Roads to Regrettability: Death
The League of Regrettable Heroes – soon to be published by Quirk Books and written by yours truly – features write-ups on 100 of comicdom’s weirdest, most unfortunate, most misunderstood and flat-out strangest superheroes. The book debuts June 2, 2015, so in the meantime let’s discuss the many paths a character can take on the road to regrettability. Some are born regrettable, some are made regrettable, and some become heroes by the most regrettable means – death!
Jules Feiffer, in his excellent 1965 combination memoir and collection of classic comic book stories The Great Comic Book Heroes, makes particular note of the means by which the cloaked and short-pantsed supernatural hero The Spectre gains his powers – he dies! Acknowledging that superhero origins tend to involve a little murder here, some orphaning there, and the occasional destruction of a home planet, it’s the rare hero who actually has to up-and-die on his or her way to the four-color crusade.
|Shortpants of the undead.|
Like the Spectre, American Comics Group’s Nemesis was a former police officer who returned to life after kicking the bucket at criminal hands. Besides almost limitless supernatural powers and similar career placement exam results, Nemesis also shared much in common with the Spectre’s dress sense – short pants, little booties and a hood, an outfit which seemed to scream “Avenger of the Undead” in the comics of yesteryear.
More than a few flesh-and-blood heroes had the opportunity to share their lives with deceased siblings; Houngan hero Brother Voodoo carried the spirit of his brother and predecessor around during his supernatural slugfests, while the Golden Age’s Captain Triumph pressed a T-shaped birthmark on his wrist to recall and combine with the spirit of his deceased brother, doubling his strength and energy. (Marvel’s faux retro hero 3-D Man, while having the hero’s brother trapped in another dimension rather than actually being dead, operated under the same principle. Then again, what exactly is the difference between death and banishment in an invisible realm?).
Most of these heroes are lucky enough to receive celestial boons as a sort of compensation prize for having been murdered ahead of schedule or otherwise out of sight from St.Peter’s bookkeeping, but others snuff it on their way to serving satanic powers directly. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, most notably, rebels against his infernal master during his earthly mission to collect corrupt souls, but he’s not the first to play around with that shtick – Atlas-Seaboard’s Grim Ghost is a reincarnated highwayman given tremendous powers by the devil himself in order to bring evildoers to the gates of hell ahead of schedule. (Keeping in mind that this Grim Ghost is not to be confused with DC Comics’ Grim Ghost, a character only called that during his revival since his original name – the Gay Ghost – seemed apparently unpalatable for a contemporary audience)
Other heroes have merely faked their death in order to confuse enemies or increase their efficacy, but Will Eisner’s The Spirit faked his as part of his origin – now residing in a cemetery headquarters, the believed-dead Denny Colt uses his extralegal status as a non-person to aid the law and also to avoid anyone connecting him with that movie which Frank Miller made about him a few years ago.
Of course, the most famous dead superhero might be the one with his condition right there in the name – Deadman. Formerly a world-famous highwire trapeze artist, Boston Brand (a good name for a baked beans company if ever there were one) is murdered as an Assassins Guild initiation, which mandates that every member must fatally shoot a circus performer. Trapped as a ghost in the material world but blessed with the power to possess the bodies of living beings by the transcendent spirit Rama Kushna, his mortal infirmity hasn’t managed to keep Deadman from having a bunch of Batman teamups or occasionally having sex with hot ladies by inhabiting the bodies of their boyfriends. Amaaaaazingly creepy, that, someone should file a report with superhuman resources.