80’s, where TV rarely had shades of gray. We had black and white, good and evil, with the occasional ‘redeemed villain’ or ‘benedict arnold’ being a treat to the reader. Our heroes had moral fiber, and our villains could be pitied- or even liked- but in the end we knew they were just plain evil.

      What’s the point of being a hero, when it gets hard to tell who the bad guy is?

  10. Good guys are supposed to win. I don’t like stories in which the good guys don’t win. I don’t understand people who do. When the villain can kill someone close to the hero, the hero doesn’t even get to have vengeance, because the villain is sent to jail then breaks out later. I don’t read comic books to see horrible things happen to good people. I don’t know why that suddenly became popular to the writers of many comic books these days.

    • Kevin Kryah

      Grittiness sells. This has been the trend since the ’90s, back when brooding anti-heroes were all the rage. It gives writers a chance to explore different, darker facets of established characters.

      That being said, I don’t think grit works for every franchise. Look at what Zack Snyder did to Superman in Man of Steel.

  11. None have effected me as the death of Gwen Stacy.

    • elfried

      Certainly matters more than Aquababy.

      • Disagree. Losing a girlfriend is devastating but losing your own child would be crippling.

  12. can’t wait for the day when Marvel and DC graduate beyond soap opera gimmicks

  13. The death that mattered most? DC Comics like a few years ago. Replaced by alternate books called New 52. My reading habits will never be the same.

  14. Venegas

    I do wonder though, at what point will the aging comic book reader tire of overexposed characters’ constant comings and goings? With Marvel making little to no effort to market to young readers, the audience becomes increasingly mature as the years go by, so the ability to surprise and invent becomes more difficult, especially when the concept of “time” is so vague within continuity. I consider myself a lapsed X-Men fan, and over the last year I’ve gotten back into the books. One reason I was game to do this after such a long break was Jason Aaron’s Wolverine & the X-Men. Finally, I thought, a new chapter in the characters’ lives! Kitty Pryde as Professor K, Wolverine as headmaster, a reinvented Hellfire Club and a smattering of Morrison-era Quentin Quires made it feel like something NEW was happening. Issues like #29 gave off the impression that a large plan was in motion, a promise of change and age and maybe even permanence. As Battle of the Atom approached, another window opened as more hints of Aaron’s future X-Men showed up. And now, after a deflated crossover, Aaron & Bendis continuity clashes, we find out that the culmination of all those elements was entirely designed to… bring Nightcrawler back from the dead? Really?

    Reading about Claremont’s intentions for his run, and the editorial obstacles he encountered in trying to kill Jean Grey, sideline Cyclops, and eliminate Wolverine, all reinforce the larger problem in storytelling, and that is that stasis (Proust be damned) generally does not lend itself well to entertainment. All characters, beloved as they may be, deserve arcs with beginnings, middles and ends. Instead, Marvel chooses to claim a certain continuity while allowing Storm to headline three books simultaneously, and egregiously overextend a now seemingly immortal Wolverine. If characters are to be retired or sidelined or killed, at least make it worthy of the grand spectacle that comics allow for, and honor that decision. Think what the X-Men could be had we let Jean Grey rest, allowed Cyclops to go raise his family, and finally destroy Wolverine? What creative steps could have been taken to advance the universe, to create new generations of characters FOR new generations of kids? It’s an alternative we are never likely to see, but I’m at least glad that there were a few glimmers of hope along the way.

    (And I say all this without even touching the fiasco of Peter Parker, who couldn’t even stay dead for an entire year. Geez.)

  15. Lorenze Wilke

    Dying is overrated and boring., it is a gimmick that is long been overplayed.

    • Especially these days when it’s as reversible as a dirty sock!

  16. Gwen Stacy’s death is one of the most shocking moments in comic books. All the things that make Peter Parker Spiderman (the cockiness, the over confidence, the goading of supervillians) are what are responsible for her brutal neck snap.

    That said, since Superman’s death and resurrection, Death has become meaningless in mainstream comics. Everyone who can die, can be brought back.

    • What about Douglas Ramsey (Cypher) of the New Mutants…HIs heroic death was the first I thought of when i read this title…he gave his life to save his teammate Wolfsbane…Or Illyana Rasputin (Magik) who died of the Legacy Virus and set the tone for a long running story arc that even young children are not immune to the plans of madmen like Stryfe…or Captain Jean DeWolfe…Her murder at the hands of Sin Eater was the start of the story arc that gave us Venom (and ultimately Caranage) and is another death that eats at the heart of Spiderman.

      • Jamie Tracy

        First off, I am a huge New Mutants fan. I love the original team.
        With my article I wanted to focus on household names to allow casual fans to enjoy it.

        There are so many characters to use that I had to be selective. you have brought up some great moments in comics, I’d also add when Colossus took on the Legacy virus and the deaths of Jean Grey especially in The Dark Phoenix Saga.

    • Parker Broome

      What about the Legion? In the comics world, rarely has a team lost so many who stayed dead. Ferro Lad, Invisible Kid, Chemical King, and others stayed dead. The resurrection of a Legionnaire is a rarity.

  17. Saragosa

    To some of us who started reading comics in the late 80s/early 90s having bringing back Barry Allen was pretty much like bringing back Uncle Ben. For 20 years all I knew of Barry Allen was that he was the sacrafice the entire justice league needed to live up to.

  18. Lovely article! I really liked how you summed up why we read superhero comics. They inspire us to be great. I do feel the death and rebirth in comics has become a cliche but that doesn’t not in anyway lessen the impact of said death or rebirth. I will definitely be picking up “Death of Superman” in the future!

    • Jamie Tracy

      Death of Superman was a great arc. Make sure you read the complete saga. It is in a collected edition now for pretty cheap.

  19. Characters that were created for the purpose of dying shouldn’t be highligted. For the simple fact that we never got to know them as characters, and thus, felt no great loss by their demise. THAT being said, it seems the characters that we do miss the most and most shocked and moved by their deaths seem to inevitably make their return. Which cheapens the whole thing.

    • Jamie Tracy

      The death of the characters in origin stories shouldn’t take center stage to us as we have not invested time in their development. They matter to us in that they represent people in our own lives. Their deaths are what propel our heroes into being the characters they are now.
      So I agree with what you are saying that we really don’t care about Uncle Ben as a character but we do care about him because he shaped Spider-Man for us.

  20. Nice take on the topic of Death in comic books. Comic book character’s deaths that resonate throughout the comic book universe… A few characters stayed dead, a select few came back to the land of the living. Peter’s Uncle Ben stayed dead. X-Men’s Jean Grey died, came back, died, came back, and died again.

  21. wow, this is why I don’t read “graphic novels” or comic books. They are confusing, unreal in a more than usually unreal way and did I mention confusing? I can’t get my head around them, and the articles here show me WHY I can’t…. apologies to those who enjoy them, you brain works better than mine does, and differently – no offense intended.

    • Jamie Tracy

      No offense taken. Comic books are certainly not for everyone. If you want to try and ease into them, I’d start with some of the smaller publishing companies that do not have decades of history with their characters.
      The Walking Dead is a great title to start with. It is a simple concept that focus on character development.

    • TyTalbert

      Graphic novels and comic books are not necessarily the same thing.

  22. As an avid Batman reader, I particularly loved the breakdown of death in that series, but I also loved the exploration of the other series I’m less familiar with. I always loved the struggle of Batman’s ongoing dilemma with death and justice. For me, however, though I was always a little bothered by the lack of conviction in character deaths (as in bringing them back to life), the really interesting subject matter never had to do with the dramatics of a character dying. The beauty of the Batman comics, and I’m sure the others as well, is that the villain/hero interaction opens up discussions about the true nature of humanity, morality, and justice.

    Now, on the other hand, I think there does need to be a little bit of a shake up in regards to character deaths. The same way George RR Martin has created a book series subverting years of readers being “trained” to expect their favorite character to make it out alive, someone needs to do it with graphic novels and comics! No magical comebacks, more conviction!

  23. Scott Morse

    When I was six years old I had the biggest crush in the world on the original, first and only true Supergirl. At the age of twenty sx, when DC decided to reboot it’s continuity via COIE, the child inside me died along with Kara.

  24. Does this mean that comic books and graphic novels don’t take death seriously? Don’t these heroes becomes almost theistic with their inability to die (or stay dead)?

  25. Can there be a superhero who isn’t inspired to heroism via avenging a death of someone they love?

    Maybe I’m bitter, but at the end of the day it kind of seems like a cliche, or an easy way out: the purpose being to give instant depth to a character without actual character development (e.g. Disney princes/princesses with only one parent). Thoughts?

    • ScorpiusNox

      Luke Cage is inspired by money (and, eventually, making his old stomping grounds a better place). I hear he’s getting a Netflix show or something, so check him out!

      No one’s death explicitly inspires the Hulk. People in his past and present have died, but that’s not why he’s a hero (when he’s a hero).

      Most of the X-Men are inspired by their civil rights cause rather than personal loss. The same can be said for some of the Brotherhood, though Magneto obviously lost quite a lot.

      The Fantastic Four. Thor. Two of the Flashes (Garrick and West). The Green Lanterns. There are plenty of superheroes not motivated by death. Maybe they just don’t get as much media attention =P .

      • True, thanks for the recommendation! Luke Cage sounds interesting.

        I wonder if there is some connection to be made about those comic heroes who get picked up by the mainstream & their death motivations? It does seem kind of anomalous that the major players in pop culture are these death-informed folks. Maybe it’s just easier character development for Hollywood rather than the actual comic creators.

        • ScorpiusNox

          Oh yeah, he’s a treat. As I recall, there was a scene back in the day where he went and literally pimp-slapped Doctor Doom (yes, THAT Doctor Doom) over $200 xD .

          I think you’re on point with the idea that it’s easier character development. Whereas comics can (and do) go on forever, movies only have so long to tell a story. Better to go with characters with whom the audience can easily empathize than try to make them connect with someone with more nebulous motivations.

          • Jamie Tracy

            You are correct. Dr. Doom hired Luke Cage to stop the Fantastic Four from doing something and Dr. Doom stiffed him. Cage then stole the FantastiCar and flew to Latveria to get his money. Classic 70’s comic.

  26. Danny Cox

    I’m not a big reader of comic books. I have never read or even held a single one. But I guess I am somewhat interested in the idea of them, and I enjoy superhero movies as much as the next guy. That being said, I enjoyed reading your article, I especially likely the sequence on the punisher. Nice job.

  27. Glenn Angel

    Anybody remember the Marvel comic “Strikeforce: Morituri?” It wasn’t related to any of their other comics. In the story, Earth is constantly raided by these alien banditos, so the UN (or US, it’s been awhile) start a top-secret project to create superheroes. (Evidently it’s easier to create superpowers in ordinary humans rather than, say, better weapons for the military.) The kicker was, though, that the process would kill anyone given superpowers after about a year. The comic wasn’t all that brilliant–my synopsis is retarded, but it might be slightly less so than the actual comic–but still, it was nice to know that the characters wouldn’t die and somehow magically come back to life. They were going to die, period, end of story, no resurrection possible.

    I heard later that they changed it so somehow they wouldn’t die after a year. I guess some things never change in comics.

    • It had a cool premise. I only red issue number one and another. Interesting to reboot it.

  28. ScorpiusNox

    This may be a morbid thought, but I think if the Punisher and Batman traded rationalities, the DC Comics landscape would be a better place in-universe =/ .

    Think about it. The Punisher, to the best of my knowledge, mostly faces off against gangbangers, petty criminals, murderers, etc. His enemies are the kind of villains we tend to face in our own lives: real people, some of whom are misguided and could change if given a genuine chance, and some of whom are simply psychotic and can/must be detained (perhaps even executed) after receiving due process. Since the former is possible in most cases and at least worth a try, these people deserve another shot.

    Batman, on the other hand, is facing off against repeat mass murderers like the Joker and Two-Face. The body count of some of his villains is simply outrageous. I understand that it would be a violation of his character if he started killing people, and I wouldn’t advocate it as a reader. If I lived in the world of comic books, though (heaven forbid I should live there as a non-powered civilian o_o), I would absolutely be pissed that Batman keeps sparing the Joker, and no high-minded speech about how killing the Joker would make Batman just like the Joker would make me think it a bad idea.

    The Joker is never going to change, and throwing him in an Asylum and hoping that’ll be the end of him is like building a city on a known, active supervolcano and hoping it won’t erupt…We’ve haven’t done that, right?

    • Jamie Tracy

      Interesting. It would be a very different world for Gotham. Punisher would have a field day in Gotham. All the organized crime, corrupt cops and psychotic villains would be in a state of panic. I think this is one of the reasons Marvel has come full circle and Punisher only fights mafia again. He has moments in his history where he fought super villains. The Marvel universe would be thinned out quite a bit if Punisher was able to fight Spider-Man’s villains for instance.

      He killed Jack-O-Lantern and Stilt-Man during Civil War among others.

  29. from my perspective if a super hero dies in a comic. they should stay dead in that universe, an if they bring them back it should be a what if he/she had lived. or its a whole new universe where they have different problems.

  30. Mary Awad

    The pictures you used were great. I didn’t know Peter Parker found out about Uncle Ben’s death in such a blunt and impersonal way in the canon. That could really cause trauma and spark action out of everyone. Grief is a powerful motivator. Nice article, great topic.

  31. I think that bringing a character back from the dead in comics is fine as long as the death and the resurrection both have significant consequences. Characters not reacting deeply to the death or having them be completely unsurprised at the resurrection is treating the readers like idiots, really.

  32. I’m curious how you feel about comics books such as “Watchmen” that challenge these tropes of the superhero. That graphic novel is riddled with death and no resurrection. However, they are not the typical superhero obviously and you address the more well-known and iconic superheroes. Just curious how you feel about Moore’s work with the superhero as I am writing my senior thesis about “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta” and partially addressing themes of death!

    • Jamie Tracy

      I have a pretty unpopular opinion of Watchmen. Partially because I bought it when it came out. When I first read it I was amazed. There was nothing like it in comics. I think it has been cheapened by modern comics in their veiled attempts to recreate a Watchmen-esque atmosphere for their comics.

      Marvel was really on the right track when they launched their Ultimate line. The simple thought of; “What if all our heroes lived in contemporary time?”There would be death, there would be increased terrorism, the government would fund super groups.

      All that being said, I find Watchmen to be part exploitative for shock value and part critical analysis of our own desires for violence and sex.

      Good luck on your thesis. If you need any help feel free to email me.

  33. This is an awesome article Jamie, and one that I think taps into the core nature of the superhero. We all experience tragedy, and more often than not the tragedy that we have to endure is senseless. But if we manage to forge something meaningful out of that tragedy, then I believe we can find a way to heal and realize that although what happened was unfair and unjust, our response to it made the pain hurt a little less. I think of all the heroes you mentioned; Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man all had to face some horrible occurrence, but they all managed to rise above hatred and fight for justice (though in Batman’s case, it’s obviously a little hard). You also make a good point by mentioning that sometimes the desire for justice slowly metastasizes into the desire for vengeance as with The Punisher, and how that creates a character that provides us with an idea of what a hero like Spider-Man would’ve been like had he not faced his problems with a measure of grace. Again, this is a really outstanding piece Jamie.

  34. uhstevedude

    I’ve wondered why Death is always a tool by writers in comics to motivate a character, similar to why almost every Disney princess is an orphan, it’s just really weird that ambition and relevance is associated with an absolute force like death– especially in comics where death is violated by every single Hero at one point or another; a world where death is a suggestion and not a command.

  35. uhstevedude

    Isn’t it odd how death is such a strong force of motivation for Comic characters when Comic characters themselves are never explicitly controlled by death. Death defines their morals but death isn’t applied to them. They’re resurrected more times than Jesus himself.

  36. I completely agree that the use of death in comic books serves as an important source of inspiration, and I think if Superman hadn’t come back to life in such a fast-paced manner all those years ago, we’d probably have a greater respect for it in nowadays comics.
    I’m more of a DC reader so I can’t vouch for how much Marvel messes around with the personification of Death, but over the years DC seems to have thrown it around like a bad joke, I even remember reading a Flash (Wally West) comic in which he is outrunning the Black Racer (the personification of Death for Speedsters) and he ends up running so far forward in time that Death no longer has meaning, and therefore he escapes its cold grip.
    That being said, the idea of Death, dying and resurrection was key in the 2009 DC series Blackest Night, and that was an extraordinarily good piece of storytelling.

  37. SomeOtherAmazon

    This always makes me wonder about Gail Simone’s ‘Women in Refrigerators’ trope. Is it cheap to keep using death as a way to motivate characters? And what about the characters that die? It does them a bit of a disservice. The W.I.R. trope looks at how this kind of writing has implicated female characters, but in general maybe it’s time to find new ways to compel heroes forward. There’s gotta be something more creative than killing loved ones off.

  38. I agree that comic books are made to inspire us, by knowing that a character’s death is irrational. Today when we watch a superhero film we always react to the death of a beloved superhero or even villain. The issue with this is that most of hesitate to cry to early after a death of a character. Because scenes afterwards we are left with mixed feelings when our freshly dead character is brought back to life. Yet the comic book/film industry wouldn’t be as successful without this aspect in the common journey of a hero. We (readers) need our heroes to be immortal or else what would we have to look forward to in these great stories!

  39. scole

    it’s interesting because now reading this I see too many death’s in comics, especially with superheroes, I think it works like with Spider-Mans case, but killing heroes over and over and making them come back to life is becoming too tiresome. I really like this article and how it explained that someone else dying has created why they became who they are, because I think there’s a different distinction going on and we need to realize that and so do the creators as well.

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