Batman’s journey has been long and fraught with heartache. From his earliest beginnings, the character has struggled with the grief of his parents’ deaths. As a pulp hero in the late 1930s, he swore to “avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”
As time progressed, the character evolved. In the 1960s, he battled prominent members of his rogues gallery — The Riddler, The Penguin and The Joker — in a television series noted for its over-the-top campiness. When the 1980s rolled around, Tim Burton brought the caped crusader to the big screen in a film that — while still paying homage to the TV series — took the character in a slightly darker direction.
Two years before Burton’s treatment, however, Frank Miller had paved the way for a newer, grittier Batman in his seminal work, The Dark Knight Returns. Focusing on an aged, stir-crazy Bruce Wayne who has reluctantly retired from the crime-fighting game, the markedly grim tale features Batman slugging it out with Superman in a Gotham City plunged into darkness after decades without its hero's protection.
From the pages of Miller’s work emerged a number of ideas that have influenced Batman’s direction over the years. Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight — and its sequels — drew heavily upon Miller’s vision of the character as a grizzled, no-holds-barred hero who is willing to sacrifice anything — even himself — in the fight against evil.
However, Miller was not treading upon entirely new ground when he conceived of The Dark Knight Returns. For years, independent comic creators — and even some within the big studios — were pushing against the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority. These creators envisioned heroes that were characterized by their human faults who would stop at nothing — even deadly force — to complete their missions.
On this list, we’ve collected seven such examples. From the brutal adventures of a crusader for objectivist philosophy to the exploits of a schizophrenic plant, we take a look at seven superheroes who went dark before Batman ever did.
7 Mr. A
In 1967, Steve Ditko — comic book hall of famer and co-creator of the original Spider-Man — conceived Rex Graine. Graine, following the typical journalist-cum-superhero design, was a resolutely ethical reporter for the Daily Crusader by day and a steel-masked crime-fighter by night.
In the two-issue series, Mr. A — armed only with a revolver — doles out a heaping helping of vigilante justice all while proselytizing his — and Ditko’s — bizarre Randian philosophies. Unwilling to accept the existence of moral grey areas, Mr. A was famous for presenting criminals with his stark business card, decorated with only two squares — one black, one white — while informing them, typically at gunpoint, that “[i]t is either one or the other! Take your choice!”
6 The Punisher
After Frank Castle watched his wife and children die, he was never quite the same. Denied the satisfaction of seeing the mobsters who murdered his family punished by the legal system, Castle decided to suit up and dole out his own form of punishment.
Originally conceived as a villain hunting the titular hero in Spider-Man #129, The Punisher proved so appealing to audiences that, in 1986, Marvel gave him his own miniseries. Since that time, Frank Castle has engaged in a grisly, 28-year war against all forms of organized crime. Battling the Mafia, Yakuza, drug cartels, biker gangs, and the Triad, Castle has stopped at nothing — including murder — to satisfy his seemingly insatiable hunger for vengeance.
In the 1980s, the man who would eventually lead Batman down his darkened path, Frank Miller, assumed writing responsibilities for Marvel’s flagging title Daredevil. Re-imagining nearly every aspect of Daredevil’s history, Miller callously uprooted the character’s past and — in its place — inserted a narrative of misfortune, neglect and abuse designed to recast Daredevil as a stoic antihero.
Gone were the doting reassurances of Daredevil’s father, Jack Murdock. Instead, Miller re-envisioned him as an abusive drunk whose mistreatment of his son was at least partially responsible for Daredevil’s decidedly unreliable moral compass. While controversial at the time, Miller’s venture ultimately proved effective in luring new readers to the series, and many of the darker themes explored in Miller’s early Daredevil run can be found in his similar re-imagining of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns.
If darkness is a matter of degrees, then when it comes to gritty heroes, Tim Vigil’s Faust may just be the boiling point. While Bruce Wayne was taking his first hesitant steps on the path to a darker version of himself, Faust’s John Jaspers was standing at the end of that path, grinning maniacally and clutching the decapitated head of his opposition.
In the surprisingly literary Faust, Vigil tells a story of insanity, revenge, lust, black magic and vigilantism. John Jaspers, in the form of Faust, dons a crimson cape and uses his steel talons to cut a bloody swathe through hordes of thugs, street punks and criminals all in search of a shadowy underworld figure known only as “M.”
By now, most people are familiar with Rorschach. Originally appearing in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Rorschach’s superpowers seem to be a combination of Jason Bourne levels of resourcefulness and the kind of enhanced strength granted by surrendering one’s will to absolute insanity.
Comic legend Steve Ditko, creator of Mr. A once described Rorschach as, “like Mr. A except insane.” Relentlessly bullied as a child for being the son of a prostitute, Rorschach’s worldview became tainted. Like Mr. A, Rorschach’s way of viewing of the world revealed only the existence of black and white. With such limited perception, Rorschach’s manner of dealing with criminals was occasionally heavy-handed and always messy, leading other members of the Watchmen universe to qualify their description of him as “tactically brilliant” by clarifying that he was also a sociopath.
2 The Spirit
Will Eisner’s The Spirit stands as one of the earliest examples of the morally ambiguous crime-fighter. The story of The Spirit begins with the apparent death of fresh-faced detective Denny Colt. After being given a hero’s burial, Colt awakens inside a mausoleum located in Wildwood Cemetery. From there, he reinvents himself as The Spirit, a masked avenger determined to clean up the crime-ridden streets of Central City.
And make bank doing it.
See, The Spirit and his cohorts — chief amongst them, Central City’s police commissioner — managed a sort of confidence game where his adventures were made possible by earning police rewards. Capable of chasing after criminals that were “outside of the police's reach,” The Spirit has enjoyed over seventy years on the job.
1 Swamp Thing
In 1982, Alan Moore took over for Martin Pasko on DC’s Swamp Thing. As Moore tends to do, he began by wiping the slate clean, eliminating the majority of the supporting cast that previous writers had established and completely revamping the character. Rewriting the Swamp Thing’s origin story, Moore transformed the creature from a human-turned-monster into a symbiotic form of plant life that had gained its form when it attempted to emulate human physiology.
In the course of his run, Moore’s Swamp Thing offered a decidedly high-brow treatment of the tortured character that included the character being peppered with bullets, engaging in an age-inappropriate relationship, and suffering a massive identity crisis. Unburdened by the shackles imposed by the Comics Code Authority, Moore’s Swamp Thing afforded the industry a clear view of the benefits of writing comics with an adult audience in mind.