?It can be hard to remember nowadays, what with all the death and violence and Identity Crises and Ultimate comics, but comic books used to be… well, cheerful. The superheroes in them, too. Sure, they fought bad guys and got beat up a lot, but they liked what they did, were happy to help, and generally went around with a smile on their faces. Even Spider-Man, whose life sucked constantly as Peter Parker and Spidey, was generally pretty upbeat.
Then of course came Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and the ’90s, and suddenly every time a superhero tried to eke out a little personal happiness, he or she was met with instant personal disaster instead. Nowadays, seemingly every hero is tortured in some way, and their lives are filled with constant tragedy that ceaselessly tests their moral resolve.
You can blame modern comics for this trend, but the reality is this kind of thing happened to even the cheeriest of heroes well before 1990. But it happened a lot less, and that always made those stories of superheroes faced with loss, abuse and trauma special — and heartbreaking — and sometimes even disturbing. Here are six of those stories.
6) Spider-Man, “The Death of Jean DeWolff”
Spider-Man’s always been a character who’s had to endure hardships — his Uncle Ben’s murder is right there in his origin story, after all, and the death of Gwen Stacy remains one of the most memorable Spider-Man stories of all time — but this four-issue story from 1985
(writer Peter David’s first published work for Marvel) is the first in which Spider-Man himself turns dark and gritty. It starts when a serial killer named Sin-Eater kills Police Capt. Jean DeWolff, one of Spider-Man’s only friends in the NYPD (as well as a judge, a priest, and almost Betty Brant).
When Spider-Man catches up to the killer, himself an NYPD detective who had befriended Peter, Spidey’s in such a rage that he nearly beats the guy to death. Only Daredevil’s intervention stops him, and the Sin-Eater ends up crippled. Earlier, Spidey comes pretty close to killing a drug pusher during an interrogation, too. And here’s the crazy thing: He’s wearing his black costume in the story, but it’s not the symbiote that would become Venom. It’s just a cloth version of the suit. Mr. Fantastic removed the symbiote almost a year prior. So, unlike the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon, where Spider-Man nearly killing The Shocker is directly the result of the symbiote, this was straight-up him.
A couple years later, Spider-Man would be buried alive in what might be the darkest Spidey story ever, “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” Oh, and he also made a deal with the devil to scrap his marriage to save Aunt May’s life, but that’s less “dark” and more “stupid.”
5) Superman, “For the Man Who Has Everything”
?Allow me to point out there that, though we tend to think of “dark” superhero stories as a trumped-up way to make fun comics “adult” and therefore a drag (or at least I do), lots of stories that go to dark places are really good, like this Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons pre-Watchmen team-up, which became an awesome episode of Justice League Unlimited.
Most of the single-issue story takes place in a simulated reality, as the supervillain Mongul has attached a hallucinogenic plant to Superman’s chest that puts him in a vegetative state and makes him think he’s living on Krypton again, married with kids. The hallucination turns out to be anything but Superman’s paradise, though. His father, Jor-el has been discredited because his predictions that the planet would be destroyed turned out to be false, and has taken over a political extremist group. His mother’s dead. His family’s in a shambles, and eventually, Superman realizes none of it is real, telling his son so as Batman pulls the plant off him.
But none of that’s really the dark part. That’s what comes next. Superman asks Mongul, “Do you realize what you did to me?” Mongul attacks, saying he most assuredly did. Superman replies with one word, “Burn,” and savagely attacks Mongul with his heat vision. And there’s the darkness. For once, Superman doesn’t see the good in someone. He just wants him to burn for what he did.
4) Fantastic Four, “A Small Loss”
?In 1984, Susan Richards had a miscarriage. And it was the result of the radioactivity that created the Fantastic Four to begin with. That’s some heavy stuff. In the issue where it happens, Reed Richards and Doctor Octopus (who’s brought in as an expert on radioactivity) rush to help her, but they’re too late, in no small part because Doc Ock remembers he’s a supervillain for a second and causes a ruckus.
The loss of the baby (who would eventually return as Valeria von Doom in the oh-so-convoluted Fantastic Four comics of the late ’90s) had far-reaching effects. Sue spirals into depression and anger leaving her open to an attack from Pscyho-Man, eventually turning her into Malice, the Mistress of Hate. That’s right. Malice, the Mistress of Hate. Eventually, Reed snaps her out of it by just plain slapping her in the face.
3) Avengers, “The Child Is Father To…?”
?When people think about the Avengers’ darkest moments, they tend to jump to Avengers #213, you know, the one where Yellowjacket hits the Wasp because he has lost his goddamn mind. And that’s certainly one of them. But a year earlier, in issue 200, an Avengers story went just as dark, if not more so. And the crazy thing was, it didn’t even seem intentional.
Carol Strickland goes into way more detail about it that I can here, but here’s the rundown: Ms. Marvel discovers she’s suddenly pregnant. After three days, she gives birth to Marcus, Immortus’ son. She didn’t know anything about this, and is pretty upset about it. But Marcus (very quickly an adult) explains how he used his dad’s machines to woo Ms. Marvel and impregnate her with himself. Then she leaves with him, willingly. He raped her, and she (and all the other Avengers) are cool with it.
However, a year later, in the 1981 Avengers annual, Ms. Marvel returns to point out that she was not, in fact, cool with it, and tears into the other Avengers for leaving her with Marcus. And they realize what they did was pretty rough. Marvel acknowledged that it published some pretty messed-up shit.
2) Daredevil, “Last Hand”
?Up until Mark Waid took over the title last year, Daredevil was basically a never-ending catalog of all the dark, terrible stuff that happened to Matt Murdock. For like, 30 years. Before that, the character was a fairly happy-go-lucky swashbuckler. Frank Miller changed that, nearly for good, and it all coalesced in this story, the one where Bullseye kills Elektra and Daredevil counters by dropping the crazy assassin off a power line, saying, “You’ll never kill anyone again.” It’s a great story, and an uncompromisingly dark one.
1) Green Lantern/Green Arrow, “Snowbirds Don’t Fly”
?Dark stories didn’t just happen in the 1980s. In 1971, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams crafted this story, in which the Robin-Hood-like Green Arrow and devil-may-care fighter pilot Green Lantern took on a group of drug dealers only to find that Green Arrow’s own sidekick, Speedy, was addicted to heroin. Speedy manages to quit (temporarily) but another addict character dies of an overdose.
The story ends with the two superheroes at the junkie’s funeral, where Speedy confronts Green Arrow about trying to bully him out of his addiction: “It maims, it pains, it dims you! It drives you to the edge of insanity and over…and one day ends your trip on a slab in the morgue, with a tag around your toe!” Heavy.