Once, comic books were pretty straightforward: the hero comes out on top all the time, the bad guy is defeated, and all is set to right. As time has gone by, things have gotten more complex and detailed with readers expecting much more from their books. That includes in storytelling and the like as readers want to be truly entertained and taken for a fun ride. That includes the twist. In some cases, the twist is somewhat lame and often used to retcon things badly. In others, however, it can be done brilliantly and in such an amazing way that it can transform all you knew of a comic and the characters. Geoff Johns has been the master of such twists in his works and others have followed suit to bring about amazing work.
It’s harder today with the Internet and previews pushing things on fans, making them know of huge events long in advance and making it harder to pull the rug out from under you. It’s not helped by how previews often give away plot points beforehand to entice readers. Sometimes a “shocking” twist can be seen coming a mile away by savvy readers. Yet, there are still plenty of times when an ending is truly amazing. Some have been retconned but others are really impressive. Here are 15 comic book endings that show how pulling off a great twist makes reading comics so much fun and can keep readers talking about it for years to come.
While it should be obvious, SPOILER WARNING for all of these:
15. Amazing Spider-Man #248
Sometimes, a twist can be far more heart-warming than just a big shock and nowhere does that work more than in this classic issue. Most of it involves Spider-Man fighting Thunderball, but the true highlight is the back-up tale, “The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man.” A columnist for the Daily Bugle talks about a 10-year-old boy named Tim who’s the biggest Spider-Man fan alive, collecting news clippings, souvenirs and more. He’s overjoyed when Spidey shows up in his bedroom to show off his powers and talks of how happy he is to meet a fan. Things get more dramatic as Tim asks why Spider-Man does this and he shares how he once failed his uncle.
The big move comes when Tim asks who he really is. After a pause, Spidey unmasks to reveal himself as Peter Parker and Tim is happy to know this. He promises he’ll never tell a soul and Peter says he knows he won’t, giving Tim a hug before leaving. It’s baffling why Spidey would trust this kid with his greatest secret but the answer comes in the heart-breaking final panel. After a tearful Spidey swings away, we see a sign showing that Tim’s “home” is a hospice. Tim has leukemia and was given only a few weeks left to live. It’s a stunning turn but also a perfect one, capping off what many consider one of the greatest Spider-Man stories of all time.
14. Thor #337
It’s hard to imagine a bigger debut than this. The first issue of Walter Simonson’s run as writer/artist got the attention of fans as a bizarre horse-faced creature in Thor’s armor swung his hammer, Mjolnir, to smash apart the title logo. Inside, Thor was recruited by Nick Fury to check out a UFO crash and fought the alien inhabitant who claimed Thor was a “demon.” They fought it out with Thor losing his hammer and, as per an old enchantment, transforming into mortal Donald Blake. His hammer was then turned into a stick. Angered at where his opponent went, the alien, Beta Ray Bill, grabbed the stick, slammed it into a wall… and in a flash of lightning, he was in Thor’s armor, holding Mjolnir.
It had long been accepted that only those who were “worthy” could hold Mjolnir, which had long been no one but Thor and his father Odin. For this complete stranger, an alien monster to boot, to be able to lift it and gain its power was a huge shock. Needing Thor’s aid on Asgard, Odin appeared, mistaking Bill’s aura for his son and transporting him away, leaving a powerless Blake crying out for his father. In one issue, Simonson had flipped the book’s expectations around and would keep it up for what many still consider the best Thor run of all time and the best way to kick a new run off.
13. Amazing Spider-Man #698
This may be the single best thing Dan Slott has ever written. His tenure with Spider-Man had Peter Parker getting a new career at a science lab and balancing his life as crime-fighter and Avenger. A long-running subplot had Doctor Octopus reduced to a physical wreck, dying on an iron lung when at prison he suddenly blurted out Peter Parker’s name. We saw Peter going about a normal day, musing on a recent fight, talking with Aunt May, getting dinner with Mary Jane and more. Told by the Avengers of Ock, Spider-Man went to the prison, meeting Octopus alone with cameras off, Ock still wheezing “Peter Parker.” Spidey suddenly removed his mask to reveal himself as Peter only for Ock to wheeze “No…I’m Peter Parker…”
“No, Spider-Man, I’m Peter Parker and you are Doctor Octopus.” With that stunning line, it turned out the “Peter” we’d been reading this entire issue was actually Otto Octavius. Having figured Peter’s secret identity after so many battles, Octavius had come up with a wild scheme to switch their minds around, putting him in a young and healthy body and leaving his foe in his old dying one. After a bit of gloating, Octopus left as Peter in his body went into cardiac arrest. Even veteran readers were taken aback at this turn, which would set up the controversial “Superior Spider-Man” era.
12. Batman #638/Captain America (Vol 3) #5
Every now and then, DC and Marvel seem to do the same sort of storyline at the same time. Such was the case in 2005 as each one seemed to resurrect a long-dead sidekick that most fans thought of as gone for good. The first was in DC as Batman found himself dealing with a brutal crime fighter who’d taken on the old alias of the Red Hood, taking out gang-bangers and beating the Joker to a bloody pulp. Eventually, it was revealed to be Jason Todd, the second Robin, killed by the Joker years before. The actual reason behind his resurrection was pretty nuts (Superboy Prime punching a wall… seriously) but still notable for how it got Jason back with a harsh attitude that actually made him more popular than ever.
Meanwhile, at Marvel, a mysterious figure called the Winter Soldier was shown hunting down folks like Red Skull and various allies of Captain America on behalf of a deadly boss. When a massive terrorist attack hit Philadelphia, Cap faced the Soldier and was stunned to realize it was his former WWII ally Bucky, the sidekick he thought long dead in the explosion that put Cap on ice in 1945. It would turn out Bucky had been found and brainwashed by the Russians, kept on ice himself between jobs as a murderous assassin. In both cases, two heroes thought long gone suddenly returned to affect their mentors majorly.
11. Uncanny X-Men #137
The Dark Phoenix Saga has long been beloved by X-Men fans — a stunning storyline of turns as Jean Grey is warped by the Hellfire Club, causing her to transform into the cosmic-powered Dark Phoenix. Craving more power, Phoenix eats a star, causing a nova that wipes out an entire populated planet.Returning to Earth, she was defeated by the X-Men but the Shi’ar led a cosmic tribunal wanting justice. The original plan was for Jean to have her cosmic power excised and live a happy life with Cyclops. However, Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter decided a bigger price had to be paid for the destruction of that planet and made a big move.
In the issue, the X-Men face off against the Shi’ar’s alien guard in various fights on the moon for Jean’s life. They do their best but are eventually defeated. Seeing Cyclops cut down causes Jean to lose it once more and become Phoenix and the Shi’ar are ready to wipe out the solar system to make sure she doesn’t go nuts again. Briefly asserting control, Jean races into the catacombs of the moon city with Cyclops following. Keeping him at bay, Jean tells Scott that she can’t live with the guilt of what happened and the fear of Phoenix coming loose once more. She thus uses an ancient cannon to let out a blast of energy that atomizes her before his eyes. It would later be retconned to a separate entity and Jean would come back to life again, but for the time, readers truly thought a beloved character was gone. It was the capper to what some call the best X-Men story ever.
10. Detective Comics #168
Back in the 1950s, major turns in a comic book weren’t that big a deal, since comics were mostly innocent “one and done” stories. That’s why this tale was so notable as Batman and Robin take time out from crime fighting to lecture criminal students at Gotham University. Batman shares how, years before, he tangled with the Red Hood, a criminal in a crimson helmet who escaped capture by leaping into a vat of chemicals at a playing card company. The Hood suddenly returns as the Dynamic Duo go after him, figuring the guy’s mask has a breathing tank to it. At first, the Hood seems a bit off and Batman soon realizes it’s really an imposter who found the real Hood, captured him and decided to use the outfit as a good disguise.
Finding the real Hood tied up, Batman and his students listen to the Hood explain how he took up the life of crime before escaping through the chemical vat. At home, he discovered the chemicals had taken their toll, turning his skin white, his hair green and his lips red. Realizing how fearsome his new appearance was, the Hood took inspiration from a playing card to take on a new name: The Joker. The revelation that this was the origin of the Dark Knight’s greatest enemy was a true surprise for young readers and still stands as a rare major twist for its time.
9. Legion of Super-Heroes #293
To many fans of the 30th century heroes, “The Great Darkness Saga” is the greatest Legion story ever. This epic tale has a mysterious figure awakened after centuries of slumber and is out to conquer the universe. His power is incredible, so much that Mordu and the Time Trapper, two powerhouses who could each crush the Legion alone, are defeated and drained almost instantly. This Master then sends twisted servants that include clones of a Guardian of the Universe and even Superman to attack the Legion and Mon-El. He then heads to the planet of Daxam, brainwashing their populace to be his servants and switching their world to a yellow sun, thus granting three billion beings the power of Superman.
In their first act for their new ruler, the Daxamites use the power to obliterate their entire world, burning their cities and warping the planet to look like a giant floating head. As the drawing zooms in, the head slowly turns to face the reader just as Brainiac 5 is realizing who they’re facing. At last on the final page, the Master instructs his army to go and ravage the universe. “Go for your Master… for Darkseid!” The long-thought dead God of Evil is the true big bad and his battle against the Legion is a knock-down, drag-out fight that ends with them barely victorious. While collections of the story give the twist away with the covers, the discovery of Darkseid was a shock to readers of the time, and it let you know how screwed the Legion really was.
8. Civil War #2
Marvel’s 2006 event has been criticized over the years for its characterization and how it went too far in making Tony Stark a power hungry fascist. There’s also the rough dialogue and letdown ending. However, it did make a huge strike in its second issue. After a Superhuman Registration Act is passed that forces anyone with powers to identify themselves with the government, sides are divided up with Captain America resisting the Act and Iron Man championing it. Spider-Man had been shown as being on Iron Man’s side with Tony seeing his potential, even giving Spidey a fancy new armored suit. Marvel had been promoting something big coming but few could have imagined how big.
At the end of the second issue, Spider-Man decides to make a bold move to show his support for Tony and the Act. At a press conference, he talks of how right it is and the boost needed for it and that open trust is what the public wants. And to prove it, he does the one thing he thought he’d never do: pulls off his mask to reveal himself as Peter Parker to the world. In a priceless panel, J. Jonah Jameson is shown fainting dead away upon realizing he’s been paying Spider-Man to take photos of himself for years. It was a major turn as, naturally, old enemies came calling. Peter eventually turned on Iron Man and it all set up the infamous “One More Day” storyline. But for the time, seeing Spider-Man revealing himself publically was a huge move that no one could have imagined.
7. Wonder Woman #219
2005’s epic Infinite Crisis event kicked off with a big shock as a Countdown special revealed Max Lord, long a humorous figure as aide to the Justice League, was now an evil mastermind. Using his powers of mind control, Lord had taken over spy agency Checkmate, intent on “saving” the world from the danger of meta-humans. When the Blue Beetle found out, Lord put a bullet in his head. This would have counted for the list but an even bigger turn was coming. In a story tying in to The OMAC Project, Superman was shown facing attacks on Lois by Brainiac and later Doomsday, beating his opponent down. However, Superman was stunned to discover that instead of an enemy, it had been Batman. Lord was testing his powers by warping Superman’s perceptions in preparation for a bigger attack.
When Wonder Woman came after Lord, Max used his power to get Superman to attack her. Naturally, a big fight followed; Wonder Woman got her magical lasso on Lord to get him to release the hold on Superman. However, Lord gloated that he could put him back under at any time, get Superman to kill Lois or go on a rampage, and forever make him a monster to the public. When Diana demanded to know how to end the hold once and for all, Lord smirked “Kill me.” Wonder Woman looked him in the eye… and then twisted Lord’s head completely around. The sight of the world’s greatest heroine committing cold-blooded murder was stunning and a reminder of the power of the Amazon warrior. The effects would lead to a major fallout and, even though Lord was later resurrected, his death would haunt the DCU for a while as a reminder that you never want to get on Wonder Woman’s bad side.
6. Strange Tales #157
The character of Nick Fury first showed up in 1963 as star of Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, a WWII book that won fans over with Fury’s rough style. With him popular, Stan Lee decided to bring him to the modern age as the head of spy agency SHIELD. Fury was soon taking it to foes; mainly Hydra, a deadly group bent on world conquest whose leader, the Supreme Hydra, only appeared in disguise. For the first years of the book, the SHIELD-Hydra conflict continued with the organization seemingly beaten but never giving up.
It was writer/artist Jim Steranko who came up with the big storyline of Fury staging a one-man invasion of Hydra’s island headquarters to stop their latest attempt to destroy the world. Captured, Fury was knocked out, waking up strapped to a table that threatened him with execution. In a double-paged spread, Fury was rocked to discover the true identity of the Supreme Hydra: none other than his archenemy from WWII, Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker. That a Nazi could be the founder of this group made perfect sense, yet readers had never suspected Strucker as the true face behind it all. Fury would end up escaping to defeat Hydra, but the discovery that it was his old Nazi foe was a major turn that would boost Hydra to even more danger over the next several decades.
5. Amazing Spider-Man #121
From the beginning, this issue promised something big as the cover showed pictures of Spidey’s various supporting cast and Spidey himself noting someone was going to die. Then the opening said that they couldn’t reveal the title just yet. Soon, Norman Osborn was shown snapping to once more regain his murderous persona as the Green Goblin, who knew Peter Parker’s true identity. He kidnapped Peter’s love, Gwen Stacy, flying them to the Brooklyn Bridge for a showdown with Spider-Man. They fought it out with the Goblin knocking Gwen off the Bridge and toward the water below. Spider-Man fired a line to grab her by the boot but a sound effect in the panel revealed that the sudden pull snapped Gwen’s neck instantly. Pulling her up, Peter realized his love was dead as the title was finally revealed: “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.”
4. New Teen Titans #34
Long considered a “dead concept,” DC’s Teen Titans had been basically a “Junior Justice League” until Marv Wolfman and George Perez revived it with a fantastic new team and edge. While some fans mocked it as ripping off X-Men, Titans did well with plots, none better than when they introduced Terra. A sardonic sixteen year old with the power to control Earth, Terra was hard-edged, sarcastic, troublesome, often lying about her past. But the fans enjoyed her a lot. She was soon a member of the team with big responsibilities such as taking on their main foe, Deathstroke the Terminator. They fought with Deathstroke, seemingly perishing in a cave-in, but the Titans felt Terra held herself well.
At the issue’s end, Terra returned to her dead-end apartment to find someone waiting in the shadows. She told him how things were going well and that soon the Titans would be revealing their secrets to her. She then lit a lamp to reveal that the figure was an alive Deathstroke; their talk revealed that Deathstroke had arranged for Terra to join the team as a spy to learn all about them. Fans were shocked, flooding the offices with hate mail (and even one death threat) as Wolfman would soon show that Terra was a full-blown sociopath who hated the Titans. She was even sleeping with Deathstroke! This would set up the classic “Judas Contract” storyline as the Titans were rocked by Terra’s betrayal. It all proved fans couldn’t take for granted someone who seemed too good to be true.
3. X-Men # 62
Believe it or not, once upon a time X-Men was considered a B-list title, even canceled once. Before that happened, Roy Thomas and Neal Adams combined for a good run, giving the book new life with new costumes and adventures among various factors. One storyline had the X-Men on their own after Professor Xavier was seemingly killed. The X-Men were traveling to the Savage Land, a primeval world underneath Antarctica. During the adventure, Angel was separated from the group, seemingly dying but saved by a white-haired scientist. He takes Angel to a lab to heal him and explains how he’s trying to help create mutated creatures to help the world. The Creator (as he calls himself) comes off as a kindly man who says his work is misunderstood by Savage Land defender Ka-Zar. Angel tells the Creator he’ll make sure to get the X-Men on his side and flies off.
As soon as he does, the Creator starts to laugh at how Angel is fooled and, with the X-Men on his side, he’ll soon be able to spread his mutation across the world. He muses on how amazing it was to con Angel like that, but then, he’s never seen him like this before. Opening up a cabinet, the Creator muses, “Perhaps clothes really do make the man,” as he touches an object every X-Men fan knows all too well: the helmet of the team’s oldest and greatest enemy, Magneto. It was truly a surprise, as this was the first time Magneto had ever been shown without the helmet, so fans had no idea who he truly was until the end. While it may not have totally saved the book, it was a turn that gave Magneto a lot more depth than before, and was a great surprise for the time.
2. Watchmen #11
It’s one of the oldest clichés in comics: confronted by the hero, the villain launches into a massive speech revealing all his plans. In the penultimate issue of this masterpiece, it looks like we’re getting it as crime fighters Nite Owl and Rorschach track a “masked killer” conspiracy to the Arctic headquarters of their former ally Adrien Veidt, aka Ozymandias. After a brief fight, Adrien admits he’s behind everything, planning to stop a coming nuclear war with the greatest “practical joke” in history. Creating a huge monster with the brain of a psychic, he will teleport it into the heart of New York City, causing a massive explosion that will kill millions and drive survivors mad with images of a hostile alien world. Facing what they believe to be an alien invasion, the world leaders will put aside their differences and thus avert war.
Naturally, Nite Owl thinks his old friend has lost his mind, openly telling him he needs help as this is just insane and asks when Veidt was planning to do all this. “Do it?” Veidt asks, honestly baffled at the idea he would detail his entire plan if there was any way to stop it. “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”
It’s a gut-punch moment as the reader realizes the shots of New York have been happening in the past, the issue ending with the detonation blowing away all the minor characters we’ve come to know in the series. It’s a stunning turn on the old cliché, and it’s why Alan Moore’s magnum opus is still considered one of the greatest comic book series of all time.
1. Thunderbolts #1
In 1997, Marvel had made the disastrous decision to let Jim Lee and Rob Leifeld take on their icons in “Heroes Reborn.” To push it, the Avengers, Fantastic Four and other major heroes appeared to “die” fighting Onslaught until they were transported to another world. Thunderbolts was pushed as an old-school attempt to create a new super team from scratch. Creators Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley talked about it in interviews as new heroes trying to fill the gap of the Avengers. The first issue showed them as masked Citizen V led MACH-1, Techno, Songbird, Atlas and Meteorite to make a big splash across the city. They fought a group called the Rat Pack, the Wrecking Crew and even repaired the Statue of Liberty after a battle. They were instantly hailed by the city as what was needed. All of which made the final page even more shocking.
Kicking back in their modest HQ, the T-Bolts are watching the coverage of themselves when Citizen V enters unmasked, his face horribly scarred. Noting the discomfort of the others, V put on a different mask…the mask of Baron Helmut Zemo, longtime foe of Captain America. He then referred to the team by their more familiar names: Beetle, Fixer, Screaming Mimi, Goliath and Moonstone, veteran super-villains the Masters of Evil. With the Avengers seemingly gone, Zemo had hit upon the idea to have the Masters pretend to be heroes, winning public and government trust, all to fuel his ultimate goal of world domination.
It was voted the greatest comic book moment of the year and made the series an instant hit. It would soon develop into some of these guys realizing they liked being heroes more than being crooks. There were more twists to come, but this stunning revelation of who these new “good guys” were is what’s still remembered.