In bygone days, it was common for superheroes to be placed in life threatening situations with readers being confident that the hero would somehow escape the clutches of death. But that concept was first challenged in X-Men #137 (1980) when Jean Grey (aka Marvel Girl/Phoenix) took her own life in order to protect the universe from the Phoenix force that possessed her. In an unforgettable sequence, Jean Grey paid the ultimate price in order to save the universe.
That critical story event made the X-Men probably the most popular comic book at the time. The death of Jean Grey would resonated greatly within the hearts of comic book fans. Until that is, she was ‘resurrected’ five years later!
Since then of course, it was become common to kill off major characters in a grand multi-part story, examine the ramifications and then bring the character back in another multi-part story. DC did very well with its Death of Superman storyline in 1992 which garnered phenomenal success but before then, the company had killed off The Barry Allen Flash and Supergirl in Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985) as well as The Jason Todd Robin (1988’s A Death in the Family), all of which went down well, commercially speaking. Naturally, all these characters have also been resurrected over the years.
Thus, in the 34 years after X-Men #137, death has become a major sale gimmick for the superhero comic. Captain America was given the ‘death and resurrection’ treatment five years ago and now, it’s Wolverine. of course, Wolverine is the interesting case as he is supposed to be unkillable with his adamantium skeleton and mutant healing factor. The 4-part series Death of Wolverine, takes Logan through his past milestones – Madripoor, Japan before coming face to face with his ‘creator’ even as he has lost his mutant healing factor and true to comic book tropes, sacrifices his life to save innocents.
Of course, we all know that it’s not really the ‘END’. It’s only a question of how long before Marvel decides to bring Wolverine back – but maybe this would be the plot for the third Wolverine movie? An excellent way for Hugh Jackman to bow out before the X-Men movie characters are rebooted for X-Men: Apocalypse?
In any case, the death of a superhero is now an event and a sales gimmick, there is no underlying deeper meaning that the death of character should, by right, convey. And this is where, as a story-telling medium superhero comics, by and large, fail. Once you lose that human connection, the story has no purpose any longer.
Contrast this with the death of Rorsharch in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, where death is final and is accepted as an alternative to compromising the truth. A shining example of how a superhero comic book story should be told.
A scene filled with such emotional weight that Zack Synder could not fail to communicate in his movie adaptation.
… still there’s more …