A big-screen battle is currently being raged between DC Comics and Marvel Comics. DC has its Extended Universe of films, while Marvel has their all-conquering Cinematic Universe. Regardless of how one feels about the quality of the various movies, one thing is certain: DC’s stories tend to be much darker in tone than Marvel’s.
DC ended Man Of Steel with Superman being forced to break General Zod’s neck after most of Metropolis was destroyed. They then had Batman plotting to murder Superman for most of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. In contrast, most of Marvel’s output is characterized by humour and fun (though, in truth, they have many serious themes as well).
Either way, the general perception is that DC stories are darker than Marvel ones. Does this hold true in the comic books? The answer, truthfully, is that it is hard to say. Both comic book universes have existed for many decades and feature thousands of different characters. Both companies have their dark characters, and both have lighter output. They can’t so easily be separated into ‘DC is dark, but Marvel is not’.
Now, with all that said, this article will detail 15 moments in which DC’s dark impulses came to the fore. With a comic book history of more than 75 years, there were bound to be some points in which stories took a dark turn. And boy, oh boy, do they ever!
So, read on, if you dare…
15. Gotham And Gotham Girl Are Driven Insane And She Is Forced To Kill Him (Batman #5, 2016)
We’re starting the list with the most recent moment of darkness, and that came in the pages of writer Tom King and artist David Finch’s Batman. In 2016, DC relaunched and rebranded their entire universe under the banner DC Rebirth, and it has been a roaring success. Many characters have been returned to their roots and most creators have gone away from the overall ‘dark’ tone established in The New 52, DC’s previous reboot.
All except Batman, of course, whose brooding nature always lends itself to stories that are darker in tone. King and Finch’s first story, entitled I Am Gotham, introduced Gotham and Gotham Girl, two new super-powered vigilante’s making a name for themselves in Gotham City. Naturally, they butt heads with Batman, but in a refreshing take, they don’t immediately fight each other. Batman recognizes they are trying to do good, and it is only when their minds are corrupted by the evil Dr. Huge Strange and the Psycho-Pirate that things take an extremely dark turn. A turn that involves lots of corpses and a brutal battle between Gotham and Batman which ends when, in a brief moment of lucidity, Gotham Girl is forced to kill her brother to stop him from destroying the city. Yikes.
14. Green Arrow’s Sidekick Speedy Is A Junkie (Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 – 86, 1971)
Snowbirds Don’t Fly was a two-part storyline in the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow in 1971. Written by Denny O’Neill, with art by Neal Adams, the story dealt with the drug culture in the USA head-on. It was shown that Speedy, Green Arrow’s sidekick (who would go on to become Red Arrow) was a heroin junkie. At the time, this was revolutionary in the comic book medium, and had a profound effect on many of its young readers.
O’Neill and Adams had both been wanting to tackle drug addiction in their comics for a long time, as both had first hand experiences with addicts in their social circles and neighbourhoods. Initially they weren’t able to do the story, as the censorship body The Comics Code Of Authority was too restrictive, but rival Marvel Comics released a story in Amazing Spider-Man about Peter Parker’s best friend Harry Osborn struggling with drug addiction in May 1971. They simply dropped the Comics Code label from the cover, and in response the Code was rewritten, allowing DC to follow up with their own story. They went one further than Marvel by making a well-known hero the addict, and the iconic cover lives long in the memory of most fans.
13. Bane Breaks Batman’s Back (Batman #497, 1993)
The Death Of Superman wasn’t the only massive and controversial storyline DC Comics published in the early 1990s. Around the same time Superman fell to Doomsday, Batman was being menaced by a new villain as well, the Venom-enhanced brute Bane. In a neat twist on the formula, Bane was as fiercely intelligent as he was physically imposing. He was the perfect foe for Batman, as he challenged his intellect and his body. And, in Batman #497, a weakened and exhausted Batman is actually beaten by Bane, in no uncertain terms.
In a moment that was homaged in The Dark Knight Rises, as Bane snaps the Dark Knight’s spine over his knee. It’s an incredibly iconic image, one that is indicative of the risk-taking nature of the comic book industry in the early 90s. Comics were selling in huge numbers at that time, and the Knightfall epic was one of the main reasons for that surge in popularity.
12. Dr. Light Rapes Sue Dibny (Identity Crisis, 2004)
It is hard to think of many comic book storylines as controversial, yet also wildly popular, as Identity Crisis. Released in 2004, the seven-issue miniseries written by novelist Brad Meltzer and pencilled by Rags Morales took the Justice League characters and placed them under a modern microscope. Gone was the innocence of times past. In its place was a series in which Sue Dibny, wife of Elongated Man, is murdered, and it quickly becomes apparent that a killer is targeting the various heroes’ family members.
The series sold tremendously well, and was hailed by many as a welcomed, mature take on the superhero story. Detractors, however, found it distasteful and damaging to the characters in the story. The most reviled moment in the series was when it was revealed that Dr. Light, previously presented as a goofy villain, had in fact raped Sue Dibny in the past. He then had his mind wiped and personality changed by Zatanna, who also did the same thing to Batman, who took exception to the idea of purposely altering people’s brain chemistry. All in all, a very dark turn of events, and one that is hard to stomach for most readers.
11. Alexandra DeWitt Is Murdered And Stuffed In A Refrigerator (Green Lantern #54, 1994)
Alexandra DeWitt, girlfriend of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, was only around for a short time, but the manner of the character’s death has had a lasting impression on the comic book industry. When Kyle came home to find his new girlfriend had been strangled and crudely stuffed in his refrigerator by the villain Major Force, it gave him the fiery motivation he needed to become the hero he needed to be. But, is it truly good storytelling to introduce a love interest whose sole purpose is to be murdered in order to provide the hero with a tragic backstory?
Comic writer Gail Simone didn’t think so, and she coined the term ‘Women In Refrigerators’ to describe the amount of female characters who had been injured, killed or “de-powered” as a plot device within superhero comics. Simone argued that using female characters in this manner makes them little more than a means to move a male character’s story arc forward, as opposed to making them fully developed characters in their own right.
10. Black Hand Murders His Entire Family Before Becoming The Living Embodiment Of Death (Green Lantern #43, 2009)
Green Lantern is not a character many would associate with darkness. Sometimes seen by non-fans as simply a brightly-coloured space cop, the Lantern mythos has actually been home to some of the darkest DC moments over the years. None more so than with the character of Black Hand, the villain who was the driving force behind the acclaimed Blackest Night story.
In #35, writer Geoff Johns gives Black Hand, a previously somewhat goofy villain, a new and utterly disturbing backstory. William Hand is born to parents who run a coroner’s office and funeral home, and is shown to have an unhealthy obsession with death from an early age. It is implied that his first kiss is with a corpse, and other necrophiliac tendencies are also hinted at (though, mercifully, not shown). He even sleeps in graves beside the bodies after every fight with Green Lantern, as it gives him ‘peace’. Ultimately, Hand returns to his family home and murders his mother, father and two brothers, before committing suicide. He is then resurrected by a villain named Scar and told he is now the physical embodiment of death.
9. The Joker Murders Jim Gordon’s Wife (Detective Comics #741, 2000)
This is the first, but most certainly not the last, moment on this list to feature the Clown Prince Of Crime, The Joker. Batman’s arch-nemesis and arguably the best villain ever created in comics, The Joker is often portrayed as pure evil. He has no remorse and no conscience, and has committed countless heinous acts on the people of the DC Universe over the years. It’s actually a testament to the character’s villainy that the murder of Commissioner Jim Gordon’s wife isn’t even the worst thing he’s done!
Coming at the end of the No Man’s Land storyline, in which Gotham City was rocked by a vicious earthquake and then cut off from the rest of the USA, The Joker kidnaps dozens of infants and is holding them in the basement of the police station. Sarah Essen, the liason between the GCPD and the Mayor’s office (and Jim’s wife) is the first person to reach Joker’s position. She has him at gunpoint, but when he throws a baby at her and she instinctively drops her weapon to catch the child, Joker callously shoots her in the head. Strangely, he seems to find no humour in her death. A distraught Jim shoots him in the leg after somehow finding it within himself to avoid killing the maniacal clown.
8. The Joker Shoots And Paralyzes Barbara Gordon (Batman: The Killing Joke, 1988)
Perhaps the darkest entry on our list is so upsetting and so controversial that even its writer has all but disowned the material. Despite being lauded by many as one of the best Batman/Joker stories ever told, Alan Moore himself has said, “I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting.” Much of this ill-feeling must come down to the treatment of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) in the story, who is shot and crippled by The Joker, who then strips her naked and takes compromising pictures of her in order to drive her father Jim Gordon insane.
Many critics become furious over this, and it has been pointed to as one of the main ‘women in refrigerators’ offenders in the history of comics. And that’s even without mentioning the queasy implication of rape, which isn’t ever confirmed in the book. Moore spoke about how he felt he should’ve been reined-in here by DC, and that when he asked if he could visit such horrors upon Barbara, his editor replied he could “cripple the b—”. Some may debate the truthfulness of this, as Moore had a very public falling out with DC and disowns many of his works for them to this very day, but the story is incredibly dark and harrowing any way you slice it.
7. Wonder Woman Snaps Maxwell Lord’s Neck (Wonder Woman #219, 2005)
Initially portrayed as an amoral businessman, if not an out-and-out villain, Maxwell Lord went all-in as a supervillain in DC’s Infinite Crisis story in 2005. He started by revealing that he had always been a criminal mastermind who had gathered sensitive information on superheroes over the years. He then shot and killed Blue Beetle, who had previously been a member of Lord’s Justice League International. That was pretty cold.
He went on to use Brother Eye, a satellite system Batman created to monitor superhuman activity, to create an army of OMACs (humans infected with a nano-virus that turned them into cyborgs) who were programmed to hunt and kill all superhumans. He then mind-controlled Superman into attacking Wonder Woman, who realized that even if she defeated him, he would remain under Lord’s control. So, to sever the link, she snapped Lord’s neck in full view of the world’s media. This didn’t go over well with Batman and Superman, despite Diana clearly doing what she needed to save their lives. This kind of grey morality made for a compelling story.
6. Superman Dies While Battling Doomsday (Superman #75, 1992)
The Death Of Superman storyline is one of the most iconic in comics. It has transcended the comic book medium, with an animated adaptation (Superman: Doomsday), and its influence can be keenly felt in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Before it became the done thing to routinely kill off and then bring back superheroes and supporting characters, the death of Superman was a truly shocking moment for fans.
The entire storyline ran for a year, and was structured in four acts, with Superman dying at the end of act one. He and Doomsday, a rampaging alien beast, battle through Metropolis for the entirety of #75, both eventually succumbing to their wounds. Superman dies in Lois Lane’s arms, in what would become an indelible image. The issue was composed entirely of splash pages; one panel to each page, making the battle seem almost impossibly epic (though, admittedly, making the comic a quick read).
5. Red Arrow’s Daughter Is Killed When Star City Is Blown Up (Justice League: Cry For Justice #7, 2010)
Justice League: Cry For Justice was a seven-issue miniseries released between 2009 and 2010. It was written by James Robinson and had wonderful painted artwork by Mauro Cascioli. Similarly to Identity Crisis, it was wildly controversial, but this series didn’t even have much of a fanbase extolling its virtues. Instead, it was widely criticized for being poorly written and seemingly obsessed with wanton destruction and carnage. Many fans felt that most of the heroes were written in a bizarrely out-of-character manner for much of the series, but the final insult was saved for the last issue.
In #7, Star City (Green Arrow’s home city) is destroyed by Prometheus, the villain of the series. Amongst the chaos, Red Arrow’s young daughter Lian is killed when her house collapses on her. The series then ends with a distraught Green Arrow firing an arrow straight between Prometheus’ eyes. This angered fans enough, and so they felt the death of little Lian was excessive, unnecessary and in poor taste. It’s pretty difficult to disagree.
4. Black Canary Is Kidnapped And Brutally Tortured (Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, 1987)
Green Arrow is currently enjoying the peak of his popularity due to the hit CW show Arrow and his DC Rebirth relaunch has been well-received. But things weren’t always this rosy for the Emerald Archer. In fact, in 1985, the character was taken out of play in the DC Universe altogether for two years, due to his flagging popularity. When the character was brought back in 1987, with The Longbow Hunters, it was in a Mature Readers format, completely separate from the rest of the DCU heroes. And boy, oh boy, did this title earn its mature rating.
Oliver Queen relocates from the fictional Star City to Seattle, and begins tracking a serial killer known as the Seattle Slasher, who has been murdering prostitutes. At the same time, Black Canary (Dinah Lance, Ollie’s girlfriend) tries to infiltrate a drug ring, but is captured and tortured to the brink of death. When Oliver finds her, he kills her torturer without hesitation. This was a watershed moment for Green Arrow and mainstream superheroes as a whole, and it figured into his characterization for many years afterward. In later issues, he reflected that committing the murder meant he was unable to find peace in his life, anywhere or with anyone. This kind of existential angst was pretty revolutionary in comics at the time.
3. Jim Gordon’s Son Is Revealed To Be A Serial Killer (Detective Comics #878, 2011)
Writer Scott Snyder is arguably the quintessential modern-day Batman writer. His five-year run on the main Batman title with artist Greg Capullo was routinely at the top of the sales charts and featured several instant classic stories. But before this run, he got his start with the character on a chilling run of Detective Comics in 2011. He was the man to bring back a forgotten element of the Bat-mythos: Jim Gordon had an infant son, James Jr., during Batman: Year One in 1987, and the character had never appeared again since. So, Snyder brought him back as an adult. And a serial killer.
James Gordon Jr. is an unsettling, creepy character, from the first moment we’re reintroduced to him. We see that he had violent impulses as a child, and Jim was never entirely sure if his young son could’ve been involved in the disappearance of one of his sister Barbara’s friends. When James seeks out his father as an adult, and tells him he is taking medication to curb his violent impulses, Snyder teases out an almost impossibly tense and tragic story. Jim wants to believe his son is not an evil person, but when his true nature is revealed, it is a very dark, emotional gut-punch.
2. The Joker Murders Jason Todd, The Second Robin (Batman #427 – 428, 1988)
Jason Todd was introduced to fans in 1983 and quickly became the second young man to become Batman’s sidekick Robin. He was initially popular, albeit almost a clone of Dick Grayson, the original Robin. It was only in 1985, when DC chose to revamp his origin and give the character some more, well, character, that things took a wrong turn. Fans despised this new version, who was obnoxious and disrespectful.
It all led to something unprecedented. In 1988’s Death In The Family story, The Joker beat Jason with a crowbar and left him to die in an explosion at the end of Batman #427. Fans were then able to call a 1-900 phone number and register their vote as to whether Jason would live or die. In the end, the verdict of death came down to a difference of 72 votes, and Jason didn’t make it out of the explosion intact. In later years, Batman editor Denny O’Neill, who seemed genuinely remorseful about the whole business, said that he had heard one fan had programmed his computer to call the ‘thumbs down’ number every 90 seconds for eight hours. Whether or not this is true is up for debate, but the fact that the fate of an important character was left up to the fans, was (and still is) almost unheard of.
1. Hal Jordan Becomes Parallax After The Destruction Of Coast City (Green Lantern #48-50, 1994)
Earlier in the list, we detailed how DC killed off Superman and broke Batman’s back in the early 1990s. These weren’t the only risky approaches they took to long-running storylines in this period, however. Perhaps the most drastic was when they took the character of Hal Jordan, Green Lantern of Earth and all-around swell guy… and turned him into the rampaging supervillain Parallax! As if that wasn’t enough of a departure, the method of Jordan’s turn to the dark side was one of the most harrowing series of events ever depicted in superhero comics.
In Green Lantern #46, Hal’s beloved Coast City is destroyed by a series of bombs set by Mongul and Cyborg Superman. At the beginning of #48, the start of the Emerald Twilight story that would introduce the new Lantern Kyle Rayner to readers, Hal is in the center of what used to be Coast City, clutching a doll, the only physical evidence of the seven million people who used to live there. In a fit of grief, he uses his power ring to recreate the city, but is told he is in violation of a law forbidding Lantern’s using their rings for personal gain. He then goes on a rampage throughout the universe, killing nearly all the Guardians and members of the Green Lantern Corps, including Kilowog and Sinestro.
Turning your hero into a mass-murdering supervillain? Dark.