Super Sunday – How to Keep a Comic Character Dead, For Real

A comic character dying, and then coming back from the dead, is so universally common that it almost doesn't bear mentioning anymore.  The TVtropes website has this to say about the trope "Back from the Dead":
This is exceedingly common in American superhero comic books, to the point that whenever a popular character dies, it's a given that they'll be back on within no more than five years. At one time, it was said that "Nobody ever stays dead in comics, except Bucky, Uncle Ben, and Jason Todd." Naturally, since that phrase was coined, Bucky and Jason Todd have since been recalled to life.

The Marvel Wiki site has 115 characters currently tagged in the category of "People who used to be dead but aren't anymore".

Why is this? My personal interpretation is that the main problem is that comics companies are really nothing but intellectual property (copyrights and trademarked character designs and such), and to the extent that corporate directors are required to work "with a view to the best interests of the corporation", then the executives of those companies are in some sense required to milk every character property for every cent it can produce. If company X owns the rights to deceased character Y, and there are any customers who would purchase a book if character Y were brought back in it, then it can be argued that the company directors are legally required to bring back that character and produce that book. (That's a bit of a legal stretch, but it highlights the real principle: if Y can make money, then Y comes back from the dead.)

So of all the dastardly acts of vengeance, and cunning deathtraps, and cosmic-beating sacrifices one can imagine, it seems like no villain in the universe has any chance of permanently putting down any hero or antihero character... right?

Well, here's one way you can do it: Lose the license to the character.

If company X entirely loses the right to publish character Y, then they really-honestly won't be showing up anymore (at least in that company's universal continuity). One common way for this to happen is via cross-market toy promotions, where the rights are held primarily by some outside toy company, and the comics publisher has a limited term to write stories for it: instances of this at Marvel would include Shogun Warriors, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and perhaps most notably, Rom. Rom was intimately tied into the rest of the Marvel Universe in many ways; I know that the Fantastic Four appeared in Shogun Warriors, and Spider-Man at least once in Transformers. Nonetheless, these characters won't appear again in Marvel continuity because they no longer hold a right to publish them; in fact, in many cases Marvel can't even republish the stories in the now-standard trade-paperback formats, such that they become relatively rare collector's items. The same could be said for Godzilla which was also smack in the middle of the Marvel world when it was being published, fighting against S.H.I.E.L.D. and such from the first issue. (I don't think you'll find an entry for Godzilla in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, but you will find him referenced second-hand in places like the entry for Red Ronin: see here, volume 3, p. 207-208).

Now, it's not like any of the characters mentioned above are actually dead; they're just gone. Usually the writers of those books, upon being cancelled, write some fairly upbeat wrapping-up story with the characters victorious and basking in a sunset of glory. (Interesting example: Rom is so deeply woven into the fabric of the Marvel cosmos that he keeps being referenced as a past epic hero, or even appearing in-book in his human guise, it's just that no one can refer to him by his name "Rom" anymore. Neither, again, can his old stories be reprinted. See near the end of this article.)

But it does bring up an interesting prospect, in that if you're a writer on one of those licensed comics when it gets cancelled, you might consider actually killing one or more characters off in a dramatic, climactic end-story. If you do that, then you'll be able to stand in the almost uniquely rarefied club of people who who killed a comic character in a way that they really can't come back.

(For supporting fodder on this plan, consider the article in the final issue of Game Developer magazine this past year, "In the End, Tell the Truth" by Jason VandenBerghe, which makes this compelling argument: "As a game designer, you are more free when crafting your ending than you are for any other piece of your game." Download it here.)

Edit 2022-01-22: Recently I learned something about my example of the Shogun Warriors above. On the one hand, the official series ends with those robot-warriors in victory, in the company of the Fantastic Four, and being wished by the leader of an alien exploration group, hopefully, "Perhaps if we are both wise and prudent, and reverent of wonders, we shall meet again... among the stars... at the heart of the vast unknown..." (that's the last line of the series in issue #20).

But what I didn't realize is that the writer Doug Moench revisited the group early the next year in Fantastic Four #226. With the license having expired, he can't show any of the original robots or use their names -- but he has the human pilots (being purely Marvel creations) show up at the FF tower in defeat and report the robots being destroyed off-screen. With the FF they beat the villain and at the end half-miserably slink off to take up their mundane jobs once again.

So I guess that's sort of exactly what I was arguing for above -- but this feels fairly cruddy to me, because it feels like kicking dirt on the property after-the-fact, with something completely tonally at odds with how the series itself wrapped up. Personally I'm aggrieved by it and very curious why Moench felt compelled to write this story. Maybe my sour feeling here serves as a counterargument to my thesis above. But I think not; if the story had wrapped up in the original run with a reasonable arc and a meaningful sacrifice, I'd probably feel differently. As it is, the aftermath story feels like a betrayal of the poetic note on which the series proper ended.


  1. Yeah. The “back from the dead” thing is just a symptom of the bigger problem with comics. I get so sick of having to wade through all the same old characters to find a comic that I want to read. Even with the superheroes that I love, I’d much rather read their original comics than a version that has been spread too thin over too many years or rebooted.

    On the license front, I hate that it means I’ll never be able to buy digital reprints of one of my favorite series as a kid: Micronauts.

    That is a weird one where Marvel owns the rights to some aspects of some of the characters. So they can still exist in the Marvel universe, but key aspects about their past and many of their past comrades can’t be mentioned anymore.

  2. I agree, a while back I got the earliest Thor collections (in black-and-white) and I think I'm re-reading those for about the 3rd time right now.

    I always hear Micronauts as being highly praised, even though I never read them. (Shogun Warriors from about the same era was my thing.)

  3. Ah, the golden age of Michael Golden. Yeah, the Micronauts was solid, solid stuff. Baron Karza and the body banks, the dog soldiers, Ray Coffin & Captain Universe, Bug & Acroyear, Arcturus Rann & Marionette. Awesome!

    I have my sacred collection of the 1st 12 issues that I treasure as much as your wonderful full run of Shogun Warriors. (They're like artifact tomes, but way cooler than an dumb ol' Necronomicon or Pnakotic Manuscripts) The ads alone were an instant portal to my youth.

    And yeah, on topic the way licensors treat IP like it was grain futures has always creeped me thoroughly. The stories that make up our mental architecture, treated like a vein of coal to be strip mined.

    Which is why I say "screw the man" and make up my own damn stories.

    1. You may need to pay me back and let me read your Micronauts sometime. :-) (Not sure how.)

      Sometimes I'm totally split on the issue of licensed entertainment -- like in the situation of D&D campaign settings and the like. Part of me detests our culture being owned by some corporate entity, and part of me can't get away from the large community who shares awareness with it.

    2. I'd bring 'em with me to Helgacon, but I think we're all gonna be a bit too busy to do much reading. :)

    3. I agree! In theory I should sleep sometime.

  4. Also, while Uncle Ben himself didn't come back, wasn't one of the Spider clones from that whole debacle in the early 90's derived from his DNA?

    I can't even bring myself to google it, my G.A.C. (Give A Crap) index is so far into the negative numbers...

  5. My impression is that it's pretty much the opposite of what you suppose; the suits don't ask for a character to be brought back to maximize profits, they couldn't give a rat's tuchus unless just maybe there was a movie coming out. It's the creatives who have an idea for something they want to do with a character and don't see why somebody else's story to the contrary a decade ago should stand in the way. What the suits do ask for is stuff like We've got a licensing deal with this toy manufacturer, go write comics about Micronauts, Shogun Warriors, Rom, etc. Which, as mercenary as it is, has led to some pretty well regarded comics over the years.

    Some days I'm not even sure it's a problem. Yes, there are powerful stories, particularly about heroic sacrifice, that you can't wring every drop of pathos out of if you're using somebody else's toys and there will be writers in the future that'll want to use them too. But you know, maybe to tell those stories you should use your own characters and not rely on the legacy of fan involvement that the writers before you have built up in order to add punch to your writing "Fin". Or maybe it's just I think Search For Spock was pretty good.

    1. For lower-level characters you may have a point. By my understanding is for characters of any prominence (read: can carry a book title), executive editorial keeps a tighter rein on things.

      Obv., for top-end characters like Superman or Captain America there's a whole corporate cycle of promotions and system-wide planning on when they'll come back.

      As another example, this sticks with me a lot: the Whedon/Cassidy Astonishing X-Men title brought Colossus back after being dead for a few years. In an interview w/Marvel Spotlight, the artist John Cassidy said:

      "Marvel asked us to bring back Colossus way back when the deal was made. I knew it was coming... I couldn't have been happier to read that script..."

      (This is included in end matter to the Astonishing X-Men omnibus)

      So that's one of my key data points that developments like can be driven by editorial and not the other way around.