Comic Characters Who Died and Stayed Dead
by Jake Hill
They used to say that nobody stays dead in comic books, except for Uncle Ben, Jason Todd, and Bucky Barnes. Today, two out of three of those deaths have been reversed. It seems in comic books, especially superhero comics, death is cheap, and easily undone. In fact, it’s genuinely harder to find comic book characters that died and stayed that way. Here are some of the best examples of characters (and types of characters) that haven’t come back from the great beyond.
The Mar-Vell family
The original Captain Mar-Vell is the go-to example of a character whose death was so poignant, no writer has had the courage to undo it, not really. He quietly died of cancer in the very first Marvel graphic novel, fittingly titled The Death of Captain Marvel. Mar-Vell has made plenty of appearances since then, but none of them stuck, and none of them were intended to. There was the time Carol Danvers traveled through time back to her origin story and saw Mar-Vell. There was the Mar-Vell who was running around during “Secret Invasion” revealed to be a very messed up Skrull. There’s Lord Mar-Vell, the Cthulhu worshipping monarch of the Cancerverse who conquered the very concept of death. But the 616 Mar-Vell has remained dead since 1982.
His kids have similarly been allowed to rest in peace. His son Genis-Vell became involved with the Thunderbolts and was killed by Baron Zemo. Genis’s sister Phyla-Vell was brutally stabbed by Adam Magus, and killed with her own sword. Since then, both characters have remained dead. It seems that being a non-human member of the Marvel family prevents one from rising from the grave.
Those Dibnys had it rough. Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, had stretchy powers and was so talented a detective, he gave the Batman a run for his money. When his wife Sue was murdered during “Identity Crisis,” Ralph did not take it well. He spent a year slowly unraveling until he came face to face with Neron, who flicks a power ring through his chest like a bullet. Ralph’s didn’t die for nothing; his sacrifice trapped Neron and Felix Faust in the Tower of Fate, though both of them eventually escaped.
Ralph was finally reunited with his beloved Sue in the afterlife. The two of them had furhter adventures as ghost detectives, and were later used as undead husks by Neron during “Blackest Night” (can’t catch a break, right?). In the New 52 world, there is a living Ralph Dibny, but he is so different from his originally, long suffering counterpart, as to be a completely different individual.
Dream of the Endless
How can you kill something Endless? By abusing a hard and fast rule of the cosmos. Dream of the Endless, also called Morpheus and about a million other things, pissed off Hippolyta Hall, who wanted revenge on the Great Shaper for the alleged death of her son. She enlisted the three Furies- I’m sorry, the Kindly Ones- powerful spirits who avenge wronged women. They messed with Dream’s kingdom, but they only have the power to take the life of someone who’s killed a member of their own family. But Dream had just mercy-killed his son Orpheus, who was sick of existence as an undying decapitated head. Whoops. Dream’s sister Death spent a few quiet moments with her beloved younger brother before taking him along to whatever comes next. There needs to be a Dream though, so Hippolyta’s son Daniel was given the job, and to make sure everyone knew he wasn’t the same as his predecessor, he went through the cosmos as a photo negative of the former Lord of Dreams.
You may be wondering what a character best known for dying and coming back is doing on a list like this, but actually Jean Grey has been pretty seriously dead since Grant Morrison killed her off in 2004. There’s her famous death and resurrection as Dark Phoenix, and then there’s the finale of “Planet X.” Basically, Magneto, who is strung out on super drugs at this point, has a series of evil schemes which are thwarted one by one. His final Hail Mary is zapping Jean, hoping to kill her or to trigger the Dark Phoenix once again. She dies.
Jean has made a few posthumous appearances, but none of them can really be considered resurrections. There have been a number of alternate universe versions of the character, and she’s spoken from the White Hot Room, the afterlife for Avatars of the Phoenix, but that’s the afterlife. She is D-E-A-D. There is a version of Jean with her own solo series in the Marvel Universe proper, but she was plucked from earlier in the timestream, when Jean was still a teenager. X-Men loves to have its cake and eat it too, but the Jean Grey we have followed for years has stayed dead since that battle with Magneto.
You’d probably figure out that a character most famously showing up in a story named for her demise would stay dead. You’d be right. Jean DeWolff is a cop buddy of Spider-Man who acted as a grounded point of view character in “Marvel Team-Up.” Then Peter David, in his debut as a comic writer, killed her off in “The Death of Jean DeWolff,” a fairly straightforward (and celebrated) murder mystery. A number of characters have acted as the vigilante Wraith, and every time it’s been a fake-out where they’ve been mistaken for DeWolff, but each and every time it’s turned out to be someone who knew her. Her death is notable for sticking, but also for the number of times it’s been teased that she’s been brought back, only to stay dead, like a normal person.
The demon known as Hellboy (or Anung Un Rama if you’re feeling vulgar) is from the afterlife (well, an afterlife) so the beginning and end of his life is a bit hard to measure. But Hellboy’s demise had all the trappings of a death scene. He valiantly fought off a dragon, had his heart ripped out by the witch Nimue, and crumbled into dust. His heart plummeted into Hell and grew into a new Hellboy and… that’s where he spent the rest of the series. You may have guessed that a guy named Hellboy wouldn’t let a banishment to Hell end his adventures, and you’d be right, but HB never escaped and returned to the land of the living. After punching a whole lot of evil demons, Hellboy earned his rest and the series was ended by creator Mike Mignola. There are still new Hellboy and BPRD comics, but all of them are prequels. The story of Hellboy ended with the titular character’s death.
The Royal Family of the Shi’ar empire was never the most stable bunch, but a couple of years of infighting left them deader than the Mar-Vell family. It all started when Vulcan, a.k.a. Gabriel Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops’s long lost baby brother, came onto the scene. He killed former Emperor D’Ken, married D’Ken’s sister Deathbird, and sent the reigning Empress Lilandra on the run. Deathbird’s daughter, Deathcry (these Shi’ar have some nutty naming conventions) died in the “Annihilation: Conquest” wars, removing her from the line of succession. Then Vulcan, had Lilandra assassinated during the “War of Kings,” the same conflict which ended with his death in an explosion so big, it ripped a hole in reality. This leaves only the deposed Deathbird at large, rampaging around the universe without a title to her name. It seems that being Shi’ar is a rough gig, and one that does not guarantee you second chances.
Fridged Girlfriends Everywhere
For those unfamiliar, “fridging” is the act of killing off a character’s girlfriend, in order to give them something to be sad about. It happens all the time. Because the death itself is supposed to cause drama for another character entirely, fridged girlfriends tend to stay dead, both to maintain the drama of their deaths and because they are rarely given agency in and of themselves. There are too many to count (though many have tried), but there are definitely some more famous cases.
Alexandra DeWitt is the prime example, who was murdered and then literally stuffed into the fridge of then Green Lantern Kyle Raynor. Wolverine’s girlfriends get fridged like they have an expiration date, but Silver Fox was pretty brutally killed by Sabretooth, a not-infrequent occurrence in his life. Daredevil also has a wretched track record with women, but Karen Page might have had it the worst when she became addicted to heroin, became a porn actress to support her drug habit, sold Daredevil’s secret identity to his enemies for money, and was finally killed by Bullseye. I promised we’d return to Sue Dibny, and her death was one of the most egregious of all time. The upbeat Sue was unexpectedly raped and then murdered by her friend’s psychotic ex-girlfriend who wanted him to pay more attention to her. It was posthumously revealed that she was pregnant. Perhaps the most famous fridging of all time is that of Gwen Stacy, killed by the Green Goblin (or maybe accidently by Spider-Man!). Gwen is another character who has appeared as a clone or an alternate universe version, but no attempts to revive her have ever stuck.
Another great way to stay dead is to be a dead parent or mentor as part of a superhero origin. Because this death is what motivates the hero, undoing it would take away their motivation. Sure, there are lots of stories that will temporarily bring the parent back, or give a character one last conversation with their mentor, but these incidents never stick.
DC has a lot of these. Superman needed an entire planet to die, including his parents, for him to exist (to say nothing of what some stories have done with his foster parents). Batman of course, had his parents gunned down in an alleyway. Hal Jordan was given the Green Lantern ring by Abin Sur, a dying alien. The original Starman, Ted Knight, had to be killed so that his son Jack could star in an excellent comic series. Hell, even upbeat Barry Allen had a dead parent retconned into his origin when the Reverse Flash went back in time to kill his mom.
Other comics publishers love to do this too. Iron Man escaped from that cave and became a superhero, but Ho Yinsen didn’t make it. The Ancient One was murdered so that Doctor Strange could become the Sorcerer Supreme. Hellboy’s adopted father Professor Bruttenholm was killed in the very first “Hellboy” story. Black Panther’s dad is murdered by Ulysses Klaw. And of course, the death of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben is the defining tragedy of his life.
Ghosts and the Undead
Finally, we have characters who are definitely dead. Comics are full of ghosts and spirits for whom death is an important transition into being the character we know and love. The Ancient One pulls double-duty here, dying and then communicating from the afterlife. Vampires would also qualify here, like the many comic incarnations of Dracula or Andrew Bennett of “I, Vampire.” The most representative example of this though would have to go to Boston Brand, a.k.a. Deadman.
A circus performer turned ghostly detective, Boston Brand’s death has to happen for us to care about his story. As Deadman he can enter other people’s bodies and occasionally possess them. All of his powers are linked to his being dead. Although he’s floating around being lovable (mostly), Deadman is undeniably, well, dead. I mean, it’s right there in the name.
As with all good things in comics, a lot depends on how you define things. You may feel that some of these entries are splitting hairs. If that’s you, let us know why in the comments! Maybe we missed one of your favorites. Let us know below!