They don’t call them graphic novels for no reason. Comic books and graphic novels are works of visually and textually explicit scenarios, but one of the things that make them so intriguing is the fact that one-dimensional characters simply don’t exist between the pages. For this reason, there have been countless times comic book villains were sweet, even borderline sentimental, if you will.
It’s easy to miss these few-and-far-between instances of comic book villains being nice. Moreover, it’s easy to forget the times our favorite heroes began as villains, despite the fact that this is a recurring comic book theme. If all it takes to become a villain is one bad decision, the opposite must also be true. One good deed has been known to send some of the most sinister baddies over the line into benevolence, even if just for a frozen, solitary moment.
Now, to be clear, in this context, we’re not talking about characters that have a dark side. We’re not discussing the now-infamous antihero trope. We're talking about characters who are the dark side, the certified psychopaths who will laugh gleefully while detaching your head from your body and simultaneously humming the National Anthem. Even they might save a puppy or two along the way.
From feeding orphans to rescuing superheroes, from healing plagues to sacrificing their own souls in order to save the lives and souls of others, here are some examples of unexpected supervillains who do good.
The Joker’s supervillainy is practically the ruler against which all other villainous characters are measured. His wickedly painted, crooked grin is a thing of wonder; it's even sparked conspiracy theories. After 70-plus years of browbeating the masses into a state of terror, the general public has pretty much abandoned any hope of him turning into a halfway decent person.
Ironically, though, Batman hasn’t given up on the Joker and still believes he can rehabilitate the Clown Prince of Crime. That’s because there have been a couple of occasions where the Joker’s sanity was temporarily restored and he turned out to have a heart of gold. In that rare flicker of light, the good guy we all secretly wished was under that Punchinello façade arrives, weeping over the deeds of his Joker past.
In one Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight storyline, Martian Manhunter temporarily repairs the Joker’s brain and he attempts to bring the dead back to life to try and make amends for his actions. Following his journey into the Lazarus Pit, he also has a stint of sanity and shares his heavy-hearted remorse.
“All the people I’ve hurt,” he sighs, and adds that sanity is “such a burden.”
Bane is a serious supervillain. After growing up in a prison and catching his first kill at the tender age of eight, it's pretty safe to say he is a force to be reckoned with. Most of his actions paint him in a bad light, but let's not be too quick to judge this comic book villain by his cover. In issue 49 of Batman: Gotham Knights, he throws his colossal body in front of a bullet fired by his own father - a bullet that was headed straight toward his arch-nemesis, Batman.
In return for the unexpected favor, Batman tosses Bane in a Lazarus Pit, effectively curing his mind, body, and soul. For a brief time, Batman and Bane combine forces and take down a long list of drug peddlers but, alas, Bane's harsh upbringing prevents him from truly transitioning into an all-out hero.
Lex Luthor has often argued that his whole personage is a necessary evil. As a self-made businessman who suffered greatly in order to achieve a high rank and social standing, his motto is that the ends must always justify the means. This naturally puts him at odds with Superman, a hero Lex perceives as a serious threat to society due to his otherworldly strength, speed, and agility. Many fans have argued that Lex Luthor is the hero of the Superman stories, if only in his own head.
The story that unravels in Action Comics #318 is one of guts and glory, but not those belonging to Superman. Surprisingly, on Planet Lexicon, Lex Luthor is both fierce and revered and Superman fills the shoes of the perceived villain. This issue shows Lex at his sweetest and most tender and it’s also the issue where he marries Ardora, making his apologue play out like an all-around fairy tale, at least for one short moment in time.
A do-gooding Green Goblin was once an unfathomable notion, especially when taking into consideration his horrendous acts in numerous graphic novels. Few villains have struck fear into the hearts of the masses like Norman Osborn. Still, there was a point in time when the notorious baddie freed himself of his maniacal persona and became just good old Norman.
During this brief but inspiring saga, Osborn, as himself, took down the threat of the Skrull Invasion and came out looking like a triumphant hero. He would go on to be a very unjust leader, though, and eventually, his evil ways do return.