Comic book deaths aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. You would be hard-pressed to find a major superhero who died and stayed dead, versus a character who died and came back to life eventually (even after just a few issues). Take a look at Wolverine. He was killed off a few years ago, and now Marvel Comics is resurrecting him, Tony Stark, and Bruce Banner for a new series. They aren’t alternate versions either; they are the real, classic versions of the characters who are back for good.
While the bulk of the deaths in the comic book medium are cop-outs or publicity stunts, there are times in which a superhero’s death actually matters. Sometimes, those deaths can leave a lasting impact on the industry as a whole and even influence future story arcs. It happened several times in the transition between the Bronze Age of Comics and the Modern Age (otherwise known as the Dark Age), and it’s continued to happen in the years since. In no particular order, here are the 15 Superhero Deaths That Actually Mattered.
15. Jason Todd – A Death in the Family
When casual readers think of Robin, they usually think of Dick Grayson, but there have actually been multiple Robins over the years. Some have retired, while others have died in the line of duty — and the latter applies to the second Robin, Jason Todd. His death in Batman: A Death in the Family came mere months after the Joker shot Barbara Gordon, rendering her paraplegic, and retiring her as Batgirl. It was a time when comic book stories began to grow up.
Costumed vigilantes die all the time, but Todd’s death was significantly more powerful than the other run-of-the-mill mortalities. It was the first time that a major superhero in the Batman mythos was killed off permanently. Furthermore, Todd’s death has arguably had just as much of an effect on Batman as the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. He became unhinged, and it took another Robin to bring him back from the brink of self-destruction.
However, possibly more important than Jason Todd’s actual death at the Joker’s hand was how DC Comics decided to kill him off in the first place. It’s no secret that Todd was unliked among readers, especially when compared to Dick Grayson. So, instead of making a drastic decision on their own, DC Comics asked readers to determine Todd’s fate. Using a call-in phone number, 10,000 people were polled, of which 5,343 voted to kill off Jason Todd.
The character has since returned from the grave to fight crime in Gotham once more as the Red Hood, but the impact of his passing continues to linger for the Dark Knight (and the comic industry as a whole) to this day.
14. Supergirl – Crisis on Infinite Earths
Ever since DC Comics introduced the concept of the multiverse in the ’60s with Flash of Two Worlds, countless continuity errors have reared their ugly head. Which makes sense when considering how many alternate Earths were established, and how many writers wanted to make their mark on their characters. So when the publisher’s 50th anniversary was approaching, they decided to remedy all the errors in one fell swoop.
After testing the waters with crossover events such as Crisis on Earth-One and Crisis on Earth-Two, DC Comics prepared for the biggest event in comic book history (at the time): Crisis on Infinite Earths. The maxi-series saw the heroes of every known Earth in the multiverse unite against the Anti-Monitor. It brought about a new era of the DC Universe, one separated in pre-Crisis and post-Crisis continuities.
However, to create a new era means having to dismantle the previous one, and that includes the heroes that were a part of it, such as Supergirl. She dies protecting her famous cousin in Crisis on Infinite Earths #7. The publisher wanted Superman to be the sole survivor of Krypton once again, and killing off Supergirl was a step toward that goal. However, she didn’t just die in a random fight; she died saving Superman. How many characters have done that?
13. Barry Allen – Crisis on Infinite Earths
There’s no way to underscore how big of an event Crisis on Infinite Earths was at the time, and how it still impacts the DC Universe to this day. With a major event like that, Supergirl couldn’t have been the only superhero to die in the fight with the Anti-Monitor, and she wasn’t. Along with the Girl of Steel, the Scarlet Speedster sacrificed himself so that his friends could live.
In Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, Barry Allen runs so fast that he creates a power vortex that prevents the Anti-Monitor from using anti-matter cannon to destroy Earth. In doing so, however, he dies. In his final act, he didn’t just save his friends or the planet, but the entirety of DC’s multiverse.
Barry Allen may not be the most famous DC Comics hero, but he is certainly one of the publisher’s most influential characters. He kickstarted the Silver Age of Comics with his debut in 1956, introduced the concept of the multiverse with Flash of Two-Worlds in 1961, and concluded the Bronze Age of Comics (which was essentially a coming-of-age for the industry) with his death in 1985. His death also marked one of the first undeniably successful transitions of a superhero identity in modern times; Barry’s Flash replacement, Wally West, became a widely beloved character in his own right, one that’s arguably just as popular as the hero he replaced.
12. Captain Marvel (Marvel) – The Death of Captain Marvel
Graphic novels have been a core part of the comic book industry since its inception, but they didn’t start to become popular in the mainstream until the ’70s. Some of DC Comics’ best stories have been published as graphic novels, while their counterpart, Marvel Comics, always preferred to stay away from them. However, in the early ’80s, Marvel dabbled in the sub-medium with the Marvel Graphic Novel series, which began with Jim Starlin’s iconic story, The Death of Captain Marvel. Aside from the meta aspect of the story being Marvel’s first graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel still matters because it depicted a hero’s death in a way unlike anything readers had seen before.
Whenever a hero dies, it’s usually swift and brutal, but that wasn’t the case with the original Captain Marvel‘s death. Mar-Vell of the Kree spent many years fighting the Mad Titan Thanos, and in the end, it wasn’t his enemy that killed him, it was cancer. His death humbled superheroes; it showed that even best of us can still succumb to an unprejudiced disease. Plus, when Captain Marvel died, he was greeted by Thanos, who had come to guide Mar-Vell into the afterlife — as a friend, not an enemy.
11. Jean Grey – Uncanny X-Men #137
Jean Grey was already one of the most recognizable mutants in the Marvel Universe, but thanks to the X-Men animated series, as well as the X-Men movie franchise, she has risen to mainstream popularity. Her death in Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand took inspiration from an iconic story arc, but we’d recommend purging that death from your memory and shifting your focus to one of her (many) other deaths.
The red-headed mutant has died so many times that it’s becoming difficult to keep count. Some of them have had significant importance in the over-arching universe, but the one that actually mattered the most was her sacrifice on the Moon in Uncanny X-Men #137. Jean regained her sensibility after Colossus punched her, and she knew that her symbiotic relationship with the Phoenix would one day manifest into the Dark Phoenix, and she couldn’t have that happen. So, she took control of the Shi’ar’s weapons and vaporized herself.
The significance of her death is illuminated by Uatu the Watcher, who says at the end of the issue: “Jean Grey could have lived to become a god. But it was more important to her that she die… a human.” Rather than succumb to evil once again, Jean chose to sacrifice herself for the greater good, and that is what precisely what makes her a superhero.
10. Ferro Lad – Adventure Comics #353
Barry Allen’s sacrifice to save the multiverse is the stuff of legend in the comic book medium. The willingness to sacrifice one’s self to save others is what superheroes do. The thing is, long before the Flash made the ultimate sacrifice, there was another hero who saved all of existence, and most have probably never even heard of him: Ferro Lad.
Andrew Nolan, aka Ferro Lad, was one of the newest members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, a team of heroes from the 30th and 31st centuries who frequently travel through time to prevent universe-altering events. Andrew had the ability to transform into iron, which also granted him superhuman strength. It wasn’t the most impressive of abilities, especially considering the other superpowered beings in his outfit, but it was enough for him to save the world.
He fought the villainous team Fatal Five in The Death of Ferro Lad story arc, in which Andrew, along with the rest of the Legionnaires, averted the villains’ attempt to use the Sun-Eater, but at the cost of Ferro Lad’s life. When the bomb to destroy the living weapon couldn’t be detonated remotely, Superboy chose to carry the weapon into the Sun-Eater’s cloud. Unfortunately, he was weakened by red sun rays, and without hesitation, Ferro Lad took the bomb, ran into the cloud, and detonated it, killing the Sun-Eater — and himself.
Ferro Lad’s sacrifice became legend amongst the Legion of Super-Heroes. His actions saved the galaxy, and he did so after only having been a Legionnaire for a short time (he’d only appeared in seven issues at the time of his passing). A statue was erected in his honor, and his story has been referenced numerous times in the DC Universe in the years since.
9. Captain America – The Death of Captain America
Captain America is one of the first superheroes ever to exist in the comic book medium, and part of the trio of original Marvel superheroes. That, along with his iconic Hitler punch in Captain America Comics #1, catapulted him into global stardom, where he’s remained for over 75 years. Steve Rogers carried the mantle for decades, but that all changed in 2006, when the villainous Crossbones and a brainwashed Sharon Carter kill Rogers at the behest of the Red Skull. This occurred in The Death of Captain America story arc, shortly after Rogers was taken into custody following the events of Mark Millar’s Civil War series.
Captain America’s death made waves across not only the comic book industry, but the general public as well. Mainstream news organizations covered the death of the fabled hero as if he was a real-life soldier. Though he’s a fictional character, Captain America felt real to many people, and his death helped usher in a new era of Marvel Comics. As for why Captain America didn’t die in Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: Civil War, it’s possible that his story has not yet run its course. That doesn’t mean Falcon or the Winter Soldier won’t eventually take up the mantle of Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe sometime in the future, of course.
8. Hellboy – The Fury #3
Put aside hopes for a third Hellboy movie and reminisce about all the years Hellboy spent defending Earth against dark forces, sometimes alongside the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. He debuted in 1993, but it wasn’t long until he gained widespread popularity in the comic book industry. It’s easy to think about Marvel and DC Comics characters when thinking about superheroes, but there are heroes from other publishers as well, specifically Dark Horse. And those characters have each impacted the industry in different ways.
Hellboy spent many years working with the BPRD, and when it came time for him to die, at the hands Nimue no less, it left a mark on the industry, and it disrupted the other publications at Dark Horse. With his passing, the publisher lost one of their key heroes. What’s interesting with a character like Hellboy, though, is that even in death, his stories can still continue, which is what Mignola planned when he killed off the Dark Horse superhero in 2011. The following year, the Hellboy in Hell series began with Hellboy fighting the good fight down in Hell.
7. Blue Beetle – Countdown to Infinite Crisis
Ted Kord, aka Blue Beetle, was originally a Charlton Comics character before later being acquired by DC Comics in the ’80s and incorporated into the mainstream DC Universe after the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths. He was the second Blue Beetle; the first, Dan Garrett, debuted back in the ’60s and appeared in comics by numerous publishers, including both Charlton and DC. But it was Kord, who frequently partnered with the time traveler Booster Gold, that many people identify as the true Blue Beetle.
Shortly after joining the DC Universe, Kord received his own solo series for a few years before joining up with Justice League International, where he spent the majority of his time fighting alongside Booster Gold. Together, they developed one of the greatest friendships in all of comics. That’s why his death in the Infinite Crisis prelude, Countdown to Infinite Crisis, came as such a major surprise. Dozens of people died in the Infinite Crisis story arc, many of which perished in the prelude, but none were as significant as Blue Beetle’s death. Kord represented the lightheartedness of the DC Universe, and when he died, so did the universe’s innocence.
6. Spider-Man (Peter Parker) – Ultimate Spider-Man #160
Marvel Comics made a radical decision to introduce a young character like Spider-Man into the Marvel Universe in the ’60s, and they made an equally radical decision to kill him off in the early 2010s. Peter Parker is one of the biggest and most iconic superheroes in the history of comics, and that is in large part due to his relatability to young readers.
However, as with any other character, his stories grew a bit stale over time, and Marvel attempted a soft reboot in 2000 with the Ultimate Universe. The imprint featured re-imagined origins and stories of a handful of Marvel characters, including Spider-Man. Brian Michael Bendis and David Lafuente worked on the Ultimate Spider-Man stories, and they were ultimately responsible for killing off Peter Parker in 2011. His death came after years of meta-abuse at the hands of the character’s writers (One More Day, anyone?).
Everyone knows that superheroes don’t stay dead for long, and Marvel couldn’t let go of someone like Peter Parker without damaging sales — but there was a certain sense of finality to the way Peter died, that it felt like he was never coming back. (The fact that he was replaced by ever-popular Miles Morales only added to that.) His emotionally-gutting passing impacted readers in a way they hadn’t felt since Steve Rogers’ death in 2006.
5. Superman – The Death of Superman
Captain America’s death made headlines around the world in 2006, and he did so again in 2016 by becoming “Hydra’s Captain America,” but none of that quite compares to Superman‘s passing in 1992 in The Death of Superman story arc. DC Comics’ willingness to kill off the world’s reigning superhero, even for a brief time, was audacious. It paid off — both in the short-term and long-term, but it was still a risk.
The story or the way Superman died is trivial, but the imagery, the blood, and the emotion exhibited on the characters’ faces are what drive the story home and make Clark Kent’s death feel real — and definitive. He was Superman. The Man of Steel. The world’s first and foremost superhero, and he’d finally met his demise after leading the charge for decades.
By killing Big Blue (in particularly brutal fashion, we might add), DC Comics made headlines around the world. It was a media sensation. Outlets like The New York Times were deciphering the importance of Superman’s death and how it factored into the dissolution of archaic symbolism and the modern reinvention of “the American way.” Though he came back in the Reign of the Supermen story arc the following year, Superman’s death showed how far the industry had come, and the type of stories publishers were willing to tell.
4. Bucky Barnes – The Avengers #4
As we said before, it’s common knowledge that comic book deaths are trivial. They happen all the time, and the heroes almost always end up coming back, sometimes after just a few issues. For years, there was an expression in the comic book industry that “the only people who stay dead in comics are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” Jason Todd returned as the new Red Hood in 2005, and while Uncle Ben is still dead (and will hopefully remain that way), Bucky Barnes has also made a comeback.
Bucky returned as the Winter Soldier in the same year DC resurrected Jason Todd, with his backstory revealing his time operating as a brainwashed assassin for the Soviet Union. But long before readers were made aware of Bucky’s retroactive backstory, he was just a kid from Indiana who fought alongside Captain America during World War II. When the good Captain returned in The Avengers #4, we find out that Bucky had died on a booby-trapped plane. His death profoundly affected Steve Rogers, and it became a part of his character for years.
3. Superboy (Kon-El) – Infinite Crisis
As previously mentioned, the number of people who died in Infinite Crisis is astounding, but that’s how major crossover events work nowadays. Comic book deaths happen all the time in the modern age. Publishers need to up the ante every once in a while, and killing off major characters is the easiest way to do that. While we consider Ted Kord’s death in Countdown to Infinite Crisis to have had the largest impact on the story and the DC Universe as a whole, that in no way means all the other deaths were insignificant.
In the story arc, Superboy-Prime and Alexander Luthor Jr. had spent years watching the universe’s heroes from afar in a different dimension, where they grew resentful of them. So, they partnered together to recreate the multiverse as they saw fit. That involved Superboy-Prime attempting to kill the DC Universe’s then-current Superboy, Conner Kent.
When the Doom Patrol, Teen Titans, and Justice Society of America tried to intervene, Superboy-Prime destroys all of them. After seeing his friends beaten right before his eyes, Conner charges Superboy-Prime head-on, and in their fight, they collided with Luthor’s tower. Conner successfully saved the DC Universe, but he died doing so. Superman buried Conner next to Earth-Two’s Clark Kent and Lois Lane in Metropolis, which left a lasting mark on the pre-New 52 Supes.
2. Nightcrawler – Second Coming
When it comes to the X-Men, not many people would consider Nightcrawler to be one of their favorites, which is a shame. He’s, in many ways, the heart of the superhero team. He’s appeared in numerous incarnations over the years, always bringing his happy-go-lucky attitude with him. In all of his appearances, he rarely — if ever — took a job with X-Force. So, when he eventually joined up with Cyclops’ team, he didn’t like the tactics his friend employed.
With someone who’s been around for decades, it came as a shock when Marvel suddenly killed off Nightcrawler in the X-Men: Second Coming story line, without notice or fanfare. He didn’t get his own “Death of” story arc, nor was there any sort of build up to his death. He just died, and the X-Men haven’t been the same since.
“When we get into a big story, we think of the story as a whole, and not the individual books,” X-Men editor Nick Lowe explained to Newsarama. “If we can offer a little limelight to the characters regularly appearing in a book we do, but the whole story comes first. Nightcrawler’s death was the huge end of Act 1. That was the most important thing, and it happened to fall in X-Force.”
1. Rorschach – Watchmen
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is not only one of the most iconic stories ever told in the medium, but TIME also rates it among the 100 best English-language novels to release in the past century. The graphic novel catapulted the comic book industry into a new era of storytelling, one focalized on deconstructionism and humanizing superheroes, rather than viewing them with nostalgia.
The story of Watchmen unfolds like an investigation, with Rorschach narrating the plot as he uncovers more details regarding the Comedian’s death. It all leads to a confrontation with Ozymandias, who reveals his diabolical plan to bring about world peace by unifying the world’s superpowers against a common enemy: Doctor Manhattan.
Doctor Manhattan, whose humanity is all but gone, sees the logic in Ozymandias’ plan, which is why he chooses to go along with it. Rorschach, on the other hand, is vehemently against it — but he knows they wouldn’t allow him to leave and tell the world. So, he unmasks himself and tells Manhattan to kill him, knowing that his death is unavoidable. Never compromise, right?
Honorable mention: Archie Andrews – Life With Archie #36
Archie Andrews is certainly not a superhero, but he is a prominent comic book character, one whose death made an impact on not only the comic book industry but the real world, too, which is why we’ve opted to include him as an honorable mention. Along with the likes of Batman and Superman, the star of Archie Comics has been around for over 75 years. He’s had numerous incarnations, and many people grew up reading some of those stories, usually involving the love triangle with Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge.
In 2014, the publisher decided it was time to kill off the adult Archie Andrews and focus entirely on the teenage version of the character. To do that, they needed to give him a proper send-off, and that is precisely what they did. Unlike most superhero deaths, Archie didn’t die fighting a supervillain; he died protecting his friend. In Life With Archie #36, Archie is shot in the stomach while defending Senator Kevin Keller, the publisher’s first openly gay character, and someone who strongly advocates for gun control. There was an obvious but socially relevant meta-factor to Archie’s death, and that’s why it still matters three years later.
What other superhero deaths actually left their mark on comic book history? Let us know in the comments.