Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America; legends who define heroism because they never give up, never surrender, never walk away. Except sometimes they do. Not because the opposition is too tough for them, but because their life has become too tough for them. After years of worrying about the needs of the many, they start to think about the needs of the one. It’s so hard to have a life when you’re constantly fighting crime — doesn’t a good guy like Peter Parker deserve a little happiness at last?
From a writer’s point of view, a hero quitting is a great source of drama. No matter whether they choose the many or the one, the decision is guaranteed to torment them. Retirement is also a simple way to wrap up a canceled series: Batgirl’s backup feature ends, Batgirl retires, it’s over. Until, of course, some later writer gets the idea to drag the character out of mothballs. A few heroes retire for good, but for most, it’s a temporary measure. Here are seventeen heroes who hung up their capes only to resume the hero’s journey later.
No Silver Age superhero could match Spider-Man for stories laden with drama and angst. In Amazing Spider-Man #50, it finally became more than Peter Parker could take. Because of his secret life, he had to pass up a party with gorgeous Gwen Stacey, his grades were slipping, and when Aunt May fell ill, he wasn’t there to care for her. Peter’s reward for his self-sacrifice? Daily Bugle editorials convincing New Yorkers that Spidey was the greatest villain unhung. Fed up, Peter dumped his costume in the trash and declared himself “Spider-Man No More!”
Spoiler: it didn’t last. Peter stuck to his guns at first, despite a Kingpin-backed crime wave. Then he saw a couple of thugs beat up an elderly watchman, remembered his Uncle Ben, and leaped into action. In the aftermath, he accepted that quitting just wasn’t in the cards for him: “I can never permit one innocent being to come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act.” It was a strong, dramatic story that encouraged other writers to confront their characters with similar dilemmas.
For Kal-El of Krypton, both Clark Kent and Superman are essential parts of himself. Until Superman #296-299, that is, where it appeared that his double life was tearing him apart. Why else would he lose all his powers whenever he donned Clark’s clothes?
In #297, Superman tested his theory by becoming Clark Kent full time. He kept at it much longer than Peter Parker: even when he heard sirens, Clark just reminded himself that cops and firefighters could do their jobs without him. Eventually, though, the guilt from not helping people became too much; in #298, he switched to being Superman full-time. In the following issue, he learned an alien villain had caused his power fluctuations and things got back to normal.
Well, almost. During the Clark Kent phase of the story, Clark and Lois began dating. They’d done that occasionally before, but it never went well (“You’re a spineless, unbearable coward!“—Action #1). This time, they clicked, and even after Superman fixed his power problems, Clark/Lois remained a thing for a while. It was the first time they’d been a genuine couple, but it wouldn’t be the last, of course.
15. Black Widow
For Natasha Romanov and Clint Barton — Black Widow and Hawkeye — the course of true love never ran smooth.
The couple first met in Tales of Suspense #57, when the Black Widow, a Russian spy at the time, seduced Hawkeye into helping her against Iron Man. Eventually, Natasha chose love of Clint over love of country, only to have Nick Fury recruit her to stop a Russian superweapon, the Psychotron. That mission accomplished in Avengers #44, Natasha quit spying and adventuring to become plain old Clint Barton’s girlfriend.
That didn’t work out so well, as Hawkeye spent subsequent Avengers issues too busy fighting gods, supervillains, and Ultron to date much. In #57, a bored Natasha donned her costume again and went back to work for SHIELD. It was the beginning of the end: although the couple fought to keep their love alive, Natasha and Clint eventually split. The Black Widow replaced her original costume with the sleek black catsuit and went on to have her own superhero career, and Marvel fans were much better off for it.
Barbara Gordon debuted as Batgirl in 1967, then quit five years later. She had better things to do.
In a backup story in Detective Comics #422, Babs discovered a former boyfriend, now an ex-con, had returned to crime. After she busted him, she told her father — a reluctant candidate for Congress — that she wanted to run in his place, making prison reform her signature issue. Babs ran as an outsider, promising to boot out the political old guard, and in #424 (by coincidence, her backup strip’s last story) “Boot” Gordon won. Babs hung up her cape and headed to Washington.
Over the next three years, Rep. Gordon found herself getting back into costume when other superheroes showed up in DC. It was clear though that these were exceptions, and that Babs saw herself as an ex-superhero. Inevitably, that didn’t last. After Batman Family #1 brought Batgirl back into action in 1975, Babs spent several years fighting crime between Congressional hearings and fact-finding missions. The double life took its toll and she lost her re-election campaign, but Gotham City got Batgirl back.
13. Captain America
As Captain America, Steve Rogers devoted his life to defending the American dream — until the day he stopped believing in it.
At the climax of Captain America’s battle with the Secret Empire (Captain America #175), Cap discovered the cabal’s Number One was (at least strongly implied to be) the president himself. Unable to defend an America whose leadership couldn’t be trusted, Steve walked away for a normal life with his girlfriend, Sharon.
It turned out that normal life wasn’t to his taste anymore. Steve missed the excitement of crimefighting as much as he missed helping people, so he took on a new identity, Nomad, “the man without a country.”. Then, while battling the Red Skull, he had an epiphany: Number One was just as much an enemy of the American dream as any Nazi or supervillain. The dream itself was still good, even if some leaders were bad. Steve took up his shield again with a renewed determination to fight against all America’s enemies, inside or outside the system.
12. Green Lantern
Like Peter Parker, Hal Jordan quit as Earth’s Green Lantern when he wasn’t able to be there for the people he cared about. Unlike Peter, though, Hal stuck with it.
While Hal was operating in space — as a Green Lantern, his obligations extended far beyond Earth — the Demolition Team almost destroyed Ferris Aircraft. That made Hal’s lover Carol, the Ferris CEO, conclude that she could never trust Hal to be there for her as long as he was a Green Lantern. When she gave Hal her “me or the power ring” ultimatum in Green Lantern #181, he chose her, and John Stewart took over as Green Lantern.
Giving up his ring pained Hal more than he expected, especially when he struggled to protect Carol without it. Then came a more crushing blow: Carol’s alter ego, Star Sapphire, had covertly manipulated his retirement for her own ends. When Hal rejected Star Sapphire, he lost Carol too. Fortunately, he became a Lantern again in #199 — but a retirement of more than a year for an A-list hero makes for pretty gutsy storytelling.
11. Iron Man
Tony Stark’s image as an irresponsible, reckless alcoholic has become central to his character, even though it was a late addition to his legend. It first surfaced during David Michelinie and Bob Layton’s Bronze Age run on Iron Man: Tony’s drinking got so bad that it almost cost him his company before he got his boozing under control.
Later writer Denny O’Neil, however, thought that Tony had won the battle too easily. In a long arc culminating in Iron Man #200, Tony hit the bottle again, partly but not entirely because of business rival Obadiah Stane manipulating him. Recovery wasn’t easy or quick, so Tony’s best friend James Rhodes had to step in and don the Iron Man suit. It wasn’t the first time Tony had given up the armor, but before, it had been only for an issue or two. Rhodey assumed the role of Iron Man for months while Tony struggled to regain his life and his company.
Eventually, of course, Tony defeated both his inner demons and Obadiah Stane. He took back his armor and Rhodey became a new hero, War Machine. He would be far from the last person to step into Tony’s armored shoes.
10. The Shadow
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” is one of pop culture’s classic catchphrases, courtesy of the Shadow radio show. The Shadow was much more than a clever phrase, though: his pulp magazine ran more than 300 issues, he appeared in multiple films, and he also starred in comic books. Plus, he was a big influence on a character who became even more successful — Batman. When DC began publishing The Shadow in the 1970s, it made sense for the two masters of darkness to team up
In Batman #253, the Dark Knight was working to crack a counterfeiting ring. Whenever he ran into trouble, someone with a chilling laugh, lurking in the shadows, came to his aid (this was back when “Batman needs help!” wasn’t seen as an oxymoron). It turns out that after decades in retirement, the Shadow had returned to evaluate whether the Caped Crusader was a worthy successor. Gotham’s greatest hero passes with flying colors, of course.
Although Batman encouraged the Shadow to keep fighting, he only made one more present-day appearance within DC continuity, when he showed up in Batman #259 to give the Masked Manhunter another helping hand.
9. Wonder Woman
When Steve Trevor went up against international crime lord Dr. Cyber in Wonder Woman #179, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Wonder Woman wanted to stand by her man, but the Amazons were due to leave Earth for another realm to recharge their magic. To stay behind, Wonder Woman gave up her powers, her lasso, and her costume, becoming plain old Diana Prince.
Illogically, she also forgot all her Amazon combat skills, so she had to learn new ones. Luckily for her, she ran into I Ching, a blind Chinese martial artist — so awesome he doesn’t even need his sight! — who was apparently just hanging around waiting for a white hero to train (yes, he’s both an Asian and a disability stereotype). Depowering DC’s most famous heroine drew a lot of criticism, but the “Diana Prince” era endured for five years. Finally, in Wonder Woman #204, a sniper killed I Ching, but the Amazons returned and restored Diana’s powers. Although Cyber had killed Steve, he came back eventually. I Ching, however, stayed very dead.
8. The Beast
In Amazing Adventures #11, Hank McCoy became the first member of the X-Men to leave the team. A brilliant scientist, he graduated from Xavier’s Academy to a job researching mutant biochemistry at the Brand Corporation. Things went horribly wrong, as comic book science frequently does, and Hank wound up transforming into a more extreme mutation — stronger, tougher, faster, but looking more ape than man.
After covering up his transformation with a latex mask and gloves, Hank spent the rest of his series hunting for a cure and angsting a lot. An abrupt cancellation left his situation unresolved, but when Hank joined the Avengers (Avengers #137) he filled his new team in. Fed up with trying to pass off for a human, he’d gone off alone to contemplate life, listen to music, read the mystic writings of Carlos Castaneda, and do some drugs (not on the printed page, but writer Steve Englehart has said that that was the subtext). He finally accepted his new furry self, realized he missed being a superhero, and joined the Avengers, shaggy pelt and all.
7. Giant Man and the Wasp.
Like Barbara Gordon, the retirement of Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne as Giant-Man and the Wasp conveniently coincided with them losing their series. Funny how that worked out, huh?
Whether as Ant-Man or Giant-Man, Hank had always been a Silver Age second stringer compared to Marvel stars such as Thor or Spider-Man. Taking on Janet as his partner/girlfriend made Hank’s adventures more fun, but still not big league. So in 1965, Stan Lee replaced them in Tales to Astonish with Namor the Sub-Mariner, as well as removed them from the Avengers (Thor and Iron Man left the team too). The in-story explanation was that after umpty-million brushes with death, they were ready for a quiet life.
They didn’t get one. Janet soon became the Wasp again to alert the Avengers to the Sub-Mariner going on a rampage. Instead, she wound up captured by the Collector, back when he was a weird eccentric rather than an Elder of the Universe. Hank rejoined the Avengers in Avengers #28 to help rescue her, though he was now calling himself Goliath. The couple made several other attempts to retire over the years, but something always brought them back into the game.
6. Plastic Man
Plastic Man was comics’ first stretching superhero, and one of the funniest comedic crimefighters around. So naturally, someone decided he’d work better as a tragic figure.
In Brave and the Bold #95, zillionaire Ruby Ryder begged Batman to find her vanished fiancee, dreamboat Kyle Morgan. Batman did, only to have Ruby gun down Kyle for breaking up with her. The cops found Bats holding the murder weapon (Bob Haney’s B&B scripts often shaved about 50 points off Batman’s IQ) and concluded he was the killer. Batman hunted Ruby down, once again helped by a mysterious figure lurking in the shadows. But this time it wasn’t the Shadow, it was Plastic Man, who was also (startling twist!) Ruby’s lover Kyle.
A sorrowful Plas explained he’d grown tired of being a clown no woman could ever love. He retired his superhero persona, started life over as Morgan, and won Ruby’s heart before learning that she was bad to the bone (duh, she tried to kill you). Plastic Man appeared in multiple later series, but none of them followed Haney in making him the kind of clown who’s crying on the inside.
5. Doctor Strange
It’s unlikely that Doctor Strange would ever have retired for good, but editorial decisions at Marvel gave him a briefer time out than might otherwise have been expected.
The axe fell for the Sorcerer Supreme just as Stephen began a new arc involving his battle with the Lovecraftian demons the Nameless Ones. The story’s writer, Roy Thomas, then wrapped up the battle in Sub-Mariner and Hulk. With the Nameless Ones banished, Stephen decided that the world was safe, so he could be Sorcerer No More.
Thomas, however, was also working on a new team concept, the Titans Three, to star Silver Surfer, Hulk, and Namor. Stan Lee overruled Thomas on using the Surfer, so Doctor Strange joined the team, which was now named the Defenders instead. The Defenders’ first appearance, in Marvel Feature #1, showed Stephen Strange back in action, while the backup story explained why. In retiring, Stephen had given up all his magical skill and knowledge, which left him helpless before his old foe Baron Mordo. To defeat Mordo, he turned to their mentor, the Ancient One, for a power boost, but at the price of never living a normal life again.
4. Carol Danvers
After the Avengers let a villain mind-control and rape Carol Danvers — now Captain Marvel, but then known as Ms. Marvel — it’s not surprising that she needed some down time.
In a multi-issue arc culminating in Avengers #200, Ms. Marvel became miraculously pregnant. Like all paranormal pregnancies, the baby grew incredibly fast. It turned out that the child, Marcus, was the son of Immortus (who ruled the plane of Limbo) and a kind of crazed stalker. He’d previously seduced Carol “with a subtle boost from Immortus’ machines,” then impregnated her so that he could physically incarnate himself on Earth. Despite knowing about the “subtle boost,” the Avengers decided that this was so romantic and did nothing as the couple returned to Limbo.
In Avengers Annual #10, it turns out that Carol escaped Marcus and Limbo, but she was traumatized enough she just wanted to live quietly by herself. An attack by Rogue brought Carol back into the Avengers’ orbit, but it wasn’t a happy reunion. It would be a while before Carol became a superhero again.
3. Martian Manhunter
Like Babs Gordon, J’Onn J’Onzz didn’t retire from self-interest — he simply saw a better way to help people. Instead of going to Congress, he headed into outer space to do it.
J’Onn debuted in Detective Comics #225 when he was accidentally stranded on Earth. As humans were far below the utopian level of Martian society, J’Onn chose to use his powers to help us. He had a long career as a backup strip and Justice League member before DC finally kicked him to the curb. Like Batgirl and Giant-Man, J’Onn got a retirement story.
In Justice League of America #71, readers learned that far from utopia, Mars was ravaged by war between the White and Green Martians (the story introduced the White Martians to J’Onn’s backstory). J’Onn learned the White leader, Blanx, was plotting planetary genocide, so he called on the League to help stop it. The battle ended with an uninhabitable Mars, so J’Onn led his people to a new world for a new start. Although he made several guest star appearances afterward, it wouldn’t be until JLA #228, fifteen years after his departure, that J’Onn returned to Earth for good.
2. Black Panther
One of the odder moments in Christopher Priest’s acclaimed run on Black Panther was when a second T’Challa turned up in suspended animation — not a clone, not an imposter, but completely identical physically to the “real” Black Panther. T’Challa 2’s personality couldn’t be more different, though; he was a laughing, fun-loving adventurer, in contrast to the thoughtful, brooding monarch Priest portrayed.
What T’Challa-1 knew (and his friends eventually learned) was that this Panther was his future self (or at least “a” future self in some timeline), brought back to the present and dying from a brain aneurysm. After the future T’Challa died, the Black Panther seemed to lose all hope, moved to America and allowing an NYPD detective, Kasper Cole, to take over as Black Panther in Black Panther #50. It turned out that this was an elaborate scheme — something Priest’s T’Challa excelled at — to break the powerful, ruthless 66 Bridges crime cartel. The scheme succeeded, so T’Challa resumed his role as the Black Panther in the final issue of Priest’s run.
In DC’s original multiverse of the Silver and Bronze Ages, Earth-2 was where the Golden Age Superman, Batman, Flash, etc. had their adventures. The Earth-2 Batman was almost identical with the contemporary Earth-One Caped Crusader, albeit with twenty years more experience. During those added two decades, he and the reformed Earth-Two Catwoman finally admitted their love for each other and married.
Tragically, in DC Super-Stars #17, a former Catwoman henchman blackmailed Selina Kyle into returning to crime for one more job. Batman intervened in the caper, not knowing that Selina Kyle was involved; in the subsequent firefight, a stray bullet killed her. After her funeral, Bruce swore he would never wear his costume again, and turned instead to using his detective skills as Gotham’s new police commissioner.
A year later, when magically enhanced psycho Bill Jensen attacked Gotham City in Adventure Comics #461, his powers enabled him to crush Bruce Wayne’s superhuman allies, such as Dr. Fate and Green Lantern. With no one else to rely on, Bruce donned his costume in #462 for one final battle. He managed to fight past Jensen’s powers, but at the cost of his life. It was a short, unhappy retirement, but at least he and Selina Wayne are together again now (in that universe, anyway).
Do you know of any other beloved superheroes that called it quits? Let us know in the comments.
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