ROBERT GREENBERGER: Death be not proud

The rule of thumb used to be that the only characters that stayed dead are Uncle Ben, Bucky and Barry Allen.

Some version of Uncle Ben is running around in Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man; Bucky turns out to have survived and is now the Winter Solider; and if you believe Dan DiDio’s “slip” of the tongue, Barry Allen may be here soon.

It used to be a big deal when a character died. Amazing Spider-Man #121’s cover, as Spidey faced those nearest and dearest to him with a cover blurb promising one was going to die compelled us to buy that month’s issue. It worked, sales spiked, the status quo was different and people were buzzing.

In 1985, I participated in the planning and, ahem, execution of Crisis on Infinite Earths. One of the key housecleaning elements had to be the elimination of both major and minor figures, heroes and villains, civilians and loved ones. The hit list, as seen in the Absolute edition, evolved as editors and management weighed in. Killing the Flash and Supergirl were the shockers while few cared if the Bug-Eyed Bandit survived or not. Still, these deaths were supposed to be permanent changes to the DC Universe, although few of them have remained dead 20 years later.

By the time Superman died in 1992, the freshness had long since worn off as deaths had been faked (Professor X, Foggy Nelson), undone (Jean Grey, Iris Allen), or were too minor to care (I Ching).

Since then, characters have continued to die and come back with stunning regularity. As a result, the death of a major figure has been more of a blip than a major event, making one wonder what it will take to get people really stirred up.

Much has been made of Captain America’s death and I was among those scoffing at the permanence of his condition. Less has been said about the return of their first Captain Marvel, plucked out of the time stream before his death from cancer (as wonderfully told in a Jim Starlin graphic novel), an altogether new kind of cheat.

Marvel isn’t the only company wheeling and dealing with the Grim Reaper.