In the DC Comics graphic novel Superman/Shazam: First Thunder, Billy Batson, a 12-year old orphan boy, reveals to Superman that he’s the alter ego of fellow caped crusader Captain Marvel. Somehow, Superman hides his real feelings about the revelation from the vulnerable young boy, but he’s enraged. How could the wizard Shazam have placed such an unimaginable degree of power and, more incredibly, responsibility onto the shoulders of a child? Confronting the old wizard in his lair soon after, Superman yells repeatedly “What have you done!? What have you done?!?” And Shazam’s reply (which won’t be spoiled for those who’ve not read the tale) is almost heartbreaking.
In comic book stories, the circumstances that ultimately result in the powers that heroes and villains receive are nearly as varied as powers themselves. Some, like Billy, receive powers from an old wizard, while others, like the X-Men, are born with genetic mutations that give them uncanny abilities. Others are victims of freak mishaps that mutate their bodies into incredible Hulks or give them the proportionate strength of a spider. And then there’s the class of heroes and villains who came by their powers by way of the despicable act. Here’s a senses-shattering collection of the most heinous way characters got their powers.
15. LUKE CAGE
At the very top of the list in which we spotlight the despicable ways that various comic book characters got their powers we place Luke Cage, aka Power Man. In 1972’s Luke, Cage Hero for Hire #1, written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by George Tuska, Cage became one of the first victims of a dastardly act that resulted in his receiving powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
Cage is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. To be considered for a shortened sentence, he volunteers to participate in a risky cell regeneration study. But a scumbag prison guard who hates Cage and wants to see him die behind bars tries to kill him by turning up the power level on the bio-chemical bath in which Cage is submerged. Instead of killing him, though, the act gives Cage bulletproof flesh and the superhuman strength to punch out of prison!
Unlucky number 13 is James Howlett, aka Wolverine. Born to a wealthy Canadian family in the 1880s, James’ mutant powers were triggered when his parents were murdered before his eyes. First, boney claws came out of his hands, then he discovered that he didn’t tire easily, that he could endure extreme temperatures and that his body healed almost instantly from injury.
Years later, while serving in the military under the alias Logan, he became a strike force soldier of the Weapon X program, a project created to exterminate mutant threats. After years of serving as a paid killer, Logan grew disillusioned and planned his exit. But before he could leave, he was subdued, sedated and submitted to be a test subject in a super soldier experiment. His entire skeleton was surgically fused with a rare metal called adamantium, and he was brainwashed to make him an even deadlier killing machine.
13. POISON IVY
Before becoming Gotham’s infamous plant lady, Lillian Rose was a bright and beautiful young student with a promising future. That was until the fateful day when she enrolled in a botany class taught by the mad genius Marc LeGrande. Enamored with his brilliant mind, Rose fell madly in love with LeGrande and did whatever she could to please him — and LeGrande did with his smitten young protégé as he pleased.
LeGrande also convinced Rose to steal ancient herbs kept under guard at a museum. Somehow, she pulled off the daring heist and planned to live happily ever after with LeGrande. He, however, had other plans. In order to erase any ties between him and the theft, LeGrande poisoned a cocktail made for Rose with an extract from the stolen herbs. But Rose wasn’t killed by his treachery and was transformed into the freakish, half-human and half-plant hybrid, Poison Ivy!
If the name Wade Wilson (aka Deadpool) has a familiar-sounding ring to it, it’s because it’s almost a rip-off of the DC Comics character, Slade Wilson (aka Deathstroke). Like Deathstroke, Deadpool was in the military and later becomes a mercenary. More originally, he’s later diagnosed with cancer and goes a little crazy. He’s then admitted into a hospice care facility for superhuman operatives.
While in hospice, Wilson and other patients are targeted for mistreatment by the maniac Doctor Killebrew and his sadistic assistant. Wilson and the others are subjected to cruel experiments and place bets amongst themselves, gambling on which one will live the longest in the “deadpool.” Eventually Wilson’s heart is ripped out of his body and he’s left for dead, but the event triggers a healing factor derived from Wolverine’s DNA (when Wade was an agent in the Weapon X program) and he rises from the dead.
11. BLACK MANTA
Despite being introduced in Aquaman #35 back in 1967, not much was ever known about Aquaman’s mortal enemy Black Manta. Since 2003, however, he’s had two different and tragic origin stories. In the first, he is kidnapped as a child while playing on the waterfront in Baltimore. Forced into labor on a ship, he’s also physically and sexually abused. One day he sees Aquaman and tries to no avail to signal the superhero for help. But eventually he manages to escape and vows to take revenge on Aquaman and the sea.
In his second origin, Manta is an autistic orphan who’s wrongly imprisoned in Arkham Asylum. There he’s subjected to barbaric experiments, including one that happens to cure autism but makes him homicidal. He soon murders the doctor that made him a lab rat and escapes Arkham, insanely believing it’s his destiny to rule over the oceans as Black Manta.
10. WINTER SOLDIER
Bucky Barnes, Steve Roger’s best buddy from Brooklyn, joined the service at the same time as Steve to fight against the fascists who were hellbent on taking over Europe and the rest of the globe. Tragically, however, Bucky perished in battle and the loss of his Brooklyn homeboy forever haunted Captain America.
Several decades later, however, it came to light that Bucky wasn’t actually dead at all. During the war he fell into the hands of the Soviets. In his time with them, he was tortured and brainwashed in order to strip him of any memories of the virtuous person he was. After his mind was wiped, they gave him a new arm (to replace the one he’d lost during his last military operation) and made him the technologically enhanced assassin known as Winter Soldier.
9. CLOAK AND DAGGER
Tyrone Johnson and Tandy Bowen were teenage kids from very different backgrounds. They each ran away from home and met by chance in New York City. Soon after their arrival in New York, they — like other unwitting teen runaways before them — are kidnapped by a street gang and taken to a hidden test facility on Ellis Island. There the teens are confined to cells and injected with a synthetic drug developed by a chemist working for the mafia to create a cheap, artificial substitute for heroin.
Tragically, within hours nearly all of the teen test subjects being held at the facility are dead from their injections. But Tandy and Tyrone both survive. What’s more, the drugs trigger in these teenage mutant runaways strange and terrifying superpowers — powers that they later decide to use to destroy the drug underworld as the crime-fighting duo Cloak and Dagger!
While serving in the Army, Slade Wilson willingly volunteered to be a guinea pig for a secret experiment. Believing he’d be a test subject for a drug that would empower soldiers to resist the effects of truth serum, Slade followed orders like a good solider. But he was misled. What Slade’s superiors were really working to create were super soldiers.
The experiment gave Slade increased strength and stamina, and sped up regenerative cellular healing and sharpened his reflexes. They gave him a deadly case of “roid rage,” too. As a safety precaution, Slade was kept heavily sedated to prevent him from murdering everyone in sight. The super soldier experiment was soon abandoned and Slade’s homicidal highs and lows eventually leveled to where that he could function optimally. But after a botched military operation turned tragic, he turned his back on the Army and became a costumed gun for hire.
At this point, it’s difficult to say what’s worse: scientific breakthroughs falling into the hands of the wrong people in general or scientific breakthroughs being placed in the hands of the military — whose existence is based on war. Okay, it’s not all that hard. In comics, science mixed with soldiers is a recipe for debauchery.
In the Valiant Comics universe, former soldier and mob enforcer Angelo Mortalli is taken into a Federal witness protection and becomes a lab rat for a secret experiment to create the ultimate killing machine. After his memories are erased, he is injected with microscopic computers called nanites and becomes the secret weapon of arms manufacturer Project Rising Spirit. On top of that, his mind is regularly implanted with fake, mission-related memories and then wiped clean upon mission completion — a despicable process of brainwash, rinse, and repeat.
The character Miracleman, formerly known as Marvelman, was created in 1954 by writer/artist Mick Anglo for the UK-based publisher L. Miller & Son. He’s essentially clever a rip-off of the American comic book character, Captain Marvel aka Shazam, and his original origin story was as sugary sweet as that of the hero from which he was derived: a young boy receives superpowers by uttering a magic word.
The series ran until 1963. In 1982, the character was famously reintroduced in a dark, edgy, post-modern reboot written by Alan Moore and later handled by Neil Gaiman. That’s when things took a turn for the despicable. Miracleman learns that his life is a lie and that his experiences as a superhero were simulations. In actuality, he’s the product of alien technology taken by the military and he’s been brainwashed with adventures lifted from comic books! After that, all hell breaks loose.
The daughter of Wolverine, she was neither conceived nor born the old fashioned way. She’s actually a clone made from Wolverine’s DNA in the military’s never-ending quest to produce an army of super soldiers. After numerous failed attempts to create a male clone using a corrupted DNA profile, a female embryo was successfully developed and then forcibly gestated inside the body of the very unwilling Dr. Sarah Kinney, the mutant geneticist overseeing the Weapon X-inspired super soldier program.
Like Wolverine, Laura has retractable claws, high endurance and amplified physiology, but almost none of Wolverine’s restraint. In every sense of the term she’s a natural born killer. So much so that Laura even killed her own mother later in life as a pre-programmed tool of Weapon X. Sad.
Professor Michael Collins was a scientist in the employ of the Roxxon Oil cybernetics division known as Cybertek. While analyzing the details a computer code he developed to help people making use of enhanced artificial limbs, Collins discovered his code was actually going to be used for an enhanced cyborg killing machine program code named “Deathlok.”
Alarmed by the potential the misuse of his work, Collins shared his discovery with Harlan Ryker, his boss and trusted friend, with the intention of having the project stopped. Ryker, however, was already fully aware of the Deathlok program and wasn’t about to see the work on the secret project jeopardized by Collins. After injecting his friend with a sedative, Ryker had Collins’ brain surgically removed and placed into the Deathlok cyborg. Afterward, Collins awakes to the horror of being trapped within the cyborg body over which he has no control!
This DC Comics villain earned a reputation that none of Batman’s infamous rogue’s gallery had ever attained. Bane was the guy who — after getting his muscle-bound mitts on Batman — hoisted the Dark Knight high into the air and smashed him over his knee, breaking his back and (almost) effectively sentencing Batman to life in wheelchair.
Born in a little-known country called Santa Prisca, Bane spent his entire childhood in prison in place of his father, a revolutionary who’d fled prosecution. As an 8-year-old, he committed his first murder while defending himself from another prisoner. As an adult, he was used as a test subject for an experimental drug called “Venom.” The drug almost killed him but he survived and experienced freakish growth. He also developed an addiction to Venom, which — ironically — needs to be taken every 12 hours to inhibit its own crippling side effects.
2. CAPTAIN AMERICA/ISAIAH BRADLEY
When you hear the term “Super Soldier” now, it’s a safe bet that there’s something despicable going on. What happened when Steve Rogers took the experimental serum that safely turned him into a superman was the exception. In the Marvel graphic novel Truth: Red, White & Black, another attempt is made to recreate the original Super Soldier serum by a team of American, British and German scientists.
Three hundred African-American soldiers are taken to an undisclosed location and used as guinea pigs. To keep what quickly turns into a horribly failed effort a secret, the soldiers are all killed and their families are told their loved ones died in battle. But one man, Isaiah Bradley, survives and uses a spare costume intended for Captain America to wage a desperate, one-man war on the super soldier program.
1. HARLEY QUINN
You didn’t honestly think that we’d fail to put the infamous Harley Quinn on this list did you? Anywho, like her previously mentioned fellow Batman villain Poison Ivy, Dr. Harleen Quinzel was a bright and beautiful young woman with a promising future ahead of her. Unfortunately, though, she fell madly in love with that ultimate bad boy known as the Joker while on staff at Arkham Asylum.
Not only did the Joker break her heart, the guy literally broke her brain. She was subjected to electric shock treatment, endless hours emotional abuse and then pushed into a vat of dangerous chemicals to remake her in the clown-faced image we all know and love today. Some might like it rough…but that was no way to treat a lady!
Any other characters who had powers forced on them? Let us know in the comments!
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