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07 October 2007 @ 10:33 pm
12 Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character  
12 Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character

[This version was first written in summer of 2006.]

Two years ago, in June of 2004, I posted an earlier version of this: "10 Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character." I invited feedback on any other basic motives the writers and editors might have that I had overlooked on the first pass. Several people were kind enough to offer such feedback - and now I'm finally getting around to reacting to it with a new version!

12 Possible Motives

01. Cannon Fodder
02. False Alarm to Raise Sales
03. Let's Make Room for Someone Younger and Cuter in a Similar Role!
04. The "End of the Romance" Fatality
05. It's Time to Shake Things Up in This Book - Which Regular Cast Member Shall We Kill?
06. Let's Spice Up An Epic By Killing Someone Incredibly Obscure!
07. Housecleaning to Get Rid of an Embarrassment
08. The Professional Corpse
09. The Series Was Getting Cancelled Anyway - Let's Go Out With a Bang!
10. Punishment for Sins
11. The Mystery's Gone Out of Our Relationship
12. "I'm Back and I'm Badder than Ever! (Watch me prove it!)"

01. Cannon Fodder

These are the characters who were "created to die" for dramatic reasons. The writer who invented them never intended for them to become permanent participants in the continuity of the series he is writing; he will finish them off himself when the time is right. They may last a panel, a page, an issue, or even a year or two, but they were always doomed in the end.

Obvious examples are the characters who only exist long enough for a villain to kill them, just to show how ruthless and deadly he can be. You know, we meet the security guard at the local bank on Page 5, and the supervillain slaughters him in a colorful fashion on Page 6? The poor guard may have gotten three whole lines of dialogue before he dies. Nothing more was ever expected or required of him by the writer.

On a larger scale, Jeph Loeb introduced several new characters, mostly criminals, in his "Long Halloween" and "Dark Victory" epics, and many of them died before he was through with them.

Other examples: Terra and Kole, two Titans characters of the early-to-mid 80s. Marv Wolfman has freely admitted both of them were created to die.

In addition: At least one reader of the first draft pointed out the important role, in several team books, of the Expendable Founding Member who becomes acquainted with his new teammates and then dramatically dies - maybe within the first story arc, maybe at some later point within the first year or so after the team starts working together - as an object lesson to the others in just how dangerous the superhero line of work can be. One obvious example, possibly the earliest one, is Thunderbird I who debuted in "Giant-Size X-Men #1" as part of the "New X-Men" and promptly died at the end of the new membership roster's next adventure together, in "Uncanny X-Men #95." Two decades later (our time), Serpentina was the equivalent member of the newly formed "X-Men 2099" team who lived a century in the future. We barely got to know her before she perished.

An unusually frank and widescale case of "Cannon Fodder" would be the cast of Marvel's title of the late 80s, "Strikeforce: Morituri," in which the central characters were all volunteers who had been warned that if they didn't get killed in the line of duty, the process that gave them their superpowers would still kill them anyway, probably sometime within the first year of their superpowered careers as elite soldiers fighting alien invaders. Successive waves of characters were recruited, empowered, trained, and frequently killed off fairly quickly, exactly as they had been warned to expect.

02. False Alarm to Raise Sales

Used to be this "false death" of a lead superhero, or someone close to him in his personal life, would seem to happen on the cover of a book, and within the pages of that single book the character would die or seem to, but would recover fully from his slight case of death by the end. As multi-issue stories became more common, the False Alarms got longer and longer.

Remember the "Death of Superman" in 1992? Several months went by in four linked titles before the Real Thing returned to Metropolis. And a few years later, I think the Fantastic Four's Reed Richards was Missing in Action, Presumed Dead (except by his wife) for a couple of years! (Our time. Less than that in comic-book-time.) In both cases, however, I never believed for a minute that these deaths were meant to be "permanent." And they weren't.

03. Let's Make Room for Someone Younger and Cuter in a Similar Role!

Hal Jordan is dead; Long Live Kyle Rayner! (Who DOESN'T embarrass DC by having white hair at his temples, suggesting he might actually be getting downright ancient - like, in his forties, even!)

NOTE: Yes, I know that first Hal was only turned into a lunatic in order to "make room" for Kyle. Later on in the 1990s he was apparently killed off once or twice, to "nail it down" that he wasn't going to be a respectable Green Lantern anymore.

Ollie Queen is dead; Long Live Connor Hawke! (Who has a nifty Politically Correct multiracial background too!)

And more recently: Ra's al Ghul is dead; Long Live Ra's al Ghul (Version 2.0), who used to be Nyssa!

On a similar note: Sometimes one villain is killed off so that a different and possibly much nastier version can take over. (Not necessarily "younger" and "cuter" in this context, but still "significantly different.") Judd Winick did this with Sabbac, for instance.

04. The "End of the Romance" Fatality

"Good grief, I think the hero is becoming emotionally involved with this lady! What can we do to get rid of her? I know! We'll kill her! That'll fix the problem! Then the fans will stop nagging at us to let him marry her and settle down, which would *gasp of horror* change him from the swinging bachelor he is now! This will teach them not to nag us about such nonsense!"

How many times did Erik Larsen take this daring approach to "resolving" the Savage Dragon's romantic relationships?

Superboy lost Tana Moon that way; Daredevil lost Karen Page that way; Captain America probably lost Sharon Carter that way in the 1970s (for a couple of decades, anyway . . .)

Even spouses are not immune to being tossed in the trashcan for this reason. Scuttlebutt says that several years ago some editorial types at Marvel decided that letting Spidey get married in the first place was a huge mistake, so it was time to "fix" the problem. In other words, use a plane explosion to kill off his wife, and try to move him back toward the "poor guy trying really hard to get a date with one neat girl or another" roots of the character as quickly as possible. Didn't quite work out. Faithful readers were not amused, to put it mildly. Eventually Marvel conceded that Mary Jane was still alive, after all.

05. It's Time to Shake Things Up in This Book - Which Regular Cast Member Shall We Kill?

Gerry Conway wrote that this was the basic reason Spider-Man lost his first really serious girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, back in the early 70s, at the hands of the original Green Goblin. Presumably it was also the reason Spidey lost his Aunt May in the mid-90s. (That one was later Reverse-Changed of course. As with the Dark Phoenix thing, it hadn't been the "real" Aunt May who died, but an impostor.)

Likewise, Batman lost the Post-Crisis version of Jason Todd (admittedly, readers got to vote on that one), and eleven years later, Commissioner Gordon lost his second wife, Sarah.

06. Let's Spice Up An Epic By Killing Someone Obscure!

I see this one as being a different category from the previous version, because here you choose someone so obscure that people who have only been reading the book for the last few months, or sometimes the last few years, may never have heard of her until the story arc in which she dies.

The "Bruce Wayne: Murderer?" storyline started off this way by killing a woman Bruce had apparently dated a few times during Doug Moench's 1990s run on Batman. Her name was Vesper Fairchild, and during and after "No Man's Land" she basically disappeared until an obscure murder victim was needed in a hurry.

Vesper was continuing a proud tradition; much the same thing had previously happened to Kathy Kane, the Batwoman of the late 50s and early 60s, in a story in the late 70s. Information at dcuguide.com suggests that when she died in "Detective Comics #485," it was her first appearance in that title in the past 160 issues, although she had been shown in some issues of "Batman Family" earlier in the 1970s.

And after Vesper, we had Harold Allnut. In the first 10 issues of the 12-part Hush, he was not visible at all. Anyone who had only started reading Batman with the first issue of Hush could be pardoned for not knowing anyone named "Harold" was even supposed to exist in Bat-continuity. In the 11th issue, "Batman #618," he showed up in one scene at the end of that issue, just long enough to say a few words and then die. One online commentator has claimed Harold hadn't been seen interacting with Batman and his friends in the Batcave since before NML, which (if accurate) would mean that basically regular Bat-readers went without him all the way from 1998 to 2003, a five year gap. After all that time, even many of the old-timer readers could be forgiven for having forgotten him already, and/or having assumed he was long gone from the Batcave and unlikely to return in circumstances that suggested he'd actually been working in the cave for Batman, behind the scenes, all along!

07. Housecleaning to Get Rid of an Embarrassment

"If we kill him, we can let all the other characters quickly develop Total Amnesia and never mention him again! It will be just as good as if we had announced we were Retcon-Erasing him from our continuity!"

Many Spider-fans feel this is why the "Ben Reilly" Spider-Clone finally died a tragic death. Once the decision had finally been made at Marvel that Peter Parker would be the "permanent" Spider-Man henceforth, Ben Reilly (who had originally been sincerely intended to take over the Spider-titles permanently as a Bachelor Spidey character who wouldn't have the marriage to MJ as a millstone around his neck) became incredibly useless and redundant. If he stuck around onstage for any great length of time, he would just be a very embarrassing reminder of a big idea that had fallen flat on its face somewhere along the line. Hence, the natural desire to sweep him under the rug and forget about him as quickly as possible after he'd been conveniently killed off.

08. The Professional Corpse

("Kill me once, and kill me twice, then kill me once again, it's been a long, long time . . .")

This is the character whose basic concept is such that he can die, and die, and die . . . without dying the "final death." The reader comes to take this for granted after the rationale has been explained to him at least once.

Ra's al Ghul with his Lazarus Pits. Marvel's version of Dracula, with his vampirism. DC's Deimos, the sorcerous arch-enemy of Travis Morgan (the Warlord), has been killed time and again. The X-Men used to have Master Mold, a Sentinel AI who could rebuild himself again and again as long as one little copy of his core programming survived in some inaccessible spot the X-Men didn't know about. (He later ended up as part of the "new" character of Bastion in the 1990s.) Jack Kirby's Captain Victory used to be a Professional Corpse; he had a whole bunch of clone-bodies available in case the current one got killed off. Which reminds me of Ultron, of course, and others who can switch from one artificial body to the next. John Ostrander's Grimjack was once revealed to be endlessly reincarnated, body after body, in the city of Cynosure. And so on, and so forth.

09. The Series Was Getting Cancelled Anyway - Let's Go Out With a Bang!

This motive can apply to anyone who has been intimately connected with a particular series - heroes, villains, regular faces in the supporting cast, whatever.

Remember how the original Doom Patrol got blown up in their last issue? (I haven't read it, but I've certainly seen it referred to in dozens of other comic books.) I know that at least 3 of the 4 were subsequently revealed to have survived the experience, but at the time they were all supposed to have died. (And I haven't even looked at the latest reboot of the Doom Patrol yet.)

On a similar note, the original "Defenders" series from Marvel ended with the deaths of Andromeda, Gargoyle, Interloper, Manslaughter, Moondragon and Valkyrie.

It's also been pointed out to me that sometimes the series gets cancelled so abruptly that a regular character in it (hero or villain) gets killed off a little bit later, in a new story in some other title, as a way of belatedly "wrapping up loose ends that we didn't have time to finish wrapping up before!" The writer of this follow-up story may well be the same writer who had been slaving away on the old series until someone pulled the plug on it.

10. Punishment for Sins

In the classic "Dark Phoenix Saga," Chris Claremont and John Byrne hadn't actually planned to kill Phoenix at all, until Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter allegedly said something along the following lines [paraphrased in my own words]: "Hey, waitaminnit. You portrayed her commiting genocide when she destroyed a star and thus exterminated a planet with billions of sentient inhabitants. Now your idea for 'punishing' her is to give her a slap on the wrist and have her telepathic and telekinetic abilities permanently removed so she can't possibly do it again, and then turn her loose? That doesn't work for me!"

I think Shooter had an excellent point there. Even if that wasn't what Claremont had planned, it still made for a very strong ending. (Of course, the whole thing was later Reverse-Changed to try to spur sales on the X-Books by retroactively making it a bait-and-switch scam, where the tragic story you thought you had bought and read wasn't really so tragic after all, because it hadn't been Jean Gray but some poor deluded psychotic alien entity impostor thingie who really thought she was Jean Gray. But that was far in the future at this point. Everyone involved seems to agree that they were not planning any of that when they actually killed off Jean Grey in "Uncanny X-Men #137.")

11. The Mystery's Gone Out of Our Relationship

(Thanks to Omar Karindu for offering this category title.)

This refers to a character whose fundamental appeal was heavily dependent upon the long-running mystery surrounding his "true identity" and/or personal agenda in life. Often there were hints in the text, and/or strong suspicions on the part of the readers, that the mysterious "Character X" (to invent a name as an example) was an "old, familiar face" behind his mask; someone longtime readers might be able to "recognize" from one of the older stories in their collections.

The corollary is that the air of mystery surrounding the character may well be viewed as his strongest selling point. Once it's dispelled by revelations about his real origins, it may be time for him to die now that he's outlived his usefulness!

As one example: In the 1970s, a recurring Mystery Villain in the "Daredevil" title was a weird fellow called the Death-Stalker. I believe at least four different writers handled him in one or more storylines apiece during their runs of various lengths as the scripters on the Daredevil title in that era. (Steve Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Jim Shooter, Roger McKenzie.) On several occasions he clashed with Daredevil and then made a clean getaway, although sometimes he suffered the pain of seeing some of his current plans (whatever they were) temporarily foiled in the process.

Then came the story in which the long-running mystery of Death-Stalker was finally resolved as he captured Daredevil and then ranted at length about his own origin story, including a brief career under a different alias way back when. Having gotten all this off his chest, Death-Stalker immediately died in battle. To the best of my knowledge, he has never been heard from since.

12. "I'm Back and I'm Badder than Ever! (Watch me prove it!)"

(This category was suggested, under a different title, by Omar Karindu as well.)

The idea is that a character, "hero" or "villain," has been retooled to some degree by a new writer trying to give the character his own special twist. The character soon finds an opportunity to kill some other well-established previous acquaintance of his; someone he previously would not have been likely (or able?) to kill at all. Thereby impressing the readers with how much tougher this "new and improved" version of the character is.

For example, I believe the Punisher's ex-friend Microchip has been killed off more than once. The first time, in a story written by Chuck Dixon, Punisher had had a bad falling-out with Microchip and was possibly about to kill him when someone else did the job for him. Frank reflected, "I'll never know if I would have capped him."

However, in a much later story arc by Garth Ennis, Microchip was still alive and kicking until the Punisher personally killed him, his former best friend, thereby nailing down the Ennis Punisher's credentials as grimmer-and-grittier than the previous versions of the character.

Closing Remarks

Of course, these motives can overlap and get all tangled up like a plateful of spaghetti in particular cases. For instance, if a writer proposed killing off a regular member of the cast of the title he was working on, and the editor gave him the green light to go ahead with that plot concept, the writer's motive and the editor's motive could be entirely different ones.

In addition, later on the same editor (or a different one) may give another writer permission to bring back a character the first writer killed a few years ago. In that case, many angry fans are likely to jump to the conclusion, retroactively, that the only reason for a certain character's "death" was #2 on my list: "False Alarm to Raise Sales!" I hope that my list of alternate motives illustrates that the original story may not have been intended as a False Alarm at all, even if it ends up looking like one when the Dramatic Death at the end of it is blithely retconned away somehow.

(After I wrote the first draft of this piece, two years ago, I later did a piece about different ways to bring a character back from the dead at the drop of a hat if it seems advisable to do so. A revised version of that one will also be posted, sometime in the next month or two.)

As always, I welcome constructive criticism. If you think I completely overlooked some possible motives the writers and editors could have for killing off a particular character, please tell me what I missed! Providing specific examples will help me decide whether or not you probably have a point, of course.


Felicitymorbioid on February 10th, 2009 07:53 am (UTC)
Good article. :-)