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17 October 2007 @ 01:38 am
22 Ways to Show a Superhero Killing Someone  
22 Ways to Show a Superhero Killing Someone

As a general rule of thumb, the characters I think of as "classic" superheroes like to claim that they live by the rule: "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and so forth.

Naturally, this means that seeing such a superhero kill someone anyway (or at least appear to be doing so) has great dramatic potential and can look shocking on a cover. Various ways have been found to contrive such a situation. Of course, sometimes it turns out to be a False Alarm for one reason or another, or there may have been very good reasons for the action. And there are some categories that I'm not even counting for my main list.

First I will quickly offer a list of 6 Exceptions that don't really strike me as being as controversial and exciting, then the main list of 22 Ways to arrange for such an image.


Very quickly, here's a list of the type of scenes that don't interest me here.

1. Standard Operating Procedure

Cases where a "hero" kills so frequently that it comes as no great shock to see him do it again. (Punisher. Wolverine. The Authority. "War hero" characters in general, and others who never claimed to be superheroes - Tarzan and Sergeant Rock and that sort of thing.)

2. The Bluff

Cases where a hero threatens to kill, but doesn't do it and probably never intended to. (Batman has been known to hold people over the edge of the roof while he interrogates them, but they always survive the experience.)

3. "The rules were different in those days."

Golden Age cases from the very early days, before it became more-or-less firmly established that conventional comic book superheroes believe that "Thou Shalt Not Kill."

4. Elseworlds (and any other stories set way outside of the normal continuity of the main universe)

For instance, Judd Winick could get away with lots and lots of "superhero killing" material in "Exiles" because it was happening to different versions of old familiar Marvel characters, in different timelines, where it would usually have no perceptible impact on the regular continuity of any other Marvel title.

5. "I wanted to kill him, but they talked me down."

Cases where the superhero was very angry and was thinking about killing an enemy - but either restrained himself at the last moment as a matter of conscience, or else was restrained by friends, before a murderous shot was fired or a murderous blow was struck. A recent example was the scene in the middle of "Hush" where Batman thought the Joker had just killed one of Bruce Wayne's oldest friends and was punching him and thinking lethal thoughts . . . but Jim Gordon managed to talk him down. (Granted, Gordon had to shoot him a couple of times to really get his attention - knocking off one of the pointy ears from his cowl, and then burning his arm with another carefully aimed shot, but hey, what are friends for?)

6. "I'm a war veteran, but that was a long time ago."

Cases where we learned that a man deliberately killed people for one reason or another way back when, before he became a costumed superhero - for instance, in their early appearances in the 1960s, Reed Richards and Ben Grimm were originally stated to be seasoned veterans of World War II. It seems likely that they had killed people from time to time (Ben was an ace fighter pilot, I believe). But that's ancient history and has nothing to do with their superhero activities during and after the Silver Age.


01. Pure Accident
02. Sabotage
03. Mind Control
04. Dream Sequence
05. Mindwipe
06. Negligent Homicide
07. Retcon
08. He was so powerful there was no other way!
09. Impostor
10. Doesn't really qualify as "human or the equivalent"
11. Insanity
12. Act of War
13. "I was sure he was bluffing! Oops!"
14. The Ambiguous Killing
15. "Lethal force" doesn't mean the same thing to my target that it means to regular human beings.
16. Legal Execution
17. Self Defense
18. Shooting Blanks
19. Suicide
20. Kamikaze
21. Fake Death
22. Felony Murder

01. Pure Accident

"Yes, I did something which played a major role in causing him to die - but I didn't intend that. Physically, I was 'involved' in the chain of cause-and-effect, but morally, I wasn't."

The hero wasn't trying to use lethal force, but still did something which ended up having a lethal effect.

Hawkeye once saw the villain Egghead about to shoot Hank Pym in the back and fired an arrow right into the barrel of Egghead's energy weapon - which backfired and killed Egghead. Hawkeye not being a brilliant scientist, and probably not familiar with the technical details of Egghead's weapon either, I doubt he could have possibly known if that would happen or not. I'm willing to take it on faith that he only wanted to thwart Egghead's own murderous plans by disabling the weapon as quickly as possible.

2. Sabotage

"I didn't know the gun was loaded! I've been set up by an expert!"

As in Pure Accident, the hero had no intention of killing anybody - but someone else did intend that and stacked the deck to make it likely to occur before the poor hero had a clue what was really going on.

I've been told that in Spider-Man Versus Wolverine, Spider-Man was basically tricked into killing a woman, an old friend of Wolvie's, named Charlemagne (or "Charley"). She was in a very unhappy state of mind and chose to commit suicide by tricking Spidey into striking at her. Spidey was currently fighting Wolverine in a graveyard -- Charley lunged at him from behind -- Spidey assumed that was Wolverine he sensed coming at him from the rear and lashed out with a blow which should be suitably forceful to deal with the guy with unbreakable bones and an incredible healing factor and all that. Instead, it struck Charley, who wasn't nearly as rugged as Wolverine and promptly died of her injuries. In this case, the "Saboteur" who tricked the hero into playing a lethal role was the same person as the intended Target; Charley having basically chosen a rather unusual way to commit suicide.

I have never read that story; I don't think I had even heard of that particular death until I started soliciting comments from my fellow fans on this sort of thing a few weeks ago; but I am told that Spidey was horrified by what had happened and took it very hard . . . within the context of that single graphic novel. Afterwards, it pretty much faded into limbo and may not have been mentioned again in any Spidey comic book since then for all I can tell from other people's comments.

03. Mind Control

"I wasn't myself at the time. My own personality was not in the driver's seat as my finger pulled the trigger, so you have no business blaming me!"

This has recently been used as the retcon excuse for rehabilitating Hal Jordan so he may resume his old position as a Green Lantern. All that nasty stuff in Emerald Twilight and Zero Hour was the fault of Parallax, the yellow fear demon, you see. Hal Jordan, if in his right mind, wouldn't have killed Kilowog or Sinestro or anyone else.

Iron Man once killed a Russian diplomat under similar circumstances to Mind Control. That wasn't exactly how it happened but it was pretty close. Many superheroes have their powers inherent in their bodies, and so taking forcible control of the brain is the best way to control the powers. Iron Man's superpowered abilities, of course, come from his elaborate suit of armor, and Justin Hammer managed to hack into the control system and seize control of the suit and turn on a repulsor ray at just the right moment to hit the poor Russian in the back at full power at point-blank range, which naturally killed him. Of course, this was carefully timed to occur when there were television cameras handy to capture the entire thing on film, and Iron Man's public relations took a nose dive for awhile.

04. Dream Sequence

"Whoa! What a nightmare that was, with all my friends killing each other!"

How many times have you seen a movie, TV show, comic book, or novel that starts out with what appears to be a nice character in Dire Peril, and maybe that person even takes a 'lethal' wound, and then it turns out it was all fake? They're making a movie, they're doing commando-style war games with paint bullets, they're on a holodeck, someone is sound asleep and was dreaming the entire thing, some other excuse meaning that what we just saw wasn't "really" happening exactly the way it seemed to be, and may only have existed in one person's imagination. (Yes, yes, I'm aware that technically any work of fiction)

05. Mindwipe

"I didn't know who I really was or who the good guys and bad guys were; I shouldn't be held accountable."

Obviously this one can overlap with Mind Control.

Shortly after the Post-Crisis Superman Reboot began, Superman found himself on Apokolips and ended up falling into one of the local fire pits which, I believe, left him weakened and with amnesia -- in other words, if my memory serves, he had been "accidentally" mindwiped and was now pretty vulnerable to outside influences. Darkseid somehow managed to get Supes brainwashed to believe himself to be Darkseid's own son, and then had Superman present himself to the unhappy Hunger Dogs as a messiah figure who could lead them to victory. He ended up leading a rebel army into a trap where large numbers of them were slaughtered by Darkseid's parademons.

Thus, Superman didn't know who he was and was not in control of his own thoughts at the time he lured those guys into a deathtrap, and John Byrne wrote the ending of that story in such a way that after a Mother Box had restored Superman's memories and attitudes, the part about that deathtrap had been carefully edited out so that he wouldn't bear the burden of knowing what he had done.

It's also been suggested that an effort by a superhero to do a total mindwipe of his target could be called an effort to "kill" the target, in terms of erasing his old memories and personality. If the mind is gone, does it really matter much that the body is still breathing? Professor X once did this to "Magneto in X-Men #25," the conclusion of the "Fatal Attractions" crossover story arc.

This line of argument also raises questions about whether the word "killing" could reasonably be applied to what J'onn J'onnz did to the White Martians at the end of "JLA: New World Order," although it appears that their memories were still deeply buried underneath the new personalities he installed inside each skull.

06. Negligent Homicide

"I didn't kill him with my own hands, but I saw and tolerated a situation where his death in the near future was just about inevitable if no one else interfered."

Batman #420. Written by Jim Starlin. The concluding chapter of the "Ten Nights of the Beast" story arc.

Batman leaves the KGBeast trapped in an underground room to slowly die. The Beast was a Cold Warrior; a cybernetically enhanced assassin who was disgusted with "glasnost" and had now gone rogue (i.e. ignoring the orders of Mikhail Gorbachev and his friends in Moscow in the late 80s) and intended to assassinate ten Americans whom he saw as key figures in the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") program. He managed to get most of them, and killed dozens of other people as collateral damage along the way. An earlier conversation with a CIA agent made it crystal-clear to us that Batman and the CIA both anticipated that the USSR would claim "diplomatic immunity" for the Beast if American law enforcement captured him alive.

This presumably had a bearing on Batman's decision in the final pages of the story to herd the Beast into a concrete storage chamber attached to the sewer system tunnels below the surface, and then lock the solid steel door on him from the outside. There was no other way out of that chamber; it was essentially a sealed dungeon cell after Batman locked it. No food or water supply; heck, it may even have been airtight for all I know. Batman returns to the surface but, when his CIA buddy enquires about the Beast, Batman says curtly, "You needn't worry about him anymore" and leaves it at that. The clear implication was that he fully intended to leave the Beast sealed up down below until he died of hunger and thirst (or possibly asphyxiation would get him first if that cell was truly airtight?). The story ends on that note.Starlin was the regular writer on Batman for several months after that story ended, and near as I can recall he never again referred to the subject of what had happened to the KGBeast after Batman left him trapped down below.

I could also make a case for the time Reed Richards convinced his fellow superheroes to turn Galactus loose when they could have, and should have, let him die. Given that Galactus lives by "eating planets" (or at least the energy in them, or something) and has frequently wiped out millions of sentient beings at once throughout the eons when doing so, turning him loose again simply meant that Reed was basically making sure Galactus would continue to commit genocide from time to time in the future. The implication at the time seemed to be: "Okay, we've managed to stop him from destroying Earth and the human race. Now he'll go do the same thing to some other planet, and possibly its own billions of sentient inhabitants, but heck, what do I care?"

07. Retcon

Two main ways that "Retcon" can be used in connection with a Superhero killing.

A) Reveal that the killing happened a long, long time ago. (James Robinson did this in his "Starman" series by having it turn out that the original bearers of the names Starman, Green Lantern, and Flash had once killed the Rag Doll.)

B) Reveal that a killing portrayed or strongly implied in a previous story didn't really happen after all. This is called "having your cake and eating it too!" First the company makes money by selling a story in which fans who like the idea of being "shocked" this way get to see a hero kill someone; then the company tries to mend its fences with other fans who hate that concept by "revealing" that it never "really" happened after all, so what's all the fuss about?

A minute ago I mentioned Batman's treatment of the KGBeast under "Negligent Homicide." Not killing him directly, but leaving him in a trap where he would presumably get around to dying sooner or later. This was retconned over a year later by Marv Wolfman, soon after he took over as the regular writer on the Batman title. In Wolfman's version, as summarized by Nightwing during the "Year Three" story arc in angry dialogue because he didn't like what he had heard about the event after it was all over, Batman apparently left the KGBeast trapped in a locked room underground for a couple of hours and then called the authorities and told them exactly where to find the guy. Presumably he was struggling with his conscience in the interim. It turned out that the Beast had somehow broken loose during that two-hour timeframe, however. (And I got the impression that he hadn't been heard from since that time - which was a trifle odd, because wouldn't he still have been obsessed with killing the tenth name on his hit list . . . President Ronald Reagan? But there was no mention of his having made any subsequent attempts on the President's life after he got out of the sewers.)

08. He was so powerful there was no other way!

The first X-Men comic I ever read was "Uncanny X-Men #128." In it, Colossus managed to get close to Proteus while in the normal form of Peter Rasputin, and then transformed to organic steel and shoved his hands into the middle of Proteus's energy form. This apparently short-circuited him and caused him to die in a huge pyrotechnic display.

(Proteus could reshape reality around himself, and was getting better at it with practice, as I recall. He was also devoid of any moral scruples that would restrain him from killing and torturing at will. He could also transfer his mind to possess one body after another. Given those problems, the chances of slapping some handcuffs on him and dragging him off to a cozy little prison cell, and keeping him there, were looking very faint.)

09. Impostor

"Gee, I look just like a real superhero in this costume, don't I? I guess it's true! The clothes do make the man! To celebrate, I think I'll kill somebody!"

We "see" a well-known superhero killing or trying to kill someone, but it eventually turns out to have been someone else wearing a copy of the distinctive costume and playing mind games with us.

There was a Flash storyline by Mark Waid back around 1993 in which we appeared to have witnessed "The Return of Barry Allen." However, one issue ended with the recently-returned Barry Allen, the Flash of the Silver Age, having apparently left Wally West (the Post-Crisis Flash) to die in a deathtrap. Wally got out of it alive, no thanks to Barry, who presumed he had died and publicly announced that as fact in a TV interview. Later, we finally found out that the guy everybody had been calling "Barry" lately, who had his powers, his facial features, at least some of the relevant memories, and even passed a lie-detector test administered by Hal Jordan's power ring, was actually Eobard Thawne, aka Professor Zoom. (One reason this possibility had not occurred to Wally sooner was that he had seen Professor Zoom die on another occasion, years earlier (see the "Self Defense" category of this post). But, Time Travel being what it is, this was a younger version of Professor Zoom making his very first trip back to the 20th Century just shortly after he'd managed to have his face and body adapted to make him the spit'n'image of the great Barry Allen.

10. Doesn't really qualify as "human or the equivalent"

"Yes, I killed him, but that shouldn't be regarded as a felony. His kind don't have any civil rights; it's not as if he were a living, breathing human being."

Lots of superheroes have helped fight and kill vampires over the years, but vampires are not generally regarded as having all the civil rights of regular human beings. After all, if the guy has already unquestionably died, been examined by a coroner, and buried, with a death certificate being issued and his will going through probate, then how can you possibly "murder" him in the eyes of the law if his corpse just happens to come back out of the grave?

Similar rationalizations seem to apply to fighting ghosts, demons, zombies, and various other "monsters" that, for one reason or another, don't strike the superhero as being entitled to the normal civil rights of human beings and other "civilized and intelligent" people. Likewise, robots are often considered highly expendable.

On that note, there was a time in the early 1980s when Doctor Doom and Arcade had collaborated to capture the X-Men. Wolverine, having gotten loose from the trap Doom placed him in, entered the room where Doom was and slashed apart what appeared to be his teammate Storm, but was actually a robot double. After that story was over, Angel (who had recently begun working with the team again) threw a fit over that, arguing that he doubted Wolvie would have hesitated to give her the same treatment if it had been a regular human being disguised as Storm instead of just one of Doom's robots.

(I thought that was an odd reason to condemn a man -- not because of anything Wolverine had done to other human beings, or had threatened to do, but merely condemn him for what he had done to a stupid robot -- which Angel automatically assumed was exactly the same thing he would have done to a living, breathing real person?)

11. Insanity

"We plead not guilty by reason of insanity, Your Honor!"

This was the original idea for why Jean Grey committed genocide in the Dark Phoenix Saga. (Or at least, it was Chris Claremont's idea for what had happened to make her snap, and this was reflected in the dialogue. John Byrne has stated that his personal opinion during that collaboration with Claremont was to think of it as some sort of "demonic possession," an outside force that had invaded Jean's mind, but since he wasn't writing the dialogue or the captions full of expository prose, that wasn't the way it came across to readers at the time.)

Mockingbird could make a case for "Temporary Insanity" in connection with her "Negligent Homicide" of the Phantom Rider during Steve Englehart's run on the West Coast Avengers title in the 1980s. Mockingbird fought the Phantom Rider and then refused to rescue him when he appeared about to take a fatal fall (which he did, dying as a result). But we should remember that at the time of their fight, she had just recently emerged from the mental fog of being his drugged love slave for quite some time. She could plausibly argue that after spending I-don't-know-how-long in that drugged condition, she was not likely to have immediately gotten all the drugs flushed out of her system, nor to have already come to terms with the realization that she had effectively been raped while under their influence. Thus, it should be understandable if she had not yet recovered her normal degree of "sanity" and "responsibility" in the short time before her battle with the Phantom Rider, and allowances should have been made. (They weren't made by her husband, Hawkeye, when he finally found out the full story, though. Of course, as near as I can recall, he started off on the wrong foot by asking her in front of other Avengers if the situation with the Phantom Rider had ever progressed to physical intimacy and she reflexively denied it. I couldn't help thinking that was the sort of loaded question that a husband and wife would do better to address when they were in private, with no witnesses to whatever was said. Might be a little easier for a woman to bare her soul about recent traumatic events under such circumstances.)

12. Act of War

"I don't want you to die for your country. I want you to make the other guy die for his."

In real life, warfare is generally considered to constitute a different situation from the normal, "peacetime civilian" rules, when it comes to deliberately killing other people. However, many superheroes either disagree with that assertion, or else are written in such a way as to never or rarely confront that unpleasant reality in their own slugfests.

Back in 1982, there was a "Star Wars"-style storyline in the New Teen Titans title written by Marv Wolfman, pencilled by George Perez, co-plotted by the pair of them. The issues were: "New Teen Titans #23-25," and "New Teen Titans Annual #2."

In this storyline, the New Teen Titans ended up getting involved in an interstellar war after the Gordanians came to Earth and managed to abduct Starfire, aka Princess Koriand'r of Tamaran. In the course of this storyline, Titans fired lasers or similar-looking weapons and generally helped wage war. Dick Grayson, for instance (still the first Robin at the time) sure looked to me like he was using weapons meant to be deadly, and he tolerated such behavior on the part of his teammates and allies as well. Toward the end, Kid Flash (Wally West, later the third Flash) used his superfast reflexes to pilot a ship close enough to the fixed defenses of the Citadel homeworld to blow up weapons platforms and create an opening in that planet's defenses that even more ordinary people (such as his fellow Titans and the Omega Men) could use for an attack. Wally had to have known that he was helping to kill people by doing what he did.

I bought those stories as they were coming out. All these years later, I still do not know if Batman ever found out that his protege had deliberately killed other sentient beings and/or seen his friends and teammates do the same as part of a war effort; and even if Bruce knows, I have no idea whether he and Dick ever sat down and discussed the matter (or does Bruce pretend not to know, or what?).

On a similar note, during the "Operation: Galactic Storm" crossover at Marvel, a subgroup of the Avengers agreed to destroy the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree Empire before he could cause even more billions of violent deaths than he already had. (It didn't work, but at the time they honestly thought they had destroyed the Supreme Intelligence, and other Avengers were furious with them over that.)

13. "I was sure he was bluffing! Oops!"

I've been unable to think of a good example of this from superhero continuity. I even solicited help on various forums a few weeks ago. But the rough idea would go like this:

Villain says: "Stop! If you touch that object, a booby trap I've wired up will kill an innocent person!"

Hero says: "Ha! You're bluffing to try to discourage me!"

Here touches that object. Pow! The booby trap goes off and kills an innocent hostage.

Hero throws a hissy fit. "You fiend! You tricked me into doing that!"

Villain shouts: "Where do you get off, trying to blame this all on me? I warned you fair and square that your heavy-handed tactics would kill someone if you kept coming!"

14. The Ambiguous Killing

"Did I kill him? None of your business. Maybe you suspect I killed him, but you can't prove it. And if you can't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, then it isn't true - legally. Haven't you ever heard of the fine old principle, 'Presumed Innocent until Proven Guilty'?"

Jason Todd went this way during Jim Starlin's run on Batman. A diplomat's son had been committing various rapes, but due to the diplomatic immunity that rubbed off from his father, the son couldn't be prosecuted and convicted in Gotham. At the end of the story, Jason dropped in at the young man's apartment for a chat, or something . . . and the next thing we knew, the rapist was street pizza after taking a long fall. Batman didn't get there in time to see what really happened. Jason's story was that gosh darn it, the lad lost his footing and slipped and fell off his balcony, or something like that.

It said a lot that obviously Batman wasn't sure if Jason had deliberately tossed the guy off the balcony or not. (The cover sure made it look as if he had.) I very much doubt Batman has ever lost too much sleep over that question in any similar cases where Dick Grayson or Tim Drake reported they had seen a criminal die before they could realize what was happening and get close enough to intervene successfully. His painful uncertainty about Jason Todd's veracity in such a situation tells us something. (And for all I know, it may have something to do with the motives of a narrow majority of Batman readers in 1988 being willing to vote for Jason to die during the "A Death in the Family" story arc.)

In that instance, there was no question that the rapist was dead. The only ambiguity was of the sort reflected in an age-old question: "Did he fall -- or was he pushed?"
Another brand of Ambiguous Killing would be those cases where it seems as if someone just died -- but there is not actually an identifiable corpse recovered from the scene of the explosion (or whatever happened), which leaves it up in the air. Maybe someone actually died a violent death, largely because of something the superhero did or was an accessory to, and maybe it was all smoke and mirrors.

15. It only looked lethal!

"Gee, didn't you guys realize that 'lethal force' doesn't mean the same thing to my target that it means to regular human beings?"

Storm once ripped out the heart of the mutant Morlock known as Marrow in a duel. It turned out, though, that one of Marrow's mutant characteristics was the possession of two hearts. Lose one, the other one keeps going strong.

Other comic book characters have bizarre metabolisms which make "killing" them much harder than it looks. Alan Moore, early in his run on the Swamp Thing, had a scientist report re: the title character, "You can't kill a plant by shooting it in the head!"

16. Legal Execution

"They were obviously guilty of capital crimes. They were convicted and sentenced by the appropriate authorities. I carried out the sentence. All legal and proper by the rules that pertained in that particular time and place, so what's all the fuss about?"

Superman #22 (second series with that title.) Written by John Byrne; I believe this was the last issue of his run as a Superman writer in the late 80s. On the Earth of a Pocket Universe, Superman finally finds himself one of five surviving characters, none of whom are members of that Earth's version of Homo Sapiens. There is Superman (who is only visiting from the mainstream Earth of the Post-Crisis DCU), the Matrix Supergirl (an artificial lifeform), and the three Phantom Zone Criminals of this Pocket Universe's version of Krypton, who are responsible for the genocidal detail that the entire human race of this world has been exterminated over the past few years.

Superman finally managed to subdue the three with Gold Kryptonite (which he had never heard of back home), which cut them down to merely human levels (instead of actually being stronger than he was, which was previously the case - and a nasty shock for him, too!). They are now confined in a cell and if memory serves, they show no signs of remorse. On the contrary, they are still boasting that sooner or later they will find somehow find ways to a) regain their powers, and b) follow him back home to his native Earth and carry on with their plans to conquer or kill everyone in sight.

Having boasted of those plans, they are then terribly shocked when he decides to kill them as the only sure way to make sure they won't do it again. After all, there's no longer any functioning court system on that planet to take jurisdiction if Superman didn't do it, and courts on his native world in the DCU wouldn't have any jurisdiction over murders that had happened in a whole different universe, would they? I admit that in theory, there were some other possible ways to try to handle the situation, but at least I can understand why it seemed like a good idea at the time. And since there was basically no government left on that Earth except Superman himself, there being no other adult resident who wasn't currently in jail on charges of genocide, you could make a case that he basically held a fair, democratic election in which any adult who was not a well-known, self-confessed mass murderer was free to participate as a candidate or a voter (that meant: only One Candidate, only One Voter, but it wasn't Superman's fault that the voting population had been reduced to such a small number), elected himself to every public office with a solid 100% of the vote, and then tried and convicted and executed the three Phantom Zone criminals in a perfectly legal fashion, if it makes you feel better. (That was the way I rationalized it when I first read the story, anyway -- although I still didn't like it.)

17. Self Defense

"It was horrible, the way that vicious killer suddenly leaped for my throat! I had no choice!"

At his second wedding, Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, defended his bride from the attack of Professor Zoom, which resulted in a superspeed fight in which Professor Zoom ended up dead. This resulted in a very long storyline about the "Trial of the Flash," which I have not yet read. (Although I think I have most of the relevant issues in my collection -- but I need to fill a few gaps before I can read the entire thing straight through, beginning to end, and see if it was really as badly written as I've been told.)

[Note in February 2007 -- some months ago I finally read a full of run of the last few years of Barry Allen's title. But so far I haven't posted anything setting forth my thoughts about it in any detail.]

There have been other cases of superheroes killing someone in defense of themselves or some other innocent party. For example, the X-Men killed at least a couple of the Marauders during the "Mutant Massacre" crossover in the 1980s. The Marauders were trying to slaughter every Morlock man, woman, or child they could find in the tunnels under New York City, and the X-Men were naturally taking umbrage at this mission statement and forcefully expressing their displeasure.

18. Shooting Blanks

"I didn't know the gun wasn't loaded!"

This is where the superhero wasn't just bluffing with a threat to kill; wasn't just staging an illusion to pretend to kill; but actually intended to kill and made his very best effort to kill . . . and failed even though he had every reason to think he would succeed. So morally he made the decision to kill someone and followed through on it and had to live with whatever moral burden was attached to that, even ifr the target actually survived. Sometimes the hero (and the reader) spends a long time believing that there was, in fact, a fatality as a result of his actions, until the character in question pops up again. Other times, it is crystal-clear that the hero intended to use lethal force, but we are quickly assured that nobody died anyway.

One example of this happened to Arrowette (Cissie King-Jones) in the Young Justice title written by Peter David. A young thug had killed a school faculty member Cissie really liked. She saw a videotape of the whole ugly, sadistic scene and decided to get even. She tracked down the killer in the woods and was playing cat-and-mouse with him and then fired a last arrow meant to get him in the heart and kill him. At the start of the next page, we discovered that her teammate Superboy had come along in the nick of time and had managed to fly across her line of fire at superspeed and grab her arrow in midair just before it reached the target. Then he suggested a do-over if she still felt certain that was the way she wanted to handle this situation. She reconsidered and didn't kill the guy.

In fact, she resigned from the superhero business because of how close she had come to committing a vigilante murder. Which means that this particular "talk her down" scene actually had a lasting impact on her, which makes it interestingly different from most of the "shocking" events in a superhero's life that will "change his life forever!" (More often than not, if you looked at the stories being published about that hero a couple of years later, you would never know anything particularly "shocking' had happened way back when.)

19. Suicide

"Stand back! I'm going to die now - but I don't want anyone else to get hurt."

In the Dark Phoenix Saga we had previously seen Jean Grey destroy a star and wipe out billions of sentient beings living on one of its planets in the process, but in the scene in which she finally died, she seems to have telekinetically triggered an alien weapon to destroy herself during a fit of sanity before she could go totally nuts and commit genocide all over again. So her death was a Superhero Suicide.

For the moment, I'm ignoring the way this was heavily retconned later. The key point is: At the time, and for about five years thereafter, X-Men readers, as well as Claremont and Byrne who plotted the story in accordance with feedback from Jim Shooter about making the punishment fit the crime (the original plan was to take away her powers, and then give her a slap on the wrist and turn her loose), were convinced they had just seen a veteran superhero kill herself during a temporary lapse back into sanity, in order to prevent further insane atrocities in the future; plain and simple.

A couple of decades later, Colossus gave his life to bring the Legacy Virus to an end. (Although Joss Whedon has recently retconned that one too.)

20. Kamikaze

"You can always take one with you." -- Sir Winston Churchill

In Suicide, I assumed that in the relevant scene, the superhero is only killing himself. In Kamikaze, I assume the superhero is taking action which he fully expects will cause his own death, but a desire to drop dead is not the reason he's doing it. The purpose of the exercise is to kill one or more of the enemy at the same time and thus achieve a larger goal.

Superman's slugfest with Doomsday in Superman #75, the final pages of the story arc reprinted in "The Death of Superman" TPB, could fall into this category. Superman certainly didn't want to die - but on the other hand, given how hard Doomsday was hitting him and how good he was at resisting the impact of Superman's own punches, before the end of the battle Superman must have realized that his own death was looking likelier by the minute. And it happened!

21. The Fake Death

"Hold still, this will only hurt for a moment -- and at least you'll wake up later, after I've let witnesses decide you're dead!"

Superheroes have been known to pretend to kill someone for psychological impact. For instance, in Action Comics #775, when Superman fought the Elite (a knockoff of Warren Ellis's The Authority), he briefly pretended to have killed something like three out of four, in hopes of making a certain psychological impact on Manchester Black, their leader.

Likewise, I am told that toward the end of the first story arc of the "Ultimate X-Men title," Professor X pretended to kill Magneto.

22. Felony Murder

"I don't care if you didn't plan his death -- you're an accessory in the criminal activity that led to it!"

This one may need some defining. Presumably all my readers are familiar with such concepts as Self Defense, Legal Execution, Act of War, and Impostor. However, the exact meaning of "Felony Murder" may be unclear to some of them. It does not simply refer to the fact that "murder" is a "felony." Here the reference is to some other type of felony which ends up having a fatal result for someone, in addition to whatever the original objective of the premeditated criminal behavior may have been.

As I understand the law -- and I warn you right now that I am not a lawyer and never intend to be -- in the legal codes of at least some (possibly all) states of the United States of America, and probably in many other nations as well, there is a legal principle which allows the local authorities to prosecute any member of a criminal gang or conspiracy for "felony murder" if at least one member of the gang actually did something that clearly caused someone's violent death during other illegal activities in which the entire group voluntarily participated. If a violent death occurs during the commission of a felony, even if it seems fairly clear that this particular violent death had not been premeditated, nor explicitly agreed to by all members of the gang, then the death is considered a case of "felony murder" and all members of the criminal gang may be held equally accountable for it.

For example, if five guys pull out their guns and rob a bank, and in the commotion one of the bank robbers actually shoots and kills a security guard, the other four guys can also be charged with the killing even if the evidence makes it crystal-clear that it was the fifth man who fired the fatal shot. I believe the underlying legal theory is that if a person is in his right mind and old enough to be fully responsible for his own actions, and if that person agrees to participate in an armed robbery, then he should really be able to reasonably anticipate that there is an excellent chance that when you're waving guns around during a felony, one of them might be fired and might kill someone. In the eyes of the law, by nevertheless agreeing to participate in the robbery, each member of the gang accepted the risk of being involved in a violent death and apparently wasn't overly distressed by the possibility. So if the violent death actually happened, each member of the gang shares the guilt.

I have the impression that sometimes prosecutors don't feel it necessary to throw the book at every single member of a gang with charges of "felony murder" for one and all after such a situation as I described above - but it gives them a great bargaining chip in negotiating for a plea bargain, for instance. They can promise that the first member of the gang to agree to testify in detail against everybody else in the gang will get preferential treatment, and the death of the bank guard won't even be mentioned in the charges to which that particular man will be pleading guilty, thus assuring him a much lighter prison sentence than his confederates will get.

(If I got anything badly wrong in my efforts to explain my layman's understanding of "felony murder," which is quite possible, I hope one of my readers who is better-read in the field of criminal law will be kind enough to tell me just where I went wrong .)

You probably see where I'm going with this, eh? Suppose that Character X, a pure-minded, non-murderous superhero, recruits some shady characters to help him with a secret operation which he knows darn well is illegal, but he feels the Greater Good requires it. And suppose one of his recruits does something nasty or careless that causes a sudden death in the course of the illegal operation. Character X could be in very hot water if the criminal justice system ever figured out exactly what had happened and who was involved in it. (Heck, his conscience might even require him to confess.) A charge of "felony murder" would not be out of the question. Granted, if he had actually managed to Save The World with his secret operation, he might be able to get a Presidential Pardon for his pains or something along those lines. But I wouldn't count on it working out so neatly as all that!

One example where it didn't work out this way but easily could have: The origin story of the Fantastic Four. Remember how Reed Richards convinced the others to help him steal that rocket ship for an unauthorized flight? If any of his fellow criminals had died, I believe he would have been facing possible charges of Felony Murder along with all the other ways they could throw the book at him.

If there are cases "in continuity" where a non-murderous superhero still could have been slammed with a Felony Murder rap because of his participation in other illegal activities, please let me know. Offhand I'm drawing a blank, but my memory is far from perfect and I haven't read everything.


That's the 22 I came up with. Somehow, I feel certain that there are a few others I've overlooked, mentioning them neither under the "Exceptions" nor on the main list. Let me know what you think I missed!
(Deleted comment)
ex_decaf on November 19th, 2007 09:57 pm (UTC)
No, I think that would fall under the category of "He was so powerful, there was no other way." After all, with the League incapacitated and Batman's strategic knowhow off the table, God knows what those guys could have done if they had control of the whole JLA and no extra Leaguers or hitmen around to keep them occupied? Even IF the President had dropped the bomb, that's not a guarantee that an infected Superman or GL wouldn't have made it off the moon by then.