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One of the great contributions of professional wrestling to the idiom of popular culture is the term “heel turn.” This refers to the sudden and unexpected shift of a “good guy” to a “heel,” or bad wrestler. The world of superhero comics shares a lot with pro wrestling: bold costumes, code names, outrageous personalities, and big drama. Consequently, there are many heel turns in comics. In the pages of Axis, Tony Stark pulled a heel turn and has become a devious genius, a story that will be further chronicled in the pages of Superior Iron Man.
So what are the biggest shifts from good to bad in comics history? What are the top five comic book heel turns of all time?
People may forget now but during the 1980’s, The New Teen Titans was one of the biggest comic books going, rivaling what Marvel was doing with Uncanny X-Men. One of the most popular characters was the sweet young girl named Terra, who had the powers to move earth. In a Tales of the New Teen Titans 1984 storyline called “The Judas Contract,” (written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by George Perez), Terra pulled one of the most shocking heel turns to that point in comics history, revealing that she was secretly working against the Titans, on the side of their arch enemy Deathstroke. Not only that, but it turns out that the innocent-seeming Terra was actually sleeping with Deathstroke (aka Slade Wilson) too. Terra ultimately died at the end of “Judas Contract,” when she caused a mountain collapse. Her heel turn was one of the most major shockers at the time.
I’m including this one on the list because this is one of the most infamous heel turns in comics history, yet still one of the biggest. During the Armageddon 2001 storyline (1991), DC was planting seeds about the secret identity of the main villain Monarch, who was going to be an established hero gone bad. In the early days of the Internet, many fans had figured out that the clues clearly pointed to Captain Atom. The solved mystery was so widespread that word got back to DC, who quickly swapped in a different hero: Hank Hall, known as Hawk (part of the Hawk and Dove duo). This reveal was not satisfying to many fans, as it didn’t fit with some of the clues, and many felt it was an obvious last-minute swerve in order for the end of Armageddon 2001 to be a surprise. Although it’s never officially been acknowledged, most fans feel that the Hawk comic book heel turn was a substitute and ranks as an example of what to not do.
Hal Jordan went completely bonkers during the Emerald Twilight (1994) story arc, slaughtering Sinestro, other Lanterns, including his dear friend Kilowog, and Guardians. At the time, the explanation was that Jordan had gone mad following the destruction of his home of Coast City. He became the villain known as Parallax, and Kyle Rayner became the new Green Lantern. Ultimately, Jordan turned back and sacrificed himself heroically during Zero Hour. Years later, during the Green Lantern: Rebirth (2004-2005) storyline, written by Geoff Johns, Jordan returned and it was revealed that Jordan had been controlled by the fear monster Parallax during his rampage, allowing Hal to be a hero again.
This is a controversial storyline, but during Avengers Disassembled (2004-2005), Scarlet Witch went mad when she realized that the children she had always thought she had had were not real. She proceeded to tear the Avengers team apart, killing her former husband, the android Vision, as well as Hawkeye. In the subsequent House of M storyline, Wanda Maximoff uttered the famous “no more mutants” words that reduced the mutant population. The Scarlet Witch has been more villain than hero in the intervening years, though she’s gradually come back to the hero side prior to Axis. The impact of her heel turn in Avengers Disassembled, though, is still felt in the Marvel Universe.
At this point, we know that Jean Grey became possessed by the Phoenix Force during the “Dark Phoenix Saga” (1980) and became a villain. At the time, her turn was quite shocking, as the Phoenix Force was not known to be totally controlling her. As the Dark Phoenix, Grey destroyed an entire world in a distant galaxy. Jean fought the Phoenix, ultimately sacrificing her life. In the lead-up to the new X-Factor (1985) series, which reunited the original X-Men, Jean returned and it was revealed that she had actually never committed those act, and that the Phoenix Force actually had a created a duplicate in her image. Despite that, the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” remains one of the greatest and most enduring X-Men stories, in large part because Jean Grey’s heel turn was the biggest one ever seen in comics
Tell me what you think – are there other comic book heel turns that deserve a space on this list? Offer your thoughts in the comments.