This week marks the twentieth anniversary of The Death of Superman, who was killed while heroically selling three million issues of his comic book. Just a few months later he was back—in fact, four of him were back—because that’s what comic book heroes do after you kill them, although not always quadrupally.
Just recently, Professor X was also killed (again), and shortly before that, Spider-Man. (Okay, the Spidey they killed was the “Ultimate” version, because it would have been too upsetting to kill the Marvel universe Peter Parker… who by the way is also fictional.) Meanwhile back in the DC universe, the Joker is currently threatening to kill the entire Batman family, even if it takes him twenty-three issues across multiple titles at $3.99 a pop to do so. But whether he kills Alfred or Batgirl, Bat-Mite or one of many Robins, don’t expect them to stay dead for long. Because they will come back.
They all come back, a trick comic books borrowed, according to a recent study completely made up by me, from the Frankenstein films. Consider: in the 1931 original, Frankenstein’s misunderstood Monster was burned to death for not wiping his feet before invading villagers’ homes; in the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, he had somehow survived the fire only to learn the primary lesson of comic book Fanboys: Friends are “good,” but it’s hard to make women like you. So he blew himself up, only to return in Son of Frankenstein inexplicably looking no worse for wear, until tumbling into a molten sulfur pit in the middle of a laboratory. (You’d think anyone smart enough to have his own laboratory would build it someplace else, but against the logic of dead monsters who don’t stay dead that may be splitting hairs.)
It would be the last time Karloff would play him, but the Monster would return to die and die again in Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, House of Frankenstein, and as an uninvited guest in House of Dracula, where he respectively burns (again), drowns, disappears in quicksand, and is caught in yet another burning building before suffering the ultimate ignominy of burning yet again in an Abbott and Costello movie. Only to be resurrected once more as a Munster.
Even for monsters and super-powered heroes, the kill-and-resurrect model is a peculiar approach for serialized storytelling. Imagine if every Bond film ended with 007’s demise only to see him return unscathed with no explanation in the next one, like Kenny in South Park. But even George Lazenby couldn’t kill Bond.
On the other hand, the dead hero has become as much a staple of comic books as masks, capes, and super villains bent on destroying the world without apparently thinking about where they’re going to live next. The first Silver Age superhero to shock us by dying was Green Lantern. (Okay, it was Abin Sur, and since we’d never met him before, the period of mourning lasted about two panels.) The sixties and seventies gave us just a handful of heroes to mourn, until the bloodbath of Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, where about a dozen heroes and villains were dispatched to four-color heaven, including major characters Supergirl and The Flash, while Jonah Hex was sent into the future to make a terrible movie. Just four years later, in the precursor to the current Death of a Family storyline, the Joker killed Robin in a “call-in” vote that must seem quaintly retro in a world that’s always online… until you consider that it’s the same technology we use to select American Idol. (Random thought: imagine how much fun it would be to call in and vote to kill Simon Cowell.)
The dead comic book hero was once as rare as a flat-chested super heroine, but since the turn of the century it’s been open season on costumed types: according to the most trusted source of dubious information, Wikipedia, Marvel and DC have combined to massacre more than four hundred of their characters since 2001. You’d be safer wearing a bacon suit to a dogfight than being a costumed hero in the twenty-first century.
In recent years, everyone from Hellboy to Batman to Captain America have bitten the comic book dust, and Batman and Cap have already returned—both coincidentally having merely been lost in time (huh?). If the same hoary trick is used to resurrect Hellboy I’ll be disappointed, but however it happens you know he’s coming back. Because that’s what comic book heroes do even more than save the world: return from the dead, whether it takes forty-one years (Bucky) or a single issue (Batwoman).
So weep not for Professor X, or Commissioner Gordon, or anyone else who gets in the way of an angry Phoenix or a crazed Joker or the most dangerous threat of all, plummeting circulation. Reinvigorated sales are the Lazarus Pit of dead comic book heroes.