The Big Two is a land of resurrection. At this point, there are more characters who have come back from the dead than who have actually stayed dead. Jason Todd, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, even Superman himself have all seen the afterlife and come back to tell the tale. In many cases, those arcs lead to some of the most formative events for the characters around them. Jason Todd’s death still impacts ongoing Batman books to this day, even becoming seminal to the character itself. Death of Superman is celebrated as one of the most influential and defining runs in the character’s 80 years of publishing. Death is not only integral, but inevitable for comics to evolve as it opens doors for new ideas, creators, and characters.
In Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s infamous run, The Dark Phoenix Saga, readers saw what was believed to be the permanent death of Jean Grey, one of the original X-Men. At the time, this was ground shattering. Not many other creators had the courage to do something as drastic as this, and they saw dividends not only in sale and fame, but in the characters as well. Scott Summers, devastated by his loss, left the X-Men and was forced to deal with real grief. With the help of a fisherman, he was eventually able to mourn, remarry, and even have a child. It’s a very human experience, and likely one that would help readers facing similar problems.
In Jean Grey’s absence, another mutant takes her place. This arc makes room for Kitty Pride to establish herself as a member of the X-Men, as well as opens a position for a new team leader: Storm. So as a result of one character’s death, and another leaving the team, the X-Men evolve. An African woman now commands a team comprised of mostly white people in the 1980’s; she’s an icon for readers who identify with her, and this new responsibility lets Ororo grow as a person as well. Kitty Pride’s appearance as a teen girl struggling with being different cements her, and establishes the current leader of the X-Men in X-Men Gold. The relationship between Pride and Colossus begins, and Nightcrawler is faced with a team member who’s afraid of him. By concluding a character’s story arc, he ushers in new ones and opens up opportunities for characters to grow. It’s this realism and willingness to accept change that makes Claremont’s run the success that it is.
He passes the baton from one character to the next. In the absence of two of the X-Men most integral to the team, they are forced to continue. There are more evils to be fought and more stories to be told. When heroes die, the characters around them are forced into an extremely connective experience. Scott passing the torch to Storm as leader illustrates the substitutive nature of comics’ best heroes. If there were no replacement for Jean or for Scott, there would be no more X-Men. Their shoes left to be filled prove to readers that death is beatable; that we can build on the accomplishments of our predecessors.
So, next, we kill the Batman.
In Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s landmark run on Batman during the New 52, they take this concept and run with it.
Following the apparent death of Batman, Commissioner Gordon takes up the mantle using a bat-mech. Not only is the idea fresh and wildly fun, it examines a fan favorite character under a different light. Under no other circumstances would a creative team have the opportunity to spend time with a sidekick-character like this without being overshadowed by the titular character. In the meantime, Bruce has a normal life. For most other characters, that sentence is meaningless, but Bruce is different. What defines him as Batman is the way he throws himself into his work tirelessly. He’s more Batman than Bruce Wayne at this point, which is what makes this such an interesting arc for the character as he’s later forced to decide between normalcy and superheroics. The choice is predictable, but the moment is powerful and resonant.
As Bruce Wayne faces the sands of time, he needs a new crime fighter to fill his shoes and keep Neo-Gotham safe, who appears as Terry McGinnis. After an animated series, a movie, and a still ongoing run in comics, it’s hard to deny this character’s success. Instead of reinventing a character with decades of establishment, Terry juxtaposes and compliments Bruce in fresh ways. Their dynamic is one of the best parts of the series, especially as Terry tries to carve his own path and Bruce tries to keep him, to an extent, under his thumb. Rather than a brooding, rich, playboy under the cowl, we’re introduced to a wise-cracking teen, who often learns by making mistakes. For readers who can’t relate one to one with Bruce Wayne, Terry is empathetic. His problems of balancing school, work, a girlfriend, and a secret identity resonate more with a young crowd of impressionable readers.
Just as in The Dark Phoenix Saga, the characters around Bruce Wayne are put into a position where they must carry on the legacy. Terry and Gordon are faced with the choice of either ignoring the problems facing Gotham, or choosing to actively fight against wrong-doers. They give up their lives of normalcy because they know that someone has to.
Expanding on this concept is the aftermath of Peter Parker’s death. Brian Michael Bendis penned this event in Ultimate Spider-Man #160. His departure, though temporary, opened up the job to a young man named Miles Morales. When he first appeared in 2011 from Bendis and artist, Sara Pichelli, even the New York Times was writing about it. For the first time, one of Marvel’s most recognized heroes would be of black and hispanic ethnicity. He was celebrated as a step forward for representation in comics, and hopeful fans eagerly theorize his appearance in the MCU today. For readers who don’t see themselves in the media they love, this was huge. His success is evident today, as he was a central character in Civil War II, and is now a member of the Champions. He would later open the door for another diverse character in the Marvel lineup, Kamala Khan.
Ms. Marvel, written by G. Willow Wilson, and drawn by Adrian Alphona, was the first Muslim character to headline a series for Marvel. When her book hit the shelves in 2014, readers were met with a complicated character trying to navigate life as a Muslim in a world full of Americans. Her struggles with faith and fitting in with her friends at school are heavily represented throughout her comics. It’s a monumental moment for marginalized readers who had yet to see someone who looks or acts like them wearing a superhero costume, especially in the U.S.
To beat the shit out of a horse that’s been brought back to life more times than any comic character, 2018 sees the U.S. as politically divided as ever. What stands out about it, though, is the amount of enthusiasm young people are showing for politics. Teenagers are advocating for or against political issues, and adding blue checks to their Twitter handles. It’s these kids, and the ones around them that benefit from young characters like Miles and Kamala taking charge. As senators and governors grow or are voted out of their offices, we’re forced to fill them. When a young girl who looks like Kamala reads Ms. Marvel, she becomes empowered to believe that yes, she can fill the shoes of a powerful white woman. Picking up the torch happens in real life everyday as we become inspired by our heroes to make change. It’s inevitable, just as death is. Someday, we’ll all have to mourn. Someday, we’ll all have to move forward. Comics show us how to do that.
When characters in the Big Two die, or simply walk away from their positions of power, they leave spaces open for new characters with new opportunities. They can redefine the mantle, or begin an influx of representation. Sometimes, for characters to progress, the status quo has to be radically changed, and, as readers, and as fans, we should only be open to this. After almost a century’s worth of comics, Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are going nowhere. Their deaths or transferrals into AI are always only temporary. Whether a specific character is around or not doesn’t matter. Their impact will always influence what comes next, echoing across generations. This lesson is what eases us as we mourn, and empowers us as we struggle.
In the absence of a loved one, we remember their mannerisms. Maybe we take our coffee black that day, or take a walk around the park they loved. When we’re dissatisfied with ourselves or our homes, we remember our heroes, the people we respect above all others. We ask ourselves what they would do. Then we do it, and look what we’ve become. A hero’s death doesn’t erase; it creates.