Valentine’s Day is the annual tradition of celebrating all things love, but amidst all of the chocolate hearts, cards and long-stemmed roses, there are probably a fair number of people out there who today are being constantly reminded of the flipside of all of that romantic junk – heartbreak.
Fortunately, you’re not alone – in both the real world and the fictionalized one we routinely celebrate here on this site known as comic books. While the comic book medium is filled with wonderful couples with decades of history like Superman and Lois Lane and Archie/Betty/Veronica (maybe a love triangle isn’t the greatest example here), there are also a number of stories filled with heroes, villains and everyone in-between who had their hearts ripped out of their chests because of love. So in an attempt to toast those of us who might not be looking for Cupid’s arrow today, here are five of the most heartbreaking comic book love stories of all time.
Honorable Mention: “Astral Conflagration” (Infinity Gauntlet #5)
What’s more heartbreaking than watching a nihilist sociopath murder billions of people all as a way to please his mistress Death, only to watch her turn around and betray her lover in a battle over the ultimate cosmic macguffin, the Infinity Gauntlet?
OK, so maybe Thanos and Death are exactly the world’s greatest power couple. So let’s get on to the real list…
5. “Lifedeath” (Uncanny X-Men #186)
Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith deliver this gut-punch of a story during one of the peak eras in Uncanny X-Men history. Ororo Munroe, aka, Storm, loses her weather-controlling powers when she is hit by a neutralizer gun created by the weapons contractor, Forge. Storm is unaware of Forge’s role in her power loss, and goes on to spend what is pretty much the saddest, most depressing day of her life at the man’s house. While she’s there, she and Forge share many deep and meaningful conversations about their pasts. After the two kiss, it appears that they’re about to take things to the next level when the phone rings and Forge takes the call in the other room for “business.” Storm accidentally overhears the conversation and learns that the gun that sapped her of her powers was invented by Forge. She leaves his house and rage, and it takes a good 40 or so issues before the two ever reconcile (and even then, Forge would go on to rescind a marriage proposal – needless to say, these two were never quite lucky in love).
4. “Chapter One: Coffin” (Identity Crisis #1)
For all of the polarizing opinions surrounding Brad Meltzer’s 2004 miniseries, Identity Crisis, one thing most people do seem to agree on is the heartbreaking way the storyline kicks off.
Red flags should have gone off for readers almost immediately when Identity Crisis opens with Ralph Dibny, aka, the Elongated Man, on stakeout on his birthday, while his wife Sue, an “honorary” Justice League member, is at home preparing a surprise birthday party for her husband. Ralph is talking to Firehawk about how he and Sue met, what an amazing wife she is, how they’re soulmates … you have to see where this is going, right?
So, of course, there’s an emergency at the Dibny residence, and when Ralph and the rest of the League go to respond, they find Sue has been murdered. For icing on the heartbreak cake, Ralph finds a home pregnancy test next to the charred remains of his wife – and the test is positive.
For those who still weren’t done heaving due to the infinite sadness of losing this long time DC couple, Identity Crisis #1 goes on to show Sue’s funeral. Needless to say, it’s not a happy affair.
Fortunately, for those looking for closure with Ralph and Sue, the two are ultimately reunited in the afterlife in the final week of 52 as “ghost detectives.”
3. “The Song of Orpheus” (Sandman Special #1)
This tale from Neil Gaiman’s landmark Vertigo series Sandman, is actually an adaptation of the ancient greek tale of Orpheus, the mythological musician and prophet who famously tries to retrieve his love, Eurydice, from the underworld.
In the world of Sandman, Orpheus is the son of Dream, the series protagonist and a member of the “Endless,” a family of powerful forces that drive the universe. Similar to the Greek tale, Orpheus’s wife is killed on their wedding day by an asp, and the man, stricken with grief, attempts to bargain with the underworld to bring her back from the dead. The lords of the underworld agree, on the condition that Eurydice would have to walk behind Orpheus and he was forbidden to look back until they reached their destination. As the pair are steps away from being together, Orpheus thinks he’s being tricked by the underworld and looks back, losing Eurydice forever.
Where Gaiman puts his own unique spin on the story is with the way the story depicts the relationship between Dream and Orpheus. Dream – as he’s wont to do – is rigid and believes there is no way to overcome that which has been preordained by the Endless. He views Orpheus’s gamble to retrieve Eurydice as childish and inappropriate, when it's actually just a very human thing for him to do. So in addition to the heartbreak of Orpheus losing Eurydice, the comic ends on the somber note of Dream walking away (and not looking back) from a disembodied Orpheus.
2. “Whys and Wherefores” (Y: The Last Man #58)
If his brilliant portfolio has proven anything, comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan is way too busy being a master storyteller to worry too much about what fans might think when a beloved character is suddenly killed off. Case in point is the shocking twist ending to Y: The Last Man #58, the third-to-last issue of the landmark Vertigo series.
Over the course of the series, Yorick, the last man alive after a dystopian plague wipes out all men, slowly starts to fall in love with secret Agent 355, who has been assigned to protect Yorick from his various enemies while making their way to Boston to be cloned (and save mankind). Yorick initially plans to reunite with his fiancé Beth, but he eventually comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t want to marry her and instead wants to spend the rest of his life with 355. Yorick comes clean with agent, who tells him that the feeling is mutual, whispering her real name to him … only to be killed by a sniper seconds later.
If you were in a local comic book shop around September 2007, that sound you probably heard was everyone’s jaws collectively hitting the floor when 355 was killed. Heartbreaking doesn’t even begin to describe this scene. Gut-wrenching is probably more accurate.
1. Spider-Man: Blue
This emotionally tender story from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale explores the early romance of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy – the first true love of Spider-Man and the one that tragically got away when she was callously murdered by the Green Goblin in the iconic “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” storyline. While Peter was still married to Mary Jane at the time this six-part miniseries was written, Loeb and Sale demonstrate that just because Gwen is gone, she will never truly be forgotten. In addition to her death representing one of Peter’s greatest failings as a superhero, she was also the first woman to ever truly love and appreciate him for who he was as a person. As a result, despite the fact that Peter was happily married to MJ, he couldn’t possibly love Gwen any less.
Gerry Conway, the writer who scripted “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” has said numerous times that part of the impetus behind the decision to kill off Gwen was the fact that the character had become stale. While that point is certainly debateable, Loeb and Sale’s Gwen is a rich, vibrant character, similar to what Emma Stone ultimately conveyed in The Amazing Spider-Man film franchise. Perhaps if the Silver Age had developed this iteration of Gwen, the character would have never felt played out.
The true heartbreak comes in Blue’s climax, where Peter stumbles upon an old valentine Gwen gave him when they were first becoming involved romantically. MJ is standing only a few feet away from Peter as she watches her husband’s heart break all over again, but she supports and loves him anyway, demonstrating an understanding that love is a complex, complicated thing.