Break out your sugar skulls; it’s Día de Muertos! To celebrate the “Day of the Dead,” we here at Panels thought it fitting to prepare for you a list of some of our favorite comics characters who have seen both sides of the sweet hereafter. In comics death is rarely permanent, but it’s also often the beginning of a character’s journey. We present to you now — comics characters who have seen the other side of the Ol’ Dirt Nap:
For a guy who has only a single gimmick – the ability to appear to be dead thanks to a type of yoga meditation – Lord Death Man has lasted a surprisingly long time. First appearing as a one-off villain in a 1966 issue of Batman, Lord Death Man was quickly pulled over into the Japanese Batman adaptation by Jiro Kuwata. His cult status became cemented when he next popped up in Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated in the New 52, now as a Japanese crime lord with actual powers of resurrection. Aside from all that, Lord Death Man’s costume consisting simply of a skeleton drawing on a shirt with a skull mask looks downright chilling when drawn by Kuwata. That makes the manga version of him still the best version. Seek it out.
Acrobats. Possession. Really high collars. What’s not to like about Deadman? (And not just because my editor mentioned the character is one of his favorites in our Halloween Heroes article.) I was tempted to plum for Ghost Rider as my pick, but really the major reason I like Ghost Rider is that I don’t like Ghost Rider. It’s that or the chains. I’m working through some things. But with Deadman, we’re dealing with a really bona fide awesome character and all-round snazzy dresser. It seems pretty much every super hero needs to be avenging a death. Howsabout when a character is avenging their own demise? Boston Brand was a circus acrobat and -showing how dangerous this profession really is in the DCU- he was murdered during a performance. I know, right? They should unionize or something. I’m sure Dick Grayson could throw a fundraiser. Brand comes back as a ghost and is given special powers by a Hindu goddess (yes, really.) When most of us are asked what super power we would like, we tend to limit the field to invisibility, flight, or strength. Deadman’s major power is probably the most practical, when you think about it; he can inhabit and possess any living person. Come on, you’re thinking bank manager, right? Personally, I’m thinking Paul Westerberg. Deadman can also fly and be invisible, because he’s a ghost, and they can all do that, anyway. There’s a newer version of his origin in the New-52 but…..I don’t care. He’s been in many great stories down the years, but you should do anything you can to check out the Neal Adams run, because it’s Neal Adams.
If Día de los Muertos is a time to remember those who have passed on, then it seems appropriate we should mention the one who remembers them all. Yep, you guessed it – Death. Usually depicted as a scythe-wielding, hooded skeleton, Neil Gaiman forever instilled himself in the black hearts of goth girls everywhere when he dared to propose that Death wasn’t the silent scary thing on the hillside, lit up by a bolt of lightning in the dead of night… she was a cute, pale girl with a lot of eye make-up and an umbrella. Death is one of the Endless, beings older than gods, and given her role, she’s certainly the most well-adjusted of her siblings. Upon her introduction in Gaiman’s Sandman series, she takes her sulking brother, Dream (the titular “Sandman” of the series), on a tour of her day – to see the way each and everyone reacts to the inevitability of, well, her. Check out Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman and Chris Bachalo, in which our un-grim reaper takes center stage as she assumes human form for a day – something she does once a century in order to remain grounded and connected with reality.
Smart and snarky teenage characters are a weakness of mine, particularly when they are lady types. So when Izabel (of the criticall—come on, we’re all reading Saga) smart-talked her way off planet and into Alana, Marko, and Hazel’s lives to be their dearly departed babysitter, she also smart-talked her way into my heart. What I love most about Izabel, aside from her much needed lighter tone in a deliciously dense and heavy story, is how unabashedly teenage she is. Her bubblegum pink specter and perpetually cross-armed are just perfectly encapsulate what it’s to be a girl that age, no matter what planet you’re from. Even the way she bobs leglessly through the air, her insides dangling from out beneath her, feels like metaphor for the rawness and angst and hope of being young. For a character who’s dead, Izabel is full of so much life. Read Saga Volume 1 — even though we’ve established that you already are.
What if your superpowers didn’t kick in until you were dead? What if your mutation was to always come back from the dead, but with no memory of your living life? That’s reality for Dead Girl, an undead hero who can reconstitute her body if it’s destroyed, turn intangible like a ghost, and who can read the auras of the recently deceased. A gentle and wise soul hides behind her practiced dead-eyed stare, and a biting humor accompanies her honest responses. As a member of the the reality show superhero team X-Statix, Dead Girl fought for truth, justice, and higher ratings. Moonlighting as a model and involved in a high-profile relationship with another team mate, Dead Girl became one of the more popular members of the team, inspiring a “Corpse-chic” fashion across America. Even permanent death wasn’t enough to stop Dead Girl! She would go on to lead a team of deceased heroes and villains in preserving the afterlife. And she briefly struck up a relationship with Doctor Strange from beyond the grave. The whole Dead Girl story is available as part of the X-Statix Omnibus.
“Cutie pie dead girls” is kind of a weird trope, but as you can see from some of the characters above, it’s definitely a thing in comics, and Secret fits it to a T. Murdered by her creepy older brother in a power-grabbing satanic ritual, Greta Hayes became “the ghost girl,” a semi-tangible cloud of shapeshifting smoke. She was held for observation by DC’s Department of Extranormal Operations until being freed by, and joining, Young Justice. Maybe it was because of everything she’d suffered, or maybe it was because of her new purpose as a “warder,” guiding dead souls to the afterlife, but Greta’s sweetness and innocence belied the growing rage and darkness inside of her. In the series’ final arc, Greta – having been corrupted by Darkseid – nearly sucked the entire world into Hell until her friends managed to talk her down. It’s an extreme meltdown, to be sure, but I’ve always seen the unaging Greta as a metaphor for that awkward, painful part of adolescence when you feel like your friends are all growing up without you. Luckily we all grow up, sooner or later, and so did Greta when an angry Darkseid turned her human again – her fondest wish. Thanks, Mr. Side! Check out Young Justice: A League of Their Own for more.
With the swagger to send Eastwood’s Pale Rider scurrying into his poncho, Death’s daughter is just as intimidating as her Pa. She wields both pistol and saber, boasting more than a knack with each. She tracks her quarry through wasteland and dreamscape. She rides the wind in a saga that plays out in bittersweet verse, perhaps through many ages. One stanza’s done, but endings are a tricky thing for the spawn of the reaper, for the rider begot of the slaughter. Sunsets into dusks and dawnings and ’round again. Read it all from the beginning in Pretty Deadly Volume 1.
Those are some of our favorites ghosts, zombies, and manifestations of our own mortality… who did we miss? Sound off with your favorites in the comments!