With so many superheroes all over film and television right now, I think we can shed the once-perceived notion that comics are just made for kids. Clearly, they’re not. Everyone loves these characters. They are made for the widest possible audience. But that can make it even more shocking when they go to very dark, adult places.
Even when you think about horrific moments in comics or in comic adaptations, you don’t think about things as violent and brutal as most horror movies you’ve seen. But the reality is that sometimes they’re not only as violent…they’re worse. Some of the scenes below were clearly done for shock value and virtually nothing else. Others were major, defining arcs in those character’s histories. The rest were a mix of both.
Either way, these are the times when stories about costumed crusaders tried to stand on the same level as Friday the 13th—or even Cannibal Holocaust.
The Joker Skins a Man Alive and Forces Him to Dance
There’s a problem that’s plagued Batman comics since the release of The Dark Knight: Not only does every person who writes the Joker want to show how edgy and shocking the character is, but they all want to outdo the last guy who wrote him. This scene takes the cake though. After skinning a man, but not killing him, the Joker forces the poor guy to dance for him. A sexy dance, to be particular, a morbid striptease with everything already removed.
In Mark Millar’s excellent Old Man Logan, which imagines the dystopian future of the Marvel Universe, Wolverine is an old farmer who has not popped his claws in years. He refuses to partake in any kind of violence and, when pushed, also refuses to give a reason why. The series holds off telling us for a while and when we finally get the answer, it’s both profound and chilling. The flashback shows Wolverine taking out every major villain singlehandedly as they invade the X-mansion, only to discover that he is under the influence of Mysterio’s mind tricks, and has just dismembered all of his teammates with his bare hands.
Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen reimagines classic literary characters as a secret peacekeeping force in Victorian London. The Invisible Man, appropriately, turns out to be a spy. Instead of taking the news to his colleagues, Mr. Hyde decides to take matters into his own hands and exacts revenge on Griffin by raping him to death. He then goes to the rest of the group, covered in blood, and calmly explains what he did.
After the progressively dark ending of Hal Jordan’s time as the Green Lantern, his replacement Kyle Rayner made for a lighter book. After all, it’s a comic about intergalactic space cops, it shouldn’t be grim and gritty all the time. This mentality was kept pretty clear as the book developed, making it that much more shocking when Kyle returned home to find his girlfriend’s corpse stuffed into his refrigerator. Even though we don’t see everything here, we don’t need to. The imagination does more than enough.
Ultimatum was full of shocking moments and the death of most characters in the Ultimate Marvel Universe, but this extremely graphic scene takes the cake. Usually the butt of the joke, The Blob is a grossly obese mutant. Everyone always remarks that he’d eat just about anything and even though he had threatened to eat people before, even that was treated as a joke. That makes it incredibly shocking when Hank Pym and Hawkeye turn a corner to discover Blob kneeling over Pym’s wife, the Wasp, with her innards in his mouth, saying “Tastes like chicken.” This drives Pym over the edge, naturally, so he grows to giant-size and bites the Blob’s head off.
Probably the most faithfully adapted death of a comic book character to film, the death of Gwen Stacy remains one of the most powerful in the history of the medium. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary here, not at first. It was a routine thing for Spider-Man. Gwen was kidnapped by the Green Goblin and in grave danger, so he swooped in to save her. Only he didn’t. He was a moment too late and a moment, in this case, was all it took. What makes it worse is that, even though there was probably no chance anyway, it’s Spider-Man’s web that actually snaps her neck.
One of the best individual comic stories of all time, The Killing Joke does get some deserved flack for the way Barbara’s crippling is handled. In something that is otherwise so meticulously structured, with nothing out of place, it goes over the top. Still, it’s extremely horrific. In fact, the event itself is not nearly as gruesome as others on this list. But the way it’s done is what makes it shocking. It’s so cinematic, too, which is probably what cements its impact. Barbara is shot in the lower abdomen, falls and smashes over a coffee table while her father—Commissioner Gordon—is forced to watch. Later, in an effort to drive him insane, Gordon wakes up in a room surrounded by photos of Barbara just after being shot, naked pictures that even imply rape. Whether the scene with the photos should have been included or not, it’s as horrific and disturbing as Batman ever got.