x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Death of a superhero

Spider-Man has been bumped off in the comic-book world, but will he be back? We look at the pattern of deaths in comics and pick out some of the more dramatic.

A promotional image from the forthcoming film The Amazing Spider-Man, which stars Andrew Garfield.
A promotional image from the forthcoming film The Amazing Spider-Man, which stars Andrew Garfield.

It's been a tough year for Spider-Man.

After months of bad press surrounding the Broadway musical based on the fictitious web-slinger's exploits, including on-stage injuries, skyrocketing costs and dire reviews – now the superhero has been bumped off in the comic book world.

 

Spidey's alter-ego Peter Parker died at the hands of his greatest foe, the Green Goblin, in Ultimate Spider-Man issue 160, which was written by Brian Michael Bendis and debuted in US shops last week. The appropriately named Death of Spider-Man storyline ends with Parker dying in Mary Jane Watson's arms, after saving the life of Aunt May.

But fear not, true fans – you haven't seen the last of Spidey.

Marvel's Ultimates imprint is just part of the publisher's wider "universe" of titles. Launched in 2000, Ultimates was a way of freeing characters such as the X-Men and the Fantastic Four from their often convoluted back stories in order to start afresh. The fate of Ultimate Spider-Man won't affect the character in other series, most notably the flagship Amazing Spider-Man, which began in 1963.

The high-profile killing of Spider-Man comes just months after Marvel pulled a similar stunt, by teasing its readers with questions about which member of the Fantastic Four was about to die. In January, the Human Torch (aka Johnny Storm) was extinguished - and not just in a side storyline, but the characters' main continuity, which is now 50 years old.

"You can't deny that Marvel would kill off characters just to generate hype and interest," says Arafaat Ali Khan, the director of public relations for the Middle East Film and Comic Con. "Cynics say it's because they don't have any decent plot lines left, so they just kill off a character to generate readership. I'm hoping what they're doing is trying to say 'superheroes can die'."

Just as killing off superheroes is a sure-fire way of renewing fan interest, so is bringing them back from the dead. In fact, "comic-book death" is a much joked about phenomenon among readers because it is so rarely final. Much like soap opera characters, masked avengers can be dusted off and ushered back into the picture whenever a writer wants to shake things up.

One of the first high-profile superhero deaths was that of the X-Men regular Jean Grey, in 1980's Dark Phoenix saga. The gripping storyline generated such a jump in readership that untimely demises followed for Robin in 1989, Superman in 1992, Captain America in 2006 and Batman in 2008. All have since been revived.

"Death in superhero comics is cyclical in its nature and that's for a lot of reasons, whether they are story reasons, copyright reasons or fan reasons. But death doesn't exist the same way it does in our world," the writer Geoff Johns told the entertainment website IGN.

Comic book characters' tendency to die and then reappear is now so well-known that it has become the subject of parody. Marvel even poked fun at itself with the character Mr Immortal, who died and returned to life in almost every appearance. The phenomenon was parodied even more brilliantly in an episode of The Simpsons. It saw the nerdy comics fan Milhouse enthusing over an issue of Radioactive Man, in which the eponymous hero and his sidekick Fallout Boy die on every single page.

While 2011 might be a year that Spider-Man will want to forget, the web-crawler will return to the big screen (his most lucrative universe by far) in next year's The Amazing Spider-Man, played by the newcomer Andrew Garfield. With the aim of rebooting the character for a possible new trilogy (with all links to the Tobey Maguire movies severed), it's highly unlikely that the film will end with the character dead.

But some believe next year may finally feature the onscreen death of a major superhero. The final part of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, will see the "finishing of a story rather than infinitely blowing up the balloon and expanding the story", according to the director.

Here are some famous comic-book deaths.

Jean Grey

For years the X-Men's least interesting member, a storyline in 1976 saw Jean Grey transform into the cosmically powered telepath Phoenix and eventually become the tyrannical Dark Phoenix. One of the most complicated plot arcs in comics history, it began with Grey being overcome by radiation while piloting a space shuttle and ends with her choosing to kill herself after causing genocide in a faraway galaxy. A later revision to the continuity ruled that Phoenix was never Jean at all and that her body was regenerating in a cocoon at the bottom of the ocean all along. It sounds ridiculous (and it is), but it opened the door for many more major comic book death "events".

Superman

"The world was taking Superman for granted, so we literally said 'let's show what the world would be like without Superman'," the former DC Comics editor, Mike Carlin, remarked. A 1992 storyline saw the Man of Steel giving his life to protect his beloved Metropolis from the mindless killing machine Doomsday. Much of the series focused on a world in which the departure of Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent has left a devastating hole. But not to worry: it turned out that Supe's "death" was actually a hibernation-like state and he was eventually revived by the same thing that gives him his powers: sunlight.

Captain America

The superhero who most explicitly represents the "American Dream" died more like a politician than a comic-book character. Steve Rogers was shot by a sniper on the steps of a courthouse in 2006's The Death of Captain America, not unlike John F Kennedy or Martin Luther King. After death, his trusty sidekick Bucky Barnes donned the red, white and blue outfit. He stayed in the role for an impressive three years before Captain America: Reborn established that Rogers never died at all, and that the sniper's bullet had actually transported him to a different time and place.

Batman

The maverick comic-book writer Grant Morrison has claimed that when he took over writing stories about the Caped Crusader in 2006, his first idea was "Batman RIP". The 2008 storyline saw Bruce Wayne increasingly struggling with his vigilante alter-ego – a product of the irreparable damage caused by his parents' death – while a shadowy organisation called the Black Glove was out to kill him. Although he narrowly survived his encounter with it, his death arrived a few weeks later in the crossover comic Final Crisis (also written by Morrison) at the hands of the villain Darkseid. Upon Batman's death, Dick Grayson (aka Robin) took-up his mantle.

Human Torch

After weeks of teasing fans about which of the Fantastic Four would die at the end of the comic's Three storyline, it was revealed that the team's resident sarky young man, Johnny Storm, would bite the dust. To keep fans guessing, the particular issue had all four members fighting incredibly dangerous foes separately, but it was the Torch who finally succumbed to a horde of other dimensional aliens. Upon his death, the long-running comic was relaunched as FF and the remaining heroes became the Future Foundation, with Spider-Man becoming their new member – as requested in Johnny Storm's will.