17 Excuses for Bringing Back a Dead Character
[This version of this text was first posted elsewhere in summer of 2006]
Last month I posted 12 Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character, an updated version of a post from two years ago. That one dealt with motives the creative team might have for killing off a character – whether he was a hero, a villain, a well-established member of the supporting cast, or whatever.
Now I offer the revised version of the sequel from two years ago, discussing Excuses that can be used in a story to bring back the character who’d previously been killed. I think I’ve covered all the basic possibilities, but if I forgot any, let me know!
The 17 Excuses
01. Missing In Action – PRESUMED Dead
02. Somebody Else’s Body
03. Exact Replica
04. Only “Mostly Dead”
05. Act of God
06. Parallel World
07. Massive Retcon – It Never Happened!
08. Dead But Still Active
09. Didn’t You Know I’m a Professional Corpse?
10. The Original is Dead; Long Live the Clone
12. Time Travel
13. Continuing a Proud Tradition
14. Body Switching
15. The Flashback Option
16. The Ambiguous Return
17. Never Apologize; Never Explain!
(Note: For those of you who may remember the original version from two years ago, the new additions to this list are #14 and #16.)
01. Missing In Action – PRESUMED Dead
“We never found the body after things quieted down, so how do you know he’s really dead?” is the basic idea. Years after Character X was declared dead and his will went through probate, he may come knocking on the door, saying, “I’m back! Did you miss me?” This one has actually been known to happen in real life, unlike some of the other Excuses on this list. There were soldiers who were declared dead during the turmoil of World War II, for instance, and came home years later to discover their “widows” had remarried to other men.
In fact, this may be the most popular excuse. Particularly if the writer of the original story that “killed” the character specifically anticipated that he should “leave the door open” for a comeback years later – or perhaps was ordered to leave that door open by an editor, even if the writer personally wanted to believe he “really” killed the guy and said so during interviews and convention appearances and so forth. “Yes, I killed Character X! Don’t hold your breath waiting for me to apologize! I’m glad I killed him, do you hear me? Glad, glad, glad!”
A very common method to “kill” a character, setting things up for this excuse to be easily used later, is the Huge Explosion that Conveniently Obliterates the Physical Evidence. “Of course he must have been killed in the explosion; but it was so horrendous that there’s nothing left to prove it in court! Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, you know what I mean?” (One popular variation is to leave behind a few scraps of his costume, perhaps a cracked helmet or a torn mask, that sort of thing, and let people assume that everything else was disintegrated.)
One example is the fate of the first version of the Doom Patrol, way back when. When their first series was facing cancellation anyway, all four of the original members died heroically in a terrible explosion. It was such a terrible explosion that various stories subsequently referring to that bleak day repeatedly stressed the point that their bodies had (apparently) been annihilated and were not even salvageable for funerals. Over the next couple of decades, I believe this absence of nice solid bodies was also used as the excuse to bring back three out of four, at different times. Robotman, Negative Man, and the Chief. (Elasti-Girl was the odd woman out – she stayed dead all through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Until a different Excuse was just recently used to bring her back in a new Doom Patrol series written by John Byrne – and as I write this, that has itself been retconned away, I believe. I never actually read any of the Byrne Doom Patrol series while it was coming out, anyway.)
02. Somebody Else’s Body
“Yes, you found a body in terrible condition, and yes, you assumed it was mine based on strong circumstantial evidence, but it wasn’t really me. You just couldn’t tell the difference.”
An early example in popular adventure fiction was the time Tarzan’s wife Jane “died” and “returned” in stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve read that initially, when the material about her death and Tarzan’s reaction to it was being written and published as a magazine serial, ERB really meant to have her stay dead so that he could have Tarzan become eligible for romance with someone else later on, but then he changed his mind and the book version which reprinted the stuff about Jane’s death in a wartime atrocity as the opening portion of a longer novel modified a few details, so that (a) we only “knew” Jane was dead because Tarzan discovered the charred skeletal remains of an adult female wearing his wife’s rings after an attack upon their African home during World War I and assumed the otherwise unrecognizable body was that of his beloved, and (b) Tarzan eventually discovered at the very end of the book that a villainous German army officer had captured Jane alive, but stuck some of her jewelry on another woman’s corpse to confuse the issue. (This, of course, told us what Tarzan’s mission statement would be in the plot of the next novel.)
As a rule of thumb, this excuse works best if (a) the body is clearly that of a dead human being, but it was so hideously damaged as to be beyond positive identification, or (b) nobody on the scene knows just what the character’s real face ought to look like underneath a mask, so observers look at the recognizable costume on the corpse and say “Case Closed!”
The “beyond positive identification” option was easier before DNA testing was readily available, but some writers still use that approach today when it suits them.
03. Exact Replica
“Sure, there was a recognizable corpse. Sure, it was positively identified as mine. But guess what! It wasn’t really me! It was just a carbon copy of me!”
The most notorious use of this Excuse was probably the return of Jean Grey in 1985, five years after she had died a tragic death in the Grand Finale of the classic Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Her beloved, Scott Summers, was looking right at her when she died (implicitly by suicide, using her telekinesis to activate some sort of high-powered energy weapon aimed at herself before she went totally nuts and committed genocide again), so it seemed open-and-shut that this was in fact his sweetheart’s body that received a decent burial in the following issue.
However! Years later, when someone at Marvel decided it was time to reunite all five of Professor Charles Xavier’s original students for a new title called X-Factor, a way was found to have the Avengers stumble across the “real” Jean Grey, who had been in suspended animation all this time. It was eventually determined that well before the Dark Phoenix Saga began, the cosmic Phoenix Force had somehow created an exact replica of Jean’s body, duplicated Jean’s memories and something of her personality, stuck its own consciousness into that replica, replaced Jean among the X-Men for the next several months without anyone (not even Professor X the super-telepath) ever knowing the difference, eventually went crazy and destroyed an inhabited world, and so on and so forth.
The X-Men and their associates have actually provided several examples of this “Exact Replica” excuse over the years, but I figure I’ll take mercy on you and only mention the biggest one. (Especially since lately I’ve been posting one draft after another of my “X-Men Fatality Timeline” which goes into excruciating detail on all the times X-Men have “died” and all the times X-Men have “returned from the dead.” No need to tread that ground all over again here!)
04. Only “Mostly Dead”
INIGO: He's dead. He can't talk.
MIRACLE MAX : Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do.
INIGO: What's that?
MIRACLE MAX : Go through his clothes and look for loose change. (This dialogue was quoted from “The Princess Bride”)
Or, to put it another way, if Character X ever comes back from a “Mostly Dead” condition, his line will be: “Yes, you identified my body. Yes, you checked for a pulse, and didn’t find one. But couldn’t you tell I wasn’t really dead?”
One of the most high-profile and shameless examples of this particular excuse is the infamous return of the Spider-Clone after he had been presumed dead and cremated for almost twenty years realtime.
The Spider-Clone had originally been Cannon Fodder, created by Gerry Conway so he could briefly live and quickly die within the pages of a storyline in the mid-70s. The evil mastermind called the Jackal had grown a clone of Spider-Man, complete with memories copied from the original, for some odd reason which I can’t for the life of me remember at the moment. (I mean, if I wanted to defeat a superhero, my strategy would NOT involve creating a carbon copy of him, right down to the same memories and personality as the guy I already hated.) At the end of the story, the Spider-Clone had been caught in an explosion. Peter Parker examined the body, found it was dead, and regretfully carried the corpse to the smokestack of an incinerator and dumped it in, figuring it was best to cremate the mortal remains in order to avoid compromising his own secret identity by trying to explain to the authorities where this dead lookalike had come from.
Almost twenty years later, someone at Marvel decided it would be a cute stunt to bring the Spider-Clone back. So we learned that Peter Parker had apparently done an incredibly superficial job of examining the body before dumping him in the incinerator. Before the device was fired up, the clone had woken up, dragged himself to safety, eventually recovered from his injuries, adopted the name Ben Reilly, and left town for a few years. Now he was back. This said marvelous things about Spidey’s ability to distinguish between a dead carcass and a living human being who should be rushed to the emergency room, eh? Remind me not to let him perform triage on me and my friends if we ever become battlefield casualties!
(If I had been working on the Spider-books in the mid-90s, and if I had become convinced that what the world really needed was an exact duplicate of the Amazing Spider-Man rubbing shoulders with the original, I would have taken an entirely different approach. Instead of finding a specious excuse for dusting off a corpse from two decades earlier that most fans of the mid-90s had either never heard of or had long since forgotten, I would have started over from scratch in order to get exactly whatever it was I thought I needed without messing up someone else’s previous work. I would have started by establishing a brand new storyline about cloning and genetic engineering and whatnot, to serve as an excuse for a new clone character that shared all of Peter Parker’s memories up to a certain point in his life. Without needing to shamefully insult Peter’s intelligence by basing my concept upon the assumption of his utter incompetence at checking a body for vital signs, way back when. Not to mention one or two other gaping plot holes I would have avoided by doing it my way. But what do I know?)
05. Act of God
“Yes, I was dead. For awhile. But a Miracle happened, and now I’m alive!”
Not necessarily an act of the Biblical God. I’m using the “Act of God” catchphrase to refer to any “supernatural” and “miraculous” event that seems to have been contrived by some Very Important Entity with resources and abilities much greater than those of any mortal man. Comic books are full of such Entities, and from time to time they exercise the power of Life and Death to raise the dead or heal “incurably” sick or injured patients.
When Kevin Smith wrote the story arc that brought Oliver Queen, the original Green Arrow, back to life in a new monthly title, he used this excuse. Hal Jordan, at a time when he was endowed with godlike power, had scraped up a few molecules of residual material from Ollie’s body (previously obliterated in an explosion) and used that as the basis for arranging for Ollie to come back to life, missing a good many years of his memories however.
On a similar note, Chris Claremont had a full team of X-Men die in a heroic sacrifice in Dallas in the late 80s (Colossus, Dazzler, Havok, Longshot, Psylocke, Rogue, Storm, Wolverine, as well as Madelyne Pryor, who effectively became an X-Man around that time) and then promptly brought them all back to life in the same story through the good graces of Roma, super-sorceress and daughter of Merlin. Something the eight heroes had no particular reason to expect would happen.
06. Parallel World
“That wasn’t me who died. It was my analog, my genetically-identical duplicate from a parallel world or alternate timeline!”
Or, alternately, “Yes, the ‘me’ from the ‘main world’ of this series died, but I’m a duplicate from another world, and I’m still alive and kicking!”
After all, if we grant the idea of alternate histories where key events developed differently, then the question of which Parallel World should be regarded as the “baseline,” as opposed to being disparagingly labeled as an obscure “spinoff” of the Prime Reality, is all in the eye of the beholder!
Jay Faerber used a cute variation of the “Parallel World” excuse to bring about a happy ending for two characters in one of his “Noble Causes” story arcs. In what was originally the “main” world of Noble Causes continuity, at the start of the first four-part miniseries, the wife had seen her husband obliterated by an energy beam during their honeymoon. A few miniseries later, she conveniently ended up on a parallel world we had never heard of before, one almost exactly like the one she came from, except that in this timeline, her husband had been grieving ever since he saw his beloved wife die during the “same” honeymoon. They were, of course, ecstatically happy to be miraculously “reunited.”
Of course, many stories are labeled as occurring in their own little alternate timelines from the start, and thus the fans reading those stories are not angry when someone important dies, because they know it will have absolutely no impact upon the continuity of the regular monthly titles. Thus, no “excuse” for the character’s future participation in those titles is necessary. On the other hand, if the character has already died “in continuity,” he can still be used again and again in a story set in an “alternate reality” where he didn’t die at all. DC has the Elseworlds line, Marvel has had a couple of What If? series and now has the Exiles, and so forth.
07. Massive Retcon – It Never Happened!
“Retcon” is abbreviated from “Retroactive Continuity.” It means writing a new story in which you reveal that the events of a previous story didn’t happen exactly the way they were presented at the time . . . or possibly that those events have been totally erased and that nothing remotely resembling that old story ever happened!
(If just about everything that ever previously happened to a character is retconned away into oblivion, so that the character is later “reintroduced” as a newcomer who is starting with a clean slate, this is called a Reboot.)
“Crisis on Infinite Earths” created a lot of opportunities here. For years after, anything in a DC comic that seemed to contradict older stories about the same characters could easily be dismissed with the Retcon Excuse. “Well, you’re talking about the Pre-Crisis character’s continuity. Don’t you realize that this contradictory material must be part of the new-and-improved Post-Crisis version of this character?” (This excuse started to wear a little thin as it became increasingly clear that sometimes one Post-Crisis storyline blatantly contradicted another Post-Crisis storyline about the same character! Even Zero Hour didn’t make things any better, despite some high hopes. Although it did destroy all previous Legion of Super-Heroes continuity in one fell swoop.)
For example, the original Supergirl (Kara Zor-El, cousin of Kal-El) died a heroic death in the middle of the Crisis miniseries and was greatly mourned. But after all was said and done . . . not only had she died, she had never existed in the first place! Not that anyone could remember, anyway. Which meant that Superman had scarcely spoken a few touching words at her funeral before he forgot he might have ever done so . . . and if she eventually “came back” to meet her cousin Kal-El “for the very first time,” the excuse would presumably be that this was the first appearance of the “new” Kara of the Post-Crisis DC universe.
(Note: After various false alarms over the next couple of decades, a Rebooted Kara Zor-El has in fact finally met Superman “for the very first time” in stories written by Jeph Loeb, and it looks like this time she’s here to stay. Long after I published the previous draft of this piece, I took the trouble to gather a complete list of all Supergirls who have ever been “in continuity” before, after, or simultaneously with the Pre-Crisis Kara Zor-El. Including some “false alarms” that didn’t pan out. If you’re interested, follow this link: Timeline of 1st Appearances of each Supergirl, Superwoman, etc. (3rd Draft))
08. Dead But Still Active
Some characters are definitely physically dead but still walking around interacting with people somehow; other characters have seemed to be stuck somewhere on the border of Life and Death. Either way, the idea usually seems to be that the person in question did, in fact, “die” – more or less - and hasn’t exactly been raised from the dead . . . but is still running around bothering people. Various “ghostly” characters come to mind as definitely or possibly fitting into this category of excuse. Secret of Young Justice (DC). Ghost (Dark Horse). Deadman (DC).
Zombies and mummies probably also belong in this group. How you count the vampire characters is a matter of opinion. I consider them to be significantly different from “dead, but still active,” but Your Mileage May Vary. Actually, I tend to put Dracula and his ilk in the next category of Excuse, which is . . .
09. Didn’t you know I’m a Professional Corpse?
I wrote about the Professional Corpse in my previous post, “12 Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character.” This is the character whose basic concept has the built-in possibility of his dying a colorful death today . . . and coming back to life just in time to die another colorful death next week . . . and next month, and next year, and so forth. Once you’ve established the basic idea about him, it isn’t necessary to go to all that trouble of inventing and explaining a “new” excuse each time you restore him to life. Just recycle the same old excuse as many times as necessary! Your fans will understand!
This “Professional Corpse” excuse is actually an umbrella that can include many different rationalizations for a character’s frequent returns from the dead. The key point is that the rationalization becomes firmly established as an integral part of the character concept. Sometimes the character was planned that way from the start; sometimes drastic changes are made later on. (For instance, the Jean Grey who called herself Marvel Girl back in the 1960s did not have any connection to a “Phoenix Force” and did not have an odd habit of coming back from the dead at the drop of a hat. Many years went by before those ideas began to creep into her continuity.)
Many different “robot” and “artificial intelligence” characters are Professional Corpses. They die; then they come back via this excuse: “He’s not dead; he just needs to be reinstalled on new hardware!” Likewise, various magical and/or undead characters are routinely “killed” and later “brought back to life.” Count Dracula springs to mind.
Another example: In the days when Jamie Madrox the Multiple Man was a part of X-Factor in the 1990s, I think we went through more than one “false alarm” regarding his vital status. If his original body died, all of the generated duplicates would die (I think?). So, upon occasion, a body which was believed to be the original would die, leaving behind the nagging question, “Was that really the original body?” A classic case of a Professional Corpse concept that allowed us to see him die again and again!
On a similar note, Ra’s al Ghul’s corpse can always be rushed to the nearest Lazarus Pit, and frequently is. (DC recently claimed to have killed him off for the Last Time, but I don’t have to believe it. Check with me again in twenty years and we’ll see if they stuck to the idea.)
One problem with the Lazarus Pit scenario is that in theory, it can work not just for Ra’s but for anybody (if, apparently, the body is not too badly damaged), , so that almost any other corpse in the DCU could receive the same treatment. This tends to throw doubt on the “authenticity” of just about any death with a recognizable corpse that you care to name in the DCU, because it’s theoretically possible that someone carted it off to a Lazarus Pit right after the death certificate was signed! (Jeph Loeb used this possibility to set up a sneaky false alarm regarding the possible return of Jason Todd in the “Hush” storyline.)
As an example of the sort of extreme skepticism that the existence of the Lazarus Pits can inspire in diehard fans of a deceased character, let’s try this idea on for size: If you have fondly examined reprints of some of the “corny” Batman/Batwoman team-ups from the late 50s and early 60s, and if you regret the subsequent death of Kathy Kane in the late 70s in a story reprinted in “Batman: Tales of the Demon,” then you can easily “live in denial” by saying, “How do we know her corpse is still in the coffin? Who’s to say Ra’s al Ghul (who walked onstage in that story just as Batman discovered her dead body) didn’t grab it right after the funeral, rush it off to his nearest Lazarus Pit, and resuscitate her?” The answer to that question is very simple: We DON’T know her corpse is still in her coffin! We are simply supposed to conveniently forget the very existence of Lazarus Pits except on those occasions when a writer feels like hitting us over the head with pointed reminders about their capabilities as part of a story he’s telling!
[Note: The preceding paragraphs about Ra’s, his Lazarus Pits, and Kathy Kane were written, with exactly the words you see now, for the first draft two years ago. As I write this note for the updated version (13 July 2006) it is already common knowledge that the concept of “Kathy Kane, Batwoman” is somehow being brought back as a living character in the Post-Infinite Crisis DCU, with a few new twists. Apparently she will be a lesbian. I do not yet know if she is supposed to have previously had a career as a superhero called Batwoman “in the good old days,” nor if she is supposed to have “died” as shown in “Tales of the Demon.” As far as I know at this moment, it is perfectly possible that she is essentially being “Rebooted” to start all over from scratch. So my “Lazarus Pit Scenario” for her return may not have anything to do with what DC is actually doing. Nonetheless, I feel vaguely prophetic at having gone to such pains to point out, two years ago, how easily the concept of “Kathy Kane, Batwoman” could be brought back regardless of how dead she looked when last seen! And I’m still skeptical about whether Ra’s al Ghul will still be stone cold dead twenty years after he “died” in “Death and the Maidens.”]
10. The Original is Dead; Long Live the Clone
John Ostrander killed off his hard-boiled hero, John Gaunt, AKA Grimjack, in that character’s own monthly series in the 1980s. However, since the title continued to be published each month, it was painfully clear that pretty soon the title character would come back. A clone-body with the original soul restored to it was the excuse that Ostrander ended up using. Conveniently, this clone-body seemed to be younger and fitter than the middle-aged, “not so fast as I used to be” body the Grimjack of the first few years of the title had been stuck with.
Kurt Busiek used the Clone Excuse in his Power Company title a few years ago. In the 1970s, Archie Goodwin wrote a classic storyline in which a hero called Manhunter died after a war with an evil organization that had produced numerous clones of him and trained them to be obedient assassins. It occurred to Busiek that it would not blatantly contradict that old story to suggest that one of the clone-assassins had developed sudden free will in the middle of that storyline and had quietly struck off on his own before the Grand Finale, and had been wandering around as a mercenary and bounty hunter ever since. Wearing a costume clearly based on the one worn in the 70s by Paul Kirk, but with a different color scheme. In this case, however, Paul Kirk’s heroic soul did not seem to have been magically reincarnated within the surviving clone.
I mentioned that Grimjack used the Clone Excuse for coming back from the dead at one point. About a year and a half later, Ostrander had him take the Reincarnation option too! His clone-body died, and suddenly the next issue opened up a couple of hundred years after the previous issue, with the old supporting cast having conveniently died off when we weren’t looking so that Ostrander could start over from scratch with a new set of faces. A young red-haired man suddenly remembered that he was the latest reincarnation of the legendary Grimjack, and things went on from there.
Reincarnation has also been a part of the Hawkman and Hawkgirl concepts, at least intermittently, ever since they started in the 1940s. (The Golden Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl were supposed to be the modern reincarnations of a tragic, Romeo-and-Juliet-style pair of lovers from Ancient Egypt.)
12. Time Travel
“I thought Chronos was dead.”
“Don’t ask. He says he’s the one from twenty-seven seconds pre-his-own death.”
“I hate time travelers.” (Dialogue from “Identity Crisis #2,” written by Brad Meltzer.)
Mark Waid used the “Time Travel” excuse in a Flash storyline many years ago where the Silver Age Flash (Barry Allen) apparently came back from his sad death in Crisis. However, it turned out the guy with the blond crew cut, the powers, the costume, etc., was actually Professor Zoom, a speedster criminal from the future. This was something Wally West had never anticipated since he knew darn well that Professor Zoom had been killed years earlier, by Barry before his own death. Waid’s denouement logically pointed out that time travelers were not required to travel back to the 20th Century in the exact same sequence as the order in which their little visits appeared to be happening from the viewpoint of a character based in the “modern era” of the DCU. From Zoom’s point of view, this was his very “first” trip, and all the face-to-face encounters he’d had with Barry Allen still lay in his future!
13. Continuing a Proud Tradition
Here, it is conceded that the guy who died in a previous story is still dead and buried . . . but someone else is “taking over the family business,” so to speak, by wearing an identical or similar costume and continuing the “role.” The replacement may or may not be a close relative of the predecessor. Technically, this isn’t a case of restoring a dead character to life, but superhero comic books are very visually-oriented and fans may be content to see the same colorful costume on the cover even if intellectually they know it’s supposed to be a different face underneath the mask. Sometimes the “average citizens” in the world of the comics are fully aware of what’s really happened, but other times they only see a distinctive costume on the six o’clock news and end up with the impression that it’s just the same old thing all over again.
Many examples are available. Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin, persecuted Spider-Man off and on during the 1960s and then died in the early 70s, under circumstances very similar to those depicted in the Spider-Man movie of 2002. At other times during the 70s, Spidey was plagued by two other Green Goblins. Green Goblin #2 was Harry Osborn, the neurotic son of Norman, and #3 was the psychiatrist who had been treating Harry after he was captured. So throughout that decade Spidey actually tangled with three different men in identical costumes, but superficially, it could be argued that all this double-talk about different people under the mask was just an Excuse to have comic book covers show Spidey fighting the “same” villain over and over, even if he’d already died!
(Norman Osborn later came back anyway, but that’s another story, and a dumb one at that!)
On a similar note, Jason Todd, the second Robin, died in action in late 1988. About a year later, a new Robin (who looked very much like the previous one – male Caucasian with fair skin, black hair, blue eyes, about the same age and size) put on the costume for the first time. Thus, fans who had been screaming bloody murder at Robin’s absence from the Batman titles would now relax and shut up, or so DC presumably hoped. I’m not sure about this next part, but I believe the typical inhabitant of Gotham City probably never realized a Robin had died or been replaced at all, since Batman wasn’t in a mood to issue press releases on the subject and had the boy buried under the name of Jason Todd.
14. Body Switching
“Sure, my old body is still dead. Stone cold dead. It won’t be coming back. But I’ve taken up residence in somebody else’s body! Hey, easy come, easy go!”
I chose to distinguish this one from “Reincarnation” (where the dead person’s spirit was presumably born into this body and has been there all along!) and “Cloning” where the new body is a genetic duplicate of the original one. “Body Switching” is meant to refer to any other method of transferring your mind, or a copy of your mind, into someone else’s body – a body which previously had its own mind occupying it before you came along as a “trespasser.” You may recall that Mister Spock came back from the dead partially because of this Excuse in the Star Trek movies. Likewise, Doctor Doom is supposed to have a talent for switching his mind into your body if he makes eye contact and concentrates properly; a useful trick he learned from an alien race called the Ovoids. (I don’t know when the last time was that he actually used it.) The Ultra-Humanite generally specialized in brain transplants; his brain has been housed inside several different skulls at one time or another, not always human ones.
Of course, if a certain character has the Inherent Ability to move his mind into another body at the drop of a hat, then he falls under the umbrella of “Professional Corpse” once this ability has been firmly established “in continuity.” Fans know they can expect to see him use it again on future occasions – if his old body was about to die, for instance. On the other hand, if his mind is transferred into someone else’s body due to a highly unusual set of circumstances that is not likely to occur again, in a way that he cannot duplicate with his own resources, then he isn’t yet a “Professional Corpse” – he has merely been the victim of fate in an unusual fashion.
15. The Flashback Option
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used this method after he had killed off his own creation, Sherlock Holmes, in a story called “The Final Problem” in which it appeared that the Great Detective and Professor Moriarty had fought a duel to the death at Reichenbach Falls and both took a fatal plunge off a cliff down into the cataract. Classic case of Mutual Assured Destruction, right?
However, a few years later, due to the endless flood of complaints from fans, Doyle tried to placate them with a compromise solution. A “flashback,” by which I mean a novel-length adventure which had allegedly happened well before the tragic events of “The Final Problem.” This novel was “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The problem with this “solution” was that when you let a shark smell fresh blood in the water, he doesn’t quit and go home. He gets more excited and keeps looking for raw meat to sink his teeth into. In other words, now that the fans knew they could nag Doyle into writing more Holmes material, they just kept nagging and nagging until he finally broke down and brought Holmes back to life for many more stories. Having already used Excuse #14 to justify a “new” Holmes story, he now went for broke and also used #1 on my list . . . we were told there had never been a corpse retrieved; narrator Dr. Watson had foolishly jumped to conclusions when he previously reported that there was no way a living Holmes could have gotten safely off that cliff without being observed; it was a classic case of “Missing in Action; PRESUMED Dead!”
16. The Ambiguous Return
I have not really examined the possibility of False Alarms (except when someone is “Continuing the Proud Tradition,” as when Tim Drake became the third Robin to replace the late Jason Todd), but they happen from to time. I didn't give "False Alarm" its own category because I was mainly trying to list Excuses for "really" reviving a character concept, instead of just causing an impostor to stir up confusion for about an hour before he is exposed as a fraud. ("Continuing the Proud Tradition" meant I was bending my own rules a litte, but in many of those cases there is some degree of "official acceptance" of the newcomer. Batman accepting Tim as the new Robin, or Booster Gold (Blue Beetle's dear friend from the good old days) being willing to call Jaimes Reyes "Blue Beetle." This is usually different from those cases in which some troublemaker is trying to scam everybody who knew the previous user of the name into thinking he's really their old buddy come back from the grave.)
But another thing that happens is when writers play mind games with us for a long time so that we don’t know if a certain dead character has come back or not! I don't just mean we spend a few pages or a few issues wondering before the writer springs the big surprise on us; I mean that the situation can drag on for a year or more, where the main selling point of a "new" character concept is supposed to be our nagging suspicions that this Very Mysterious Person might be an old favorite making a big comeback, with a new paint job to confuse the issue! (Or maybe not!)
As one example, around the time of Kara Zor-El’s death in “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” Paul Levitz introduced a character in the “Legion of Super-Heroes” title who called herself “Sensor Girl” and had long blond hair (everything else was covered by a loose costume. We couldn’t even see a single square inch of her skin). There were strong suspicions that this was Kara, the Earth-1 Supergirl, somehow come back from the dead, but (if so) apparently lacking most of her previous powers after the ordeal of her “death,” except for super-senses, as implied by the alias. I am told that this was, in fact, exactly what Levitz was hoping to reveal her to be – but he didn’t get editorial approval and finally had to reveal her as some other old familiar face from Legion continuity. That revelation only came about a year after her “first appearance,” so for a long time fans didn’t know if she was or wasn’t a character returning from the dead!
In 1991 Marv Wolfman introduced Terra II, the “good” Terra of the “Team Titans” group, whose powers, costume, and physical appearance were apparently identical to the Evil Terra who had died years earlier in “The Judas Contract.” Terra II apparently had serious memory problems as a result of some brainwashing that had been inflicted upon her. Although she dearly hoped she wasn’t the violently insane Terra of the old days, she couldn’t really swear that she knew she wasn’t. This situation was left Ambiguous for a long time. Arguably, it still is!
In 2000, a story in “Titans Secret Files #2” showed us the results of a DNA test. (Why this couldn’t have been done nine years earlier is beyond me.) It said that Terra II’s DNA was identical to that of Terra I. Geo-Force, the brother of Terra I (Tara Markov), saw the results but chose to conceal the “truth” from Terra II. However, when we bear in mind the possibilities of Cloning, etc., we can plausibly claim that the question of whether Terra II is really Terra I “returned from the dead” is still a very open question, even today, 15 years after her first appearance!
In both of those examples, it could have turned out either way. Even the writers who introduced these Ambiguous Characters probably didn’t know for sure how things would turn out. (Levitz didn’t know he would be forbidden to “reveal” Sensor Girl as Kara Zor-El. Wolfman has reportedly said that it was never his intention to reveal that Terra II really was Terra I; I suspect he just enjoyed the chance to play mind games with old-timer Titans fans on that subject for as long as possible.)
17. Never Apologize; Never Explain!
Do I really have to define this one? It’s very simple. Character X dies. Months or years later, Character X is back in action. Character X feels no particular need to explain how this happened, and neither does the writer. Or perhaps he gives a one-sentence summary of an excuse that is incredibly vague and unconvincing. You’re just supposed to accept it and move on. Or come up with your own excuse if you care so much about it. One look at the utterly shameless nature of this excuse (or rather, of this total lack of an excuse) is provided in Robert A. Heinlein’s novel The Rolling Stones. A humorous subplot running throughout the novel is the way Hazel Stone, mother of Captain Roger Stone and thus the idiosyncratic grandmother of the four members of the youngest generation of the family, supplements the family’s income by writing wildly exciting scripts for a serial drama called “Scourge of the Spaceways.” At one point Roger wants to know how Hazel proposes to get the hero out of the Hideous Deathtrap she had left him in at the close of the previous season - which, at the time, she had allegedly meant to be Certain Death for hero John Sterling, and thus the Grand Finale of the entire series. But money talks and she’s recently been persuaded to write a whole new season of episodes.
“The last episode you showed me, while you had killed off the Galactic Overlord you had also left Our Hero in a decidedly untenable position. Sealed in a radioactive sphere, if I remember correctly, at the bottom of an ammonia ocean on Jupiter. The ocean was swarming with methane monsters, whatever they are, each hypnotized by the Overlord's mind ray to go after John Sterling at the first whiff - and him armed only with his Scout knife. How did you get him out of it?”
“We found a way,” put in Pol. “If you assume--”
“Quiet, infants. Nothing to it, Roger. By dint of superhuman effort Our Hero extricated himself from his predicament and--”
“That's no answer.”
“You don't understand. I open the next episode on Ganymede. John Sterling is telling Special Agent Dolores O'Shanahan about his adventure. He's making light of it, see? He's noble so he really wouldn't want to boast to a girl. Just as he is jokingly disparaging his masterly escape the next action starts and it's so fast and so violent and so bloody that our unseen audience doesn't have time to think about it until the commercial. And by then they've got too much else to think about.”
I should stress that “Never Apologize; Never Explain” is different from cases where the writer has actually worked out a detailed excuse to justify the return of Character X, but he prefers to stretch out the mystery for several months before spelling out the details in plain English. For example, there was the time when Chris Claremont "killed" Storm in 1989, brought her back to life as an amnesiac child thief in Cairo, Illinois just a few issues later, and then waited an additional year or so before he finally got around to explaining to us (and to her!) just HOW this peculiar situation had arisen.
Note: It is alleged that in some cases a character is brought back from the dead, without explanation or apology, because some or all of the people involved had totally overlooked the trivial fact that he was supposed to be dead after the events of a previous story! Either they had never read that particular story or else the details had long since slipped their minds, and either way they honestly didn’t realize anyone would be expecting an explanation for this character’s reappearance after a long absence! They just thought he’d been floating around in Comic Book Limbo all this time, doing nothing in particular! For example: It is rumored that this was how Unus reappeared after Joe Quesada announced his policy of "dead means dead, except when there's a really great story idea involved for bringing someone back" (or whatever the exact wording of the policy was supposed to be). The point is that allegedly someone later asked Quesada how that applied to the return of Unus in a recent story, and Quesada apparently admitted drawing a blank on the idea that Unus had ever been dead to begin with!)
P.S. At this point in the previous draft of this piece, I pointed out that the writers involved in the stories of the Death and Return of Superman, back around 1992 and 1993, appeared to be playing around with several different possible “Excuses” at one time or another before things were finally “settled.” I’ve decided the subject is worthy of further attention, and sometime in the next few weeks I intend to reread the relevant material from Superman continuity and then post a discussion of the different ways we were tantalized with the possibility that Superman might be “reborn” or “replaced” or whatever, as well as my understanding of the Official Version of how he really did come back in the end!