The death of a character is an overused trope in super hero comics. If you need an event to have some impact, find a character you can kill off so you know the bad guy means business (see King in Black #1 for a recent example), potentially going through a lengthy approval process to avoid any conflicts with other titles down the line. The joke, of course, is that no one is really dead in these universes. Creators will always find a way to bring a character back to life for another story down the line, jumping through all kinds of hoops to do so. The heavenly gates (or the highway to Hell) are more like revolving doors.
There was a time when Marvel lived by the mantra of “Dead is dead” which took characters off the table completely. Folks like Colossus, Jean Grey, and Harry Osborn were gone for years before this edict was loosened and they were resurrected. Think of all the stories during that time that they would have provided an interesting perspective on. The modern day Marvel Universe has taken the danger of death away for many characters. Instead of limiting a writer, it’s led to some great stories that have reinvented characters and entire lines.
Take a look at the X-Men franchise in the wake of House of X and Powers of X. One of the many new ideas introduced by writer Jonathan Hickman was the notion that every mutant could be resurrected by The Five working together. Professor X has a backup of all their personalities in Cerebro and downloads them into the new body so it’s like they never left.
Without the worry of a character dying forever, creators have put some of the mutants through the wringer. Poor Quentin Quire has died so many times — often in really painful and gruesome ways — but he always comes back good as new. This might lead to some psychological trauma down the line, but that’s something Xavier can soothe away too.
Now that resurrection acts as a safety net, death is a big deal again when it really needs to matter. That’s what happened in the recent X of Swords event, where we learned that if you died in Otherworld, you would not come back the same. The young mutant Rockslide is now something very different. This raised the stakes for the storyline since the events mattered more.
A similar situation has been unfolding in the pages of Immortal Hulk, where writer Al Ewing has shown what happens when a gamma-infused character dies. They head to a kind of purgatory before they can make their way back to the land of the living. Even if Bruce Banner dies in his human form, his death will only be temporary as the Hulk will come back by the time the sun goes down.
The difference in this case is that this purgatory has been weaponized in recent issues by the Leader. He’s found a way in that allows him to take over people as they venture back to life. Imagine the conniving mind of the Leader controlling a version of the Hulk. That’s some pretty terrifying stuff and it’s paying off in some riveting storytelling. The Hulk is stripped down to some base personalities and he can’t rely on his usual smashing to get the job done. This has shown us a new and fascinating side of this nearly 70-year-old character and everyone connected to him.
Most recently we’re seeing another potentially similar idea play out in Venom during King in Black. It’s still too early to tell if this will have the same kind of effects, but if I had to guess, something with the symbiotes will allow anyone that’s touched them for an extended period of time to come back to life in some way. Eddie Brock is currently dead, but I’m sure he’ll make his way back to life soon and I’m betting he won’t be coming alone.
All this also raises some interesting questions as there’s an entity of Death in the Marvel Universe. It makes me wonder if she’ll have a problem with this sooner or later. Maybe she’ll call on her frequent suitor Thanos for another galactic war.
At first, it might seem like taking away the fear of death would make these characters boring as they would have nothing to be afraid of. Instead, it’s elevated each of them to new heights. These series are more exciting than ever and they’re treading completely new ground to do so. These are heroes that have been around for ages and this idea has breathed new life into them. Death is dead in the Marvel Universe (and she may have something to say about that soon).