Modern X-Men and Death in Comics
If you’ve read a comic — hell, if you’ve consumed a piece of media featuring a super hero — you know that death doesn’t really serve as a strong point of tension in a narrative. So often are we told to fear for the lives of heroes, only to see them “die” for a couple of years before making a miraculous return. These “deaths” are made into events that we are meant to be wildly invested in, with many characters getting their own “Death of” series. Marvel is notorious for this, with a recently announced Death of Doctor Strange mini eliciting an involuntary rolling of the eyes from me. It’s just silly, really.
In this way, death has become less of a consequence of the actions of a character and more an inconvenience. Readers have their toys stored in the attic for a few years before we get them back. At times, this is done to make way for other characters, which can be incredibly entertaining. While not the most popular run, I love Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man series, taking a look at a world where Peter Parker has secretly died, his body now inhabited by the mind of Doctor Octopus. It was a unique series that, while pushed unnecessarily by the higher ups, took the character in a different direction.
Still, this is a rarity; often, death is just an inevitable step for building hype for their eventual return. It’s a frustrating trope, and one that I find gets in the way of good story-telling. Hell, I see it happen just as regularly in non-superhero comics. I would name a few examples here, but I wouldn’t want to divulge any spoilers, as the series that come to mind are some of my favorites in spite of this trope.
Enter Jonathan Hickman, and with him the mind of a world-building genius. For many years, he made for himself building the stakes and momentum towards a new iteration of Secret Wars, taking over 5 years to develop his ideas across multiple series and events to finally have the universe “die” only to be reborn in a slightly new image. Now, a lot of you might be thinking, “how is this any different?”
Rather than killing a character, ie removing them from having more adventures, Hickman instead put those characters in tense and perilous circumstances, forcing them into unfamiliar territories and worlds that they would have to struggle through. It challenged his heroes rather than removing them altogether.
So when it was announced that Hickman would be taking over the X-Men franchise with a new vision, there was a lot of chatter as to what to expect. And what we got was beyond anything we likely expected. And while I could go on for days about how this new era is exciting for a million reasons, let’s take a look at how the X-Men universe now handles death.
To boil it down to the basics, mutants have in recent years learned the trick of resurrection. Through the powers of five mutants, now known as The Five, the mutant nation of Krakoa has the means to return any mutant to life given the time needed for the resurrection process. The minds of each mutant are then put into their bodies by Professor X, who has a enormous network of data banks storing the memories and personalities of each mutant. Their minds are backed up on a regular basis, allowing for characters to only lose their most recent memories prior to death.
This is fantastic from a story-telling perspective for a multitude of reasons. To start, Hickman has allowed for every mutant across the history of their stories to return, no matter how long they’ve been dead. Long forgotten heroes and villains alike are given a second chance, with books featuring some of the strangest and most obscure characters imaginable. This helps to liven up modern stories, as we get to see a much wider cast live on Krakoa, meaning more unique stories to tell.
Another big narrative boon this brings is we no longer need to pretend like death is a big, evil thing waiting around the corner. Characters will die and be resurrected fairly regularly, allowing for combat scenarios to play out in a more tense and visceral way. Instead, writers now have to find better tension points for our heroes to fight. Mutants can be resurrected, but humans can’t; this leads to anti-mutant organizations attacking human sympathizers in an effort to hurt Krakoa indirectly. And being a newly-formed nation means that a real danger can be the tarnishing of Krakoa’s reputation in the eyes of the public.
But by far the most fascinating development has been the development of a culture of death. Since death isn’t seen as a big deal, teenagers are seen intentionally trying to get killed, referring to it as “their first time.” Other characters who lost their mutant powers years ago fight in an arena for the right to be killed and reborn with their powers intact. Mutants view death in a specific fashion that makes for books like Way of X study and try to understand how a society of people could function under such conditions.
Death will always be something that some readers and writers will find compelling. We, as finite beings, are fascinated and terrified of it, and it’s only logical that we write about it. But overusing it will only lead to worse, more redundant stories in the long-term. If you have any interest in the X-Men as a franchise, I would heavily recommend reading any X-Man book on the shelf currently and check out how removing the parameters of death can make a huge difference on how a series can be written.