Still one of the greatest covers in comic book history.

Still one of the greatest covers in comic book history.  Art by George Perez.

Every now and then I write a post about comic books for a few reasons.  First of all, they were really important to me for a really long time.  Second, this site is actually named after a comic book character that I adopted as my own: Nighthawk (Kyle Richmond), a Marvel character who was originally created as a Batman counterpart.  There were two versions of Nighthawk – the Squadron Sinister villain who would eventually become a hero and a member of the Defenders before dying (it would be his costume that I really loved), but it would be the second Nighthawk – the Squadron Supreme member, who I would really like.  He would also die, in a dramatic event that was unlike almost anything Marvel had ever published before, loaded with death.  Which brings me to this list.

Death used to be a much less common occurrence in the comic book world.  You didn’t have massive events like Infinite Crisis where Superboy-Prime would start killing characters left and right, sometimes by accident or Avengers Disassembled where people start dropping like flies and characters get torn in half.  Yes, it was true even then that characters wouldn’t stay dead.  It has long been a mantra of Marvel readers that no one stays dead except Uncle Ben and Bucky and that’s not even true anymore.  It’s hard to get emotionally attached to a character when you don’t know when they might die (dramatically), only to have that death reversed (sometimes idiotically).  On a hunch, I found a Wikipedia page that lists dead comic book characters, including ones who have come back.  It confirmed for me that every single one of the original members of the Justice League of America has died at least once and they have all been revived.  This kind of back-and-forth is the major part of the reason that I don’t collect comics anymore.  But, I have been reading the wonderful work over at SuperMegaMonkey and his goal to put all his Marvel comics in chronological order.  And as a result I’ve been getting a lot of comics out of the library that either I or my brothers owned and that I read so often growing up.  It lead me to create this list.

A note of introduction:  Most of the deaths on this list have been undone.  One, specifically, was undone in such a way that it actually lead to me stopping buying comics and I didn’t go back for over a decade.  I left the second time, severing the tie for good by selling 98% of my collection because of a moment which I designate as Joss Whedon is a Bastard, which didn’t end up in a death, but instead my favorite character being trapped in limbo.  Because of my reading habits and my feelings on the way comics have moved, all of these deaths happened a long time ago.  I will first mention a few examples of the kind of wanton slaughter in comics that I don’t like, as well as some other deaths that won’t be part of my list.

Terrible Deaths:

The following examples that I include here won’t have images to go with them as the ones down below do.  That’s because I think these deaths are ridiculous and over the top and I don’t feel the need to include images that play into them but I wanted to mention them as the type of comic deaths that I don’t much care for.  They’re easy to find online though, so if you want them, feel free to look for them on your own.

Ant-Man (Scott Lang) in Avengers #500

Avengers Disassembled is one of those comic mega-events that have come to define the world of comics in the last 20 years.  The death toll gets pretty high, and the cost of it would lead right into House of M, which would actually undo the biggest death of Disassembled (Hawkeye).  But it begins in a brutal manner, with a damaged Jack-of-Hearts returning to Avengers Mansion and then exploding.  This explosion brutally kills Scott Lang, the man who had been Ant-Man for 20 years at that point.  We actually see his bones lying there on the ground after the explosion.  It’s just sheer carnage – and that’s just the beginning of an event which would also include a deranged She-Hulk tearing the Vision in half.  Lang’s death, of course, would later be undone, because why have all that carnage and not have it be for nothing?

Terra  (killed by Black Adam) in World War III #3

I actually only recently learned about this, but was so appalled by it that I felt the need to mention it.  The character of Terra was brilliantly created by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez for the initial run on New Teen Titans and her death really meant something (see below).  I recently re-read all those issues (and they still really stand the test of time – fantastic writing, brilliant art, truly dramatic moments) and afterwards was looking up the character of Wikipedia, only to discover that there have been later versions.  One version was killed by Black Adam in one of the more brutal death scenes I’ve ever seen depicted, when he punched his first clear through her chest.  Yes, a demigod killing a teenage girl by punching a fist through her chest.  So not showing that one.

Sue Dibney in Identity Crisis #1

This one really and truly pissed me off.  Not because I particularly cared about Sue Dibney, the wife of Elongated Man.  Even if I had read Formerly Known as the Justice League (which I only finally read recently), I wouldn’t have cared that much about her.  But the way DC decided to due her in, with a blatantly exploitative panel of her husband holding her dead, charred body was bad enough.  But it also started the story Identity Crisis, a story that on some levels is really well done (the cover art, the moral questions about wiping a super-villain’s brain, the point where Green Arrow tells Superman “Deathstroke took our lunch money”), but on the primary level was rather repulsive, adding in a particular repugnant back-story involving two characters – Dr. Light and Sue Dibney – that seemed out of place for him and way too exploitative when it came to her.

Deaths That Were Events:

The following deaths aren’t part of my list for two reasons.  The first reason is that none of these deaths meant that much to me, the first death because I was somewhat responsible for it and so it didn’t move me like the ones on my list, the second death because I always saw it as a cynical sales move and the third death because I was so far out of comics that they just didn’t do much for me anymore.  The second reason these deaths aren’t on my list is because they never felt as personal to me.  They had been, in a sense, co-opted by the publicity surrounding them, and they were announced in advance.  Most of the best deaths in comic history are the ones where you don’t know they’re coming, but you suddenly get to that moment and gasp, or even cry.

Article on the death of Robin from The Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1988.  From my personal files.

Article on the death of Robin from The Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1988. From my personal files.

Robin:

I bear a measure of responsibility for this.  Literally.  I had some of the first appearances of Jason Todd, including the issues of Batman (#359) and Detective (#526) where his parents were killed and he was set up as the replacement for Dick Grayson, who would soon move from being Robin to being Nightwing.  But, after the original comic mega-event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Jason Todd was re-imagined as a whiney, pain-in-the-ass.  So in 1988, when DC decided to have a 1-900 poll where you could influence the creative process, they decided to do it with the life of Jason Todd in the balance.  It became a widely reported event.  And I voted in it.  Given that the poll was decided by only 72 votes, that means my vote was important, especially since I voted to kill him off.  To their credit, DC did a good job with that storyline, and even better job a year or so later when they decided to bring in a new Robin, Tim Drake, who was a much better character.

Article on the death of Superman.  From The Oregonian.  @ November 18, 1992 (no date on paper).  From my files.

Article on the death of Superman. From The Oregonian. @ November 18, 1992 (no date on paper). From my personal files.

Superman:

I was a freshman in college when Superman died.  I had been out of comics for almost a year, since the death of Magneto in X-Men #3.  But, hanging out with other comic fans at Brandeis, not adjusting well to the school, I started making regular visits to The Outer Limits (I feel I must really plug them – not only did I buy tons of comics from them in the fall of 92, but a couple of years ago I started going back and having since bought some old Peanuts puzzles and two Darth Vader carrying cases for my Star Wars figures, to match the one I’ve had for over 35 years – it’s both a fantastic comic store and a fantastic used toy store).  So, I was very much aware of the death of Superman as it was happening and I even bought a couple of the issues at the time.  Later, I would own the trades that involved his death and inevitable rebirth (though his rebirth would lead to horrible things happening to my favorite DC character, Hal Jordan, so it just ended up pissing me off anyway).  But this was the original non-event event.  It gained a ton of publicity (see the article on the right), especially in the mainstream news where comics usually don’t get much publicity, and yet, there was no serious comic reader who thought for even a moment that Superman would stay dead.  Robin’s death had made news, but it wasn’t expected for him to come back (and it would take almost 20 years).  Superman’s death was always viewed by comic readers as a cynical publishing stunt.

Captain America:

Marvel has been regularly killing characters and bringing them back forever.  I can’t count how many times Professor X has been “dead” and most of the major characters have “died” at least once.  But the death of Captain America was a big event.  Partially it’s because they were killing off the character who had become rather synonymous with the company and who had been around at this point for over 65 years.  But it was also because of how he was going to die – he would be shot in front of a large group of people.  That meant when they inevitably brought him back (which, of course, they did), it would be much harder to explain.  It also had the larger irony, that he was killed on the orders of the Red Skull, a character who has died so many times that I’ve lost track.

#10 – Baron Blood in Captain America #254

CA254_Beheading

Captain America #254: “Blood on the Moors”. Written by Roger Stern and John Byrne. Art by John Byrne and Josef Rubenstein.

In the early 90’s, even as I was transitioning out of buying comic books, Marvel and DC were beginning the big push to collect older issues in trade editions.  This was great news for collectors, because it meant that truly classic storylines could now be purchased for the cost of a book instead of large amounts of money for each of the individual issues.  One of the first ones I remember coming across was Captain America: War and Remembrance.  It covered the great storyline when Roger Stern and John Byrne worked together on Captain America.  It looked back at his origins, gave him a few great fights, and then concluded with a story where he went to England and met with a family that he had fought alongside in World War II who had aged as he had not.

At this point things got interesting and returned to a plot that had been developed in Invaders, a series published in the late seventies, but set during World War II.  The villain, it turned out, was Baron Blood.  He was a vampire who had worked for the Germans in both World War I and World War II and was the brother of Lord Falsworth, the costumed hero known as Union Jack.  Cap had faced off against Blood in WWII as a member of the Invaders but they had left him for dead.  It turns out that Blood has returned to life and has been attacking people in the area, and is actually disguised as the local doctor.  When Blood comes after his family, it is up to Cap to stop him and it builds to a brutal moment – Cap knows there is only one recourse left to him and he takes it in an incredible manner (done, rather brilliantly, in a way so that we only see the shadow, but it’s clear what’s been done).  It’s a big moment – Cap forced to make the ultimate decision and the lead-up to it is brilliant, but it works so well because Byrne does such a great job with the art on that fateful page.  It really makes an impact.  In the vampire novel I once worked on (there are a lot of unfinished novels in my computer), I built up to a similar moment and there’s no question that I got it from this book.

#9 – The Executioner in Thor #362

Thor #

Thor #362: “Like a Bat out of Hell”.  Written and Art by Walt Simonson.

I was never a big fan of Thor.  Of the major Avengers, he was the one I was least interested in – as a character, he just didn’t seem particularly interesting.  But that was before Walt Simonson got hold of him.  There are a lot of famous runs on titles and this one is properly acknowledged as one of the best ever, collected now in a $125 over 1000 page omnibus (which I’m currently reading from the library).  I didn’t own any of these issues, but my brother John had this run of Thor and it was always great to read, both for the art, which worked particularly well for the characters, and for the story.

One of the major storylines of Simonson’s run involved the spiriting away of numerous souls to Hel.  Thor, with many personal problems abounding (including the loss of his father, in one of the greatest splash pages in comics history – found most of the way down on the page here) leads the foray, but going along is Skurge, the Executioner.  Though he was a powerful villain, he had never really been used well by most writers.  His love for the Enchantress, dating back to his earliest appearances as a Thor and Avengers foe, simply left him feeling humiliated and he was tired and wanted some redemption.  So he goes along, and when the group needs someone to stay behind and cover the escape and Thor volunteers, Skurge knocks Thor out and makes his final stand.  The concept would be good enough, but just look at the way that Simonson does the art for that page, giving one of the best send-offs I have ever seen, making a character who had always seemed like a bit of a joke in spite of his raw power, truly get a magnificent death scene.

#8 – Terra in New Teen Titans Annual #2

New Teen Titans Annual #2: "Finale (Judas Contact Pt. 4)".  Written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez.  Art by George Perez and Mike DeCarlo.

New Teen Titans Annual #2: “Finale (Judas Contact Pt. 4)”. Written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. Art by George Perez and Mike DeCarlo.

I wrote a bit about the Judas Contract once before.  In a sense, this was the starting point for what would soon become the first real comic mega-event: Crisis on Infinite Earths.  Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, in the three and a half years that they had been doing New Teen Titans had proven that they could create great characters, could fashion detailed storylines that wouldn’t get bogged down or get too confusing, but could move smoothly along across multiple issues and with multiple characters moving in and out.  Wolfman had proven he was a great comic writer and Pérez was showing that no other comic artist was as good as he was in handling large casts of characters.  They also showed that they could handle the death of a character in a stylistic and tasteful way.  It’s all here on display in The Judas Contract.

Terra is a fascinating character.  As her creators say in the introduction to the trade edition of the book, she was not a traitor.  To be a traitor she would have had to be on the Titans side.  She wasn’t.  She was a mole, there to infiltrate and destroy the Titans.  She was cute (but not too cute – she had that overbite), she was spunky (way too spunky, but they built that in as well – there’s good characterization where she always is willing to apologize because she is so determined to become a member of the team, which looked like anxiety at first, but later became clear that Wolfman and Pérez had brilliantly mapped out their plan from the start).  But she was also evil – she hated for the sheer sake of hatred.  And this became so crystal clear at the end when she is facing off against the Titans (whom she has always hated), but also the Terminator (who she slept with and believes has betrayed her).  She goes off the deep end.  And unlike the ridiculousness over-whelming violence of what would happen to the later version of Terra, we get a really well done page of Terra, undone by her own insanity, killed by her own need to bring death down on everyone.

Amazing Spider-Man #121: "The Night Gwen Stacy Died".  Written by Gerry Conway.  Art by Gil Kane, Tony Mortellaro and John Romita.

Amazing Spider-Man #121: “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”. Written by Gerry Conway. Art by Gil Kane, Tony Mortellaro and John Romita.

#7 – Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man #121

This is a twofer.  The first death here, of course is Gwen Stacy.  Unlike almost all the other deaths in this post, her death was before my time.  But, it’s such an important moment in comic book history that I became aware of it early on.  The question of the female love of a male comic book hero being threatened has been a theme since the early days of comic books, beginning with Lois Lane.  Over the last 20 years, it has taken a new, more graphic and violent form, known as “Girl in the Refrigerator” (look it up), leading to the kind of thing I really don’t like, like Identity Crisis.  But, what happened in this storyline is different than that for a lot of reasons, all of which contribute to its incredible impact.

same as above

same as above

First, her death is not horribly graphic.  Yes, she is killed, but it’s not like her body was shoved in a refrigerator, or like she was burned (after it being ret-conned that she was raped – really, Identity Crisis fills me with rage).  Her death, in fact, is actually done a bit subtly, because when Spider-Man pulls her back up onto the bridge, he thinks he’s saved her.

Second, as pointed out by fnord, the proprietor of MarvelMegaMonkey, “Peter and Gwen had gone just as far as you can go in a relationship and at that point, if they wanted to keep the soap opera drama that is an integral part of the Spider-Man series going, as opposed to letting them marry and live happily ever after, they either had to contrive a reason to break them up or kill her. I don’t necessarily agree with that line of reasoning, but there it is. At least it resulted in a good story.”  So, there’s actually a storytelling reason for doing this.

Still as above.  This is a rare occurrence where, because of the spoiler aspect, the title of the issue appears in the last panel.

Still as above. This is a rare occurrence where, because of the spoiler aspect, the title of the issue appears in the last panel.

Third, there is the reaction (not from fans, though, the Green Goblin explains that she would have been dead from the fall no matter what and one fan wrote in “Somebody ought to throw Gerry Conway off the George Washington Bridge to see if the fall kills him before impact.”).  First, there is Spider-Man’s reaction when he thinks he’s saved her, reacting in his usual snarky way.  Then, there is the heartbreaking reaction pictured above when he realizes what has happened.  Then there’s the final panel of the issue, where he swears revenge against the Goblin.  We’ve seen a hero react exactly as they probably would in the situation.

Amazing Spider-Man #122: "The Goblin's Last Stand".  Written by Gerry Conway.  Art by Gil Kane, Tony Mortellaro and John Romita.

Amazing Spider-Man #122: “The Goblin’s Last Stand”. Written by Gerry Conway. Art by Gil Kane, Tony Mortellaro and John Romita.

Fourth, there is the immediate aftermath, and that’s why this is a twofer.  Because in the battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin (who has been Spider-Man’s best villain up to this point), Spider-Man is able to hold off on his vengeance.  But, when the Goblin tries to kill Spider-Man with his glider, Spider-Man is able to duck and instead the Goblin accidentally ends up killing himself.  It’s a classic scene that would be repeated at the end of the first Spider-Man film.

same as above

same as above

Fifth, there is the longer lasting aftermath.  I could mention things like what happens to Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man 2, which was kept under wraps really well (I certainly wasn’t expecting it).  There is the way that Gwen’s death hangs over the actions of the brilliant Spider-Man: Blue by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, one of the few books I actually kept when I killed off my collection.  Or there is what happens to the character of Mary Jane.  She came into the Marvel Universe at just the right time (John Romita had just taken over as the artist on Spider-Man and she immediately became the most gorgeous female in the Marvel Universe, as well as encapsulating the spirit of the late 60’s).  She has been fun-loving and carefree and refuses to allow anything to really get her down.  But Gwen’s death brings about what might be her most important move forward as a character, in the final page of the next issue.

Some of this wouldn’t last – over 20 years later Marvel would return the Green Goblin to the land of the living, and they would later do some terrible retcons concerning Gwen (which I won’t mention because they’re so stupid I refuse to believe that they were ever even conceived).  But the sheer emotional impact of these two issues still lives on.

#6 – Supergirl in Crisis on Infinite Earths #7

Crisis

Crisis on Infinite Earths #7: “Beyond the Silent Night”.  Written by Marv Wolfman.  Art by George Perez and Jerry Ordway.

Supergirl had never really been a particularly well-utilized character at DC Comics.  She was cute and she had that great outfit (skirts are still not particularly popular among comic heroes for practical reasons, so Supergirl has what still qualifies as one of the sexiest hero outfits), but the writers never seemed to really know what to do with her.  Yes, she made Superman feel not so alone, but aside from her appearances in the Legion of Super-Heroes, she always just felt like a Superman retread and DC never came up with villains that were really enough of a challenge.  Then, in the wake of the creation of Crisis, DC wanted to wipe the Kryptonian slate clean and make Superman the real “last son of Krypton.”  And so, they decided to kill off Supergirl.  And did they ever do it in style.  She dies facing the Anti-Monitor, the most powerful villain ever conceived, and she does it saving her cousin.  The battle is impressive enough, with the final blast coming right in front of Superman’s eyes.  But it’s the aftermath that is so moving, with her cousin holding her in his arms, and then, after she is gone, letting out that primal scream, something you would never imagine Superman doing.  With Wolfman writing and Pérez doing the pencils, DC had taken the biggest event in their history (a celebration of their 50th anniversary) and placed it in the right hands.

#5 – Flash in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8

Crisis on Infinite Earths #8: "A Flash of the Lightning".  Written by Marv Wolfman.  Art by George Perez and Jerry Ordway.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #8: “A Flash of the Lightning”. Written by Marv Wolfman. Art by George Perez and Jerry Ordway.

 

This was proved again in the next issue.  If you’re a comic book fan, then certain issues should ring a bell in your head – issues like Action #1, Detective #27, Amazing Fantasy #15.  One of those is Showcase #4.  It was the debut of Barry Allen, the second DC hero to go by the name of Flash; this was the introduction of the Silver Age of Comic Books and the start of a whole new world of heroes for DC (literally).  The whole concept of multiple earths really stems from that issue, because it was clear that Flash was a hero who grew up on a different world from the original Flash of the 40’s.  It would be their team-up in 1961 that would definitively establish the notion of multiple earths.

Headed into the Crisis, Flash had just ended its run at issue #350, with Barry Allen headed into the future to be re-united with his (long thought to be dead) wife.  It was a happy ending that didn’t last any time at all.  For in Crisis, DC decided to get rid of one of their key characters.  And they wouldn’t even do it like they did with Supergirl – she died surrounded by friends and allies, dying in a big battle and was mourned by multiple earths.  Yet, Barry Allen got none of that.  He died alone, desperately saving those same worlds without anyone knowing it.  He does it because he knows he has to, even though he knows it’s going to kill him.  It’s a brilliant issue and Barry Allen deserved a bigger send-off, but still, he went out with grace and style.

When DC would cover the Flash’s origin a few years later, they would add a little twist to his death that I kind of liked – rather than disintegrating, as you see him do, he passes the speed of light and goes back in time, eventually becoming the very same bolt of lightning that caused him to become the Flash in the first place.  How they could reconcile that when they brought him back to life over 20 years later, I don’t know.

#4 – Nighthawk in Squadron Supreme #12

Squadron Supreme #12.

Squadron Supreme #12.  Written by Mark Gruenwald.  Art by Paul Ryan and Sam De La Rosa.

There have now been several Nighthawks, but my own history revolves around two of them.  The first, as mentioned above, was created as a villain in a group called the Squadron Sinister, as a pastiche on the Justice League, with Nighthawk being the stand-in for Batman.  That Nighthawk would eventually become a hero and a long-time member of the Defenders, and would eventually die in The Defenders #106.  But long before that, it was revealed that there was another Nighthawk, a member of a group of heroes called the Squadron Supreme (Squadron Sinister had only four members, while Supreme had versions of the entire Justice League).  Just after the first Nighthawk was killed off, it seemed like he had returned, but it was actually the Supreme version of Nighthawk, who involved the Defenders in a storyline that liberated the Supreme’s Earth from the control of The Overmind and Null the Living Darkness (still with me?).

A few years later, Marvel would pick up from that storyline and do an entire maxi-series of Squadron Supreme.  As a longtime fan of JLA, I was stoked and got all of the issues.  Because this world was separate from the regular Marvel Earth, this allowed Marvel to play loose with their characters.  This became apparent early on.  By the end of the first issue, the Squadron decides to take over the USA, end crime and end disease.  Nighthawk argues against the plan, saying that while people aren’t perfect, they need to be able to be free to make their own choices.  When he is unable to convince the rest of the group, he resigns.

While the Squadron starts taking over, we lose sight of Nighthawk for a few issues.  In the meantime, the Squadron creates a behavior modification device that ends crime by changing how people think.  Nighthawk enlists some villains to help him out and decides to create a group to face off against the Squadron.  In the meantime, the series had violence (one member dies after going insane), actual death (one member dies of cancer, which they haven’t cured yet), sex and real issues.  It dealt with the very concept of what super-beings would do if given the chance.

Squadron Supreme #12.

same as above

But, then we had the return of Nighthawk.  He’s been building a team and putting his members into the Squadron, so that when’s he ready to act he has enough power on his side.  But violence isn’t his goal.  He manages to knock Hyperion out of the fight and then explains precisely what is wrong with this perfect “Utopia” that the Squadron has created.  The philosophical arguments are part of what made this specific Nighthawk such a great character to me – fighting crime is one thing, but trying to hand over things to the world that they haven’t gotten on their own, well, that said something interesting to me.  He makes the case and in the end, he’s actually won the fight.

Then comes the tragedy – one of the moles he planted in the Squadron has fallen in love with one of the Squadron members and she decides the way to end the fight and win his love is to stop Nighthawk.  So she runs over, just after the fight has essentially been won, and she kills him.  It’s bitter and tragic and it fits right into the very real consequences of the fight that has been going on (several people on both sides die in the fight).

#3 – Superboy in Legion of Super-Heroes #38

Legion.

Legion of Super-Heroes #38: ‘The Greatest Hero of Them All.”  Written by Paul Levitz.  Art by Greg LaRocque, Mike DeCarlo and Arne Starr.

Though, as mentioned above, most of my comic collection was disposed of several years ago, this is the only one of the top 6 on this list that I no longer have.  And yet, this is, in some ways, the one that moves me the most.  But before I get to it, I feel the need to mention the other Superboy death, the one that more recent comic readers might think that I am talking about.

Infinite Crisis

Infinite Crisis #6: “Touchdown”.  Written by Geoff Johns.  Art by Phil Jimenez.

Some 20 years after Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC decided to shake things up again and actually bring back the multiverse in the epic series Infinite Crisis.  There was a lot of Infinite Crisis that I didn’t care for, especially when Superboy-Prime just starts killing people by accident.  But one of the best scenes in the book was late in the series with the death of Conner Kent, the current Superboy.  Now, I hadn’t been reading comics for the most part since he had been introduced in the aftermath of the death of Superman, so I wasn’t that vested in the character.  But he goes out with style, saving the world (“You saved the Earth,” his girlfriend, Wonder Girl, tells him.  “You saved everyone.”  “I know,” he replies, as he dies.  “Isn’t it cool?”).  Then, we get what is possibly the single best panel of the whole series, with the major DC characters standing around him, looking on (my one beef with the panel is that Hal Jordan should be in it, especially since he’s the one who flew Batman there).

But this isn’t about Conner Kent.  This is about the original Superboy, the one who would grow up to be Superman.  Sort-of.  See, though I hardly had any issues of Legion of Super-Heroes, I had always been a big fan, because I read my older brother Kelly’s issues all the time.  Superboy, of course, was the original inspiration for the 30th Century’s big superhero team.  But, in the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, with Superman’s history rewritten so that he never was Superboy, that left Legion in a strange position.  A retcon was developed that the Superboy they knew was from a pocket dimension and he wasn’t the hero who would grow up to be Superman.  In wrapping up that story, Superboy sacrifices his life to save not only the Legion, but the entire pocket dimension he has grown up in.  He’s still the inspiration that he’s always been.  That would be enough – but then there’s the actual death scene.  There’s Gwen Stacy up above, lying dead in Spider-Man’s arms, his dead love.  There is Superman cradling his cousin as she dies.  But here we have Mon-El, one of my absolute favorite characters, with the friend who was like a brother to him, who loved him as much as possible, desperately hoping he can be saved.  Instead, he knows his best friend has died in his arms and something about that final panel moves me every time I look at it.

#2  –  Magneto in X-Men #3

X-Men #3: "Fallout".  Written by Chris Claremont.  Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

X-Men #3: “Fallout”. Written by Chris Claremont. Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

I left comics with this issue.  The first three issues of X-Men were so well done, both in terms of the writing and the art, that I didn’t think they could be surpassed.  So, when Chris Claremont, who had been writing X-Men the entire time I had been reading it, was leaving the title, and was killing off Magneto at the same time, it seemed a good time to leave.  Then I went to Brandeis and got suckered back into comics.  But I had already decided that if they undid this, if they backtracked on such a brilliant death scene, that I was pulling out again.  And they did, of course.  So, I was done, and for over a decade I stopped buying new comics (I still bought older ones collected in trades, but I didn’t buy new ones again until Astonishing X-Men, but that’s a story for another time).

A quick side note here: the issue before they brought Magneto back, they killed off one of my favorite characters, Illyana Rasputin.  They did it with some style (Kitty Pryde, my favorite character, and Illyana’s best friend has to beg Professor X to let her die, with the emotional plea that they have to love her enough to let her go, a thought which still haunts me), but I was already in college and I didn’t feel as moved as the other deaths on this list.  It pissed me off more than anything, especially when Magneto returned the next issue and I said fuck it, and stopped collecting comics.

as above

as above  –  These two scans were the only ones I couldn’t find online and had to actually scan my own copy of the comic

When Marvel decided to do a new X-Men series in 1991 it was really a big deal.  There were different X teams at the time, but they had never done a second X-Men book.  They released the first issue with five variant covers, all of them designed to fit together into a poster.  It is still, over 20 years later, the highest selling comic of all-time.  Those three issues set the new format for the next years to come, and with the split, the most popular characters (including Wolverine, Rogue and Gambit) were all thrown together on one team, lead by Cyclops.  When I got rid of my entire collection I actually kept all three of those issues, not the least of which reason was because Magneto was always the best villain Marvel had (or at least had been ever since Chris Claremont had started writing him) and these were just fantastic issues.

At the end, the X-Men are on Magneto’s satellite and a laser is being fired at the satellite that will kill everyone.  Rather than leave with the X-Men, Magneto chooses to stay and die with his Acolytes (we don’t see his actual death which always made this a prime candidate for him returning).  He pushes the X-Men away and we get his final thoughts delivered to us through Professor X, an outline of the differences between them.  It’s a brilliant way to go, letting us know those differences that have divided the men for so long.  Archangel gets the final line on Magneto, and it’s a good one: “Gotta say this for the man – he knows how to make an exit.”

#1  –  Jean Grey in Uncanny X-Men #137

X-Men #137: "Child of Light and Darkness".  Written by Chris Claremont.  Art by John Byrne and

X-Men #137: “The Fate of the Phoenix!”. Written by Chris Claremont. Art by John Byrne and Terry Austin.

What got me hooked on reading X-Men was what got a lot of people hooked on reading X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga.  I said above that Captain America: War and Remembrance was one of the early collected trades of a storyline.  But The Dark Phoenix Saga was even earlier.  My brother brought it home from college, I think it was his first year at CalTech.  And reading it, I was just enthralled.  These characters were so great – Cyclops, Phoenix, Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Collosus.  This storyline introduced Kitty Pryde, who would become my favorite comic character.  It introduced the Hellfire Club, who would become some of the best villains around.  It had a number of classic moments, like Wolverine in the sewer, looking up at you, ready to go in on his own.  It had the amazing moment where Phoenix actually holds back Cyclops’ optic beams and looks him in the eyes.

Now, you may notice above that I listed this as the death of Jean Grey rather than Phoenix.  Well, that’s because at the time, and for several years, that’s what everyone thought had happened – Jean Grey, who had become Phoenix, had died.  Later, of course, Marvel would bring her back and do it in such a way that explained Phoenix as a separate entity, and that the Jean we all knew wasn’t the person depicted here.  But at the time (even at the time that I read it, a few years after it happened), Jean was who we thought we were reading about.

And that was what made this all so tragic.  In the first part of the story, she is manipulated by Mastermind.  As she breaks free, she feels herself overwhelmed by her immense power (the whole story deals with the concept of absolute power corrupting absolutely) and she transforms into Dark Phoenix.  She flies to another galaxy and destroys an entire sun, killing an entire planet in the process.  When she returns, the X-Men battle her and they think they have her power under control.  But in the final issue of the storyline, #137, she is put on trial and the X-Men are forced to fight for her.  Towards the end of the battle, she starts to transform again and the X-Men realize they have no choice but to battle her.  But in the end, it is Jean herself who knows that she can not prevent what is happening, and so, to spare her friends the pain and spare herself the horror of what she has done and what she is certain she will become again, she kills herself.

It’s been over thirty years since my brother brought home a book from the CalTech library for me to read.  You can still see it on my old list of staff picks at Powell’s.  I mentioned it in the earlier post I did about comics that I love.  I will repeat what I wrote there.

This book transformed how I read comics.  Characters could die.  They could pay for what happened.  And sometimes battles don’t end the way you want them to.  And love can be painful as well as rewarding.  It’s true, that Marvel would eventually think of a way to return Jean from the dead.  But this remains one of the greatest stories that Marvel has ever put together.

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