No Right Explanation

Why Death Is Dead


Last week, the guys debated which superhero had the best death, and this week they continue the debate in print for your reading enjoyment.


Chris: Some days I feel really bad about “cheating” when it comes to No Right Answer. This is not one of those days. Oddly, when the three of us, those being myself, Kyle, and Dan, sat down and hammered out some episode ideas, I had no clue that we’d end up doing an episode about the worst superhero death. More surprisingly, I had no clue that I’d be representing Knightfall before the day was done. Part of this was because I was 100% in Death of Superman‘s court as, without a doubt, it is one of the most anti-climactic and shoddily written pieces of comic book fiction ever. I’m surprised there weren’t more slips in the episode as half way through I swear I forgot which side I was on. I blame Kyle entirely for this since he was going to take Knightfall and then switched before the camera went on.

So let’s talk about other horrible superhero deaths, shall we? A lot of people were super quick to point out that Captain America’s death at the end of Civil War was the worst, but to that all I can say is, meh, I thought it was good. I also liked how Bucky came back and what’s been done with him in the current Captain America books, at least through Dark Avengers (that’s about as far as I’ve gotten in current Marvel continuity). When Cap died, essentially using his last act before the special time gun was fired into his gut to save someone else from getting shot? Yeah, that hit a sweet spot for me.

A lot of other commenters mentioned Batman’s actual death at the very end of Final Crisis, a book that’s not worth your time to really find fault with since it’s so convoluted and bonkers that it hurts to read … though what was I supposed to expect from a DC Crisis book? Spoilers: They’re all garbage. I shall now allow for angry comments for the next paragraph.

Okay, glad we got those out of the way. Let’s talk Jean Grey, yeah? Loved her first death at the end of the Dark Phoenix Saga. That’s the book that made me a fan of the Uncanny X-Men in the first place, so you’re not going to make me say anything negative about the whole thing. I haven’t read much about her numerous rebirths and subsequent deaths though, so I’m just not able to form an opinion, though the fact that her name is Phoenix should probably disqualify any anger in that department.

I’m not sure if A Death in the Family was brought up much if at all to the extent that I expected since that would have been my choice to go against Death of Superman, assuming Kyle hadn’t confused the hell out of me at the last second (sorry Kyle, I’m being unnecessarily pissy. I’ll make up for it later). The death of Jason Todd after The Joker realized his weaknesses were crowbars and explosions (and poor issue sales) isn’t exceptionally bad as the death is pretty brutal. It’s the immediate aftermath that bugs me, plus the incredibly mind-screwing retcon of “Superboy Prime punches time” to fix everything. Guh, that’s an episode for a different day.

It doesn’t look like we’ll be doing an episode on the Best Superhero Death for a while though since I’d either have to go super obscure, or I’d just piss everyone off with my blind love of Captain America (cradle me in your arms, Chris Evans). Assume until further notice that your choice in that non-existent debate is the only correct one and I think we’ll all be happier for it.

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Kyle: I got robbed. Sorry, I know that I bitch constantly about losing these debates. But I got robbed. The Death of Superman arc is much worse than Knightfall. And here are three more reasons why.

One, when comic fans look back at the horrible crap that we had to deal with in the ’90s, this is usually the first thing that comes to mind. While Batman was riding high from the success of movies, cartoons, and the new darker approach that the comics were taking, Superman got a mullet and died. And got replaced by a robot. In a bad time for most comics, this was the most blatant misfire of all of them.

At the time, nobody was buying that DC was actually killing the most iconic superhero in the world. And lo and behold, they didn’t. It was a little game that we all had to play: Go ahead, you “kill” Superman. Then I’ll count to ten and run into the comic book store looking for him. And I’ll find him. Safe and sound.

Two, in the context of our title (Worst Superhero Death), I let Chris play fast and loose with Knightfall as a death. But even counting it, at least Batman’s fall and rise meant something. He had to wrestle his rightful place back from an edgier, more ’90s character than he was. And he kicked the living crap out of this new ’90s take on vigilantism and said, “This is how I do things. And that’s how it will continue.”

Meanwhile, the Death of Superman meant nothing. There was no catharsis or motif or exploration of the character. Not even the obvious he-was-a-shining-example-for-us-all-and-his-final-lesson-was-giving-his-life-to-save-us bit. They didn’t really do anything with this monumental story they could have told. Plus, because the book was titled Death of Superman, we had a Brechtian hold on any emotion we could have mustered, because we go in knowing that he’s going down. Knightfall at least built up to the climactic moment and gave us the sucker-punch of Batman losing.

Three, here’s the deal: Death of Superman is clearly worse than Knightfall, but it also beats out the Jean Grey, Lian Harper, Captain America, and actual Bruce Wayne (R.I.P.) deaths. Why? Because this was the first widely announced superhero death that proved that no one stays dead. It was the first case of “death … kinda … hibernation … time travel … alternate universe … no, not death at all.”

All comic-book deaths mean nothing, mostly because the people aren’t real, but also because there are now so many different continuities and alternate universes and lenses that we see events through (Frank Miller Batman is clearly different from Morrison’s which is different from Paul Dini which is different from, etc). Quibbling over which death is canon and which isn’t is a waste of time. It’s like the new J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies. It doesn’t cancel out, destroy or wipe away the original continuity, so it’s okay.

But Death of Superman was artificially made important from the beginning. It permeated beyond the comic geek community, beyond the Warner Brothers/DC profit-grabbing meetings, and beyond the random movie fans. It made headline news in the real world that this fictional character was being killed off. So all of this makes it a bigger slap in the face and a bigger piece of crap in the history of mainstream comics.


Dan: The Death of Superman and Knightfall were two comic book events that I actually collected while they were happening. I remember buying the anthologies of Supes from a comic book shop in New York, and dragging my father to every comic book shop we could find looking for the next issue of Bats going through rehab. These were great stories to be sure, but we can all admit they ended with pretty big “reset buttons.” So big, in fact, that even though I stopped collecting comics shortly after, I became a lifelong devotee of the reset button in every ongoing story I experienced afterwards.

Batman Beyond came out and I couldn’t enjoy it, even though it was a great series. My biggest issue was that it showed Batman getting old, which doesn’t jive with reset buttons. These two stories ruined Batman Beyond for me. Thanks.

I have to admit that this one was hard for the fellas to debate. Worst death is tough due to the intrinsic fact that death doesn’t really happen to these characters. At most they suffer a temporary setback, or a reboot. Chris nabbed the first point, however, by the argument that if your main character is going to take a dirt siesta, he should get to it faster than 12 issues. Lead up is one thing, but make a story too long and people start forgetting how it started. Keep in mind, that’s one issue a month. Waiting a full year for the payoff in a comic book is tough. Come on Supes, I thought you were supposed to be fast?

Kyle nabbed the next point by comparing the main villains in the respective pre-funerals. Bane prior to the Nolan films may be remembered as a brute who broke the Bat, but reading the comics showed him to be a radically intelligent villain who truly posed a threat. You could see it coming and it was frightening how Bane orchestrated the downfall of Brucy. Then there was Doomsday, a meatsack as Kyle put it, a killing machine whose back story is that he was killed a lot. And we didn’t even find that out until way past the entire Death of Superman saga! If you’re going to have a terrible story, start with an uninteresting villain.

Chris got the next point doing a very difficult thing; he took his previous point and expanded upon it enough to warrant another point. Simply saying Knightfall was too long was his first, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that of enjoying the ride. Chris postulated that a 12 issue buildup that wasn’t exciting or engaging made the ride even worse. There are enough Batman villains so that there’s no need for Z-listers to have any place, but tell that to the folks at DC.

Kyle hopped on the visual train of thought and made his mark with that argument that Superman’s death didn’t have a definitive image. Sure there was him punching Spiky-Butt, and Lois crying over him, and this and that. No real image that you can slap on a shirt, or one page that you can flip through to see the payoff. Batman has his back broken over Bane’s knee, an image so impactful that Nolan replicated it as best he could. Sorry Supes, Batman even dies better than you.

Chris sealed the deal by complaining about the complete reset button effect on Batman. Modern Batman fans don’t have to know that he had his back broken at one point to fully get his motivations. Superman keeps having his death brought in front of his face, during the crisis, and during the Lantern Wars shenanigans. Many people were surprised that we didn’t use the recent “Sent back in time but called death” of Batman as his fatality, but truth is, Superman’s death was so bad that he ruined the new Batman deaths. We didn’t even need to be told that Batman had been sent back in time for there to be no stakes. The readers know that “Death” means “Don’t worry, he’ll be back.” This is the world that Superman has left us.

Thanks, Superman. Now no one will die. Jerk.

About the author

Daniel Epstein
Father, filmmaker, and writer. Once he won an Emmy, but it wasn't for being a father or writing.