Death is an everyday part of superhero comic books. It happens frequently, and it’s often used as a plot device to create drama. Comics get away with so many character deaths because they never seem to stick.
Sometimes characters are breathing again before the end of the same issue they died in. Sometimes months or years go by. But sooner or later, they always come back. In many cases, thanks to the magic of the retcon, they were never actually gone.
Love ’em or hate ’em, superhero resurrections aren’t going anywhere. Marvel Comics has served up some doozies over the years. Here are the House of Ideas’ 15 most frustrating “___ comes back to life.”
15. The Human Torch
It seems like every member of the Fantastic Four has been proclaimed dead at one point or another. (You’ll find another member of Marvel’s First Family later on this list.) But Johnny Storm’s death and return had one of the most bizarre methods ever.
In 2011’s Fantastic Four #587, the Human Torch nobly sacrificed himself to allow the Thing to escape from the Negative Zone (that alternate-dimension weirdspace the FF spend so much time in). His escape came at a steep cost, as Johnny had to singlehandedly hold back an attack by otherworldly insect creatures loyal to a big bad named Annihilus. The way it was depicted in the issue, it didn’t appear to go well, as the aliens swarmed and overwhelmed him pretty quickly. But it was a cool death, as these things go; at least he was able to choose how we went.
But hold up, the death part isn’t over yet. Thirteen issues later, it’s revealed that Johnny survived the fight with a huge fireball surge that killed many of the attacking creatures. Then he was captured by Annihilus, who attempted to coerce him into opening a portal to Earth. When Johnny refused, Annihilus killed him — properly this time.
But this being the Negative Zone, the methods of reviving the dead are appropriately grotesque. Annihilus’ underlings used these giant worm things to revive him, and then implanted them in his body. Ewwww. After Johnny’s wormy-squirmy resurrection, he teamed up with some other captives to escape and get back home.
14. Nick Fury
There may be no Marvel character who’s “died” more than Nick Fury. Ol’ Eyepatch has been shot, stabbed, blown up, and plenty more, with a variety of people doing the deed — both good guys and bad, such as Wolverine, Black Widow, Punisher, and Bullseye. Fury has faked his own death more times than you could count.
His remarkable ability to (appear to) die over and over again can be chalked up to the S.H.I.E.L.D. invention called the Life-Model Decoy. A creation of writer/artist Jim Steranko, the LMD is essentially a machine or robot made to look and behave like a real person. They’ve been used by characters beyond just Fury — Tony Stark name-dropped them in the first Avengers movie — but no one has utilized them more.
Take that image above, for example. Way, way back in 1969, Nick was out enjoying a little downtime with an on-again/off-again named Laura Brown, when a Hydra agent sniped him dead. Laura was distraught. “NOOOOOO!!… They’ve killed him!” she cried. Our hearts bled.
13. Mary Jane Watson
It’s one thing to write a pointless death for a beloved character. To take it to the next level, you have to make it painfully simple for the character to have avoided said death, but they didn’t for no good reason.
Such was the case when Peter Parker’s wife, Mary Jane, seemingly bit the big one in Amazing Spider-Man #13 (Vol. 2), when the airplane she was flying on exploded. But let’s rewind a sec: MJ had been stalked by a psycho mutant (who never even got a name) for months, but never told her superhero husband about it. Not even a hint. Not once. Which is totally realistic.
Peter was devastated, he couldn’t get his life back together, and the writers threw one personal setback after another at him. They seemed to think that a single, down-on-his-luck Peter Parker would sell more comics. (Gee, where have we heard that before?)
It was 15 long issues later that readers finally found out MJ was alive and well, but being held prisoner by her nameless stalker. Turns out, the stalker guy had drugged and walked her off that airplane before it ever left the ground. The traumatizing effects of her captivity had long-lasting consequences, but everything finally got back to normal a few years later.
12. Jean Grey
You know the story. Mutant girl is bestowed with cosmic über-powers, girl is eventually driven mad by said powers, girl commits mass genocide, girl comes to her senses and kills herself to prevent anymore death.
The year was 1980, and the character was, of course, Jean Grey. The famous “Dark Phoenix Saga” is one of the best-known stories ever told in comic book form. Its impact can’t be overstated — both on the industry and on the fictional characters who were part of it, who continue to be impacted by it to this day.
The problem is, a few years after her death, Marvel decided they wanted Jean back. So she was resurrected via retcon, the explanation being that the Jean that died wasn’t the real Jean. It was the Phoenix Force itself, which had (somehow) taken on her form, memories, and personality. Right. The real Jean was at the bottom of the ocean in some kind of cocoon.
11. Harry Osborn
Way back in the day, Harry Osborn was driven mostly by the endless madness and machinations of his father, Norman. Believing Spider-Man responsible for his father’s death (more on that later), Harry used his own variation of Norman’s Goblin serum to become a new Green Goblin and seek vengeance.
After setting a trap for Peter Parker — whom Harry now knew was Spider-Man — he came to his senses upon realizing that Peter’s wife MJ and Harry’s own son were ensnared in the same trap. He saved them both, and then saved Peter, as well. Unfortunately, the Goblin serum that enhanced Harry’s strength was slowly poisoning him, and the explosion he’d used in his trap accelerated the process. In 1993’s Spectacular Spider-Man #200, Harry died having saved the lives of his son and best friends.
In yet another example of the old fake out, the infamous “One More Day” travesty that erased Peter and MJ’s marriage from time also somehow restored Harry to life 15 years after his death. An explanation didn’t come until later, involving daddy dearest paying fellow villain Mysterio to fake Harry’s death while Norman whisked him off to Europe to spend several (comic book) years in rehab.
10. The Punisher
Remember that time Norman Osborn inexplicably came into power, was given Nick Fury’s old job, and put together his own “Dark” version of the Avengers? During the “Dark Reign” storyline, Frank Castle aka the Punisher decided that taking Osborn down was his moral imperative, because no one else could do it.
Osborn sent Daken, Wolverine’s son, after Castle in retaliation, and the kid turned out to be just as lethal as his old man. Daken dismembered Castle’s entire body, but that wasn’t the antihero’s end. Instead, a group called the Legion of Monsters stitched him back together into a Frankensteinian monster that Marvel lovingly dubbed “Franken-Castle.”
It wasn’t his transformation into an undead monster that was frustrating. There was potential there for some interesting, if tonally offbeat, character development. It’s the fact that from minute one, everyone knew that somehow, defying any and all logic, this new state of being would be temporary. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before Franken-Castle came into possession of a Bloodstone, a mystical artifact with regenerative properties. After a few months of carrying the Bloodstone around, Frank magically had a healthy, muscular 30-year-old’s body again.
9. Iron Fist
Danny Rand died in the 1986 storyline, Hardball. His death came as a huge surprise to readers, even though he’d recently been diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t the illness that did him in, though. That came thanks to… Well, it’s complicated. Painfully so.
Basically, there was this Shazam-like character named Bobby Wright, a young boy who could shape-shift into a superhero he called (wait for it) Captain Hero. Despite being an all around jerk to Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the Heroes for Hire duo tried their best to help him, since he had both cancer and some kind of alien spores from a crashed meteor.
Captain Hero, in a fit of pain from his illness, tried to wake up Danny Rand, who was sitting by his side in the boy’s hospital room. Instead, in the final issue of Power Man and Iron Fist, he accidentally beat the kung-fu hero to death.
Nearly six years later, it was revealed in (of all things) Namor the Sub-Mariner #22 that the Danny Rand who’d died wasn’t the real Danny Rand, but an alien impostor. And not just any alien imposter: a H’ylthri, a race of sentient vegetation that can grow copies of members of other species. The real Danny had been taken by the H’ylthri to their home, the Shambala-like mystical city K’un-L’un — which just happens to be where Danny originally got his Iron Fist powers — where he was placed in stasis so he could concentrate his chi power to purge the cancer from his body. Which is completely normal and don’t argue.
Is there any comic book in the world home to more convoluted character identities or endless resurrections than Amazing Spider-Man and its companion titles? It seems every time a new villain is introduced, there’s a huge mystery about his or her true identity. In the case of Hobgoblin, that mystery wasn’t resolved by revealing that he was, in fact, a corrupt businessman named Roderick Kingsley. It just became more tangled and confusing after that.
Kingsley wasn’t content to just take on this supervillain identity and go about his evil deeds. He had to brainwash others into believing they were the Hobgoblin and functioning in his place and under his control. (It was actually an example of one writer’s plans being derailed by another writer, then retconning required for any of it to make sense.)
Anyway, Kingsley was killed in 2010’s Amazing Spider-Man #649, by reporter Ben Urich’s nephew Phil, who then became the new Hobgoblin. It was quickly revealed, however, that this was yet another hackneyed comic switcheroo: It wasn’t Roderick who was killed… It was his brother Daniel.
7. All of the Heroes Reborn
Four years before Marvel launched its “Ultimate” universe, a very different attempt was made to launch a modern, rebooted Marvel U. 1996’s Heroes Reborn spun out of the Onslaught event series, which ended with the deaths of the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and Doctor Doom, who all worked together to defeat the mega-villain.
It was an intentional move by the publisher, who had cooked up a plan to reignite sales interest in its flagship titles. Marvel decided to siphon off its biggest characters into a pocket universe — resurrected and put there by young Franklin Richards, a living, breathing McGuffin with god-like powers — where their histories and appearances would be given modern makeovers. This new world would be overseen by Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, celebrated Marvel creators who’d left the company to form their own publishing studios.
This “farming-out” tactic was a blatant sales move that Marvel never bothered denying, at a time when sales were plummeting and comics were struggling to maintain relevance. (If only they’d known what was coming!) A year after its launch, Franklin brought the Heroes Reborn characters back to the main Marvel universe and basically pretended that the whole crazy mess never happened.
Also known as: that time Doc Ock took over Peter Parker’s body for a year-and-a-half and tried to make it as a hero.
So Otto Octavius was at death’s door, and having worked out Spider-Man’s secret identity, Otto cooked up a crazy master plan where he would exchange bodies with Peter Parker right before he died. It worked, but there was a side-effect he hadn’t anticipated: he also gained all of Peter’s memories, including the events that had shaped his personality and sense of purpose. Infused with new morals and responsibility, Ock vowed to not only be a hero, but a better Spider-Man than Peter had been.
For a year and a half, Spidey fans had to get their fix in the form of The Superior Spider-Man, which found Otto trying to do good and Peter a (never scientifically explained) ghost whispering in his ear. After a bunch of personality clashes with Peter’s regular cast of characters, Otto found himself deeply outmatched by a resurgent Green Goblin. In a moment of surprising nobility, inspired by a woman he’d come to love, Otto finally conceded that Peter had been a better Spider-Man than he could ever be.
The power struggle between Wolverine and Sabretooth is one of the longest-running rivalries in comics. Arch-enemies is barely a sufficient term for their relationship; it’s a spite and bile-fueled hatred the likes of which few others can match. Making matters worse: they’re both mutants with the ability to heal, which gives them greatly extended lifespans. As a result, they’ve been fighting each other for over a century.
At some point, Logan finally had enough and decided to truly end Sabretooth, aka Victor Creed. The X-Men just happened to be in possession of the one weapon in the world that could do the job: the Muramasa Blade. This magical katana had been forged using a piece of Wolverine’s own soul, and it can supposedly cut through anything. After a ridiculously long conflict that took them around the world, Logan decapitated Sabretooth, killing him once and for all.
But that wasn’t enough for a vicious, unrepentant, cold-blooded murderer of Creed’s caliber. To be extra sure, Wolverine made a jaunt down to Hell in a story arc four years later, where he beat up the Devil, grabbed Satan’s sword of ultimate evil, and beheaded Sabretooth’s soul with it.
About a year after that, Sabretooth was “reborn” — if the definition of “reborn” is “the guy that died was actually a clone.” Yes, a clone. Otherwise known as the most clichéd resurrection device in the history of everything.
4. Green Goblin
Norman Osborn is yet another Spider-Man character with a remarkable capacity for death-and-rebirth. (Seriously, do these guys all go to the same Crossfit gym or something?) After the infamous battle between Spider-Man and Green Goblin atop the George Washington Bridge, Norman dropped a captive Gwen Stacy from way up top. When Peter attempted to catch her with his web-shooters, her neck was snapped by the sudden stop, killing her.
Peter went after Green Goblin seeking revenge. A brutal battle ended in Amazing Spider-Man #122, published in 1973, with Norman being impaled by his Goblin Glider. (Much of this, minus the Gwen death, was recreated in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film.)
Much later, it was revealed that the Goblin serum came with a handy-dandy — and previously unknown — healing ability, not unlike Wolverine’s. So although he technically died from that impalement, he was rejuvenated shortly thereafter and restored to health. As comic book deaths go, Norman stayed gone much longer than most, his survival not revealed until more than twenty years after he died.
3. Spider-Man (again)
In the middle of the famed Avengers Disassembled story, Spectacular Spider-Man ran one of the dumbest Spidey arcs of all time. It was called “Changes,” and was written by the usually-reliable Paul Jenkins, but its stupidity can’t be all his fault. This turd was quickly cooked up to accommodate some physiological changes Marvel wanted to make to the character.
See, when this story was published, Spider-Man 2 had recently been a huge smash at the box office, and Marvel editorial apparently thought it would be a good idea if the comic book Spidey more closely resembled his big screen counterpart. So this bizarre tale was concocted in which an enigmatic, spidery villain known only as “the Queen” abducts Peter and mutates his DNA, causing him to transform into a human-sized spider. Why would she do this? Obviously, it was so she could impregnate him. Duh.
In the end, the Queen was defeated, and the newly mutated Man-Spider died. Mere moments later, it was revealed that the creature formerly known as Spider-Man had been pregnant, after all. Sort of. In a macabre scene that’s so insane it forces involuntary laughter, the wall-crawler is “born” anew from the human-spider thing’s molted remains. Kinda like Sigourney Weaver climbing out of a dog statue but way more gross.
And that’s not all. Remember those physiological changes Marvel wanted? Somehow, via a complete lack of anything resembling logic, this newly reborn (and completely unconcerned about being buck naked) Peter Parker discovers that his existing powers have all gotten a significant boost, and just like Tobey Maguire’s iteration at the movies, he now has organic web-shooters. That’s right: we had to slog through this moronic storyline merely so Peter could get those stupid organic web-shooters. Which he lost a short while later.
2. The Thing
So Ben Grimm, aka the rock-anatomized Thing of the Fantastic Four, is killed in one of those “ultimate battles” against Doctor Doom that they have every few years. It’s a sacrificial death, with Ben allowing himself to be killed in order to stop Doom, in issue #511 by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo. His soul went to Heaven when he died, but his teammates couldn’t deal with life without him (especially eternally guilt-ridden Reed), so he cooked up a plan for the three of them to travel to Heaven so they could bring Ben back to the mortal coil. Never mind the fact that in Heaven, Ben’s human form had been restored and he’d found perfect, heavenly bliss. Nah, his friends were way too selfish to go there.
But hey, this is a group that spends all its time traveling to other dimensions and stuff, so why not give Heaven a try? Of course it worked, and Ben decided to return with them after all because they were all bickery and angsty without him. What was most ridiculous about the whole thing was how Waid returned Ben to the land of the living.
While in Heaven, the Four completed their journey by entering an ordinary looking room, where they’d been told that God was waiting to see them. “God” was actually the legendary Jack Kirby, who used his magic pencil to “draw” Ben back into his rocky Thing form, and then back to life. He also used his eraser to fix a nasty facial wound Reed had recently suffered. In essence, Waid was asking us to swallow the fact that he’s hitting the reset button with a big, fat, fourth-wall-breaking story beat.
Is it utter nonsense? Or a sweet-natured tribute to one of Marvel’s most beloved masterminds?
1. May Parker
Aunt May has always been an integral component of Peter Parker’s life, but after decades of soapy drama and familial support, there just wasn’t anything left to do with the character that hadn’t been done several times already. In short, by Amazing Spider-Man #400, she’d just outlived her usefulness. So writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Mark Bagley constructed a beautiful end for Peter Parker’s beloved mother-figure. Having been in a coma for a while, May awoke long enough to spend one last week with Peter. Near the end, she took Peter to the top of the Empire State Building for a heart-to-heart. Peter was stunned as she revealed that she’d known he was Spider-Man all along, and was as proud of him as his Uncle Ben would be. Peter took May back home, where she laid down in her bed and after a short while, passed away. It wasn’t bombastic or earth-shaking. It was peaceful, simple even. And it was stunningly exquisite, as lovely an ending as any character could ever hope for.
And then another writer came along three years later and sabotaged the whole thing. Howard Mackie decided to bring May back in the most ridiculous fashion possible: the “May” that died three years prior had been an actress hired by (who else?) Norman Osborn, surgically altered to look like the real May, and put in place to… torment Peter somehow? Doesn’t really matter why. Osborn’s entire purpose as a plot device is to bring misery to Peter Parker’s life; he’s never written with the depth to do anything else.
The real May, it turns out, had been abducted and imprisoned by Osborn, who had put a bomb in her head and threatened to set it off. And that makes all kinds of sense. The rub is that bringing May back was ultimately pointless. In the years since her return, she’s contributed nothing to the Spider-Man titles — or at least nothing that couldn’t have just as easily been accomplished with another character. And you know what? As much as we love dear old May, we’re going to go ahead and blame her stubborn insistence on living for the One More Day thing, too.
May Parker was a great character who deserved an emotional, inspiring death. And amazingly, she got one. If only Marvel had respected her enough to leave it at that.
Which comic book resurrections led to a table flip or two in your home? Let us know in the comments.