Uncovering the Secrets Behind Some of Comicdom’s Most Iconic Deaths


 

Inverse interviewed a number of comics creators who worked on stories where superheroes and civilian co-stars were put to death, and what went on behind the scenes in developing these stories. The first one in focus is the Death of Wolverine from the past decade, written by Charles Soule, so you know this is building on some pretty pretentious storylines for starters:

 

The comic book writer, who made a name for himself at Image Comics before taking on projects at both Marvel and DC, jumped at the challenge — even if he saw through the publisher’s motivation.

“The character had lost a little of his power because he was around so much,” Soule tells Inverse. “So the idea was to give him a chance to rest, while also generating an event book that would hopefully sell a ton of copies.”

It worked. Released in September 2014, Death of Wolverine #1 topped the comics charts and sold over a quarter of a million issues.

But killing superheroes isn’t just good business. When it comes to comics, the concept of death is a necessary evil. These characters face life-and-death situations on a monthly, if not weekly, basis. If no one ever dies, there would be no stakes to their stories. Still, it’s a big deal when it happens, even if we know it’s almost always temporary. “When you’re dealing with icons, their death should be iconic and surprising,” Soule says, “both in its timing and its manner of execution.”

 

Well he’s awfully late with his lecture. Something he hasn’t made clear is that, when you resort to the same approach only so many times – namely, putting characters on the side of good in the grave by having them die by murder instead of natural deaths and auto accidents – then it becomes severely insulting, and virtually offensive. The past 2 decades were symbolic of this. Now, Wolverine was unfortunately the subject of far too many team books and guest appearances almost everywhere across the MCU at the time, but does this mean they had to literally put him in death limbo? Of course not. All they had to do was set up a moratorium on appearances at all for a certain amount of time, or confine him to just one or two X-books, keeping Logan’s appearances very sparing, and then, they could expand his role again, though it could easily be argued that, with the way they’re going today, chances are it wouldn’t be any more organic than the time Logan’s own title began to self-destruct at the turn of the century. Also note how Brian Bendis, one of the writers who overused Wolverine back in the day, gets off with no criticism here.

 

All that aside, it could be worse: look how DC overuses the Joker, and puts a disturbing emphasis on villains these days. Marvel’s not far behind, recalling how Loki was given quite a spotlight in the past several years, and there were a few times when Dr. Doom was overemphasized in the past. Do we need that? No. Yet a disturbing pattern emerged in the past where villains were allowed past the revolving door of death, while many heroes and co-stars were denied this privilege, which is ludicrous, and insulting to the whole genre of science fiction. And what’s this about “necessary evil”? Just another lecture, I’m afraid, as is the “business” part of the argument.

 

Another example highlighted is the death of Colossus, written by Scott Lobdell in Uncanny X-Men #390:

 

There have, however, been times when it was a writer’s choice to kill someone off, like in the case of another beloved X-Men member: Colossus.

In the pages of Uncanny X-Men #390 (2001), writer Scott Lobdell was charged with closing up the Legacy Virus storyline, a mutant plague introduced in 1993. Lobdell decided that the cure had to be activated with a sacrifice. The first host would die, but they would release the cure into the atmosphere, eliminating the virus. The choice of who seemed obvious.

“When the Legacy Virus story began, it pretty much kicked off with the death of [Colossus’ sister] Illyana,” Lobdell says. “So I thought it would be appropriate to end with the sacrifice of Colossus.”

 

And does that mean Illyana’s death was inherently acceptable too? Nope. That aside, it’s bizarre how somebody thinks the Legacy Virus should be put to rest through the sacrifice of a character. Granted, Piotr Rasputin’s death here was technically by suicide rather than murder. But it was still a very poor story, and did little favors for Lobdell’s reputation as a writer. It’s been over 2 decades now since he had anything serious to do with X-Men, but this was certainly one of his weaker, most disappointing efforts. The death of Colossus may have been Lobdell’s decision, but that doesn’t make it well written.

 

Next is a most notable death of a civilian co-star, Gwen Stacy:

 

Writer Gerry Conway tells Inverse that artist John Romita, who mentored him on plotting out stories, “liked the idea of killing off a supporting character every now and then to remind readers that things mattered.”

Originally, Romita considered killing Aunt May, but Conway disagreed.

“I thought Aunt May was still a fairly important character,” he says. “She’s the living embodiment of the events that lead him to become a hero, so she was off the table.”

 

While there were plenty of well written stories in later years involving May, this is disputable, in all due fairness, even though I do find the notion of having May die by murder insulting in the long run. Mainly because of how decades later, she became a guinea pig in Joe Quesada’s publicity stunt called One More Day, putting her life on the line for the sake of retconning away Peter and Mary Jane Watson’s marriage via Mephisto.

 

The choice came down to two of Spidey’s potential love interests, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, and Conway chose Gwen to die for a few reasons. For one, he felt that Spider-Man’s original artist, Steve Ditko, was setting up Mary Jane as Spidey’s long-term love interest. After Ditko left Marvel in 1968, Stan Lee shifted the focus to Gwen Stacy, in part, Conway thinks, because Gwen resembled Stan’s wife. By choosing Mary Jane, Conway felt he was being true to Mary Jane’s original purpose.

Mary Jane was also more interesting than Gwen Stacy. “Gwen was a good girl,” Conway says, “and all the conflict between her and Peter came from outside the relationship by external forces, whereas he and Mary Jane had more internal conflict.”

 

Ahem. If Gwen was “less interesting” than MJ, then while I do appreciate the Spider-marriage between MJ and Peter, why not make a serious effort to make Gwen more so? Honestly, it’s defeatist to put it as Conway did, when here, he could’ve taken the time to modify her personality to somebody whose moral flaws could be more emphasized, and instead, he chose an easy-peasy route. Granted, unlike a lot of the later character deaths that’ve come in the past 30 years, Gwen’s death at the hands of the Green Goblin was in far better taste, and not played for cheap sensationalism. But that still doesn’t mean the writers involved couldn’t have proven they had what it takes to build up Gwen with a more palatable persona.

 

 

Next up is one of the most committee-driven stories of the early 1990s, Superman’s death, and the following is puzzling:

 

It was a mix of internal and external forces that led to the biggest superhero death of all time: Superman. Back in the early ‘90s, DC actually wanted Superman to get married, not murdered. However, the publisher ran into trouble when it learned that the popular TV show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman had similar plans.

Even though the continuities were not connected, DC wanted to sync up the marriages in the comic book and TV show, so the creative team behind the Superman comics had to bide their time until 1996. In the meantime, they decided to kill the Man of Steel instead.

The idea came out of a meeting at DC Comics.

“Killing off Superman was something we’d discussed before, but we never had a lot to go with it,” writer Dan Jurgens recalls. “For this particular meeting, I went in with two ideas in my notebook: one was ‘Death of Superman,’ the other was ‘Monster Trashes Metropolis.’”

 

This information is far more confusing, because I thought discussion of the TV marriage was at least 2 years after the comics “event” had taken place, and Clark Kent was back in business. Seems like Inverse chose to write up something very slapdash for the sake of making a shoddy point about deaths in comicdom being a “necessary evil”. The article goes back to Wolverine, and says:

 

The writer also wanted Wolverine’s death to feel like a sacrifice. And, most importantly, he needed an idea that would look cool in the comics. So Soule decided that Wolverine would be encased in adamantium and asphyxiate.

“It checked all the boxes for me,” Soule says, “It was really somber and horrific in a way I thought Logan deserved. He hasn’t always been the best guy, after all, so there needed to be an element of penance to his death.”

 

Wow. A good guy deserves to die by suffocation? Or, what’s so “cool” about death? This really is getting very atrocious now. I guess this means Wolvie can never have a true comedy tale, right? Something that either went missing in the past 2 decades, or was cheapened, is the whole comedy genre. And look how Soule justified his direction by yet again, talking about a fictional character like he’s a real person. Very telling.

 

But while Wolverine deserved something horrific in his sacrifice, Gwen Stacy did not.

“We didn’t want a grotesque death for Gwen, we wanted something peaceful,” says Conway. “When I was writing the outline, I decided that she would be thrown off the George Washington Bridge and the fall would kill her.”

 

While it certainly can be offensive when women are subject to acts of crude sadism for the sake of cheap fetishization, as seen in Identity Crisis, should men have to suffer something horrific by contrast? Of course not. Nor do they “deserve” to experience it literally, and the way Soule put it is very insulting, putting his fandom for Logan under a question mark. And back to Superman’s death, here’s why Jurgens decided to introduce Doomsday as the culprit:

 

“I was really dissatisfied with the caliber of Superman’s villains at the time,” Jurgens says. “Lex Luthor was a guy in a business suit, and if we had Brainiac do it, it would have just been the 167th Brainiac story.”

 

It’s okay if they want to introduce a new villain to serve the purpose, but the 1992-93 story in execution was superfluous, and the death of Adam Grant, son of Cat Grant, at the hands of the Toyman around the time still remains tasteless.

 

“Comic book readers are inherently conservative in terms of change,” says Conway.

While most people will tell you they don’t want to read the same story over and over again, audiences tend to rebel when major changes are made. Writers can sometimes take the brunt of that reaction, even when it wasn’t their idea.

“People have accused us of killing Superman as a marketing stunt,” Jurgens says. “But we wanted to tell a really good Superman story that would address the importance of Superman.”

 

 

But Adam Grant bore no such value as a co-star, huh? A most irritating problem with how corporate-owned franchises are managed is that they seem to believe putting civilian co-stars to death by murder is the only way to write them out of a series, even though when Spider-Man’s writers decided too much time had passed since the Vietnam war, and Sha-Shan should be dropped from the series and split with Flash Thompson, they didn’t go that route. They just wrote her out, plain and simple, which is amazing when you think about it, because they had no qualms about killing off the aforementioned Gwen Stacy. On which note, Conway said about Stan Lee:

 

“I don’t know that it really penetrated to him that we were doing it. He had been kind of disengaged as a writer at that point and was more focused on publishing strategies and ways to bring Marvel into the larger world through television and things like that. But he was totally fine with it.”

However, things changed after Lee started to get angry questions on college lecture tours from fans asking why he killed off Gwen Stacy. That’s when, according to Conway, the story changed to Lee saying he may have been out of town or not really listening when the decision was made.

But just like time has proven Jurgens right, the same can be said of Conway. Gwen Stacy’s death was one of the most pivotal in the history of comics, as it’s generally regarded as the moment where the more idealistic stories of the Silver Age of comics gave way to the more mature storytelling of the Bronze Age.

 

I seem to vaguely remember Conway lamenting in Sean Howe’s 2011 Marvel history book that he felt Stan threw him under the bus afterward, and wasn’t up to visiting conventions for a time as a result. And, strange nobody mentions the Gwen clone that came about 2 years after the story from ASM #121, where the Jackal hatched a plot that involved creating a clone of Gwen, who went on to pursue a life of her own. They clearly did that as a compromise, and it’s fully okay in the long run. But if Gwen is to remain in the afterlife, it should only be because the story was written well enough, sans the cynicism far more common today, which led to J. Michael Straczynski and Quesada’s offensive 2004 storyline called Sins Past, all written up because the writers/editors were creatively bankrupt as a result of their leftism, which did turn up in Stracynski’s Spidey run.

 

As for Wolverine, he died in 2014 and didn’t get resurrected until 2018 when Marvel asked Soule to return for Return of Wolverine. Four years was a fairly stunning amount of time for a headliner like Wolverine to be gone, but there was a unique situation that allowed this to happen.

 

One that was laughably cheap. Again, they could’ve put Wolvie in simple limbo if they wanted to, without killing him. Maybe have him check into a monestary for a time? Oh, maybe that’s why it didn’t happen: religion is anathema to modern leftist writers.

 

As for Colossus, this is precisely the kind of character that maybe should have stayed dead but didn’t. Colossus is a fantastic X-Men character, but he’s not Wolverine, Professor X, or even Cyclops. Lobdell knew this, which is why he cremated him.

“With Kitty sprinkling his ashes, I thought there was no possible way to bring him back,” says Lobdell. “But, of course, he came back.”

Unlike Jurgens and Soule, Lobdell wasn’t able to resurrect the character himself, but he says it doesn’t really bother him that much.

“A little-known secret about comic book writing is that, when you’ve written a comic book for an extended length of time and then you leave, everything after that feels like fan fiction.”

 

Some might argue both Lobdell and his successors’ writings feel like fan fiction. Again, he hasn’t had any serious connections to the X-books for 20 years already, and those who know how pretentiously leftist he is probably won’t miss him much, since his writing was, unfortunately, in questionable taste, and any participation he had in company wide crossovers, including Age of Apocalypse, only demonstrates how lacking he is in belief that stand-alone storytelling can pay off better.

 

There may have been less character deaths for publicity stunts lately, but look how it’s given way to something just as dismaying: changing any character Marvel/DC’s staff sees fit into a LGBT practitioner. Yet stories about fighting Islamic terrorism, drug trafficking and defending a woman’s honor/dignity are shunned in the mainstream. Something none of these veteran creators admit is a problem. And then Inverse has the gall to lecture everyone with the claim deaths of heroes and their co-stars is a “necessary evil” in mainstream, corporate-owned products. You wouldn’t usually hear this kind of stuff being told about indie creations, and that just proves how corporate-owned products are some of the biggest victims of political correctness, along with publicity stunts. Which the MSM never complains has hurt comicdom.

 

Originally published here.


Avatar photo

Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1

JUST KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON