8 Graphic Novels About the Dark Side of Superpowers

Sometimes when a fictional gal or guy gains the power to fly, see through walls, or shoot lasers from their eyes, bad things happen. To them, or to people around them. Here’s a list of my fave comics about the dark side of superhero-ing. Hope you find something new and compelling to read!

Before we jump in:

  • All comics here can be bought as graphic novels/collections, not only as single issues. Your library may own many of these!
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DV8: Gods and Monsters (Amazon / Goodreads) By Brian Wood, with art by Rebekah Isaacs, colors by Carrie Strachan, and letters by Jared K. Fletcher.

Chilling. That’s my one word summary. To be more detailed, a team of superpowered young adults (who don’t all get along) finds themselves stranded on a developing planet. They don’t know why. They don’t know where they are. They’d been separated for the last few months in some kind of lab, and now this. Is this forever? Facing their lives among the planet’s indigenous population, their reactions vary.

How do super-powered people behave when there are no rules? What parts of their personalities come out with no accountability? It’s a book about atrocities, gods, and colonialism, and it’s even more horrible when you get the full story at the end about why it happened. What pulls at my heart reading it is the experience of the “team” members who try to find positive homes within the indigenous cultures on the planet, because there are no happy endings here.

I used the cover of the first issue above, instead of the collection’s cover, because I love all the individual issue covers so much. They were all done by Fiona Staples who is a kick-ass artist. Rebecca Isaacs did great work on the interiors, especially with action scenes, and Carrie Strachan’s colors are perfection. I wish any of these gals’ work were represented on the cover of the collected edition!

DV8: Gods and Monsters is a complete storyline in one volume. I don’t know if or how it fit into any other DV8 comics.

Be aware that Brian Wood has been accused of sexual harassment. Comics creator Tess Fowler, who spoke out, specifically did NOT ask for a boycott of his work, but different people have different levels of comfort separating the art from the artist.

Supurbia (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Grace Randolph, with art by Russell Dauterman, colors by Gabriel Cassata, and letters by Steve Wands.

Supurbia is superheroes and celebrities and soap opera all mixed into one, and it’s so freakin’ addicting. On a regular-looking suburban street live the superhero members of the Meta Legion. All-powerful Sovereign, with his formerly criminal live-in girlfriend Helen Heart, who’s trying to play the part of suburban housewife.

Then we have Night Fox, with his CEO wife Alexis… and his male sidekick Agent Twilight who’s more than a sidekick. (Alexis feels public knowledge of this would threaten the Night Fox brand.) Batu, from a matriarchal warrior clan, with her anthropologist husband Jeremy and their two kids. Batu knows her daughter will inherit her powers, because that’s how things work where she comes from. Why hasn’t it happened yet? The Cosmic Champion, with his wife Tia who retired from superheroing with him to raise their daughter Zara. Bulldog, basically the new jock on the team, just married to shy nurse Eve. Why’s he so rude to her? And Marine Omega, the aging and sick leader of the team, with his doting wife Ruth. Ruth seems to have taken an instant dislike to Eve. Why is that?

Dysfunction, drug addiction, murder, secrets, lies, conspiracy, rejection, sex, backstabbing, profit, media exposes, magic, and more. When you’re in the mood for reality TV but with more of a plot, go for this.

Supurbia was published as a limited series, which is collected in the volume linked above, and then a 12 issue followup series which is collected as volumes 2-4.

We Can Never Go Home (Amazon / Goodreads) By Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon. Art by Josh Hood and Brian Level. Colors by Amanda Scurti and Tyler Boss. Letters by Jim Campbell and David C. Hopkins.

Violent, not at all hopeful, but extremely compelling. Teenagers with superpowers doing the teenage angst version of Bad Decision Theater, on the run because of their powers and tangling themselves up with crime. Why did I love this? Did I just get into the inevitability of disaster? I don’t usually go for messy characters, especially young men who are as fucked up and manipulative as the male main character here, but Duncan’s desperate, broken behavior here made me want to wrap him in a blanket and send him to therapy so he could stop self-destructing and taking other people with him.

The female half of the duo, former popular kid Madison, was the one I rooted for, even knowing there was probably no way to save her situation. I was pleasantly surprised with how okay I could be with her fate, and that’s all I’ll say about that. If you’re looking for a reality-based take on what would happen to the teenage mutants Xavier didn’t find and bring to his school, this is your book.

We Can Never Go Home is complete in one volume.

Diversity note: Madison is biracial.

C.O.W.L. (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Kyle Higgins and Alex Siegel, with art by Rod Reis and Stephane Perger, lettered by Troy Peteri.

C.O.W.L. is the noir, superhero, alternate history, conspiracy police drama that I never knew I was missing, until I found it. After World War II, the city of Chicago employed superheroes to take on superpowered crime. The heroes formed a union and got to work. But by 1962 they are running out of villains, which means the public doesn’t support them anymore and their contract renewal is in jeopardy.

Are they really no longer needed? Who benefits and who loses if they get the contract or if they disband? What follows is a mess of collusion, backstabbing, murder, fraud, and general malfeasance. There are some good guys left, but not many. The art is this beautiful muted color palette that switches between subdued cartoon and painting, with a little bit of photo realism thrown in for good measure. Really well done, though it could be more diverse in casting!

C.O.W.L. is complete in two volumes.

Plutona (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) Co-created by writer Jeff Lemire and artist Emi Lenox. Colors by Jordie Bellaire. Letters by Steve Wands.

Five middle-school age (?) kids in the suburbs discover the body of a beloved missing superhero. My exact quote when I finished this: “That is some f—ed up sh-t.” And I meant that in a good way. The kids make the simultaneously kid-logical but terrible decision not to tell anyone outside the group about their find, but somebody in the group has an ulterior motive. Bleak and depressing, but totally gripping.

Plutona is complete in one volume.

Sleeper (Amazon/Kindle / Goodreads) By writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips. Colors by Tony Aviña with assistance from Randy Mayor. Lettering by Bill Oakley, Ken Lopez, and Rob Leigh.

Sleeper, oh Sleeper. One of my favorite things ever. Holden Carver is trapped. In his body, which can no longer feel, after an encounter with an an alien artifact. In a criminal organization where he was planted before the only agent who knew his true mission ended up in a coma. And where terrifying criminal mastermind and metahuman Tao is making sure Holden can never go back to his old life.

Brubaker and Phillips are one of the best teams in comics, especially for noir. The tension is so thick it could choke you. This team is so good at messing with your emotions that it’s almost worse when Holden’s desperation is broken by an occasional sliver of hope, because you’re terrified of what’s going to happen next. The characters are fantastic. In particular, Sleeper has one of the best female villain origin stories I have ever read, for Holden’s colleague Miss Misery. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but trust me, it’s absolutely chilling.

If you’re looking for darkness and secret agents and superpowers, I cannot recommend this highly enough. If you do read it, there’s a book called Point Blank which is a prequel to the events in Sleeper, but should be read afterwards unless you want to give yourself spoilers.

Black Hammer (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Jeff Lemire. Art by Dean Ormston. Colors by Dave Stewart. Art and colors for issue #9 by David Rubín. Letters by Todd Klein.

Fascinating series about what happened to Spiral City’s beloved superheroes after a cataclysmic event. Presumed dead, they’re instead trapped in a small town in who-knows-where, living on a farm as a frighteningly dysfunctional faux family. The first volume gets us deep into the lives of this crew – the unrequited crushes, the despair, the sabotage from within… until just at the end of the book, an unexpected event occurs with the potential to change everything. Or, you know, just strand someone else in this creepy fake rustic Americana town. The second volume becomes more of a mystery / investigation, and I was seriously invested because I care so much about several key characters having spent so much time with them in the first book. I’m really looking forward to what Lemire has planned next!

There are two collections of Black Hammer out so far, and it’s an ongoing series. There’s also the linked book Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil, which I didn’t find that compelling, but YMMV. I’m not sure it’s that necessary for keeping track of the main series plot, but maybe only time will tell.

The Umbrella Academy (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) By Gerard Way, with art by Gabriel Bá, colors by Dave Stewart, and lettering by Nate Piekos of Blambot.

Families are complicated. Especially superhero families. Especially famous superhero families. Especially famous superhero families made up of mysteriously born children adopted by a space alien masquerading as a British inventor and entrepreneur. So when the seven children he adopted grow up a little damaged, is anyone surprised? They may have been able to save Paris when the Eiffel Tower went wild and took off in to space, but there was no way to save themselves.

It’s a deeply strange and mesmerizing story, about one of the siblings’ transformation into something the rest never dreamed of. The art is strange in all the right places, gory at times, but treats the siblings as distinct human beings with their own emotions – something not always easy with an ensemble cast.

Diversity note: Gabriel Bá is Brazilian.

That concludes today’s roundup of comics about dark superheroes that I love and recommend! If you have any suggestions for me, please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing this post on social media or with friends.

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