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Roasting Old Chestnuts: Our Favorite Comic Book Cliches

Like every other form of entertainment, comic books are full of cliches. The key difference? Spending a few decades as a marginalized art form has lent super-hero comics its own unique blend of old saws, and from the requisite fight between heroes that leads to a team-up to the alarming propensity for super-hero girlfriends to wind up in refrigerators, we’ve seen ‘em all. That’s why, in honor of Asylum’s National Cliche Day, we’ve asked ComicsAlliance contributor Chris Sims to put together a list of the most over-used plot points in comics.

So whether it’s the characters who are best friends in their civilian identities but deadly enemies in costume or heroines whose love of displaying cleavage trumps their fear of frostbite, here’s our favorites!


#1: Death Ain’t What It Used To Be

The Deal: With 70 years of characters dying, coming back, dying again, returning again to reveal that the one who died the second time was actually just a clone from Dimension X, death in comics has become slightly cheapened, to the point where even the characters themselves are starting to shrug off funerals with a half-hearted “eh, he’ll be back.”

Who’s Done It: Superman, Metamorpho, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Robin, Ra’s al-Ghul, All three Flashes, the entire DC Multiverse, Nick Fury, Aunt May, Hawkeye, Cyclops, and pretty much the entire Marvel Universe with the possible exception of Uncle Ben.

Who Took it to the Extreme: It’s tempting to go with Phoenix as the prime example as she’s been in more caskets than the Undertaker, but really: Coming back to life is what a Phoenix does. Instead, we’re going to do with Magneto, who was beheaded by Wolverine in Grant Morrison‘s final issue of “New X-Men,” and then brought back with no other explanation than “Oh, that wasn’t me” by long-time X-writer/curmudgeon Chris Claremont less than a month later.

#2: Kid, Your Parents Must’ve Hated You

The Deal: Forget about the age-old argument of Predestination vs. Free Will, in comic books you’re pretty much doomed from birth if your name is any sort of sinister pun. Seriously, what else was little Anthony Druid going to grow up to be?

Who’s Done It: Turner D. Century, T.O. Morrow, Calendar Man (Julian Day), Dr. Anthony Druid, Rainbow Raider (Roy G. Bivolo), Basilisk (Basil Elks), and others.

Who Took it To The Extreme: You pretty much know you’re in for a bad time when you meet a guy named Annihilus, but as he gets a pass for being an interdimensional alien dictator, we’re going to go ahead and give it to Doctor Victor von Doom, who always refers to himself in the third person not out of insane megalomania, but because his name is awesome. Sure, he blames Reed Richards for setting him on the path that eventually led to his status as the Marvel Universe’s most fearsome tyrant, but if Jack Russel can’t get through life without turning into a werewolf, a guy named Dr. Doom doesn’t have a chance.

#3: One For The Ladies

The Deal: “Legacy Characters”–heroes and villains that are “inspired” by pre-exisiting characters–have been a staple of comics ever since 1956, when Barry Allen kicked off the Silver Age by becoming the second Flash. More recently, however, there’s been a trend built around creators realizing that their spandex outfits might sell a few more books if they were filled by curvier bodies.

Who’s Done It: Batgirl, Batwoman, Supergirl, Wildcat II, Dr. Midnight, Dr. Light, She-Thing, She-Hulk, Red She-Hulk, Lady Punisher, Lady Bullseye and Lady Deadpool. Yes, really.

Who Took it to the Extreme: If it wasn’t for the fact that she was created as a parody, the aforementioned Lady Deadpool would probably take the cake, but as it stands, we’re giving the nod to X-23 (the former teenage prostitute clone of Wolverine), who appears to exist solely to give fans a version of everyone’s favorite X-Man that they can have a crush on without all those pesky confusing feelings.

#4: He’s Just Like Me But >choke< EVIL!

The Deal: Much like the above Female Version, the Evil Opposite operates on the premise that if an idea was good enough for one character, it’ll be good for two or three more. This time, however, the twist is that the character–be he renegade clone or refugee from the Mirror Universe–is just like the original…. but eeeeeevil! Or in some cases, really really really stupid.

Who’s Done It: Bizarro, The Crime Syndicate, Black Adam, Doppelganger, Sinestro, Professor Zoom the Reverse Flash, Master Man, Iron Monger, Titanium Man, Hercules, the Dark Avengers, the entire Marvel Zombies universe, Venom and Anti-Venom, who manages to be the evil opposite of an evil opposite, which loops back around to being a good guy.

Who Took It to the Extreme: Not only does Batman have the same evil counterpart in the Crime Syndicate–Owlman–he also has to contend with not one but two villains who flip his origin around: Mike W. Barr’s creation, The Wrath, and Grant Morrison’s Prometheus both had criminal parents that were gunned down by the law and devoted their lives to the pursuit of crime.

#5: No One Can Know My Secret Identity (Except the People who Can)

The Deal: As everyone who’s ever read a Silver Age Superman comic knows, if his identity was ever revealed to the public, or even to the slightly obsessive girl who was crazy about him, his effectiveness as a crimefighter would be ruined. Why? Well, that’s not really explained, but we’ve learned that if something is repeated often enough in a caption box, it’s probably best to just accept it and move on.

The flipside to this is that almost everyone with a secret identity has had it revealed, usually to signal the end of an ill-fated romance.

Who’s Done It: Pretty much everyone, but the most notable include Daredevil, whose identity has been common knowledge to the Kingpin since the mid-80s, which has led to more dead girlfriends and blown-up apartments than we can count without an abacus; Batman, whose careful protection of his secret tends to fall apart at the first sign of an attractive woman, as Julie Madison, Silver St. Cloud, Vicki Vale, Vesper Fairchild and Jezebel Jet can attest; and Invincible (seen above), who flipped the script by revealing his secret to his girlfriend with no ill effects, even once they’d broken up.

Who Took It to the Extreme: For a guy with a mask that covers his entire head, Spider-Man sure doesn’t mind taking it off. At one time, his identity was known to Aunt May, the Avengers, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, the Green Goblin, Venom, and wife Mary Jane (among others), but after he revealed it to the entire world during the “Civil War” crossover, he decided he’d taken things a bit too far and literally made a deal with the devil to make everyone forget.

And then he promptly told the Avengers and the FF, because hey: why not?

#6: Non Compos Mentis

The Deal: Being a prosecutor in Gotham City has got to be one of hte most frustrating jobs known to man. You can have all the evidence in the world, up to and including signed notes with riddles ont hem that were sent to police headquarters announcing plans to rob the diamond exchange, and the perp still gets off on an insanity plea. No wonder Harvey Dent went insane.

Who’s Done It: Most of Batman’s villains, and although it’s rarer in the Marvel Universe, Carnage managed to get dumped in an asylum rather than prison too.

Who Took It to the Extreme: Nobody really wants to see the Joker get sentenced to the chair–well, Batman might–because that would theoretically mean there wouldn’t be more stories about him. Still, once you get to the point where the guy’s attempting to blow up the United Nations, you’d think somebody would throw the book at him. Of course, he actually had diplomatic immunity as the ambassador from Iran when he pulled that one. Yes, really.

#7: All The Best Heroes Are Orphans

The Deal: Having a happy family life usually means that you’re missing out on fun stuff like the all-consuming anger that leads to an interest in vigilante justice, and nobody wants to read a comic called “The Adventures of Frank Castle: A Pretty Happy Dude.”

Who’s Done It: Batman (parents), Spider-Man (parents and uncle), the Punisher (wife and kids), Daredevil (father), Ghost Rider (parents and stepfather), Green Lantern (father), Robin (parents, parents and parents), and so on.

Who Took It to the Extreme: Not only did Superman‘s parents die, but his entire planet blew up, and then–at least in the Silver Age — his adoptive parents died of Pirate Filth. As such, he is utterly alone in the universe, although that’s sort of undercut by the fact that his cousin, his dog, his dad’s pet monkey, and a hundred thousand other Kryptonians managed to get through it okay as well.

#8: The Plural of Ninja is Ninja

The Deal: Ah, the ninja! Deadly, highly trained, semi-mystical assassins who are utterly ruthless and completely unstoppable…

Who’s Done It: …unless you happen to be Wolverine, Daredevil, Batman, Snake-Eyes, Hawkeye or Kitty Pryde, all of whom are ninjas themselves.

Who Took It to the Extreme: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Why? It’s pretty much in the name.

#9: Radiation? More Like RadiAWESOME!

The Deal: In the 1940s, it was chemicals that gave characters like the Golden Age Flash and Hourman their super-powers, but by the ’60s, comic book science had shifted to something that was atomic. Very atomic.

Who’s Done It: Spider-Man, the Hulk, Dr. Phosphorus, Reactron, and others.

Who Took It to the Extreme: We’re going to go with DC’s Firestorm, Ronnie Raymond, who not only got his powers when a nuclear power plant melted down around him, but also took the whole idea of “nuclear fusion” literally and could only turn into his super-powered alter ego when he “fused” with another character, most notably Professor Martin Stein.

Plus, his head was on fire all the time, and that is awesome.

#10: Why Must We Fight When We Could… Love?

The Deal: The idea of the villainess whose evil deeds were merely the result of misplaced affection for the hero have been a staple of genre fiction for as long as there’s been genre fiction, and comics, with their emphasis on the visual, are certainly no exception. After all, as any look through Fanfiction.net’ll show you, there’s no villainess, no matter how ruthlessly evil, whose wicked ways could not be cured with a well-placed seduction.

Who’s Done It: Catwoman, Maxima, Viper, Typhoid Mary, Elektra, the Black Cat, and Talia. And while this is normally a cliche for female villains, it’s also worth noting that there are three “X-Men” stories in the span of two years from the early ’80s where the team is spared from certain defeat because Magneto, Dr. Doom and Dracula all had a crush on Storm.

Who Took It to the Extreme: While we’re awfully fond of the Black Cat and the hook to her relationship with Spider-Man (she loved Spidey but couldn’t stand to see him without his mask on), we’ll always have a soft spot for Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the 1966 “Batman” TV show, if only for the matter-of-fact way that she told Batman that they could both be happy if he’d just let her kill Robin.

These are just a few of our favorite cliches, but we know you’ve got yours too. Got a favorite clone? How about a particular instance of a character doing something horrible that was somehow Not Their Fault? Let us know in the comments section!

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