Comics have long had an association with the horror industry. When superhero comics began to falter in sales, the industry moved on to various other genres and briefly found itself making a mint with the publication of horror comics. Titles such as Creepy and Tales From The Crypt captivated audiences but weren’t long for existence. Public backlash resulted in Senate hearings and, eventually, the formation of the infamous Comics Code Authority, a third party organization tasked with approving comic book content. With the CCA taking hold, horror comics would disappear from the public eye.
The horror genre would eventually make a resurgence in the '60s and '70s, and even today still has a dedicated following when they release. Comics haven’t forgotten their history in the horror industry, with many characters and events highlighting horror elements. By the very nature of comic stories, there’s a lot of body horror, a subset of the genre where the horror is brought on by destructive or afflictive effects on the body. Some of these can be pretty outrageous. As such, we’ve come up with some of the more egregious examples in comics. Here are 15 of the most gruesome examples of body horror in modern comics.
15 TONY STARK’S HEART KEEPS TAKING A BEATING
Thanks to his prevalence in the MCU, you almost certainly know Iron Man’s origin by now. With shrapnel embedded near his heart by a booby-trap and forced to build a WMD, Tony instead builds a suit of armor and escapes. Over the years, Tony’s heart has taken a beating and continues to keep ticking.
Initially, Tony was forced to wear his chest plate all the time, or else the shrapnel would cause his heart to stop beating. Tony’s health continued to deteriorate, and he had to wear a type of second skin to replace his failing nervous system. Tony’s health was restored when he was recreated in the Heroes Reborn universe, and again with the Extremis procedure, but he continues to endure some horrible body horror. In 2007’s Mighty Avengers series, Tony was body shifted into a female Ultron, and stated to suffer numerous aneurysms and a severe heart attack.
14 CAPTAIN AMERICA ON ICE!
Steve Rogers underwent the Super Soldier serum to become Captain America, the Living Legend of World War II. Transformed from a scrawny weakling into a prime physical specimen by the scientifically advanced Super Soldier formula, Captain America fought the good fight during WWII before being launched into the present day with The Avengers. It’s how Cap got to the present day that is terrifying.
Following a missile explosion, Captain America falls into the Arctic waters and is frozen. He was frozen in ice anywhere from 20 to 60 years thanks to Marvel’s sliding timescale. It’s hard to imagine anything quite as terrifying. Cap at least had the fortune of his hyper-metabolism slowing down to the point that he was in stasis rather than cognizant of what was happening, but the thought of being perpetually frozen in ice is one to keep you awake at night.
13 A FACE ONLY A FATHER COULD LOVE
When Detective Comics relaunched as part of "The New 52," it looked for sure like the first big bad was going to be The Joker. However, readers quickly found out this wasn’t the case, as Detective Comics #1 ended with The Joker having his face cut off by the mysterious Dollmaker, who became the first arc’s big bad.
The son of a serial killer who was killed by a young Commissioner Gordon, Dollmaker has only made sporadic appearances since his debut but is downright terrifying. A master surgeon, Dollmaker uses human flesh to make living dolls and creates some truly horrifying henchmen, including one who appears to have bones made of rubber. What’s more, Dollmaker carries on his father’s terrifying heritage by way of his mask, a gruesome mask stitched together with the remains of his father’s face.
12 SUPERMAN, THE EXPLODING SOLAR BATTERY
In the JLA classic "Tower of Babel," the Justice League is attacked by an unseen force who can target their greatest weaknesses. The Flash has seizures at light speed. Martian Manhunter’s skin constantly lights on fire. Wonder Woman is forced to fight until she nearly kills herself. It’s a terrifying outcome, and what’s worse is the source: all these plans were designed by Batman to counter a JLA gone rogue.
Superman probably got the worst of it. Exposed to Red Kryptonite, Superman’s skin is turned translucent. With his internal organs exposed, Superman absorbs solar energy at a far higher rate than usual. The result is a Man of Steel whose powers are kicked into overdrive and out of his control. Superman can hear everything and is in intense pain as his senses rebel against him. Superman eventually recovers with Batman’s help, but the damage to their friendship is more notable.
11 SIX-ARMED AND DANGEROUS
You could argue that the entirety of Spider-Man’s life has been body horror. Bitten by a radioactive spider, the changes to Peter Parker’s body are terrifying when you remove the youthful exuberance that led to him revelling in his newfound abilities. But 1971’s so-called "Six Arms Saga" may be one of the first instances of true body horror the character faced.
At the period of Amazing Spider-Man, Peter was at a crossroads. He was losing his drive to be Spider-Man, instead wanting to settle down with his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. To that end, he created an experimental potion to rid himself of his powers. Unfortunately, the potion didn’t work as intended, and Peter instead awoke with four additional arms! Peter made the best of a bad situation, but a few short issues later cured himself of the condition thanks to a blood sample from Morbius the Living Vampire.
10 SHADE’S MADDENING ENCOUNTER
1990’s Shade, The Changing Man is an excellent piece of work by Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo, The series was known for being bizarre and often absurd, tackling issues of the era in a way that only the Vertigo label could give pass to do so. Perhaps none was more unsettling, though, than Shade’s first encounter with sex as a woman.
With his own body dying, Shade takes on the body of a deceased woman but finds himself unable to force the body to change into his own. During his first sexual encounter as a woman, Shade loses control and inadvertently affects the body of his partner, Flynn. Flynn’s body splits in two with a warped visage, an unsettling and grotesque display that stuck with readers. Flynn found himself shook by the experience, and a few days later committed suicide.
9 A COCOON OF SCABS
Warren Ellis and Adi Granov redefined the status quo of Iron Man with 2005’s "Extremis." Often regarded as one of the best Iron Man stories to date, Extremis picked up Tony’s story following the threads of "Avengers Disassembled." With the evil Mallen undergoing the Extremis procedure to become a super-powered threat, Tony undergoes the process himself.
On paper, Extremis was great for Tony. It repaired his damaged heart and musculature and gave him a level of connectivity with his armor and technology that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. But in reality, Extremis sounds terrifying. Outright referred to as a virus, Extremis works by telling your immune system your entire body is wrong, encasing the subject in a cocoon of scabs.
8 THE ANATOMY LESSON
A scientist working on a bio-restorative formula, Alec Holland was hiding out in a Louisiana swamp to protect his work. But he was attacked one night, his lab exploded and his body dosed in the formula and set afire. Panicked, Holland threw himself into the swamp, and sometime later arose as the hulking monstrosity Swamp Thing.
At least, that was the story for decades, and it was terrifying in its own right. But then along came Alan Moore, and things got really scary. In the classic “The Anatomy Lesson,” it’s revealed that Holland is long dead. Swamp Thing is a living monster that absorbed his memories and was never a man to begin with. The new direction took Swamp Thing from monster comic to modern horror and remains one of the most unsettling revelations to ever take place in comics.
7 THE LEGACY VIRUS AND ITS AFTER EFFECTS
1993 was a good year for the X-Men, riding high off the success of multiple on-going titles and the animated series. But it was also the year the Legacy Virus was introduced. A recurring plot point, the Virus’ presence was one of the greatest threats to mutants for almost a decade until Colossus sacrificed his life to create a cure.
The virus itself is terrifying. According to the comics, it works by inserting random strands of useless junk DNA into a mutant until it reaches a point where healthy cells no longer reproduce. Among the more notable victims was Madrox, The Multiple Man, in X-Factor #100. Madrox’s death was a surprise, but some time later it was learned this was merely a dupe. However, the real Madrox felt the death when it occurred, sending a shock through his body that rendered him an amnesiac for a time.
6 A STEADY RIGHT HAND
Ultimate Comics Avengers opens up with Steve running a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. with Hawkeye, only to encounter the Red Skull. The Ultimate Red Skull is a little older, and more of a fighter. He’s a brutal terrorist, and he’s got one dark secret: he’s Cap’s son.
It’s revealed in flashback that on the night before he left for his final mission, Cap spent one last night with his then-girlfriend Gail Richards. Gail became pregnant but was convinced by the government to secretly give the kid up for adoption. Imbued with the Super Soldier serum, the boy seemed to be a perfectly kind person until he turned 17. The boy killed nearly 300 S.H.I.E.L.D. agents as he escaped, but before he left he gained his trademark Red Skull visage himself -- with a kitchen knife and a steady right hand, he cut off his own face.
Lockjaw has been a mainstay of Marvel’s various Inhumans on-goings and stories for years, and a clear fan favorite. A giant mutt with the ability to teleport, the character is so popular he even headlined his own Avengers title with Lockjaw & The Pet Avengers. But his actual origins could be a potential source of body horror.
1983’s The Thing #3 established that Lockjaw himself was once an Inhuman of humanoid appearance, but was deformed to his dog-like appearance by the Terrigen Mists. It’s a surprise to those present and considered a secret of the Inhuman royal family. However, in X-Factor just a few years later, Quicksilver implies this was a prank played on The Thing. As recently as 2017’s Mosaic, Lockjaw’s status as an Inhuman or a super-powered dog is up in the air.
4 THE BEST AT WHAT HE DOES
We could probably do an entire list about the horrors of Wolverine’s healing factor (in fact, we have). Over the years, Logan’s ability to recover from injury has improved drastically. Upon his debut, the enhanced healing factor just meant he recovered faster than a normal person, but still needed time to recover. But in the '90s, it meant he was shrugging off the worst blows imaginable.
As a result, writers seem to take pleasure in torturing the poor guy. Stories have established such horrors as having the adamantium ripped off his skeleton through his open wounds (a process which only his healing factor and Jean Grey's quick thinking allows him to survive) or being eaten by a cannibalistic Hulk and clawing out of his stomach. The worst might be his Civil War tie-in, where he's blown up by Nitro and regrows his body from the remains of his skeleton.
3 THE TERROR OF M-POX
Continuing the trend of the X-Men and terrifying viruses, the Merry Mutants recently had to contend with M-Pox. During the events of the Infinity crossover, the Inhuman King Black Bolt detonated several Terrigen Bombs. The result was a pair of Terrigen Clouds over the Earth. While the Inhumans viewed them as sacred, mutant kind was surprised to discover they were deadly.
Once the Terrigen mixed with the atmosphere of Earth, the resulting cloud carried toxic properties to anyone possessing the X-Gene, as seen in Death of X when it claimed the lives of Jamie Madrox and Cyclops. Rapidly onsetting, the so-called M-Pox left the victim covered with boils and immunocompromised, ultimately resulting in the victim bleeding out. Fortunately, Medusa was convinced of the very real threat to mutants and ordered the clouds destroyed, eradicating the looming threat of M-Pox for the foreseeable future.
2 EYES THAT TAKE ONE HUNDRED YEARS TO BLINK
Stepping up after Infinite Crisis, Bart Allen’s run as The Flash was tragically cut short. When the Rogues were assembled by Inertia to attack Bart, they hadn’t counted on the Speed Force suddenly stopping, a side-effect of the Legion of Super-Heroes tapping into it to bring the lost Wally West and his family back home.
Finding Inertia, a furious Wally exacted a terrifying revenge. Using his ability to steal kinetic energy, Wally slowed Inertia’s body to a stop and placed him in the Flash Museum as his own exhibit. There, Inertia was forced to stand and stare at a statue of Bart with “eyes that would take one hundred years to blink.” Inertia would eventually be freed, but only so that the Rogues could kill him as revenge for dragging them into the Bart Allen incident.
1 BRUCE BANNER IS A HULKING MASS OF TUMORS
Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross stunned the world with Marvels, a painted epic that predates Ross’ insanely popular Kingdom Come with writer Mark Waid by two years. Set during the golden age of heroism, Marvels tells the story of the rise of superheroes through the eyes of everyman Phil Sheldon. Just over a year later, Warren Ellis teamed with painters Terese & Cliff Nielsen and Chris Moeller to craft the twisted Ruins.
Ruins is set during the same timespan as Marvels, but with heroes succumbing to real world effects of their powers, mutations, and choices. Wolverine suffers an adamantium allergy. Peter Parker carries a radioactive contagion. But most notable is Bruce Banner, exposed to the gamma bomb saving Rick Jones. But Banner instead mutates into a terrifying monstrosity, a hulking mass of green muscle and protruding tumors as the gamma radiation irrevocably changes him but does not kill him.
What terrifying moment of body horror from comics is most unsettling to you? Let us know in the comments!