Reading MGK’s post about the recent resurrection of Kraven the Hunter reminds me of one of my core problems with superhero comics…not “comics these days”, not “Marvel Comics” or “DC Comics”, but one of those things that I always have to grit my teeth and ignore about the entire pulp-inspired genre of men and women with super-powers. And that’s the way that death and resurrection are treated so cavalierly. I’ve posted in the past on how it’s not just resurrection that’s the problem, but death itself: When death is common, resurrections have to be common or else you start running out of people to kill. This cheapens the sense of drama that death brings; how can you be worried that the main character might die if you know they’ll just be resurrected in five years?
But there have been some stories over the years where the death was intended to be permanent…and not just that, but the permanent death was used to craft a genuinely powerful and moving story about that character. Those stories deserve to be remembered, because it’s not their fault that someone decided later to bring the dead person back for a quick sales boost. So let’s talk about the truly great deaths, shall we?
5. Aunt May. I’m actually of the school that says Aunt May shouldn’t die, because despite the fact that her age and infirmity have almost become a running gag, she fulfills such a vital role in the Spider-Man storytelling engine that getting rid of her creates more problems than it solves. But if you have to kill her off, you’d have a hard time doing it better than in Amazing Spider-Man #400. This was exactly what her death needed to be–not at the hands of some super-villain or monster, but simply a gentle passage with her beloved nephew at her side. It was sweet, moving, and sad…even if her resurrection was probably necessary.
4. Supergirl/The Flash. I’m not really sure how much of this was actually the way they were written, and how much of it was just the sheer iconic majesty of their deaths as part of the universe-shattering Crisis on Infinite Earths. Of course, twenty-five years later, a generation of fan-turned-pro writers with meter-length hard-ons for the Silver Age has undone just about everything good about Crisis, and the deaths of Supergirl and the Flash are no exception. But at the time, Crisis genuinely felt epic because it wasn’t trying to be so self-consciously epic, and the deaths of Flash and Supergirl worked because they weren’t done just check off the “shocking death!” tick-boxes of that year’s crossovers.
3. Kraven the Hunter. The man who inspired the list. I actually think Kraven probably had a few good stories left in him when he died; strictly speaking, his death wasn’t “necessary”. But he was starting to become progressively more pathetic as time passed, and this story restored the menace and majesty to one of Lee and Ditko’s loopier creations. And even if it hadn’t ended with his death, it would have ended him as a character; once he defeated Spider-Man, what was left for him to do in the Spider-Man books? His suicide was somehow the least shocking element of the story, and the story was a masterful work of craft by some of the finest talents in comics.
2. Jean Grey. I’d argue that this one was a bit of a mistake, because Jean is such an iconic character in the X-books. But Claremont and Byrne didn’t plan to kill her to begin with, so I’ll give them a pass on that one…and they managed to turn the “problem” of killing Jean into one of the most dramatic scenes of sacrifice in Marvel history. The fact that it created years of hassles for later writers, who had to find a replacement for Jean, replace the replacement with Jean, and then merge Jean with her own replacement and then get rid of the replacement completely. (And then Grant Morrison made the indefensible mistake of killing Jean all over again, in a much less dramatic fashion for a much smaller pay-off. I loved Morrison’s run on X-Men, but he was edited way too lightly. Mark Powers should have recognized that Jean must have had some kind of value, or they wouldn’t have spent so much time and effort bringing her back in the first place. Throwing something away and finding out you need it later is an accident. Throwing something away, rooting through the trash to get it back, then throwing it away again later is just stupidity.)
1. Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin. A triumph. A sheer, unmitigated triumph. The first half of the story has a wonderful atmosphere of gathering gloom, as what seems to be a standard rescue-the-hero’s-girlfriend story feels inexplicably ominous and ends not with a triumphant hero, but with Spider-Man cradling his girlfriend’s body and swearing murderous revenge on the villain. And unlike the other sixteen billion times that happens in a comics story, you felt a) like he really meant it and was going to do it, and b) genuinely unsettled. Spider-Man doesn’t kill. We all knew that. But we knew the Green Goblin really needed to die. The subsequent story elegantly resolved that with a death that felt like the universe was punishing the Goblin, like his death was karmic retribution for his act of callous murder. The surprisingly adult ending to the story, with Peter realizing that vengeance was hollow and MJ discovering a new maturity by comforting him in his grief, was the icing on the cake. This was a genuinely stunning, brilliant story, and it says a lot that not even self-avowed “Gwen was Peter’s One True Love” fanboy and editor-in-chief Joe Quesada has been able to bring Gwen back. (As for the Green Goblin…don’t even get me started. Bob Harras was a Philistine.)
As always, feel free to add your opinions in the comments!