12 Tried-and-True Methods for Achieving Immortality (or the Next Best Thing) in the Comic-Book Universe
1. Possess a really, really awesome set of genes.
If you have to ask why immortality is so common to find in the comic-book universe, then you obviously haven’t been around a lot of humans. Our tendency to shuffle off mortal coils and our fear of what lies beyond makes immortality a particularly attractive offer for many folks, so it’s no surprise to see that wish reflected in our four-color wish-fulfillment figures. The best way to achieve immortality? To paraphrase Woody Allen, “not dying” is the best option — and many comic characters achieve that simply by being born with the right stuff. Take the fellow known as Wolverine to friends and victims alike — as detailed in his Origins mini-series (and his 2009 feature film), he began life in Canada’s Northwest in the late 1800s. Traumatized at an early age by family tragedy and awareness of his freakish nature, he spent most of the 20th century traveling the world as a soldier of fortune until he joined Charles Xavier’s band of mutant adventurers. At first, his accelerated healing power was limited to allowing him to recover from wounds faster than normal, but writers have since amped his powers up to the point where he is now practically immortal, and nothing less than complete disintegration of all his cells can kill him. Which is… damnably disturbing to contemplate, but cool nonetheless.
2. Help yourself to one hell of a drug plan.
Back during Marvel’s 1960s heyday, someone decided to add a war title to the rapidly growing lineup, and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, starring a give-’em-hell soldier and his unorthodox unit, was the result. Later, to cash in on the superspy craze started by James Bond and the Avengers TV series, Marvel updated Nick Fury’s résumé and named him the head of the espionage agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D. As the years passed, it started to strain credulity that a man who stormed the beach at Normandy while in his 30s would still be in top fighting form during the Carter administration, so his writers came up with the idea of having the wartime Fury injected with the Infinity Formula, a top-secret concoction that severely slows down the aging process. (The Nick Fury in Marvel’s Ultimate universe was also an unwilling test subject during World War II, but for the project that would eventually create Captain America; being black and a military prisoner, Fury’s right not to have a potentially dangerous and untested super-soldier serum pumped into his veins was never a consideration in those more racist times.) Meanwhile, the extremely advanced age of Doom Patrol arch-villain General Immortus has been credited to his regular imbibing of a highly secretive alchemical potion, and it’s only because he lost the ancient formula (d’oh!) that he came out of hiding to force scientific genius and future Doom Patrol founder Niles Caulder to re-create it. Okay, losing your keys or a phone number I can understand, but misplacing the recipe for the stuff that keeps you immortal? Dude deserved to get his ancient butt kicked by a robot.
3. See that big asteroid over there? Get closer and take a good whiff of it.
Sad to say, resilient genes and ancient life-preserving formulas are hard to come by for average folks like you and me, and a little something extra — perhaps even extra-terrestrial — is needed to give ordinary people a leg up in the longevity sweepstakes. Call it the “being in the right place at the right time” method to achieving long life, something Vandal Savage could explain quite well. First introduced as a foe of the Golden Age Green Lantern, Savage started life as Vandar Adg, leader of the Cro-Magnon Blood Tribe around 50,000 B.C. Radiation from a meteorite that crashed near his location altered his body and mind, giving him a genius-level intellect and immortality. (In the 1960s, DC introduced another character, The Immortal Man, as a nemesis for Savage who was also present when that meteorite fell to Earth.) Blessed with an abundance of time and severe lack of scruples, Savage has entertained himself through the millennia by ruling hundreds of civilizations under various names, including Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Vlad the Impaler, or by acting as a close advisor to the likes of Napoleon, Bismarck and Hitler. Brutal stuff, but give the man credit — at least he keeps himself busy.
4. Who needs a course in Biology when you can just take Shop?
Our bodies are amazing products of nature, no question, but their tendency to break down make them unreliable vessels for those interested in a long-term solution for cheating death. But if you’re not that attached to the pleasures of the flesh, science has the answer! The Doom Patrol’s Robotman (who’s more of an android, given he’s a human brain inside an artificial body) survived a massive explosion that killed the rest of his team and other assorted perils over the years, thanks to his extremely durable body. Other, more fully artificial beings, like the Avengers’ Vision or the Justice League’s Red Tornado, have also been disassembled or damaged several times over their careers, only to bounce back with a reboot or a quick visit to the body shop every time the world needs saving again. And then there’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. agent Anthony “NoMan” Dunn (seen here), a dying scientist who placed his consciousness inside an artificial body and then built multiple backups that he could transfer himself into if anything happened to the body he was using at the time. That’s the kind of forward thinking that a guy who’s committed to the idea of living a long time needs, General Immortus.
5. Do you believe in magic? No, really, do you?
At the end of the scale opposite from science, we have magic, that all-purpose “a wizard did it” explanation behind anything wacky that comic writers want to put into their stories. Potions, charms, enchantments, mystical talismans — it’s all good for ensuring a long-lasting life. One of my favorite examples of someone magically defying death is Mordred, son of the villainous-yet-extremely-maternal Morgaine Le Fey in DC’s animated universe. In the Justice League episode titled “Kids’ Stuff” (original airdate 8/14/2004), viewers learned that Le Fey once cast a spell of eternal youth on her son to keep him from aging through the centuries (she herself stays young by mystically draining the life force of others, as demonstrated in another Justice League episode). Naturally, spending eternity as a spoiled mama’s boy just on the cusp of puberty turns him into a bit of a prat, and so he banishes all adults to a limbo dimension the first chance he gets. This sets the stage for a gloriously fun episode in which members of the Justice League are magically reverted to their prepubescent selves to stop Mordred — and a tragic ending in which, by breaking his mother’s enchantments, Mordred accidentally turns himself into a frail old man. The moral: magic always comes with a price.
6. Not much of a morning person? Consider vampirism.
Folklore is full of supernatural beings who possess special powers that render them all but immortal. Vampires are the most obvious example: once human, vampires are those unfortunate souls who become immortal thanks to the not-so-tender mercies of other vampires in search of a midnight nibble. Depending on which fictional accounts you prefer, their status as members of the undead leaves them vulnerable to sunlight, wooden stakes, silver, crucifixes and/or garlic… but if you manage to avoid all those things, you get to spend eternity indulging in all kinds of earthly pleasures. From Buffy to True Blood to the Twilight franchise, modern-day pop culture offers up plenty of vampires doing just that; in the comic books, some of the more famous ones include Blade, the half-vampire vampire slayer whose powers come from a vampire biting his mother just as she was giving birth; and Count Dracula himself, who starred in Marvel’s fondly remembered Tomb of Dracula series during the 1970s. Later, a storyline in the Doctor Strange comics saw an ancient spell destroy all vampires, but that didn’t last too long… which isn’t too surprising, considering how hard it is to keep normal people dead in the Marvel universe.
7. Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste…
Those with a taste for eternity but unable to find a solution on their own still have a few options to consider; sometimes, it’s just a matter of asking the right supernatural being for a favor. A “deal with the devil” is a common way for folks in comic books to come by all sorts of powers or advantages in life, and it doesn’t have to be a literal devil granting the boon, either. First introduced in DC’s 1989 Hawk & Dove series, little is known about the mysterious man known as Barter, other than he is an extremely long-lived fellow who deals strictly in the barter system, offering anything to anyone willing to trade something equally significant in return. In his place of business, which can be magically accessed by walking through any door, you’re likely to find items of great power on shelves next to bottles labelled “love” and “immortality” — and it’s not hard to imagine Barter using his connections to procure his own personal supply of the latter. On a less sinister note, an Englishman by the name of Hob Gadling once told his drinking buddies that death is a “mug’s game” and he plans to stay alive forever simply by refusing to accept death when it comes for him (“Men of Good Fortune,” The Sandman #13, 02/90). Though his boast earns him a good-natured ribbing from his friends, he was overheard by Dream and Death, who just happened to be frequenting the 14th-century English pub at the time. At Dream’s request, Death agreed to leave Gadling alone, and Gadling and Dream then proceed to meet once every 100 years to discuss the pros and cons of life as an immortal. For starters, it doesn’t take long for you to realize how repetitive all bar conversations tend to sound after a while…
8. Hard to not be immortal if you were never mortal in the first place, dig?
Speaking of Dream. There is a whole group of characters in the comic business who enjoy immortality by skipping the whole “mortal” part altogether. Dream, Death and the other members of the Endless introduced in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series are good examples; existing above even the gods, each one embodies a powerful force in the universe, such as desire or despair, that will exist as long as there as mortals alive to give them form. On a similar note, the characters in DC/Vertigo’s Fables series are able to live extremely long lives because they are the physical manifestations of characters from folklore and fairy tales; while some cast members have died over the course of the series, it has been established that those characters don’t stay dead if they are still popular in the stories told by those of us living in the “mundy” world. This is illustrated by the fact that Bigby, the Fable who is the personification of the Big Bad Wolf in several popular tales, is virtually impossible to kill, no matter how many times someone tries to do it. It’s also why Rose Red spent a long time resenting her sister, Snow White, a far more well-known fairy-tale character — it’s bad enough being an immortal knowing that someone else is even more immortal than you are, just because they’re more popular.
9. What if, instead of watching your body waste away, you could, like, exist outside your body? Did I just blow your mind, man?
It’s a basic law of physics: energy can neither be created nor destroyed, just transferred from one form to another. So why not do away with the unreliable fleshy parts of yourself and exist solely as pure energy? Here in the real world, we’ve yet to figure out how to separate our consciousness from our physical forms, but there are no such restrictions in the worlds of science fiction. Wildfire, a member of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, started out as an astrophysics students whose body was destroyed in an experiment, but his consciousness lived on. His only weakness is that his form tends to dissipate quickly without a containment shell, which usually takes the form of a full-length bodysuit designed to give him a humanoid appearance. Legionnaires hail from many different planets, and it’s very plausible that some of them will enjoy long lives because of their unique physiologies — but only Wildfire has a valid expectation of immortality, mainly because physiology is something that doesn’t matter much to him anymore.
10. Yeah, we tried mortality for a while. Got old fast. We’re more into omniscience now.
Comic books are full of characters that defy aging and death simply by being better at it than everyone else. Into this group you can bunch all the gods and advanced beings who are so advanced they may as well be considered gods by the rest of us. The Guardians of the Universe, the little blue-skinned beings who created the Green Lantern Corps to fight evil, are the remaining members of the first sentient race to arise after the Big Bang; billions of years of evolution brought them to the point where they are essentially immortal (although they can be killed, as seen in a few storylines in which their deaths were needed to kick-start the proceedings). Similarly, the Marvel universe is host to several races and collections of long-lived beings, including the Elders of the Universe, survivors of long-extinct races whose fanatical pursuit of their individual obsessions and possession of cosmic powers make them immune to the ravages of time. Then of course there are the aptly named Eternals, a race of enhanced humans that enjoy very long lives thanks to alien geneticists tampering with the DNA of their prehistoric ancestors. And then you’ve got the Asgardians, the Amazons, the Olympians, the New Gods of Apokolips and New Genesis… come to think, it might be easier to list all the comic characters who aren’t members of pantheons or advanced alien races.
11. What, you wanted to be immortal and awake to enjoy it? Make up your mind, man!
Does it count if the way in which you achieve immortality means giving up the ability to enjoy it? As anyone who has watched the original Alien movie (or the Star Trek episode that introduced Khan Noonien Singh and his followers) can tell you, suspended animation is one way in which many fictional characters have enjoyed the benefits of a long life, albeit not a very active one for the better part of it. Sometimes, though, an individual may not have a choice in the matter. When Dr. Victor Fries realized his wife, Nora, was terminally ill, he placed her in a state of cryogenic suspension, planning to revive her once a cure for her disease was found. Alas, an accident involving his experiments turned Fries into the notorious Mister Freeze, and his efforts to cure and revive his wife often took a back seat to his insane desire to entomb Gotham City in a glacier, or some such scheme. For a guy who’s always going on about how unemotional he is, he’s quite the drama queen, isn’t he?
12. Does it count if someone can get killed, but for only like a minute at a time?
“Comic book death” is such a cliche at this point that the phrase merits its own Wikipedia entry, and comic writers often can’t resist giving their characters dialogue that mocks the whole idea of death being a permanent thing for their kind. Some characters take it one step further and become super-powered beings precisely because they can’t be killed. The aptly named Mister Immortal first appeared in the pages of Avengers West Coast as a member of the Great Lakes Avengers, a group of slightly unimpressive heroes eager to get in on the franchise. Immortal’s shtick is that he literally can’t be put down; as soon as his body reaches the point of death, it repairs itself and returns to life. Similarly, DC’s Resurrection Man and Multi-Man (an early foe of the Challengers of the Unknown) can both be killed, but every death is followed by a resurrection that imbues both gentlemen with a completely new set of super powers (a quirk that was brutally and hilariously exploited when one of DC’s resident anti-heroes kept killing Resurrection Man over and over again to access the right super power needed in the moment). Personally, it’s not the route I’d choose to achieve immortality, since the whole point of being immortal is to skip the whole dying thing in the first place. Plus, if you ever do tire of living, it would be nice to know that you at least have the option to get off the cosmic treadmill, instead of constantly coming back as a telepath or firestarter or master juggler or whatever. And let’s not even mention how much that “Ob-La-Di” Beatles song will really bug you after a while…