Q & A 23: What comic book character should stay or should have stayed dead?

In Q & A, a weekly feature of Fantastic Fangirls, we ask our staff to tackle a simple question — then open the floor to comments.

What comic book character should stay or should have stayed dead?

Anika

It is my belief that all dead parents should remain dead. Lemony Snicket puts it best: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.” My mother died when I was 13 and my youngest brother was 5 and for that first year without her all my brothers or my father or I wanted for any birthday or Christmas was her back. Comic books are fantasy, they are not meant to be realistic, but I believe granting this one wish, no matter how or why, no matter what happens next or how well it is done, crosses a line that should not be crossed. Maybe because comics are ostensibly written for the 12-25 set, but mostly because no matter how old you are when your parent dies that loss is too meaningful to be treated so cavalierly as a Comic Book Event (!).

Caroline

Vic Sage, the original Question, is one of my favorite characters in all of comics. I’ve read as many of his adventures as I could get my hands on — from the politically dubious Charlton Comics series in which Steve Ditko created the character, through Denny O’Neil’s great DC run in the ’80s, to his pivotal role in the weekly 52 series a couple years back. And I never want to see him again. That’s not because those stories were bad, but because I think they’re brilliant. Particularly, I love the 52 storyline in which Vic takes former Gotham cop Renee Montoya on as a protege, and gradually reveals that he’s dying of cancer and wants to pass his identity on to her. It’s a long, painful death, and it feels like a real death — not an excuse for characters to use words like “legacy,” not a comic book gimmick that can easily be undone. I love Vic; I know that Renee grew to love him, and I know what the loss meant to her. I’m usually quite forgiving about comic book resurrections happening on the slimmest of pretexts. But whenever I think about the story of the Questions, I think, “This death needs to matter; this one needs to stay.”

Jennifer

Sabretooth.

My answer to this question has nothing to do with the villain himself, though I’m not especially fond of him and don’t particularly miss him. It also has nothing to do with character motivation, or the emotional power of the original death, or any of those other deep and meaningful things my fantastic compatriots have discussed. But it’s important to me nonetheless, because it represents the necessity of logical storytelling.

When Wolverine killed Sabretooth, he did so by cutting off his head with the Muramasa blade. This sword, as readers of Wolverine: Origins know, is the only weapon that can kill Wolverine — the only weapon that can counteract the influence of his healing factor. Using the sword was a sensible choice for Logan to make: he took the blade from Cyclops (to whom he’d given it with implicit trust) and used it to kill his greatest enemy, whose healing factor works similarly to his own. The blade killed the feral and crazy Sabretooth, and all was well.

But in order for the blade to remain important, in the Marvel Universe — in order for it to remain a valid threat to Wolverine’s life — it has to truly work. If Sabretooth comes back, the blade’s power will be invalidated. We’ll know its effects aren’t permanent, and Logan’s fear of its capacity for murder will evaporate.

I don’t think Marvel will ever kill Wolverine. But a character that powerful needs a weakness of some kind, and the Muramasa blade is his. Bringing back Sabretooth would be the story logic equivalent of declaring that Kryptonite no longer harms Kryptonians, and I can’t imagine that ending well for anyone.

Sigrid

Let us remember those perennial dead characters: The Hero’s Motivation. Annie Richards. Ben Parker. Martha Wayne. Rose. Please, please, to any and all writers and editors reading this — don’t bring these back. It’s okay to bring back Scott Summers’s parents because they are not his motivation, his reason for being a hero. But the dead motivator — the burden of loss or guilt that drives a hero to slink into the spandex and strap on the stiletto heels and go out night after night — don’t bring them back from the dead.

Because once you do, there they are. Alive. And the whole line of storytelling based around their death is cut off to you. Sure, you can make them a villain. Sure, you can make them an antagonist, you can have confrontations. But as Stephen King explained in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, the bug behind the door is always scarier than the bug you can see. No matter how frightening the monster is it can’t compare to the one you imagined. So it is with guilt. With blame, with responsibility, with personal self-loathing, with fear, with shame — being afraid of what your dead Uncle thinks of you is always going to be more scathing than anything he could possibly say. It’s the unrealized potential of the conversations never had that make The Hero’s Motivation motivating. Please, no matter how tempting it looks — please leave them dead.

What about you? What comic book character should stay or should have stayed dead?

  • Caroline

    It’s funny because, when we talked about this in abstract, it seemed like we all were mostly on the same page. But reading Sigrid’s answer, I realize my view is almost opposite. The characters who are the Big Motivators are the ones I often *want* to see back in some form. Not, obviously, as a matter of course — but if a character has been harkening back to the same tragedy for 60 years of publication, or whatever, I can’t help wondering “What was this person really like? What’s the difference between (say) the Bucky in Steve Rogers’ head versus the living breathing person?”

    It’s case by case, of course; there has to be a good story reason — I can’t really think of one for Uncle Ben or Gwen Stacy, for instance, because those were characters who existed, who readers/viewers got to know pretty well before the death. But, say, Bucky or Hal Jordan’s dad or Annie Richards only exist for the characters in flashback or memory. (And since I implicitly said I want Hal Jordan’s dad back, I guess I disagree with Anika too. Feeling contrary today, I suppose!)

    Re: Sabretooth, I don’t really have an opinion except that reading “the necessity of logical storytelling” in relation to Marvel comics just makes me laugh!

  • Dan

    Great post, gang.

    I think there are certain characters who serve a far nobler purpose dead and there isn’t a storyline *great* enough to warrant their resurrection: Gwen Stacy, Jason Todd, Ben Parker, the Waynes. I’ll go so far as adding Barry Allen to that list. Until recently, Barry’s been dead almost as long as he was alive, and his death meant something: to his friends, to his family, to all those who rode the lightning after him.

    However, I have no problem with Bucky being alive again.

    There are also a bunch of folks who I think should never have been offed to begin with. Bart Allen, for example. The way DC’s jerked poor Bart around for the last year is just wrong. I also think killing Pa Kent might be the greatest crime DC has committed in the last few years.

  • Caroline

    @Dan “Characters who shouldn’t have died” is a whole other thing. OMFG, Corsair!

  • @Caroline I think I tend to agree with you — after all, in our e-mail discussions about this, I was the one who proposed the great Annie Richards resurrection story. But I do think it depends on the character — I agree that Gwen Stacy doesn’t need to return because we DID get to know her, but we only knew Uncle Ben for about 10 pages before he died — I’m not sure that’s quite enough, and I think his brief “returns” have been useful as a result.

    But I also think it’s important to think about how those returns affect the original story. In the case of Annie Richards, bringing her back wouldn’t cause Jean’s powers to disappear — her function as a cataylst for her powers, and the lengthy coma that affected the rest of her life, won’t disappear. But if Batman’s parents returned, permanently, he’d no longer have to fight each day to save them — and THAT might be an issue.

    That’s one of the reasons why I agree with Dan about Bucky’s return being great — not only did it give us a great character (and show us what he was really like, outside of Steve’s memories), but it didn’t corrupt or eradicate Steve’s powerful guilt emotions. And that’s largely because of the Winter Soldier story. Cap doesn’t have to feel guilty that Bucky died anymore, but now he gets to feel guilty that he was brainwashed by Russians and used as a weapon for decades. The genius of Brubaker’s story is that it gave us a resurrection, and a real, flesh and blood Bucky, while putting even more weight on the guilt that has been at the core of Steve’s character since Avengers #4.

  • @Jen That’s true about Uncle Ben, though I think having seen him in the movie and also having read ‘Ultimate Spider-Man,’ where he’s a much more significant presence, makes me feel like we’ve seen a lot of him and honestly, I’m not sure how much there is to know or explore. Is there a mystery about Uncle Ben? Somebody who knows more about Spidey than I do would have to answer that.

    On the other hand, I agree there’s no reason to bring Batman’s parents back — and maybe I’m okay with the Hal idea because I understand the centrality of his Daddy issues is a fairly recent retcon. I don’t see it as part of the foundation of the character, but again that’s for somebody more knowledgable than me to say.

    I honestly kind of like the Jason Todd resurrection conceptually, even though I’m not particular fan of how it’s been handled.

  • Selena

    This reminds me of the priceless passage in House of M: Spider-man when everyone (i.e. Gwen, Uncle Ben, Captain Stacy, all of whom are alive in Wanda’s ‘verse, and Aunt May) reads Peter’s diary (which they think is an autobiographical novel presenting wish fulfillment), and is horrified they get killed off after page 2, 5 and 10 respectively. Aunt May smugly points out she’s still alive and Ben counters that she gets to have an heart attack every five pages instead.

    Aaaaanyway. Dead characters who should remain dead: Morpheus, as the Morpheus-Daniel switchover at the end of Sandman is quintessential for the story Neil Gaiman told. If, you know, some madman at Vertigo some day decides to write Sandman sequels. As opposed to spin-offs.

  • Dan

    @Caroline Maybe if Jason’s return was handled like Bucky’s it wouldn’t fill me with “Meh.” If he were brainwashed and used by, say, Ra’s al Ghul and/or the League of Assassins…that could have been cool.

    What did we get instead? Magical multiverse resurrection brought on by Pocket Universe Emo-Supermanboy’s hissy-fits. I think we all see the difference here.

  • Menshevik

    Very interesting answers all around (including Caroline’s first reply). I think I agree to a large extent with Sigrid, and I certainly would include Bucky Barnes in that category (ever since being unfrozen, Captain America lived in the shadow of Bucky’s death), no matter how many people sing the praises of Ed Brubaker bringing him back. It is not a story I am going to read. Here I also have to disagree a lot with Caroline. We actually knew a lot more about Bucky than we did e.g. about Ben Parker, from the Golden Age stories, from the flashback Captain America stories (e.g. by Lee and Kirby) of the Silver Age, and from The Invaders. The difference between the Bucky Steve remembered and the Bucky/Winter Soldier who returned would IMO be a lot less due to Steve Rogers misremembering than to Bucky having changed due to being brainwashed etc. and leading a colourful life during the interim between his apparent death at the end of World War 2 and his recent return. And actually we know surprisingly little about Uncle Ben outside of Aunt May’s and Peter’s rose-tinted memories (I am referring of course to the nostalgia-fest in Paul Jenkins’ stories). When you come to think about it, there really isn’t that much more than what was shown in Amazing Fantasy #15 (where he actually only appeared on a grand total of five panels). Of course your mileage may vary on individual cases (I recall a time when fans passionately argued that it was simply wrong wrong wrong that John Byrne had Pa Kent still living after Clark had moved to Metropolis to become Superman).

    I’d also agree with Dan about some characters serving a better purpose dead than alive. Although I would point out that briefly bringing Gwen Stacy back as a clone during the first clone saga (which ended in ASM #149/150) was interesting as it showed that Peter had moved on from losing her.

    There’s probably too many characters I think should stay or should have stayed dead, but I think I’ll can’t let the opportunity pass without mentioning Jean Grey, but that is largely founded in the fact that the damage done by bringing her back – both in retroactively diminishing the classic UXM #137 and in the early issues of X-Factor – was never fully made up for in subsequent stories that actually required Jean and could not have been done with Rachel and/or Madelyne Pryor instead (in spite of Louise Simonson’s brilliant writing on X-Factor). But that’s a personal idiosyncrasy of mine.

    As for characters who I think should not have died, let’s just name the Baby May of the mainstream Marvel timeline and Cody Robbins. Rogue’s pre-X-Men vol. 2 #1 behaviour and her easygoing attitude to absorbing people’s memories (including those of her loved ones, e.g. Mystique’s) simply made no sense if her first brief experience of her power (a kiss) had resulted in putting Cody into a permanent coma from which he never woke.

  • @Menshevik As long as your Jean statement isn’t joined with “and thank God she got killed again because she was a useless person and is only any good when people can think about her and be sad”, I’m fine with it. But speaking of characters that could have been used with other plots, I don’t know why anything re: Scott’s original “happy ending” with Maddy couldn’t have been done with Lee Forrester. If you take out the vomitrocious “lookalike is just as good as the real thing” element of the story, ‘From the Ashes’ still works just as well and it doesn’t set up the clone stuff with Sinister.

  • Menshevik

    @Caroline: I would have been fine if Scott had ended up married with Lee Forrester, from a storytelling POV that certainly would have been better. OTOH I loved Lee’s rebound romance with Magneto.

  • @Menshevik Hee, yes.

  • Ditto on the Dead Parents/Hero’s Motivation and Cody from the Rogue origin story.

    I’m really not a fan of character death (or hero death, at least: Sabretooth can stay dead), though I do recognize when it serves artistic purpose. It’s different with serial fiction, though. There’s at least the implicit understanding that a story will go on for an unlimited amount of time, and there are lots of other ways to ‘raise the stakes’ of a story besides death. I bring up serial fiction specifically because these stories mean a lot to me. I look forward to them every week. I don’t like the idea that I’m *not* going to have them to look forward to anymore because a writer wanted to make his/her story Very Serious Business and had to kill off the character whose adventures I looked forward to in order to do it.

  • My actual answer is Jason Todd. I could tolerate him when he was dead, because he was a useful motivation/angst/whatever type character, and I never really liked him as Robin. Now, I just detest him and think his best writing was in Countdown, so.

    But I have to agree with Anika and Sigrid on the dead parents/motivations. Seriously, let the Wayne family stay dead.

  • Menshevik

    Talking about Lee Forrester gave me an idea for a Q&A question:

    “What is your favourite ex-relationship?”

    By this I mean these two (or more?) people have been lovers, maybe even spouses, in the past, but then they went separate ways and now they are something else, such as friends or mortal enemise, but you like the way their current relationship is still coloured by their common past. Do not name characters whom you want to get back together again with each other.

  • Cash

    I’m with Menshevik: Jean Grey really should have stayed dead.

    There have been a few interesting things done with her in subsequent years, granted, but IMHO they weren’t worth the damage done to the Marvel Universe in the process. Jean’s death was the first really BIG comics death that was ever subjected to complete Trotsky-style revisionism, and the decision to undo it (which, let’s not forget, was done purely for the sake of the less than earth-shattering X-Factor series) turned me off of Marvel for years. (Okay, Jim Shooter’s aesthetic and editorial vision turned me off Marvel, too, but his decision to kill Jean off was, in a narrative sense, the right call.)

  • @Cash While I can see picking a bone with the way the decision was made, I think blaming the Jean resurrection for the way things went with revolving-door death is like blaming Star Wars & Jaws for the advent of special effects driven summer movies. Well, maybe not exactly like that, because Star Wars and Jaws were good, and ‘look she was just in a coccoon in Jamaica Bay!’ wasn’t. But continuity being what it is, and universes aging as they do, the revolving door was coming. “Dead means dead” is a horrible idea, in my honest opinion, because it means that one editor or writer’s bad decision can take a character out of circulation forever, regardless of whatever potential they have for the future.

  • And followup to my comment — as long as we’re talking about setting precedents, I think a good story can set a bad precedent and a bad story can set a good precedent. The Dark Phoenix saga sets the precedent that, once a woman starts becoming ‘too powerful,’ this can be solved by making her crazy and evil and killing her (or lobotomizing her, which I believe was Claremont & Byrne’s original plan and certainly doesn’t seem any better than the published ending). Jean’s re-emergence sets the precedent that a character who was written out for possibly-not-great reasons can have another chance to be part of new, different stories. I have to say that I think the former has had a very bad influence on comics, and the latter has often had a good one.

  • Menshevik

    I think that “Dead Means Dead” is a valid idea if you use it not as a hard and fast rule but a guideline so that resurrections are used sparingly, as exceptional events and not as inflationarily as they have been used (so much so that more e.g. in the X-books it is not infrequently lampshaded).

    Obviously resurrections should be available as an options if the death in question was a mistake so big that it needs to be corrected. But one should also consider if there might not be other ways one could use. (For instance, I consider the resurrection of Bucky unnecessary as Bucky proved quite replaceable after his death – first by Rick Jones, later by Jack Monroe, the Bucky of the 1950s (who also had Cold War and brainwashing aspects, btw)). And one important factor that should be taken into consideration is the quality of the story that resulted in the death one deems a mistakes and the way the resurrection of the dead character affects that story.

    In the case of Jean Grey, the Dark Phoenix Saga culminating in her death in UXM #137 was considered one of the greatest and most important stories not just in X-Men history but in that of Marvel Comics and superhero comics in general. And the problem with Jean’s return was not that they brought her back – she was named Phoenix after all and was known to be connected to a cosmic force, pretty much everybody expected her to return eventually (as she briefly did in the X-Men/New Teen Titans crossover). The problem was that they brought Jean back but as someone who had never been the Phoenix and “revealed” that the Jean the X-Men and their readers had cared about for a good three years (UXM #101-137) and grieved for even longer had been an impostor, and worse, someone the readers were now told not to care for anymore, indeed to look upon as a villain or at least a borderline one. (Compare this to the much less controversial return of Professor X from the dead – the retcon used here actually was rather similar, but it had the Changeling living and dying heroically as Xavier’s replacement). So quite a chunk of X-history was tarnished by retcon. This meant that the makers of X-Factor IMO placed Marvel under the obligation to produce something with the resurrected that would at least measure up to the Dark Phoenix Saga. And not only did Marvel fail to do that in the following two decades, the first storyline using Jean immediately did damage to Scott’s character that took years to get over (and in the eyes of quite a few fans he never really overcame it).

  • Menshevik

    @ Caroline re. your follow-up:
    Have to disagree. For one thing I am far from convinced that the reason for the Dark Phoenix Saga was that Jean was “too powerful” and this problem had to be solved. After all, Chris Claremont had himself made Jean as powerful as she had become and when he wrote the Dark Phoenix Saga he already had Rachel waiting in the wings and would a few years later bring her into the team and make her the new Phoenix shortly before Jean’s return. (Also, with both the originally planned and the actually executed outcome of the Dark Phoenix Saga, the result was the removal of both Jean AND Scott from the active team, leaving the road open to make Storm to take over Scott’s job as the field team leader – a not unimportant precedent as far as the position of heroines in team hieararchies was concerned).
    And did the return of Jean really set the precedent you claim it did? Leaving aside that her return was done in way that underlined that Marvel considered the reasons for killing off the Phoenix just as valid as ever, the precedent had already been set earlier with the return of Professor X in X-Men vol. 1 #65 (that’s just in the pages of the X-Men, I’m sure there are also examples from other titles (Wonder Man comes to mind). And it has been said that the death of Professor X in the 1960s had been at least in part due to him being “too powerful” (being able to win battles single-handedly as the world’s most powerful telepath).

  • Menshevik

    Re. Storm becoming team leader: That would of course be a precedent for heroines and non-Caucasian heroes.

  • Cash

    Hmm. I do think the “No, it wasn’t YOU that ate all those asparagus people!” element is probably a big part of my dislike for the way Jean’s reappearance was handled. Maybe I just like my back-from-the-dead characters to be more tormented, either by the terrible things they did (cf. Ghost Spike) or the awfulness of being back in the world (cf. Season Six Buffy), but having the entire moral load of Jean’s genocide suddenly retconned away struck me as cheap.

    It was also pretty awful for Scott, seeing as how he’d been baring his soul (and even his face) to some extraterrestrial strumpet, rather than the girl he’d loved all those years.

    If Steve Rogers turns out to be alive right now, and the guy who led the Civil War against Stark’s crowd turns out to be a Super-Soldier clone or a brainwashed sleeper agent of the Red Skull’s, you may get some idea of how I feel about this.

  • @Menshevik Once again, I think we are agreed on the basic points but you’re phrasing them with the assumption that we aren’t, so I don’t know that I can make a useful reply. Thank you for your input.

    @Cash Oh, I agree with you a hundred percent on the PROBLEMS with Jean’s resurrection. I have a 5,000 word essay on the topic floating around somewhere. It took Marvel over a decade to get Jean’s resurrection *right*, but that isn’t the same to me as saying that it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. (And once G-Moz had the character up and *working* again in the early ’00s, killing her again was the height of stupidity, IMHO). I think it’s just a difference between your looking forward at the way things could have gone, and my looking backward at stuff that’s been part of the Marvel Universe for as long as I’ve known it.

  • Menshevik

    Thank you, our discussion also helped me to become clearer about my own views and standards on the subject and to distinguish more clearly between the reasons why I would think that it would be unnecessary to bring a given character back and the reasons why I think a resurrection (as it played out) should not have happened. Although IMO writers should take both kinds of reasons into account more than they seem to do.