×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Tragic backstories of your favorite DC superheroes

In 1938, the company that would become DC Comics introduced its first major superhero and transformed the landscape of storytelling in the process. No one had seen anything quite like Superman before, and he appeared during a time of extreme uncertainty and duress in US history. World War II was looming on the horizon, and Superman gave American readers a sense of hope and stability. Plus, Superman's wild popularity helped launch an entire genre, and he inspired the creation of countless other DC superheroes, including Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern.

However, one of the things that makes these godlike superheroes so popular is their relatability. Despite whatever fantastical powers or alien roots they may have, superheroes still struggle with very human issues. Love, loss, trauma, grief, tragedy, fear, even mental illness and addiction — these are all conflicts faced by DC heroes. And often, these conflicts stem from very tragic and traumatic character origin stories. The fact these characters not only survive such atrocities but then dedicate their lives to helping others is one of the reasons superheroes are so inspiring. From children of abuse and victims of genocide to the kids of murderous and demonic parents, here are the dark origins of some of DC's most beloved superheroes and heroines.

Batman's backstory is legendary

The legend of Batman and how he came to be first appeared on the pages of Detective Comics #33 in 1939. Countless authors have reimagined and retold his origin story since that time, but the original version shows Batman recalling events from 15 years prior.

Young Bruce Wayne and his parents, Martha and Thomas, were walking home from a movie when they crossed paths with an overly aggressive petty thief by the name of Joe Chill. He pulled a gun on the affluent family, demanding Martha hand over her pearl necklace. When Thomas attempted to intervene, Joe shot him at point-blank range. Martha immediately started screaming for help, which prompted Joe to ruthlessly shoot her too, saying, "This will shut you up!"

Poor Bruce was left in shock, and the traumatic incident drove him to dedicate the rest of his life to fighting criminals and injustice. Bruce then spent years preparing for his new path by delving into studies and mastering science and physical fitness. While brainstorming disguise ideas one night, a bat flew in his window, "and thus was born this weird figure of the dark ... the Batman."

He also developed a disdain for guns as a result, and he's rarely been seen with one since — which is fine, because Bats is plenty creative with his hands and non-munitions-related weapons.

Jessica Cruz's Green Lantern origin story is incredibly tragic

This heroine's origin story involves trauma layered upon trauma. Jessica Cruz was a happy-go-lucky girl until she and her friends went on a camping trip that took them to the wrong place at the wrong time. They stumbled upon a group of gangsters burying a body, who proceeded to execute the inadvertent witnesses.

Jessica was the only one to escape, and she was left so traumatized by the incident that she became incredibly agoraphobic. The poor girl locked herself in a room with all the supplies she needed to survive and protect herself for four long and lonely years.

She may have continued living that way indefinitely, had her life not been derailed by another trauma. While locked away, the world was attacked by the Crime Syndicate and thrown into Armageddon-like chaos. This evil version of the Justice League included a member with the creative moniker of Power Ring, who represented the evil version of Green Lantern. When Power Ring was killed in the struggle, his evil Ring of Volthoom chose Jessica Cruz as its next avatar ... whether she agreed to it or not. The ring imposed itself upon her and drew power from her fear, torturing her and forcing her to perform horrific acts against her will.

Thankfully, the Justice League was able to help Jessica learn to use her powers for good, and she became a valuable member of the Green Lantern Corps.

Barry Allen couldn't run away from his past

Many of us can relate to running from our problems, but Barry Allen understands this literally. As a young child, Barry was sent to a bookstore so his parents, Nora and Henry, could privately discuss the dissolution of their long-troubled marriage. Upon returning home, he found Nora had been murdered, and Henry had been arrested as the primary suspect.

Henry professed his innocence, and Barry fervently defended him. In his quest to prove Henry's innocence, Barry became a forensic scientist. Unfortunately, his years of hard work and dedication turned sour when Henry eventually confessed to killing Nora. This sent Barry spiraling into the seven stages of grief, and one stormy night, he destroyed his laboratory in a fit of rage. While doing so, Barry was struck by a bolt of lightning, which doused him with toxic chemicals and sent him into a four-month long coma.

Thankfully, Barry woke up healthy and with super speed abilities to boot. As the Flash, Barry was the fastest man alive, who used his newfound powers in the fight for good — including running so fast he went back in time to save his mother. Like all time-travel stories, though, this caused horrifically drastic changes to his timeline, so he made the heart-wrenching decision to go back in time, again, and stop his other future self from changing the past. That's exhausting just to think about!

John Constantine has been haunted since childhood

DC's most beloved scoundrel has had issues since before birth. It's likely that John Constantine strangled his twin brother while they were both still in their mother's womb (who later haunted Constantine like an imaginary friend). His mother then died while giving birth to him, and his father, Thomas, was incredibly abusive.

In his struggle to cope, Constantine fell into the local Liverpool punk rock scene and studied the occult. Thomas then burned a stack of his books in an effort to drive Constantine back onto the right path. Seeking retaliation, Constantine cursed Thomas by binding his soul to a dead cat, which left his father wasting away from an undiagnosable illness. The spell was irreversible, and Constantine was left feeling horrified and guilty. In an effort to reduce Thomas' suffering, Constantine preserved the cat's remains in formaldehyde. Thomas eventually passed away decades later, only for his soul to be stuck on Earth until Constantine finally liberated him by exhuming the cat and burning it.

Unfortunately, this wouldn't be the last of Constantine's botched experiments with magic. In Hellblazer #11, Constantine and a crew of fellow magicians attempted to rescue a girl from her abusive father, but it went horribly wrong, causing her to be dragged to Hell and the crew to be condemned along with her after experiencing horrific deaths. 

Oracle overcame an incredibly violent origin

Barbara Gordon is unique for many reasons, one of which is that she was already a superhero at the time she transformed into her current identity. See, as Batgirl, she fought crime alongside Batman, and she also enjoyed activities like jogging and yoga. In 1988's beautifully tragic The Killing Joke, however, all that came to a terribly shocking close. During one of his more senseless and cruel acts of violence, Joker shot and assaulted Barbara in front of her father, police commissioner Jim Gordon. The story is so harsh and twisted that it's actually sparked controversy among DC readers and creators alike.

The incident left Barbara struggling with depression and PTSD, but it didn't leave her irreparably broken. In one of the most inspiring turnarounds on the pages of comics, Barbara chose to focus on what she was still capable of, rather than what she could no longer do. She continued pursuing her education and active lifestyle, as well as fighting crime — this time as the surveillance and computer tech savvy Oracle. She became indispensable to other superheroes, including her former associate, Batman.

Despite her horrific origin story, it's incredibly refreshing to see such an inspiring character with disabilities join the ranks of DC superheroes.

Martian Manhunter's fiery backstory

One of the co-founders of the Justice League, J'onn J'onzz is a Martian with telepathic powers and a sad past haunted by betrayal and pandemic. J'onn grew up to become a police officer — known as a "Manhunter" in his culture — while his brother, Ma'alefa'ak, grew to despise everything about their race.

Ma'alefa'ak hated the Martian people so much that he decided to undertake a full-scale genocide by engineering a highly contagious virus known as "H'ronmeer's Curse." To make matters worse, this virus didn't simply cause its victims to experience flu-like symptoms ... it caused them to burst into flames. That really puts a sore throat into perspective!

The virus was spread anytime Martians used their psionic abilities, which is as important as sight or speech is to humans and just as difficult to avoid using. Before long, J'onn's family ultimately caught the virus, spontaneously combusting before his eyes, with J'onn helpless to do anything to stop it. The extreme trauma of the incident destroyed his psyche and drove him to the point of madness. Were it not for a fortuitously timed experiment with a novel transmitter machine on Earth and the subsequent care of the scientist wielding it, J'onn may have succumbed to his grief-induced insanity.

Instead, he became a police detective and superhero on the very planet he found himself marooned on, and Earth has been all the better for it.

Cyborg lost his mom ... and nearly lost his humanity

Victor Stone was an athletic and intelligent teenager whose life was turned upside down by a tragic accident. While visiting his parents, Silas and Elinore, at their scientific lab, an experiment involving an inter-dimensional portal went haywire, costing Elinore her life and nearly taking Victor's, as well.

Rather than lose his wounded son, too, Silas used his technical prowess to rebuild his child, using state-of-the-art cybernetic technology. He was able to save Victor's life, but Vic was left traumatized by the accident and riddled with survivor's guilt. He also struggled to adapt to his new cybernetic body while retaining his sense of humanity.

A rift between Victor and Silas developed as a result of Elinore's tragic death, and Silas has had a tendency to be cold towards his surviving son ever since. Victor also felt violated by his father's tech at times, as though he had no true privacy or control over his own body or mind. Despite these struggles, Victor lived on to serve others by joining the Teen Titans. Silas even funded the construction of Titan Tower and became an anonymous annual sponsor after his son joined their ranks. 

Supergirl should've showed up a long time ago

Kara Zor-El was a young girl when she barely escaped the destruction of her home planet, Krypton. Thanks to the bravery of her parents, she was placed in an escape pod alongside one containing her baby cousin, Kal-El. The idea was that not only would she survive, too, but she'd also be able to teach Kal about the customs, culture, and history of their lost planet.

Unfortunately, unlike Kal, who arrived on Earth without incident, Kara's pod was knocked off course by a meteor shower. This caused her to be locked in suspended animation for decades longer than anticipated, and when she finally did land on Earth, Kal-El was already a grown man, living a double life as Clark Kent/Superman.

In fact, he didn't know who Kara was when she arrived, and he assumed she was part of some plot to infiltrate the Justice League. The poor girl spent her first several days on her new home planet being questioned and examined by Superman and Batman until they were able to confirm her identity. After that, Kal-El took Kara under his wing to teach her about Earth and how to use her powers for good. These days, she still struggles with the loss of her homeworld, time stuck in space, and fitting in on Earth, but this sweet girl is a super addition to DC's superheroines.

Aquaman's got a whole lot of drama going on

Despite his vast powers, Arthur Curry's life has been marred by exile, family issues, betrayal, and violence. He was born to parents living a quiet life as lighthouse operators, Tom and Atlanna. That all changed when Atlanna's father passed away, and Arthur learned his mother was really the princess of Atlantis.

This would be enough of a shock, but to compound matters, Atlanna returned home to inherit her throne. Arthur had to grow up without his mom, and Tom had to raise his son without his wife. As Arthur matured, his powers also developed, and he struggled to control them. So, Tom sought the aid of a scientist he felt he could trust to help Arthur and keep their family secrets, Dr. Stephen Shin, whom he'd once saved from dying in a storm. Sadly, Dr. Shin succumbed to an obsession with Atlantis and sought to make his findings public instead.

In retaliation, Tom destroyed all evidence collected by Dr. Shin, excluding a vial of Arthur's blood. Dr. Shin then hired bounty hunter Black Manta to get the vial back, and Tom passed of a heart-attack in the ensuing struggle. While seeking vengeance, Arthur accidentally killed Manta's father instead. After all that, when the time came for Aquaman to assume his throne, he had to quell a rebellion by his half-brother/step-father (told you, family issues).

Thankfully, Aquaman was able to overcome all that adversity and become a great king and superhero.

Swamp Thing has some pretty tragic roots

The Avatar of the Green first appeared in House of Secrets #92, which features anthologies of horror, fantasy, and mystery. These dark roots give this superhero a macabre history, regardless of which story arc is read.

In his initial appearance, an early 20th-century scientist named Alex Olsen was murdered in a lab explosion by a jealous lab assistant, who then buried his body in a swamp. Instead of dying, however, the chemicals from the lab reacted with both the surrounding swamp and Alex's body, transforming him into the first Swamp Thing.

The one-off story proved so popular that an ongoing title was launched in 1972, centering around then-present day scientist Alec Holland and his wife, Linda. While working together on a secret formula in a secluded Louisiana swamp, they were infiltrated by a criminal group seeking the formula, who then retaliated against their refusal to hand it over by blowing up their lab.

Covered in flames, Alec jumped into the murky waters to put himself out, which is when his body fused with the swamp, and he became Swamp Thing. His first act in his new form was finding his wife's bullet-ridden corpse and killing her murderers with his bare, uh, mossy hands. Things don't get much easier for Swampy after that, but he's managed to come out of each challenge stronger and more resilient than before — the mark of a true superhero.

Like Batman, Nightwing was violently orphaned

Dick Grayson spent the first part of his unconventional childhood traveling the globe with his parents, Mary and John, as a trio of circus acrobats known as "The Flying Graysons." But when the circus came to Gotham and the owner refused paying off local mobsters with protection money, the gangsters sought payback by compromising the circus ropes. Thanks to these thugs, the trapeze broke in the midst of John and Mary's performance — sending them to their deaths while their young son watched helplessly.

A silver lining to this tragedy is that Bruce Wayne was attending the circus that night and helped quell the ensuing chaos as Batman. He felt bad for the suddenly orphaned child, and he took Dick in as his ward and protégé. Growing up under Batman's roof as the first Robin certainly had its material advantages. However, Dick continued to struggle with trauma, along with Batman's far from warm and fuzzy nature.

As Dick got older, he formed the Teen Titans for those not yet old enough to join the Justice League. Through these efforts — and a final separation from Batman when he demanded Dick choose between the Titans and his service as Robin — Dick outgrew the sidekick identity and adopted the superhero image of Nightwing. Since then, he's proven so competent a leader that Nightwing has even filled in as Batman during those times Bruce has been unable to serve in that role.

Raven has a truly diabolical backstory

Born to a human mother and demonic father, Rachel Roth is a daughter of both light and darkness — a duality she'll struggle with all her life.

Rachel's mother, Angela, fell into the wrong crowd when she participated in a dark occult ritual to summon Trigon, the living embodiment of evil. When he appeared, he chose the form of a handsome, dashing young man, and Angela was instantly smitten. The two fell in love, got married, and Angela soon became pregnant. Trigon then shattered any illusions of happiness by revealing his true form and purpose to Angela — to spawn as frequently as possible throughout the universe, using his children as aids in his quest for complete domination.

In an effort to save herself and her daughter from his evil plot, Angela took Rachel and escaped into Azarath, a dimension between all worlds of existence. Rachel was born and partially raised in this peaceful place, learning to control her emotions and powers under the tutelage of a mystic named Azar. Unfortunately, Trigon's looming presence soon threatened existence itself, and Rachel left in an effort to save the universe from his destruction. This brave and selfless quest helped her become the superheroine known as Raven, who, like all other DC heroes, has inspired countless DC readers to choose their own light over darkness.