The Elseworlds line was a wonderful oddity that offered some interesting spins on beloved DC icons, taking them outside of their familiar contexts and relocating them to a weird and wonderful variety of new times and places. In a DC comic book climate that’s seen the likes of “Flashpoint” and “Convergence” come and go, the Elseworlds line may be seen as an unimpressive novelty but for those who cut their teeth on these stories throughout their ’90s heyday and beyond, many of them rank among the most imaginative and brilliant titles on the market. After all, the imprint may be dead and gone, but the impact they’ve made on the hearts and memories of DC fans will live on for decades.
Superman: Red Son is among Henry Cavill’s favorite Superman stories and Batman: Gotham By Gaslight is to be the next animated movie in DC’s straight-to-home video pantheon. Freed of the constraints of continuity, writers were free to take the characters to dark and violent places that would have editors of their main titles fingering their collars in apprehension. We’ve dived into the long boxes to bring you the 15 most violent versions of DC’s most revered icons ever committed to the page.
15. AMAZONIA WONDER WOMAN
Since the Wonder Woman myth is a tale of female empowerment, what better era to transport the character to than one in which womens’ rights were so abysmally neglected. This one-shot transports Diana to 19th century London in a tale with the melodrama and art work becoming of a ‘penny dreadful’.
While this version of Diana is familiar in many ways, from her costume (fittingly that of a circus performer) to her ubiquitous bullet blocking, she faces a foe far more insidious than Ares…spousal abuse in a disturbingly permissive social and historical context. This version of Diana is a social crusader who isn’t above lethal force to liberate her downtrodden sisters, from pushing criminals to their deaths from balconies to impaling her abusive husband on sharp spikes. Hell hath no fury, indeed!
14. SPEEDING BULLETS BATMAN/SUPERMAN
In our next Elseworlds yarn, baby Kal El’s rocket landed on the outskirts of Gotham and the infant Kryptonian was raised by Thomas and Martha Wayne. When the Waynes met their untimely fate it lead to the birth of an amalgam of The Dark Knight and The Man of Steel, that was markedly more violent and threatening than either.
This version of Bruce Wayne combines the powers of a Kryptonian with his mainstream counterpart’s burning sense of vengeance…quite literally, in fact, since one of his first acts is to incinerate Joe Chill with his heat vision after surviving a hail of the fated mugger’s bullets. This version of Batman rules with an iron fist through intimidation and brutality, until Lois Lane encourages him to embrace his true self as Superman.
13. ELSEWORLD’S FINEST BATGIRL
Most of us know (and love) Barbara Gordon as a scrappy yet idealistic young hero who shares her dark mentor’s passion for justice, yet pursues it in a far more morally healthy fashion. It’s jarring then, to see this reincarnation of Batgirl as a brutal vigilante who rules Gotham with an iron fist. She’s not above the kinds of threats, violence and intimidation we’d expect from some of the more extreme versions of Batman.
These include (but are not limited to) kicking criminals in the spine with spiked crampons used for scaling walls, punching out criminals with electrically charged gauntlets and pushing a Venom-enhanced Joker from a potentially fatal height. Perhaps grafting Bruce’s origin story onto her accounts for this extremity; featuring a young Barbara pointing dead Jim Gordon’s gun at Joe Chill…which is pretty awesome to see.
12. KINGDOM COME SUPERMAN
As The Joker is wont to say, “all it takes is one bad day” and this classic miniseries sees Superman faced with one bad day after another. After spending four issues railing against a world convinced that his quaint, anachronistic ways don’t cut it in the brutally violent world of the near future, Supes was getting pretty hacked off before the UN dropped a nuclear bomb on him, incinerating dozens of metahumans.
The result is truly terrifying as a scarlet eyed-Superman speeds to Turtle Bay to bring the UN’s headquarters quite literally crashing down on their heads. Fortunately, cooler heads prevail and the story ends with Clark’s heroism intact but its a chilling meta-commentary on the “cool” violent superhero stories of the mid ’90s.
11. IN DARKEST KNIGHT BATMAN
“In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight…unless it’s not directly related to me pursuing my own personal vendettas.” It’s not terribly succinct but it appears to be the oath of this Elseworlds Batman/Green Lantern hybrid. Not only is he reckless and cavalier with the ring’s powers, he demonstrates why someone of Bruce Wayne’s arrogance shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the Green Lantern Corps.
The story sees him eschew the will of the Guardians of The Universe and neglect virtually every planet in sector 2814 that doesn’t happen to be Earth, while he pursues his own agendas. This puts him in conflict with the Oans who imbue the rest of the Justice League with power rings to support the Green Lantern Corps (whom Batman spends about as much time fighting as Sinestro) in bringing him to justice.
10. JUSTICE RIDERS WONDER WOMAN
Anyone with even a passing interest in Greek mythology can tell you how staggeringly violent they are, rife with decapitations and dismemberment. It’s unsurprising then, that Wonder Woman (as much a child of Greek mythology as Superman is of science fiction or Batman is of depression era crime pulps) should get some violent re-imaginings under the Elseworlds label.
Justice Riders re-casts Diana as a sheriff in the old west who becomes leader of a band of outlaw gunslingers when her town of Paradise is burned to the ground. This version of Diana is far more likely to fire bullets from her six shooter than bounce them off her bracelets and while her lariat of truth is… kind of the same, she extracts the truth by strangling low down varmints, not through the magic of antiquity!
9. ELSEWORLD’S FINEST BATMAN
The Elseworld’s Finest miniseries does a great job of expanding on the depression-era influences of Batman and Superman. This creates a very pulp-inspired Bruce Wayne who roams the world as an adventurer and soldier of fortune akin to Doc Savage (by whom Kane and Finger were clearly influenced in the creation of Batman).
Amid an assassination attempt in Egypt, this roguish incarnation of Bruce stumbles on the tomb of an ancient Egyptian sorcerer called Kha who restores Bruce’s wounds and bequeaths him his bat-themed armor. He emerges as a ruthless predator who actively encourages a cultist to commit suicide, threatens that same cultist with a “long and painful” life and even succeeds where Batfleck failed by ‘fatally’ stabbing this universe’s version of Superman (albeit reluctantly) with a ceremonial knife.
8. LEGENDS OF THE DEAD EARTH JUSTICE LEAGUE
The “Legends of the Dead Earth” annual crossovers of the mid ’90s were not technically “Elseworlds” tales, but many consider them to be. It imagined a future where all life on Earth was wiped out and J’onn J’onzz has spread the legends of the Justice League among alien cultures from across the universe, who have appropriated the characters as their own. Hence, in the JLA annual we’re treated to a far-future version of War World, where the Justice League are savage dictators.
When the Captain Atom of 1996 finds himself flung forward in time he ends up at odds with these violent ‘heroes’, who are revealed to be evil clones of their former selves, led by lord Havok (who has Maxwell Lord’s brain uploaded into his body). Captain Atom’s only hope of defeating this evil alliance is by fathering a child with Maxima. Hey, if it saves a world, right?
7. THE GOLDEN AGE JSA AND ALL-STAR SQUADRON
We tend to think of the Justice Society of America as bastions of good old-fashioned, clear-cut Golden Age morality, but this Elseworlds reincarnation treads in the murkier waters of the likes of Watchmen and V for Vendetta. The story may go over the (even by 1993) well-trodden ground by placing superheroes in real life political and historical contexts, but it serves as an interesting insight into the McCarthyist witch trials of the ’50s and address the sense of displacement common among war veterans in peacetime.
It’s also staggeringly violent featuring a murderous Robotman “Puny things…of flesh and bone. Flesh bleeds. Bone breaks.”, Hitler’s brain in Dan The Dyna-Mite’s body and a bloodbath finale which sees Liberty Belle impale Dyna-Hitler on Starman’s cosmic staff.
6. LEAGUE OF JUSTICE GREEN ARROW
Oliver Queen has gone from subduing criminals with zany novelty boxing glove arrows to dispatching them permanently with the pointy variety and back again in mainstream comics. However, he’s never been quite as brutal as he is in the time-hopping League of Justice two-parter which sees Ollie re-imagined as Longbow Greenarrow; a Scots Robin Hood type with a proclivity for perforating knaves.
While, for the most part, the Green Arrow known to the masses refrains from killing (or at least has the decency to feel about it afterwards), this incarnation shoots first and thinks later. He even maims a knife-wielding teenager by shooting him through the knife hand when he could just as easily disarm him. Stephen Amell would have spent a whole season reproaching himself for that!
5. RED SON SUPERMAN
We all know Superman as a moral paragon. A champion for truth, justice and the American way, but is Superman’s goodness innate or a product of his upbringing? That was the thesis of Mark Millar’s story which crashed baby Kal El’s rocket on a collective farm in the Soviet-Era Ukraine. Raised to be a crude propaganda tool, Superman begins the story as the champion of the common worker…and ends it as an oppressive authoritarian dictator.
It’s an interesting treatise on how Superman’s desire to do good is compromised by the muddied waters of international politics. Armed with political power that matches his super powers and frustrated by diplomatic processes, this Superman’s weapons of choice include the forced lobotomy of anyone who disagrees with him, and collaborating with Brainiac to carry out brutal military actions.
4. THE BLUE AMAZON WONDER WOMAN
Wonder Woman: The Blue Amazon is without a doubt one of the weirdest comic books ever printed with one of the weirdest depictions of Wonder Woman ever committed to the page. The one-shot is part of a trilogy of German Expressionism influenced takes on the characters including a Superman story based on Lang’s Metropolis and a Batman story based on Murnau’s Nosferatu.
The story is equal parts The Blue Angel and Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler and casts Diana as an amnesiac exotic dancer who faces off against a goblin-like ‘Doctor Psykho’ and a spectacularly bloodthirsty Cheetah. The latter, Diana duels in the story’s climax and watches motionless as she impales herself on a quartet of spears. It’s an ambitious, idiosyncratic and extremely bloody tale that never quite lives up to the promise of its premise.
3. RING OF EVIL GREEN LANTERN
Just when you think you’ve seen everything, DC’s Elseworlds serves you up Nazi Hal Jordan (and, less surprisingly, Guy Gardner). Blending Hitler’s fabled love of the occult with the Green Lantern mythology, this story sees Heinrich Himmler take possession of a supernaturally powered Yellow Power Ring by means of a Satanic ritual. This secures Nazi Germany a landslide victory, decisively ending World War 2.
Years later, Himmler’s ring is delivered to Hal Jordan who, with the aid of Guy Gardner tracks down a resistance movement called the Green Lanterns led by Oliver Queen. After assassinating Queen and ritually sacrificing other ‘Lanterns’, Gardner gets a green-hued ring of his own and he and Jordan come into conflict both ideologically and physically. Gardner murders Jordan whose ring is taken by the remaining ‘Lantern’ John Stewart who re-purposes it as an instrument of good.
2. THE NAIL JIMMY OLSEN
All it took was a nail in Pa Kent’s tire on one fateful night to deprive the world of a Superman. Without its resident beacon of hope, the DC Universe becomes a very different place. This change is best exemplified by the change in Superman’s long-time pal Jimmy Olsen who, bereft of the world’s greatest role model has become the media mouthpiece for the demagogue Mayor Lex Luthor’s anti-metahuman diatribes.
He goes from TV hate preaching deputy to full-scale supervillain when Luthor grafts Kryptonian DNA found in Kal’s empty space ship, transforming him into a hybrid with incredible power. He completely decimates the Superman-less Justice League and anyone else who stands in his way until he’s taken down by Kal-El (who was raised by an Amish community on the outskirts of Metropolis).
1. VAMPIRE BATMAN
What began as a showdown between The Dark Knight and the undead Dracula, became the bloodiest and most gratuitously violent Batman story of all time. The Batman & Dracula trilogy begins with Red Rain, a darkly expressionistic tale which sees Batman face off against the prince of vampires, culminating in the death of Dracula whose last act is to transform Batman into a vampire.
The sequel Bloodstorm sees a vampire Batman stalking the night fighting crime while struggling to assert his control over the unquenchable thirst for human blood. It’s all going so well until The Joker manipulates him into drinking his blood, transforming him into a murderous predator. His new modus operandi? Draining criminals of their blood before severing their heads so that they don’t come back. The third installment sees Alfred and Commissioner Gordon’s attempt to lay their hideously deformed former friend to rest. Utterly bizarre!
Are there any other violent Elseworlds versions of heroes that we missed? Let us know in the comments!
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