The Superhero Skeleton Crew!
Since the beginning of recorded history (and probably before), the human skeleton has been a powerful symbol for danger, disease, and our own inevitable deaths. After all, the skeleton isn’t some fanciful creature of mythology or Hollywood fever dreams…it exists inside each and every one of us, waiting to be revealed by death and entropy. As such, our double-edged fear and fascination with this symbol of our mortality has found its way into countless forms of expression. From hieroglyphics to film, ancient talismans to Halloween party favors, and catacombs to comic books, skeletons have endured as a blunt reminder that time is fleeting for everyone…even seemingly death-proof superheroes!
Making that point perfectly clear was the cover of Batman #586 (2001), which portrayed a thoroughly dead Darknight Detective pinned to the wall by a pair of the Penguin’s deadly umbrellas. Yes, I said “deadly umbrellas”…and no, the Batman didn’t actually die (the scene was only a dream of the Penguin’s).
Here on the cover of Catwoman #45 (1997), the Penguin’s fellow Bat-Rogue discovers that not even the fabled nine lives of cats can save her from death’s insidious (and very slimming) embrace.
Death continues its hold the Batman family of characters as Robin #123 (2004) finds the Boy Wonder getting an X-Ray the hard way.
Starting out with a more conventional looking, hyper-muscled look, Deadman #1 (1992) portrayed the supernatural hero as a skeletal shadow of his former self. The new (and mercifully short-lived) look was courtesy of artist Kelly Jones, whose fetish for grotesquely elongated and overly defined rib cages became his calling card.
Long before the overdone Marvel Zombie trend was the cover of Spectacular Spider-Man #148 (1989), featuring the skeletal remains of Spidey, his pal Ned Leeds, and old flame Gwen Stacy waking up from their respective dirt naps.
Even near-omnipotent space gods can die, as the burned-out skull of Galactus demonstrates here on the cover of the 2001 Fantastic Four Annual.
As I’ve chronicled elsewhere, the Barry Allen incarnation of the Flash had more than his fair share of death-themed covers, but few of them were quite as dramatic (or graphic) as the cover of Flash #186more (1969). By the way, could that kid be any more casual about finding the costumed corpse of a major superhero?
An even more jarring image appeared on the cover of Wonder Woman #298 (1982). No, that’s not our fair Princess Diana with the silky black hair, tiara, and sword through her rib cage…but actually a woman warrior named Artemis who walked the ancient world as….Wonder Woman?!
Boasting not one, but eight costumed corpses, Superman (vol. 2) #66 (1992) featured the stunned skeletons of (clockwise from the top) Guy Gardner, Liberty Agent, Deathstroke the Terminator, Aquaman, Guardian, Batman, Captain Marvel, and (of course) Superman.
It’s a virtual Skeletal Superstar Reunion on the cover of JLA #73 (2002), as Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Superman once again shed their fleshy parts. Joining the cadaverous quartet is the remains of their Martian teammate J’onn J’onzz in the lower right corner (I'm not sure who the withered green hand belongs to, though).
Looking to take a break from the endless reincarnation cycle of falling in love with the same woman, Hawkman met the lovely nightclub singer (and psychic) Domina Paris, pictured here on the cover of Hawkman #29 (2004). As you might have guessed from the symbolic skeletal image of Hawkman, their romance (and Domina’s life) was cut short by a maniac named “The Angel Killer”.
Another spookily symbolic cover turned up on Alpha Flight #130 (1994), fittingly the final issue of the Canadian superteam’s series. James MacDonald Hudson, the long-dead founder of Alpha Flight, returned from the grave to battle his successor…who just so happened to be his widow!
When heroes weren’t turning into skeletons, they were battling them…like on the cover of Doctor Strange #19 (1974), bringing to mind the famous battle scene from Jason and the Argonauts. Why? Because it scared the living daylights out of me as a kid, that’s why!
The Spectre #47 (1992) revealed that skeletons are not only worthy hand-to-hand opponents, but excellent dancers and musicians as well!
The final cover reminds me that the skeleton’s symbolic power isn’t only about death and decay. They can also be used in lighthearted and darkly humorous ways, which can help us all laugh at and ultimately come to peace with our journey toward…well…you know. That…icky, not-living thing we all have to do.