Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Meaningful Deaths in Comics

Karen: Remember when a death in comics was meaningful? Over the years the value of a character dying has been greatly diminished by repeated resurrections, tricks, what have you. But there was a time when death in comics was a rare occurrence, and one that carried real weight.

Karen: I was a little too young to catch it the first time around, but the death of Captain Stacy in Spider-Man was very moving. Although a supporting character, it was still surprising to see someone die.

Karen: Of course we can all thank Gerry Conway and John Romita Sr. for opening the floodgates, with the death of Gwen Stacy (and the Green Goblin). But this story was well-handled, and it meant something. It had a real impact on Peter Parker and his friends, and it affected the readers. Whether they liked it or hated it, people were reading the book to see what would happen next.

Karen: Two more deaths that followed not too long after that which I felt were notable were those of the Swordsman in Avengers and Thunderbird in X-Men. Swordsman's death was especially moving, as we had watched him struggle to regain his self-respect. He died a hero though, saving the life of Mantis. We never got to know Thunderbird very well, so his death was more shocking than moving.

Karen: When Jean Grey died, at the time it had an enormous impact. But of course, the character has been brought back and killed so many times, it's become laughable.

Karen: But before death became an over-used plot device, were there character deaths that affected you?


david_b said...

Wonderful topic today, everyone (geez, I LOVE this blog WAY too much...).

Gwen, Gwen, Gwen. That was the kicker.. I really loved Englehart's Swordsman arc in Avengers, and was really peeved to see him go, especially when some readers were writing in suggesting another scale-back of power in the Avengers by having just Vish, Wanda, Mantis, and Swordy.

At least when they had the Swordsman's 'spirit' pop back for an issue or two, it was a pretty cool concept. The Gwen Clone story..?? That was one of the last nails on the coffin of my comics interest at that time, along with the Jackel being one of Peter's professors (?!?).

And the cloning itself wasn't a technology/scientific gripe (hey, the FF was traveling into the Negative Zone and the Moon long before we did..). It felt like such a great 'supporting cast' concept in Spidey was ruined, like a trust was compromised after months of the Bullpen writing in the letters page, 'sorry folks, Gwen will remain dead'.

I know, she was a clone, but you get the picture... Not a palatable story-line after years of reader anquish.

Edo Bosnar said...

I read some of the other 'meaningful deaths' you mentioned after the fact: Gwen Stacey's in the Marvel Tales reprints, Swordman's when an older comic fan let me borrow a big stack of his old issues of Avengers (& tons of other titles), etc., so while I found them really good stories, they didn't have the same impact.
Thus, I definitely have to say for me it was Jean Grey's death in X-men #137, because I was reading the title regularly at the time (& I think reading Claremont/Byrne's X-men back then at the age of 11/12 was the equivalent to taking drugs for a young comics fan - I was really addicted), so I remember the story really shook me up back then. It still holds up, too; I recently re-read the whole Phoenix saga in the Essentials volume. It is a really well-written and moving story, so your comment about all of her subsequent resurrections and whatnot being laughable is an understatement. It's downright deplorable. More than any character, Jean Grey should have stayed dead, just to honor that original story.

Doug said...

Thanks for the input, guys! And David -- love that you love all of this!

I came to the Gwen Stacy death after-the-fact, so for me the first Clone Saga was my reality. Hence, I guess I look at it through a different lens -- perfectly acceptable. Much past that now, I look in hindsight at Conway's mandate to "bring Gwen back" (as ordered by Stan Lee) and see that his solution was really quite workable. There are several solid interviews on the subject in Back Issue #44 (featuring Karen's article on reader reaction to "all of the killing").

As to Phoenix, believe it or not, I quit buying comics after X-Men #130 came out -- missed the entire Dark Phoenix Saga!! So for me, the return of Jean Grey in the Avengers/FF crossover, and the advent of X-Factor, was extremely cool! Looking back now, and after they've really worn out the dead/alive/dead thing, I understand how fans reading in 1980-81 would be so put off.

It's funny how each of us are jaded based on when we read a story, Edo points out.

Good stuff -- thanks for the topic, Karen!!


Anonymous said...

Gwen, and at the time, the symmetry of Osborn dying the same day. I'm still ticked over Osborn being resurrected, especially for the ridiculous Clone Sage cluster----.

I'm almost embarrassed to say, but I thought that Warlock being killed and sent into his gem and Thanos being turned to stone (Was that a GS MTIO?) had similar symmetry.

david_b said...

Doug: I'm SO finding issue 44 on eBay tonight.. As for 'Stan Lee ordering Gwen to return'.., I'll have to read up on that. I didn't quite know who's idea that was quite frankly.

I can see perhaps the Gwen clone idea, but when I picked up an ish decades later to find that Norman Osborne was resurrected, I was even more disappointed.

I started reading X-Factor when it came out primarily because of Jean returning in the Avengers/FF ishs, a fair-weather Cyclops fan, and I was bored (X-Men never really interested me..). I stayed with it for a dozen issues or so.

I guess what I'm really saying above about Gwen's clone storyline, was that there was SO MUCH emotion over her loss in the Marvel Universe to, well, cheapen it with a scientific/storyline gimmick like Cloning. It seemed too much like some hokey 'evil twin' idea from television.

Doug said...

David --

The link to TwoMorrows is still on the sidebar, and if you don't want to wait to read it, I think the digital download (comes in a .pdf file) is only $3.

And I could not agree more with your disdain for the resurrection of Osborn. My last issue of ASM was purchased very shortly after that, and I haven't been back. Comics ceased to be fun anymore in the late '90's/early '00's. And I don't miss 'em.


Karen said...

@David: Essentially Stan lee was getting a lot of flack from fans at his personal appearances over Gwen's death, so he asked Conway to bring her back. it wasn't something Conway wanted to do, but managed it as best he could. I do agree, it takes a little something out of her death, but for the most part, it's still a powerful comics moment.But I absolutely hate that they brought back Osborn...so pointless! Now he's become Marvel's version of Lex Luthor. Ech!

@Edo: I think Phoenix was the death that affected me the most too. It was so tragic and yet so well handled; of course, it wasn't supposed to happen, but Shooter insisted upon it. Despite his resistance to it, Claremont turned in a hell of a story.I really wish they would have let her stay dead.

@Eric: I can't believe I forgot about Warlock and Thanos! But then again, those two have died and come back so many times, they give Phoenix a run for her money!


joe ackerman said...

seriously, the one and only death in comics that honestly, genuinely upset me was the death of Krypto back in "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?"


Fred W. Hill said...

The oldest issue of Spider-Man in my collection that I bought off a drugstore spinner rack when it originally came out was issue 97, the grand finale of the "drug issues", which had one of the few really happy endings, with Norman's memory of being the Green Goblin subsiding again and Gwen returning to Peter. I missed most of the next 20 issues but was a regular collector by the time issues 121 & 122 came around. By that time, my main reasons for preferring Marvel over DC was that Marvel's characters seemed more real rather than just cardboard figures with no real personalities. Yeah, that was an overgeneralization and now I realize there were certainly exceptions, but most of the DC comics I'd read up that point were gawdawful boring and I had no interest in keeping up with them. On the other hand, the better Marvel Comics kept me wanting to come back to see what would happen next, and that certainly was the case with Spider-Man following the deaths of Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin. I found myself more interested in how Peter slowly overcame his grief and his growing friendship with both MJ and even Flash while Harry sank into madness and rage.
As for that first clone story, it had some interesting elements, particularly the grand confusion and emotional turmoil of Peter, MJ and the Gwen-clone. Having Professor Warren turn out to be the Jackal didn't work for me though. I can see why Conway took that route, especially considering he was essentially ordered to bring back Gwen, and, well, hey, Pete & Gwen's biology professor was the best candidate to be the villain who cloned Gwen. Perhaps if Conway had included some earlier hints as to how deeply Gwen's death effected Warren, or that he was sinking into his own madness, it might have seemed more genuine to me, but so it goes.
At any rate, by the mid-80s I'd mostly lost interest in most of Marvel's output. Characterizations were becoming so wildly inconsistent from story to story, it was difficult to feel much for them anymore, and with storylines becoming ever more convoluted with mega-crossovers that were no longer any fun to try to keep up with, I finally gave up. And reading about how in later years Norman Osborne came back from the dead and turned out to have fathered twins with Gwen, and that Aunt May died and was brought back to life and that Pete made a deal with the devil to keep May alive while negating his marriage to MJ, well, none of it inclines me to catch up on Spidey's exploits anymore. Spider-Man became as unreal as I once perceived Superman to be. The curse of a fantasy that continues for too many decades

Edo Bosnar said...

joe bloke - thanks for mentioning the Krypto death in "Whatever Happened..." I found that the most emotionally-charged part of one of the best Superman stories I've ever read. The first time I read it, it was the closest I've ever come to crying over a scene in a comic book story.

El Lass said...

The battle between Nemesis Kid and Karate Kid, which lead to KK's death is powerful stuff. The writer used the characters mutual hatred of each other from their first appearances together very well. They both appeared in Adventure Comics #346 1966. When KK died in LSH #4 1994 he stayed dead. That's back when a dead Legionnaire always stayed dead. Back when a heroic sacrifice meant something to the Comic Book world.
Krypto's sacrifice and Supergirl's COIE too.

Karen said...

No surprise: our concurrent poll shows that most of you felt Gwen Stacy's death was the most affecting death of the bronze age, with the original Phoenix coming a close second. Thanks for voting and for the thoughtful commentary -and feel free to continue that!


Inkstained Wretch said...

Jim Starlin's Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel was really affecting to me. I was struck by how sober and reflective it was, something you just didn't see much of in comics at the time. The hero was dying not in some final blaze of glory saving the universe but slowly and from cancer of all things. The scene where all of the other heroes arrived to pay their final respects before he passed on really impacted this 11 year-old. When a new, competely different Captain Marvel became an Avenger. I thought, wow, the old one is gone for good. Life really is short.

Weirdly enough, the JLA/JSA team-up which involved a murder mystery over who killed the original, golden-age Mr. Terrific also affected me.

I had never heard of him before then but I knew that, as a JSAer, he must have had been around for decades. Then he turned up dead in the midst of the annual meeting of the two groups. The mystery was solved but the villian who killed him got away and NOBODY ever mentioned this again.

Now, I realize it was little more than a not-particularly successful attempt to create a locked-room whodunnit with superheroes and that Mr. Terrific was the victim because he was a little-used character anyway. Nevertheless something about the off-hand way he was re-introduced after years of inactivity only to be bumped off a few panels later and then completely forgotten about a few months after that somehow struck me at the time as an example of how randomly cruel the universe can be. Some people, through no fault of their own, just have no luck and die alone and unmourned.

That is, I'm sure, a much deeper reading of the comic than the writer had in mind, but well, there you are.

david_b said...

Speaking of deaths (and returns...), did anyone ever read WCA 39 about the Swordsman popping back to life..? I just found the cover online and was wondering whether I should pick it up or not.. Was it anything particularly noteworthy? I just bought the Marvel Spotlight (22?) with Swordy's background. Thanks!

MOCK! said...

I am taking the 30 Days of Comics challenge and JUST did this topic. I went with Jean Grey but now wish I had done Krypto....

Anonymous said...

Inkstained – thanks for mentioning Mar-vell. I couldn’t believe that no one mentioned him up til then. That he died from cancer and no one could save him was sad and awful. Of course, the problem with all those kind of things is time travel. Doc Doom’s time machine ( and Kang’s and God knows how many others) have been around since the very beginning, so why not just go back in time and smack Nitro over the head, job done. The poignant thing was all those heroes trying fight cancer itself and, inevitably, losing. That’s what made Captain Marvel’s death distinct and important.

I also thought the death of Warlock (I mean THE death, Avengers Annual 7) was sad & poignant. You get that bit inside the soul gem where everything is reconciled and he’s so happy, but he knows he has to come out because he simply has to deal with Thanos.

Gwen was terribly shocking and sad. And strangely real. He swoops down and saves her in typical super hero fashion, but, of course, the Goblin (or the fall) already killed, which is what would happen in real life. It also had a powerful resonance in the first film. The non-comic fans in the audience were thinking Spidey would inevitably save MJ , but those of us who remembered Gwen were thinking...hang on a minute, I know where they’re going with this....

The Swordsman’s death was cool because he had a real character arc, a real life story which developed over 8 or 10 years. Even when they brought him back as a ghost, it linked into Englehart’s cotati / Kree storyline, which, happening simultaneously with the origin of the Vision ( a question that had been hanging for about 3 years after that Sentinel announced that he was 20 years older than anyone thought) shot a plumb line all the way back to Marvel Comics no #1 in 1939, and explained where the Kree Skrull war started, the Kree themselves, the blue area of the moon, and many other unexplained bits of the Marvel universe, and also tied into the resolution of Mantis / Celestial Madonna thing....so it wasn’t a gratuitous resurrection, but part of a really satisfying bit of uber-plotting by Steve Englehart.

But ultimately, it was Jean. We’d been through 16 years of will-they won’t-they with her & Scott, origin stories, back stories, them getting together, the team separating, everything getting back together, the cancellation (OK, consignment to reprint oblivion) of the series, the biggest comeback ever in comics, the New Xmen, her seemingly inevitable (and heroic) death in Jamaica Bay, Jean & Hank coping with the the ‘death’ of the Xmen (Savage land) , Scott & Jean reunited, a 3 year plot arc turning her into the Phoenix and then Dark Phoenix, that whole saga was gut-wrenching...remember how she genuinely felt she was falling in love with ‘Jason Wyngarde’...mass murder, seemingly they had saved her, then Lilandra, showdown on the moon, and just when it seemed no-one could kill her, she realised she had to kill herself.

I actually stopped reading comics (for 18 straight years) when they brought her back.
Well, that and I’d discovered girls.

jefsview said...

I would say the Stacy's. They were supportaing characters, but they were very important to Spider-man. At the time when I first read them, the deaths happened in Marvel Tales, while Gwen "returned" in the regular Spider-man title. Past and present co-mingling.

Adam Warlock and his entire cast! Yes, when Starlin goes for a big finish, he kills 'em all.

Supergirl. The best her character ever was. She kicked some Darkseid butt and made me cry.

Jean Grey. Death by suicide. A sacrifice. I begn X-men with with 98, and ready every issue as it unfolded. Jean's death was huge and unexpected. Less than a year later, Claremont faked her return and my faith in comics began to die; then they brought a neutered Jean back for "real" and my suspension of disbelief vanished for good.

Osborn's death didn't effect me; guess because he was the bad guy and I dug the madness of Harry, and Pete's best friend turning on him Good drama.

Roscoe's death in the Nomad Storyline in Captain America was striking, since he died brutally at the hands of the Red Skull.

Later on, Krypto's death in Whatever Happended to the Man of Tomorrow did make me cry, since it was similiar to Supergirl's and made you care about the character

Anonymous said...

Well, at least Manhunter, Nemesis, and Jim Harper (the Guardian) all had the courtesy to stay dead-although that's probably because none of them was popular enough to be worth reviving. Same with Ferro Lad, Menthor, and the Golden Age heroes who were killed off in their very first Silver Age appearances (Original Human Torch, Blue Beetle, Bucky).

Anonymous said...

The original Doom Patrol's self-sacrifice was impressive, but DC ruined it with revivals and retcons.

Anonymous said...

Archie/Red Circle killed off Lancelot Strong, the Silver Age Shield, in 1983. AFAIK, they never brought him back. Or maybe they did and nobody noticed.

Anonymous said...

The deaths of Elektra and Terra were, IMO, too predictable to have a strong impact. The one surprise with Terra was that she remained evil to the end. I expected her to get killed saving the Titans. So I guess they do deserve some credit for avoiding that particular cliche'.

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