On Comic Book Deaths

It may be true that the only character in comics to ever stay dead is Uncle Ben, but that sure hasn’t stopped major characters from dying. Within the past few years, Captain America, Thor, the Human Torch, Nightcrawler and Cable (to name a few) have gone to the great beyond and back again, refreshed and ready for action.

This week, a well-loved and time-honoured character was killed off in the penultimate issue of Avengers vs. X-men, in a move that caught headlines and set message-boards aflame in a Phoenix-fiery furore. Upon a cursory scroll through the forums, it became evident that the major complaint was not so much that the beloved character had died, but that he wasn’t going to stay dead. In the comments section of the Guardian article alone, I saw the words ‘he’ll be back’ so many times I got the subconscious urge to watch Terminator.

But does the inevitability of a character’s return render the death meaningless? Does anyone really want any of these key characters to stay dead? Is it worth complaining about?

To be honest, it rankled. So here are my two cents on death in mainstream comics, in relation to the death of…

(MAJOR SPOILERS: Don’t read until you’ve read AvX #11!)

After the announcement was made that one of the major players would be killed off in the final throes of AvX, a lot of speculation went into predicting whom it would be. Scott Summers was top-of-the-list for obvious reasons; Hope was also a prime contender. But the smart money was always on the original leader and founder of the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, Scott’s surrogate father, Professor Charles Xavier.

Professor X has existed on the fringes of the X-books for the past several years, stepping aside to allow Scott Summers to take on the overall leadership role. The last time we saw Xavier in a central, team-leading position was during Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run in 2001, back when Jean Grey was still alive. His absence has allowed other characters a chance to develop, without their paternal figure act as a guiding hand. It also gave me as a reader just enough time to miss him, and to feel his loss when he took a heroic last stand against his successor and protégé, and against the Phoenix.

AvX has been one of my favourite event books for a number of reasons. It’s managed to surprise and intrigue me, and it’s taken Scott Summers and Emma Frost (my two personal favourite X-Men) on a very dark and dangerous path, eventually pitting them against the rest of the Marvel Universe. It’s an X-Men story, and Xavier’s death is the lynchpin of it, the point of no return for Scott as the Dark Phoenix overtakes him.

Reverberations will be felt throughout the Marvel Universe, and already dozens of new scenarios and obstacles have been thrown up, especially for the X-men. Who will lead them? What consequences will Scott face, if he survives? Right now it’s impossible to predict. That’s a rather ideal conundrum for me as a reader.

And still people want to complain about it.

To be fair, the old motto used to go: “No one stays dead except Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben”. Obviously, two-thirds of that no longer applies. In reference to character deaths in modern comics, Geoff Johns is quoted as saying, “Death in superhero comics is cyclical in its nature, and that’s for a lot of reasons, whether they are story reasons, copyright reasons, or fan reasons. But death doesn’t exist the same way it does in our world, and thank God for that. I wish death existed in our world as it does in comics.”

I am firmly against the killing off of beloved characters for the sake of shock value, or headline grabbing, or for any reason other than enriching the story. The death of Captain America, for example, was brilliantly timed and carried out, and set the stage for several years worth of excellent Captain America stories without Steve Rogers in them. The death of Cable was surprisingly moving, as he sacrificed himself in Second Coming to save the lives of his X-force teammates. The yet-to-be-resurrected Jean Grey got an extremely emotional send-off that has resonated for nearly a decade, and whether or not they ever bring her back is nearly irrelevant for all the intensity her death brought to the story.

So, note to cynics: Yes, you’re right. Professor X will be back. I don’t have this on any authority other than a strong hunch, but there’s very little doubt that it will happen eventually.

But so what?

Professor X has already died numerous times over the years, and so have most of the characters we all like. That’s what happens when a story goes on for over fifty years. The nature of comic books is to tell action-packed stories on a monthly basis, and in order to keep things moving, the stakes need to be high enough that the characters actually die.

Of course if they’re popular characters, they’ll probably return. Would it be more interesting if they stayed dead? Not really, because then they’d be doing nothing but napping in the dirt, when they could be running around saving the day. I know what I’d prefer to see.

Reading comics is all about suspending our disbelief. We’re taking it on board that men can fly or turn into giant green rage monsters or spend seventy years as an ice-cube and wake up to fight another day. So suspend your disbelief a little further and experience the story as it happens. Pretend for a moment that Charles Xavier is truly, irreversibly dead, and remember the things he stood for. His ideals, his dream of peace and equality between humans and mutants, will be more relevant now more than ever. I will miss him, for however long it lasts.