When characters die in comic books they always return from the dead. Everybody knows this is how it works. Death in comics is a pause, not an end. There was a joke that the only characters in Marvel to stay dead were Uncle Ben and Bucky, a joke not told much after 2004. This is part of comics and that’s fine.
Death stories matter because they allow the writers to do two things. First, they get toexamine the character’s legacy and what they meant to that universe. They also allow for a study of what the world is without that character, often giving their supporting cast a chance to shine. It’s no accident the stories on this list hit both.
So it is that over two columns I’ll examine the best deaths and the best resurrections. I want to explore why this trope resonates even when we know it’s just temporary. The stories on this list are all great stories even though all but one has already been undone. As a rule, if a resurrection is part of one unified story with the death, I’m only counting the part of the story I think works best. Also, yes in most cases the retcon is “not really dead” but I’m going with believed dead stories. Also one severely injured story. That out of the way, onto the list.
5. Elektra (Daredevil #181) Here’s how you know this death mattered. It was undone within a mere 9 issues yet it still feels like she’s defined by her time in death. This is partially because frankly Elektra isn’t much of a character, written frankly to die. But I also think it’s because she’s most powerful as a symbol of Daredevil’s inability to be content. She’s the unattainable love he can’t be with or redeem.
4. Barry Allen (Crisis on Infinite Earths) OK, I’m not pulling out any risky choices here. Barry Allen’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths is a strange one for this spot though because his death is just one of the truly powerful ones in CoIE with Supergirl’s mattering a bit more. I’m going with him anyway because his death left a deep scar on DC. He set up one of the greatest legacies of all time with Wally West becoming an equally valid Flash if not more so. He became a symbol of heroes who died to fight the great fight. He mattered in death.
3. Jean Grey (Uncanny X-Men #137) Chris Claremont and John Byrne felt Jean Grey should live, which proves that writers sometimes don’t really know the story they told. The editors were right to call for Jean Grey’s death at the end of the Dark Phoenix saga. In death, she paid an all too needed price for her sins. Keeping her alive would’ve felt wrong. The undoing of this story ranks with the all time cheats in fiction.
2. Captain America (Captain America #25). The punctuation Civil War sadly needed. There had to be a casualty. Technically this didn’t actually occur in that event but it’s widely treated as a part of it. Cap’s death ranks high because it symbolized an entire era. The Marvel universe darkened considerably with his death and only found the light with his return. When a character is that much the soul of a universe, their death must matter. Stellar rebirth story too. But now, the one you all know is coming.
1. Superman (Superman #75). Yeah, what else could it be. Superman’s death occurred because the writers and editors couldn’t tell the story they wanted to tell (his marriage) so they crafted an epic that studied why Superman matters. This saga is a study in who he truly was and the people he impacted. It shows that he was so far from “a boring character.” The book also shines a light on arguably the greatest supporting cast ever. There’s a reason comic book fans don’t look back on this as a cheat.
So yes, these are familiar choices for greatest comics ever. That’s not an accident. These are great sagas of human emotion. That all were undone can’t mute their power. Next, the best resurrections ever. These won’t be as familiar.