As Dave Lister explains to Arnold Rimmer in an early episode of the British science fiction comedy series RED DWARF, “Death isn’t the handicap it used to be.” Today, it’s a given that, in the world of super heroes, death is, at worst, a revolving door, and any character who breathes his or her last is likely to eventually find themselves resurrected later on, when another shocking twist is called for. But the sales appeal of death wasn’t always known. In the 1960s, it was used sparingly, especially when it came to important characters. And when it happened, it felt like a seismic moment. Here then are the five best Silver Age character deaths.
Lightning Lad, ADVENTURE COMICS #304 – The Legion of Super Heroes had only just earned their own series in ADVENTURE COMICS when tragedy struck down one of the team’s founding members. It was a (forgive me) shocking development, and one which immediately helped to give the Legion series a certain sense of peril and jeopardy. In this story by Jerry Siegel and John Forte, the telepathic Saturn Girl uses guile to take over as Legion leader and thereafter sidelines her fellow Legionnaires one by one, for no reason that anybody can work out. What’s really going on is that Saturn Girl has learned via a predicting computer that a Legionnaire is fated to die preventing an invasion by the space pirate Zaryan the Conqueror. And so, she is attempting to sacrifice herself rather than any of her fellows by arranging that she be the only Legionnaire available to fulfill the prediction. Unfortunately, she overlooks Mon-El, who is still trapped in the Phantom Zone and so is able to see the details of the plot. He’s able to communicate with Lightning Lad, who speeds to her rescue. The noble Garth Ranzz sacrifices himself to prevent Saturn Girl’s death. His demise is played as a serious thing, with his funeral taking up several pages. Of course, even this early in in the Silver Age, Lightning Lad made a comeback several issues later–but not before his death proved a plot point in several more adventures: Element Lad was recruited to fill his open spot in the Legion, and Lightning Lass, Garth’s sister, attempted to join the team while posing as her dead brother (not really the best course of action. ) In the end, the Legionnaires find a way to passing a life force to the stricken Lightning Lad, and they arrange a sort of Russian Roulette contest to determine which one of them will give their life to bring Lightning lad back. At first, it appears Saturn Girl is the designated victim, which makes sense. But the true hero is Chameleon Boy’s shape-changing pet Proty, who has taken her place 9and whom nobody will miss–especially not when Chameleon Boy immediately adopts another similar creature he names Proty II) For all that aspects of these stories are a bit silly and dated, they also still manage a very primal emotional power, and their themes of self-sacrifice and heroism shine through.
Pamela Hawley, SGT FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS #18 – SGT FURY was a war series, and it wasted no time in establishing its life-and-death stakes. In only its fourth issue, one of the titular Howling Commandos, “Junior” Juniper, was cut down while the squad was on a mission. He was the first fatality of the Marvel Age, but not the only one. That same issue introduced Pamela Hawley, a sophisticated upper crust young British woman who chose to serve as a medic with the Red Cross after the war had broken out. She became involved romantically with Sgt. Nick Fury, with the central gag being the contrast between Fury’s rough American street manners and Hawley’s more cultured and refined persona. Sadly, their relationship was cut short in one of the best sucker punches of the Silver Age. In this issue (by scripter Stan Lee and largely drawn by Dick Ayers–Lee called upon ace Jack Kirby to punch up both the opening splash page and to redo this final page in which Pam’s death is revealed) Fury makes the fatal mistake of deciding to propose to his girlfriend, even going so far as to purchase a ring. You can just see it coming, can’t you? After a dangerous mission in which Fury almost bites the dust a couple of times, he’s able to return to base in Britain and gets a pass so that he can finally do the deed. But Fury is in for a shock as he asks Pam’s father for her hand–and he learns that she has died while he was away, a victim of a recent air raid. Fury is so broken up about this that, despite the fact that this is a wartime situation, he spends the entire next issue hunting down the specific General who ordered the raid that killed Pam. He gets his man, but it doesn’t really help things, and Fury remains a confirmed bachelor for the remainder of his tour of duty. Such are the vicissitudes of war.
Menthor, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS #7 – Wally Wood’s THUNDER Agents was creatively a bit of a mixed bag with a lot of different hands contributing character ideas. Of the initial three super-agent characters that debuted in the first issue, Dynamo and NoMan emerged relatively fully-formed. But the third hero, Menthor, was not quite so lucky. Initially, the idea behind the character was that he was actually a traitor, a spy for the evil Warlords–but the super-mental helmet that THUNDER gave him for his role as a super-agent changed his mentality, turning him into a good guy. This idea was dropped pretty much after the first story, and successive tales by disparate creators didn’t seem to have much spark to them. Menthor’s helmet was constantly getting stolen and retrieved, and he had no real personality to speak of. He was, to put things bluntly, a stiff, D.O.A. And so, Wood and his team determined to make good on that assessment. Since THUNDER Agents owed as much to the spy boom as the super hero fad, it seemed like a natural idea to have one of the agents give up their life in the cause of duty. In “A Matter of Life and Death”, written and laid out by Dan Adkins, penciled by Steve Ditko and inked and finished by Wood himself, Menthor is once again captured and stripped of his power-giving helmet. But this time, he is used as bait to lure his fellow THUNDER Agents into a deathtrap. Summoning up the last of his strength, Menthor soaks up enemy bullets as he staggers to the trap, triggering it on himself before his friends can step into it and be cut down. What follows is a vengeful massacre, as the THUNDER Agents bitterly assault the Warlords’ troops, with no quarter given. Menthor’s death is the catalyst that brings the ongoing struggle against the underground Warlords to a climax in the following issue, and his place is taken by the flying hero Raven (whose feature was no better conceived or consistently executed than mentho’s had been.) Why THUNDER didn’t just give Menthor’s helmet to another agent is never really brought up–but it did turn up in enemy hands once or twice thereafter, so maybe it was still missing. In any event, things like this just didn’t happen to super heroes in 1966, and os the story made a real impact among upon the readers. In death, Menthor had a lot more impact than he’d ever had in life. This particular story is gone into in greater detail in this earlier piece:
Ferro Lad, ADVENTURE COMICS #353 – There was no greater wunderkind in comics in the 1960s than writer Jim Shooter. He broke into the business at the astonishingly youthful age of 13, and was put to work writing the Legion of Super-Heroes feature for tyranical editor Mort Weisinger. In his very first published story, Shooter introduced four new members to the Legion’s ranks–one of whom, Nemesis Kid, turned out to be a villain. Two of the others, Karate Kid and Princess Projectra, went on to have a long tenure in the group. But perhaps the most impactful turned out to be Ferro Lad, whose career was the shortest. Ferro Lad was a mutant with the ability to turn his body into iron, and Shooter had initially decided to make him African-American. But in 1966, DC Comics was, let us say, not progressive enough to permit a black super hero to be featured. So Weisinger shot down that idea, and Shooter found he then didn’t have anything to do with the character. Thereafter, he resolved to kill Ferro Lad off, which he did in a two-part adventure that also introduced one of the Legion’s most recurring enemies, the Fatal Five. The Five are brought together by the members of the Legion when they need help in coping with a cosmic menace: that if the Sun-Eater, a colossal space-cloud that consumes entire stars, leaving their systems lifeless. Kind of like Galactus if he was a cloud and not in a movie. The Sun-Eater is bearing down on the sun, and if a way isn’t found to halt or destroy it, it means the end for all life on Earth. The Legion is able to inveigle the villains into working alongside them, and Tharok, the cyborg leader of the Fatal Five, is able to construct an absorbatron bomb capable of destroying the Sun-Eater. Only problem is, the bomb needs to be carried to the center of the Sun-Eater’s mass and set off. Superboy volunteers, assuming that he has the best chance of survival, but Ferro Lad cold-cocks the Boy of Steel and takes on the suicide mission himself, perishing in the attempt. Like Lightning Lad’s earlier demise, Ferro Lad’s sacrifice was treated somberly and provided fodder for subsequent stories. In the very next issue, in the “Adult Legion” stories that were set even further into the future, Superman and the Adult Legionnaires are attacked by Ferro lad’s brother, who possesses similar mutant powers. And issues later, one of the Controllers is introduced–the race who created the Sun-Eater and set it upon Earth’s sun–and seemingly foiled by the ghost of Ferro Lad. But the Boy of Iron wouldn’t make a comeback until the 1990s, when the whole of Legion continuity was completely rebooted after a few disastrous creative choices. Curt Swan provided his typically elegant artwork for the story of Ferro Lad’s demise.
The Doom Patrol, DOOM PATROL #121 – The Doom Patrol had begun life in the pages of MY GREATEST ADVENTURE, an attempt to goose sales on that title by getting onto the super hero fad that was growing throughout the Silver Age. It was also an opportunity for writer Arnold Drake to apply a little bit of what he thought was behind the increased interest in those new Marvel super hero books to a DC feature. Partnered with artist Bruno Premiani, Drak (with a little bit of help from Bob Haney) introduced a team of heroes that short-circuited the usual power fantasy structure of most super heroes. The Doom Patrol members were all freaks of science, ostracized by their fellow men even as they attempted to turn their misfortune towards the common good. Theirs was the first DC series to emphasize the sort of characterization that Stan Lee was making the watchword of the growing Marvel line, and it was a success–within a few issues, the team had taken over MY GREATEST ADVENTURE entirely, and it was rechristened DOOM PATROL. But as the 1960s went on and camp became the watchword at DC following the phenomenal success of the BATMAN television series, the adventures of the Doom Patrol veered away from tragedy and became more akin to farce. The plots grew loopier, the dialogue more bizarre, the antagonists more unbelievable. As the super hero fad began to wind down, sales dropped off significantly–and like a number of other titles, DOOM PATROL was slated for cancellation. Drake and Premiani decided to go out in a Viking funeral, one in which they’d have their heroes sacrifice their lives in the service of their ideals. In that way, they recaptured some of the spirit in which the series had begun years earlier. And so, in this final issue, the Doom Patrol was captured by their enemies Madame Rouge and Captain Zahl, imprisoned on an island wired to explode. But what Zahl is after is a propaganda victory, the humiliation of his foes, and so he offers them their lives if they choose instead to have him obliterate the small fishing town of Codsville, Maine–Population: 14–live on television. But the defiant Doom Patrol denies him is final satisfaction, telling him resolutely to fire away at them. The island is detonated and the heroes are all killed. It was about as apocalyptic an ending to a Silver Age super hero series as there would ever be. That final issue was tainted just a hair by a substitution made in its pages; Drake had included himself and Premiani as characters, narrating the story to the readers in the hope that sales would spike enough so that the series might be brought back. But after Drake took part in an effort among DC’s older talent to acquire pensions for their many years of service, he was ousted from the firm and his figures were replaced by images of editor Murray Boltinoff instead. And of course, over time, literally every member of the Doom Patrol was revealed to have survived that explosion–Robotman in the 1970s, Negative Man and the Chief in the 1980s, and Elasti-Girl by the 2000s. Still, it was an amazing way to go out, and it elevated the entirety of the series in the eyes of those fans who loved it.