Spider-Man is going to die tomorrow. Marvel confirmed today in a press release that the iconic web-headed superhero will bite the bullet in Ultimate Spider-Man #160, which hits stores tomorrow. There are two reasons that this news should not necessarily freak you out. First, tomorrow’s issue is the conclusion of an eight-issue story arc called “The Death of Spider-Man,” which follows in the great the-spoiler-is-in-the-title tradition of “The Death of Superman.” Secondly, even though Spider-Man will be dying, it’s not quite Spider-Man Spider-Man, if you get my meaning.
I’ll throw this one to EW’s geek guru Jeff “Doc” Jensen:
This isn’t the “real” Spider-Man/Peter Parker of official Marvel Comics Universe continuity, but the Peter Parker of Marvel’s “Ultimates” universe – a separate (and popular) line of comics launched about a decade or so ago that was designed in large part to retell the stories of classic Marvel characters for modern comics readers, focusing primarily on characters that were being used in the movies and other pop culture. The conventional wisdom in comics circles is that “Ultimate Spider-Man/Peter Parker” is being killed off NOW to lay the groundwork for a new, rebooted Ultimate Spider-Man that will launch next summer when the new Spider-Man movie comes out.
And to think, my mother was worried that comic books would rot my brains! I was never a devoted reader of Ultimate Spider-Man, and every good comic fan should respond skeptically when a company kills off one of their lead characters (See: The Human Torch). But there are reasons to suspect that this death will be quite a bit more meaningful. For one thing, Ultimate Spider-Man is the rare mainstream comic that has essentially had one creative vision throughout: Writer Brian Michael Bendis has written every issue, and artist Mark Bagley illustrated over a hundred issues (and has returned for the closing “Death” arc.)
But here’s the thing: Even if Ultimate Spider-Man isn’t dead for good, his death will probably still turn out to be moving. In the last few decades, comics have become a relentlessly rebooted medium; once you’ve seen literally dozens of characters killed off and resurrected, you become inured to it all. But I can vividly recall some of the superhero deaths from when I was a young comic book reader. It may seem like a cheap stunt, but some super-fatalities stick in your brain even after the superheroes have returned to life. Here’s my personal picks for the five best superhero deaths:
1. The Death of Superman
You can blame this storyline for kickstarting DC’s ’90s superhero massacre – Green Arrow and Green Lantern both “died” a few years later, while Batman suffered a workplace spinal injury – but the actual issue where Supes fought mystery-monster Doomsday to a standstill is an eye-popping delight, composed entirely of full-page panels. It’s just a straight-up, brutally memorable brawl. (Length of Death: One Year.)
2. The Death of Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix
“The Dark Phoenix Saga” is, if you think about it for a second, one of the greatest Werewolf stories ever told. Jean Grey – who had never really been more than a kindheartedly milquetoast heroine, remarkably capable of putting up with her boyfriend Cyclops’ relentless lack of personality – discovered that she possessed cosmic reservoirs of power. First, it makes her more fun. Then, it drives her insane. Like, genocidally insane. The story ends with Jean’s face-off. “Dark Phoenix” has been retconned into oblivion, but the original storyline still stings. (Length of Death: Six Years. And now she’s dead again.)
3. Death of Captain America
The death of Marvel’s iconic All-American superhero couldn’t have been more different from Supes’. Instead of going out in a brawl, Cap was cut down by a sniper on the steps of a federal courthouse. Cap’s death had more in common with a presidential assassination than a typical superhero fatality. Coming in 2007 in the midst of one of the longest and most vicious presidential campaigns ever, it felt uniquely attuned to the zeitgeist. (Length of Death: Two Years)
4. The Death of Robin
The story behind the story is usually what people remember – readers were allowed to vote on whether the unpopular new Robin, Jason Todd, could live or die. But the vision of Batman carrying Robin’s bloody exploded body still lingers in your memory decades later. (Length of Death: Seventeen Years)
5. The Death of Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel was pretty far from the coolest superhero ever, but the story of his death remains remarkably affecting – instead of dying in battle, Mar-vell expires slowly and quietly in bed, visited by old friends and foes. Even better: he’s one of the few heroes to actually stay dead. (Length of Death: 29 Years and Counting)
Honorable Mention: Rorschach
I figured it was unfair to include a non-mainstream hero in the lineup, but I have to mention the death of the gravel-voiced, noir-trenchcoated vigilante from the final issue of Watchmen. A great exit for one of the most memorable characters in comic book history.
Comic book fans, how do you rank your favorite Superhero deaths? And will you be buying the end of Ultimate Spider-Man?
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich