Given comics is a largely serialized medium, it’s not surprising that its history is filled with brilliant – and not-so-brilliant! – plot twists. After all, what better way to entice readers to read the next chapter than with an earth-shattering last page cliffhanger that leaves them thinking “How are they ever gonna resolve this?!”
There’s also few things more rewarding as a fan than seeing a meticulously crafted – and cleverly hidden – plot twist come to fruition. It’s the thrill of being surprised, combined with the satisfaction of knowing that the writer involved has played fair by providing ample little hints in the lead up to the big reveal.
Of course, some comic book plot twists are better executed than others. Indeed, more than a few have fallen flat, often because they either made no sense, or actively damaged decades worth of stories that proceeded them. In instances like these, it sometimes seems like the twist was designed more from a shock value point of view, rather than as a payoff designed to enrich past and future adventures. Still, regardless of whether a major comic book reveal was outstanding or underwhelming, they’re almost always memorable.
With this in mind, we’ve taken a look back at 20 of comic’s biggest narrative surprises, in order to round up this list of the 10 Best (And 10 Worst) Comic Book Plot Twists of all time.
20 Best – Mr. Oz Rocks Superman’s Origins To The Core
Let’s kick things off with a very recent comic book plot twist: the moment when mysterious Superman villain Mr. Oz reveals his true identity!
Fans have been puzzling over this enigmatic individual since he first appeared in mid-2014. The only thing we knew for certain was that Oz was fixated on proving to the Man of Steel that humanity was an inherently worthless race, beneath his concern.
Slowly but surely, more and more clues began to emerge pointing to Oz’s origins – cutting loose with a blast of heat vision made it pretty clear he was a Kryptonian – finally coming to a head in Action Comics #987.
Here, sensing that his schemes have left Superman’s faith in humanity deeply shaken, Oz at last throws back his hood, unveiling himself as Jor-El, Superman’s long-dead biological dad!
It’s a revelation that shakes the Superman mythos to the core – not only was Jor-El an apparently benign figure, he’s also supposed to have blown up along with Krypton – and leaves us wondering what this means for Superman’s past and future!
19 Worst – Marvel Superheroes = Skrull Spies
It’s a decent effort to pull the narrative rug out from under readers’ feet, when they discover that some of their favorite characters – including Spider-Woman, Hank Pym and Elektra – are in reality the first wave of an extraterrestrial invasion force!
The problem here isn’t so much the twist itself (which was adequately signposted ahead of time), but rather its implications for several years worth of prior continuity.
After all, if, say, Spider-Woman has really been a Skrull imposter for at least some of the heroine’s earlier adventures, it casts these stories in an entirely different light – and likewise for other characters affected.
Some fans were therefore more than a little annoyed with this twist, and how it meant that they’d essentially wasted their time reading about alien spies instead of true Marvel superheroes!
18 Best – Otto Octavius… Spider-Man?!
Otto Octavius, better known by his criminal alter-ego Doctor Octopus, is one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes.
So imagine how much Spidey fans flipped out during the “Dying Wish” storyline, where not only does Peter Parker die, but his consciousness is replaced with that of Doc Ock.
Although Ock initially continues on his villainous ways while in the driver’s seat of Spider-Man’s body, he soon reforms after being overwhelmed by the heroism displayed in his enemy’s memories.
Vowing to reform, Octavius doesn’t just continue the webhead’s legacy – in typically arrogant fashion, he sets out to top it. Improving Parker’s existing crimefighting hardware and outfit, he labels himself “The Superior Spider-Man”!
Although some fans were outraged by this seemingly irreversible shift in the Spider-Man comics direction, this dramatic change predictably didn’t last, with Parker regaining control of his body once and for all.
17 Worst – The (Multiple) Reveals Of The Architect Behind “Hush”
The “Hush” storyline that ran through the Batman comics of the mid-2000s was a massive commercial success. However, more than a few fans and critics have taken issue with writer Jeph Loeb’s plotting, specifically the story’s plot twist – or rather twists, plural!
Loeb unmasks no less than three culprits responsible for turning the Dark Knight’s life upside down, with each successive reveal proving less effective than the last.
The first (and arguably best) plot twist is that the architect behind the villainous plot is Jason Todd – the long-dead second Robin! This proves to be a red herring, with the Caped Crusader’s former partner having been impersonated by shapeshifting baddie Clayface.
The second reveal is that the big bad behind the story was Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend, Tommy Elliot, operating under the bandaged alter-ego “Hush”. This didn’t come as too much of a shock for readers, as it was foreshadowed pretty heavily throughout the story’s run. Loeb then drops the bombshell that Elliot wasn’t working alone, and that his partner in crime was none other than the Riddler!
Having deduced Batman’s secret identity, Riddler devised a plan to destroy his old enemy, bringing Hush into the fold when he learned of their mutual hatred for Wayne.
16 Best – Captain America: Soldier For Hydra
There’s reader outrage, and then there’s the borderline-nuclear response fans had to the cliffhanger at the end of Captain America: Steve Rogers, which saw Cap declare “Hail Hydra.”
To say that some readers were angered by the revelation that Marvel’s Sentinel of Liberty was secretly an undercover operative for the one-time Nazi organization is a huge understatement. The response by these fans was vitriolic enough to make even a supervillain blush, even as more level-headed Cap aficionados pointed out that this change seemed unlikely to stick.
This foresight ended up being on the money, as Steve Rogers’ apparent defection to Hydra was revealed to be the result of reality being meddled with (that old chestnut), and Cap has since returned to his All-American roots.
15 Worst – Professor X Sweeps A Bunch Of Deaths Under The Rug
Over the past decade or so, a lot has come to light that paints X-Men founder and leader Professor Charles Xavier in a less than flattering light. This includes brainwashing Wolverine, subjugating an intelligent AI program, and just generally lying to his students – which he justifies with his end goal of peace between humans and mutants.
By far the worst was revealed in the “Deadly Genesis” story arc, where we learn he covered up the deaths of a whole team of X-Men. It turns out that when the original team went MIA on Krakoa the Living Island, ol’ Charles assembled a previously unseen squad to rescue them – all of whom subsequently died!
Now responsible for the deaths of several young mutants – including Cyclops’ hitherto unknown brother Vulcan – Xavier sneakily decides to flip the psychic reset switch. He wipes Cyke’s mind of any memory of his deceased teammates (including his own brother), sweeping the incident under the rug until not-dead Vulcan finally resurfaces to tell all!
14 Best – Swamp Thing’s Eye-Opening Anatomy Lesson
During the 1980s, legendary comics scribe Alan Moore built his reputation with deconstructionist takes on the superhero genre, most famously with the acclaimed Watchmen (more on that later). One of his most celebrated efforts was The Saga Of The Swamp-Thing series, which saw him totally reinvent series lead Alec Holland, a scientist turned into a plant monster.
In a chapter early in his run – fittingly titled “Anatomy Lesson” – Moore has a supervillain Jason Woodrue perform an autopsy on a dormant Swamp Thing. The results of Woodrue’s tests suggest that Holland’s biology makes no sense – all of his flora-based organs are simply crude representations of their human counterparts.
The leads to a mind-blowing revelation: the Swamp Thing isn’t Alec Holland at all! Holland died in the accident that created the monster, which simply possesses an echo of the scientist’s consciousness.
It’s a big moment, that not only redefines the character – our hero understandably goes through a bit of a mental breakdown upon receiving the news – but also sets the stage for one of the greatest comic book runs in modern comics.
13 Worst – So Wait: Monarch Isn’t Really Captain Atom?
Despite the best efforts of all involved, sometimes major comic book plot twists leak to the industry press, potentially ruining the surprise for fans.
Such was the case with DC’s Armageddon 2001 line-wide crossover, which had its ending – originally set to reveal tyrannical overlord Monarch to be the future’s Captain Atom – spoiled ahead of time.
In an attempt to reverse the damage caused by the leak, writers Archie Goodwin and Denny O’Neil changed Armageddon’s plot at the last minute, and Monarch was revealed to be Hawk instead.
The only problem here? Earlier on, Hawk and crimefighting partner Dove were explicitly shown not to be Monarch, so this big moment just ended up frustrating readers!
DC later accepted that the “Hawk is Monarch” twist was a screw-up, and retconned the storyline’s outcome to restore Captain Atom as the series’ main villain.
12 Best – A Familiar Face Behind Green Goblin’s Mask
One of the earliest mysteries in The Amazing Spider-Man comics was the true identity of the Green Goblin – a character now widely considered Spidey’s archenemy.
Readers were presented with a series of clues that pointed to the Goblin being someone Peter Parker already knew, building anticipation for the eventual reveal. Finally – during a classic supervillain monologue, no less – the baddie unmasked himself as wealthy industrialist Norman Osborn, father of Peter’s best buddy, Harry!
It’s an important moment in comic book history, and interestingly, it allegedly almost never happened. According to Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee and series artist John Romita Sr, original penciller Steve Ditko fought to have the Goblin revealed to be a random nobody. Ditko’s argument was that in real life, the bad guys are often people we don’t already know, and thought the story should reflect this.
That said, Ditko himself has denied this was ever his intention for the character – even going so far as to claim credit for dreaming up the Osborn twist in the first place!
11 Worst – Nightcrawler Is A Devil After All
A big part of the appeal of Nightcrawler as a character is his pathos – someone who looks like a demon, but who’s actually a kind-hearted and brave individual.
This is somewhat undercut when the X-Men comics announced that Kurt Wagner’s biological father was an actual demon – or at least, a demon-like mutant – making the X-Man half-demon himself!
This… really doesn’t work. The whole point of Nightcrawler being persecuted because of his appearance is contingent on him not actually being what his attackers have branded him as being.
If Kurt really is at least part demon, his tormentors are still bigots, sure – they’re discriminating against him based on what he is, not who he is.
But the powerful visual metaphor at the heart of the character is somewhat weakened when you realize that allegations of Kurt being a “devil” are at least partly true!
10 Best – Animal Man Meets His Maker
Like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison is another superstar comic book scribe who rose to prominence off the back of celebrated runs on books featuring lesser-known characters.
While his surrealist work on Doom Patrol is rightly praised even today, it’s his efforts with Animal Man that are the most memorable – particularly the twist that sees the series’ hero come face-to-face with the author himself!
Throughout Morrison’s time on the series, Animal Man slowly becomes aware that he is a fictional character, finally coming to a head when he meets his maker – or at least, the man currently in charge of writing his adventures!
It’s one of the biggest (and easily one of the best) “meta” moments comics has even seen, not only for the initial shock value, but also for the insightful conversation between author and character that follows.
9 Worst – Leslie Thompkins Breaks The Hippocratic Oath
The “War Games” crossover in the Batman titles is infamous for killing off fill-in Robin Stephanie Brown, but a bigger shock would surface in follow-up storyline “War Crimes”.
Here, we learn that the person responsible for Stephanie’s death is none other than Doctor Leslie Thompkins, the woman who helped raised Bruce Wayne after his parents were killed!
In an attempt to teach the Dark Knight a lesson regarding his blasé approach to child endangerment laws, Thompkins intentionally fails to adequately treat Stephanie’s wounds, effectively murdering her. As you can imagine, Batman doesn’t take Thompkin’s rather extreme feedback on his recruitment practices well, warning her never to return from her exile overseas.
Later stories partially undid this plot development – it turns out Leslie only faked Stephanie’s death – but the whole affair has still left something of a taint around this once-unimpeachable character.
8 Best – The Other Clark Kent Shows His Impish Side
As the Mr. Oz storyline has already shown, when it comes to mysteries, the current Superman books have featured some absolute doozies!
Another recent example involved the introduction of a powerless incarnation of Clark Kent completely independent of the Man of Steel, who began stalking Lois Lane.
Things only got crazier from here, as baffled fans tried to tease out the secret identity of this walking, talking secret identity, who for all intents and purposes appeared to be exactly who he said he was!
In the end, the other Clark turned out to be reality-warping imp Mr. Mxyzptlk, who was lashing out at Superman for “forgetting” him, the impact of which would feed into a whole ‘nother set of narrative surprises.
7 Worst – Norman Osborn And Gwen Stacy’s One Night Stand
Plot twists that drastically alter well-established continuity are a tricky thing to get right – and more often than not, all that happens is both the old and new stories end up tarnished. Such was the case with the “Sins Past” Spider-Man story arc, which hit fans with a double whammy of unwanted revelations!
The first is that Spidey’s former girlfriend Gwen Stacy once had a fling with Norman Osborn – the man who would go on (in his Green Goblin person) to become her killer. The second is that this one night stand resulted in Gwen falling pregnant with twins, Sarah and Gabriel, who would go on to cause headaches for Spider-Man as adults.
Needless to say, fans reacted to poorly to this revelation, given it manufactured a connection between two characters barely connected previously, and required Gwen to act wildly out of character.
6 Best – Barry Allen Zooms Back Into Wally’s Life
Up until his return a few years ago in Final Crisis, the death of the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, was considered one of the biggest acts of sacrifice and heroism in the DC Universe. This left Barry’s successor, Wally West, with some rather large boots to fill, and he spent much of his early tenure plagued by self-doubt over whether he deserved his mentor’s mantle.
Things only got worse for the Scarlet Speedster in “The Return Of Barry Allen” storyline, where – in a brilliant twist itself – a seemingly resurrected Barry arrives on the scene! Overjoyed to see his friend alive and well again, Wally goes back to playing second fiddle, however Barry’s increasingly disturbing behaviour leads him to suspect that something is up. These suspicions turn out to be well-founded, and “Barry” is unmasked as Eobard Thawne, better known as Professor Zoom, the evil Reverse-Flash.
It’s brutal twist that hits Wally and readers equally hard, as the joy at seeing a beloved character return is transformed to anguish at the realization it was all a cruel hoax.
5 Worst – Batman Watches The Watchmen
Ever since Watchmen came out in the mid-1980s, it has existed separately from the DC Universe proper. Sure, the characters who inspired the cast of the miniseries – like The Question, the Blue Beetle, and Captain Atom – are all present and accounted for, but that’s as far as it goes.
Or at least, this was the state of affairs, until the DC: Rebirth Special, which saw Batman uncover an iconic item embedded in the wall of the Batcave – the Comedian’s bloodied smiley face button!
Now, there are plenty of fans who love the idea of Watchmen merging with DCU. That being said, just as many view this turn of events as a monumental creative misstep. So much of what works about Watchmen is that it takes place in its own, self-contained world, and that it’s a stand-alone piece with a defined beginning, middle and end. Incorporating this story into the DCU robs it of both of these distinctive elements, making this plot twist – however exciting – seem like a pretty big mistake.
4 Best – Xorn’s Breaks Everyone’s Heart
During his stellar revitalization of the X-Men in the early 2000s, Grant Morrison (him again!) introduced readers to Xorn, a powerful Chinese mutant who happens to have a star for a brain. This newcomer quickly became a fan favorite thanks to his philosophical demeanour and ambiguous background. That made it all the more heartbreaking when “Xorn” was revealed to be a disguise fabricated by supervillain Magneto, in order to infiltrate the X-Men’s ranks and destroy them from within.
It’s a fantastic bit of storytelling, which was unfortunately undermined when Marvel later retconned Xorn and Magneto as being two distinct characters! The publisher’s rationale for doing this was two-fold. Firstly, Xorn was a beloved character (although as Morrison himself notes, that’s kinda the point) who they wanted to feature in further stories. Secondly, they were eager to absolve Magneto of the mass-murder of millions of New Yorkers later in the arc, wishing to preserve the Master of Magnetism’s anti-hero status.
3 Worst – Peter Parker: The Amazing Spider-Clone
The entire “Clone Saga” that dominated – and very nearly decimated – the Spider-Man comics of the '90s is an example of an interesting premise going completely off the rails.
Kicking off with the return of Spider-Man’s doppelgänger – last seen in a two-part Amazing Spider-Man story from 1975 – the storyline called into question whether Peter Parker or his clone Ben Reilly was the real McCoy.
Only intended to run for around a year, the “Clone Saga” narrative was such a sales success that Marvel pushed the writers to drag it out for as long as possible. What followed was an increasingly rambling story, filled with numerous outrageous plot twists – the most egregious of which being the revelation that Peter, and not Ben, was the Spider-Clone. The fan backlash was swift and vitriolic: they were furious at the prospect that they had apparently been following a phoney version of their hero for decades!
Marvel bravely persevered for a time with Reilly in the blue-and-red tights, before finally re-instating Parker in the role, retconning him as the one true Spider-Man once more.
2 Best – The Mask Killer Is Unmasked
We’ve spoken about Watchmen several times already, and there’s a reason for that: it’s easily one of the most influential superhero comics of all time. In fact, the miniseries’ many technical achievements often overshadow just how good a job writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons do with the murder mystery at the heart of the story.
When costumed adventurer the Comedian is murdered at the start of Watchmen, unhinged detective Rorschach sets out to solve the crime, soon deciding that a “mask killer” is targeting heroes. However, this theory is ultimately proven to be incorrect, when Rorschach’s former ally – and the World’s Smartest Man – Ozymandias is uncovered as the mastermind behind everything that has transpired.
See, it turns out that the Comedian was bumped off to prevent him from spilling the beans on Ozymandias’ elaborate plot – not to kill other heroes, but to save the world from nuclear holocaust. This scheme also involves the brutal slaughter of millions of civilians as part of an invented alien threat created to unite all of humanity, setting the stage for one of the most harrowing conclusions in comics history.
1 Worst – Spider-Man Makes A Devil Of A Choice
Ask any fan if there’s a Spider-Man storyline they despise more than the “Clone Saga”, and chances are they’ll bring up “One More Day” – which ends with Peter Parker making a deal with the Devil!
Developed to jettison Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary-Jane from the series’ mythos, “One More Day” begins with Spidey’s Aunt May on death’s door. Desperate to save the woman who raised him, Spider-Man does everything he can to find a cure for May’s condition, only to come away empty handed. At this point, he encounters Mephisto – who typically serves as a stand-in for Satan in the Marvel Universe – and is offered a choice: allow his marriage to be erased from the timeline, and May will be restored to health.
After some deliberation, Peter and MJ eventually decide to take the demon up on his offer, forever altering the status quo of the Spider-Man books. Not only does this plot twist diminish Spider-Man’s character – he makes a Faustian pact – but it also makes him seem unbelievably immature, given he’s unable to accept the inevitable death of an elderly loved one.
Any major comic book plot twists we left off the list? Let us know in the comments!