Saturday, August 30, 2014

Eighties August 8 part VII: Best Deaths Of The 1980s

By Jef Willemsen (

In the second to last instalment of Eighties August 8, we're not fearing the reaper on this one because it's all about death in the Marvel Universe during the 1980s. Nowadays, the mortal coil has become somewhat of a revolving door... But as this entry shows, the 80s had a few deaths that still had some impact.  

8) - Dark Phoenix ("Died": Uncanny X-Men I#137, September 1980)

Y'know, there's a reason why Dark Phoenix ended up on the bottom of the list.

Yes, back in September of 1980, her death at the climax of the Dark Phoenix saga was shocking, poignant and disturbing. One of the founding members of the X-Men choosing to die so she wouldn't be responsible for any more deaths, what a way to go. But... She didn't, not really.

Dark Phoenix's death lost most of its impact and relevance several years later when Jean showed up alive and well, having snoozed in a cocoon that the Avengers discovered in time for her to help launch X-Factor. The Phoenix that perished on the Moon turned out to the actual cosmic force that had taken on Jean's form in order to study humanity... Essentially becoming a precursor of the Beyonder, albeit with a better perm.

If Jean had remained dead, she'd undoubtedly have made it to the top three. For now, let's say her chances at immortality died when she came back to life.

7) - Jean DeWolff (Died: Spectacular Spider-Man I#107, October 1985)

Speaking of Jeans who died in the 80s...

Captain Jean DeWolf was one of the most popular Spider-Man supporting characters, with her signature, 1930s inspired look and automobile. DeWolf made close to 70 appearances in comics, and her tough as nails attitude made her a force to be reckoned with, even if she did harbor some romantic feelings towards the wallcrawler.

Jean was killed off by Spectacular Spider-Man writer Peter David, who decided her death would be the perfect way to start off the Sin-Eater arc. Having Jean be the villain's first victim made quite a bit of sense, as the Sin-Eater eventually turned out to be her jealous ex-lover Stan Carter.

Some might claim that Jean's death was unnecessary and merely written in for cheap shock value. While there is some truth to that (death sells, after all), it's also a sobering reminder that being on the force is a dangerous job, especially if you're dealing with superhumans. It also wasn't the first time Spider-Man was unable to save a police official, in the 70s he failed to prevent Dr. Octopus from dropping a chimney on captain Stacy.

Peter Parker may not be Jewish, but he's carrying around enough guilt his name might as well be Schlomo Rosenberg.

6) -  Tom Thumb (Died: Squadron Supreme I#9, May 1986)

A man's stature is by no means determined by his height...

Of all the various Squadron Supreme members, Tom Thumb undoubtedly looked the silliest... And that's saying something when the Whizzer and Cap'n Hawk are on the same team. It wasn't until he took off his costume in the latter part of the Squadron Supreme limited series, that the dimunitive inventive genius got a chance to shine by creating technologies the Squadron needed to help make the world a better place.

Tom had cancer, however. He decided not to tell his teammates, partly because he didn't want their pity, partly because he wanted to continue to work as long as he could. He had tried to cure the disease, only to fail repeatedly. However, he then learned the team's hated enemy Scarlet Centurion (hailing from the 40th century) possessed the panacea potion, a serum that healed all known ailments.

Staring death in the face and with every other option exhausted, Thumb compromised all his principles. He travelled to the future and stole a sample of the potion. However, when he analyzed it in his lab, the wonder drug turned out to be little more than vitamin water. Tom realized that the human immune system had become so evolved  by the 40th century, it needed little more. Disappointed, Thumb returned what he'd stolen, resigned to the fact he was fated to die. His death was never seen, only the captions in the final panel told of his fate, perhaps even more powerful than any acual depiction of his demise.

Thumb died broken and ashamed of himself and the cruel irony of it all: Scarlet Centurion knew all this beforehand and did nothing to stop him.

5) - Sadie Bass (Died: Marvel Team Up I#119, July 1982)

Writer J.M. DeMatteis knows how to play the guitar √°nd tug at his readers' heartstrings...

In Marvel Team-Up I#119, the Defender Gargoyle (Isaac Christians) prevents an old woman from getting mugged in Central Park. The grateful, elderly lady is Sadie Bass, who invites her savior to her modest New York appartment. There, they have a heart to heart about growing older and life's inevitable ending. These scenes are especially poignant because Isaac was already in his late 70s by the time he ended up in the immortal form of the Gargoyle.

Sadie reveals she feels her end is fast approaching, a fact she is more than content with. She's led a good life and she's ready to let go. However, her daughter Beatrice feels differently and doesn't want to lose her mother. A fact she rather vehemently points out when she comes to visit and finds her mother having tea with "a monster". In an attempt to bridge the gap between mother and daughter, Gargoyle takes both of them for a flying tour of the city, showing them the sacred beauty of life in its many splendored forms. Beatrice and her mother reconcile and, after returning home, Sadie goes to bed for the final time.

Yours truly is a sucker for these kinds of  stories. I cry at card tricks, but seeing Sadie explain that she's ready... That she had a good life, experienced all she wanted, as well as quite a few things she never asked for is a guaranteed tearjerker. If only because one can only hope to leave this world in half as peaceful and loving a way.

Schmaltzy? You bet...  but like the best chicken soup, sometimes that's exactly what the soul requires.

4) - Gretl Anders (Died: Invincible Iron Man I#182, May 1984)

"In the morning... Tony Stark will be sober. Or dead."

Sometimes, it isn't so much what a character does that matters, its the impact he or she has on the world. Meet Gretl Anders, a severely alcoholic vagrant who befriended Tony Stark during his first, lengthy bout with alcoholism in the early 80s. Gretl and Tony hit it off, they shared the same "hobby" after all. Anders turned out to be pregnant, but that didn't stop her binge drinking ways...

She eventually went into labor in Invincible Iron Man I#182, which was a bit of poor timing on Gretl's part. New York City was about to be hit by a catastrophic snowstorm, guaranteeing certain death for anyone out wandering the streets... Such as winos like Tony and Gretl. With no one to care for them but each other, while the world turned to white, Gretl went into labor, refusing a drink because she didn't want her child to come into the world drunk. Huddled together in an alcove, Gretl gave birth to her son even as the snowstorm raged on throughout the night.

Stark used his own body shelter the newborn, keeping him safe until morning, when they were discovered by the police who rushed them to the nearest hospital. There, Gretl soon succumbed, the result of years of alcohol abuse and prolonged exposure to the elements, leaving her son an orphan. This tragedy caused Tony Stark to hit bottom and made him determined to beat the bottle.

As the sun came up, Tony Stark decided to become sober and reclaim all he had lost to the demon drink. So, even in death, Gretl symbolically birthed two new lives.

3) - Jocasta (Died: Marvel Two In One I#93 & Avengers Annual I#17) 

Can a robot really die?

Well, Jocasta did it twice in the 1980s alone! Originally constructed by Ultron in the late 1970s to become his bride, she soon rebelled against her creator and became an Avengers associate (a decision in no small part influenced by the fact her personality was a copy of the Wasp's). Unlike the Vision, Jocasta never really received the respect she was due, even though she was a formidable force, proving a pivotal presence during many of the team's adventures (Taskmaster and Yellow Claw are still sore from the beating she gave them). Yet, despite her power and pleasant, cooperative personality she was never awarded full membership, which eventually drove her away from the team.

Striking out on her own, Jocasta eventually was taken over by Ultron, who forced her to rebuild him in Marvel Two-In-One  I#92. When Thing and Machineman (who'd fallen for her) proved unable to stop the mad robot, Jocasta sacrificed her own existence to ensure his defeat. Machineman spent most of the decade looking for ways to rebuild his complicatedly constructed companion, even joining the Super-Adaptoid's killer robot team Heavy Metal in hopes of getting his aid in rebuilding Jocasta.

In the end, she was put back together by the High Evolutionary in the final chapter of 1988's crossover Evolutionary War. She happily joined with the Avengers to oppose the Evolutionary's plans, but was forced to give up her life once again on a suicide mission to save all of humanity.

2) - The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man (Died: Amazing Spider-Man I#248, January 1984)

Talk about an emotional sucker punch...

Hard to imagine, but "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man" was originally published as a back up story. Usually, back ups are mostly forgettable features like "Aunt May's recipe for poundcake", "Meet the Daily Bugle staff" or "Secrets of Peter Parker's apartment". Not so much in Amazing Spider-Man I#248, which told the story of Spider-Man meeting Tim Harrison, a young boy who happened to be an avid fan of the arachnid hero.

Spidey visits with young Tim, showing off his acrobatics and indulging him by wanting to see the collection of newspaper clippings he's collected over the years. Just as he's about to leave, Spider-Man does the unthinkable: he takes off his mask and shows his face to Tim who promises his favorite hero he will keep his secret forever. As Spider-Man swings away, it's revealed Harrison has incurable leukemia and only weeks left to live.

The story by Roger Stern and Ron Frenz is considered one of the ten best Spider-Man tales ever told and quite rightly so. Stern said in an interview he wanted to emulate comics legend Will Eisner, which is why he used the various newspaper clippings as a framing device. But to me, it reads like a cross between a Twilight Zone episode and those 1950s monster comics with the inevitable, gut wrenching twist at the end.

Solid stuff, even without Rod Serling.

1) - Captain Mar-vell (Died: Marvel Graphic Novel I#1, April 1982)

Marvel launched its line of graphic novels with 1982's The Death Of Captain Marvel, written and drawn by Jim Starlin who had taken the character in the late 70s and made him his own, with a critically acclaimed run. In issue 34 of his own solo title, Captain Marvel tried to stop the supervillain Nitro from stealing cannisters of deadly nerve gas, only to be exposed to it and contracting cancer.

Mar-vell's nega-bands helped slow down the disease, but by 1982 his fate was sealed. The hero tried as best he could to cope with the  inevitable, recording his last will and testament, making peace with those he might have wronged and trying to console his loved ones, including his ladyfriend Elysius. As his time grew short, most of Earth's heroes made the trek to the moon of Titan, home of the Eternals. One by one, they came to pay their respects, even the Skrull empire honored him by awarding the dying Kree one of their highest military medals... and then, the inevitable happened.

The Death Of Captain Marvel was Marvel's first, real and candid examination of (the way towards) death. The project proved to be an exceptionally personal one for Starlin, whose own father was dying of cancer during the making of this graphic novel. Perhaps it is this unwanted, terrible first hand experience that lends so much credibility to the deathbed scenes, that feel raw, real and nakedly human in spite of all the capes.

To Marvel's credit, they've allowed the death of Captain Mar-vell to stick, for the most part. He invariably gets resurrected as either a zombie, a ghost or part of the Legion of the Unliving, but those moments are few and blessedly short lived (pun intended). During Secret Invasion, a Skrull briefly believed he was the real C.M. and there has been more than one hero who took his codename, including his own son. Despite all that, the legacy of the one, true Captain Mar-Vell of the Kree remains unblemished.

*Naturally, these picks are solely based on my own, anything but unbiased preferences. Think I'm wrong or an absolute idjit for leaving out your particular fave? By all means, join the conversation!


  1. What a trip down memory lane! I loved it.
    Just one correction: The "Sin-Eater" storyline was actually written by Peter David...his first professional scripting job, if memory serves.

  2. Nice unconventional choices here. Of course the obvious mentions would be Guardian, Elektra, as well as some cool exits by the Executioner and Kraven. But the quiet understated ones are just as powerful. In that vein, I'd throw in the unborn child of Sue Richards, one of the most powerful moments of Byrne's FF run.
    Keep 'em coming!
    david p.

  3. david p., the Executioner was on my long list for a while but I never really read any of his (later days) Thor appearances to give him his proper dues. As for the unborn child of Sue and Reed, well :-) Check back for the final ranking.

  4. Again great lists and a great blog. The death that really impacted me was the death of Cypher of the New Mutants. I didn't care that his powers were supposedly weak. All I knew was that a teen character that was not too much older than me died in a comic book I read each and every month. And he stayed dead for long while.



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