Heroes Reborn: Comic Characters Who Died and Came Back Better Than Ever
They used to say that death in comics is not permanent for anyone except for Uncle Ben, Bucky Barnes and Jason Todd. Take a brief look at this list, and you will see that even those characters are not exempt. It’s true that death is something of a revolving door in comics. At their core, superhero comics are just 50-year-old soap operas. Death is cheap, and resurrection is regular, but on occasion, it can be an awesome story development. Here are some of the best resurrections in comic books.
Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier
Let’s start with the one of the most famous examples, Bucky Barnes. Bucky’s resurrection as the Winter Soldier has now been adapted in a number of ways from the original comic version, to the MCU adaptation to the simplified but compelling take in the animated Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The basic deal is that Captain America thinks his best friend/sidekick Bucky died during the Second World War, only to discover that Bucky lived on as a secret brainwashed assassin, and it’s up to the good guys to bring him back in.
Bucky was originally killed in a retcon in the pages of the original “Avengers” comics. When Captain America is revived, he recalls jumping off of an experimental rocket and falling into the icy Atlantic. Bucky wasn’t so lucky, and got stuck on the rocket as it exploded in midair. It was a dark development for a 1960s comic, especially considering that Bucky was supposed to be a young teenager. Ed Brubaker, who wrote the original “Winter Soldier” comic, grew up as a military kid. His dad was stationed on the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, and the young Brubaker would buy a ton of “Captain America” comics, where he found Bucky to be the most relatable character. He made it his mission to not only bring back Bucky, but to do it in such a way that everyone would be stoked he did. Judging by the multimedia adaptations of his story, I’d say he pulled it off.
Jason Todd, the Red Hood
There’s probably no death and resurrection more infamous than Jason Todd. The second Robin was killed in part by the Joker with a crowbar, but the blame really belongs to the comics readers of the late 1980s, who called a 1-900 number (that’s the more expensive kind than a 1-800 number for all of you who grew up with cell phones) to vote to kill the character off. Jason was later brought back when the distraught Superboy Prime punched the walls of reality, and retcons sort of rippled out. This was later retconned in various adaptations to have been a relatively simple use of a Lazarus Pit by the al-Ghul family.
The Lazarus Pits are dangerous, and Jason came back crazy. He took on the identity of the Red Hood, the original name the Joker used when he first became a criminal. Jason preferred to kill the criminals he encountered, with guns if possible. Obviously Batman was not cool with this, and Jason has become one of the most morally grey adversaries in the entire Batman cannon. In an act of meta-revenge, Jason later kidnapped Dick Grayson (who was the acting Batman) and Damian Wayne (his Robin), and livestreamed them tied to chairs, asking the citizens of Gotham to call in and decide whether or not Batman and Robin deserved to die. They escaped, but the act of vengeance was clear.
All things considered, Johnny Storm was dead for about ten months. There was a huge deal made of this in marketing, with commemorative magnets mourning his death, and countdowns on all of the covers. His inevitable return seemed like a cheap publicity stunt, when actually it was one of the coolest Fantastic Four stories of all time.
When the nearly endless bug army of Annihilus started pouring through a portal in the Fantastic Four’s home/laboratory the Baxter Building, only Human Torch, the Thing and the young geniuses of the Future Foundation school were there to stop them. Ben had just been given a birthday gift: to spend a day in human form. Johnny, wanting to protect his friends and family, sealed the portal, went nova, burned a bunch of bugs to a crisp, and died.
When he was brought back less than a year later, it turned out he had indeed been killed. The powerful Annihilus revived the Human Torch by replacing his damaged tissue with icky bug parts. He then forced him to battle to the death in a gladiatorial arena. Johnny died again. Annihilus brought him back again, more bug-like than ever. This went on for the whole year, until Johnny had enough. He rallied the other gladiator slaves, started a coup, stole the cosmic control rod, the scepter that allowed Annihilus control over his realm and became new king of the bugs. The new Human Torch was part bug himself, and king of a whole dimension.
All of the Frankensteins
The pedants of the world will insist that Frankenstein is the name of the Doctor and not the Monster. Not only are they wrong, there have been a ton of Frankensteins in the history of comics. The very concept of the Frankenstein Monster is reanimating stitched together corpses, so unlike say, vampires or zombies, these are creatures brought back from the dead.
Marvel has the classic monster of Frankenstein, and also the clone of that monster running around. Dark Horse published a series for the universal monsters that featured the most famous incarnation of Frankenstein. The Wachowskis of The Matrix fame wrote a comic early in their careers called Doc Frankenstein. The Frankenstein of Dell Comics is not well remembered today, but is lauded in some hardcore comics collecting circles. And of course there is the greatest comic book Frankenstein of all, the DC incarnation, later called the agent of S.H.A.D.E.
Frankenstein first came to DC comics in the pages of “Detective Comics” in an issue penned by none other than “Batman” co-creator Bob Kane. He became the character we know and love today in the Grant Morrison series “Seven Soldier of Victory.” This Frankenstein is wicked smart, and his long existence on Earth has made him the master of esoteric knowledge. With his oversized weaponry he battles monsters, demons, evil gods, and occasionally Batman.
He used to be one of the lesser known members of one of Marvel’s least popular superhero teams; then Warren Ellis got his hands on him. He is Karnak, and he can see the flaw in anything. That’s literally his superpower, and Karnak’s death and resurrection is as interesting behind the scenes as it was in the comics.
When the Marvel publishers decided they wanted to make the Inhumans A Big Deal, they looked to Matt Fraction, one of the coolest writers in comics. Fraction had just turned Hawkeye from a B-list Avenger into the star of one of the most influential superhero comics of the century. Things didn’t work out, and Fraction left Marvel with most of a first issue, which was handed over to Charles Soule, who was tasked with making the Inhumans cool. That first issue was from the perspective of Karnak, a prisoner of the Avengers, being interrogated, and ended with him jumping out the window of Avengers tower to his doom.
Now, I like Soule’s “Inhumans” books, but they didn’t exactly explode into the next cool thing as Marvel clearly had intended. That’s when they turned to Warren Ellis, who had just finished a best-selling 6-issue run of “Moon Knight” to tackle an Inhumans character. Ellis chose Karnak, and his brief run was a big hit, but there was one problem. Karnak was still dead. They needed to bring him back.
In the Soules “Inhumans” book, there were scenes of Karnak in a weird Inhuman netherworld, a strange afterlife full of malevolent shades. Karnak is a spiritual kind of guy and he found this take on the afterlife to be… flawed. He ended up kung fu battling the demons of his own personal hell, and striking at the walls of death itself, until he created an opening which he dove through to return to the land of the living. Karnak was so unimpressed by the flaws in the very concept of death that he punched his way out.
Another character who definitionally comes back from the dead is Mitch Shelley, the Resurrection Man, created by legendary comics duo Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, with artist Jackson Guice. First debuting in 1997, Resurrection Man is one of those heroes who doesn’t wear a costume and prides himself from not associating with the brighter and more traditional heroes. His superpower is coming back from the dead, but every time he does it, he has a new superpower. In certain iterations of the character, he has a particular power to solve a particular problem, and once he’s completed his task, he dies and comes back again. It’s a crazy existence, but coming back loads of times guarantees him a place on lists like these!
When you think Punisher, you probably think of a grounded, gritty, street-level vigilante, but the Punisher has been colorfully resurrected not once, but twice!
The first time is one most people try to forget. Frank Castle was killed off panel, only to show up with a glowing rune on his forehead and glowing guns- he had been recruited by heaven to be their hitman! But instead of capturing the fun of the old first-person-shooter “Painkiller,” angel Punisher was so audacious, it seems like it may come around the other side and be great… but it does not. It just kind of is. Punisher was quietly made mortal again and went on to star in “Welcome Back Frank,” once again as a mortal murderer.
The audaciousness of his second death puts the first one to shame. When Frank was delimbed and decapitated by Wolverine’s evil son Daken, his dead pieces were stitched together and given new life by Morbius, the Living Vampire. The man who was Frank Castle was dead, and what remained was… Frankencastle! What proceeded was a surprisingly fun story by Rick Remender. Frankencastle had to grapple with his new status quo, eventually becoming a guardian for other monsters. It was clear that the makeover was only temporary, and before too long, he used the powers of the mystic Bloodstone to return to his regular body.
The Magical Ninjas of the Hand
Ah, the Hand, always reliable for a resurrection. Frank Miller famously killed off Daredevil’s ninja Girlfriend Elektra, when Bullseye impaled her with her own sai. Miller was promised that Elektra would stay dead, even after he left the book. The promise was unfulfilled, and the Hand ninja’s brought back Elektra as an unfeeling master assassin.
Later, Daredevil himself tried to rule over the evil ninjas, but they infected him with an ancient demon, the Beast (comics everyone!). Influenced by the Beast, Daredevil finally killed his longtime nemesis, Bullseye, avenging Elektra (who has long since been alive and running around killing people). The Hand brought back Bullseye, but his injuries were so extensive, he remained paralyzed, and without most of his senses. Bullseye proved to be just as deadly, and orchestrated an epic revenge on Daredevil from inside an iron lung.
The point is, Hand ninjas die and come back with the same ease you and I change a pair of pants. Killing them is a futile effort.
Barry Allen, the Flash
As the mythology of the Flash gets more complicated, characters have an easier time returning from the dead. Still, the death of the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, was far from a ploy to sell more books. Barry was first introduced as the Flash in 1956, and he served as the fastest man alive until his death in “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in 1985. “The Flash” had always been an anything-goes sci-fi series, and even post death, Barry managed to appear via time travel and the like, but only in brief appearances.
The enduring legacy was that upon Barry’s death, his sidekick Wally took over as the Flash. Wally served as the Scarlet Speedster for two of the longest and most celebrated runs of the character, under writer Mark Waid in the 90s and then Geoff Johns in the early 00s. Wally was even the Flash in media adaptations during that time. That “Justice League” cartoon you like to watch on Netflix? That’s Wally as the Flash. It was Johns who brought Bary back in “The Flash: Rebirth” in 2009. Barry doesn’t hold the record for the longest death in comics, but his death led to more good stories than any other character.
Comic publishers make it easy to roll your eyes at major deaths. Publishers will go on the news, telling people that nothing will ever be the same again. It’s the writers that make the deaths mean something. Even if they aren’t permanent, they can change a character as much as any other development, or lead to a fun and temporary shift in status quo, or lead the way for other storytelling opportunities you would never have received otherwise.