Look, superheroes die more often than soap opera characters and come back from the dead twice as often. But there are some truly meaningful and classic deaths in comic books.
Now, this list does contain spoilers for some of the best comics I've ever read, so caution is advised. POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR: Starman, The Vision, Hitman, Ex Machina, Chew, Southern Bastards, Astro City: Confession, and Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye, among others.
(X-Men, Marvel Comics)
The question here isn't "Why is Jean Grey on this list?" It’s "Which one of her deaths are we talking about?"
The answer is the first one. The X-Men were on their way home in a space shuttle after some space adventures, and they encountered horrible solar radiation. The cockpit wasn't shielded, so someone needed to sacrifice herself to pilot the ship down to earth. Jean volunteered, took in a massive amount of radiation, and crashed into the sea. As the other X-Men freaked out, thinking she'd died, a person who looked exactly like Jean – and said she was Jean – exploded from the water, calling herself Phoenix.
She used her Phoenix powers for quite a while before she started experiencing emotional issues. This was made worse when she was temporarily mind-controlled by Mastermind, who turned her into the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club. She broke free of this mind control, went super crazy, and became the Dark Phoenix, devouring a star and killing five million life forms.
She eventually killed herself to keep from ending any more lives.
19. Victor Mancha
(Runaways/The Vision, Marvel Comics)
Tom King and Gabriel Walta's The Vision is one of the best Marvel comics of the 21st century. It's short and to the point and haunting and beautiful. I LOVE it.
It gives a heartbreaking send-off to former Runaway Victor Mancha. Mancha was the offspring of the evil robot Ultron, and was destined to become an Avenger under the name Victorious, before he went crazy and killed them all. And Victor knew this was his destiny from the get-go. The kid joined up with the Runaways, and did his best to be a good person, hoping to avoid his evil fate. When The Vision began to act odd and built himself a family in Washington DC, The Avengers sent Mancha in to check up on and surveil the family, speculating that something bad was going on.
After greeting his "brother" The Vision, Mancha set up shop in the house across the street, where Vision's son Vin caught him. Mancha had been drugging himself with Vibranium for some time, and he lost control. He wound up accidentally killing the boy before The Avengers carted him away to prison. When Vision tracked his brother down, intending to murder him, his wife Virginia intervened and killed Victor first.
His last words? "I will not be Victorious."
18. Hal Jordan
(Green Lantern/Justice League of America, DC Comics)
Look, Hal Jordan is a decent character, but there's no reason for him to still be around. So when he went crazy, killed the other Green Lanterns, and started calling himself Parallax, it was a natural reason to write him out.
Unfortunately, they took forever to actually do that. But during Final Night – when the Sun-Eater devoured Earth's sun and doomed everyone to a slow, horrible death – Hal had a moderate change of heart and decided to go reignite the sun, killing himself. In death, he would eventually fuse his soul to The Spectre to stop God's angel of vengeance from throwing an "I'm so lonely" temper tantrum.
Years later, he came back to life, and it was revealed that Hal hadn’t turned evil and crazy. No, he was possessed by a giant evil Space Bug named Parallax who made him do all those things.
17. Ultimate Peter Parker
(Ultimate Spider-Man, Marvel Comics)
I grew up on Ultimate Spider-Man.
The first volume of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man run and the seventh volume of Ultimate Spider-Man (the one with the X-Men Crossover) were among my first comics. As such, I fell in love with Ultimate Peter Parker. And the Ultimate Spider-Man run is easily the best (or only good, really) Ultimate Universe comic.
Peter grew and changed and evolved as a character, to the point where he finally had his life together. And then came the Death of Spider-Man. After running himself ragged, Peter took a bullet for Captain America (well, Ultimate Captain America, so maybe he shouldn't have bothered), and then went home to take on the entire Sinister Six pretty much single handedly, before he died surrounded by friends and family, happy. In his final moments, he told Aunt May that he was happy because, though he wasn't able to save Uncle Ben, he did manage to save her.
I don't care who you are, that moment's a tearjerker.
16. Blue Beetle
(Justice League International, DC Comics)
The Blue Beetle is another secret favorite of mine, mostly spinning out of my intense love of Booster Gold. I have since gone back and read Ted's appearances in Justice League International, and even his original series, and it only made me love him more.
But Kord was always kind of thought of as a joke, but a brilliant one, at that. I mean, this is the man who coined BWAHAHA as a comic book term. He's a friggin' legend.
Ted met his tragic end in the pages of Countdown to Infinite Crisis, when he started to suspect something was up with his old buddy Max Lord. Ted went after him, and discovered that Max was uniting the forces of Checkmate and Brother EYE's OMAC Project to rid the world of superheroes. He asked Kord to join him, since Ted has no powers of his own, and therefore wouldn't be one of Max's targets. Ted responded, at gunpoint, with the immortal phrase, "Rot in hell, Max."
He was then promptly shot in the head.
(Ex Machina, Wildstorm)
Ex Machina is one of the most underrated comics of all time. Seriously, it is friggin' excellent, and no one ever talks about it.
The series follows Mitchell Hundred, mayor of New York City and former superhero The Great Machine who, in his world, stopped the second plane on 9/11.
He bankrolled that fame into a successful campaign for Mayor, and the series tracks his time in office. However, being in office means that he was retired from being a superhero, and his former mentor and current friend Ivan "Kremlin" Tereshkov really didn't like that. Kremlin spent much of the series trying to prod Mitchell out of the White House and back into the jet pack.
HUGE MAJOR SPOILERS FOR EX MACHINA NOW! PLEASE SKIP AHEAD IF YOU DON'T WANT TO SEE THEM. The last issue follows Mitchell's downfall as he made sacrifices and ill-advised deals to cement his campaign for president. When Kremlin threatened to tell everyone that Mitchell rigged his mayoral election (which may or may not be true), Mitchell begged him not to. Kremlin put the gun to his own head and threatened suicide, and Mitchell used his powers to make the gun fire, killing the closest thing to a father he’d ever known.
14. Starman (Ted Knight)
(JSA/Starman, DC Comics)
Starman is one of the best comics of all time, and for me, it’s among the top ten things DC's ever published.
And Ted Knight, the original Starman, was a character who went through many things over the course of that series, with a truly beautiful ending. Ted was in retirement by the time the comic book commenced, with his son Jack as the protagonist, but Ted stayed on as a father and mentor figure. Toward the end of the book, Ted was given terminal cancer by ex-Batman villain Dr. Phosphorus, and he knows he's going to die.
However, his old arch nemesis The Mist came out of retirement and threatened Opal City with a nuclear bomb. Ted used an enhanced gravity rod to lift Mist and his bomb – and himself – into low Earth orbit, and made peace with his nemesis before the bomb detonated.
And that was how Ted Knight, who was horrified by his own role in the invention of the original atomic bomb, saved his home from nuclear destruction.
13. Doom Patrol
(Doom Patrol, DC Comics)
The Doom Patrol was one of the best and most underrated DC Teams. Seriously, that original run of comics was friggin' amazing. Not, like, Metamorpho amazing, but really, truly great.
When they met their end, it resulted in a great comic book. Madame Rouge and Captain Zahl attacked the Doom Patrol in one big final assault, but the Doom Patrol fought back. Zahl revealed his master plan: He had hidden an explosive in a small fishing village in Maine called Codsville.
The town only had 14 residents, but the DP had a choice. They could either volunteer to be torpedoed and killed, or they could survive by letting the bomb go off, killing 14 innocent people. The Doom Patrol talked among themselves, and unanimously decided to sacrifice themselves to save that small town.
It was easily one of the best comic book deaths of all time, showing that to a real hero, every single innocent life was worth saving.
12. John Colby
(Chew, Image Comics)
Chew is a phenomenal comic book, with an honest and perfect ending that is both darkly funny and depressingly tragic. But in the second to last issue, the whole book pays off.
In the story, aliens came to earth and threatened the world with destruction as long as there was anyone on earth who had eaten chicken. Tony's wife sacrificed herself to create the solution: a manuscript whose effect was to kill every person on Earth with chicken in his or her system.
Tony refused to use it, knowing that it would kill millions of people. But his partner, John, knew that failing to use it would result in everyone on Earth dying. He pressured Tony into doing it, and when he did, John dropped to the ground. He’d eaten chicken for lunch that day. John knew full well that he was signing his own death warrant, but he still did what he thought was right to save everyone he could.
A selfish character's last unselfish move.
11. The Confessor
(Astro City, Vertigo)
Astro City is maybe the best overall comic book of all time. If you like superheroes and haven't read it, you truly need to.
The book's second trade, Confession, followed new Astro City resident Brian Kinney, who found himself recruited by the mysterious defender of the night, The Confessor. Brian was brought on as Altar Boy, and learned how to fight crime in the city’s Shadow Hill neighborhood, where the monsters dwelt.
HUGE SPOILERS! DON'T KEEP READING UNLESS YOU WANT THIS RUINED FOR YOU! However, The Confessor had a deep dark secret. He was a vampire. Yup, that was where his spooky superpowers came from. But when there was an attempt to governmentally register magic heroes, and Confessor went on the run, Brian discovered that the whole thing was masterminded by shape-shifting aliens. Aliens who knew Confessor's secrets. And used them to kill him.
But not before he exposed their true identities, and set Brian up to become the new man of the night. The second Confessor!
10. Earl Tubb
(Southern Bastards, Image Comics)
The first volume of Southern Bastards plays a pretty solid trick on the audience.
It presents a basic story of a man coming back to his hometown to find it decrepit and crime ridden. So he tried to clean it up and…was beaten to death, because he wasn't the real main character. Earl Tubb was the fake-out protagonist who lulled readers into a false sense of security before the big blow.
When he first returned to Craw County, he saved the deadbeat Dusty Tutwiler from Esaw Goings. This aroused the ire of Coach Euless Boss, the town’s de facto crime lord. Boss had Dusty killed, and also had Tubb's friend Tad beaten extremely badly. So Tubb got down his daddy's beatin' stick, and marched straight into town to take care of business. Coach Boss beat him to death in the middle of town, surrounded by witnesses who didn't do a thing.
9. Captain Marvel
(Captain Marvel, Marvel Comics)
The Death of Captain Marvel is a super downer of a graphic novel, mostly because it's about a superhero dying of cancer and that’s inherently pretty depressing.
It was revealed that after being exposed to Compound 13 in his fight with Nitro, Mar-Vell contracted terminal lung cancer. Fortunately, his powerful nega-bands prevented Mar-Vell from immediately dying, but they also prevented any treatment from being administered.
He left for Titan to spend his last days in peace. And he did, surrounded by his former partner Rick Jones, his lover, and The Avengers, his closest friends. The Skrulls even honored him as their greatest enemy. In his final moments, Mar-Vell was greeted by his greatest foe, Thanos, and Mistress Death. They welcomed him to the afterlife, not as an enemy, but as a rival.
And one truly deserving of a good death. Mar-Vell sorta came back a couple of times, once during Civil War as a Skrull, and once as a resurrected soldier using the M'Kraan Crystal. Mar-Vell died both times, and his soul returned to peace.
8. Tommy Monaghan
(Hitman, DC Comics)
Hitman is easily one of the best comic books DC has ever published.
Garth Ennis and John McCrea created a truly one-of-a-kind dark comedy that turned into a tragic and meaningful drama. Its central character, Tommy Monaghan, is one with whom I’ve formed a deep personal attachment.
Tommy and his friends went through a lengthy series of wacky adventures (Zombie Night at the Gotham Aquarium is one of my all-time faves). But the latter half of the book is a downwards spiral of depressing and violent events, killing off Tommy's gang of friends one by one.
By the end, only Tommy and his best buddy Nat were left (along with Hackett and Baytor, who were less present). The duo knew by the first page of the last issue that they probably weren't making it out of the book alive. And they didn't, going out in a hail of gunfire while accomplishing their goals once and for all. The two wound up in heaven, which was just a bar filled with all their former friends. "Drinks are on the house, and there's no last call, but you gotta leave your guns at the door."
7. Jason Todd
(Batman, DC Comics)
Look, Todd is an obvious pick for this list, but that doesn't mean I can exclude him.
Todd was the second kid to take up the identity of Robin. He was a red-headed circus acrobat whose parents were killed by Killer Croc, and"”oh wait, that was all before Crisis on Infinite Earths retconned everything. Post-Crisis, Jason was a street urchin jerkheel who tried to steal the tires off the Batmobile. Batman took him in, but Jason was too tough-hearted and violent. He even threw a guy off a roof to his death. In A Death In The Family, The Joker broke out of Arkham, stole a nuclear bomb, and decided to sell it to terrorists.
Yeah, in case you haven't read it, THAT’S HOW THE STORY OF JASON TODD'S DEATH STARTED. That thing was bananas. The Joker was designated as the Iranian ambassador in that story. Like I said, bananas.
The Joker wound up getting Jason and his mom chained up in a warehouse, where he beat Jason with a crowbar until he's near death. He then left them both locked up with a time bomb. Jason threw himself on the bomb to save his mother, but failed, and they both died. Of course, Jason later came back, but his death still echoes as a meaningful comic book that everyone forgets is just insane.
(Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye/Transformers: Lost Light, IDW)
What's that? Surprised that there's a transformers comic on this list? You shouldn't be. More Than Meets The Eye (now retitled and renumbered as Lost Light) is one of the best comics of the decade, if not the millennium.
In the series, Rewind was a perpetual observer and documentarian who was in a committed, loving relationship with mnemosurgeon Chromedome. Early in the series, the ship's security officer, Red Alert, discovered the psychotic mass-murderer known as Overlord locked in a room in the ship's basement. Overlord was freed, and he went on a killing spree.
The crew eventually managed to get him into an escape pod, but an obstruction prevented it from closing. Rewind pushed his way inside and cleared the blockage, allowing the rest to blast Overlord away, and simultaneously losing Rewind, as well. In his last moments, Rewind handed Chromedome a drive containing a message edited together out of all the footage the little bot has shot.
At the end of the message was one sentence that utterly destroys me every time:
One more thing, one last thing. Because I don't say it enough: I love you.
5. Archie Andrews
(Life With Archie, Archie Comics)
Archie comics are weird, my dudes. Sometimes there are zombies, or incest plot lines, or Predators, and sometimes they’re very deeply Christian. But in the Life With Archie magazine, Archie Comics showed the future. Well, futures.
The magazine had two separate stories in each issue: one of a future in which Archie married Betty Cooper, and one in which the lovable redhead made the biggest mistake of his life and wedded Veronica Lodge. Both stories came together when Andrews gave his life taking a bullet for his friend Kevin Keller, an openly gay, newly elected US state senator campaigning for stricter gun control.
Archie died, bleeding out on the floor of Pop's Chocklit Shop, looking up at Betty and Veronica and telling them, "I've always loved you." In memoriam, Riverdale High was re-christened Archie Andrews High School. Awww, sweet.
Also, how screwed up is it that all of Archie's multiversal paths end with him getting shot? That is some Twilight Zone BS, right there.
(X-Men/Wolverine, Marvel Comics)
The seeds for Death of Wolverine were sown very early on in the preceding Wolverine run, in which a microverse virus infected Logan and shut down his healing factor.
When the clawed canuck discovered that a bounty was placed on his head, he set off to find out why. After a couple of dead ends, Logan eventually found Dr. Abraham Cornelius, the mastermind behind the Weapon X Project. Cornelius wanted to steal his healing factor in order to perfect his attempts at re-creating a more controllable version of Wolverine.
Wolvie revealed that he’d lost his healing factor, and Cornelius went nutter-butters. He started initiating the adamantium bonding process on three innocents, knowing that it would kill them. Unfortunately, this resulted in Logan being covered in slowly hardening adamantium. He stumbled to the roof, watched the sun rise, and suffocated to death in metal.
Since then, we've had Old Man Logan bouncing around, and X-23 has put on the Wolverine costume, but we've been missing classic Wolvie.
3. Captain America
(Captain America/The Avengers, Marvel Comics)
Of course this one would land fairly high on the list.
Spinning out of Civil War, Captain America surrendered and was arrested. But, not content with replicating the prison escape story he'd done with Michael Lark in The Devil in Cell Block D, Ed Brubaker teamed with Steve Epting to come up with a bigger Cap story.
While being walked to the courthouse, Steve Rogers was shot once in the shoulder by a helicopter-residing Crossbones, and three-timed in the stomach by a mind-controlled Sharon Carter. He died on the spot – except he didn't, because he was actually stranded in time or space or whatever it was. Omega Sanction something something. Not the point, we're talking about the death, not the resurrection.
The death was expertly conducted, and the 25th issue led into a series of one-shot specials under the Fallen Son umbrella, showing how the Marvel Universe reacted to the loss of maybe its greatest hero. We salute you, Steven Rogers.
2. Barry Allen
(The Flash/Justice League of America, DC Comics)
One of the greatest deaths of all time. Hands down, no contest.
I love Barry Allen a ton, and regularly go back to those old Flash books whenever I'm stressed, but Barry couldn't live forever. During DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, a being known as the Anti-Monitor was hellbent on destroying the entire multiverse.
After Supergirl gave her life to deal him a crippling blow, he returned for one last-ditch plan. Barry was the only one who could stop him, and he literally ran himself to death in order to destroy the Anti-Monitor's anti-matter cannon. This sacrifice was the high point of the (admittedly muddled) Crisis, and made Barry the martyred saint of the DC Universe.
Honestly, as much as I've loved the stories they've told since Barry’s resurrection, he was much more valuable to the DC Universe as a symbol. A death that reshaped his character into a legend, that would be a good death.
(Superman/Justice League of America, DC Comics)
I mean, duh.
Look, there were plenty of deaths that were better executed, lasted longer, or were more personally affecting, but none of them impacted comics and the popular consciousness as much as the Death of Superman. The nineties one, not the Silver Age one in which Lex Luthor cured cancer. In the story, a monster known as Doomsday showed up in Metropolis, beat the piss out of the Justice League, and got in a fight with Superman.
They punched each other really hard a whole bunch, and Superman died. That was it.
Look, there wasn’t a whole lot TO the death of Superman, but it was important. It kicked off the huge speculator boom, drove the nineties, and remains in every quarter-bin to this day. I'm honestly shocked that I don't own a copy yet. I'll make sure to wait for a sealed copy with the arm band; might have to pay a whole fifty cents for it.
Superman's death played out as the first huge-scale superhero death. When the Flash died, the news didn't cover it. No one sold newspapers off Bucky kicking the bucket. But The Death of Superman set the standard for comic book deaths going forward. Revolutionary.
And there you go, a super list of as many comic book deaths as I could possibly come up with. I tried to touch on comics from all different eras, publishers, and genres, but I'm sure I left out some great ones, so let me know in the comments what your favorites are.