In many of the great comics of the year 1986, their creators were examining the medium and the genre in which they were working and their histories, critically reevaluating them and redefining them for a new generation. Some of these comics, such as Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, have achieved fame even beyond the comics audience. Others remain relatively obscure. One of the latter just makes it into a study of the comics of 1986 under the wire: its first issue was cover-dated December 1986. This is Strikeforce: Morituri, a series created by writer Peter B. Gillis and artist Brent Anderson and published by Marvel Comics. Of the superhero series of that year, Strikeforce: Morituri is the most somber, chilling and disturbing. Its subject is the inevitable, inescapable reality of death.
The title “Morituri” comes from the Latin phrase “Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant,” translated as “Hail Emperor, we who are about to die salute you.” This is a quotation from the Roman historian Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, and is attributed to condemned criminals, who were forced to battle to the death, as if they were gladiators, in the reenactment of a naval battle, staged to entertain the public. The event was staged by the Roman Emperor Claudius (perhaps best known nowadays as the protagonist of Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which were adapted into the classic BBC television series), who attended. Some think that the phrase was a traditional gladiatorial salute. However, other modern historians have contended that in saluting the Emperor in this way, the criminals were seeking to be pardoned and thus spared from dying in combat. Claudius, a fan of gladiatorial spectacles, replied “Aut non” (“Or not”), and induced them to do battle; however, in an unusual gesture, he reprieved the survivors from death.
In the popular interpretation of the phrase as the Roman gladiators’ traditional salute, the phrase indicates the gladiators’ recognition of the probability of their own deaths in combat; few gladiators survived to retire from the arena. It also suggests their bravery in fighting despite the imminence of their own demises.
The 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem “Morituri Salutamis” for the fiftieth anniversary of Bowdoin College’s Class of 1825. In it Longfellow quotes the “morituri” line from Suetonius:
“O Cæsar, we who are about to die
Salute you!” was the gladiators’ cry
In the arena, standing face to face
With death and with the Roman populace.
Then Longfellow applies it to the now elderly alumni contemplating the new young graduates.
And ye who fill the places we once filled,
And follow in the furrows that we tilled,
Young men, whose generous hearts are beating high,
We who are old, and are about to die,
Salute you; hail you; take your hands in ours,
And crown you with our welcome as with flowers!
Next Longfellow describes those young men, full of “aspirations,” “dreams,” and, pointedly, “illusions,” who act fearlessly, as if they are heroes in a “story without end.” That last phrase suggests that the young have the illusion of immortality, not bothering to think about the mortality that the elderly graduates soon must face.
How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams
With its illusions, aspirations, dreams!
Book of Beginnings, Story without End,
Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!
Aladdin’s Lamp, and Fortunatus’ Purse,
That holds the treasures of the universe!
All possibilities are in its hands,
No danger daunts it, and no foe withstands;
In its sublime audacity of faith,
“Be thou removed!” it to the mountain saith,
And with ambitious feet, secure and proud,
Ascends the ladder leaning on the cloud!
What else might Suetonius’ “morituri’” line imply? The condemned criminals in Suetonius’s account were going to fight and die in a colossal spectacle—a re-enactment of a naval battle—in order to entertain Emperor Claudius and the people of Rome, who had an appalling taste for bloody spectacles. Gladiators likewise waged combat and perished to entertain audiences. It was a form of show business that usually proved to be lethal for its practitioners.
The logo for Strikeforce: Morituri also includes the phrase in English “We who are about to die. . . .” How then is this classical reference relevant to the story and themes of Gillis and Anderson’s series?
Although Strikeforce: Morituri was published by Marvel, it did not take place in the mainstream Marvel Universe in which the core Marvel super-hero series such as Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man are set. (Decades later Marvel would establish that Strikeforce: Morituri takes place in on a parallel Earth in an alternate reality, designated Earth-1287.)
The setting is late 21st century Earth, which since 2069 A. D. has been under siege by an extraterrestrial race called the Horde. The first issue opens amid the ruins of a city called New Roanoke, Virginia, destroyed by the Horde, who left no survivors. (This surely is a reference not only to the real city of Roanoke, Virginia, but also to the Roanoke Colony in Virginia, whose people were mysteriously wiped out in the late 16th century.)
According to the opening narration, “We had lived with sickness in our stomachs and the rage in our brains for four years, since they—the Horde—came. Sickness and rage began to feel like life to us.” From the perspective of the actual 21st century, this now seems like a foreshadowing of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the intense national reaction to them. How much greater would the reaction of Americans to a full scale invasion be?
Following the Horde’s invasion, humanity found a new way of battling this alien foe. In 2072 Dr. Kimmo Tualema devised the Morituri Process, by which normal human beings can be endowed with superhuman powers. Only certain individuals have genetic makeups that make them suitable for the Morituri Process.
The people who undergo the Morituri Process and become members of Strikeforce: Morituri qualify as superheroes under the definition that Dr. Peter Coogan established in his groundbreaking book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre (2006, Monkeybrain Books). First, they have extraordinary abilities, which in each member’s case are literally superhuman. Second, they have superhuman identities, which are manifested through codenames and costumes. Third, they have an ongoing mission: to drive the Horde from Earth.
But the Strikeforce members do not wear masks or have secret identities, their costumes are uniforms rather than expressions of individual identities, and their adversaries are extraterrestrial warriors, not costumed super-villains. Gillis and Anderson consistently and credibly portray them as ordinary people who happen to possess super-powers, not as larger-than-life heroic figures. It is more helpful to regard Strikeforce: Morituri not as a superhero series but as a synthesis of genres, including the superhero genre, science fiction, and, importantly, the war genre. Despite the super-powers and the setting in the future, this is ultimately a war story.
This is where the quotation from Suetonius comes in. The super-powers acquired through the Morituri Process come with a harsh price. The Process radically shortens the recipients’ lives. Even if they do not die in combat, they will inevitably die within a year.
And Gillis and Anderson were serious about this. Some of the condemned criminals in Claudius’s mock naval battle survived the combat and received a reprieve from execution. A small percentage of the number of Roman gladiators survived all their battles and lived past the age of thirty.
But Gillis and Anderson made no exceptions to the rule in Strikeforce: Morituri. All the members of the Strikeforce were doomed to die within a year. There was no way out.
But you may think, that year would never expire. Typically in superhero comics, the characters age very little or not at all over time. That is why after the fifty years since his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962) as a fifteen-year-old, Spider-Man is still only in his twenties. But no, in Strikeforce: Morituri time marches on at a normal pace.
Before the mid-1980s actual, irrevocable deaths, whether of supporting characters or the heroes themselves, were relative rarities. Typically, in superhero stories, the superhero escapes or survives death traps, rescues people from death, and prevents catastrophes that would wipe out a city, a nation, the world, or even the universe. According to Joseph Campbell the “hero’s journey” involves the hero’s figurative death and resurrection. In superhero stories the hero typically survives a symbolic death (in the form of some sort of death trap or defeat in battle) and then rises triumphantly; in some instances the hero even manages to undergo literal death and return to life, as in Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner’s run on Doctor Strange.
Within the superhero genre there is a longstanding convention that a major villain may seem to perish, usually off-panel, at the end of a story line. Comics readers quickly learn that the seeming deaths of villains like Doctor Doom and the Red Skull are plot devices meant to end stories with heightened dramatic impact, but are not intended to be real. Indeed, such comics creators as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and later John Byrne, demonstrated how this game was to be played when they usually came up with clever explanations when the villains inevitably returned as to how they survived their seemingly inescapable dooms.
From the 1960s into the 1980s, writers would sometimes resort to the opportunities that the superhero genre provided for undoing deaths that were later regarded as mistakes on the part of previous storytellers. For example, in seeking to revamp the X-Men series, writer Roy Thomas killed off Professor Charles Xavier so that the X-Men, formerly portrayed as a team of teenagers under his supervision, could operate as independent adults. Eventually Thomas and artist Neal Adams resurrected Xavier, explaining that it was a shapeshifting double, the Changeling, who actually died while Xavier went into seclusion.
Still, when a death occurred in the superhero genre that was intended by the storytellers to be real and irrevocable, it had a tremendous dramatic impact, in large part because true death in the genre was so very rare. The deaths of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy were monumental events in Spider-Man’s history. The demise of his 1940s kid sidekick Bucky Barnes haunted Captain America, who suffered survivor’s guilt from the 1960s onward. Jim Starlin’s graphic novel The Death of Captain Marvel (1982) was a landmark event in Marvel history. The death of Jean Grey at the end of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in Uncanny X-Men #137 (1980) had startling impact on the readers.
It should be no surprise that all of these significant deaths took place in Marvel stories. In the early 1960s DC’s superhero comics maintained a nearly unchangeable status quo; any major change in Superman stories of that period, including deaths, almost always turned out to be a hoax, a dream, or an “imaginary story.” One of the points of Stan Lee’s Marvel revolution of the 1960s was to make the superhero genre more realistic, in sharp contrast to DC’s books, and one of Lee’s principal means of achieving this goal was to depict the reality of death. Indeed, Spider-Man’s origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962) must have been startling to readers of that time because it presented a superhero who failed to prevent the death of a relative, which was an irreversible fact that would haunt the hero for the rest of his life. Similarly, the death of Spider-Man’s leading lady, Gwen Stacy, was another case in which the hero failed to save a loved one, whose death had a profound impact on him.
In the 1980s editor Mark Gruenwald’s pioneering comics encyclopedia, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, included a “Book of the Dead” section that included biographies of Marvel characters such as Bucky and Captain Mar-Vell whom Marvel editorial had decided were definitely, irreversibly dead, never to return.
With Crisis on Infinite Earths in the mid-1980s DC Comics caught up to Marvel’s dramatic treatment of death. The demises of Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, and Supergirl were particularly startling, since both characters had been around for decades and were beloved by fans. DC proclaimed that no character who was killed in Crisis would be brought back to life. Indeed, Barry’s sidekick Wally West, a. k. a. Kid Flash, succeeded to the role of Flash for the next two decades, and a new Supergirl was created who was not Superman’s cousin, as the original had been. In the background of Crisis an infinite number of alternate universes were annihilated.
Yet arguably Strikeforce: Morituri was more disturbing than Crisis. The Flash and Supergirl were larger-than-life characters who sacrificed their lives in an adventure on a grandly heroic scale; most of the other superheroes survived. As for the obliteration of that infinite number of other universes, that was death on such an inconceivable scale as to seem like an abstract concept more than an emotional reality. And the Flash and Supergirl died due to twists of fate, really; one could easily imagine them surviving instead.
But in Strikeforce: Morituri the team members, although they had super-powers, were depicted not as heroes on a grand scale, but as ordinary people much like the readers themselves. And there was no question as to whether or not they would be brave enough, or skillful enough, or lucky enough to survive. They would not. There was absolutely no way out. If they were following Campbell’s hero’s journey, then it was a journey that ended in literal death with no possibility of literal resurrection.