The superhero mortality rate is pretty insane, ain’t it? Then again, so is the resurrection rate which puts them a few steps ahead of us mere mortal readers. But almost any time there’s a major change in the status quo of a character’s existence (as there was in the recently released Amazing Spider-Man #700), it’s good to take a moment and remember some of the other times that we were sure our favorite characters had bought the farm. While superheroes and their loved ones end up at room temperature all the time, it’s rare that there’s any lasting impact. This list deals primarily with those special bucket-kickings which stirred up some controversy or had consequences which lasted long beyond the immediate storyline. As a result, everyone on this list is a Marvel or DC character, as these are the guys and gals who, for better or for worse, make the most waves when they go under.
Bucky (Avengers #4, 1964)
For most of my comic book reading life there was a saying: “The only characters who stay dead are Bruce Wayne’s parents, Uncle Ben, and Bucky.” Well, at least the first two are true. But seriously, folks…Bucky croaked in 1964’s Avengers #4, although “in story” Bucky had met his fate twenty years earlier while trying to disarm a booby-trapped aircraft. Cap dropped off the plane in time, but Bucky got blasted into sidekick mcnuggets over the North Atlantic…or so we thought. But that’s another story. Dead for forty years worth of comics is close enough to dead for this list.
Gwen Stacy (Amazing Spider-Man #127, 1973)
Here’s why “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is so important: it simply wasn’t something that was done back in 1973. Unless it was an origin story, the loved ones of a superhero were generally “off-limits” as far as death was concerned. Did anyone ever really think Lois Lane was in any danger? Certainly not! So, for Gerry Conway and Gil Kane to suddenly and without warning kill of Peter’s beautiful, platinum-haired girlfriend in fairly intense “on-panel” fashion was pretty daring. And heartbreaking. Considering how much of Spidey’s character is built on loss and guilt, adding Gwen’s death to Peter’s conscience was a whole ‘nother level of mean.
Jean Grey (Uncanny X-Men #137, 1980)
As if the whole “Dark Phoenix Saga” wasn’t action-packed enough, Chris Claremont and John Byrne decided the right way to bring it all home would be to make Jean Grey pay the ultimate price for her genocidal deeds as the Phoenix. At the peak of an already impressive story which effectively blended epic, big-screen style science fiction with superheroics, the decision to have Jean seemingly invite her own death brought the house down and highlighted the emotional complexity that X-Men fans had come to expect.
Supergirl (Crisis on Infinite Earths, #7)
It was pretty easy to kill off Bucky in 1964 because, really, who woulda cared besides Captain America? The character hadn’t been seen in print in over a decade and wasn’t exactly a fixture in other media. But Supergirl? She had just starred in her own big-budget, big screen superhero adventure, supported her own monthly title, was a card-carrying member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and was Superman’s cousin for cryin’ out loud! She had a profile! Merchandise! Underoos! You don’t just kill off a character who’s been in print for almost thirty years, do you? Maybe you didn’t, but Marv Wolfman and George Perez went ahead and did it anyway. In the process, they crafted Supergirl’s finest, bravest, most heroic moment. While plenty of characters were wiped out by Crisis on Infinite Earths, few of them were of the relevance or stature of Kara.
The Flash/Barry Allen (Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, 1985)
Crisis on Infinite Earths also sent Barry Allen off to that great cosmic treadmill in the sky. This was another gamble considering that The Flash was a fixture on various incarnations of the Super Friends cartoons and his distinctive costume had graced t-shirts and action figures. Barry’s first appearance in 1956 is generally heralded as the birth of the Silver Age of comics, so killing him off in the pages of Crisis certainly showed fans that DC meant business when they hinted that nothing would ever be the same. Doing it one issue after they offed Supergirl? That took some real chutzpah. Had there been an internet fan community in 1985, they may have been driven mad…
Robin/Jason Todd (Batman #428, 1988)
On the printed page, Jason Todd met his end at the gloved hands of the Joker, who beat the teenager senseless with a crowbar in one of the more disturbing and violent scenes from that era, before leaving him for dead in a warehouse explosion. But Robin’s real demise came at the hands of the fans. At the conclusion of the beating/explosion sequence, two 1-900 numbers were posted. Dialing one would allow the Boy Wonder to recover from his injuries. A call to the other and Jason would change careers to become a root inspector. The margin between life and death ended up being less than a hundred votes, but that’s all it took. The fans killed Robin. Never mind the fact that this wasn’t the same Robin that most of the general public was familiar with. It was, after all, Dick Grayson, not Jason Todd, who had been a television star, matinee idol, and purveyor of countless puns. It didn’t matter. Robin was dead, and that was enough to set bells ringing.
Superman (Superman #75, 1992)
While this may not have been the first time some enterprising group of scoundrels decided to off the Man of Steel, it was certainly the first time it was in continuity, and thus made the biggest splash. And what a splash it was! While fans were already starting to get wise to the whole “kill ’em off and then bring ’em back a few months later” trope, nobody ever really expected they’d play that card on Supes. The result? Six million copies of Superman #75 flew out of comic book stores and DC successfully milked the story for another year as they teased the big guy’s return.
Captain America (Captain America #25, 2007)
When it was announced that Captain America was gonna be “down periscope” at the conclusion of Civil War, fandom yawned. The media did not. “The Death of Captain America” made headlines, but by 2007, fans were familiar with this tactic, and cynicism took over. What nobody expected was that Ed Brubaker would take Cap’s replacement (hint: he’s someone on this list) and make him as compelling a character, if not more so, than Steve Rogers himself! Over the next two years, most of us were too breathless following the new Captain America’s adventures to worry too much about when Steve would return.
Batman (Final Crisis #6, 2009)
Alright, was Batman even dead, anyway? Does this count? Bruce was annihilated by Darkseid’s Omega Beams at the end of Final Crisis #6 and was consequently sent on an insane journey through time and space. But he was dead enough to get the attention of the mainstream media, and that’s dead enough in superhero terms. Batman’s “death” opened the door for Dick Grayson to don the mantle of the Bat for the second time in the last fifteen years, while Grant Morrison just continued to spin his ever-unfolding, intricate Batman legend for the ages.
Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #700, 2012)
As if you didn’t see this one coming! From me, I mean…not from the comic. A poorly-timed (or well-timed, depending on who you are, I guess) early leak of Amazing Spider-Man #700 fanned the flames of discontent into an internet wildfire, resulting in all manner of name-calling and, in a stunning display of some fans’ lack of perspective, death threats for writer, Dan Slott. Love it or hate it, the apparent demise of Peter Parker at the hands of Doctor Octopus is a textbook example of how you depict something as easily undone as a superhero death and still give it enough weight to make the fans care. And when you really think about it, Slott’s laid all his cards on the table with this one, so we know it’s only a matter of time before Peter Parker is back in charge. But in the meantime, this one still managed to hit us right in the ol’ feelings.