The journey from villain to hero is one told over and over in and out of comic books. We all love a good redemption arc, after all. Why else would enemies-to-lovers be such a popular trope in romance novels? When you’re writing comic books and always trying to reinvent the status quo, though, you sometimes need to go the other direction. This is particularly true of big crossover events. Almost as often as we find villains turning good, we see heroes breaking bad.
It’s always such a fascinating thing to read. These comic book heroes are ideals writ large, super-powered, and super-moral. So, what makes them change sides? While some heroes like Wolverine or Damian Wayne are already riding the line between hero and villain, others have longer journey. What would make Superman willing to use his vast powers to kill? What twisted circumstances would turn Steve Rogers from America’s Ass to America’s Badass? Some of these trips are full 180-degree turns from the heroes we know. Others are slow and methodical changes, making that inevitable heel turn a logical, if horrible conclusion.
Here are ten of the greatest stories of your favorite heroes breaking bad.
Disclaimer: As happens FAR too often when we make lists about comic books, this list is woefully lacking in women creators. While some of the titles in this list have women as colorists or editors, only one has a woman penciller. No writers. Come on, DC, Marvel, and everybody else, do better.
Green Lantern: Emerald Twilight by Ron Marz, Bill Willingham, Fred Haynes, and Darryl Banks
In the aftermath of the death of Superman (the first time), Hal Jordan’s hometown of Coast City is vaporized, killing over 7 million people. Out of his mind and seeking the power to rebuild it, he rages across the stars, defeating his fellow lanterns and stealing their rings. Once he reaches OA, he kills Sinestro and Kilowog, eventually depleting the central power battery and remaking himself as a god named Parallax.
Hulk: Future Imperfect by Peter David and George Perez
When Hulk travels through time to a distant future, he finds a planet blasted by nuclear winter. Survivors are few and desperate, and he finds no other superpowered people. Following rumors to a mysterious ruler named The Maestro, he eventually finds an old, massive, and genius version of himself, ruling this horrifying future with equally horrifying efficiency.
Infinite Crisis by Geoff Johns, Phil Jimenez, George Perez, Jerry Ordway, and Ivan Reis
The original Crisis on Infinite Earths ended with a Superman, Lois Lane, Alexander Luthor, and Superboy from different Earths trapped in a pocket dimension. Decades later, Luthor and this Superboy, Superboy-Prime, have been escaping to manipulate events across space and time. Now they’re taking real action, and this Connor Kent is a Superman-level threat to all reality.
Injustice: Gods Among Us by Tom Taylor and Jheremy Raapack
Look, up there! It’s a video game series, it’s a movie, it’s a comic book, too! What does it take to make Superman break bad? Try Joker making Kal think he’s beating on Doomsday when it’s actually a pregnant Lois Lane, and then planting a nuclear bomb in Metropolis with a detonator tied to Lois’s heart. Driven to madness, Superman kills Joker and decides he must end all violence by any means necessary. Yeah. It doesn’t go well.
Irredeemable by Mark Waid, Peter Krause, and Diego Barreto
Mark Waid has spent much of his career imagining the classic superhero dynamic turned inside out, and this is my favorite of those ventures. The world’s greatest hero, The Plutonian, suddenly turns evil. Genocidal. He is cold, calculating, and unbeatably powerful, killing millions. His old team, The Paradigm (a send-up of the Justice League) not only have to stop him, but need to understand what made The Plutonian break if the world has any chance of survival.
Runaways by Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona
Take a pretty normal group of teenagers. Okay, so maybe they have some superpowers. Or all of them do, whatever. The point is, what happens when they discover that their parents are part of an evil super-group? They become heroes, obviously! Beginning as a rocky and dysfunctional squad, they eventually bond into a real found family. So why is Runaways on this list? One of their own eventually betrays them, though you’ll want to read it to find out who.
Secret Empire by Nick Spencer, Rod Reis, Daniel Acuna, Steve McNiven, and Andrea Sorrentino
This might not be anyone’s favorite instance of heroes breaking bad, but it’s a big one that cannot be overlooked. Captain America, the most moral person in the entire Marvel Universe, is revealed to be a secret Hydra sleeper agent. The reasons are convoluted in traditional comic book fashion. The timing of this story could not have been worse given the state of America at the time. But people are still taking about it even today.
Shakugan no Shana by Yashichiro Takahashi and Noizi Ito
This Japanese light novel series that focuses on a high school boy, Yuji, who finds himself in the middle of a massive conflict between balance and imbalance, allying himself with the Flame Hazes to battle the Crimson Denizens. As this battle continues to escalate, Yuji sees no choice but to merge his consciousness with an evil deity in order to banish the Crimson Denizens away from humanity forever.
The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba
The most dysfunctional family you’ve ever heard of, The Umbrella Academy is about a group of children brought together by a problematic patriarch to save the world. Maybe. Now adults, their father figure has died and they must come back together in spite of decades of resentments. As a new threat to the family emerges, one of their own will wind up being the greatest threat to them and the entire world.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Heroes breaking bad is really one of the central themes of Watchmen, isn’t it? Along with the death of the Golden Age of Comics and the horror of Reaganomics. This seminal work focuses on a former group of costumed heroes, now middle aged, as one of their members is murdered. As they come together to discover who did the deed, their own foibles as humans become all too apparent, and one of their number has been the big bad the whole time.
These are far from the only times we’ve seen heroes breaking bad. Who’s your favorite hero? I can almost guarantee you there’s a story out there where they tipped their toes into the pool of evil. Definitely don’t go swimming in the pool of evil right after you eat. Or ever, really.