What's With All The Undeath In Superhero Comics?

Illustration for article titled What's With All The Undeath In Superhero Comics?

First, DC Comics unleashed a legion of undead characters in its Blackest Night event. Now, Marvel has announced Necrosha, an upcoming X-Men storyline that will bring back lots of dead mutants. When did zombie superheroes become the hot new thing?


I have a few ideas of my own that we'll get to in a moment, but first it's worth going straight to the source. Our own Graeme McMillan had a chance to talk with DC Executive Editor Dan Didio during Comic Con. Here's what he had to say regarding the whys and wherefores of Blackest Night:

Blackest Night, you're bringing a lot of people back as zombies for want of a better way of putting it...

They're not really zombies.

They're undead creatures who go around killing people.


What's the purpose of doing this? Are you doing it for nostalgia, are you doing it to confound nostalgia in that you may be bringing characters back, but in a way that's different from what they expect...

I think so. There've been a lot of stories told about death, and killing of characters, over the last few years. Geoff came up with the idea for Blackest Night several years ago, and when it came time to move together, everything came together to where we are right now. But the Blackest Night story was always going to be the story that it is [now]. And part of that story was to explore the nature of death, we also explore a little bit about the concept of "revolving door death," as the story progresses, but more importantly, I think we really come back with a more defined sense of rules about what death really means in the DC universe.

I've said it somewhere else and I'll say it again, one of the mistakes we made [in terms of killing characters] was that we were going with quantity over quality. What we're really trying to do is be much smarter, and really, if somebody dies, it should have much stronger ramifications for the character, and the story, and across the universe.

Is it a possibility to undo deaths in this series?

There's a lot of things that have potential coming out of this. [Laughs]

Nice dodge.

Thank you! [Laughs]

Honestly, it's pretty hard to imagine Blackest Night won't be used as a massive vehicle for bringing dead characters back to life. After all, there's no way the Martian Manhunter or Aquaman are remaining dead forever, and I can't really think of a better place to revive them than in a massive company-spanning event that is all about the consequences of death. But that still doesn't mean Blackest Night is exclusively or even primarily about undoing superhero deaths, and that goes double for Necrosha.

So why then are both Marvel and DC launching massively death-obsessed stories so close together? What's the appeal of undead superheroes? Well, I have some theories…

1. Death has major dramatic and thematic heft.

Or it should, in theory. Death in comic books has been largely devalued ever since Superman came back to life after his bout with Doomsday in the nineties, turning death into little more than a brief retirement for temporarily unpopular characters. Indeed, the returns of such long dead heroes as Jason Todd, Bucky Barnes, and Barry Allen have made it crystal clear that a character's death is really just the start of the countdown for his or her return.

You would really have to go back over twenty years to find the last comic book deaths with real impact, including Barry Allen and Supergirl's heroic sacrifices in Crisis on Infinite Earths and Captain Marvel's painful death at the hands of a terminal illness. And, of course, two of those have since been more or less undone (and prior to Secret Invasion there was some definite playing around with Captain Marvel's real fate).

There have been attempts in recent years to take death seriously again, but most of these have been of the one step forward, two steps backward variety. Marvel promised the death of Captain America would indeed be permanent, and less than three years later Captain America: Reborn has begun. DC attempted to remove Bruce Wayne in Final Crisis without exactly killing him off, but the fact that his survival is a confirmed fact does somewhat cheapen the eulogies and tributes other characters have offered for him in recent months. Dramatic irony and pathos are both great things to have in a story, but they don't necessarily mix together terribly well.


As much as the revolving door of death has still been spinning freely, both companies have tried to reinvest death with some of its former impact. In DC's case, this has largely taken the form of focusing on characters whose deaths are a key part of the superheroes' origins. For Hal Jordan, this has been his father, the fearless test pilot Martin Jordan, while Barry Allen is haunted by the memory of his murdered mother (not to mention his father, who he believes was falsely accused of the crime). Of course, even this is not entirely consistent. Grant Morrison's Batman: RIP went so far as to suggest that not only was Thomas Wayne alive, but he was actually a psychopathic supervillain who was never really Bruce's father at all. (That was since disproved. Probably.)

Marvel, on the other hand, has simply done a better job resisting the urge to resurrect characters. As much as their claims regarding the permanence of Captain America's demise were soon shown to be false, they do seem to be treating death as a rather more final thing than DC. Secret Invasion was in part meant to reveal a recent rash of unlikely returns as part of the larger Skrull plot, although Hawkeye did manage to remain alive and human (and was even reunited with Mockingbird). As much as Janet van Dyne is probably coming back sooner or later, there are a whole bunch of characters, particularly mutants, that Marvel has killed off and left that way, thus leaving plenty of viable candidates for Necrosha's undead army.


What all of this has accomplished, really, is simply the sense that death can be permanent, and thus it's again possible to tackle death in comics in a way that is at least vaguely relatable to the world we live in. Blackest Night has already made much of the fact that there are many who never come back, and those who have are aberrations, cosmic freaks who should not be. These events are taking death in comic books one step further – death is no longer simple a way to underscore the seriousness of the latest threat, but is instead the threat itself.

Blackest Night and Necrosha are about confronting mortality and dealing with the inevitable through the quintessentially comic book means of having living superheroes fight their dead comrades. And, of course, if Marvel and DC can actually follow through with their promises to treat death more seriously and use it more sparingly in the aftermath of these events, then so much the better. Of course, that probably does mean they'll want to undo as many major deaths as possible while they still can…

Illustration for article titled What's With All The Undeath In Superhero Comics?

2. You've got to bring these characters back sooner or later, so you might as well make a big production out of it.


For better or worse (and I know there are plenty of arguments that this is for the worse), comics are meant to be an infinite medium. To be sure, arcs within ongoing books can have clear beginnings and endings, but overall a character's story is meant to run and run forever. There's a reason Grant Morrison was able to somewhat plausibly imagine DC reaching the millionth issue of its books – ultimately, that basically is the goal of superhero comics.

Of course, that can create conflict with creating finite adventures that have their own stakes and consequences – in other words, telling actual stories. Much of the time, comics get by this by simply ignoring all previous stories that don't directly impact the current arc. (For instance, I'm fairly sure the time Superman and Wonder Woman spent a thousand years together fighting monsters is still in continuity, although you'd never know it from the way any of the characters interact.) This is rather more difficult to do when major characters actually die, which does generally necessitate some sort of change to the status quo.


But then, if the status quo changes too much, soon enough the call goes out for a return to the more iconic version. Kyle Rayner, Wally West, Bucky Barnes, and Dick Grayson must eventually hand the mantle back to Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, Steve Rogers, and Bruce Wayne. This has been particularly commonplace in recent years, as an era of self-consciously grim and gritty (and thus death-filled) comics have been replaced by ones more concerned with the history of the medium, often bringing back long forgotten elements and plot points from the Silver and Bronze Ages.

As such, you've got a whole bunch of dead characters with a whole bunch of comic book writers ready and willing to bring them back. And why bring all of them back piecemeal when you can turn it into one massive event? Thus the need for Blackest Night, and quite possibly for Necrosha as well. (Admittedly, there's not really enough known yet about Necrosha to say whether it explore similar territory, so some of this may only apply to Blackest Night.)


If there's one thing DC has arguably always done better than Marvel, it's turn massive continuity reboots into epic events. Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis might both be a little too impossibly vast in scope for their own good, but they do rather defiantly take ownership of what could otherwise be embarrassing admissions of creative failure (although the less said about Zero Hour the better).

Blackest Night is tackling about a big a topic as one can in the DC Universe without traipsing into that pesky multiverse, and both Dan Didio and event mastermind Geoff Johns have suggested they also want to explore more metaphysical territory. In this sense, Blackest Night could be somewhere between Johns's own Infinite Crisis and Grant Morrison's Final Crisis, which was all about (well, as much as it was all about anything) the moral order of the DC Universe, and whether good fundamentally had to triumph over evil.


Similarly, Blackest Night apparently wants to explore the cosmic underpinnings of why some characters have come back and why others haven't. It's a way of turning years of cheap shocks and inconsistent editorial decisions into a gigantic masterplan, and it might almost look elegant when all is said and done. But perhaps I'm being too lofty in my thinking. Perhaps it's as simple as…

3. Zombies are huge right now.

I'll admit that I don't always keep up with my cultural zeitgeists as much as I should, but I'm fairly sure zombies are supposed to be the new vampires. (Or are they the new pirates?) Certainly, the past decade has been kind to the walking dead, with movies like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead becoming hits and books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies somehow attaining both popular success and critical acclaim. And it seems like you can't go another day without news of some another ridiculous zombie version of a pop icon in the works.


And, of course, comics themselves have done very well with the undead. Zombies are a key part of a rotation of character types in the steady stream of "[BLANK] vs. [BLANK]" comics that also includes vampires, ninjas, robots, aliens, pirates, werewolves, cowboys, and Amazons. Marvel has had plenty of success with its Marvel Zombies franchise, which will continue at least as long as the House of Ideas has iconic covers to zombify. It's hard to argue zombies have made for a lot of high art in comics, but their stories have largely been good, goofy fun, and the sales figures certainly reflect a healthy readership for their stories.


As such, it makes a ton of sense to prominently feature zombies in your company's next big event. Even stripped of the particular wrinkle of bringing back prominent superheroes as undead killers, zombies seem to work just fine in abstraction, and there's every reason to think a "Green Lantern Corps vs. Zombies" or an "X-Men vs. Zombies" event would do very well for their respective companies – all the additional character stuff is just icing on the zombie cake.

The only slight problem with this is whether either Blackest Night or Necrosha actually, technically speaking, involves zombies. Dan Didio certainly doesn't seem to think the Black Lanterns can be considered zombies. I suppose it depends how important it is that the villains of Blackest Night partake in classically zombie activities, like, say, eating brains (something I wrongly suggested they would be doing in a post I wrote back in February).


All of this really sets up a technical argument over the definition of "zombie" that I'm not really qualified to have. I will say that whatever one's precise understanding of the concept, I'm pretty sure the Black Lanterns meet a lot of the requirements, and the undead mutants in Necrosha will probably be even closer, if only because their origins will be more explicitly supernatural, what with the villainous vampire Selene prominently involved.



Um, Marvel Zombies was first, not Blackest Night.