For the most part, superheroes have it pretty darn good; great bodies, a general disregard for the laws of physics, and the adulation of an adoring galaxy. Sure, it can be a hassle, trying to manage a family and a personal life while taking, dishing out, and otherwise causing massive amounts of physical and collateral damage. But the benefits tend to outweigh the liabilities by a fair margin. The indignities of life can usually be avoided, or at least mitigated by powers beyond that of mortal ken.
But sometimes, life with great power and great responsibility can be a downright drag. Pain, loneliness, betrayal, death; sometimes a superhero’s life is simply an exercise in misery. Despite what appear to be beautiful people adventuring and living a life that can only be described as fantastic, being a hero can be an agonizing thing. These are the 15 Most Tortured Superheroes In Comics.
Walter Joseph Kovacs hates the world he sees. Born to an abusive prostitute of a mother with no knowledge of even who his father could have been, Kovacs was clearly disturbed from the time he stood on a fire escape as a child until his toes were frostbitten. In Before Watchmen: Rorshach #2, readers get a glimpse of Rorschach’s painfully bleak outlook on the world as he heals from a gang beating that would’ve killed most men. He talks about the cold callousness of the world, and how accepting that fact liberated him from a world of disappointment and pain.
The acceptance of his misery makes it possible for Walter Kovacs to find meaning in his life, and in his purpose. His acquiescence to his world makes it possible for Rorschach to exist, and like the mask he wears as his true face, there is no ambiguity there. In his world, there are only victims…and Rorschach.
14 The Crow
James O’Barr’s original four issue series The Crow is not even remotely cheerful. It is dark and painful, and in places, very hard to read. The story was conceived and executed as a way for O’Barr to process the crushing grief of losing his girlfriend to a drunk driver, and the tale of Eric Draven is one of a sorrow so immense that all the violence in the world can’t wash it away.
A brutally murdered Eric Draven is tortured by the loss of his beloved fiancée Shelly. His anguish drives him to return from the grave to seek vengeance on the gang of drug-fueled psychopaths that took both their lives for kicks. Draven is unrelenting as he deals out death to the men who raped and executed the woman he loved. Between kills, he sits huddled and alone in the humble apartment they shared, staring at pictures of a life he can only mourn…and avenge. Eric is merciless as he stalks and kills the gang one by one, before finally coming to rest on Shelly’s grave, and in her arms.
Raven was goth decades before goth was cool. She’s always had to keep the tightest of reins on her emotions, lest her father, the infernal, blood-drenched demon Trigon, step over into her world. From sacrificing herself to save the Teen Titans and the universe in The New Teen Titans v1 #1-5, to her painful romantic entanglements with Kid Flash and the Changeling, Raven has really only ever known loss and sadness in her life. She has been killed only to rise again, she’s been tortured, she’s been hunted, and she’s is constantly at war with herself.
Her demonic nature makes her not only one of the most powerful witches in the galaxy, it also means she can never really be close to anyone. She can crush minds and bend the rules of reality, but can’t appreciate any of the things that make humanity what it is, like actually connecting with another human being. When it comes to tortured existences, Raven understands what that means all too well.
12 Swamp Thing
Alec Holland's story has been written and re-written numerous times, but throughout all his iterations, the persona behind the shambling mockery of a man that is the Swamp Thing lives a truly tortured existence. One of the most popular incarnations of the character is that of Alan Moore’s in Saga of the Swamp thing. There, Alan Moore depicts the creature as a thing of pure plant life, and merely a facsimile of the man that was Alec Holland. Holland struggles to find a way to return to the ranks of human, so that he may live and laugh and love again, but it isn’t meant to be. The Swamp Thing soon realizes that the person he was is dead and will never return, and he's forced to struggle with the knowledge and the depression it triggers.
Moore deftly uses the horror of Alec’s existence to examine the darkest themes imaginable, all against the backdrop of a broken psyche that can never again be mended.
Cyclops has, from the time of his first appearance in Uncanny X-Men v1 #1, been a hero who fought for the good and for Charles Xavier’s vision of the future. For someone who has struggled so valiantly for the forces of right, Scott Summers has endured more misery than any five normal men.
Orphaned and alone from an early age, Scott became a leader when he was very young, and never had a time where he could afford to be carefree as opposed to forever in control. His power is essentially uncontrollable, held in check solely by the protection of ruby quartz glasses. His love life has been fraught with tragedy, having watched the love of his life, Jean Grey die not just once, but repeatedly, and across a wide range of situations. To compound matters, Scott bears the staggering burden of having slain the man who was by far the biggest influence on his life, Professor Charles Xavier, in Avengers Vs X-Men #11. As he struggles with the pain of that act, his steadfast dedication to the preservation of mutant life has branded him a terrorist in the eyes of the very world he’s sacrificed so much for.
Batman is the textbook definition of the tortured superhero. Orphaned as a child, witness to an act of violence that left him marked from that day forward, Bruce Wayne has yet to live a single moment where that day doesn’t influence every move he makes. Whereas some compartmentalize grief and isolate their torment, Bruce has the means to expand the circle to others, thus sharing his burden.
Despite his status as one of the wealthiest men in the country, and possessing natural leadership qualities, superior intelligence, and charisma, Wayne is a cornucopia of mental imbalances all stemming from that one horrible act of senseless violence. Despite the inherent darkness of the way he’s chosen to process and deal with his continuing anguish, Batman continues to try to find the good in people whenever possible, and to use his advantages to try to mitigate the horror of the world that he can never un-see, even for a moment.
9 The Thing
The Thing is one of the most enduring characters in the Marvel Comics universe, and easily one of the most tragic. The same failed rocket flight that turned the other three members of the Fantastic Four into heroes turned Ben into a monster. Bearing the burden of his condition has been alternately a blessing and a curse; Ben is proud of the immense amount of good he’s done, but all he’s ever really wanted is to be human, to love Alicia Masters, and to enjoy a normal life. In
In Fantastic Four v5 #7 Ben has his emotional scars torn open when the death of Uatu the Watcher leads him to the revelation that he could have been human again, years ago, were it not for a careless mistake by the dashing and attractive Johnny Storm. When Ben considers all the time he could’ve had with Alicia, the lives they might’ve led, the Thing’s anguish is depicted so starkly that readers have no choice but to relate to the torment Grimm has endured for years.
8 Hank Pym
Emotional angst can come in many forms, and can sometimes stem from the inadequacy of the person involved. Creator of the revolutionary Pym Particle, Henry Pym is a brilliant scientist who has saved the world on several occasions (and by way of a number of superhero personas). Even with his many accomplishments, Hank Pym has always suffered from deep-seated feelings of worthlessness, and an immense lack of self-esteem.
In Avengers v1 #213, Hank’s feelings boil over, and the stress, anxiety, and depression drive him to hurt the one person who always stood by him, Janet Van Dyne, aka the Wasp. He physically strikes her, leaving her with a black eye. This leads to the ending of their marriage and his subsequent dismissal from the Avengers. Since then, Pym has struggled to make up for his transgressions (and for his creation of Ultron) but continues to contend with his mental issues and crushing guilt.
7 Ghost Rider
Johnny Blaze sold his soul to the devil to save the life of his father who was dying from cancer in Ghost Rider v1 #1, only to find that he had been duped, with no way out of his infernal bargain. Cursed to become the Spirit of Vengeance, Blaze has been bonded to the demon Zarathos, and spent half his life as the demonic Ghost Rider, his life and his agony merely amusement for the lord of the underworld Mephisto.
In 2005’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, readers find Johnny Blaze running the same race over and over every night for years, always trying to outrun the minions of hell, who want nothing more than to tear him to pieces. Blaze pushes his fire drenched motorcycle to its absolute limit, and every night he fails, only to be savagely ripped apart. This continues until agents of heaven approach the tortured daredevil with an offer that they claim will free him from Hell’s fiery constraints. Blaze rides like the Devil himself, only to find he’s been deceived once again. After taking his vengeance on the angels who lied to and used him, Johnny is once again cursed to run and lose the same desperate race, night after night, forever.
Matt Murdock’s life has been a series of unfortunate events since he was blinded in an attempt to help an elderly pedestrian avoid being struck in traffic in Daredevil v1 #1. Since then his life has been a series of horrific tragedies and brutally painful catastrophes. He’s watched some of the people closest to him – family, friends, and lovers – die painfully and sometimes, repeatedly. He’s had everything he’s worked for torn away, and had his soul twisted into the image of what he hates. Matt has had to bear the guilt of how those in his life have suffered in the wake of his own self-imposed purgatory, as the consequences of his choices spill over onto them.
In Daredevil v4 #10, writer Mark Waid puts a fine point on the blind crime fighter’s torment. With his tumultuous emotions intensified by the power of Kilgrave and his purple children, Murdock relates exactly what his depression means in excruciating detail. He’s fallen so far down his well of despair that he literally has nothing left inside himself to even respond to the Purple Man’s commandment to fight back for his own sake. This ends when Kilgrave demands Daredevil show him some fear, and gets his teeth kicked in for his trouble. Being afraid is something the Man Without Fear is intimately acquainted with, and knows all to well how to fight.
Anne Marie aka Rogue is a mutant who possesses the ability to absorb life energy, powers, and memories from people she comes into physical contact with. When readers meet her in Avengers Annual #10, Rogue is in the process of handing the strongest members of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes a beating under the direction of Mystique. She has stolen the power of Ms. Marvel, and the combination is enough to make her a match for the entire team. Later, she runs into Wolverine and Storm, two of the most powerful members of the X-Men, and they are lucky to escape with their lives in Uncanny X-Men v1 #158.
It’s hard to imagine someone with that kind of strength being a tortured soul, but the fact is that Rogue cannot turn off her power to absorb people’s memories and personas through contact. This makes any real connection with another human, intimate or otherwise, practically impossible. In addition, Anne Marie absorbs fragments of the personas of each person she uses her power on, and one point, she was in danger of losing who she actually was. In desperation, she turns to Charles Xavier for help in Uncanny X-Men v1 #171, and begins her tenure as an X-Man. While there have been times she had an amount of control, to date, Rogue is still searching for a way to permanently regulate her power.
James Howlett, the nearly feral killing machine known as Wolverine, has led a life of action and adventure few people could ever hope to rival. While Logan has been instrumental in saving lives, the world, and even the universe more times than can easily be counted, he’s also known the depths of despair and anguish. Secure in the knowledge that his mutant healing factor can tolerate even the most grievous of injuries, the man has become very intimately acquainted with pain.
From being tortured inhumanly during his days in the Weapon X program to seeing the great loves of his life killed or sometimes worse just for knowing him, Logan has walked hand in hand with physical and emotional agony for most of his unnaturally long life. To make matters worse, Howlett struggles constantly with hyper-aggressive urges that are always just barely held in check. This internal war with his own savage nature forms the crux of Wolverine’s persistent conflicts; he wants to be a better man, but keeps losing out to his own brutally violent impulses.
3 Scarlet Witch
Formerly believed to be the child of Magneto, Wanda, aka the Scarlet Witch, may well be one of the most destructive mutants ever seen. Her ability to warp reality and bend it to her will has been strong enough to change even the fabric of the universe itself. It was strong enough to allow her to conceive twin boys with her husband, the artificial life form known as the Vision. When Agatha Harkness tells her truth about her beloved children, that they cannot exist without her active focus and are really just pieces of the infernal lord of Hell, Mephisto, in Avengers West Coast v1 #51-52, the pain is too great for her to bear. Despite being buried by Harkness, eventually, the memories of her children return, leaving her broken and inconsolable. Her madness drives her to use her awesome power to remake the world, and to decimate the mutant population in the events of House of M.
Since then, Wanda has been alternately a threat and a savior to humanity and the universe. She has been killed and resurrected, and her power was crucial in helping mutants to repopulate and to stave off the world-breaking threat of the Phoenix in Avengers Vs X-Men. Despite it all, Wanda continues to mourn both the loss of her children and a vital piece of herself, and fears she will never truly be whole again.
Peter Parker has been a hero since he was teenager, the result of a heartrendingly painful lesson about power and responsibility. Since the avoidable death of his beloved Uncle Ben, Parker has dedicated his life, and the staggering power he holds as the Amazing Spider-Man, to fight crime wherever he finds it. Spidey’s commitment to protecting civilians and battling the villains that threaten them has cost him dearly.
In addition to never having forgiven himself for having let the burglar go who went on to murder his uncle, Peter has always been willing to put others over himself and even his loved ones. This has led to the collapse of his personal life, and the pain and suffering of those closest to him. Very often, it hasn’t been Peter himself who has been made to pay the price for his ideals, but his family, his friends, and even his wife.
In the One More Day story arc, Parker sacrifices his marriage to Mary Jane Watson in exchange for Mephisto saving his Aunt May. In Amazing Spider-Man v1 #545, Peter and Mary Jane agree to forfeit their love, and the child they would have had, to save May’s life, agreeing to move on in a changed world where their marriage never occurred.
1 The Hulk
One of the most tragic figures on the list, Bruce Banner has been cursed to bear the burden of his alter-ego, the raging engine of destruction known as the Incredible Hulk, for a long time. Because of the monstrous, rampaging creature he becomes during times of stress and anger, Banner has been forced to watch his entire life be dismantled over the course of many years. He’s been hunted like an animal, vilified, and imprisoned. Even when he’s managed to claw his way to a semblance of happiness, it’s been cruelly ripped away.
In 2007’s crossover epic World War Hulk, the world must deal with a Hulk who has finally had enough. Not only exiled from the planet Earth itself, but the kingdom he carved for himself on the planet Sakaar is destroyed, and the love he found at last is brutally torn away from him. He blames the members of the Illuminati -- Tony Stark, Black Bolt and Doctor Strange, who all voted to banish him -- for the pain and suffering he's endured. When the Hulk returns to Earth, it is not as a tortured, brilliant scientist, but as a vengeful, nigh unstoppable conqueror.
Are there other comic book heroes that have it worse than these guys? Let us know in the comments.