18 Tried-and-True Methods for Bringing a Declared Dead Comic-Book Character Back to Life
“Don’t you people ever die?” rages Toad in the 2000 X-Men movie, and his frustration is understandable. “Comic-book death” — the inability of any comic-book character to stay dead, despite all evidence to the contrary — is enough of a cliché to merit its own Wikipedia entry. And for the most part it stems from this method, which is highly favored by comic writers both good and bad. Whether it’s a villain who apparently plunges to his death, seemingly perishes in an explosion, or ostensibly gets lost at sea, you can bet he’ll be back in a few issues if there’s no body for the hero to find. The Joker, especially in his early years, was the master of this type of “resurrection,” eluding Batman and the authorities numerous times by simply falling off a cliff or stepping in front of a train… or appearing to do so.
2. “Sure, there was a body… just not one of mine.”
The hero rushes into a warehouse. Moments later, it’s a fiery inferno. Later, a charred corpse is discovered. Surely, it can be no one other than our fallen hero. But wait! Our hero is alive, and the corpse just happened to be some unlucky vagabond in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, this literary crutch is well known to any soap opera fan or comic book fan (who have a lot more in common than either are willing to admit, I’d bet), mostly because it provides the dramatic tension that comes with presenting an actual body. Not as common these days because of advances in forensics and whatnot, but still an option for any writer on a deadline.
3. “Your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.”
Most children of the ‘80s will recognize that line from The Princess Bride, a movie in which a wizened Billy Crystal lectures the hero’s friends on the difference between “dead” and “mostly dead.” Dead is dead and there ain’t much you can do about that, so instead the character is put into a state near death… only to revive sometime later at a dramatically opportune time. A prime example is the Spider-Man clone; in Amazing Spider-Man #149, Peter Parker watches his clone “die” and places the body in an incinerator to avoid any awkward questions about a Peter Parker corpse littering the streets. But as readers would later learn some 20 years later during the infamous Spider-Clone Saga, Parker would have seen his clone wake up and crawl to safety if he had just waited a few minutes longer. Yet another reason why New Yorkers should be grateful Parker never added “paramedic” to his list of career options.
4. “Clones! Lousy, freakin’ $^&!@#! clones!”
Speaking of which. As every true comic fan knows, just about any high school biology teacher or college professor in Comic-Book Land can whip up a clone in his school’s lab without breaking a sweat, so it really shouldn’t be at all surprising to learn that, say, a super-villain’s backup plan involved getting his mad scientist lackey to transfer his consciousness into a cloned body if the villain’s original body should ever give up the ghost. That’s pretty much how it worked for the Red Skull, who didn’t have the benefit of being frozen in ice for decades like his arch-nemesis, Captain America. So, after staging one final battle with his arch-nemesis and dying in Cap’s arms, the Skull is reborn – with a body cloned from the DNA of his most hated rival! Dun dun DUN!
5. “Yes, it was me in that exploding blimp, but the other me. You know, the one who was visiting from Dimension X!”
Want to give your readers the thrill of seeing a beloved character die and still keep those film options open? No problem – just introduce the hero’s twin from Earth-2, or the Nexus Dimension, or some other plane of existence where we can kill off as many carbon copies of hero that we want and still keep the hero on the “real” Earth safe. Or alternately, dispatch the hero on the “real” Earth and then introduce an other-dimensional counterpart to pick up where the original left off. For a variation on the “parallel world” excuse, it’s hard to beat a story by Jay Faerber in one of his Noble Causes storylines. In brief, a woman who saw her husband obliterated by an energy beam during their honeymoon rather conveniently ends up on a parallel world almost exactly like the one she came from… except that on this world, her husband was the one grieving over her death. Neither was the person that they had lost, but they were happy to be “reunited” once again.
6. “Um… and you were somehow surprised by this turn of events?”
Under this category you can list all the characters whose entire modus operandi is dying and coming back to life. Aside from your supernatural characters (your zombies and vampires and the like), you can include here such notable characters as Multi-Man (a DC villain who gets a new superpower every time he comes back from the dead), Mitchell Shelley (a.k.a. the Resurrection Man, with similar powers), and Marvel’s Mr. Immortal, whose name pretty much says it all. You can also include the conceptual beings that don’t follow the same rules as us mere mortals; in Bill Willingham’s sublime Fables series, it’s often mentioned that a fairy tale character’s ability to come back from the dead is directly related to the popularity of the character’s stories among humans.
7. “All right, who’s got Brainy’s backup disk?”
This is a great line delivered by Bouncing Boy from an episode of the “Legion of Super Heroes” animated series at the precise moment that a distraught Superman is holding the lifeless body of his comrade. Shortly before going into battle, Brainiac 5 gives Superman something to hold on to if he doesn’t make it out alive. Smart move – being an artificial being, Brainy can come back as many times as he likes, as long as there’s some piece of him stored on a disk. In a similar vein, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents comic series of the 1960s featured Noman, an android whose shtick was avoiding termination by constantly transferring his mind into an endless line of android bodies. Bottom line: if he’s a character that comes with a factory warranty, he’s coming back.
8. “Sure, I may look different, but up here [taps forehead] I’m still your love muffin, baby.”
This one’s a common method for the psychics of the world – as soon as your body is in imminent peril, just send your consciousness out into another body that’s a little more likely to see the next sunrise. The mind inhabiting the second body may or may not be aware of the hitchhiking brain pattern; that’s up to the writer to decide. Trekkers will recall the concept of katra that helped Spock survive from events at the end of Wrath of Khan; meanwhile, Dr. Doom survived at least one fatal confrontation by transferring his mind into that of an innocent bystander who just happened to be nearby when Doom’s body bit the dust. And the Fantastic Four didn’t suspect a thing until the guy’s wife showed up at their headquarters to ask them if they knew why he would suddenly develop a German accent and haughty attitude.
9. “It’s called deus ex machina, Skippy. Or, as it’s known around my house, ‘pulling a miracle out of someone’s ass.’”
So, you’re a hotshot writer and you’ve been given the challenge of reviving a character that absolutely, unequivocally met his maker in full, four-colour fashion for the whole world to see. You could come up with some far-out explanation like clones or other-dimensional twins… but why go through all that fuss when you can just have God (or a reasonable facsimile) snap His fingers and make everything right again? It’s how DC revived Oliver Queen after he perished in a mid-air explosion over Metropolis, and how Jason Todd found himself back among the respirating (albeit with a major chip on his shoulder) almost 20 years after readers voted to off the punk. As you can see, this option can have mixed results at best.
10. “But… we saw you die! How can you be alive… unless the one who died was actually someone who looked just like you?”
“Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary story! This is for REAL!” So screams the cover of X-Men #42, which promised readers the death of Professor X, going so far as to show his crumpling form in silhouette. So naturally, there can be no doubt whatsoever that our humble mentor is truly done for, right? Actually… no. As readers later discovered, the real Professor X was alive and well; it was a mutant with the power to assume his exact likeness who perished in his stead. Not a clone! Not a dimensional counterpart! Not an imaginary friend! Just someone with the power to assume someone else’s exact likeness… and if you need to ask how common it is to come across someone like that in Comic-Book Land, then you obviously haven’t been here very long.
11. “It’s magic!”
Or, “A wizard did it.” Who needs some fancy excuse for bringing back the dead when you can just have someone wave a magic wand and make everything all better? Your better writers will naturally balk at turning their resident magic-users into revolving doors between here and the afterlife, for the obvious reason that most superhero stories need at least a passing acquaintance with the concept of mortal peril to create some drama, and readers will quickly grow bored if every death can be unmade with a few choice words or mystical potion. Still, magic can have its uses – witness the Lazarus Pits employed by Ra’s al-Ghul, a Batman foe who has lived many centuries thanks to a rejuvenating dip in one of several pits he keeps stashed around the world. I’m including this one under “magic” because (as best as I can recall) there has never been a plausible explanation for why these pits are able to restore youth and life to the old and expired… and why no one else on the planet ever seems to accidentally discover them.
12. “It’s science!”
Blame Mary Shelley if you must; ever since her gruesome little tome came out, writers have gone down the science road time and again to explain the return of the recently departed. And thanks to modern science, you don’t even have to go traipsing through a graveyard in search of spare parts anymore – why, your nearly dead character will be as good as new once his new cyborg body is up and running! And sometimes you don’t even need a Ph.D. in robotics to accomplish the feat – just have a bunch of your friends stand around you and hoist lightning rods to the sky in the hopes of reviving your lifeless corpse, as what happened to Lightning Lad back in oh-so-innocent days of Adventure Comics, circa 1963. It’s not just science – it’s 30th-century science!
13. “Well, technically I’m dead, but I prefer the term ‘aerobically impaired.'”
There is an entire subcategory of comic-book characters for whom dying was actually a positive career move. Deadman, the Spectre, the Grim Ghost, the Gentleman Ghost, Young Justice’s Secret, Dark Horse’s imaginatively named Ghost… their physical bodies may have met the clinical definition of death, but for whatever reason (sometimes a deus ex machina, as in the case of Deadman or the Spectre) their spirits haven’t made the journey across to the other side. As a result, they get to “come back” and involve themselves in earthly affairs without the hassles of, say, flossing.
14. “Yes, I died, but that was the ‘old’ me of 47 hours from now. I’m actually the me from 13 days ago, sent here to help you finish the mission!”
Time travellers represent a special breed of death defiers, otherwise known as “the kind that can really give you a headache trying to figure everything out.” Try this on for size: A few years back, writer Mark Waid used the time travel excuse to bring back Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash who ran his last race many years before. The current Flash, Wally West, later figured out “Barry” was actually Professor Zoom, the speedster criminal from the future. He never assumed that was possible because Barry had killed Zoom years earlier… but (are you still following me here?) the story made it clear that time travellers don’t always travel back in time in a linear line. That is, Zoom’s “first” appearance in the past was actually his encounter with Wally West, and all his encounters with Barry Allen still lay in his future… which was in West’s past. Actually, just buy the trade paperback – Waid is the kind of writer who knows how to make that all sound logical. The point is, all bets are off when time travellers get involved.
15. “Whoa, who knew I could do THAT?”
Star Trek fans might remember “Ethics,” an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which a paralyzed Worf chooses a risky operation to walk again – only to die on the operating table. But wait! Just as Dr. Crusher is noting the time of death, all his vital signs start up again, thanks to the redundancies built into his body’s systems that back up even his neural functions. Trek fans knew Klingons were a tough bunch, but this was the first time anyone in the Trek universe ever mentioned this “superpower” that all Klingons possessed. It’s sometimes happens in the comics, too – a hero survives a seemingly lethal blow thanks to some aspect of his powers that no one ever knew about or considered before. Kind of like what happened during that whole “Death of Superman” storyline a few years back.
16. “Satan, baby – let’s talk.”
Similar to the “Act of God” excuse for bringing a hero back, this one involves supernatural beings of a different stripe. Spawn is the classic example here; as a mercenary who earned his way into Hell, he convinces a demon to send him back to Earth to finish his earthly business, but of course there are a few strings attached to the deal. Not the recommended option for most heroes, but certainly one fast way to get back to the living if you’re not particular about your soul.
17. “It never happened, you hear me? Now let us never talk of this again.”
Ah, the retcon – teacher, mother, sacred lover. When you wield the power to write stories that reveal the events in previous stories didn’t go down exactly as readers saw them at the time – well, let’s just say that’s a pretty cool power to have. Crisis on Infinite Earths saw a lot of characters die in no uncertain terms, but since the whole point of the series was to “reboot” the DC Universe, no one blinked twice when updated versions of the same character started popping up everywhere. “Supergirl? Her? Dead? Never happened. Look, we’re only introducing her now for the first time. All those cute stories with her hanging out in an orphanage and playing with her Super-Horse? Must be some other hero you’re thinking about.”
18. “It’s really you, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”
This is probably the most heart-tugging way to bring a character back from the dead – making it so that no one, sometimes not even the character herself, seems to know if she is really back from the dead or not. Comic writers have often used the “is he or isn’t he” plot device as a way of drawing out the mystery surrounding a dead character’s apparent return. In the 1980s, for instance, shortly after Supergirl died, a masked character named “Sensor Girl” appeared as a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and it was strongly suggested she was Supergirl in disguise (spoiler alert: she wasn’t). A more poignant example is from the final episode of the “Teen Titans” animated series; Terra’s death is called into question after Beast Boy sees a girl who looks just like her and is convinced Terra somehow made it out of her final battle alive. The storyline never reveals whether she is Terra or, if it’s really her, whether she remembers her life with the Titans, or is just pretending she doesn’t so she can live a normal life. Either way, the meeting brings some measure of closure to Beast Boy, who now knows the girl he loved as Terra truly is “dead.”
Note: One other way to bring back the dead—having someone else carry on in the dead character’s name, as Harry Osborn did by taking on his father’s Green Goblin costume, or as Wally West did to honour the fallen Barry “Flash” Allen—is a bit of a cheat, since the original character is still dead. And since this list is focusing on the ways in which a character is brought back (in mind, body, or both) from the dead, I didn’t include this one as a possibility.
Think of any more? Let me know.