Top 10 Face Turns in Comics

The face turn was not invented by professional wrestling . . .

(Special thanks to John Gallo for the idea!)

Ah, the ne’er do well sees the light. A classic and always effective trope when done right, the face turn has led these ten characters, who were all once great villains, to becoming better and more complex characters when they side with the angels. In wrestling parlance, a face turn happens when a bad guy, or heel, sees the light and becomes a dyed in the wool babyface or hero. It doesn’t just happen in wrestling, it happens in comics as well and when it does it is something special. Here are the most memorable face turns in comics:

10. Catman
First appearance: Detective Comics #311 (1963)
Created by Writer: Bill Finger and Artist: Jim Mooney
Face turn: Villains United #1 (2005)
Writer: Gail Simone
Artist: Dale Eaglesham

Before Gail Simone got her hands on Catman, his greatest claim to fame was that he was not Catwoman. He had the same shtick, the same cat puns, all the same quirks as Selena Kyle, but with a gaudier costume and male reproductive organs. Catman was even made over into a fat loser in the pages of Kevin Smith’s Green Arrow. Enter Ms. Simone and the Secret Six. Soon Catman became a complex anti-hero, a multi-layered badass who thrilled readers for years in Secret Six. Simone used his past as a laughable loser to give the character scope and drive. He never lost his edge, but he had a moral code that makes him as currently fascinating as he was formerly embarrassing.

9. Sandman
First Appearance Amazing Spider-Man #4 (1963)
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Face turn: Marvel Two-In-One #86 (1982)
Writer: Tom Defalco
Artist: Ron Wilson

One of Spider-Man’s earliest foes, Flint Marko was always just another rogue in a boring costume. His powers were impressive but his motivations were to simply get rich and make Spidey’s underwear gritty. Until, in one issue of Marvel Two-In-One, of all places, Sandman found his halo thanks to a beer with the Thing. All of a sudden, Sandman was fighting for good and trying to leave his corrupt past behind him. He had a long association as a hero when he ran with Silver Sable and even, believe it or not, joined the Avengers for a short period of time. He soon lost his halo and again stepped back into the darkness, but the idea that he once had a noble spirit adds nuance and a core of tragedy to a once generic villain.

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8. Riddler
First appearance: Detective Comics #140 (1948)
Writer: Bill Finger
Artist: Dick Sprang
Face turn: Detective Comics #822 (2006)
Writer: Paul Dini
Artist: Don Kramer

The New 52, while being a sales success, did take away a number of promising character changes and storylines before they reached a satisfying conclusion. In the pages of Infinite Crisis, the Riddler was brained by the Shining Knight’s mace. In Paul Dini’s great run on Detective Comics, it was revealed that this caused the villain to have a change of heart and give up his criminal ways. He still had a compulsion to match wits with Batman, but this time he would do so as a private detective and attempt to solve cases before his caped adversary. Whatever the Riddler’s motivations, he was still helping people. It gave the character a new and unique place in Gotham City and added a sense of intrigue every time the character appeared. Would this be the time he turned back to his dark ways? Alas, the question was never to be answered because of the 52 reboot. But it was a fascinating status quo shifts for one of DC’s most classic villains.

7. Emma Frost
First Appearance: Uncanny X-Men #129 (1980)
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: John Byrne
Face turn: New X-Men #114 (2001)
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quitely

Before Grant Morrison, Emma Frost was a great visual and a testament to the fact that Chris Claremont had a kinky side, but other than her Victoria’s Secret bill there was never anything truly compelling about the character. Until she made the turn. Now, the former White Queen of the Hellfire Club is a crusading teacher who fights for the future of young mutants everywhere. She is a no nonsense ice queen who did not change her villainous personality, just her motivations. She gave a strong voice and sex appeal to the X-Men and provided a great foil for the good girls of the team like Storm and Kitty Pryde. Her turn to good took a once flat character and made her one of the most readable women in X-Men history.

6. Quicksilver
First appearance: X-Men #4 (1964)
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
Face turn: Avengers #16 (1965)
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

One of the earliest aspects of the Marvel Universe that set it apart from other comic book universes was the idea that things CAN change. Villains could have a change of heart, while heroes can fall. Quicksilver started out as an arrogant foot soldier for Magneto in the pages of the X-Men, but when Captain America sent out the call for new Avengers, the once mutant terrorist wanted to change the world’s perception and become a real hero. His sister, Scarlet Witch, was always portrayed as Magneto’s unwitting pawn, but Quicksilver had the attributes of a villain. He was arrogant, quick tempered and somewhat cruel. When he joined the Avengers his edge never dulled, but now he was fighting for good side-by-side with Captain America. He flip flopped many more times over the years and is one of the most unpredictable figures in the Marvel Universe. What was once a generic, villainous Flash rip-off became a multi-dimensional character when he saw the light.

5. Magneto
First Appearance: X-Men #1 (1963)
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
Face turn: Uncanny X-Men #200 (1985)
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: John Romita Jr.

The great tragedy of Magneto was he could have been a hero. He saw the face of true villainy in the Nazi prison camp that took his mother and father, yet the young mutant did not blame the Nazis alone for their atrocities; he blamed the entire human race. When he found out he was more than human, arguably Marvel’s greatest antagonist was born. The fact that he was lashing out from a childhood trauma gives Magneto a keen edge of tragedy. The best types of villains are those the reader can understand,and one can understand why Magneto does what he does. There is a noble spirit within Magneto and a few times over the years this spirit has made him a hero. It never lasts, as Magneto can never fully put aside his dark past, but Magneto has taken up the mantle of hero on more than one occasion. Most notably in Chris Claremont’s X-Men run of the 1980s. He even took over the teaching of the New Mutants for a brief period. There will always be the potential for a hero within Magneto, which is why he is the greatest of villains.

 

4. Rogue
First appearance: Avengers Annual #10 (1981)
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Michael Golden
Face turn: Uncanny X-Men #158 (1982)
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Dave Cockrum

When readers met the skunk haired Rogue, one of her first acts was to rob Carol Danvers of her powers. This violation could have marked Rogue as one of the greatest villains in Marvel history, but she found her heroic spirit and begged the X-Men to help her atone for her actions. Rogue’s dark past contrasts with her nobility at every turn. No matter what she does, part of her character is the soul thief that, for a period of time, robbed the Marvel Universe of one of its greatest heroes. Unlike many heroes on this list, Rogue’s heroic turn stuck and despite her dark past, she is seen as one of the most noble and iconic heroes in comics.

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3. Black Widow
First appearance: Tales of Suspense #52 (1964)
Writers: Stan Lee & Don Rico
Artists: Don Heck
Face turn: Avengers #30 (1966)
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Don Heck

Black Widow was not only had a great heroic turn; it was the turn of a character who was totally anti-American. Anything Russian would have been viewed as corrupted back in the Cold War, but Marvel dared to defy stereotype by giving Natasha Romanov a heroic heart. The Black Widow was originally a Russian agent in the Cold War. She was generic, boring and uninspired. That is, until she turned against her Russian handlers and joined forces with the Avengers. Marvel took a risk in the turbulent climate of the 1960s by never having Natasha lose touch with her Russian roots. She was still the Russian femme fatale, but now she was also on the side of the angels. All of a sudden Romanov was one of the most vibrant characters in the Marvel Universe. Natasha Romanov went from a Rocky & Bullwinkle punchline and turned herself into a character who is conflicted and divided, but heroic.

 

2. Hawkeye
First appearance: Tales of Suspense #57 (1964)
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Don Heck
Face turn: Avengers #16 (1965)
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

The misunderstood villain who tried to prove himself to the Black Widow by committing crimes went from a gimmicky bad guy to one of comic’s greatest heroes when he, along with fellow faceturner Quicksilver, joined the Avengers. Hawkeye felt the only way to prove himself as a man was to be seen as an equal, or superior, to the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Hawkeye began as a brash rebel, but soon became the heart of the Avengers and in doing so became a true fan favorite. His tale of redemption and bravery makes him one of the greatest Avengers ever to hear the call to assemble. Think about it, when readers first encountered Hawkeye he was a selfish criminal. In a few short years he would be facing down Galactus and Thanos with nothing but his heart and a piece of Stone Age weaponry.  Despite his selfish beginnings, Hawkeye never wavered like some other heroes on the list; he still remains a great champion.

1. Namor
First Appearance: Marvel Comics #1 (1939)
Writer and Artist: Bill Everett
Face turn: Marvel Mystery Comics #9 (1941)
Writer and Artist: Bill Everett

When Bill Everett created the Sub-Mariner in 1939, he couldn’t know it, but he created the thematic heart of what would one day be the Marvel Universe. Sub-Mariner started out as an undersea despot whose mission was to destroy the surface world. Like Magneto, he did it out of a sense of superiority fueled vengeance. The surface world attacked his people first and Namor would stop at nothing to exact his revenge. He was a true menace who murdered anyone he deemed an enemy. Enter: Betty Dean, a noble policewoman who won Namor’s heart. He soon began to see the surface world in a new light and when the Nazi menace arose, Namor made the first face turn in the history of comics. He soon was a Nazi squashing machine and a staunch ally of Captain America. When Namor was reintroduced in the Silver Age, he was a villain again, albeit a noble one. Namor would soon re-turn hero and join the Avengers, the Defenders and remain a close ally of the Fantastic Four. Is a return to his heel ways around the corner for the Prince of Atlantis? If so, have no doubt that his heroic nature will soon reassert itself. It speaks to the unpredictable nature of Marvel that its first villain was also its first hero.

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