Superheroes risk much in the fight against evil and injustice. Every time they don their costumes, they are putting their lives and well-being in serious danger. They do this because they believe in a cause greater than themselves; something whose value eclipses that of their own lives. And on occasion, a hero is either called upon or forced to make that ultimate sacrifice – dying to defend the ideal of good and justice that they believe in.
Of course, in the world of comic books, this sacrifice has become anything but ultimate. Numerous heroes have perished in the line of duty – as have loved ones and colleagues – and in the vast majority of cases those heroes have come back to life. Indeed, “the undiscovered country” seems to have only the most tenuous of holds on the souls of fallen superheroes. Much of the blame for the inconsequence of death is put on 1992’s “The Death of Superman” storyline, in which the Man of Steel is beaten to death by the Kryptonian creature Doomsday. It was a major publication event, killing off the character after over fifty years. In the void that remained, the comics explored what happens to a city, people, and world who have lost their greatest hero. And the real world reacted as well, mourning the loss of the most iconic superhero of all time. But it was to be short lived. Less than a year after his death, Kal-El of Krypton returned to the world, an act that would set the precedent for subsequent hero resurrections including the Flash (Barry Allen), Batman, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), and nearly every other major hero in the DC (and indeed Marvel) Universe.
In fact, almost every hero who has died since “The Death of Superman” has not remained dead. The most notable contradiction to this trend is Ted Kord, the second Blue Beetle, whose death would mark a distinct turning point in the narrative of the DC Universe.
A genius inventor and industrialist, Ted Kord was a student of Dan Garrett from whom he inherited the mantle of the Blue Beetle when the latter was killed in action. Possessing no powers of his own, and without the mystical scarab that powered Garrett, Kord relied on his wealth and genius, as well as his superb athleticism, to fight crime. A genius-level inventor, he developed some simple technology including an air-blast pistol, grappling hooks, and a flying machine named the Bug to assist him in fighting crime. He became a member of the Justice League International, where he developed a close friendship with Booster Gold. The two were both light-hearted heroes without the tragic pasts of more notable Justice Leaguers like Batman or Superman, and their wise-cracking antics led to them being taken less seriously as heroes. Kord’s light-hearted, almost comedic immaturity was also a cause of personal issues, as it affected the financial viability of Kord Industries – his family company that perennially teeters on the edge of fiscal collapse. Despite this, he has proven himself to be a courageous and dependable hero, being among the first to engage Doomsday when the creature first appeared in Metropolis, although even those contributions are overshadowed by his perceived immaturity.
This perception is made perfectly clear in the pages of Countdown to Infinite Crisis – the 2005 one-shot introduction to the company-wide Infinite Crisis – where Oracle informs Kord that someone is siphoning off massive amounts of money from Kord Omniversal and he is on the verge of bankruptcy. Oracle implores him to take the issue seriously, but disbelieves him when he says he does – mistaking his light-hearted tone as indifference rather than a brave façade. As Blue Beetle as well as Ted Kord, he begins to investigate the financial troubles at Kord Omniversal, slowly uncovering what he believes to be a massive conspiracy. When he attempts to involve other heroes such as Batman, Martian Manhunter, and others, he is rebuked – none of the heroes trust his judgment. The only exceptions to this are Wonder Woman, who encourages him to keep digging and to keep her informed, and Booster Gold, who ends up grievously injured when Ted’s own home is attacked.
Kord eventually follows the evidence to a castle in Switzerland, where he discovers a computer database listing all of the information on every Justice League member; their secret identities, the names of their families and friends, their abilites, and their weaknesses. Kord attempts to contact the League, but is left alone and cut off when he is confronted by the mastermind, Maxwell Lord – a human who gained mental powers in a freak accident and was the administrative head of the Justice League for some time. Lord’s men subdue Kord, breaking his arm and cuffing him before Lord explains his plan to save the world from the dangers of the Justice League, asking Kord to join him and Checkmate, his organization. Kord refuses and Lord kills him with a gunshot to the head.
This death marked a crisis point (no pun intended) in the DC Universe. Not only did it launch the events of the Infinite Crisis crossover event, it marked a crucial shift in the attitude towards death in mainstream DC titles. During the climax of Infinite Crisis, Wonder Woman confronts Maxwell Lord, who tells her that the only way to release Superman from his mental control is to kill him; Wonder Woman obliges by snapping his neck.
This action is broadcast around the world by the Brother MK I satellite, and it destroys Wonder Woman’s reputation. Death and murder, though something many heroes swear against, is seldom taken as seriously as they purport. In fact, Wonder Woman often kills enemies, being of warrior descent, and she certainly isn’t the only one. But the circumstances of Ted Kord’s death changed the game – Project OMAC and Checkmate may have been under the command of Maxwell Lord, but the omniscient Brother MK I satellite was of Batman’s design. The Justice League had in fact grown too powerful, and where killing enemies had on occasion been deemed necessary or even acceptable, now it was re-framed as heroes out of control, bound by no laws or morality. Ted Kord died trying to warn the Justice League of the coming confrontation but his death actually fuelled the fire – a major contributing factor to Wonder Woman’s rash and impulsive move to kill Maxwell Lord. Wonder Woman’s reputation was irreparably damaged by this event; it shattered the relationship between her, Superman, and Batman, the latter two unable to come to terms with her actions.
But for any of the lasting repercussions of this event to have any meaning, Ted Kord could not return to life. This is something the writers were clearly aware of and they respected it – despite outcry from fans of Kord. If death and murder were to have any weight or significance in the DC Universe again, the doorway between life and death could not remain open. This is quite literally explored in a later storyline, where Booster Gold and others travel back in time to save Ted Kord. Teaming up with the third Blue Beetle and other heroes, as well as Kord himself, they realize that if Kord does not die, the shockwave of events means that Wonder Woman never kills Maxwell Lord and the world is in even greater peril. In the end, Booster watches as Ted Kord once again sacrifices himself in order to protect the timestream.
Countdown to Infinite Crisis is a story about Blue Beetle, but more importantly it is a story about death. Ted Kord’s murder reintroduced death as a final, ultimate sacrifice, and though many characters would return from the grave afterwards, a growing number would not. Garth (the first Aqualad and third Tempest), Doctor Light, Maxwell Lord, and the Elongated Man are among those who, like Ted Kord, would die and stay dead. A return from the great beyond was no longer a given in the DC Universe. In essence, Ted Kord’s sacrifice operates on two levels: he died trying to alert the Justice League, but more than that he died to save comic books from themselves. He reminds us that, for the heroes of the DC Universe, death is always waiting around the next corner and each action they take to protect the innocent comes at a price. In the case of the second Blue Beetle, it came at the ultimate price.