Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Beyond Death

The current issue of Action Comics (staring Superman) features a guest appearance by the Spectre. It is a combination Halloween issue and tribute to Jim Aparo. It is also full of plot holes.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how death is represented in the comics. DC has two main dead heroes - the Spectre and the aptly named Deadman. Both died and were sent back by a greater power. The power that sent the Spectre back is, I believe, a voice.

Deadman stayed on earth due to Rama Kushna. Rama was originally inspired by eastern religions but was later rewritten.

In the 1960s, there was a character called Nemesis who was also a ghost. He came from ACG which is better remembered for Herbie.

Nemesis had a view of the afterlife in keeping with watered-down Christianity. Saint Peter's current stand-in manages the gate to heaven and has say over who can return. Nemesis's powers were a cross between Superman and Casper the Friendly Ghost - flight, strength, invisibility. He was weakened underwater. Like many heroes introduced in the mid-1960s, he didn't last long.

Spectre is more complicated. At first he was just a superhero, first in the 1940s and 1960s. Then he became the spirit of vengeance in the 1970s. By the 1980s he had become the ultimate force for good and the universe's last defense against the Anti-Monitor in Crisis. In the 1990s it was explained that he was an aspect of God. Then he retired and Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, got the job. Recently Jordan was brought back to life so who knows where the Spectre in Superman came from.

Deadman is a much more ordinary ghost. He is invisible and intangible. At first he seemed to walk everywhere but later he began flying. Since he cannot touch the ground (or anything else) anyway, he must have always been flying.

What Deadman could do was posses people. A trained acrobat and a good fighter, he often possessed people in order to save them. While there have been several attempts to revive the character, none have been satisfying. His best appearances were in his original series in the 1960s.

Interestingly, both Deadman and the Spectre were drawn by Neil Addams during their runs in the 1960s.

Marvel's view of death has always been more complicated. They've never shown the line of people waiting to be judged at the gates of heaven. In fact, Stan avoided the subject. When he did address death, it was because the death goddess, Hela, was near. The Silver Surfer's enemy Mephisto (a Satan stand-in) wanted the Surfer's soul and ruled an underworld full of mis-shapen creatures. Were these the tortured dead? Demons? Creations of Mephisto himself? We never found out.

We did get a hint. At one point, Mephisto sent the Flying Dutchman to fight the Surfer. It was made clear that the Dutchman was a special case. At the end he moved on to an unspecified afterlife.

In the early 1970s, the Comic Code changed and Marvel launched a line of supernatural heroes and villains. Many, like Dracula, were dead but nothing was said about the afterlife.

Around the same time, death became a supporting character in Captain Marvel. Embodied as a silent woman, she was the companion of Thanos. Because of his special relationship with death, Thanos has returned from the dead a few times.

Adam Warlock died and went to heaven, sort of. His soul was taken into a powerful gem along with his girlfriend and others. This is atypical.

I believe that in the 1980s Marvel's writers decided that when you die, any of several death gods can claim your soul which, in turn, gives them greater power. They can only hold souls for a limited time then they go on to a final reward (or are reincarnated).

While several marvel characters have returned to life from the dead or come back as a supernatural creature, none of their heroes are ghosts.

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