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Cronin Theory of Comics – Theories on Comic Book Death

The rabbit got me thinking about comic book death, and about some thoughts I have about the appropriateness of it all.

To open, do note that I am really against the basic concept of “Big event? I guess we have to kill somebody.” I think it is generally a ridiculous concept that hurts comics by depriving readers (and future writers) of interesting characters just to add momentary importance to an event. That said, for better or for worse, it works, sales-wise. So we’re going to keep seeing it.

Anyhow, here are some theories of mine on the topic.

1. You should try not to kill any character that there is likely a whole pile of writers craving a chance to write said character.

Kitty Pryde is the first example that comes to mind, but Jean Grey in Morrison’s New X-Men is another good one, I think.

I have never seen Morrison’s thoughts on Jean, so I do not know if he intended Jean to stay dead. I would imagine he didn’t, but I dunno. In any event, she’s still dead – which is odd.

It is debatable, but Colossus and Martian Manhunter MIGHT fit into this category (Ted Kord did not).

2. You should try not to kill any character that has been written well by another writer within the last year.

I get it – sometimes, you figure that a character isn’t being used, so that character might be a bit expendable. Fair enough.

I don’t agree with it, but I can understand it. So that’s why I think a character making a notable appearance within the same YEAR as you planning to kill him/her off is a fair compromise position.

This also allows the exception that if you, yourself, are the one who has been handling the character for the past year, it’s a little easier of a pill for the reader to swallow.

This is why I wouldn’t have Sue Dibny or Ted Kord killed. They were just being used by Giffen and DeMatteis THAT YEAR very well, so it seemed silly to have DIFFERENT writers kill them off.

Very annoying.

3. If a supporting characters lasts 30 years, you best have a very good reason for killing them.

It is so hard to make it as a supporting character in a comic book. People are going to want to kill you off left and right. So to make it THIRTY YEARS as a supporting character is quite an achievement, and a demonstration that many writers found said character quite valuable.

Therefore, if you want to get rid of them, you better have a really good reason to do so.

This is why I disliked Karen Page’s death.

Alfred, Foggy Nelson, Commissioner Gordon, Mary Jane Watson, Aunt May, Perry White, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson, Betty Brant – these characters should be considered practically parts of their respective comics by now.

Do not kill them off – unless, of course, you have a darned good reason to do so.

4. If you need to kill off a minor supervillain, imagine someone else is putting together a new Masters of Evil/Injustice League in a few years. If the character you’re thinking of killing would be seriously considered for such a group – don’t kill him/her.

There is a bit of a shortage amongst villains on the lower tier, like Absorbing Man, the Wrecking Crew and Tiger Shark. Don’t kill them off.

5. Quit killing Chuck Dixon creations.

Now Hellhound was just killed, too! Cut it out! The dude spends all this time introducing new characters, only to have them all killed off!!
__________________________________________________________

Okay, that’s all I can think of right now. As you can see, I left a TON of openings for deaths, even ones I disliked – these are just some instances where I think comic book death should be monitored more closely in the planning stages.

In fact, here are a few characters whose deaths annoyed me, but I can understand them:

Banshee – Not a big-time character, no one had really written him in awhile.
Bart Allen – Not his fault, but had been basically ruined to the point where he was NOT a character anyone would really want to write anymore.
Ronnie Raymond – No one was lining up to write Ronnie, and had not been featured in awhile.
The Darkstars – I REALLY hated it when Diggle killed them, but I had to admit, no one was trying to revive them, and they hadn’t appeared in years.

LONG TERM PLANS EXEMPTION – By the by, none of this applies to writers who have long term plans in place to deal with the “death” and return of a character, such as Superman, Magneto (Morrison never intended Magneto to actually die, it was just a meta-commentary thing), Psylocke and Steve Rogers.

37 Comments

The Indestructible Man

January 25, 2008 at 1:15 am

Regarding your example of Firestorm — remember that Mike Carey had been trying to get a Ronnie Raymond series off the ground right before DC decided to kill him. (I’m a Jason Rusch fan, but the point is still apt)

Now that you mention it, I do recall some talk of a Firestorm series back then. That said, it’s one thing for ONE writer to want to do a Firestorm book, and another thing for a whole pile of writers wanting to write Firestorm, which is certainly the case for a Kitty Pryde or a Jean Grey.

Daniel O' Dreams

January 25, 2008 at 1:34 am

I kind of got the impression from Morrison’s last story arc that he definitely intended her to stay dead, at least for a thousand years. (That’s the life span of the mythical Phoenix). Basically it seemed to be saying bring her back and you invalidate my entire run.

Of course I’m not him and don’t know. He could have meant nothing of the sort ;)

If Whedon kills Kitty it’ll be undone in a year or two she’s just THAT likeable.

I don’t believe Chuck Dixon created Hellhound. If memory serves me correct, Jordan Gorfinkel (who was a Bat-editor at the time) actually wrote the Catwoman annual where Hellhound was introduced.

Still, your point is valid. Leave Chuck Dixon’s creations alone! In the 90s, when every other Bat writer was giving us the stale “grim ‘n gritty” crap, Chuck was the only writer who made Batman fun again!

“Basically it seemed to be saying bring her back and you invalidate my entire run.”-Daniel O’Dreams

Didn’t Marvel editorial do that anyway, Jean or no Jean?

(not trying to start a fight, its just a point I saw raised in some other discussions after Morrison left)

I don’t believe Chuck Dixon created Hellhound. If memory serves me correct, Jordan Gorfinkel (who was a Bat-editor at the time) actually wrote the Catwoman annual where Hellhound was introduced.

You’re absolutely right that Hellhound first appeared in a story written by Gorfinkel, but I was under the impression that Dixon created him and Gorfinkel then wrote the Annual which introduced him (in the sense that Dixon was planning on having Hellhound face Catwoman in the present, but since the Catwoman Annual #2 was a story set in the past, he would have Hellhound introduced in that issue, which was written by Gorfinkel).

I wish Gorfinkel was here so he could tell us for sure!!

By the by, I totally forgot that they ALREADY killed Hellhound! This is Hellhoun II that was killed in Salvation Run!!! Lordy.

I kind of got the impression from Morrison’s last story arc that he definitely intended her to stay dead, at least for a thousand years. (That’s the life span of the mythical Phoenix).

That might’ve actually meant something if half of the people running around in X-Men titles aren’t already from another future parallel alternative timeline universe in space or something ;).

Tom Fitzpatrick

January 25, 2008 at 4:40 am

You know what they say:

“Kill ‘em all, and let the fans sort ‘em out.”

Well, something like that. ;-)

I’ll add “It’s OK to kill them if they should have stayed dead in the first place.” Mainly to validate Morrison’s killing of Jean, and whoever kills off Jason Todd again eventually.

Actually, I’m of the opposite point of view there; if they’ve already been killed and brought back once, then killing them again a) means it’s likely they’ll be resurrected again, because they got brought back for a reason the first time, and b) makes their deaths hard to take seriously, because it becomes a running gag that they die (Jean Grey’s last words under Morrison were to crack a joke about her constant deaths/resurrections.)

My thoughts: Never kill anyone, period. You should have to fight an editor tooth and nail, and I’m not necessarily speaking metaphorically here, before being allowed to kill off any character for any reason, hero, villain, or supporting cast-member. Two reasons: One, on the creative end, death should be something shocking and emotional, and it can’t be shocking and emotional if it’s constantly being used for shock effect (and if it’s constantly being undone, which is a side effect of over-using death in comics; the more characters you kill off, the more likely it is that you’re going to regret it later and pull a retcon.)

Two, on the business end, everyone is someone’s favorite character, and every character is one good creator away from being a break-out success that you can sell. All Marvel has to its name is viable intellectual properties, and it’s just plain stupid to get rid of a long-term property for a short-term story, unless that story is so far beyond spectacular that you can justify not ever being able to use that character again. Which is a pretty hard sell to make. Everyone thought that Animal Man, the Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, and Black Orchid were minor, inconsequential, useless characters, but all of them wound up having major sales legs when handled properly, and are still selling today in collected form. Killing off characters is short-sighted, and it’s the editor’s job to look out for the long-term. So if a writer says, “Let’s kill off (blank),” it’s the editor’s job to say “No.” Perhaps the writer will make a really amazingly great case for “Yes,” but they should have to really work for it.

My theory on the whole Jean Grey thing is that Morrison intended her to stay dead, and my rationale is that he seems to be the kind of guy who would think that bringing her back invalidated the power of the original Dark Phoenix sage. So that by returning her to death, he’d be setting things right again

I gotta agree with John.

A fairly prominent mutant was killed off this week, in what was presumably meant to be a very powerful and solemn ending to a story.

And I…really didn’t give a crap.

@John Seavey:

“All Marvel has to its name is viable intellectual properties, and it’s just plain stupid to get rid of a long-term property for a short-term story”

I understand totally where you’re coming from, but unfortunately, your comment illustrates exactly why I read very, very few superhero titles from the big two publishers. I know that they’re in the business of making money off of their pre-existing characters, but it’s a real shame that there’s no room for change or growth in most of their titles. The reason I was such a fan of some of DC’s 1990′s titles (Starman, The Spectre, Hitman) is because they each had one writer with one over-arching vision for the series with a beginning, middle, and end. And in some cases, a death. It’s hard to care about what mutant dies in X-Men when you know that he’ll be back sooner rather than later, and that the only thing that can end his adventures is unprofitability. When a character dies (and die they do!) in Criminal or Scalped, there isn’t going to be a cosmic cube to bring them back.

I’m not going to give any long-winded input on this, and I’m not trying to beat a dead horse, but here goes…

The ridiculousness on the deaths of characters can be summed up in three words: “Comic Book Death”. That the two word descriptor has been added to differentiate between permanent and temporary death speaks volumes towards the lack of impact a character death has.

I just want BKV to bring 355 back in Y #60 next week.

Hey Brian,

In regards to Morrison’s “death of Magneto” I’m curious if you’re referring to his “death” at the beginning of his run or at it’s conclusion.

My impression is that Morrison intended to really kill off Magneto at the end of his run. At the very least, I believe that the way that Magneto was later brought back did not reflect his original plans.

Did Morrison have an alternative plan for bringing back Magneto?

Sean Whitmore-
I think you really hit on something. Because not only was it painted like that character died and there was little emotion, but the next day it was announced that the character is essentially getting his/her own book. Death really is meaningless.

Peter David killed off seminal character Betty Ross-Talbot-Banner; she mostly stayed dead except for one story arc by Bruce Jones, at which point she disappered again. Her father Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross died a time or two too in the mid-80s – late 90s (not always by PD but I don’t remember who off the top of my head, maybe Mantlo and/or Byrne?)

Jean Gray’s whole thing is dying and coming back. I’m amazed it’s taken so long to bring her back, but surely any writer knows it’ll happen. And then she’ll die again….

For what it’s worth Ronnie Raymond was used in Kelly’s JLA not long before his death, but Kelly wrote him so blandly its not surprise if almost nobody remember that, so I guess that don’ t count.

I think the Banshee example is perfect, one might disagree with Brubaker about the need to kill anyone, but if felt he had to, amon those that fit his options (the ones that went to Krakoa), Banshee is obvious the right choice.

Boy, don’t even get me started on Resurrection Man…

If a supporting characters lasts 30 years, you best have a very good reason for killing them.

So was there any point to killing off Happy Hogan?

My impression is that Morrison intended to really kill off Magneto at the end of his run. At the very least, I believe that the way that Magneto was later brought back did not reflect his original plans.

Did Morrison have an alternative plan for bringing back Magneto?

Morrison’s original plan was that Xorn was always Magneto, which was scotched by the convoluted way in which Chuck Austen decided to make Xorn “real” and has since been worsened by Bendis’s half-assed effort to retcon it yet again in House of M.

However, Morrison doesn’t seem to have thought Magneto would stay dead after his run, based on interviews, and “Planet X” itself has Magneto making a tongue-in-cheek reference to this when he jokingly claims that “I always come back. Maybe that’s my secondary mutation, Charles.”

Firestorm was in Joe Kelly’s awesome JLA run after Batman’s hacked T-spheres hired a bunch of new people to be the JLA. And he was really, really awesome. So, yeah, I was disappointed when he died. I like Jason Rusch, though, and his one-handed dad. Gehenna is kind of bizarre, unexplained(?), and unnecessary.

Oh, and I’ve said it before, but Xavier and Magneto are best when they are dead. (Or when Xavier is a dick and Magneto is a good guy.)

Austen gave Xorn a brother he did not affect the character at all. Also, he only did THAT at his editor’s request.

The reason Bendis said Xorn was something else, something eternal, was because Magneto showed up in Excalibur with no explanation or logic behind it. The writer there was Claremont.

(at least thats how I recall things)

As for Happy dying… hardly anyone even noticed. I think that right there means it was okay to kill him.

Will Butler said:

“I understand totally where you’re coming from, but unfortunately, your comment illustrates exactly why I read very, very few superhero titles from the big two publishers. I know that they’re in the business of making money off of their pre-existing characters, but it’s a real shame that there’s no room for change or growth in most of their titles.”

And that’s OK. It used to be that comics publishers expected their readership to outgrow them, and they’d attract new, younger readers who were of an age to appreciate these comics. I read ‘Archie’ as a kid. I don’t read it anymore, but I’m glad it’s still there for my niece to read. (Well, right now she mostly looks at the pictures, but…)

Part of the problem that comics have right now is that they’re trying to keep aging along with their fanbase, instead of going after a younger audience. (And no, this does not mean I agree with ‘One More Day’. That’s a “brand identity” issue. Marvel has sold Spider-Man for decades now as “the story of Peter and Mary Jane”, everywhere from the movies to the TV series to the newspaper strip to their other titles, like ‘Spider-Girl’ and ‘Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane’. It’s way too late now to decide, “Hey, you know what Spider-Man needs? A different love interest!”)

I’ll add “It’s OK to kill them if they should have stayed dead in the first place.” Mainly to validate Morrison’s killing of Jean, and whoever kills off Jason Todd again eventually.

That’s my feeling on the Jean Grey death. Add in the fact that no one had written her in an interesting way for a long time until Morrison’s arc, and how many diehard Jean Grey fans complained about his characterization, and I find it hard to believe that anybody who actually wanted to write Jean Grey would have done anything good with her.

Of course, we all know she’ll be back at some point. That’s her whole M.O.

There are cases when character death pretty clearly worked well (i.e. Bucky, the original death of Jean Grey and Barry Allen in COIE, even Jason Todd). But more recent examples are more spotty. As a general rule, comics really should avoid death unless at least one of the following is true:
1. It is the creator of the character involved with the killing, as was the case with Jack Kirby in the Avengers and Bucky.
2. The creators have had a long run on the title in which the character is primarily featured AND the character was a major part of the cast during their run. This is the case with Claremont/Byrne on the Jean Grey story.
3. The character dies as a direct result of a well-established part of their personality. Jason Todd was always impulsive and it finally got him killed. It makes sense.
4. The character ONLY exists in comics and no other media. The core Superman, Batman and Spider-Man casts are well known to millions of people who are not comic fan-boys. Killing off, say, Lana Lang would break the hearts of a “Smallville” audience that was once larger than the entire comic buying population COMBINED. That matters.
5. The character has a legacy that extends beyond him/herself (i.e. an established replaced/successor/child). Being the Flash was always a title that Barry Allen just held. His death made that role bigger, which makes his death worthwhile.
6. There is no other way to tell a worthwhile and/or interesting story. That is pretty well the only excuse for killing Sue Dinby. ‘Identity Crisis’ was a murder mystery, so it needed a victim that we’d care about.

“My theory on the whole Jean Grey thing is that Morrison intended her to stay dead, and my rationale is that he seems to be the kind of guy who would think that bringing her back invalidated the power of the original Dark Phoenix sage. So that by returning her to death, he’d be setting things right again”

Yeah, that was one of the reasons. There were at least other two:

1) Her dying would take her to the next level, transcending flesh and the human world and becoming a Goddess for good, which was the natural progression of everything Morrison was doing to her.

2) A character so powerful like Jean Grey on Phoenix levels can’t be on the X-men, that’s why she was going to lose her powers at the end of Dark Phoenix Saga, after Byrne realized she made things too easy. If Xavier had to be sidelined often for make stories work, imagine her, who would need the same thing for any enemy which is not on Galactus levels.

Plus, I don’t know if he took that into consideration, but by having her being the Phoenix all along that means she was the one that killed 5 billion people, and you add another reason for her to die, the same one Shooter gave when he ordered it on DPS.

Morrison not only could have killed her, but he couldn’t have not killed her, since it was the natural progression of the story (like I said on 1) and her surviving would leave an absurd mess for other writers to clean up. Imagine how AXM would be if Whedon had to begin by explaining why was Jean so powerful, the whole situation with her, Scott and Emma, why are the X-men allowing someone that killed 5 billion people on the team, etc.

Daniel O' Dreams

January 26, 2008 at 11:27 pm

1) Her dying would take her to the next level, transcending flesh and the human world and becoming a Goddess for good, which was the natural progression of everything Morrison was doing to her.

2) A character so powerful like Jean Grey on Phoenix levels can’t be on the X-men, that’s why she was going to lose her powers at the end of Dark Phoenix Saga, after Byrne realized she made things too easy. If Xavier had to be sidelined often for make stories work, imagine her, who would need the same thing for any enemy which is not on Galactus levels.

Plus, I don’t know if he took that into consideration, but by having her being the Phoenix all along that means she was the one that killed 5 billion people, and you add another reason for her to die, the same one Shooter gave when he ordered it on DPS.

Did they ever actually state that “Phoenix” being a separate entity from Jean has been retconned again?(REretconned?)
I thought it was simply that after Inferno Jean got the MEMORIES of the Phoenix’s time posing as her and was now able to channel the Phoenix force. She was POTENTIALLY the most powerful being in the universe, but she wasn’t a goddess until the very end.

I think Morrison wanted to elevate her to Godesshood WITHOUT destroying any planets. Jean kept reassuring people, throughout the run, she wasn’t about to go crazy and destroy the Universe and she didn’t.

I think the only thing that has been invalidated about New X-Men is the whole Xorn was Magneto thing (which was one of the best twists in a superhero comic EVER and editorial was very stupid to mess with it). We still have: Labrat Cat-headed Beast, Scott and Emma, Cassandra Nova, Xaiver and Lilandra split, the school an actual school (although between No More Mutants and New New X-Men they’re losing students by the truckload) and Jeans still dead.

He never expected Magneto to stay dead (we never actually see a corpse just a rolling helmet)as much as he might like it otherwise he left it open for someone to bring him back.

Oh, and I’ve said it before, but Xavier and Magneto are best when they are dead. (Or when Xavier is a dick and Magneto is a good guy.)

I like them best as a bickering old married couple but that’s just me ;)

Daniel O' Dreams

January 26, 2008 at 11:31 pm

Uh… that’s a confusing post. sorry. I thought I did the quote/unquote thing properly. Guess not!

Personally, I think it’s better to send a character abroad/on holiday/to exile than killing him/her: this way he/she can be always recovered without much fuss.

The trouble about killing characters is that their deaths take more than they give to a series: I still deslike that DD characters like Karen Page or Glorianna O’Breen were killed… I mean, I don’t feel -though Echo or Milla fans might disagree with me about it- That no Murdock love interest introduced after Karen’s death has been as solid as Karen was.

Of course, Karen had been around for a long time, which obviously gives her more room for development than Echo or Milla have had so far.

But my point is: Was Karen’s death an improvement in the series? I think it wasn’t. Matt and her could have just split, if the writers wanted a new Murdock girl: This way karen would still be available for whatever fiture character willing to write her (and not only in a flashback).

Characters deaths sell a couple of issues. Good LIVING characters sell for a whole run.

Another rule of thumb might be if there’s *any* doubt on the other rules, try to leave an “out” of some sort. So that, even if you can’t envision it, some later writer might be able to revive the character somehow.

And remember rule #5! I was particularly irked when Devin Grayson gratuitously killed off a bunch of Dixon’s characters in *Nightwing*, for no good reason. Especially Torque, who’s such a delightfully *weird* villain who I definitely wanted to see more of. The death was pointless in the first place, apparently just an “I wanna clear the decks” sort of thing, but to top it all off, the death was so unambiguous that there’s no conceivable way to bring the character back short of magic. And it’s not like his shtick is one another character would inherit or emulate (cf. Captain Boomerang, Toyman, etc.) “Guy with his head on backwards” isn’t a state you *seek out*, obviously.

I think that before a writer kills off a character, he should have to get permission from the character’s creator.

Theno

Marv Wolfman’s rule in COIE was that he wouldn’t kill a character that was created before he was born.

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