It’s the oldest of superhero cliches that in comic books, no one ever stays dead. Heroes die all the time for drama’s sake, but it’s not long before another writer comes along and resurrects them or shows that — surprise! — it was just a ruse and the hero never really died.
Side characters die all the time, especially the family members of superheroes, who often serve as the impetus for a super-powered individual to become a hero. Jor-El and Jonathan Kent. Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. Batman’s parents. Daredevil’s dad. Green Lantern Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend. On and on it goes, these side characters’ deaths that are crucial to making our heroes who they are.
But what about superheroes themselves? They come back to life more often than anyone — and sometimes even (and rather annoyingly) switch loyalties when they do. Have there ever been superheroes that were killed forever? Dead for keeps, never to return? We can’t promise any of the following dead superheroes will never return, but they’ve all been gone for a long time, so the odds lean toward a permanent death.
15. Captain Marvel
Long before Carol Danvers took up the mantle of Captain Marvel, there was a man named Mar-Vell (cute, right?). Way back in 1968, Mar-Vell was a Kree warrior who was sent to Earth as a spy, but he came to love mankind, so he decided to stay and protect humanity. His solo series never caught on, despite a few revamps, though one of his greatest claims to fame is the introduction of Rick Jones (that guy who’s always somebody’s sidekick) within the pages of Captain Marvel.
The thing about Captain Marvel was that he was created not because the publisher needed another superhero, but because Stan Lee and Marvel’s braintrust wanted to trademark “Captain Marvel” to keep DC Comics from registering it for the Billy Batson character. When a comic book is created to settle a legal dispute, you can almost guarantee it’s going to fail.
Despite the contentious nature of his origin, Mar-Vell served with the Avengers off and on for years, assisting with various planet-sized crises, until Jim Starlin came up with a heartbreakingly beautiful end for the character. In Marvel’s first-ever original graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel came in 1980 thanks not to some otherworldly villain but from cancer. It was ground-breaking for the time, a poetic commentary on a real-life illness that was handled with uncommon dignity.
Various heroes took up the Captain Marvel moniker to keep that pesky copyright current until Ms. Marvel (whose own comic was a spinoff of Captain Marvel) decided to take on Mar-Vell’s former superhero name and serve in his stead.
14. Gertrude Yorks
It’s been a decade, but we’re still upset about this one.
Ten years ago, Marvel’s Runaways had successfully coalesced into a team of superpowered teenagers, not to mention a surrogate family unit. Brian K. Vaughan’s original comic series was a fan-favorite, and among its cast of characters, none was more beloved than Gertrude Yorks. Audiences immediately identified with the girl (and the genetically engineered dinosaur she was telepathically linked to) who used snarky humor to deflect attention from herself, while secretly longing for love.
So Vaughan killed her off. In the ultimate act of love, she died saving her boyfriend, Chase Stein, from the same fate. (Totally just realized: if Gert and Chase had ever gotten married, she would’ve been Gertrude Stein.) In issue #18 of Runaways‘ second volume, purple-haired, quick-witted Gert became the team’s first major casualty. Vaughan and Marvel had teased a Runaways death for months, but no one suspected it would be Gert. Nico or Chase, maybe. But Gert? No way would they lose her. The book just wouldn’t be the same without her cool intelligence, aloof commentary, and killer one-liners.
And it wasn’t. But there was plenty of drama, as every character was affected by Gert’s absence. Her death continued to resonate for as long as the series ran, but it was never quite the same without her.
You gotta love a guy who picks a superhero costume designed specifically to show off his six-pack.
Bill Foster was first known as Black Goliath after his debut way back in 1966, though the first part was dropped after a stint as Giant-Man — along with that unique costume. His overall career was short compared to other heroes who lived as long as he did, but he had a few memorable moments. Among them, marrying Claire Temple, the doctor played by Rosario Dawson on Netflix’s various Marvel series. He popped in and out of numerous titles over the years, usually aiding other heroes. He even had a five-issue solo series in 1976, but it’s widely accepted that while Goliath may have been an early attempt at comic book diversity, the character was ignored for too long to break any new ground.
Sadly, the most notorious moment of his career came on his 40th birthday, when he was killed during Civil War. The death once again highlighted Foster’s marginalization as a character, coming at the hands of Thor’s unstable clone, Ragnarok.
12. Abin Sur
Pink-skinned alien Abin Sur is known more for his death than his life. It was at the moment of his end, after crash-landing on Earth, that his Green Lantern power ring chose Sur’s successor: the greatest Lantern of all time, Hal Jordan.
Many tales have been told of his exploits in life, most notably his discovery of the Blackest Night prophecy. Which is ironic when you remember that Abin Sur was one of the deceased who were reanimated as a Black Lantern when the prophecy came true.
Elsewhere, he encountered Starman (more on him later) during World War II, as well as an adventure with Martian Manhunter. After death, his ghost advised Hal Jordan during the time when Jordan served as the Spectre. In the Flashpoint timeline, Abin Sur never died, and eventually became the White Lantern.
11. Elongated Man
Life was once great for Ralph Dibny. After developing unique stretching abilities circa 1960 from a chemically-complex soft drink, he became a sidekick to Flash, married his sweetheart Sue, and eventually joined the Justice League. In his solo adventures, he was a detective skilled enough to challenge Batman’s acumen.
And then around 2004, Ralph’s life started to suck. That was when novelist Brad Meltzer brought readers Identity Crisis, an intelligent, psychological thriller that’s credited with changing the tone of the DC universe into a darker place. Ralph lost his beloved wife Sue (who was pregnant, no less) to a murderer that turned out to be another superhero’s wife. The rarity that was Ralph and Sue’s stable relationship was torn apart, sending Ralph into a dangerous spiral.
Ralph was killed near the end of DC’s first-ever weekly series, 52, by the demon Neron. In so doing, he was reunited with Sue in the afterlife. The two went on to have a few adventures as ghosts, even gaining the ability to possess others at one point. Elongated Man was retconned along with everything else in the DC universe at the end of Flashpoint, but the case could be made that the Ralph Dibny that appears in the New 52 is a wholly different character.
Getting into the history of anyone with a Hawk- at the beginning of their name is an exercise in madness. Many a Golden Age or Silver Age superhero has multiple backstories; it’s a given at this point that the cycle of retcons and reinventions will change a character’s history, updating them to keep fresh with the times. But Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and Hawkwoman are a unique case, because their history is convoluted to an insane degree — and not only because multiple individuals have used the names Hawkgirl and Hawkwoman.
The superhero in question here is Shayera Thal, a law enforcement officer from the planet Thanagar. When Shayera and her partner, Katar Hol, came to Earth, they fell in love and became heroes to the people of Chicago. Things went okay for them for a while, but Shayera retired when a “Hawk God” made Katar its avatar. Which was just as weird as it sounds.
9. Scarlet Spider
These days, everybody knows that if a clone of a major character is introduced, that clone is going to have a limited lifespan. They’re a plot complication that won’t survive the story they’re a part of.
But back in 1975, a clone of a popular hero was a novelty. Originally written as a one-off, Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly returned almost 20 years later in the now-infamous “Clone Saga,” in the guise of the Scarlet Spider. The Clone Saga involved Peter being tricked into believing that he was the clone and Ben was the original, while at the same time Peter’s wife MJ found out she was pregnant. Peter decided to retire from crimefighting, so Ben could become the new Spider-Man.
It was all a hoax of course, and before long Peter returned to web-slinging and wall-crawling. But there were two Spider-Men in New York for a very short time, as Norman Osborn reared his ugly head once more and put Ben Reilly in his sights. Setting one of his trademark elaborate traps, he subjected Ben to a vicious beating and an impossible task that found him protecting others from a bomb blast, having his spine broken by a Goblin Glider, and falling from a building onto a taxi.
8. The Question
A Steve Ditko creation for Charlton Comics, the Question, aka Vic Sage, was always a second or third-tier character. A detective without any superpowers, what made him unique was his “Pseudoderm” mask, made of an artificial skin substance that blanked out his facial features but still allowed him to see, speak, and breathe. Charlton was eventually acquired by DC Comics, and all of its characters became part of the DC universe.
DC gave Vic Sage (“visage,” get it?) his own series and a new modus operandi. After honing his martial arts skills and picking up a Zen-like attitude, the Question’s comic focused on philosophical principles, which were illustrated via its storylines. The Question took on some anti-hero qualities as time went on, such as a willingness to kill villains that he felt deserved to die.
Unlike most deaths in the pages of comic books, Vic’s end was not a surprise. It was a key part of the story of 52, in which he revealed to former police detective Renee Montoya that he was dying of cancer, and groomed her to take his place. Renee tried her best to save him, but Vic’s fate was sealed, and he passed away late in the weekly series. Renee inherited his belongings, including the Pseudoderm face mask, and began a career as the new Question.
You could argue that Vic’s death was retconned by the New 52, but the two (yes, two) versions of Vic Sage seen in the rebooted universe bare almost no resemblance to the original Question. So we believe the original Vic is still dead.
7. The Atom
Golden Age hero Al Pratt was one of the founders off the Justice Society of America (JSA), tracing his origins way back to 1940 — where he was one of the few heroes bold enough to run around in a bare-legged costume. He had some adventures during World War II, and married his sweetheart early in his career. He was reinterpreted a few times over the years, functioning as a traveler between dimensions and college professor at one point.
After Crisis on Infinite Earths, he and the JSA made a comeback as aging heroes who sought to pass on their knowledge and experience to a new generation. It was here that Vandal Savage learned that Al and his wife Mary were expecting a child, and plotted to steal the kid and murder Mary. (The kid turned out okay. Mostly.) Al stuck with the JSA but was forever changed by his grief.
Al met his demise during Zero Hour at the hands of Extant, an evil version of Hank Hall, who had once been the superhero Hawk. Extant was working with Parallax, aka Green Lantern Hal Jordan when he was evil, to remake the universe the way they wanted it to be. When the JSA attacked, Atom attacked Extant and was killed instantly by the villain’s energy blast.
6. Eric O’Grady
Also known as “the irredeemable Ant-Man,” Eric O’Grady was a very different version of the classic shrinkster as created by Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead). He was… well, he wasn’t really a hero, or even much of an antihero. He was a scoundrel, a swindler, and a thief, interested only in helping himself, and he first did this by stealing the Ant-Man armor from S.H.I.E.L.D. custody.
He never quite became the better person he eventually strived to be, though he did increase in skill. Stints in the Initiative, the Thunderbolts, and the Secret Avengers rounded off a few of his rough edges, but he never lost his worst habits, such as using his shrinking ability for watching women undress.
Eric finally defied his “irredeemable” name in death by protecting a child during a conflict alongside the Secret Avengers. O’Grady made the ultimate sacrifice in 2012, finally living up to the potential that Hank Pym and Steve Rogers had seen in him over the years.
The original hero known as Wildcat was Ted Grant, a champion boxer who donned the blue tights to fight crime. He had no superpowers to speak of, just an affinity for brawling, though Zatara at one point granted him the “nine lives” of his namesake. This was later expanded to an “endless cycle” of nine lives, effectively making it possible for Ted to live forever.
The second Wildcat was Yolanda Montez, Grant’s goddaughter. When Ted was injured during Crisis on Infinite Earths, Yolanda took up the mantle to carry on the fight in his place. Unlike Ted, Yolanda was an actual metahuman, possessing the acrobatic qualities of a cat along with retractable claws. She was a member of Infinity Inc., and later joined the Shadow Fighters to take on Eclipso.
Sadly, this second team was woefully unprepared for their fight, as the supervillain slayed most of the team with ease, including Yolanda Montez. A completely different version of Montez has more recently been seen in the pages of Earth 2, where she had similar abilities but never bore the name Wildcat. Instead, she became known as the “Avatar of the Red.”
4. Jean Grey
Technically speaking, Jean Grey of the X-Men has died twice. The first was in the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” when she was overtaken by a powerful cosmic force and had to sacrifice her own life to save the universe. That was later retconned so that Jean survived and never actually threatened the universe at all, but it was absolutely the writers’ intention that she died in the Dark Phoenix storyline.
The second time, which has yet to be retconned, was at the end of Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men. After the mutant Xorn revealed himself to be Magneto (which was later retconned, don’t get us started) and decimated New York, Jean went into battle against him alongside the X-Men. They succeeded in stopping “Magneto” but not before he released an electromagnetic pulse that killed Jean.
She briefly returned a short time later to help the Phoenix Force, which had been splintered into pieces by a Shi’ar warship. But it was just a temporary resurrection, as Jean was gone once more after the Phoenix was restored. She has yet to return again, though a younger version of Jean was brought forward in time and has been hanging out in the Marvel universe alongside the other five original X-Men.
Ted Knight is something of an oddity, in that his life wasn’t cut tragically short like so many others. Knight was allowed to live a long, full life, dying at an older age yet still sacrificing himself heroically.
Starman was powered by a cosmic rod, which allowed him to fly, create force-fields, energy blasts, and more — all very similar to the power ring of a Green Lantern. He’s so named because the cosmic rod got its power by feeding off the energy that reached Earth from distant stars. Ted joined the Justice Society, and operated out of Opal City, where he defended its citizens against villains like Dr. Phosphorous and the Mist.
He eventually passed off the cosmic rod to his estranged son Jack, after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis. Despite this, it wasn’t the terrible disease that claimed his life. In the end, he took on the Mist one last time, as the villain enacted a plan to blow up Opal City. To save his hometown, Ted used a variant cosmic rod to teleport himself, Mist, the bomb, and part of a government building high into the air, where the bomb could detonate harmlessly — aside from that little technicality of killing himself and Mist.
2. The Ancient One
The forthcoming Doctor Strange movie posits that the “Ancient One” is a title that passes from one person to the next, with the current “One” being a female Celt played by Tilda Swinton. But for our purposes, we’re referring to the original from the comics. The 580+ year old Ancient One was the Sorcerer Supreme, the Tibetan master of the mystic arts who taught Stephen Strange to follow in his footsteps.
For centuries, the Ancient One protected our dimension from magical incursions, his influence weaving in and out of history. One of his most spectacular battles was with the demonic entity Dormammu, which in the Marvel universe was at least partially responsible for the Great London Fire of 1666.
The Ancient One died during a battle with a creature called Shuma-Gorath, who attempted to enter our dimension through the Ancient One’s own mind. (It’s a thing.) With Strange’s help, the villain was thwarted, but the cost was the Ancient One’s physical body. Which, incidentally, allowed Strange to become the new Sorcerer Supreme. Being all mystical has its benefits, though, as the Ancient One continued to appear to Strange as a ghost, offering assistance however he could.
If Guillermo del Toro’s excellent films are your only exposure to Hellboy, you’ve missed quite a lot.
The ultimate working-man hero — who happens to exist in a demon’s body — met his prophesied demise in mid-2011, after battling otherworldly evils for seventeen years. His mythology was steeped in demonic lore, heavy philosophy, and (surprisingly) Arthurian legend, but Hellboy’s end was always inevitable no matter what, since he was destined to rule over Hell. The big red guy was given a fitting sendoff, (barely) preventing the end of the world by defeating a mighty dragon. The battle cost him his mortal life.
Unlike most others on this list, death did not spell the end for Hellboy. He never returned to life; rather, his adventures continued in Hell. Creator Mike Mignola had always had this in mind for the character, and in late 2012, Hellboy’s story continued in the pages of Hellboy in Hell, for the next four years.
In June 2016, Hellboy’s adventures ended properly, with the conclusion of Hellboy in Hell. He takes on the full demonic form he was always meant to have — wings, horns, and all — and in a way, finds the home he’d always been searching for.