Marvel Comics remains one of the biggest comic book publishers for the sole reason that their characters resonate with readers, taking them on journeys that are at once epic, funny, and heart breaking. Perhaps it is an achievement for the medium on the whole that it can illicit cheers and sobs from readers following stories of brightly colored characters in spandex.
It becomes immediately apparent from even a cursory read-through of Marvel's comics that the company is able to make some great stories. And great stories often leave the reader feeling not merely joy, but also sorrow. Throughout their decades of narratives and characters, Marvel Comics has figured out ways to write some of the saddest, most heart breaking stories in the comic book medium.
Death of Gwen Stacy
This event proved in many respects to be a turning point in the comic industry. Readers followed Peter Parker's journey from radioactive spider-bite, out of high school, and into college. It felt as though the readers had matured with the characters, which, in turn, led to Peter Parker's developing romantic life. Between Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy, fans were divided. Who was the better partner for our arachnid themed hero?
For a while, it looked like Gwen Stacy and Peter Parker were destined for bigger things.
And then, death.
"The Night Gwen Stacy Died" is one of the most important Spider-Man comics (hell, Marvel Comics) ever written for a number of reasons. For one, it served as a tragic end to Gwen's arc as a character, as, ever since the death of her father, Captain Stacy, she had grown more anti-Spider-Man, but pro-Peter Parker. In the end, it is because of her boyfriend that she dies, as the Green Goblin only hunts her down to hurt Peter.
For two, it served to make the Green Goblin Peter's archenemy. Before this arc, the Goblin was just another noteworthy rogue in Peter's rogue gallery. Doctor Octopus really was Peter's archenemy. In this, though, the Goblin crossed the line, and showed the real danger in a villain knowing a hero's secret identity.
But, ultimately, what makes it worse is how Gwen dies. She's thrown from the bridge, yes, and plummets down... and Peter catches her on a web. There is a small sound effect as the web catches Gwen where her neck snaps backward. A little break. With Gwen's momentum downward, the abrupt stop when Spidey catches her breaks her neck.
Peter Parker kills Gwen Stacy. And that is, in so many ways, even more heart breaking.
Death of Captain America
The Civil War crossover event has defenders and haters, but one thing most people cannot deny is how the culmination broke a lot of hearts. Steve Rogers has surrendered to the American government following his actions, and is making his way to the Court Houses... when Crossbones shoots him, and a brainwashed Sharon Carter shoots him in the back. Captain America dies on the stairs leading to the court house.
This event was such a big deal that news stations actually covered it. In the comics, this event kicked off a series of other arcs. Why did Steve Rogers die? Who was responsible—it's Red Skull. Red Skull is behind it all. That should have been clear from the get go, of course.
It leads to Tony Stark, who had been fighting tooth and nail against Steve, to acknowledge his fallen friend. His confession at Roger's grave is downright heart breaking. Bucky ends up taking up the mantle of Captain America in lieu of his fallen friend. The whole Marvel Comics Universe is changed forever.
Death of Jean Grey
The Phoenix Saga is one of the defining events of Chris Claremont's run on X-Men. At once epic, dark, intense, and tragic, the saga started with Jean Grey almost dying as she saved the X-Men from burning up in reentry, only to reemerge from the ashes of the wrecked spacecraft as The Phoenix, an uber powerful mutant capable of reworking the fabric of reality.
Toward the end of the arc, in the famous Dark Phoenix Saga, Jean Grey becomes brainwashed and crazy thanks to the Hellfire Club. Once the X-Men beat the Hellfire Club, however, Jean Grey loses control of her psyche, and goes out on a cosmic rampage that results in a whole star system being obliterated—and everyone in it.
Jean Grey, in a moment of clarity, realizes the threat she poses to the rest of reality, and, in a moment of self-sacrifice, kills herself so she can be a threat no longer.
While it would later turn out that Jean Grey never left the wreckage of the spacecraft and that the being everyone believed to be Jean Grey was, in actuality, a being of pure energy, the event is intense and tragic all at once. Of all of Jean Grey's deaths, it is both the most heart breaking of them all.
The intensity of this arc is one of many reasons that X3 is the worst X-Men film for failing to live up to the arc's potential, and no, I am not letting this go!
Death of Elektra
Daredevil and Electra were quite the pair during the 80s. The two fought against and alongside each other for quite the while, but Electra's arc culminated in Daredevil #181 where Bullseye stabs Elektra violently through the heart.
The event is sudden and harsh, but it really hits hard and fast for all parties involved. Such brutality is uncommon in Marvel Comics. The death is harsh, brutal... but, ultimately, it is washed away by Elektra coming back to life... and dying a few more times in the future to boot.
Mephisto Murders Scarlet Witch's Babies
Scarlet Witch has become more popular among mainstream audiences following her appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as played by Elizabeth Olson. Before that, most casual fans probably knew her as either Magneto's daughter or the girl who eradicated Mutants from the MCU. But I would make the argument that this is the saddest freaking thing to ever happen to Wanda Maximov.
Scarlet Witch and Vision became very close, soon falling in love, over their tenure in the Avengers. Due to Wanda's unique powers, she was able to do the improbable, and actually have children with the Vision. The Vision. A robot.
But there was a problem. The children she and Vision produced weren't real.
Due to her abilities, Wanda created children using the fragmented soul of the demon Mephisto. Scarlet Witch's chaos magic is weird. Anyway, while her children were sentient creatures, they were actually extensions of Mephisto. So, when Mephisto returned, he assimilated Wanda's children into his body in front of her eyes.
Essentially, Wanda watched her children get murdered by the Devil in front of her. Is it any wonder why she had a psychological breakdown years later? After something as heart breaking as this, how can you hope to recover?
Joss Whedon "Kills" Kitty Pryde
Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men is perhaps the best run on the franchise in several years. Fans still acknowledge it as a high point in Marvel Comics history. Whedon made it no secret that he loved the character of Kitty Pryde, nor is it a secret that Whedon kills a lot of fan favorite characters.
On a personal note, I also really, REALLY like Kitty Pryde.
So maybe that's why this event is really heart breaking for me.
A giant cosmic bullet is coming for Earth, and Kitty Pryde, with her phasing abilities, realizes she's the only one that can save the planet. She phases into it, and, using her mutant abilities, makes the bullet phase through the earth, harming nothing, saving the planet... but, in doing so, she's carried off by the bullet, traveling further into space.
The tragedy here isn't just that a fan-favorite character is taken away seemingly forever. It's also the little exchange between Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde, who both had a very tense relationship over the course of Whedon's run.
This event also leads to an equally emotional scene in Uncanny X-Men #522 when, of all people, Magneto saves Kitty Pryde from the bullet.
The Winter Soldier
Bucky Barnes fought alongside Captain America throughout all of WWII. When he died at the hands of Captain Zemo, Bucky proved to be one of those few characters who never came back to life.
Until this iconic storyline.
It turns out that Bucky Barnes had survived his supposed death, becoming a super weapon for the Russians as The Winter Soldier. The fact that Bucky survived, however, isn't the heart breaking bit. It's the fact that Steve's closest companion is now brainwashed and compelled to fight his partner in a relentless battle.
The tragedy here is that two friends are forced to fight each other because of brain washing. While ultimately Bucky is returned to sanity, that isn't always the case when close friends become enemies...
The Death of Harry Osborn
Following the deaths of both Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn, Harry Osborn went a little off the deep end. He started doing more drugs, dumped Mary Jane Watson, and replaced his father as the Green Goblin. While Harry would teeter between madness and stability over the next several years, he ultimately ended his life in one final heart breaking moment.
Harry kidnaps Mary Jane (and his own son, Normie) in an attempt to lure Peter into a trap. He has no intention of hurting his hostages, but just wants to get back at Peter. Harry actually manages to defeat Peter by paralyzing him, and activating a series of explosions—but then is shocked back into sanity when he realizes that his actions can kill both MJ and his son. Harry saves everyone—Peter included—but ultimately dies because of the toll a new Goblin formula takes on his body.
What makes this death arguably more tragic was that Harry had another plot already in motion to get back at Spidey, and his dying kept him from undoing it before it could be stopped. One last revenge scheme: bringing android replicas of Peter Parker's parents "to life," all for the intention of inflicting emotional pain on Peter.
Demon in a Bottle
Alcoholism is a heart breaking problem. It can ruin a person's life before your eyes. So perhaps it is almost expected that one of Marvel's greatest heroes, Iron Man, succumbs not to some external threat, but, rather, his own dependency.
Iron Man is confronted by his enemy Justin Hammer, and all of the industrialist's arsenal. In order to stop Hammer, however, he needs to overcome his own personal demons: his need for drink.
This issue is a tragic look at Tony Stark's struggles with his own personal devils. The saddest part about this story is that it is an oddly real situation. There are no tragic deaths, no epic battles. Just addiction. Raw, disturbing addiction.
Logan's past remained a mystery for many years. We fans knew it had to be something twisted and dark, but it wasn't until the miniseries Wolverine Origins that we came to learn the long, heart breaking past of our favorite X-Man.
Wolverine's life story is a series of tragedies. Young James Howlett spent decades ruining every chance he had at happiness with his own bone claws. Loved ones—dead. Enemies—slaughtered. In the end, he is left desperate enough to sign up to Weapon X, where he ends up a feral weapon.
The tragedy of Wolverine is how much all of it is self-inflicted. His violent lifestyle seems to draw tragedy and brutality his way, which leaves him, in so many ways, his own worst enemy.
While many may say that knowing all about Wolverine's lifestyle makes him less interesting, in many ways knowing how awful his life has been makes him only more tragic.
Hulk: The End
Hulk: The End is an alternate universe story where The Incredible Hulk is the last being left alive on the planet. That's sad enough already.
What makes it even sadder is when Bruce Banner dies.
Bruce Banner and the Hulk are two people living in one body, caught in an eternal war. While both fear and resent the other, it becomes very clear how each one needs the other toward the end of the comic, where Bruce Banner's personality and existence flickers away, leaving the Hulk with the solitude he always seemed to desire.
Only now... he feels... cold.
It is a deeply chilling moment that leaves you with a sense of crushing isolation in the face of absolute eternity. Hulk—the immortal crushing force—is now completely alone. That is the most heart breaking thing you can ever imagine happening to the Green Goliath.
Death of Captain Marvel
There are many epic death scenes in comics. Last stands. Epic brawls. But how many mainstream superheroes die from cancer?
Mar-Vell meets his end not in a cosmic battle, but on a hospital bed. The issue isn't full of epic battles or cruel villainous schemes. It's simply a tragic tale of bodily decay and death, where we the readers watch our hero crumble away before our eyes from a very human, very real disease.
The issue has become somewhat forgotten in recent memory, as our current Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, has almost completely eclipsed her predecessor in popularity. But the storyline remains an incredibly bleak narrative that leaves you feeling a little more than melancholy by its end.
Jessica Jones—Mind Controlled
Jessica Jones has become something of a household name after her Netflix series. It is telling that the entire first season of the show that established her drew from this pivotal storyline from Brian Michael Bendis's run on Alias.
Be warned, this part may be disturbing.
The Purple Man (Killgrave, for those only familiar with the Netflix show) takes command of Jones's personality, and forces her to watch as he molests and rapes other mind controlled women, forcing her to want his touch. And, shortly after, she is discarded as just another toy for the Purple Man.
The experience left Jones a shell of her former self, destroying any semblance of the optimistic girl she had been before due to the utter and complete violation of her psyche. In a medium that, for many years, was known for its problematic portrayal of ladies, it is a crippling, uncomfortable, uncompromising view of sexual assault that hits really hard and really fast. It may not be the saddest event on this list, but it is among the most depressing.
Death of Spider-Man
The Ultimate Universe started as a means to introduce new readers to the familiar elements of Marvel Comics. It eventually became its own continuity, with legions of fans attached to its own unique interpretation of the Marvel characters. It all started with Ultimate Spider-Man.
When Peter Parker died, it felt like the end of the era.
Peter is killed in a conflict against the Sinister Six and Green Goblin. During the battle, the Punisher lines up a shot for Captain America—a shot that Peter takes, head-on. As he bleeds out from his wound, however, Peter rushes to protect his family from the Green Goblin, going into one last battle against Norman Osborn that ends with both of them dead. He dies on his front lawn in Mary Jane's arms as Aunt May stares in horror.
It is one of the most heart breaking things in comics history. Even if Peter Parker gave Miles Morales a chance to shine, it still broke a lot of the audience at the time.
Everything That Happened to Carol Danvers in the 80s
Carol Danvers is in rare form now, but, during ALL of the 80s, Marvel Comics really seemed intent on breaking this poor woman.
First, there was the infamous Avengers #200, where Carol Danvers is raped and impregnated by an alien presence that then takes over Danver's unformed fetus, and, thus, is BIRTHED by Danvers. Danvers is then mind-controlled by the fast developing baby-alien thing who is still trying to seduce her, and taken to another dimension so that this creature can just continually rape Danvers under mind control.
When Carol returns, she's deeply traumatized both by what happened and how her teammates seemed totally fine letting her go off with the alien presence. So she decides to ride with the X-Men for awhile, hoping to recover emotionally.
Just as she's about to reach some level of normalcy, Rogue makes physical contact with her, and permanently absorbs Carol's powers. While Rogue ends up dealing with weird hallucinations, Carol is rendered almost catatonic. When she returns, Carol describes the experience as an intense violation.
So, naturally, she becomes an alcoholic.
It gets so bad that Tony Stark takes her to Alcoholics Anonymous—yes, Tony Stark tries to get her help for her alcoholism. That's... a serious issue when Tony Stark tells someone to stop drinking.
The character has mostly recovered by this point in the comics, but one has to ask if someone really, REALLY did not like Carol Danvers in Marvel at the time.