The revolving door of justice that exists within superhero comics has helped introduce readers to a number of prisons, asylums and correctional facilities over the years. With The Vault, The Raft, Arkham Asylum, Ravencroft Institute, Belle Reve, Iron Heights, Ryker’s Island and more, readers have become used to seeing villains sent to the clink after each defeat, inevitably to be followed some time later by their escape.
But although such locations are typically filled to bursting with all manner of criminal, from evil masterminds to generic thugs, they have also been known to house a somewhat rarer specimen. A number of heroes have also been imprisoned over the years, sometimes deservedly and sometimes not. So, in the spirit of fairness and justice, we’re going to count down 10 of the most memorable sentences ever served by otherwise protectors of the peace.
10. Green Lantern
Hal Jordan was one of many DC characters to have his origin subtly updated in the aftermath of “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” Two miniseries — “Emerald Dawn” and “Emerald Dawn II” — retold and embellished the tale of Hal’s early days as Green Lantern, adding a number of new elements. One of these new wrinkles was that Hal was sent to prison for 90 days after pleading guilty to drunk driving.
To Hal’s credit, he voluntarily turned himself in to the Police, although he later admitted that he was expecting to be put on probation, not given a prison sentence. Seeing Hal in this environment was one of a number of interesting aspects in his new origin; one that downplayed his fearlessness and portrayed a brave yet flawed man struggling to do his best as his entire world changed around him. This wouldn’t be Hal’s last brush with the law, with his tragic fall from grace less than a decade away in publication time. It still stands as a reminder to readers — both new and old — that Hal Jordan is a character who always tries to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences.
There has always been an enjoyable contrast in the way that Batman’s secret identity functions: the dark, driven persona of Batman being in stark contrast to the portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a somewhat scatty millionaire playboy. The dichotomy between the two roles, and the need to not jeopardize the position of either, is one of the things that made the “Bruce Wayne: Murderer” storyline so effective.
Bruce’s girlfriend, Vesper Fairchild, was found dead in Wayne Manor, with Bruce subsequently arrested for her murder and imprisoned. He is therefore placed in a situation where he has to play the part of “Bruce” in jail, not being able to use any of his skills as Batman. In addition, members of the Bat family who are conducting their own research into the killing are hampered by the fact that they can’t reveal that Bruce and Batman are the same person.
8. Luke Cage
With Luke Cage’s debut as the star of the latest Marvel series on Netflix, it will be fascinating to see what aspects of his origin the writers embrace and what they update or throw away. Luke’s time in prison is interesting in that, although he was innocent of the crime he was sentenced for (possession of heroin), he had still broken the law on several occasions prior to this, including multiple petty thefts.
Luke’s prison experience offers a veritable collection of clichés, including the offender becoming hardened by the experience, abuse from corrupt prison officials and, of course, participation in an untested — not to mention dangerous — medical experiment. The end result of this chain of events is that, while many ex-convicts speak of prison as being a life-changing experience, Luke literally did emerge as a changed man. With his steel-hard skin and his great strength, it would have been easy for Luke Cage to live down the expectations of others and embrace a life of crime. Instead, he began a hero’s journey that, many years later, finds him a member of the Avengers and a contented family man.
For someone who makes his living as a lawyer, Matt Murdock has made a career of dancing on the fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s not; or what is legal and what is ethically dubious. The contrast between an upholder of the justice system in the courtroom and a vigilante on the streets has delicious potential, but always had the possibility of ending messily.
Ever since Frank Miller first tormented him, successive writers have enjoyed putting Matt’s life through the wringer, but it was Brian Michael Bendis that set into motion the chain of events that led to Matt’s imprisonment when he had his secret identity exposed to the world. Matt’s decision to deny this, while understandable, was never likely to work in the long run, and meant that his fall was all the greater when it eventually came.
Matt’s time in jail was always likely to be an ordeal, being surrounded by men that he helped send there in both his civilian and costumed identities. The intensity of the storyline, kicked off by what appeared to be the murder of Foggy Nelson as a direct result of Matt’s decisions, seemed to offer one clear lesson. Sometimes justice really is blind.
With Spider-Man being a fugitive for so much of his career, it’s somewhat surprising that it Peter Parker was the one finally sentenced to imprisonment, after being investigated for a number of murders. The reader is never in any doubt about Peter’s innocence, knowing that the real culprit is Kaine, his crazed clone. What was in question was how Peter Parker would cope in prison, and how his family and supporting cast would adapt to these new circumstances. We see him struggling with these very thoughts, knowing that he has the power to escape but agonizing over what the responsible course of action is.
The decision was soon made for him. After escaping from prison in an attempt to protect MJ’s life, Peter traded places with his clone, Ben Reilly, leaving him free to function on the outside. The Clone Saga is notorious for throwing out a constant stream of crazy ideas, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Peter’s time in jail was underdeveloped. Nevertheless, while there are some nice scenes with his supporting cast reacting to news of his arrest, numerous scenes of Peter gazing mournfully through the bars of his cell do seem to represent an opportunity missed for a hero so steeped in character development.
For readers who first encountered Scott during his tenure as the most straight-laced of Professor Xavier’s original students, the idea that he would ever be imprisoned would have seemed laughably farfetched. Readers who have followed his journey since “House of M,” and have seen the lengths he is willing to go to in order to protect mutants, may be less surprised, fully aware that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.
In retrospect, Scott’s journey toward imprisonment, which culminated in his murder of Charles Xavier while possessed by the Phoenix Force, has almost an air of inevitability about it. Although his time in prison was brief — essentially just for the duration of the “A vs X: Consequences” miniseries — it reflected the way in which it could be a brutal struggle for survival. In an environment where a knife to the gut can be as devastating as any mutant power, even a mutant as powerful as Cyclops isn’t the next stage of evolution, he’s just another person struggling to survive.
When the “New Warriors” title first launched, Marvel Boy appeared to be one of the more overtly altruistic of its members — someone who idolized superheroes and strove to live up to what he considered the heroic ideal. Sadly, Vance Astrovik’s home life was less settled, with his Dad resenting the fact that his son was a mutant, taking his frustrations out on his family as a result. When Vance impulsively retaliated, accidentally killing his father, all of his beliefs were called into question, black and white certainties being replaced by shades of grey.
To his credit, Vance accepted his sentence, even rebuffing attempts by his fellow Warriors to break him out. The effect on him was huge in terms of public perception, family ties and personal relationships, but he never wavered from his belief that justice should be done. The experience of imprisonment changed Vance, forcing him to grow up, while still showing he was brave enough to hold onto his ideals. His adoption of the name “Justice” upon his release was a constant reminder to him of what he hoped to fight for and achieve.
When the ending of “Thunderbolts” #1 shocked readers by revealing that these new heroes were villains in disguise, Abe Jenkins, the newly christened Mach-1, was one of the more recognizable foes. As The Beetle, a long-time Spider-Man adversary, he had spent years fighting costumed heroes, rarely achieving success or gaining respect along the way. His time in the Thunderbolts was notable because readers saw him genuinely grow as a person, helped by his growing affection for Songbird and his increasing desire to be a hero. When he became one of the Thunderbolts to rebel against Baron Zemo’s nefarious plans, it felt like a satisfying marker of the journey he’d made.
It was this growing aptitude as a hero, coupled with the general decency of his actions, that made his eventual imprisonment so shocking. When Hawkeye agreed to lead the Thunderbolts, it was on the condition that Mach-1, the only known murderer on the team, turned himself in to the authorities. Abe’s agreement to this condition, motivated by his love for Songbird and a desire to seek redemption for past crimes, was a clear indication that The Beetle was no more. In his place was Mach-1: a hero.
While his latest successor, ex-con Scott Lang, is definitely no stranger to being behind bars, it is Hank Pym’s time in jail that is perhaps more shocking and important. His incarceration is linked to an incident that will forever define him for some comic fans: where he hit Janet Van Dyne while suffering from a mental breakdown, resulting in his expulsion from the Avengers. In the aftermath of this event, he was blackmailed by the villainous Egghead into stealing adamantium, and left to take the blame when the heist was discovered. Hank was imprisoned as a result, suffering the twin indignities of his colleagues believing that he had gone bad, and Janet Van Dyne appearing to move on with Tony Stark. Although Hank was later cleared of all charges, the legacy of this sequence of events is one that he’s struggled to escape ever since.
Hank Pym is a character that is imprisoned by his past. No matter how he tries to move on, two things will always haunt him: that he created Ultron and that he hurt Janet. Hank may have been released from prison, but he’ll never be truly free.
1. Amanda Waller
Amanda Waller is living proof that you don’t necessarily need super powers to hold your own against the worst that the DC Universe has to offer. She’s stood up to criminals, politicians and even Batman, never wavering from her conviction to do what’s necessary in order to serve the greater good. Amanda’s physical stature may fluctuate throughout her appearances in other media (and even in comics), but her force of personality is always a constant.
As the director of the Suicide Squad, Amanda was used to the idea that ethical compromises were sometimes required to get the job done; that good intentions frequently came to naught when confronted by harsh reality. Even so, there was still a line and she crossed it when she used Squad members to pursue a New Orleans crime cartel, and sanctioned the killing of its leaders. As a result, she was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, a punishment she stoically accepted as being warranted. In the years since her release, Amanda has continued to work with the Squad and other government organizations; a good person taking on the responsibility of doing bad things.
Which other superheroes went “up the river” in comics? Let us know in the comments!
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