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Putting a price on comic book deaths

Tony Wagner Mar 20, 2015
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On Friday we talked about a few corporate titans’ earth-shattering battle over a MacGuffin that’s getting more and more valuble: Comic book intellectual property.

We’re in something of a comic book movie arms race, and there’s talk that Marvel could be trying to sabotage other studios’ Marvel movies by killing off its own comics characters. But death in comics is rarely permanent, it’s often used to boost sales or explore new storylines. Publishers have been doing this for decades with varied success. Let’s take a look back at some of the highest-profile comic book deaths, and how the heroes — and their publishers — fared.

Note: A version of this post originally appeared with a July story covering Archie Andrew’s death in the pages of “Archie Comics.”

Wolverine

Everyone’s favorite X-Man met his end last fall in a four-part event series that had been building for some time. Wolverine had extraordinary healing powers that had previously let him recover from nearly any injury, even a nuclear blast. But after losing them, Logan’s many enemies came out of the woodwork to try and take him down.

“The Death of Wolverine” brought Logan all the way back to the laboratory where he was “born,” and gave him a death critics called “honorable” and “anticlimactic.” The same could be said for sales: issue one was a top-seller, but by Wolverine’s actual demise he had slipped down the charts, walloped, ironically, by “The Walking Dead.” It could be because Wolverine has died several times and narrowly escaped death countless more. In fact, there was another “Death of Wolverine” in 2008.

Superman

Perhaps the best-known entry on this list, DC Comic’s “Death of Superman” storyline found the Man of Steel fighting an alien rock monster called Doomsday, and the image of him dying in Lois Lane’s arms became iconic. Collectors snapped up that issue, which sold millions and made headlines around the world.

Of course, it didn’t last. Superman returned – with a black suit and a mullet, because it was the ’90s – to fight off impostors and resume his post. Fans labeled Supes’ death a gimmick, and the backlash arguably helped push the industry into collapse. You can buy the issue, still sealed in cellophane, on eBay for a few bucks.

Spider-Man

This one depends on your definition of “death,” which is already pretty slippery in comic books. To commemorate the 700th issue of “Amazing Spider-Man,” Marvel Comics had the wall-crawler swap brains with his dying nemesis Dr. Octopus. During the ensuing battle, Peter Parker died trapped in Doc Ock’s body. The issue sold more than 200,000 copies, according to ComicChron.com, making it one of the best-selling comics of 2012. The $8 price tag probably helped.

The decision to have Doc Ock take on Spider-Man’s identity divided fans, but a new series about Octopus’ exploits debuted with 188,000 copies sold. “Superior Spider-Man” ran for about a year-and-a-half, selling a solid 70,000 to 80,000 copies per issue before Parker returned to his own body this past spring.

Batman

Four years before the Dark Knight met his end (sort of) on movie screens in 2012, Batman was killed off in the comic book storyline “Batman RIP.” The final issue, in which Batman seemingly died in a helicopter crash, sold a disappointing 103,000 copies, according to ComicChron.com. Maybe that’s because Batman survived, only to be killed in an epic battle during a huge crossover series. That issue only sold a little better, but it was another fake-out; it turns out Batman’s charred corpse was that of a clone. The real Batman was unstuck in time and ended up back in the Stone Age… you know what? Never mind.

It’s worth noting that the conclusion of “Batman RIP” was beat out by the debut of “Ultimatum,” a limited series that brutally killed off dozens of Marvel heroes and villains (not to mention thousands of regular folks) in an alternate universe.

Captain America

As these things go, Captain America’s death in 2007 was downright realistic: following a superhero civil war, sniper downed Cap on the steps of a federal courthouse. In the midst of an economic downturn, seeing America incarnate bleeding to death was a poignant image. “Captain America” issue 25 made headlines and became the top-selling comic of the year with over 290,000 copies sold.

Believe it or not, Captain America’s resurrection involved both time travel and brain-swapping. He was back on the job by 2010. In the meantime, Cap was replaced by former sidekick Bucky Barnes, who was himself killed during World War II and resurrected in 2005.

Got all that?

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