Comic books come with a variety of expectations from the fan base. Heroes are supposed to beat villains, the story should make us feel a connection to the characters and above all, keep the readers entertained. Sometimes though, the stories can take some turns that no one either expects or wants; the bad guy wins the day, our heroes die and the world is thrown for a loop that everyone needs to find a way back from. This is when sadness and rage boils up from within, sometimes forcing our heroes to face their own personal tragedies alongside the horror they have already had to deal with. So often, as in life, it is that loss which drives a story.
Brutality is something that has not always been associated with the comic book genre. While there have been exceptions of course, brutality has mostly been a recent focus of comics. Blood, gore and all manner of unpleasantness have permeated books from Civil War to Flashpoint, Blackest Night to Old Man Logan and many others along the way. In this list, we will be talking about deaths of certain characters as well as full on events, so consider this your SPOILER ALERT.
15 DEATH OF SUPERMAN
While revealed later on that he didn’t actually die (sort of, kind of), Death of Superman was a gut punch to Man of Steel fans the world over. The fact that this alien who had been protecting the pages of DC Comics for decades could be killed was not an easy pill to swallow. Almost non-stop action from beginning to end, the comic contained a no holds barred brawl between Superman and Doomsday which results in the destruction of a very good portion of Metropolis and the fall of the character who made us believe a man could fly. While not the bloodiest entry on our list (we’re definitely not there yet) it was the tragedy and true sense of loss that made this one take a spot.
14 A DEATH IN THE FAMILY
A Death in the Family is still a storyline that shapes and defines certain characters, namely Jason Todd, to this very day. Even though the character has grown and become an anti-hero as opposed to the full-on villain he was being made out to be after his resurrection, he still thinks back to the time when he died. On the night Jason Todd perished, he did so by being brutally beaten with a crowbar by the Joker, and left to die until a bomb went off finishing the job; of course, it was we the people who voted for the death of the second Robin. The vote which was cast using a 1-900 number back in the '80s had a final tally of 5,343 in favor of his death over 5,271 against. For those keeping score, that a total difference of 72 votes that separated this character from life or death.
13 STAMFORD (CIVIL WAR)
Stamford was the location that signalled the start of the Civil War. From the very first frame after the accident happened, we see a division of the characters as Iron Man stands on the left and Captain America stands opposite him. This tragedy -- which came thanks to an ill-fated battle between an explosive villain and a group of heroes with a television show who were just trying to get ratings -- did nothing but open doors for more heartache and death.
Serving as an essential turning point for Iron Man, the scope of this accident created ample opportunity for character development. We see Iron Man taking a much more all-encompassing outlook on the world after Miriam Sharpe, a woman who lost her son in Stamford, forces Tony to see the other side of things from her own perspective.
12 MIND SWAP (SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN)
Dr. Otto Octavius had but one thought on his mind as he lay on his deathbed; one singular scheme -- to insert his own consciousness into Spider-Man so that he could keep living. When his final day had come, Otto put his plan into motion, and succeeded where so many others had failed. Not only had Otto killed Spider-Man, he had taken over his life, but of course this came with a hefty price.
As Peter lay dying in the body of one of his greatest enemies, he watches as Otto is overtaken by exactly what it means to be Spider-Man. After Otto promises to protect people, Peter dies with the hope that for once in his life, Doc Ock would do the right thing. Then Otto immediately vows to be better than Peter ever was, kind of flushing the whole touching moment down the toilet.
11 DEATH OF CAPTAIN AMERICA
Bucky had just started to open up and be friends with Steve again. Things were going back on track for once in the Winter Soldier’s life. Then he had to see his best friend and mentor get shot to death in front of him. While Winter Soldier and Falcon were able to apprehend Crossbones, they could never have known it was Sharon Carter who would deliver the killing shots to Captain America.
While the story made newspaper headlines in our world, not many could feel the pain of loss that Bucky Barnes felt on the day Cap died. The mixture of confusion on Cap’s face and utter betrayal as he realized what happened were as moving as they were hurtful to both characters and readers alike.
By far one of the most brutal (and contentious) entries on our list everything about Ultimatum seemed to mark the end for a different character. From the flood Magneto caused by reversing the polarity of the Earth’s poles, which wiped out heroes like Johnny Storm and some of the X-men, to the horrible imagery of scenes like Blob eating Wasp’s corpse and Hank Pym growing to full size to get his immediate revenge by biting off Blob’s head, this is by far one of the hardest events to bear visually (and for many, narratively -- it is not well-loved today).
However you feel about it personally, David Finch is masterful in his portrayal of heroes and villains, and has a particularly gruesome quality when drawing a scene such as Wolverine being obliterated or Thing squishing Dr. Doom’s head like a grape.
9 GOLIATH’S EXECUTION (CIVIL WAR)
While Civil War may not have been filled with tragedy nor all that much in the way of brutality (unless you count its epilogue, which had both in spades), it did have a couple of moments that just made the reader sit there dumbfounded about what had just happened. One of these instances was the execution of Goliath at the hands of “Thor.” What made this particular scene so brutal and tragic in the same instant was the time it took.
The two warring factions of heroes had been having their tussle when “Thor” (a cyborg-clone facsimile) appeared from the sky. He was confronted by Goliath and promptly, unceremoniously blasted Goliath through the chest with a bolt of lightning. It was over as quickly as it had started and even though there was an attempt to explain away the murder, there’s no taking away what the clone of the God of Thunder did; they couldn’t even shrink Goliath back down for his funeral.
8 MURDERING BLUEBIRDS MOTHER (CASSANDRA CAIN)
In the most recent iteration of Detective Comics, we were reintroduced to Cassandra Cain who was once a Batgirl. While giving her a different backstory tied to a character called Mother, and her real father being the assassin Orphan, Cassandra was raised to be a killer. The ultimate weapon in Mother’s plan to reshape everyone in whatever image she deemed worthy.
While still under the influence of Mother and Orphan, Cassandra was told to kill Harper Row’s parents. This was in an attempt to make Batman see that in order to have a worthy successor, he would need someone who was made the same way he was. After killing Harper’s Mother, Cassandra couldn’t bring herself to kill her Father as well. This made for a life of heartbreak for not only the victim, but for Cassandra herself.
7 DEATH OF HAWKMAN (BLACKEST NIGHT)
Let’s be real here, Hawkman is probably not the most popular character in comics. He’s been part of different teams and has his own title every now and then, but that doesn’t make his murder in Blackest Night any less terrible. Right as Kendra (Hawkgirl) was about to tell Carter (Hawkman) that she loved him, she was impaled through the chest by Sue Dibney, the wife of Ralph Dibney, aka The Elongated Man. Right after seeing this, Hawkman is beaten to death with a mace at the hands of an undead Ralph, which is shown in full bloody detail.
While Blackest Night wasn’t without other various deaths of heroes (at the hands of other zombified versions of heroes), this scene near the beginning of the story really helped the reader realize what they had just signed up for.
Another of the most brutal on our list, Kick-Ass is filled to the brim with different blood and gore; fights that simply scream brutality. Normal street fights are brought to bloody ends and when a real “superhero” shows up on scene, the outcome is bloody pandemonium for the gang bangers, who often find themselves at the wrong end of Hit-Girl’s weapons. While this particular act isn’t what makes Kick-Ass hang up his scuba suit, it does impact him and make him think if he should even be attempting what he is when there are people like Hit-Girl and Big Daddy out there.
The drama really starts to take leaps when it’s revealed that not only was Big Daddy not a cop, but that his real secret is he was just a fanboy who was bankrolling his war on crime with his back issues. After revealing that, he gets shot in the head.
5 KILLING JOKE (JAMES/ BARBARA GORDON)
In The Killing Joke, James and Barbara Gordon are subjected to some of the worst tortures anyone can bear. After Barbara is shot through the spine and paralyzed by the Joker, he undresses her and takes photos, no doubt while laughing his jovial cackle. After subjecting Barbara to her horrible fate, the Joker has his current round of henchmen strip James naked, thrown into a carnival ride, and given a private viewing of his photography. It is during this exhibition where he tries to show that even the sanest man alive can be driven mad; all it takes is one bad day, just like the one that led to his own tragic fall. This is a story, which, while still contentious among fandom today, has multliple layers of tragedy woven throughout... and we're not just talking about that animated adaptation.
A nuclear bomb destroys Metropolis, triggered when a poisoned Superman kills his wife and unborn child, all because of a cruel joke from an unfunny clown. The horrible punchline and the war that come of this incident are a direct result of how badly tragedy can strike one man, even a Man of Steel, and how it can affect the world around him. With lines being drawn in the sand between two sets of heroes who think they are doing right, there’s no telling who would be hurt in the process. SPOILER: It was everyone.
With a story line that brings truly tragic death to some of the most popular characters in comics (sorry, Nightwing), the brutality and darkness of Injustice comes from the fact that sometimes, even the best of us can fall, either explosively or by sheer dumb luck. And when those people fall, they tend to shove their arm through the arch-enemy of their best friend.
3 DEATH OF PETER PARKER(S)
Miles Morales was a kid who wound up getting spider powers, but who decided to take the reverse course of Peter Parker BECAUSE there was already a Spider-Man. It was only when he saw the real danger that Spider-Man was in that spurred him to action, but unfortunately, he was too late to save Peter. This would eventually lead to Miles’ decision to become the new Spider-Man.
In another time and another place, Gwen Stacey became Spider-Woman and tried her best to juggle everyday life with helping people. Her friend Peter Parker idolized Spider-Woman and wanted to be special just like her. This led him to create a lizard formula, which turned out to be a bad idea and resulted in his death. The loss of her best friend became a driving force in Gwen’s life. It seems whenever Peter Parker dies, no matter the universe, it is a heart-breakingly tragic affair.
The Flashpoint event consisted of brutal slayings of beloved characters. Steve Trevor is left hanging by his throat by Wonder Woman with the Lasso of Truth, after having already beheaded Mera for attacking her. Then, of course, there's the fact that she forced Captain Thunder (Shazam or Captain Marvel for those who don’t know) to reveal the secret to his power, before executing the children (yes, children) who come together to create him. Suffice it to say, Wonder Woman was one person who no one wants to mess with in Flashpoint.
These, coupled with the storyline full of other murders, death and truly biting tragedies that we don’t have time to mention, helped solidify the brutality of this landmark event, which led to the death of the DC Universe as we knew it (its own tragedy, to some). That, and of course, Batman shoving a sword through Reverse Flash near the end really helped send the message home that this is a bad timeline to be a part of.
1 DEATH OF THE X-MEN (OLD MAN LOGAN)
When the heroes fell, Wolverine thought that he had been fighting a massive horde of super villains sent to put an end to one of their biggest threats, and he tore every one of them down as they came. Bullseye was the last one to go down, and as he lay dying in Wolverine’s arms, he’s heard saying “Logan, stop… you’re supposed to be our friend…”
It is then revealed that the entire thing was an illusion created by Mysterio, an illusion that, when lifted, shows a room full of the bodies of the X-Men; Jubilee lay dead in, and indeed by, Wolverine’s own hands. This scene is without equal in scale of effect to both the reader and the characters, and any writer would be hard pressed to one-up this story.
Which other tragedies left you quivering in a little puddle of tears? Let us know in the comments!